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Theorists and Mullahs

Sunday, June 1, 2003

Azar Nafisi.
Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Random House. 347 pages. $23.95

On saturday, April 11, the biggest names in literary theory convened at the University of Chicago for what was billed as an “intellectual town meeting” about the future of literary criticism and the study of literature. Hosted by the journal Critical Inquiry, the conference was to be the “starship Enterprise of criticism and theory” — at least according to the journal’s editor and chief theorist, W.J.T. Mitchell. Discussion touched on everything from the movie Memento to the war in Iraq — that is, it explored everything but literature. And the few remarks the theorists had for the future of criticism attested only to its increasing irrelevance.

Academic superstar Stanley Fish, in a now oft-quoted statement, declared, “I wish to deny the effectiveness of intellectual work. And especially, I hope to counsel people against the decision to go into the academy because they hope to be effective beyond it.” Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates agreed: “I missed the day theory was politically transformative.” News of theory’s death-knell made headlines at no less than the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the New Criterion.

Looking back at the past few years of literary theory, it’s hard to see what all the fuss is about. To quote a dead white male from the phallocentric, imperialist Western canon, the whole conference and the surrounding coverage has been much ado about nothing — for if theory really is dying, it has been one slow and agonizing death. As early as 1989, Fish was announcing the fall of literary theory and proclaiming the rise of “posttheory”: “Theory’s day is dying; the hour is late; and the only thing left for a theorist to do is say so.” Ten years later, Andrew Delbanco wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books with the self-explanatory title “The Decline and Fall of Literature.” Novelists such as David Lodge and Richard Russo have made a cottage industry out of dissecting the various absurdities that comprise most English departments’ syllabi. And even a cursory glance at the titles of the papers presented at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association provides sufficient evidence of the field’s slow slide into irrelevance and frivolity. (Among the more eyebrow-raising are such panels as “Sex With Aliens” and “Reading Transnationalism: Commodities, Corporate Genealogies, and kfc.”) Tom Wolfe is even planning a novel about that absurd institution, the American university — with a special nod to the humanities departments, no doubt — though one wonders what need there is for satire when those in the field are already so happy to make caricatures of themselves.


But perhaps reports of the death of theory and literature have been exaggerated. Look at the recent reviews that have greeted Azar Nafisi’s memoir of life and letters in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Critics have praised Nafisi for “reminding us of the limitless power of literature — of art — to reveal and to transform” (Jonathan Yardley, in the Washington Post); for offering such an “eloquent brief on the transformative powers of fiction” (Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times); and for providing “a stirring testament to the power of Western literature to cultivate democratic change” (Heather Hewett, in the Christian Science Monitor).

In what becomes one of the book’s central themes, Nafisi argues that the act of reading is always colored by our place in the world. The novels she writes about are forever linked to her life in Tehran; as she says in the opening chapter, “It is of Lolita I want to write, but right now there is no way I can write about that novel without also writing about Tehran.” Nafisi’s words are echoed in the penultimate chapter, in which she recalls a friend’s words to her: “You will not be able to write about Austen without writing about us, about this place where you rediscovered Austen. . . . This is the Austen you read here, in a place where the film censor is blind and where they hang people in the streets and put a curtain across the sea to segregate men and women.” Yet while Nafisi’s interpretations of the novels discussed in the book have been informed by a particular circumstance, they nonetheless have as much to say to us in the West as to those in Tehran — if not even more. In Chicago, we long ago lost sight of the political relevance of a particular interpretation of Lolita, but in Tehran, it remains, as one of Nafisi’s students says, a “matter of life and death.”

If literature has dropped off the radar screen for most so-called literary critics in America today, it was the lifeblood of Nafisi’s resistance to the mullahs who considered all art — save for that of the revolutionary bent — irredeemably “decadent” and “Western.” Now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, Nafisi is one of the most eloquent advocates of the written word to date. Every page of Nafisi’s memoir is informed by her passion for literature and for teaching. Part social history, part literary treatise, Reading Lolita in Tehran tells the story of Nafisi’s days as an instructor of English literature, first at the University of Tehran and then at Allameh University, and as the head of a secret class in which she and seven of her students read and discussed forbidden works of the Western canon: The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, Pride and Prejudice, and Lolita. It is the story of how a group of women, whose lives had become “more fictional than fiction itself,” managed to find a refuge in literature, a place which allowed them, if only temporarily, “to escape and to create our own little pockets of freedom.”

From the very beginning, the Iranian Revolution manifested itself as a battle over culture. “The Islamic Republic’s first task had been to blur the lines and boundaries between the personal and the political, thereby destroying both,” Nafisi writes. To that end, publishing houses and bookstores were burned down; novelists were jailed; newspapers and magazines suppressed; art censored and banned. Personal freedoms, such as choosing to wear the veil or even kissing one’s husband in public, were derided as “bourgeois” and “decadent.” The aim of the ayatollahs, Nafisi writes, was to “re-create” the people of Iran in accordance with an imagined ideal. Nafisi describes her life in Iran under such conditions as pervaded by a feeling of ghostliness; she and her students had become “the figments of someone else’s imagination.” The only way to survive was to create “counterrealities,” so literature became to Nafisi and her students a “necessity,” a means by which they could reassert their own identities outside the ayatollahs’ vision of them.

