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When freedoms and imagination are threatened, ‘read dangerously’

Why readers and writers will have to fight against a closing in of culture more than ever

August 25, 2022 11:36 am | Updated 11:38 pm IST

Supporters of Salman Rushdie attend a reading and rally to show solidarity for free expression at the New York Public Library in New York City on August 19, 2022.

Supporters of Salman Rushdie attend a reading and rally to show solidarity for free expression at the New York Public Library in New York City on August 19, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

When Mikhail Bulgakov began writing his subversive novel,  The Master and Margarita, in 1928, he knew it would be impossible to publish it in his lifetime. As he was dictating the final revisions to his wife weeks before his death in 1940, Joseph Stalin was still at the helm of the USSR and purges had targeted artists, writers and every dissenter. It was finally published in the 1960s, heavily censored, and the original saw the light of day only after the breakup of the Soviet Union. 

In the novel, the devil (Bulgakov calls him Woland) comes visiting and asks an unnamed writer, the master, why does Margarita love him so. He replies it’s because she thinks highly of a novel he had written about Pontius Pilate. Woland first reprimands him for choosing such a subject “in this day and age” and asks him for a copy. When the master tells him that he had burnt it at the stove, Woland waves him away, “Manuscripts don’t burn,” and then asks his assistant, Behemoth, the cat, to give him a copy. Woland gives the master his demolished novel back.  

As reality mirrors fiction, and in a world where there is a “growing culture of easy-offendedness”, artists and writers are under attack almost everywhere. Some have had to pay with their lives, some are behind bars for espousing the freedom of expression, and many have been forced into exile. In an essay in February 2002, Salman Rushdie wrote that it is important to resist a “cultural closing-in”, because the freedoms of art and the intellect are closely related to the general freedoms of society as a whole. For writers particularly, the task seems to be cut out — they will have to try every means possible against all odds and even violence to increase freedoms and decrease injustice. Rushdie himself is recovering from a vicious stabbing two weeks ago at a literary meet in New York.

Read: Editorial | The power of words

Discussion as resistance

The Iranian-American writer Azar Nafisi did one such act of resistance in 1995 when after being expelled from a university in Iran for refusing to wear the mandatory veil, she chose seven of her best and most committed students and invited them home every Thursday to discuss literature. They read Persian classical literature, such as  A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics, like  Pride and PrejudiceMadame BovaryDaisy Miller and  Lolita. She recounted the experience in  Reading Lolita in Tehran, published in 2003, after she was forced to move into exile to America in 1997. Life in the Islamic Republic was “as capricious as the month of April, when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms. It was unpredictable: the regime would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown.”

As life became harder for her students, she nudged them towards the “other world” of the writers. Nafisi turned their attention to Vladimir Nabokov’s novels,  Invitation to a Beheading, Bend Sinister, Ada, Pnin, where there is always “the shadow of another world, one that was only attainable through fiction”. It is this world, she told them, that prevents Nabokov’s heroes and heroines from utter despair – it becomes their “refuge in a life that is consistently brutal”.

Nafisi new book,  Read Dangerously, rounds up a quartet of writing about her lived experiences in Iran and the U.S. ( Reading Lolita…, The Republic of Imaginationand  That Other World). It is written in the form of letters to her father, long gone away, beginning in 2016, in the face of the dire threat of totalitarianism in the form of Donald Trump. Wanting to lay bare the clash between the poet and the tyrant, and the precarious place a writer and reader occupy in an absolutist society, Nafisi traces the idea from Plato’s  Republic, Ray Bradbury’s  Fahrenheit 451 to Salman Rushdie’s  The Satanic Verses, and touches on the works of other writers like Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston who have written extensively on gender, race, and oppression.

Fostering doubt

Rushdie had raised the question, will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like his hate-filled, illiberal mirror-image? Like him, Nafisi asks, how do we deal with our enemy without either becoming like him or surrendering to him? She offers reading and writing as a resistance to all forms of hostility towards the imagination and ideas. Reading may not necessarily lead to direct political action, but it “fosters a mindset that questions and doubts”. Fiction arouses curiosity, she writes, “and it is this curiosity, this restlessness, this desire to know that makes writing and reading so dangerous.” As Rushdie says, democracy can only advance through the clash of ideas and flourish in the rough-and-tumble bazaar of disagreement.

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