Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Reading with trauma

I taught Reading Lolita in Tehran last year for the first time, and it bombed. Unexpectedly. I thought the students would love it as I did the first time through...but the second time I found myself really irritated by the style, the labored efforts to create a feeling of coziness, and the way it let western or non-Muslim readers completely off the hook. Look how great your culture is, your classics. You're absolutely right to find Iran backward and scary. Well, of course it is, these days more than ever. But still I expect literature and literary memoirs to challenge my assumptions in some way. In RLIT Azar Nafisi tells us to curl up with our steaming mug of coffee and our girlfriends and our book and pat ourselves on the back. She invites us to take her and her students' brave act of rebellion--meeting in secret to discuss books not sanctioned by the state--as our own. The coziness in her world is a pocket of safety in a system that's actively seeking to destroy women. Our coziness could just be laziness. Or not. Even one year later I feel much less safe as a woman in the U.S. But I don't think it's yet time for us to retreat and form our own country of imagination. Not only that, anyway.

Which brings me to Lolita itself. Is there a less cozy book in the world? Nafisi and her students, from inside their cocoon, read the book as an allegory for totalitarianism and a literal chronicle of child abuse. I suspect this is how Oprah would read it (especially the second way), and therefore one--and by one I mean myself sometimes but not always--is inclined to discount it. But why? Can we really tell readers from a traumatized place that their take is less sophisticated? That they need to get well or get safe before they can properly understand literature? That literature only works when you're comfortable? Cripes, I hope not. That would be totalitarian.

Think of all the people who adopted James Frey's memoir and clutched it to their hearts even as Frey was revealed as a psychopath (exploited by the publishing industry). These were traumatized people, recovering addicts who sought and found help in the story. But sophisticated types mock them, first for liking Frey's lousy prose (maybe a sign of his authenticity, his real suffering) and then for standing by him when he was found inauthentic. For caring about authenticity on one hand, and for not caring about it when it no longer served their needs. But judging whether people's readings are proper comes close to judging whether their emotions are. And you'd have to know an awful lot about each person to be able to tell.

In Lot's Daughters Rob Polhemus says Lolita ushered in the whole confessional genre that started in the 60s and culminates in the types of books Oprah chooses for her readers. In other words you can trace a direct line from Lolita to Oprah. But that's as long as you identify with Lolita, as Nafisi and her students do, and not with Humbert. Maybe you can risk identifying with Humbert if the rest of your life isn't in much danger.

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