Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Reading Rainbow

I'm smack in the middle of the popular Reading Lolita in Tehran, and it's been a pretty engrossing read, and I'm glad I overcame my elitist phobia of popular books. I have a strange, overwhelming fascination with Iran, although I don't know too much about it. It's the only country that's really captivated my interest outside the former Soviet republics. Which leads me to think that I must just really have a fetish for totalitarian regimes and extremist revolutionary ideologies. Don't we all.

Anyway, there was an anecdote that struck me, especially in light of my recent long-winded paean to Vaclav Havel and his thoughts about living under a totalitarian regime while trying to maintain dignity. I've thought about Havel a lot while reading this, actually, and how his thinking on dissidence was in reaction to a regime that at this point was far less brutal. He sacrificed and risked a great deal, and he suffered in prison, but there was more latitude in his activity. Were he a woman, he would not face death by stoning, or lashings, or arbitrary cruelty for the most minor expressions. Living with dignity in such conditions - how can it even be possible?

The anecdote gives an example. At the University of Teheran, where the author taught literature, there was another legendary professor of drama and film. His classes had no time limit - they might take three hours, or they might not. But no one could leave early, and no one wanted to. Film and drama students from other universities used to scale the university walls to sneak into his class, and would stand for hours to get a spot standing inside the lecture hall.
In the early days of the revolution, students were running havoc over the university in a frenzy of revolutionary idealism: they expelled professors, they ruined careers, they banned immoral books. Here's what happened in the drama department:
One day the radical students and faculty members of the Drama Department...convened to change the student curriculum. They felt certain that certain courses were too bourgeois and were not needed anymore, and they wanted to add new, revolutionary courses. Heated debates had ensued in that packed meeting as drama students demanded that Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Racine be replaced with Brecht and Gorky, as well as some Marx and Engels—revolutionary theory was more important than plays.

Then, oh how I love this, enters our legendary professor...
In a nod to democracy, it was asked if anyone disapproved of the new proposal. From the back of the room, a voice said quietly, "I disagree." A silence fell over the room. The voice gave as his reason his conviction that as far as he was concerned, there was no one, and he meant no one, certainly no revolutionary leader or political hero, more important than Racine. What he could teach was Racine. If they did not want to know about Racine, that was up to them. Whenever they decided they wanted to run a proper university and reinstate Racine, then he would be happy to come back and teach.
...[cries of condemnation, decadence, etc.]...
When he spoke again, it was to say that he felt one single film by Laurel and Hardy was worth more than all their revolutionary tracts, including those of Marx and Lenin. What they called passion was not passion, not even madness; it was some coarse emotion not worthy of true literature. He said that if they changed the curriculum, he would refuse to teach.

And that's just what happened. And that is the start of how a revolution devours itself, once it's finished with its best and brightest.

(Taking down Marx with Laurel and Hardy. Devastating. How can you not love that?)


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