Why Literature Matters When It’s Somewhere Else

Reza Pahlavi Arranged by Tone
Reza Pahlavi Arranged by Tone. Rutherford Chang, ©2003

Reading has always been double-edged. One of the first things we learn how to do, it is bound up with our relations to the institutions that mark our lives: family, school, a well-paying job. It is also one of the few things we do alone and for ourselves. It’s an acknowledged pleasure but the most complex of pleasures. Motives for reading may be as high or as low as any human action and can be qualified in myriad ways: we read for pleasure or power, to escape, to impress, to master, to have our security violated, to impose our will silently, to justify ourselves to ourselves or to be shaken, to find consolation for the injustice of the world in a story where virtue is rewarded. We may read with jaded distance or with too much closeness.

All these motives need to be taken into account when we consider the popularity of a book. Publishers do market research but we can never be sure what raises a book onto the best-seller lists. There are reasons to be suspicious of what people tell an interviewer, or reply to a survey when they are asked to rank their preferences rationally. If we can fool ourselves about how we read and why, why not fool others? Consider, as a case study, the phenomenon of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Last year, everyone seemed to be reading it. Azar Nafisi’s memoir of her years as an English professor in Iran describes the contraband culture of American literature that existed among a dwindling group of middle-class and educated Iranian women during the mid-nineties. Slowly driven from the universities by a bizarre array of disciplinary measures, teacher and students met discreetly to discuss Lolita, Daisy Miller, The Great Gatsby, and other novels they had first studied in courses and then reread in xeroxed pamphlets (imports of foreign books were forbidden). Around pastries and coffee, shedding their veils and shapeless black clothes, they worried that their sessions might be reported to the police or that their parents, brothers, or husbands might disapprove and confine them to the house.

There are obvious reasons why a large number of Americans ought to be interested in such a tale. It confirms our sense of the importance of American culture to those who suffer from tyranny abroad. Our feelings of patriotism are aroused. One can imagine a high school course in which the teacher believes it his duty to impart a lesson about modern American civic values through Reading Lolita. Women who here might be corporate lawyers, teachers, or musicians are, in Iran, confined to their homes and their minds. This is injustice. There should be no accommodation with the Iranian regime. It is part of the book’s function to arouse this feeling in its non-Iranian readers. Although Nafisi does not insist on Nabokov as an anti-communist author, her choice of him solidifes the tenuous mental connections between our fight against the Soviet Union and our current two-front battle against both Sunni and Shiite theocracy. Reading Lolita becomes a kind of Darkness at Noon or 1984 for our time.

A memoir is not propaganda, however. We can imagine a better course, taught at the college level, which takes the book as a document and object of interest for the burgeoning field of transnational studies. “Transnationalism,” like globalization, implies a dissolution of national boundaries as the context in which literary meanings and judgments of value can be made. Ideally, the field of transnational studies serves as a corrective to the influence of the old blood-and-soil nationalists who founded most literature departments. In its best form, it can teach us about hidden influences. Did you know that medieval French poetry is actually a mix of Provençal and Bedouin love lyric imported by ninth-century Moorish invaders and further strengthened by cross-cultural encounters during the Crusades? But not everyone has the language skills and background for such work. As a result, most transnationalists study the uses of English and American literature in other non-English-speaking cultures. For these people, a memoir about Iranian women reading Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and Henry James will be a key text in the years to come.


To most American readers, after the canon wars of the eighties, the idea that such authors would be part of a subversive feminist circle, or that they have dangerous liberatory potential, seems quaint. Why not our powerful arsenal of books of women’s liberation: Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich, bell hooks, or even Erica Jong? Long considered to be part of a “high modernist” tradition of mandarin aestheticism, are James and Nabokov really the American culture that will rescue Persia from fundamentalism? Neither writer is even typically American; James emigrated, Nabokov immigrated and then emigrated as soon as he could. Neither were ardent defenders of America, capitalism, or liberalism.

To the transnationalist, the apparent inappropriateness of these texts is precisely the point. We cannot tell what happens to the meaning or value of a work when it crosses borders. Now that we must think of everything strategically, as part of America’s great game, there is an obvious political conclusion to be drawn—America works best as an absent force, a shadow of an idea of liberty that is itself unseen. It is an idea that allows others to imagine the America of their dreams—without having the American dream imposed on them. Unmoored from the weight of historical contexts and considerations of authorial intention and biography, American literature takes on a value distinct from the climate in which it was created.

