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Reading The Great Gatsby in the U.S.: A Response to Azar Nasifis Reading Lolita in Tehran - Represent Our Resistance By Dr. Lenore J. Daniels, PhD, Editorial Board

“Culture is part and parcel of political struggle, and studying culture can reveal how power is exercised and on whose behalf.” - Gary Olson, Dissent Voice, October 2007

Our struggle is also a struggle of memory against forgetting.” - bell hooks, Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics

The 60s had it. People saw the injustice and violations of human rights at home and aboard; they identified with the suffering as well as the joy of resistance they witnessed in others. Returning Viet Nam vets, middle-class white student protesters against the war, Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, stood side by side the Black and poor workers, side by side Ella Baker, Dorothy Cotton, Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., Diane Nash. They all had empathy.

It has benefited this Black Left and the progressive movements in the past. With the ability to empathize with others, humans are able to go beyond viewing the suffering and pain of others as a spectacle. They are able to invest themselves in the thought that creates a community of people fighting for human rights.

We are losing this sense of empathy.

The reading of literature, when it is done with a critical eye to the political, social, and cultural ordering of people, can be liberating. Written in 2003, in the post-911 era, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books includes Iranian writer, Azar Nasifi’s remembrances of the Iranian Revolution (1978-1981), ushering in the Khomeini regime. Nafisi, a university professor, protested the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran. She doesn’t refer to one of the infamous practices of regime change by the Imperialist West: Operation Ajax, the coup d’etat conducted by the British and U.S. governments to remove the duly elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953.

Critics have discussed the text’s harsh portrayal of the disillusion of “our dream of revolution,” referring to the rise of the Islamic fundamentalist in Iran after the revolution. In fact, I was sure Reading Lolita in Tehran would receive attention here in the U.S. because one thread of Nafisi’s remembrances focuses on the politics of the veiling. Since the publication of her book, Nafisi has offered an apology for not understanding how her text could be (and was) perceived as a cultural production expressing U.S. imperialist politics for “native” understanding of self - a self informed by Western values and beliefs.

I’ll leave you to read Hamid Dabashi’s “Native Informers and the Making of the American Empire,” a critique of Reading Lolita in Tehran, in which the professor, discusses the U.S. presidential election of 2004 and the debate between “the competing notions of an empire with no hegemony (for President Bush) versus a hegemony with an empire (for Senator Kerry).” What the “native” represents in his or her cultural production matters.

I want to address a concern I have with Reading Lolita in Tehran. When I began reading the text, I was impressed with the opening lines:

In the fall of 1995, after resigning from my last academic post, I decided to indulge myself and fulfill a dream. I chose seven of my best and most committed students and invited them to come to my home every Thursday morning to discuss literature.

I can identify with such a gathering, like the gathering in the “Clearing,” ripe for the practice of resistance. But as a Black American woman, I was particularly disappointed that Nafisi selected Western texts and writers to engage subversive resistance. But most important, and the focus of this article, is her selection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) as representative of the “American” novel, representative of the American Dream!

The Great Gatsby is one such cultural production of the imperial tradition that disfigures the Black experience in capitalist America. Fitzgerald is of the liberal camp, and his text is traditional reading for high school and college students in the U.S. Of course, this disfigurement of Black Americans is overlooked by critics and teachers who accept the labels white, Western, American. Fitzgerald is not Baldwin or Morrison. It is a white text and, therefore, a “normal,” non-racial, people/humanity text for an “everybody” about a non-descript “anybody.” Nafisi herself discusses how the recurring themes of “carelessness” and “lack of empathy” appear as subjects of texts considered great, traditional. But she fails to recognize that this cultural production of the American dream represented in The Great Gatsby is, to use her word, “shattered” long before Fitzgerald puts pen to paper and writes this novel.

“Empathy,” Azar Nafisi writes, “lies at the heart of Gatsby…the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains.” Empathy? It is interesting that Nafisi discusses the imposition of the veil in this chapter entitled Gatsby. At one point as she recalls writing about her women students, she recalls the “image of another girl, also young, in Norman, Oklahoma,” where she (Nafisi) received her education including her doctorate in literature. Nafisi and the young women students can sit in her apartment without the veil. I wonder, as a Black woman sitting in the U.S. if Nafisi equates “freedom” with life in the U.S.

I would like to situate myself in a sister-league with Azar Nafisi and her women students. When I was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, I could feel the defiance of these women in the act of reading. But I can’t indulge myself in a dream that everything is all the same. It isn’t. As women, as people of darker due, non-Christians, LGBT, poor, lower-economic working class, we have the beast of U.S. hegemony with Empire breathing down our backs. We all can identify with feeling “irrelevant” within the imperialist agenda, particularly the Black American descendent of enslaved ancestors.

Do I not hear echoes of DuBois writing, too, on Black Americans living behind the veil?

Like most of us who view reading as a way to connect with others on this planet, Nafisi, consequently, marks her identification with Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator. She writes,

We, the readers, like Nick, both approve and disapprove of Gatsby. We are more certain of what we disapprove of than of what we admire, for, like Nick, we are caught in the romantic implications of his dream.

It’s not a matter of simply “disapproving” or “approving” of Jay Gatsby, a young white man who sells his soul, basically to become a member of the capitalist class. For Black Americans, the “romantic implications” offered in Nick’s narrative have been deadly.

And here’s the problem for me as a Black American woman. I can’t identify with Nick’s narrative or his white male subject, Gatsby. I can’t say “we!”

