Reading Lolita in Atlanta

Joseph M. Knippenberg

August 1, 2005

This year, my institution decided for the first time to give a summer reading assignment to incoming freshmen. We did so, in large part, to communicate to our new students the kind of institution we are by making something substantively intellectual a part of orientation. (No disrespect intended to our Student Life staff, headed by a smart and garrulous ancient/medieval historian who first came to us as a wildly popular adjunct instructor in our core curriculum.)

We settled on Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran for a number of reasons, some of which I outline in the talk reprinted below. The reasons I don’t mention include the fact that it’s a best-seller that could actually provide the basis of a conversation between parents and students and that it’s set in a part of the world in which we ought to be interested and about which we are by and large not well-informed. I’m sure that some of my colleagues would add other reasons to these; others might quarrel with my reasons and with the assignment altogether.

What follows is my contribution to a panel discussion before a captive audience of freshmen during Orientation, delivered on Saturday, August 27th, 2005.

We are engaged in an oddly self-referential task—reading and discussing a book about reading and discussing books. To be something other than mere self-indulgent navel-gazing (which many of us don’t need much encouragement to do or much help doing), this undertaking demands an explanation. I’ll offer you one, from the perspective, not of a professor of literature (where I rank as literally an amateur, a lover who often loses himself in books), but of a student and professor of politics. But even this description requires further elaboration. By "politics," I understand something more than the mere exercise of power for its own sake, but rather a common inquiry into, deliberation about, and pursuit of justice and the best way of life. For me, statecraft is, as the columnist George Will once put it, "soulcraft." Understood in this way, politics and education are intimately related, at least so far as education is more than merely the transmission of technical or instrumental knowledge.

From this perspective, which has at its center a concern with something like liberal education (the kind of education you’re about to undertake here at Oglethorpe), Reading Lolita in Tehran is a very interesting and, indeed, compelling book.

I would like to call our attention to three themes that run through the entire book, reflecting on them both in Azar Nafisi’s setting and in our own. These themes are, first, what one might call the chemistry of classroom community; second, the ways in which "great books" appeal to (or speak to) readers across the barriers (or gulfs or chasms) of time and place; and third, how these two elements—books and the comradeship of a reading community—work to support liberty in the face, even, of totalitarian tyranny.

Before I pursue these themes, I need to say a few words about Nafisi’s setting, so that we all begin on more or less the same page. The Iran that we know is controlled, but not altogether dominated, by a Shiite theocracy. There are elected officeholders (a president and a unicameral legislature), but they are subject to the decisive influence of the Ayatollah, a religious leader who is elected for life by an assembly of experts in Islamic law. Shiism is a branch of Islam, predominate in Iran, as well as in Iraq (where Shiites comprise roughly 60% of the population), but generally a relatively small minority (around 10%) elsewhere in the Islamic world. The Ayatollah purports to govern on behalf of a hidden Imam, who is a direct lineal descendant of the prophet Mohammed.

Iran became a theocratic Islamic Republic in 1979, when the Shah, Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown. The Pahlavis were autocratic modernizers, looking westward for support and insisting, when necessary, on Iran’s distinctive "Persianness," as opposed to its Islamic character. The Iranians, it is important to note, are for the most part not Arabs, but Persians. More precisely, 51% of the Iranian population is Persian, 24% Azeri (as in western Afghanistan), 7% Kurd (as in northern Iraq and eastern Turkey), and only 3% Arab. Under the Shah, educated and affluent Iranians traveled and studied freely in the West, bringing back all sorts of ideas and habits, including a taste for western culture and dress and a variety of western ideologies, including Marxism-Leninism. Nafisi’s case, as she makes clear, is far from unique. Indeed, I remember playing intramural volleyball in the 1970s against a team composed entirely of Iranian graduate students. As I recall, they pounded the living daylights out of us.

Now back to my themes.

Nafisi strikes me as an almost ideal liberal arts college teacher, for at the heart of her book is an account of her intimate and not purely pedagogical relationship with a devoted group of students. Their relationship began in the classrooms of the various Tehran universities at which Nafisi taught, but continued (I’m tempted to say "was consummated") in a discussion group she conducted in her apartment after she left her position at Allameh Tabatabai University. She and her young women formed a community built on a foundation of books, a book club, if you will. (Indeed, one of the blurbs on the back of my copy of Reading Lolita asserts that "[a]nyone who has ever belonged to a book group must read this book.") The group, she says, was quite diverse in temperament, experience, religious background, and political leanings. Coming into it, they were, for the most part, not friends with one another. But in the end, she says, "I would count it as the class’s great achievement that such a mixed group, with different and at times conflicting backgrounds, personal as well as religious and social, remained loyal to its goals and ideals" (p. 11). Together, they participated in a world constituted by the books they read and discussed, which she describes as one of "tenderness, brightness, and beauty" (p. 57). In this world, they left behind their cares and ascribed roles (parent, daughter, sister, woman in the Islamic Republic) and, through the books, "saw [themselves], for once, in [their] own image" (p. 57).

I take this to be the highest achievement of any teacher in any classroom—students (and teachers) finding themselves, their truest selves, in and through the books they read together.

As someone who has had his share of classroom failures (as well as successes), I’m tempted to say that Nafisi has an unfair advantage. Look at what she and her students were escaping from: The "dark, dank cell" of the Islamic Republic, which required that women abrogate and deny all their individuality in public, concealed behind the uniformity of the chador. In her public presentation, the woman could not be herself, but appeared merely as the "creature" of the Islamic Republic. Nafisi’s apartment was a small island of freedom and liberation in a vast sea of totalitarian conformity. As such, it was of course attractive. Would that my classroom could look so good by comparison with the blandishments my students face, not only outside "the bubble," but inside as well! Who in Atlanta needs a classroom or a bunch of books to find or express herself? There’s no blind censor or roving morality squad to threaten us here.

