It is only through literature that one can put oneself in someone else’s shoes and understand the other’s different and contradictory sides and refrain from becoming too ruthless. Outside the sphere of literature only one aspect of individuals is revealed. But if you understand their different dimensions you cannot easily murder them. . .
Look at Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution and the slogans that they used: anti-imperialism; anti-colonialism; the struggle of the have-nots against the haves; the state monopoly over economy, which was very much patterned after the Soviet Union. All of these things did not come out of Islam. Islam is not that developed.
We do not read in order to turn great works of fiction into simplistic replicas of our own realities, we read for the pure, sensual, and unadulterated pleasure of reading. And if we do so, our reward is the discovery of the many hidden layers within these works that do not merely reflect reality but reveal a spectrum of truths, thus intrinsically going against the grain of totalitarian mindsets.
Visa for Avalon is a testament to the power of fiction. It illuminates the truth at the heart of what is commonly called reality. This account of lives transformed and ruined by the triumph of a totalitarian rule is a timely reminder of how moral and intellectual laziness and apathy can pave the road to the reign of terror brought on by such a system.
In all great works of fiction, regardless of the grim reality they present, there is an affirmation of life against the transience of that life, an essential defiance. This affirmation lies in the way the author takes control of reality by retelling it in his own way, thus creating a new world. Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.
You don't read Gatsby, I said, to learn whether adultery is good or bad but to learn about how complicated issues such as adultery and fidelity and marriage are. A great novel heightens your senses and sensitivity to the complexities of life and of individuals, and prevents you from the self-righteousness that sees morality in fixed formulas about good and evil.
Imagine you are walking down a leafy path…The sun is receding, and you are walking alone, caressed by the breezy light of the late afternoon. Then suddenly, you feel a large drop on your right arm. Is it raining? You look up. The sky is still deceptively sunny…seconds later another drop. Then, with the sun still perched in the sky, you are drenched in a shower of rain. This is how memories invade me, abruptly and unexpectedly…
We speak of facts, yet facts exist only partially to us if they are not repeated and re-created through emotions, thoughts and feelings. To me it seemed as if we had not really existed, or only half existed, because we could not imaginatively realize ourselves and communicate to the world, because we had used works of imagination to serve as handmaidens to some political ploy.
A novel is not an allegory.... It is the sensual experience of another world. If you don't enter that world, hold your breath with the characters and become involved in their destiny, you won't be able to empathize, and empathy is at the heart of the novel. This is how you read a novel: you inhale the experience. So start breathing.
This is a good time to ask apologists for the Islamic regime, who degrades Islam? Who imposes stoning, forced marriage of underage girls and flogging for not wearing the veil? Do such practices represent Iran's ancient history and culture, its ethnic and religious diversity? Its centuries of sensual and subversive poetry?
I believe in empathy. I believe in the kind of empathy that is created through imagination and through intimate, personal relationships. I am a writer and a teacher, so much of my time is spent interpreting stories and connecting to other individuals. It is the urge to know more about ourselves and others that creates empathy. Through imagination and our desire for rapport, we transcend our limitations, freshen our eyes, and are able to look at ourselves and the world through a new and alternative lens.
After the rigged Iranian presidential elections in 2009, the Islamic regime attacked the 'humanities' as the main source of protests, the most effective tool used by the West, especially America, to corrupt and incite Iranian youth, and finally closed down all the Humanities departments in Iran's universities.
I believe that it is only through empathy, that the pain experienced by an Algerian woman, a North Korean dissident, a Rwandan child or an Iraqi prisoner, becomes real to me and not just passing news. And it is at times like this when I ask myself, am I prepared - like Huck Finn - to give up Sunday school heaven for the kind of hell that Huck chose?
What dazzles us in Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra are not the alluring mythologies about the evasive queen, but the astonishing if rare historical facts that Schiff has meticulously and lovingly excavated. Schiff offers not just Cleopatra's story but the story of an amazing era, one that has vanished but still affects us, questioning the way we look at myth, history, and ourselves.