Literary Review

Imagination as survival

The Republic of Imagination; Azar Nafisi, William Heinemann, £18.99.  

Azar Nafisi has always maintained that literature is extremely democratic. People read fiction because they are human, have the blessings of the imagination and stand up against the limitations of realism. It is their act of imagination that affirms the survival of art in times of crisis. And if art survives, we survive through the only arsenal in a world that smothers the flame of creative thought. Therefore, it is not untrue that the departments of humanities and liberal arts are among the first to suffer the ideological and financial wrath of the state apparatus whenever they appear formidable to the status quo.

Subsequent to her acclaimed memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi has written The Republic of Imagination, which makes a case for world literature ‘hinging on unexpected connections and mysterious coincidences.’ The power of the written word transcends boundaries of religion, geography, race and gender, and enables us to connect and open out to the world. But, as Nafisi feels, the diminishing experience of reading literature in America and in American schools is unfortunate. Critical thought is dying and reading literature a lost art. ‘Against the onslaught of consumerism, against all the overwhelming siren voices that beckon, our only weapon is to exercise our right to choose,’ and to make the right choices, we need to be able to reflect and imagine.

Nafisi critically examines Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, and Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Her intention lies in understanding the American sensibility through the elaboration of the enduring nature of literature and its democratic function. Though the readings of the three authors are rather undergraduate, they draw attention to the role of liberal arts in America and the need for the development of a critical mind in the land of, what Henry A. Giroux calls, ‘zombie politics and culture’. ‘Nafisi is passionate and has deep concern with the culture of her choosing, where she would hate to go with the argument that a note of caution is needed before students begin to study Huckleberry Finn or Things Fall Apart that address the tricky question of racism. Strongly against the censorship of literature, she believes with Primo Levi that one writes ‘to rejoin the community of mankind.’ The Republic of Imagination becomes the ‘backyard of Alice,’ and the only requirement of entry are an ‘open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane.’ Literature indeed enables us to live in political history.

Giving the example of Alice in Wonderland, Nafisi builds on the idea of the willingness of Alice in following the rabbit without knowing where it is leading her. Similarly, books challenge limitations and our constricted horizons, enabling us to become restless, curious and questioning. It is this ‘portable world’ that Nafisi carries with her, a world where she moves from the land of her birth —with all the rich experience of reading her native poets and novelists — to a far wider world of European and American literature.

For Nafisi, the experience of literature is more tangible than objective. War, according to her, destroys our homes and dear ones, but not the world of our memories. Literature therefore becomes our ‘guardian of history’, the undying monument of human civilization. Indeed, the ordeal of experiencing the nightmare of war is as painful as experiencing the ordeal of freedom where, as a citizen, one is required to express one’s opinion even if it goes against the idea of ‘patriotism’.

Nafisi is of the view that like Huckleberry Finn, the democratic principle dictates each one of us to ‘light out for territory ahead.’ Wilderness is spiritually safe, and Huck would rather go to hell than desert Jim, his black companion. She cites her favourite novelist, James Baldwin, to corroborate her politics of imagination: ‘Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace.’ Nafisi supports the individual course that each one of us decides to choose, even if the whole nation chooses to go to war. Such a stand runs parallel to the support and love that Huck gives to Jim, not caring the least if it goes against the racial ideology of his land. It is your rage and pain that finally matters and this is what Jim begins to grasp by the end of the novel.

Huck would return again and again in world literature. ‘His sound heart resisting a monitoring conscience, would be articulated in different times and different manners.” His unchartered terrain is therefore integral to fiction. The real question for Nafisi and the reader is: ‘Will we risk striking out for new territories and welcome the dangers of thoughts unknown?” For her, America, the land she has chosen as her home, does not stand for any one nationality; it symbolises the republic of imagination, the land that respects diversity in culture and opinion. One wonders how she would respond to the recent racist killings in the land she now regards her home.

The Republic of Imagination; Azar Nafisi, William Heinemann, £18.99.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 9:33:01 PM |

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