To “sleep cosmologically against a rock”: the fractured—and great—mind of Fernando Pessoa birthed this phrase in his lonely and angst-ridden “factless” semi-autobiography The Book of Disquiet. Though one could argue—and quite convincingly at that—that Pessoa’s outlook on life closely resembles the criteria for clinical depression and he is thus only someone to be regarded as imitable if you dislike getting out of bed in the morning, I have always thought he captured a great truth about imagination, and therefore literature, in this phrase. Reading is a cosmological experience, one that frees you from the material technicalities of your existence and transports you to wherever in the universe you want to go. With a book, you can indeed live cosmologically against a rock, perhaps forever if the fancy takes you—but you shouldn’t.
Great literature can absolve you of the need to engage with the world but the greatest strength of literature is its capacity to transform both you and, by extension, the world around you. Opting out of reality, as Pessoa seems to think we should, is certainly a service books can provide but opting in—and opting in better—is the ultimate gift provided to us by great literature. Azar Nafisi, an American-Iranian academic and writer—and one of my favourite authors—knew this well. When we eventually emerge from great literature, she thinks, we do so with a fresh perspective on the world around us. She taught literature at the University of Tehran under the Islamic regime, and is best known for her enchanting and deeply poignant book Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her most recent book, The Republic of Imagination—an exploration of the link between democracy and fiction—she writes:
If my students in Iran and millions of other brave souls like Malala and Ramin risked their lives in order to preserve their individual integrity, their access to free thought and education, what will we risk to preserve our access to this Republic of Imagination? To say that only repressive regimes require art and imagination is to belittle life itself. It is not pain and brutality that engender the need to write or the desire to read. If we believe in the first three words of the constitution, “we the people,” then we know that the task of defending the right to imagination and free thought is the responsibility not just of writers and publishers but of readers, too. I am reminded of Nabokov’s statement that “readers are born free and ought to remain free.” We have learned to protest when writers are imprisoned, or when their books are censored and banned. But what about readers? Who will protect us? What if a writer publishes a book and no one is there to read it?
“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” So says Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, expressing the feelings of millions. We must read, and we must continue to read the great subversive books, our own and others. That right can be guaranteed only by the active participation of every one of us, citizen readers.
In this passage, Nafisi is not referring to the much-debated and contested “free speech crises” playing out very publicly—or merely purportedly if you are in the camp doing the contesting—across college and university campuses and much more softly in the words unspoken between friends and colleagues and in the hushes that cannot be quantified. Instead, Nafisi is talking about a danger that springs from nonchalance towards imagination and fiction, a nonchalance produced by not knowing how good you have it and nurtured by cuts in public spending and the disappearance of libraries. It is these circumstances, Nafisi thinks, that leads to the devaluing of books, art and the importance of free inquiry—and this devaluing plays out in the real world in a loss of insight and perspective. It is our duty as readers, therefore, not to allow our imaginations to dissipate in this way.
Safeguarding imagination from ideology
I think a parallel can be drawn between her imploration to readers to protect the Republic of Imagination from nonchalance to the need for protecting the Republic of Imagination from ideology. By this I am not, strictly speaking, referring to censorship in art and literature—though this, of course, is a problem. Indeed, given the fortitude that led Nafisi to teach great American works of fiction to women within the Islamic Republic of Iran—at great personal risk, in amongst the turmoil of politicisation and moralisation of books and fiction—so that they could access a freedom in literature that was denied to them in their lives under the regime, I would certainly wonder what she thinks about the fact that two of the books she speaks of—Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird—are being banned from curriculums as we speak, or that publishing houses are being pressured to drop authors and that other publishing houses as well as individual authors are hiring censors to prevent their books from getting “cancelled”. But I need not guess. In a podcast with the Iran’s Weekly Wire, Nafisi says:
It is so amazing. I am always amazed by how much of my own experiences that I am talking about now, and the ideas that I have formulated now come from Iran, and my experiences over there, both good and bad, because I experienced political correctness in its extremist form, where you were punished for thinking differently, and sometimes what you thought differently might have been terrible, but punishment itself is not enough. Political correctness usually targets things that need to be corrected, when we talk about insulting women, or insulting people of other races or nationalities, all of these are things that go back to our real values and principles in life, and they should not be taken lightly. But when you have people in schools censoring Huckleberry Finn because they call it racist, without at least having the debate within the classrooms rather than just eliminating, allowing people to genuinely experience something, and form their own ideas, then it becomes dangerous.
I think that political correctness, in the form of ideology, in the form of didactic, self righteous preaching to others, runs against imagination, because what imagination does, it puts you into the experience of all sorts of people.
