Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Hitting the Walls

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One day someone should write about the philosophical history of the Iranian Revolution. A lot is said about the revolution's political history, but no one has mentioned anything about its philosophical background: things like the publication of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West by the hard-liners in the early 1990s, or the translation of Soren Kierkegaard's works by many religious intellectuals of both sides. It was years before Khatami's presidency when Paul Tilich's works began being translated into Persian. There were reasons for the publication of three different translations of Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies in one year. There were reasons for the enthusiasm for Nietzsche and all the various translations of his books that flooded the Iranian book market from the late 1980s on.
Years before the creation of Khatami as an icon of the Reform movement one could see something is happening when Soroush and Davari were fighting over Heidegger and Popper. The late '80s and early '90s changed the way Marx was presented to the Iranian mind, introduced Arendt, Benjamin, and Adorno to the public, revived people like Fardid, Nasr, and Shayegan; and brought Popper, Habermas, and others -all mixed together- to the everyday conversations of college students.
What happened (and is still happening) definitely has its own political consequences. These consequences are not clear yet, but their importance are not less than what Khamenei says in his inrterviews, or what the parliament does. The Iranian Revolution's "History of Mind," by itself, can be an extremely interesting subject of study. It might be a window to the hidden forces that created such a tragically dynamic society in the middle East.
It is a "Dynamic" society who has tried every door to get out of the suffocating room he blind-folded moves in,
and it is a "Tragic" society because Iran's intellectual history has been nothing but hitting the walls.

P. S. 1
I suggest everyone reading Daryoush Ashuri's article (Persian in PDF format) about Ahmad Fardid. It is really good.
I also suggest reading Three Philosophical Debates in Post-Revolutionary Iran, the last chapter of the book Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism by Mehrzad Boroujerdi. The book is one of the few sources on the subject in English.
P. S. 2
Babak Ahmadi's speech (1, 2) on the subject printed in Tehran's daily Vaghaye'e Ettefaghiye.

Illustration:
Wrong End of the Labyrinth. 2003. By Sean Hopp
Collection of Tom Orozco, Chicago.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

That's the Way

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That's the way the stomach rumbles
That's the way the bee bumbles
That's the way the needle pricks
That's the way the glue sticks
That's the way the potato mashes
That's the way the pan flashes
That's the way the market crashes
That's the way the whip lashes
That's the way the teeth knashes
That's the way the gravy stains
That's the way the moon wanes

--Tom Waits/William Burroughs
From the Album The Black Rider (Recorded 1990 and 1993)

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Baudrillard's America

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The first time I heard about Jean Baudrillard was in a series of Babak Ahmadi's lectures in Tehran in The Islamic Philosophy Society (Anjoman-e Hekmat va Falsafe-ye Eslaami). I don't think I understood that much about what Baudrillard was saying, and I didn't know why his ideas were so difficult to grasp till I came to the United States. It was after a year and a half living here that one day I accidentally saw one of his books in the public library. The book's name was America.
I picked it up just to browse through the book, to see if any thing is different for me now, or any thing makes sense now that I am here, in the real post-industrial world that is his departure point for whatever he says.

I couldn't put the book down till the next day. I was drown into it from the very first moment by reading the title of two of the chapters: "Utopia Achieved" and "Right lane must turn right." There I could understand why he didn't make that much sense to me back in Iran: I couldn't put him in the proper context. I couldn't understand many of the issues he refers to simply because they didn't exist in Iran, or they didn't exist the way they are here in a post-industrial society.

Later on I read some parts of the book again and I found myself less facinated by the book. But still there are many sections that make me thinking for hours, sections like this one about joggers jogging in Santa Monica beach:

"[D]ecidedly, joggers are the true Latter Day Saints and the protagonists of an easy-does-it Apocalypse. Nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his walkman, cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of his energy, indifferent even to catastrophes since he expects destruction to come only as the fruit of his own efforts, from exhausting the energy of a body that has in his own eyes become useless. Primitives, when in despair, would commit suicide by swimming out to sea until they could swim no longer. The jogger commits suicide by running up and down the beach. His eyes are wild, saliva drips from his mouth. Do not stop him. He will either hit you or simply carry on dancing around in front of you like a man possessed.
   The only comparable distress is that of a man eating alone in the heart of the city. You see people doing that in New York, the human flotsam of conviviality, no longer even concealing themselves to eat leftovers in public. But this still belongs to the world of urban, industrial poverty. The thousands of lone men, each running on their own account, with no thought for others, with a stereophonic fluid in their heads that oozes through into their eyes, that is the world of Blade Runner, the post-catastrophe world. Not to be aware of the natural light of California, nor even of a mountain fire that has been driven ten miles out to sea by the hot wind, and is enveloping the offshore oil platforms in its smoke, to see nothing of all this and obstinately to carry on running by a sort of lymphatic flagellation till sacrificial exhaustion is reached, that is truly a sign from the beyond. It is like the obese person who keeps on getting fatter, the record rotating endlessly in the same groove, the cells of a tumour proliferating, like everything that has lost the formula for stopping itself. This entire society, including its active, productive part - everyone - is running straight ahead, because they have lost the formula for stopping..."