Scheherazade, Nafisi writes, “breaks the cycle of violence by choosing to embrace different terms of engagement.” If she truly believes this and identifies with Scheherazade then she would have recognized in The Great Gatsby why the “American Dream” has never been anything more than a dream, always “shattered” when someone (whatever race, gender, or class origin) attempts to pursue it without critically analyzing those for whom this “dream” rejects” any notion of their humanity. Empathy with the three Black Americans Nick encounters requires embracing “different terms of engagement” - with the “American Dream.”

Early in The Great Gatsby Nick confides (wink, wink!) to the reader - (and we know the reader in 1925) that he dines “at the Yale Club,” and most days proceeds “upstairs to the library” to study “investments and securities.” He works for “Probity Trust” in lower New York. He is situating his place in U.S. society, among the classed, in close proximity to the ruling class because wealthy class Daisy and her husband, Tom Buchanan, once hold a discussion about how “civilization’s going to pieces.” He tells Daisy and Nick that he has “gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things” and asks if anyone has read “The Rise of the Colored Empires.” Nick records that he despises this Tom Buchanan, who warns that the “us” in the room, the “dominant race” needs to “watch out or these other races will have control of things.” Depending on where your empathy lies, there are plenty of hints here in Nick’s narrative about the nature of the “American Dream.”

One night, Nick is out taking a drive with Jay Gatsby - in Gatsby’s car. Gatsby point out the splendor of the car to Nick, but also Nick, in turn, describes the car to his readers. With “fenders spread like wings,” it has a “rich cream color,” and it is “bright with nickels. He marvels at the “monstrous length” of Gatsby’s car. They are a twosome, a coupling in recognizing and accepting signs of familiarity within the system of capitalism. Then Nick writes:

As we crossed Blackwell’s Island, a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.

‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought; ‘anything at all…

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.

Here - Nick replicates Buchanan’s imagined meeting of the “civilized” with the “uncivilized.” The “two bucks” and the “girl,” with “their eyeballs rolled toward us” (the “we”), represent the animals of the “other races.”

In his role as an alarmist, Nick quietly activates a sign to his reader, warning: If “we” of the privileged class allow someone like Jay Gatsby, who changed his name and fortune to slide over the bridge and join us, then next will follow the “Negroes” over that same bridge - a white chauffeur driving them over!

Ultimately, I am the “girl” (woman), the Black, sitting beside the “two bucks,” and I identify with the Black Left!

As a narrative violence, the scene and dialogue prohibits empathy with the “enemy,” and the language describing the “enemy” clearly denotes the difference that can be subject to physical violence.

We, Black Americans, are reeling from the Reagan Revolution, a revolution that took place just after the Iranian Revolution. In the former period (also known as the Second Reconstruction), Black gains in human rights were severely attacked. Similar to Nick Carraway, Reagan, employing fantastical images of degradation to denote Black Americans, ushered in a social, an economic, a political, and a cultural assault against Blacks. Given the collective narrative effort to erase the Black experience and the Black voice, I expect other people of color living outside the U.S. to recognize the workings of American hegemony in their own country and in other countries where the population is African, or Asian, or Muslim, or Islamic, or Latin American. The “assault” against Black Americans was narrated by the Nick Carraways - closely connected to the capitalist media and educational institutions. As professor Manning Marable writes in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America: Problems in Race, Political Economy, and Society (South End Press Classics Series), Black Americans had to confront a “mass conservative white united front, consisting primarily of middle-and upper-class whites, but also supported by a good number of confused but reactionary white working class and poor people.”

We were supplied guns to commit mass suicide and drugs to forget ourselves. We were imprisoned and killed. We had our communities stripped of resources and jobs. There was no one to educate our young for empowerment. Behind the veil of Reaganmania all manner of crime against humanity took place here in the U.S., in the Black community, but we were hung up and a label was placed across our chests: criminal!

As Dr. Marable states, “only the Black freedom movement… [was] capable of constructing a democratic opposition to halt it.” And we know what happened there. There was a FBI/COINTELPRO, KKK, and Republicrat assault on the Black community, there was no empathy. There’s very little if any now - even from the Black elite. As Dr. Marable adds, “to the dismay of Black progressives, the bulk of the African-American political establishment seemed to capitulate to mass conservatism.” Forgetfulness is a dangerous space to be in because in this space we can’t connect Reagan to the imperialist presidencies that before and after him dictate what regime will remain in power elsewhere and what country or people to target for an assault next. This is a “talking point” of U.S. presidential candidates now and their fingers are pointing at Iran - again.

Empathy is in short supply, so I understand how the U.S. imperialist smear campaign against Black Americans could foster a reading of The Great Gatsby that is anything but enlightening and liberating. Consequently, I feel sorry for Nafisi and those women students.

The U.S.’s imperialist interests stand with the corporate class, and it exercises power to ensure that a lack of empathy among the oppressed keeps the American Empire alive. Editorial Board member, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has been a writer, for over thirty years of commentary, resistance criticism and cultural theory, and short stories with a Marxist sensibility to the impact of cultural narrative violence and its antithesis, resistance narratives. With entrenched dedication to justice and equality, she has served as a coordinator of student and community resistance projects that encourage the Black Feminist idea of an equalitarian community and facilitator of student-teacher communities behind the walls of academia for the last twenty years. Dr. Daniels holds a PhD in Modern American Literatures, with a specialty in Cultural Theory (race, gender, class narratives) from Loyola University, Chicago. Click here to contact Dr. Daniels.

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February 21, 2008
Issue 265

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