Thursday, November 30, 2006

Reading Lolita in Charlottesville

I was aware of some political debate surrounding Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (which I have not read) but had not bothered to look into it. Now Gideon Lewis-Kraus has waded into the story with a smart summary and evaluation of the competing claims.

I'll not try to summarize the arguments: click here to read the essay.

Lewis-Kraus's conclusion is clear:
what ultimately binds [Nafisi's main critic] Dabashi and Nafisi to each other [is] their shared overemphasis on the politically salutary effects of reading novels and writing literary criticism. Dabashi's purposes are not served by calling the book bad because it is cliché, which would be right but pointless. He must call it bad because it is dangerous. In the end, Dabashi must conspire with Nafisi to make the book more important that it is: The besieged Nafisi gets to preserve her fantasy that removing her veil to read Austen in her home was not only therapeutically powerful but politically noble, and Dabashi gets to preserve his fantasy that criticizing Nafisi makes him a usefully engaged intellectual. But those whose fingers are on the triggers of those targeted nuclear warheads couldn't possibly care about what either of them has to say.
What struck me about Lewis-Kraus's argument--which seems compelling to me if the debate is faithfully characterized--is that it's the sort of thing Lolita's author would say himself. At least, I think that's what Nabokov would have said about politics and literature, based on my reading of Lolita (and its siblings) when I was in graduate school in Virginia. I'll check with some experts to see if I've got that right.

--Marshal Zeringue