--From America, by Jean Baudrillard (1986). Pages 38-39
Translated in 1988 by Chris Turner from the original in French, Amerique

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Anything essential is invisible to the eyes

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"So I lived alone, without anyone I could really talk to, until I had to make a crash landing in the Sahara desert six years ago..."
(The Little Prince)

My cousin calls me from the other room: “French find Saint-Exupery’s plane.” He reads the news from the BBC web site. I am reading Lolita in Tehran so my mind immediately connects what I hear to my own life in post-revolutionary Tehran. It reminds me of the literary circle my friends and I had in the mid-80s. We were a bunch of boys and one girl who for different reasons had fallen in love with the book The Little Prince. We used to get together every week and talk about different ways of interpreting the book.
At first glance The Little Prince was a book for children, nothing more. Most of us had read it back in our childhood. But reading it again in Iran of the mid-80s’ was a different experience. In that environment reading every thing was a different experience. I remember how in my mind the Moscow of Master and Margarita seemed so similar to Tehran under Khomeini. D├╝rrenmatt’s The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi became the story of Islamic revolution and the disillusionment with Marxist and Islamist revolutionary ideas. I saw D├╝rrenmatt’s play six times in "Taa'aatr-e Shahr - the City Playhouse.
They were the years of Mysticism too. All of a sudden Sohrab Sepehri became popular and his collection of poems -Hasht Ketaab (Eight Books)- was printed more than 10 times during a three years period. Finding mystic meanings in The Little Prince was not a bad alternative to the failed ideologies which claimed to change reality the way instant coffee changes hot water. We sought changes in supposedly deeper levels.
***
Finding Saint-Exupery’s plane somehow erased the beautiful mystery that unified The Little Prince with Exupery himself. At the end of the story the Little Prince disappears in a semi-religious way. He travels to his own planet through a process that is very similar to the self-death of an enlightened dervish. “You understand. It’s too far. I can’t take this body with me...” The religious tone of the book is so powerful that one can compare it to Rumi mystic stories in Mathnavi. Amazingly Saint-Exupery’s disappearance in the Mediterranean Sea a few years later was extremely similar. “Look at the landscape carefully to be sure of recognizing it, if you should travel to Africa some day, in the desert. And if you happen to pass by here, I beg you not to hurry past. Wait a little just under the sun! Then if a child comes to you, if he laughs, if he has golden hair, if he doesn’t answer your questions, you’ll know who he is...”
For 60 years the metaphysical language of this piece somehow mystified Exupery’s own death. As an old fan, I should admit I enjoyed the mystery of his disappearance in the sky. I enjoyed his angel-like “ascension”. It was today’s news about finding his plane that made me notice how anyone (even a person like me, with a sense of dislike towards any thing and anyone “Saintified” and sacred) can fall into the same trap.
But is it really a trap?
Maybe mystifying is a form of involving imagination in understanding reality. Imagination makes the reality bearable by making it beautiful, and making it sensible by adding imaginary meanings to it. So why should I be against it when I know both the meaning and the beauty are imaginary? After all the process of mystification is the process that any great work of art passes through.
Maybe my dislike of mystified objects and people comes from my years of “torture/life” in Iran. Religion in power makes you hate any kind of imaginary sacredness. Maybe because religion wants you and forces you to change the reality based on those imagined meanings, instead of just interpreting it. I never forgot the political slogan I used to see every day on the front wall of my high school. It was an aphorism by Khomeini: “Islam is what we all have to be sacrificed for.”
***
Saying all this, I still miss the years Exupery’s plane was hidden. It gave a meaning to the ocean, the same way the well in the book gave a meaning to the desert.

* For reading and listening to Ahmad Shamlou's translation of The Little Prince in Persian go here.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Not the same thing

"Come, we shall have some fun now!" thought Alice. "I'm glad they've begun asking riddles -- I believe I can guess that," she added aloud.
"Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?" said the March Hare.
"Exactly so," said Alice.
"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on.
"I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least -- at least I mean what I say -- that's the same thing you know."
"Not the same thing a bit!" said the Hatter. "why you might just as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'I eat what I see'!"

-- From Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Karbala

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When I was a child I used to hear the names of the Native-American tribes Apache and Comanche in Western movies. I also used to hear the word Karbala from the grown-ups, most of the time in the month of Ramadan. To me -as any other Iranian- the word Karbala represented a holy place, to a certain degree an imaginary place related to heaven. Karbala was the place the third Shi’a Imam was martyred. It was a myth very much like the third Imam himself. To me it had nothing to do with the real world, and for sure nothing to do with the Western movies I used to watch on TV. Karbala and Comanche belonged to two different worlds, with their different mythological characters acting in two completely separate plays.
It all changed last year when I heard about a Comanche soldier being killed in Karbala.

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Today in the news I read about a soldier from El Salvador being killed in Najaf where Ali, the first “martyred” Imam of Shiite is entombed. The soldier was a 19 year-old who probably never heard the Arabic language in his entire lifetime. He didn’t know what the meaning of the word Seyyed (a descendent of Muhammad) is, and why Iraqis call Moqtada Sadr “The Seyyed”. He probably never heard of Kufa (the residence of both the martyred third Imam and Moqtada Sadr) or Najaf, and never thought of himself being seen as a soldier of Yazid -the Imam’s infidel enemy who killed him in Karbala. This morning, that soldier was not a part of the reality. In the eyes of the people walking on the other side of the street he belonged to a mythical world that justified his death.
Natividad Mendez Ramos was too young and too far from Karbala to know all this. He was just a 19 year-old soldier from El Salvador.