Nafisi catalogues two kinds of responses. Many of the young men in her earliest, coed university classes insist on reading through the imagined eyes of older authority figures, in their case, the Khomeini mullahs. Imitating the censorship they witness in daily life, one of them says about Gatsby, “The one good thing about this book is that it exposes the immorality and decadence of American society, but we have fought to rid ourselves of this trash and it is high time that such books be banned.” Another student, Mr. Bahri, more intelligently wishes for a great Iranian national writer to rival Mark Twain but settles for spying on women students to make sure they behave properly.

The women become much better readers than the men because they have to make sense of what’s happened to them. Less concerned with moral judgments about art works, they learn to make use of the novels they read to articulate their position in Iranian society. Their response to Lolita seems strange at first. The star of the book, after all, is Humbert Humbert’s “fancy prose style.” There is very little of the character Lolita that appears except through the filter of Humbert’s impassioned apology. And then you realize that these girls take the form of the novel—the confessions of Humbert Humbert, romantic, kidnapper, and murderer—to be an extended metaphor that suddenly allows them to articulate their lives.

These women understand that they have been reduced to objects, fantasy playthings. They are not seen as they are, but as the mullahs wish them to be, and any deviation from the ideal is punished, not always overtly, but often by the simple sense of guilt. For Nafisi, “Lolita’s image is forever associated in the minds of her readers with that of her jailer. Lolita on her own has no meaning; she can only come to life through her prison bars.” One of the women coins the term “solipsization” to describe how Lolita is transformed from independent little girl into an exclusive possession of nasty old HH, and Nafisi applies the term to the mullah’s treatment of her students. Jealousy, in plain English, would do just as well. As with all jealousy, meaning runs rampant, and all meanings point to the illicit and to betrayal. A flash of eyes above a veil, a gesture of the hand, the sound of a woman’s laughter are all signs to be ferociously interpreted by men who, pleasure-starved themselves, seek out signs of enjoyment in order to punish it. A mixed party can be broken up by “morality police,” the women hauled off to jail and treated like prostitutes. Just as Humbert wishes Lolita to remain daddy’s little girl, the fantasy Muslim family of chaste obedient wives and daughters and strict surveying husbands and fathers has become the basis of Iranian political order.

Nafisi’s choice of James and Nabokov over the Western feminist canon becomes clearer in this light. In the stories she chooses, the reader does not get the passive pleasure of identifying with a striving, female subject, whether authorial voice or character, but she must read against the grain of the narrative in order to counter the ways that the women are judged or appropriated by other characters. This is not reading as a form of identity politics or “empowerment.” It is a survival strategy. Nafisi continually, perhaps unconsciously, seizes on books where female protagonists are misjudged or subject to overbearing influences. Within these, she concentrates on emblematic scenes which break open the tight container of spectacle, appearance, and plot. These scenes are primarily errors of recognition, like Humbert mistaking a butterfly for a moth, or Winterbourne failing to understand how Daisy could be out with a man at night in the ruins of the Coliseum. By dwelling on such scenes, Nafisi suggests that the value of these novels comes from the opportunities they give their readers to correct the misperceptions of the characters through their own triumphant recognition of the truth.

On the level of plot, however, the novels Nafisi cherishes are tragedies. Gatsby, Lolita, Invitation to a Beheading, Daisy Miller, and Washington Square are marked by truncated lives and failed escapes. The more conservative male students, their brutishness masking a perverted sentimentality, want all ends to be happy ones; they struggle to turn the fate of the victims into poetic justice. “Daisy Miller is evil and deserved to die,” says one student at the height of the Iran-Iraq war. He backs up his claim by suggesting that Iranians know evil because they are in a war against it.

The unhappy endings of novels are important for the women, too. They are not disappointed by them; these are, after all, what they expect. Nafisi refers to the remnant of the Iranian intelligentsia as “perfectly equipped failures” and laments her own irrelevance as Iranian society moves on without women or literature. But such laments are not without pride. Although she recognizes an echo of her life in the dead-ends of the novels she teaches, this very recognition permits a small sense of triumph. By sharing the lives of the characters they discuss, Nafisi and her students believe that they will not share their fates. This gives them an ironic consciousness of tyranny; they laugh at the regime’s obvious absurdities, like the appointment of a blind film censor, or the sight of bearded men playing the role of heckling mothers: “Are you really going out in that?”

