The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books
Other edition subtitle: A Case for Fiction
© 2014 Azar Nafisi
When Azar Nafisi taught literature in Iran, she dreamed of America. Not the United States, the government of which had been making itself decidedly unpopular in Iran, but “America” — an idea, a dream, where people were free to pursue their own lives, to grow and flourish without a shah or a thought-police militia’s interference. She discovered and explored this America via its literature, an experience which is partially shared in her Reading Lolita in Tehran. When she came to the United States to teach literature, another Iranian immigrant disgustedly told her that these people were not what she was looking for. Americans weren’t passionate about literature the way Iranians were — not even their own. Although Nafisi rejected his resignation, the fate of the humanities – literature, particularly — weighs on her in writing this, and the experiences that she and others have had wrestling with American literature are offered here as proof of what serious engagement with literature can provide.
Nafisi’s subtitle, America in Three Books, takes reader through Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, and Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Nafisi describes all of these as subversive, and links them as Individualist experiences — the individual against conformity, consumerism, and their own lonely anguish. My own experience with American literature has been so paltry that I haven’t read two of the three books mentioned, but Nafisi’s strikes me as a fair take on Huckleberry Finn — both because he resists being ‘sivilized’ and shut up in doors, and because his instinctive human sympathy for a friend of his outweighs the dictum of the day that his friend is a slave who should be punished for escaping. Nafisi’s intent is to connect themes in literature with our lives, so amid the literary discussion are events from Nafisi’s life, and conversations (or arguments) she has had with Americans and Iranians. Those who have read Lolita in Tehran will remember the style from that book. Nafisi’s deep love of literature puts her slightly at odds with the political currents she is otherwise sympathetic to: she abhors the knee-jerk reaction the academy has to classics, of automatically dismissing them because they are old and by the wrong people. Literary criticism has missed the point altogether; instead of embracing works like a friend or lover to relate with, the books are beaten to death and the corpses picked at.. (To borrow from Douglas Adams: “If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat.”) Similarly, she is not a friend of the ‘common core’, and its sterile treatment of education as nothing more than mounds of Gradgrind facts to memorize.
When I first heard this title, it resonated with me, making me think of both the Greek cosmopolis — an ideal republic admitting all with reason as citizens — and another republic, one that absorbing a tradition makes us a member of, allowing us to learn and fight with a lecture from Cicero, or an argument from Aquinas or de Montaigne. Nafisi’s conviction that literature unites people across political boundaries led me on, however, as her republic of the imagination is a little more ethereal. It’s a place where people escape to — a place where people can find connection even if they live in a dehumanizing state. But it’s not merely a place of escape; in her epilogue, Nafisi admonishes those who demand trigger warnings on books and cry out for safe places. The world is not a safe space. Even if you live in a perfectly bland place, a Pleasantview right out of 1950s television, you may fall in love or lose a parent or find yourself facing some other emotional storm. Literature, Nafisi argues, prepares us for these storms: it fixes our feet, steels our spine, clears our mind. We must embrace its challenges, not shrivel away from them.
While I suspect anyone reading a book subtitled America in Three Books would already regard fiction as important, for me this was a welcome exposure to a couple of books I’ve only heard a little about, an encouraging reminder about the universality of good literature.