The Republic of Imagination: En Frances
As a part of sharing my recent adventure and launch in France, please enjoy this preface I wrote for the French version of Republic of Imagination. Please note this is the “English unedited version.”
February 22, 2016
The French Connection
Do you remember the fox? Not just any fox, this one is a sage, the revealer, the one that reveals the truth to the Little Prince who reveals it to the pilot who reveals it to us, the readers. As he says goodbye to his friend, the fox tells The Little Prince, “Here is my secret. It’s quite simple: One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”” When I first as a child heard my father read me the story of the Little Prince in a spacious and sunny room in Tehran I was not aware that that story alongside of tales from Shahnameh, The Persian Book of Kings, Pinocchio, Mullah Nassredin, the Alice stories, Wizard of Oz and the Ugly Duckling among others would become one of the main pillars of my Republic of Imagination.
My father’s democratic way of introducing me to these stories, shaped my attitude towards works of imagination as universal spaces transcending the boundaries of geography, language, ethnicity, religion, gender, race, nationality and even class. I knew that although this fox and his Prince were products of a Frenchman’s mind and heart, and although the book was written in a language foreign to me at a time before I was born and a place I had never seen, by the virtue of hearing and later reading it, that story would also become my story, that Little Prince and fox belonged as much to me as Shahrezad and her 1000 and one nights belonged to the French, American, British, Turkish, German and all other readers who would in reading cherish them and “tame” them the way the Prince learnt to tame the fox. And this is the reason today I, born in Iran and living in America, share with French readers the gift of American stories. Stories are similar to hothouse flowers, they need the alternative and curious eyes of others, of readers from all backgrounds, ages and places to reinterpret and in doing so give them a new name and a new life, otherwise they will be forgotten and simply wither and die. Which is why this book is not only a celebration of writing and writers, but also of reading and readers, not just about American reality and fiction but also about the universal spaces shared by us as human beings in both reality and fiction.
This is how I, a little girl from a place called Iran, came to know and love France, through a Little Prince and a fox! I had met foxes before, in fact My father introduced me to the animal in a fable by La Fontaine. In this story, like most stories, the fox is sly and clever, cheating a simple crow of his meal. Later while in Shah’s prison father translated La Fontaine’s fables complete with its beautiful illustrations which he, an amateur painter, drew himself, copying from the original. In that and most other illustrations the fox looked pretty, with a gorgeous bushy tail, and wide eyes. Little Prince’s fox was not pretty, its bushy tail more like an upright broom, was not beautiful, and his eyes were so narrow they could be barely seen, in fact he didn’t really look like a fox. It seems almost miraculous to me that a fox not like any other had forever changed my attitude towards that animal—I began to see it in a different light. From this perspective the fox’s slyness was not due to malice, but from the need to survive. Although I felt sorry for the chickens (which didn’t prevent me from eating them) the fox hunted them so that he could stay alive, unlike some human beings who not only kill and eat the chickens but hunt foxes for entertainment and sport. Gradually I came to understand why those mesmerizing wide eyes, always brimmed with anxiety and fear, seemed to be on the lookout for some invisible but very real menace.
At the time I had no idea why I was attracted to The Little Prince’s story, I did not know it was teaching me to acquire what is essential to the greatest works of imagination: the magical throbbing of the heart, defining us as human beings, connecting us to one another, giving us a reason to live, a way to survive, and alongside of that to understand not just the value of happiness and love, but their close proximity to pain and loss, to understand the price we pay when we dare make the choice to genuinely live and love. Without knowing it I was experiencing that sense of deep anguish mixed with the joy of creation that is the source of all beauty. As I started to read more books I discovered that the fox’s secret was shared by the greatest writers, poets, musicians, artists, thinkers, throughout the times. Many of them had expressed it in different forms and languages, as in the lines by the great Persian poet Rumi, writing centuries before in a distant land, and in a different language:
“Open the eyes of your heart, to see the soul,
All that is invisible shall become visible to you.”
Alongside of my visits to the imaginary France through books, I had also heard a great deal about the real France and her influence in shaping ideas and culture of the modern Iran. Iran was and still is cosmopolitan, before I left for England at the age of 13 I had read a variety of books from different countries, mainly, Russia, England, America, Italy and France, all of which in addition to Persian literature, were among the founders of my Republic of Imagination. But France had a unique space in the hearts and minds of many members of the Nafisi clan, especially my parents. I was surrounded by the myth of our close proximity to the French because of the way French defined themselves through their great literature, through their Voltaire, Racine and Mallarme. Looking back, I am a bit surprised that when I finally visited France its reality did not in fact lose its luster in the glow of this seductive mythology.
