Thursday, February 05, 2004

"Novels are the most democratic form of literature." -Azar Nafisi

I heard the Iranian scholar and critic Azar Nafisi speak on Monday. She's a professor of English literature who left one job at the University of Tehran because she refused to wear the veil, another job in Iran because of political stresses, and spent her last years in Iran teaching a private class in literature and the nature of freedom to a handful of her best female students. Now she teaches and researches at Johns Hopkins University. I had reread her eloquent memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, just last week, and was ecstatic when I heard she was coming.

Nafisi believes firmly, and has acted upon her conviction throughout her life, that the study of literature is crucially important for human freedom. Specifically, she believes, nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels -- especially those novels which are most non-political (she named Pride and Prejudice as an example) -- increase their readers' empathy. Their examinations of the complex interiorities of all characters, and their refusal to declare one set of characters "right" and "good" against another set of characters who are "wrong" or "evil", force the novels' audiences to think in terms of multiple perspectives rather than the good-vs-bad dichotomies expressed by many political movements.

I reserve judgment on this fascinating argument. What interests me most is the comparison of the nineteenth-century novels with the thirteenth- century romances I tend to study. In King Horn, for example, there are two sets of villains, Saracen invaders and a traitor among Horn's friends. All of the villains are portrayed one-dimensionally, and the hero, Horn, is perfect in every way. I've been looking at the portrayal of Horn's traitor as a Judas-figure, a coded Jew. I wonder if the lack of the "democracy" Nafisi sees in Pride and Prejudice can help me think about the way King Horn portrays the Other.

Any thoughts?

Oh, yes, and I seem to have earned a Master of Arts degree. How odd.


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