Bamboo Reviews: Reading Lolita in Tehran

By Amanda Marcotte
Sunday, November 2, 2008 16:30 EDT
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For a relatively slender, well-written book, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books was a slow read. It’s just truly depressing to think about how the people in Iran, both religious and not so religious, who bristle under the theocracy, have to live in a stifled way. Also, for me, the book read as an eerie reminder that all theocrats are the same, despite surface differences. American right wingers may console themselves that we’re different because our current symbol of the American theocracy movement is working the sexy librarian angle, while Iran has mandatory veiling, but in reading a book like this, you see that they’re basically the same beast, right down to the ability to swing between making snickering jokes about how men “have needs” to piously intoning about female modesty. Reading this book during the rise of Sarah Palin is interesting, too, because, as Azar Nafisi tells it, women’s initial resistance to the revolutionary government cracking down on women’s rights forced the government to rebundle their arguments regarding the mandatory veil and the lower marriage age and other misogynist innovations as a form of “new” feminism, with an emphasis on protecting women through paternalistic slogans. I fail to see how this is any different from our theocrats trying to repackage the same old misogyny as a kind of new feminism, with their arguments about how they wish to ban abortion (and possibly contraception) to protect women, who are fragile darlings easily misled from the one thing that makes us happy, which is apparently non-stop child-bearing. (Interestingly, the Iranian government betters us in many ways in this department, having extensive family planning services at low or no cost to the public, even though abortion is still illegal.) The forms that the perverse obsession with controlling female sexuality take different shapes, but the urge is the same. In both our country and theirs, the theocrats accept women in public positions with power, in part because they need women’s talents and in part because without this tolerance, they can’t really argue that they have a better kind of feminism.

But while the book is about these things, it’s more about books and the role they play in the lives of book lovers, and that, I think, is its universal appeal. The tensions Nafisi describes between the life of the mind and the respect for the individual and the public pressure to conform—and how books present this beautiful escape mechanism from the pressure—is something most bookworms have felt since childhood. The little reading group she forms after the tension of teaching at the university finally breaks her down and she quits is a celebration of the individuality that the women in the group can let flourish in the privacy of Nafisi’s home and in the conversations about the books they read. Just as interesting as reading about these young women using their book group as a warm blanket they pull to protect their individuality from the cold pressure to conform is reading about Nafisi’s ugly problems she has in her classrooms as anti-intellectual misanthropes, who are hostile to novels especially (probably because of their power to nourish the mind and the spirit in this way), challenge the very project of reading novels and discussing them on a daily basis in her classroom, using the revolution as cover. (Again, I’m reminded of our own theocrats, who groom their children to be disruptive in classrooms, issuing time-wasting and irrelevant challenges to teachers that teach science, or those who, like Nafisi, that teach novels that describe human behavior instead of the idealized behavior of theocratic automatons, not in an effort to win an argument or even just promote thinking, but to make it harder for the other students to get an education.) The middle chapters of the book describe the battles she had with loud-mouthed, censorious students over “The Great Gatsby” and “Daisy Miller”, which were offensive because they humanized people who behave in “immoral” ways, from adultery to just flirting.

I’m reminded of the Hays Code, which required film makers who wanted to show immoral behavior to show the same behavior being punished in the end. The code didn’t actually do that much to turn movies into morality plays, and many “punishment” endings seem just tacked on. “Gatsby” and “Daisy Miller” are obviously more complex than that, but in the eyes of the censorious students, the effect is the same. After all, both books see their titular characters die by the end, which could be construed as the right and proper punishment for their behavior, but that doesn’t really satisfy the censorious students, who object to showing that immoral behavior is possible in the first place, or perhaps that people like Daisy Miller and Jay Gatsby are human beings at all. At the end of the day, you realize that they’re objecting to novels themselves, because they have the power to humanize. Nafisi describes great novels as sharing a common morality of empathy, and empathy is the biggest threat to tyranny. Tyranny, in Nafisi’s eyes, is an exercise in tyrants projecting their fantasies onto those they oppress, an interesting insight that goes a long way, for instance, in explaining the wingnut mentality.

With all this in mind, you can imagine where Nafisi and her reading group fall in the long-standing and, to my mind, baffling debate about what “Lolita” is all about. I maintain that it’s obvious that the dark joke of the book is that it is about the sufferings of Dolores Haze, and if you can’t see the human being through Humbert’s narration and even his sick renaming her “Lolita”, that says more about you than it does about Nabokov, or the truth about male sexuality, or whatever the hell it is that people want to project onto the book. And it says a lot about our society’s sexism that the “sympathy for Humbert” reading of the book hasn’t been laughed off the planet. It’s “Lolita” and “Pride and Prejudice” that bookend this book, and through the readings of these, we get to know the young women chaffing under a society where they are the ones being projected onto, just as Humbert projects his tyrannical fantasies onto Dolores, and just as our anti-choice nuts project their fantasies onto women entering abortion clinics under a barrage of screaming from protesters. They chaff, but it’s an ambiguous chaffing all the same, because the urge to individuality is permanently hamstrung by the fact that we are all products of our environment. Nafisi compellingly argues that novels are a path to clearing up the confusion this causes, because as they are products of the imagination, they show you how imagination is precisely the tool that allows us to become more than just products of our environment, but to become full human beings who own themselves.

And with that, I’m heading off to the Texas Book Festival. Today, though, I’m going to try to stay out of the merch tents and stick to the panels.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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