But the books are important, not just in Tehran, but also in Atlanta. If the only thing that happened in Tehran is that students could simply "be themselves," then Nafisi could only reproduce on a small scale what is allegedly readily available here and now to everyone. We don’t need her stinkin’ books! We have freedom and toleration (or indifference) as far as the eye can see!

Of course, freedom and toleration (or, I say again, indifference) don’t by themselves make a community. Toleration or indifference might be the products of a freely-assumed self-absorption. We leave others alone because we care only about ourselves and are free only to care about ourselves.

The books are, Nafisi contends (and I agree), antidotes to that sort of indifference. While reading can be a solitary pleasure or escape, it can also engage us with, make us care about, men, women, and circumstances very different from our own. Indeed, I would argue that the pleasure associated with reading follows very directly from the depth of our engagement with the characters and their stories. As it widens our imaginations and our circles of sympathy and empathy, reading takes us outside ourselves and enables us to put ourselves in the place of others. Reading builds the capacity for community. At its best, a class in which people read and discuss books enacts the kind of community for which their minds, hearts, and imaginations are being prepared.

We are fulfilled, as selves, in our engagement with others. (We are, as Aristotle insists, "political animals.") But our engagement does not consist only in the assumption or adoption of a role they prescribe to us, nor in our ascription of roles to them (not, in other words, of mere power relations), but rather in our listening and speaking to one another. Our listening (or reading) prepares the way for our most authentic speaking, as we learn about ourselves as parts of a larger whole.

If you’ve been paying attention, you can see that my first theme has led into my second and third. The community forms around the reading of books that speak to us across ages and cultures. And the books enable us to reflect upon our own situations, whether we be subjects of a theocratic tyranny or participants in a mass consumer society. (To anticipate a point I’ll make in a few minutes: Islamic theocrats surely don’t have a monopoly on conformism.)

Let me begin my explicit discussion of the second theme by reminding you of something Nafisi says (pp. 38 — 39; cf. p. 94):

The novels were an escape from reality in the sense that we could marvel at their beauty and perfection, and leave aside our stories about the deans and the university and the morality squads in the streets. There was a certain innocence with which we read these books; we read them apart from our own history and expectations, like Alice running after the White Rabbit and jumping into the hole. This innocence paid off: I do not think that without it we could have understood our own inarticulateness. Curiously, the novels we escaped into led us finally to question and prod our own realities, about which we felt helplessly speechless.

By "escaping into" another world, Nafisi and her students gained a certain critical distance from their own world, a distance that gave them the language and the categories in which to express and evaluate their experiences. Consider in this context these words about Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (p. 76):

The worst crime committed by totalitarian mind-sets is that they force their citizens, including their victims, to become complicit in their crimes. Dancing with your jailer, participating in your own execution, that is an act of utmost brutality. My students witnessed it in show trials on television and enacted it every time they went into the streets dressed as they were told to dress.

Nabokov was for Nafisi and her students a means of both understanding and coming to resist their circumstances. "Lolita," she said (p. 23), "was not a critique of the Islamic Republic, but it went against the grain of all totalitarian perspectives."

Let me put the situation this way for our own lives, which don’t (once again) have the advantage of being unsettled as were those of the women in Iran. It is easy to immerse ourselves in the comfortable and familiar, thinking that we have a handle on our world while in fact we are blind to its most distinctive features. Only when we become strange to ourselves, when we look at ourselves through the eyes of others, when we look at our circumstances and our society from a number of different comprehensive perspectives, do we have a chance of seeing ourselves as we "really are." We can’t really know ourselves unless we can get outside ourselves in decisive and fundamental ways. Self-knowledge (the goal of a liberal education) is possible only to the extent that we genuinely have access to points of view and ways of life that are fundamentally different from our own. But just so that there is no misunderstanding: to have access to something fundamentally different requires that we share a common ground of intelligibility. The variety of human ways of life or "cultures" has to be undergirded by a common humanity.

Almost everything I need to say about my last theme I’ve already at least hinted at. Let me summarize my point by putting it as starkly as Nafisi does (p. 277): Jane Austen is the "natural adversary" of totalitarian tyrants. How, you might ask, can a woman who writes about mild domestic intrigues that revolve around marrying the right man be anything to—let alone an adversary of or antidote to—totalitarianism? The point of totalitarianism, Nafisi says over and over again, is to break down the walls of individuality, compelling people to see themselves as the state sees them. Novels that enable people to explore the inner lives of others help them preserve their own inner lives against such pressure. Through reading and discussing what we read, we discover and maintain our selves. Book clubs are essential to liberty. Thank you, Oprah Winfrey.

I’m tempted to end on this whimsical expression of a serious point, but I need to bring us back from Jane Austen to Azar Nafisi, who, for all her virtues, is not a writer of Austen’s rank. Why do we need Reading Lolita in addition to Lolita or Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby? My short answer—and at this point in my talk it will have to be short—is that we Americans above all else need to be reminded that totalitarianism is neither a piece of fiction nor a thing of the past. And we need to be reminded about how precious liberty is, since we are apt to take it for granted. That foreign voice can tell us things about our own circumstances that we have a hard time understanding for ourselves. Thank you, Azar Nafisi.

Joseph M. Knippenberg is an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is Professor of Politics and Associate Provost for Student Achievement at Oglethorpe University.