You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.
Skip to content

What do the writers think?

I was moved by a Persian miniature in the New York Times yesterday, Azar Nafisi’s brief op-ed recollection of what she did in Tehran through the terror of the Iran-Iraq war: “I read James, Eliot, Plath and great Persian poets like Rumi and Hafez.”

I love the idea that the great writers have been here before us. This morning we had the pleasure of recording a radio conversation with Ms. Nafisi, now a professor at Johns Hopkins and author of the marvelous “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” She encompasses all the fiction we really need, from Jane Austen to Iraj Pezeshkzad. And she speaks persuasively of literature not as a refuge but as a touchstone of big truths and even political realism. She extended my list of the great writers who anticipated the contemporary crisis. Examples:

In “Hadji Murat,” (1904) Tolstoy portrayed two despotisms at war between Moscow and Chechnya in the 19th Century.

Dostoevsky’s “Demons” (1873) foresaw all the evils of Russia’s Communist century: the mad revolutionary cells, terrorist murder, ignorant fanaticism, spiritual suicide.

In “The Secret Agent,” (1907) Conrad nailed the voice of Osama bin Laden… “I have always dreamed of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity.  That’s what I would [like] to see.”  More uncannily still, Conrad forewarned us about the double-reverse effects of terrorism that we’ve seen unfolding since September 11. The plot to bomb the London Observatory in “The Secret Agent” was disguised as proletarian revolutionism, but the mastermind was an imperial reactionary. The purpose of terrorism in Conrad’s novel, like the effect in George W. Bush’s America, was to bring on a repressive crackdown by scaring “the imbecile bourgeoisie” out of its absurd and “sentimental regard for individual liberty.” (Conrad’s words.)

Henry James’ “The Princess Casamassima” (1886) is all about the temptations of revolutionary nihilism and political murder. The gullible hero Hyacinth Robinson sees too late the price that reckless radicalism will exact from art, culture, civilization itself.

Owen Wister’s “The Virginian” (1902) is the first elaboration of the cowboy metaphor of American culture and psychology.

Graham Greene’s Adam Pyle in “The Quiet American,” (1955) is the model of the lethal, blundering innocent American idealist in Vietnam.

Azar Nafisi adds Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to the list of prophetic novels to savor again, because it reveals the subversive power in a woman’s insistence on her own choice. And she gives a high place to Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” for the force of a “rebellion in words” against Islamist (not Islamic) totalitarianism.

The sixth program in our public radio series (please listen and join the discussion at will be built around conversations with two novelists of transnational consciousness.

Amin Maalouf grew up in a Christian family in a Lebanese village; he has lived for the last quarter century in Paris. His novels (like “Leo Africanus”) and his non-fiction (“The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” and “In the Name of Identity”) are best sellers on the many shores of the Mediterranean.

Here is a taste of Amin Maalouf’s talk with me in his Paris apartment: “I never try to think what should be my opinion coming from this or that background. I try to think as a human being. I hate for example to see people in debates, each one defending the opinion of his tribe, with all the bad faith that is put into defending his own tribe. I love people who defend the other side, you know? I love to see a debate in which an Arab and a Jew debate, but the Arab is defending the opinion of the Jews, and the Jew is defending the opinion of the Arabs. I love to listen to that, and I feel I belong to this kind of debate.”

This weekend I am off to record Amitav Ghosh in New York. He was born in Calcutta, began his professional life as a social anthropologist in Egypt (“In an Antique Land”) and blossomed into a celebrated novelist (“The Glass Palace.”)

I am searching of course for Other perspectives on Us. But I am also trying to get a better sense of what feels like a collision since September 11 of Post-Colonialism and Neo-Imperialism.

Even before September 11, and with alarm since then, I’ve had the feeling that the Bush dream is to recapitulate the British and Spanish empires. Didn’t the Azores summit make it almost too obvious?

The mission that comes naturally to George W. Bush in the circumstances is to re-otherize the world. The global thrust behind so much else–in markets and culture, Internet technology, environmental salvation, medicine (and, yes, our own radio adventure) is to de-otherize the world.

An extreme repolarization of peoples is underway as American bombs rain down on the Cradle of Civilization.  What do we suppose the world sees?  Will this damage ever be undone?

{ 41 } Comments