But it was my family’s bond with literature and close affinities with French language and literature that most affected me. What remained alive, what outshone all the tales real and invented about France and its magic, was the secret fox had revealed to me as he had to millions of other readers. That was before I experienced it in other ways, through films and later art and philosophy, that was before my father’s tales about the influence of France on Iran’s Constitutional Revolution at the start of last century, and the fact that Iranian revolutionaries’ main slogan had been, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. That was before I started counting all the French words that had entered the Persian language, making themselves at home, words ranging from everyday objects, to fashion and to abstract concepts: television, radio, automobile, merci, monde, mode, alamode, demode, chic, gentile, compliment, modern, modernite, existentialism. The word ‘Farang,’ a generic term used to describe Western countries, had its origin in the term ‘Frank’(coming to mean French people)—thus it was that at one point in Persian language the whole Western world could be summarized in France!
I would not be allowed to forget that my father’s cousin the venerable and distinguished scholar Saeed Nafisi was the first to write the French Persian dictionary, the same Saeed Nafisi who had translated Iliad and Odyssey along side of Paul and Virginie. He gave me a copy of that book when I was about eleven, but I was not very impressed with it and read it more out of duty than pleasure. Not just Saeed Nafisi but many others who had founded the norms for modern Iran’s culture had studied in France, perhaps the most memorable among them Sadegh Hedayat, father of Iran’s modern novel, who was more appreciated in his lifetime by French scholars than his own intellectual compatriots and whose homage to his beloved Paris was unfortunately if ironically to commit suicide in that city and be buried at Pere Lachaise.
When General de Gaulle visited Iran, my father as the mayor of Tehran welcomed him with a speech quoting French writers such as Victor Hugo and Montaigne. The general was so pleased that he offered my father a Legion d’ Honor, and Paris Match graced its center page photo with that of my father and the general, father looking up at him, as if cheerfully marveling at the old man’s height and giant stature. Decades later, when after the Islamic revolution my father published his memoirs, it was that photo which graced the cover of his book. When soon after the General’s visit father was thrown in jail by his political enemies, he spent his time writing poetry, learning Russian, brushing up on his painting, and translating among others, La Fontaine’s fables, poems by Victor Hugo and Paul Elouard’s poem, Liberty. Each time I re-imagine my father’s time in the jail’s library, next to the morgue, I remember, the last two stanzas—my favorites–of that poem:
On abstraction without desire
On naked solitude
On the marches of death I write your name
And for the want of a word
I renew my life
For I was born to know you
To name you
My family’s almost frenzied claims to French literature and culture, and their knowledge of it almost intimidated me, but none more than my mother who never tired of bragging that she had been the top student in her classes at Iran’s best female school, Jean d’Arc, run by French nuns. She claimed that on her first visit to Paris, to see her brother Ali who was studying medicine, the French who my mother met over there would compliment her on her flawless accent. When I minored in French in college and tried to practice my French in front of her, she would haughtily say, “Please, please not with that accent.” Now I blame my paltry knowledge of French not on my own laziness, but on my mother’s reproaches, and of course on the French’s own unreasonable desire for Perfection in all matters and manners of life from food to language, leaving a foreigner like myself with no choice but to be intimidated!
As I search my memory it is those affairs of the heart with French literature that crowd this sunny and spacious room not in Tehran but in Washington DC on this cold sunny windy Washington day. I can almost divide each stage of my intellectual growth with the accompanying French books. In my mind’s eye I see piles of books, belonging to different periods of my life, like old but not forgotten friends. I was about 12, sitting against the wall, opposite the large window that poured in the sun, and immersed in reading the last pages of Father Goriot. I had picked it up after being fascinated by Balzac’s Lily of the Valley, a book I now only dimly remember. I had the door firmly shot, trying to ignore my mother’s angry calls, asking me to come to lunch. As her calls changed to shouts I withdrew more into my private mourning for old Goriot, tears streaming down my face. That was the same room where I had cried for Uncle Tom and for Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities and the fragile young Ann Frank.
