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Empathy, Cultural Dialogue, and Dead White Men

Posted By Brian Chappell On November 4, 2010 @ 10:00 am In Arts & Society,Fiction,Society | 2 Comments

A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.

My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.

This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.”  The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.

This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.

He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.

The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”

For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.


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