I recently read Azar Nafisi’s book, The Republic of Imagination, a wonderful book which I highly recommend. The book presents a unique perspective on what Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the many works of James Baldwin teach us about our own society–but also, how their universality speaks to other cultures. Along the way, Nafisi addresses the crucial importance of fiction to our understanding of ourselves, our society, and of how reading fiction broadens our understanding of those of other cultures. She also addresses the damage “teaching to the test” does by emphasizing knowledge of facts while deliberately excluding the context necessary to analysis those facts. Ultimately, I think, Nafisi is saying that the conflicts of the world are not between cultures, but between breadth of mind and narrowness. And that fiction leads one to question, and questioning is what advances mankind and civilization.
At the end of March, I went to hear Nafisi speak at the Freer Gallery here in D.C. Although I actually took notes, with the passage of a month, I sadly cannot remember the details of her lecture, but am left with only with some lovely shards of the ideas she set forth (based on my notes and, at this distance in time from the lecture, these may be a mixture of quote and paraphrase):
–Of the Freer, she said that there one leaves all the limitations that life gives you behind–race, gender, religion. In the museum, all cultures live side by side.
–Here [in the U.S.], we don’t kill or imprison artists; we kill through indifference, just by getting people not to read.
–Imagination is dependent on curiosity, dependent on knowing others, the intimate stranger within you that reading helps you to know.
–Segregation of studies–eg. women’s studies, Islamic studies, etc.– prevents a broader, essential exchange of cultures. An exchange of cultures is about talking about others, but also about seeing ourselves through the eyes of others.
–Celebrate difference. But, the celebration is dangerous if you don’t also connect and empathize. After difference comes connection.
–The only sacred is the profane. With imagination and ideas, you question everything.