Ages 11, 12, and 13 were fertile years, because of the abundance of tears as well as voracious reading! Unknowingly I was hoarding emotions, feelings, ideas, hibernating, gathering sustenance for the hard times. Turgenev, Austen, Stendhal, Tolstoy, Chekov, Dickens, Hugo, Flaubert, Moravia, I read indiscriminately, greedily, discovering and cherishing their presence in the solitary corners of my world. I was the ghost from the real world, following the characters, identifying with them, wishing Anastasie and Delphine dead, hiding in the attic with Ann Frank, entering my Romantic period, not with Walter Scott, but with Victor Hugo and the Bronte sisters, dying with Catherine, going blind with Rochester, following Jean Valjean down the seedy and dangerous streets of Paris, dying with Esmeralda, remembering to this day Quasimodo’s feelings not just for that wonderful girl but for his bells: “He loved them, fondled them, talked to them, understood them.” It is for lines such as these that we love Hugo or Tolstoy, not because of their preaching. But somehow not Les Miserable nor The Hunchback of Notre Dame but The Man Who Laughed attracted my attention most, was it because of its strange and seductive title, carrying within it the irony that shaped the book’s grotesque tragedy? I learnt to cry in a new way, discovering that your heart breaks not just in real life but also in fiction, while passing the Stendhal’s mirror by the road. Those were the years when the heart was being “trained” and “tamed” to use the fox’s term, without me being conscious of it, tamed through fiction, prepared for what would come later in life. I now know how to analyze and to be objective, how to articulate my reactions to these works, but I would give a great deal to cry like that again, to once more feel after reading a great book the deep and innocent anguish mixed with the irreplaceable and irretrievable satisfaction and joy of having experienced something beautiful and rare, and possible to articulate only through tears.
After the age of 15 for many years I was overwhelmed by the excitement and arrogance that come with the discovery of ideas, even if those ideas belong to others. It was the time of Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Bergson, Anouilh, Inesco, Barth, Queneau (His Exercises in Style) The New Wave cinema, and theorists of Nouveau Roman, Robbe Grillet and Natalie Sarraute, Margaret Duras, and Claude Simon. And the excitement of finding one French mystery writer, unique and on par with the greatest in English language, Simenon. And then there was Proust, always apart from the rest, who still appears and disappears like some rare gem of a dream, brushing against the skin, so seductive, so self-contained, as concrete and image -filled and as elusive as memory itself.
Gradually I started to differentiate the foxes from the semi foxes and those from none foxes. Some like the Nouveau Roman writers were the clever ones, the confident ones, brittle and brilliant, like this cold brittle brilliant day in Washington, a sort of frozen light. But like brilliant and heady love affairs, they receded easier into the background, beloved old photographs, images gradually fading with time, acquiring a new beauty of their own. Camus’s Stranger was the first book I read in French, and I took with me the “Vast indifference of the world,” that Meursault had felt on that starry last night of his life, and still carry it with me. But I also discovered how really meaningless were the last words in Sartre’s No Exit, claiming “Hell is the other people!” I think it was Nabokov who said, one could have just as easily said, “Hell is oneself.” I read almost all the books by Camus and Sartre but the feeling was an expansion on my reaction to those two works. Sartre was an idea man, not a storyteller, and his ideas with time simultaneously remained brilliant and lost their glow. Camus was the one belonging to my secret society of imaginary foxes. Camus was a fox that remained, will remain, I know now, as I am being reminded of him while reading Kamel Daoud, another fox in the making.
Yes, of course history repeats itself and not just twice. And so it did punctually in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the tragedy was acted out more as a parody. One instance was when the moral guardians of culture made their immoral charges against the immorality of so many great works of art and literature, including Madam Bovary. As in the case of France in 1856, the venom directed against Flaubert’s representation of “ignoble reality” was not just mouthed by the censor and regime’s officials but also by the virtuous and the self-righteous among the general public and the elite intellectuals. I had my little share of fun when I gave a public talk about Madam Bovary at a wonderful publishing house, and that talk ignited a fierce and rhetorically violent debate about women, adultery and morality. If nothing else, the meeting made me even more determined to not just teach Madam Bovary but to focus on the issue of morality and art, by adding one more book that I still consider one of the best works on the intimate and precarious relations between fiction and reality as well as the reader and narrator, I am talking about Diderot’s incomparable Jacque le Fataliste.