Ironically, in their attempt to control artistic expression and force it to conform to the teachings of the Revolution, the Islamic government of Iran created for themselves a bogeyman, a monster of almost unstoppable power. Unlike the West, in which artists, critics, and writers are given virtually absolute freedom of expression but are typically met with indifference as reward for their labors, in Iran, Nafisi explains, amateurish and even bad work was followed with the utmost enthusiasm, so desirous were the people for an escape from their difficult lives. Nafisi describes a clumsy rendition of the Gipsy Kings’ music that plays to a full house and whose audience would have given the performers a standing ovation — if only clapping had not been outlawed as “un-Islamic.” A special screening of films by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky attracts audiences from all over Iran who fight over the much-coveted tickets, despite the fact that the film is without subtitles and has been censored “out of recognition.” In one of the more bizarre tales that Nafisi relates, the government attempts to murder members of the Iranian Writers Association by pushing the bus taking them to a convention in Armenia off a cliff. “Where else in the world,” a friend asks her, “would a talk on Madame Bovary draw such crowds and nearly lead to a riot?”

Looking back at Iran’s liberal past, the same friend ruefully tells Nafisi that “young people listen more to Michael Jackson and read your Nabokov with more enjoyment and enthusiasm than you and I ever did in our decadent youth.” And Nafisi agrees; if nothing else, she writes, she is “thankful” to the Revolution for teaching her “to love Austen and James and ice cream and freedom.”


The power of art in the face of tyranny is a theme by no means unique to the Iranian Revolution. It is no accident that the book begins with an epigraph taken from a poem by the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz. Indeed, Nafisi frequently appeals to the rich lineage of dissident writing, quoting such authors as the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and novelist Vladimir Nabokov, among others, and connecting their experiences of oppression and heartbreak to her own and to that of her students. Yet for Nafisi, all literature belongs in a sense to the tradition of dissident writing. Taking as her maxim Theodor Adorno’s claim that “the highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s home,” Nafisi argues that literature is fundamentally apolitical and “subversive.” It stands outside the accepted customs of everyday life and the demands of ideology and asks that the reader look at the world through an alien perspective, one which sees as new and unusual the very things the reader takes for granted. Literature remains a permanent voice of dissent. Although the novel is essentially apolitical, it is also democratic — not because its content asserts certain values, but by virtue of its form: “A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals, and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice; in this way a novel is called democratic — not that it advocates democracy but that by nature it is so.”

From this perspective, the real threat to literature is not censorship, but rather the attempt by others to politicize it, to make literature into a mere vehicle for ideology. The Islamic Republic, Nafisi writes, made authors the “guardians of morality” and, in doing so, “denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly urgent — namely ideology.” Nafisi is well aware that such a project, unlike censorship, has no need of a police state or punitive laws and thus is all the more pernicious. When discussing Henry James with a fellow scholar, Nafisi remarks as to how “unfashionable” the authors they love have become in the eyes of literary theorists. “Everyone has gone postmodern,” her colleague agrees. “They can’t even read the text in the original — they’re so dependent on some psuedo-philosopher to tell them what it says.” Later, when one of her students denounces Jane Austen as a “colonial writer,” Nafisi is initially confused until she buys a copy of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. “It was ironic that a Muslim fundamentalist should quote Said against Austen,” she writes. “It was just as ironic that the most reactionary elements in Iran had come to identify with and co-opt the work and theories of those considered revolutionary in the West.”

Nafisi here reveals a surprising paradox: If literature and theory are no longer “politically transformative,” it is precisely because they have been so politicized. In their attempt to force literary works into an ideological schema, both the theorists of Chicago and the Islamists of Tehran ignored that which truly makes a novel transformative: its ability to make us look at the world with different eyes. Nafisi’s leftist and Islamist students have in common this inability to empathize with others, to see beyond their own definitions of right and wrong. Like the villain of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, they solipsize texts and people; “these politicized critics” “see only themselves and what they want to see.” Nafisi’s Islamist and leftist students read The Great Gatsby and see only the depravity of a corrupt and materialistic West — and thus miss the novel’s beauty, its sadness, and, most important, the way in which it reveals the “complexities of life and of individuals.”

Our postmodern critics endeavor to remake literature according to their own ideological vision: as the story of class warfare, the history of sexist oppression, or a tool of Islamic revolution. Nafisi cautions that people who impose such a reductive view on what they are reading will likely end up imposing one in action. There is, for Nafisi, a tyrannical way of reading a text. But the reader who remains open to the author’s voice may catch a glimpse of liberation.