If Ohran Pamuk’s setting of northeastern Turkey reveals how the simple religious act of a woman donning a scarf becomes a vigorous expression of political Islam, Nafisi’s book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, shows the extent to which political Islam in an Iranian setting will go for the sake of covering women, whether Muslim or not. Her memoir follows her experience as the daughter of the mayor of Tehran before the Islamic revolution, her education in the United States for graduate training in literature, and her return to teach in Tehran, first at the university and then privately. Along the way, Nafisi, whose religious identity is unclear, has to go from wearing jeans and T-shirts as a graduate student, to blouses and slacks as a professor, and then to a chador under Iran’s Muslim republic.
The book is less about politics and more about the way zealous believers read (or misread) literature. Hence Reading Lolita in Tehran is of use once again for Reformed Protestants who advocate w-w and Christian education. This is not meant to be a cheap shot. It is rather a way of considering parallels between totalistic claims upon knowledge and ways of understanding. If w-wists do not want to look like a Christian version of political Islam’s reading of Western literature, they could well learn from Nafisi and consider whether the reach of a w-w needs to be as entire as neo-Calvinists sometimes claim.
One particular passage from Nafisi struck and moved me. The book, thankfully, is not entirely about Nabokov’s very dark novel about a middle-aged man’s illicit relationship with a girl. Nafisi also uses discussions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James to explore her experience within Iran. Since I am an inveterate romantic (all about me), I am also a sucker for Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which I consider to be arguably the greatest American novel and the teaching of which was crucial to my budding intellectual awareness. Nafisi’s reading of the novel is as persuasive as it is arresting and comes in the context of a university classroom trial where dedicated Muslim students wanted to prosecute the novel for its immorality and decadence, thus, embodying the evil United States’ secularism and materialism.
Here is one part of the prosecution’s case against Gatsby:
“Okay,” he conceded, “but the values were such that adultery went unpunished. This book preaches illicit relations between a man and a woman. First we have Tom and his mistress, the scene in her apartment, even the narrator, Nick, is implicated. He doesn like their lies, but he has no objection to their fornicating and sitting on each other’s laps, and, and those parties at Gatsby’s . . . remember, ladies and gentlemen, this Gatsby is the hero of the book – and who is he? He is a charlatan, he is an adulterer, he is a liar . . . this is the man Nick celebrates and feels sorry for, this man, this destroyer of homes!” . . . . “The only sympathetic person here is the cuckolded husband, Mr. Wilson,” Mr. Nyazi boomed. “When he kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God. He is the only victim. He is the genuine symbol of the oppressed, in the land of, of that Great Satan!”
Nafisi (as well as one of her sharp students) will have nothing of such a surface and pietistic reading of either Gatsby’s longing for Daisy or the American Dream:
The reality of Gatsby’s life is that he is a charlatan. But the truth is that he is a romantic and tragic dreamer, who become heroic because of his belief in his own romantic delusion.
Gatsby cannot tolerate the shabbiness of his life. He has an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness,” and some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” He cannot change the world, so he re-creates himself according to his dream. . . . Gatsby’s loyalty was to his reinvented self, which saw its fulfillment in Daisy’s voice. It was to the promises of that self that he remained faithful, to the green light at the end of the dock, not a shabby dream of wealth and prosperity.
The city is the link between Gatsby’s dream and the American dream. The dream is not about money but what he imagines he can become. It is not a comment on America as a materialistic country but as an idealistic one, one that has turned money into a means of retrieving the dream. There is nothing crass here, or the crassness is so mingled with the dream that it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the two. In the end, the best ideals and the most sordid of realities all come together. . . .
Nafisi then quotes from Gatsby’s final pages:
“‘And as the moon rose higher the in essential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island where that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplating he neither understood nor desire, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.’”
Part of Nafisi’s point is that religious zeal misses the higher and even spiritual dimensions of Gatsby and his quest. If viewed only from the standpoint of the antithesis between belief and unbelief, or between obedience to God or sinful disobedience, the political Islamic reading of Gatsby has merit. But applying the antithesis in this way also misses what could plausibly be Gatsby’s own quest, as deformed as it may be, for spiritual fulfillment and even for a new heaven and new earth. Someone might even argue that Gatsby’s condition is what all persons experience this side of paradise lost.
Still, the point here is not about the best reading of Fitzgerald but the limits of w-w thinking that relies so heavily on the antithesis. That division between believers and unbelievers, between the city of God and the city of man, is a spiritual reality that goes all the way down to a person’s inclinations and final destiny. But it is not the last word on human beings even if it is the ultimate one. Persons are bodies as much as they are souls, and while inhabiting planet earth between the advents of Christ, people are still capable of remarkable accomplishments and aspirations. The reason is not because they are free from sin or unbelief but because they are created in the image of God and the residue of that image is responsible for those noble even if unholy longings that sent Jay Gatsby to his soggy death.
If w-wers can produce that kind of intellectual agility – if they can recognize the doubleness of human existence and the dance among spiritual longings, human ingenuity, and the imperviousness of original sin – then we need to pay them more attention. If not, then they sound like just one more version of identity politics to be shelved near the section with political Islamists who also rely overwhelmingly on the antithesis.