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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

  1. Anonymous | March 28, 2003 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Great day to have Chris Lydon’s blog up!

  2. Anonymous | March 29, 2003 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    What an excellent and thought provoking post! It’s enough to make me put down the computer and wander to the home library to grab a few books for more perspective on our current times.

  3. Anonymous | March 29, 2003 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I like the idea of “de-otherizing” when that’s the problem, but I think it is completely inappropriate to view the current conflict (on our side anyway) as having anything to do with “otherization”. We aren’t attacking Iraq because we think the Iraqis are not human beings worthy of respect, we are attacking the government of the country out of self-defense. The majority of the population until recently had never even given Iraq a first thought let alone a second one, and if they did have them fully in mental view there would have been huge outcrys every time Saddam dumped someone in a vat of acid or shot someone for a minor offense and we probably would have been in a war to remove him and his gang a long time ago.

    Sometimes “otherization” can help justify wars when they are not otherwise justifiable. In others it can prevent wars because our eyes are closed to horrors that couldn’t survive scrutiny.

    If the Cambodians had not been “otherized” in the 1970’s do you think the Khmer Rouge would have gotten away with killing a quarter of the population?

    Be careful what you ask for!

  4. Anonymous | March 30, 2003 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Christopher Lydon .. the same Chris Lydon who, in another life, hosted of “The Connection” .. ?? If so, great to ‘see you’ again! I’ve missed your presence there. If not, then you carry a superb moniker! And in the piece I just read – you seem to carry it well.

    Very interesting and provoking piece. And again it shows we humans are but cyclicals: what goes around will eventually come around again.. and again .. and again .. ad nasium .. until we stumble upon the ‘right way’ to execute.

    Though the most ‘intelligent’ (or at least capable) beings on the planet, we are undoubtably, as well, the ‘thickest bipodals’ on the planet!

    HISTORY … learn from it or be doomed to repeat it. Hmm, seems I’ve heard this before .. yes?

    Much of history is a tale of mistake and repeat. Only in a few bright spots has mankind every struck the correct note of positive influence for all others: human or otherwise. And it would seem that whenever an individual stood up to assay this condition and report to us all the need to refocus, they drew more rage than reflect. It has been quoted many times before, but the wiseman Solomon wrote, “Nothing is new under the sun.” I believe him to be correct. For I’ve practiced in many professional fields the art of contractual obligation and am of the firm opinion that there was only one contract every truly written – and ever since it’s been cut-and-paste. But, it would seem that along the way – a few important letters have been ‘lost in the cracks’. If we are survive our own ineptness, we must find those ‘letters’. It would seem they are the missing links to a realm of peace and security .. as, we do not have that now.

    Superb beginning. Keep up the blog … it’s a great medium for a voice like yours.

    Enjoy. And thank Dave Winer personally for the platform. His persistance, vision and the collective hard work from himself and dozens of dedicated programmers and visionaries, has provided, all of us, who share the desire to publish our expressions, this magic carpet of technology.

    And who knows – maybe …just maybe … a collective voice will raise an equally collective consciousness .. that just may make a difference.

    It is, after all, very worth the try.

    I look forward to more from your newfound publishing voice.

  5. Anonymous | April 1, 2003 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Much to the neo-conservatists dismay, we may be witnessing not the consolidation of the USA as sole superpower, but the ebbing away of that status. So I am re-reading Kim (Kipling), Edward Said’s edition. “Kim” is very relevant, with its foreshadows of empire unraveling. “It is all your beastly English pride. You think no one dare conspire!” says Hurree. Incredibly reminiscent of the Bush administration’s prideful assumption that no one in Iraq dares fight.

    ‘Kim’ also sheds light on how Muslim cultures met the West, Russian interest in Central Asia, Afghani tribal mores, and Tibetan influence in India — all in the beforetime of 1901. Oddly illuminating to read now, even thru Kipling’s colonial lens.

    One final digression: Could it be that the erosion of US influence resulting from Iraq and other Bush missteps will create a vacuum that China, the EU, Russia and the rest of Asia will each fill part of? Particularly if the US economy continues to slide. If so, Bush may inadvertantly give the US’s children the great gift of NOT being part of a superpower.


  6. Anonymous | April 1, 2003 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Chris, a warm welcome back! We’ve all missed your voice on the air. It’s a pleasure once again to hear your informed and original perspective on the issues that matter. Keep on bloggin’ on.


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  8. Anonymous | July 1, 2003 at 2:46 am | Permalink

    Should we also have ‘deotherized’ the Nazis while they were still gun-toting thugs and invaders under the Third Reich?

    Or was it best (from a morally pragmatic perspective) to fight them and kill them until the Third Reich collapsed?

    And THEN ‘de-otherize’ the survivors (as we did under the Marshall plan)!!

    What destruction, what furthering of holocaust, would we have abetted had we been so morally rigid as to ‘de-otherize’ the Nazis while they were still armed, dangerous and on the offensive?

    What good is pure idealism with no traction in reality–devoid of accounting for consequences?

    Let pacifistic refusal to oppose Hitlers’ Germany be the the test and proof:

    Morality without pragmatism is ultimately immoral.

    Phil Murray

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