But it was even more dangerous to teach Jacque le Fataliste, than Madam Bovary. Emma Bovary at least had the ‘decency’ in the eyes of virtuous to kill herself, paying in some way for her sins, but this other book was merrily, openly and shamelessly irreverent, and obscene. So I had the pleasure of playing a trick. Since the books I taught could not be found in bookstores, I handed out on the first day of class, Xerox copies of the book. Next week I told the class that unfortunately I have discovered some obscene scenes and discourse in the book and which we are not allowed to read, so, I told them, they should bring the copies back next week and I will simply lecture on the relevant parts of the book. I had now ensured that all the students will hasten to make copies of their own before handing me back my Xerox copy and that they will diligently and meticulously read all the book from cover to cover!
What I really wanted to do was to read them the passage when the narrator heaps insult and obscenities at the “filthy hypocrites” who accuse him of obscenity, telling them to “Fuck away like unsaddld asses but allow me to say ‘fuck.’ I allow you the action. Allow me the word. You boldly use words like ‘kill,’ ‘steal,’ ‘betray’ all the time but only dare to pronounce that word under your breath.” He goes on to defend sexual intercourse as “so natural, so right and so necessary.” I couldn’t push my luck that far by reading them the passage, but I did spend a great deal of time to explain another quote from the book, that comes right after that passage. It is where the narrator explains: “To me the freedom of his style is almost the guarantee of the purity of his morals. It is Montaigne. Lasciva esr nobis pagina vita proba.”
I love his use of the word “almost” in the passage above. From there I could not just talk about Jacque whose only rival in style I could find in Stern and his Tristram Shandy, but also about why Madam Bovary was so moral while Flaubert’s critics were immoral in trying to mutilate fiction in the same manner they enjoyed mutilating reality. When Flaubert claimed that he was Madam Bovary, it meant that he had managed to go under her skin, to empathize with her to the point where in order to bring her to life, he had to become Emma—that was his style. But because he was so successful in achieving his goal, we the readers by going through the same experience, through a process of curiosity and empathy could also become Emma, and not just her but Charles, Homais and every other character in that book.
We do not approve of Emma and even Charles but we understand them and somewhere in the depths of our romantic beings we might also empathize. The sin they commit is that like Gatsby they are overwhelmed and obsessed with their own fiction, their own desire for Romance to the extent that they replace reality with fictions of their own, to the extent that Emma becomes blind to the needs of her husband and child, and the dire future she is creating for them and for herself, and Charles is blinded by his desire for Emma, by risking everything, even his patients’ health and life for her.
For me of course there was some redemption in Emma and even more in Charles, here is a novel that reminds us of not empathy but lack of it, of not love, but lack of that too. But we still feel for Emma and Charles, because they risked all they had including their lives for a false dream. But the dangerous character, is the one who survives, the one who gathers the rewards, the one who has no dreams, no scruples, feeding guiltlessly on other people’s misery and greed, the one who takes all and gives back nothing: Homais. And as readers we must also ask the question, how amazing is it that Flaubert predicted us, as we are today, with our false sense of both reality and culture, with our reality shows, with words that mean nothing, dreams that are illusions, and that mercenary mindset that doesn’t feel anything, but money and material success, the one that doesn’t even care about Madam Bovary or question of morality, because none really matter. What if we, today are more like Homais than any other character?
“Who is de Tocqville?” asked a blue eyed blonde haired girl in a graduate seminar I taught at The School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. It was my first year of migrating to America and teaching. I was shocked that a graduate student in International relations, in one of the best American universities does not know Tocqueville while some of my students in Iran would know him. It was one of those moments that stayed with me, for it was not just about not knowing one great thinker, but not knowing America, its history and culture, its foundation, its relation with the world. And I started thinking about writing this book, as over the years such terrible moments piled up so that they no more shocked but saddened and angered me, as the cost of education for general American public skyrocketed, as the quality of public schools and universities went down, as corporate mentality ruled over all other, as children other than children of rich were more and more deprived in schools from music, poetry, fiction and art and as students were encouraged to think of education as a gateway to vocation and money rather than fulfilment of passion, potentials and talent, that should also help us find the right job.