Faced with a public life that combines tragedy and farce, the places of retreat and minimal privacy the women win for themselves are important but not enough. Like fairy-tale magicians they have learned how to place the beating heart of their lives into secret boxes while their bodies walk around exposed to danger. These boxes are their books, and an optimistic reader feels the interaction between Iranian women and American books as a new utopian literary space—neither in Tehran nor out of it. It may still be a kind of hell, and the intellectual freedom gained should not be confused with political freedom, but it is a necessary first step toward it.


Such a reading of the book, even on the heightened and remote plane of academic study, would still be an instrumentalist one. The nationalists and the transnationalists have this much in common: they are linked by the American imperial project. Facing a struggle to justify their existence to increasingly service-oriented administrators and consumerist undergraduates for whom a calculus of immediate utility and investment return through preprofessional training has replaced the traditional “Liberal Arts” emphases on well-roundedness, open-mindedness, creativity, and cultural literacy, literature departments have tried to get their share of funding from government grants to universities which promote the study of Islamic cultures as a vital national security interest.1 In such an atmosphere, despite the best intentions of transnationalist scholars, Lolita in Tehran risks becoming a merely accessible introduction to the Persian mind, a guide by a native informant to the reading psychology of Iranians.

Transnationalism, however, goes both ways. Just as the tale of an erudite, cosmopolitan pedophile set down in fifties America becomes a means of displaced recognition for Nafisi and her students, our reading of her book should allow us a similar experience of recognition. This will happen only if we allow ourselves to read it as something more than documentary evidence of how badly and absurdly Iranians treat their women—as a description of a culture of reading much like our own.

Nafisi reminds us that governments are like authors; they impose a narrative on society. The Iranian censors, like all prosecutors of art since Plato, do literature the courtesy of taking it seriously. They see themselves in competition with other people’s stories, and they are right that Nabokov and Henry James pose a threat because they undermine the stories the state wishes its citizens to believe. Reading is not always a properly social and institutional activity. Our responses will not always align with the wishes of the majority or the government.

And perhaps Reading Lolita might also be a little dangerous for us. This book’s popularity clearly went beyond the two possible audiences indicated above—there might be plenty of nationalists, but there aren’t so many transnationalists. What effect would Nafisi’s book have on readers without overt ideological interests? Might they echo the question asked by one of Nafisi’s students as she reaches for a pastry, “Why is it that stories that are so sad, so tragic make us happy? Is it not sinful to feel pleasure when reading about something so terrible?” Perhaps too, and most dangerously, they would feel something like envy or longing. The novels and memoirs they consume for pleasure, “to warm their shivering lives with the deaths they read about,” as Walter Benjamin wrote, are as important to these Iranians as oxygen.

You can imagine the essay “We Are All Iranian Women Now.” We are not. We must, however, allow ourselves the fantasy that reading may be as heroic an act to us as it is to them. This fantasy is in many ways an anti-social gesture. We would deny that we were ourselves: the bored commuter, the book-club member, the journal editor, the teacher, the American citizen. Temporarily, we would dissolve our links and allegiances with the world we know to be ours. To read urgently, in this way, is to be placed in an ethical relation to the book itself and to its characters that carries us outside the everyday and yet back to our lives and the lives of others closest to us. To condemn a character thoughtlessly would be like sanctioning the death of a friend, or doing violence to ourselves. The characters become participants in our own lives, like daimons whispering in our ears, and the field of real-life relations available to us expands because of the characters whose company we’ve kept while shut away in the privacy of our reading space.

As anti-social acts go, this kind of refined, intensive reading seems an innocuous and relatively powerless one. Still, Americans have shown a remarkable capacity to absorb other, more blatant forms of anti-social behavior into the fabric of our culture and transform their fury into harmless group activities: the frenzy of the solitary dancer is diffused in the rave; no longer alone, the poet reads to other poets at poetry slams; and sex, the great promise of happiness that was going to emancipate us from all forms of narrow-mindedness, has become repressive in its conspicuousness. There are few narratives of rebellion into which we can plot our lives, especially since our governing narrative encourages us to think of ourselves as surrounded by boundless opportunities. Yet the outlaw feeling, ghostlike, is still present. Despite all the ways our reading habits are conditioned and straightened by the institutions in which we read, simple reading may be the last unsocialized action left to us.