Under this ideology, censorship is allowed to creep its way back in to a place people flee to after their own countries and nations are upended from totalitarian regimes that, in the banning of books and censorship of the arts, sought to remove their imagination—and, according to Nafisi, by extension their identity. It is typically those who are privileged to live in places which have free expression who fail to recognise the importance, and tenuousness, of such freedom—a freedom that necessitates constant defence to remain in place. This can lead them to express dismissive attitudes towards or even demonise those who warn against the creeping of censorship. Yet, as is the case in Nafisi’s hypothetical book without a reader, book banning and censoring in the west, implemented by institutions rather than the state or government, is not synonymous with an inability to access literature. In the world of the internet, most societies—even if they had the inclination—would have a great deal of trouble genuinely ousting books or ideas. This is especially true in democratic countries.
A book that is removed from a school syllabus is not a book one would have trouble finding oneself; likewise, ideas that have been deemed dangerous might be hard to share if your livelihood depends on support from certain sections of the public sphere i.e., in much of academia and journalism, but there is no shortage of platforms springing up on the internet for such ideas. I am more concerned, then, with the way many of us are being taught to read—especially in English departments within universities, and increasingly, schools. There are more ways to lose our access to imagination than simply not reading great works—reading them with a (predominantly) dogmatic ideological lens will suffice for such a loss just as well.
The ideological lens I am referring to here is known broadly as “literary theory” —or simply, “theory”. There are different literary theories—and therefore lenses—one can choose from: queer literary theory, postcolonial literary theory, feminist literary theory, Marxist literary theory—the list goes on. In Beginning theory: an introduction to cultural and literary theory, Peter Barry outlines the points in common between these different lenses—the comments in square brackets are mine:
- Politics is pervasive.[Broadly speaking, this refers to the rejection of an apolitical or dispassionate reading or writing of a text; we can neither interpret a text without some kind of lens nor can we write a piece of literature without some kind of political context, and theory merely makes the lens utilised explicit.]
- Language is constitutive. [Language does not merely affect our reality, but actively constructs, limits and shapes it—and therefore has the power to oppress or liberate.]
- Truth is provisional. [There is no one truth; much of what we take for granted as being “fixed” or “stable” truths are in fact socially constructed.]
- Meaning is contingent.[The meaning in texts is not to be found by working out the “facts of the matter”; instead, meanings are constantly shifting and changing rather than being fixed and absolute.]
- Human nature is a myth.Within theory, human nature is not only found to be an inaccurate depiction of humanity but an oppressive one—in so far as what is deemed human nature is, purportedly, often male and “Eurocentric”.]
So, the different lenses tend to hold the above points in common and differ with regards to the oppressed group they focus on and they interpret literature so that the oppression of such a group is salient i.e., they require the close reading of literature to find evidence of oppression and oppressive representations (even when no such reading makes sense—as was the case when Helen Pluckrose’s reading of Shakespeare’s Othello was problematised for not bringing out racist themes that, given the historical context of Shakespeare’s times, were unlikely to be there).
In the ‘70s, English departments began to morph and grow, shaking off the limits placed on them by “New Criticism”—an approach to literature that kept the focus narrow and concerned mainly with the aesthetics of the works themselves—and embraced “literary theory”. English departments thus began to delve into philosophy, history and culture so that lectures might more closely resemble women’s studies and other such identity-based fields within academia than being spaces for the exploration of great writing. Lisa Schubert writes in For the “Public Good”: Contradictions in Contemporary Literary Theory:
Literary critics (by this time a no longer sufficiently defined, free-standing category, but always preceded by a further denomination: feminists, black, black feminists, lesbian, Marxist etc.) questioned not just the literature of the canon and the images therein but the very ideologies masked behind these works, the predominantly Western white male values, assumptions and ways of thinking imbued in the texts. Empowering the marginalized groups that they represented, some critics began to reject anything that resembled a “traditional” (read: white male) theoretical approach to literature. Indeed, battle lines were drawn, as critics like Barbara Smith in “Towards A Black Feminist Criticism” effectively told white male critics to keep their theoretical hands off black women’s art.
More recently, Lennard Davis, a professor at the University of Chicago said, in reference to the state of the modern English department:
English departments might be seen, also, as semiology departments involved in studying the signs and meanings of such things. Cultural studies, which was often housed in English, has risen and fallen as a trendy topic. Now the idea that one should study the semiology of culture is so built into the system as to be invisible to the ordinary student.
[…] To some, English (and the language to which it is linked) is seen as yoked to an oppressive history of conquest, enslavement and imperialism. Hence, another feature of the moment is decolonising the curriculum. This reshaping of the canon of literature now includes paying attention to the global south. It also means reconsidering the European basis of English culture, to the extent that foundational texts like those of Plato or Aristotle are being challenged as “white” and “Eurocentric”.