In my notes taken during an emotional meeting about the war in Iraq, I had scribbled about some congressman’s suggestion that in response to French opposition to the war in Iraq to rename French fries as Freedom fries. I had added that some people were actually boycotting French wine. In parenthesis I had written: a triple insult against French fries, French people and Freedom in that order. My diaries of that time overflow with furious notes that later even I had some difficulty deciphering. Beside the name Tocqueville, I had written the name Lafayette and the ‘Statue of Liberty,’ adding “How clever (and compassionate??) of the French to gift us the Statue of Liberty. Now forever the idea of America as home of freedom would glow with the colors of France.” At a later date and time in another notebook, I had mentioned Stacy Schiff’s book, A Great Improvisation, Franklin, France and the Birth of America. “How could any American not be proud of Franklin’s dazzling performance at the French court, securing support for America and admiration from some of the most sophisticated elite in Europe?” I had reminded myself of all those artists and writers who had gone to France, to be inspired, to be illuminated, of Stein’s Paris, Hemingway’s Paris, James’s Paris. And then there was Baldwin, whose Paris unlike theirs was not the city of art and light, but a seedy, sad and desolate Paris, with monotony of light rain, and undisclosed secrets, misery of loathing and self-loathing, Paris of the marginal and the ostracized, the immigrants, the gays. Baldwin’s main character is illuminated, he also discovers himself and others, but in utter despair, with no joy. How generous they had been these authors, how confident of themselves knowing they wont lose their confidence by their presence in that most sophisticated and cultured city in the world, but will bloom, will offer the world a new perspective on the world, on Paris and on their own new country. How curious they were to want to know, how farsighted to intuit that on fertile foreign solid they might see themselves and their country even better. I had written how France had reciprocated, and reinvented America, making it see what it had not seen about itself. I had gone on to jut down: Poe/Baudelaire, Woody Allen, Marx Brothers, American Westerns, all those aspects of American culture that had been immortalized by the French.
“The French Connection! Always search for the French Connection!” my husband had called it as I tried to explain to him the complicated historical and cultural connections between the French and my two beloved homes: Iran and America.
Last time I linked France to the fox was after the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office, the first issue of the magazine came out. That image of the prophet Mohammad, with tears in his eyes and the caption ‘Tout Est Pardonne,’ had an effect on me beyond words. I also wanted to cry, not just for those precious lives lost, but also for the compassion, the deep implication in that image. They at Charlie Hebdo had not reciprocated their murderers’ violent fury, in the best tradition of art, they had taken us all to their domain, to the domain that defies cruelty and violence by refusing to be cruel and violent, rather resisting through becoming more the opposite of what they are, refusing to become their enemy’s image of them. How could it be that the image of the prophet and the caption made me think of the tenderness of my grandmother’s Islam, when she forgave with a seeming ease, never complaining and yet always firm in her belief, in her faith, in her sense of tolerance. This is how she “tamed” us, those of us among her wayward and unruly children and grandchildren who rebelled against her beliefs and her faith. That image of Mohammad was not that of a figure of vengeance, not one of fear, but one that has been humanized, made human again despite the violence and anger of feckless friends and followers, more cruel to him than powerful enemies.
Today I am a long way from that sunny long ago day in a Tehran that exists only in my memory, like my father, the shady streets of my childhood, the movie house where I first saw Les Enfant de Paradis, alongside of Big Sleep and other classics, the feeling of security and warmth in my long gone room in Tehran where I cried for Old Goriot and Sydney Carton are also gone, even Tehran’s mountains are now hidden most days under the fog of pollution. But what has survived is the heart, and the imagination that first created the fox. In my Republic of imagination, they all live, the beloved and unforgotten ones, Rudabeh, Vis, Esmeralda, Shahrezad, Elizabeth Bennet, Pim, Huck Finn, Emma Bovary, Natasha and Pierre, Catherine and Heathcliff, Anna Karenin, all from such different times and backgrounds, all together in this Republic, immortal and subversive. Here in these cruel and violent times, only in memory and in my portable world of imagination do my two homes, America and Iran come to live in the same space, alongside of those other beloved portable homes in four corners of the world, where France long ago made a place for itself through the fox.
The pilot, the writer who wrote the story of The Little Prince died long ago, but the fictional pilot who told the story is as alive today as he was decades ago, along with his little Prince, the Fox, the Rose, even the snake, and the laughing stars, the stars ringing bells that fill the clear nights with voices of the heart. In my mind’s eye, the stars become more brilliant their music more clear, in a sense more real, signaling that they are here to stay not just for the French readers, but for readers all around the world, for the readers who have the eyes to see, the ears to listen and the courage to imagine.