This is not to say that merely sitting down with a novel is subversive in any way. Our cultural age is too old for that sort of thing. Even the word “reading” is now generally applied to all kinds of signs from films to body language. Some even talk now of post-verbal reading. To let this go unchallenged is also a mistake. There are limits to what we can read in daily life.

America is not yet a finished country. We don’t know who we are or what we will become. Our ecstasies of self-congratulation should not deceive us on this score. That we are permitted to display much more of ourselves than Iranians doesn’t mean that we are only what our surfaces show. In the café where I’m reading, the girl sitting at the table opposite has got herself up in punk gamine. Slender, perhaps emaciated, and fine featured, she could be sixteen or thirty. She wears a leopard print shirt, tight-fitting at the chest with long flowing sleeves over a fairly modest lower-thigh black mini, and—cute touch—furry leg warmers rising above red Puma sneakers. A tattoo of vaguely Celtic design snakes out of the top of one legwarmer and behind her knee. She notices I’m looking at her and gives a cold look back at the guy in button-down shirt and jeans. Her glasses are of an ugliness I find touching, thick rusty plastic frames lacking only masking tape over the earpiece. She has pierced her septum and a bull ring dangles from it. A great deal has gone into this outfit and I wonder what it means. The legwarmer is back, an ironic homage to the Reagan years (to which we’ve returned with the woozy feeling of a late-night rerun). But that tattoo and the nose ring place her beyond merely trendy opposition into a long-established cult of pain and boredom. I imagine she might be looking for a way to master her anger, her fear. She wants us to know that she feels herself a freak, and her look urges the rest of us to admit it honestly. It says, we are all monsters and most of us are masochists, I’ve gone about my pain and self-mutilation more honestly than you who wear it on the inside, covered up by that casual uniform. My monstrosity is my health, your bodily integrity your sickness.

Of course I’m reading, and I may be entirely wrong. Her punk guise perhaps expresses nothing but fealty, a badge of membership in the particular club of outsiders in which she’s the perfect insider. There’s no message for me except a sign that says private property, keep out, this is how I dress. I have smacked right up against the double-bind in which the American culture of total permissiveness places the imagination. To live in America with eyes open is to be a cultural anthropologist and an amateur enthusiast of surfaces. Clothes are signs, but what they signify may be utterly meaningless or hopelessly overdetermined. What began as expressionism, wearing oneself on the outside, has become expressionlessness, a mask that gives nothing away. The punk gamine is on display but it is not a display for my enjoyment. For all I know of her inner life, she might as well be wearing a Hijab.

After all, beneath the ever shifting play of choices and all the vast array of selves presented in everyday life we still do have inner lives, psychodramas, and stories. Even in our free society there are Americans—lots of them—who are intimidated, who make bad choices or no choices, whose lives are a script written by others more powerful. In a society like ours that preaches transparency and what you see is what you get, we bury these conflicts and forces to enjoy the myths about ourselves. The dynamics of overt oppression are easier to grasp than the more sublimated pressures we now face. Coming to us from far away, they cross our mental borders as metaphors; they enter our minds to give shape to our vague feelings of nameless unhappiness, our luxurious ennui that may appear motiveless but isn’t. But we can’t rely only on egotistical appropriations of other lives, elsewhere. We, too, need to read American novels as if we were foreigners dreaming of America. Our attentiveness must get us past the veil of everyday signs, revealing the apparently smooth and satisfied surface image to be chipped and scored through by comedies, tragedies, and histories. If we learn to read again, to read as if our lives were at stake, we’ll have to thank the Iranians.

  1. “The conferees find that our national security, stability and economic vitality depend, in part, on American experts who have sophisticated language skills and cultural knowledge about the various areas of the world. An urgent need exists to enhance the nation’s in-depth knowledge of world areas and transnational issues, and fluency of U.S. citizens in languages relevant to understanding societies where Islamic and/or Muslim culture, politics, religion and economy are a significant factor.” (Spring 2002 Congressional Conference report for the Appropriations Act.)  

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