Of course, it doesn’t seem like too much of a shock, nor a massive indictment of an English studies course, that it might be Eurocentric (unless we deem it problematic that an African studies course might be Afro-centric?). But still, broadening the horizons of English departments is not necessarily a bad thing; expanding the range of authors studied as well as bringing in culture, philosophy and history to the study of literature can surely make for a deeper and more interesting analysis of texts; indeed, texts in English studies courses never used to be so divorced from context in the first place. So, it is not efforts to diversify and expand literature and syllabuses that is the problem, or even the reading of works through a lens of political struggle. After all, reading works from around the globe and from people with differing life experiences and perspectives is, I think, one of the best ways to expand your own world, to empathise with others, and to gain fuller and deeper perspectives on life.
It is certainly enriching and beneficial to Western students to become acquainted with thinkers and societies outside of the West(especially since the West itself includes all kinds of people and cultures), be they from Iran, the land of poets—their Persian myths and histories retained and immortalised in the works of Ferdowsi, author of the Shahnameh— or any number of other places each with their own unique history of thought and philosophy, of intellectual achievement and progression as well as struggle, war and strife. And, yes, books can be political. And, yes, books can provide lessons about morally heinous power imbalances and can make us question accepted truths and norms—Huckleberry Finn being a prime example of such a book.
However, to actively and unapologetically politicise all literature, in the manner that a “critical lens” would dictate, seems to me to be not only akin to sacrilege but also largely restrictive and narrow. For all the talk of diversification and deeper perspectives, the lenses available in literary theory are all suspiciously ideologically aligned at least in so far as they all fall in line with the radical left—and any criticism of such lenses is only put up with if the criticism reveals some oversight of some oppression. Deconstructing texts to the point where a real, or imagined, ideology of identity is all that one can find in the words laid out in front of one is a travesty for books, writers and readers alike. As movements to “decolonise the curriculum” that include the removal of books, reading canons through a “critical lens”—note, using a “critical lens” does not mean to think critically, it means to think and interpret literature through the lens of a particular ideology—and to increase diversity of skin colour, but often not diversity of viewpoint gain traction, it is essential that we, as readers, retain our sense of wonder and curiosity in books, ideas and fictional landscapes, regardless of the skin colour and sex of the author and characters. One does not find groups in literature, but individuals.
If the transforming power of books lies in their ability to endow one with new perspectives on life then we must ask ourselves—what perspectives are available to those who read only, or predominantly, from a restricted set of ideological lenses? Is life enriched when political struggle and warring identities are said to permeate all levels of interactions from the individual to the institutional? Are we empowered when all we can see is the myriad of ways we have been oppressed? Can we move forward and enact real change to create a more compassionate and fairer society when we obsessively tally up the degree to which those around us are supposedly complicit in our marginalisation simply by glancing at the colour of their skin or their sex? And, perhaps most importantly:are these lenses true? One might be forgiven for the cynicism of critical lenses if they accurately reflected reality.(“Critical theorists” would, of course, reject my terms, suspicious as they are of notions of truth and reality.) However, stopping to question the validity of such lenses is an often ignored task.
So, it seems to me, then, that Nafisi’s invocation of our duty, as readers, to not give in to complacency can just as much be transferred to our duty now, as readers, to not give in to ideologically homogeneous prescribed reading lists, or reductive analyses of literature through vacuous identity prisms or to the idea that we might be unable to cope with words and characters that might offend or bring about discomfort. We have a duty not to suck the life out of imagination by reading literature as if it were simply a bundle of identities warring for power or a seducing instrument of western power and “cis-gendered, white, male, heteronormativity”. The vitality of a book and an author is not determined by a group identity. It cannot be reduced to a way of spreading marginalising norms and perpetuating inequality or speaking the “lived experience” of a whole group. Reading books of authors with differing ethnicities and backgrounds should not be conflated with reading people with one particular viewpoint who happen to have the same skin colour.
The imagination of Western youth is not in danger from an inability to access ideas and literature considered offensive or immoral. They are in danger from their failure to read it. They are in danger from failing to really see and imagine. They are in danger from an ideology that tells them that the stories they read are about—and only about—the struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed. Such a failure of imagination, if continued, amounts to the death of literature and defies the beauty and truth that can be found in our great works of fiction—and, indeed, our non-fiction. Searching books for ways to separate and put artificial chasms between the characters themselves and between the readers and the writings based on differing group identities is a fundamental betrayal of literature; it is the responsibility of all of us who read to explore and appreciate the differing circumstances we reside in but, more importantly, to have the capacity to transcend these differences by falling into the vast landscapes of our common humanity. This is one place where the transforming power of books lies.
Nafisi thinks that in books and stories we can find home; I myself have certainly found a home in her books and many others’. But what is home if not that which is familiar? And how can we find that sense of familiarity in lands that appear so fundamentally different to the ones we know?
By appreciating that books offer the greatest avenue to connection across differing nationalities, ethnicities, places and times. By appreciating that in literature we manage to find ourselves in worlds and people that should not be our own but are, nonetheless.
Isobel Marston is a student of Philosophy at the University of Southampton and Counterweight’s Content Coordinator.