The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books

  • By Azar Nafisi
  • Viking
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by David Kaufmann
  • December 19, 2014

Are Americans turning their backs on great literature? The author thinks so.

Azar Nafisi became justly famous for Reading Lolita in Tehran, her memoir of life in post-revolutionary Iran. In it, she braided the surreal brutalities of the Islamic Republic with readings of the Western novels that she taught in a private, extra-legal seminar in the mid-1990s. The book was a celebration of the transgressive powers of the imagination, but also a tribute to her students and their sufferings. These classes, she wrote in Reading Lolita, “were colored by my students’ hidden personal sorrows and joys. Like tearstains on a letter, these forays into the hidden and the personal shaded all our discussions.”

There are no real-life readers in Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination, and very few of those sorrows and joys. Although she has taught in the United States for a decade and a half, her American students do not appear in this book. While she writes a loving tribute to two dead friends in its chapters, The Republic of Imagination is not a memoir.

The lack of readers in The Republic of Imagination has everything to do with Nafisi’s thesis. She claims native-born Americans have jettisoned the priceless inheritance of our literature. She figures that we no longer take reading seriously and, as a result, are witnessing “an assault on literature” in the United States.

Nafisi finds evidence for her thesis everywhere. Brick-and-mortar bookstores have disappeared. We have gotten rid of arts education in our schools. We are instituting Common Core educational standards that value the driest forms of nonfiction at the expense of novels. Inner-city high school teachers don’t teach The Catcher in the Rye anymore because it is not relevant to their charges’ experience. College activists have demanded that teachers put syllabus “trigger warnings” for books with potentially disturbing content.

While she is right to be concerned about the Common Core’s odd fetishization of undiluted fact, it is not altogether clear that Nafisi’s other evidence holds. The death of the neighborhood bookstore (and of Borders, for that matter) does not tell us anything about books, but about retail. Arts education has been the casualty more of budget cuts than of ideology. Across America, rich neighborhoods continue to spring for the arts programs that poor neighborhoods cannot afford. The culprit there is the way we fund education.

Nafisi makes much of the trigger alerts, but that campaign died quickly earlier this year after teachers and administrators pushed back. As for The Catcher in the Rye, I will leave it to the reader to decide just how meaningful Salinger’s 1950s prep-school existentialism might be to the diverse and often embattled students who populate our cities. (I am not sure just how meaningful it would be to my own white, suburban, affluent daughter.)

But Nafisi needs the trigger alerts and the rejection of Salinger so she can claim that Americans have grown afraid of the kinds of unsettling truth that literature provides, thereby infantilizing ourselves and our children.

I wonder how she accounts for Americans’ hunger for memoirs of abuse and addiction, or for young adults’ current taste for extreme dystopian fantasies, such as the Divergent series or The Hunger Games. Given sales trends over two decades, she could just as easily argue that we are traumatophiles who wallow in vicarious suffering. Of course, we also seem to need a touch of narrative redemption in the end to temper the pain. We do love our survivors, Nafisi included.

Nafisi and I could match anecdote for anecdote for hours. But to cavil over evidence is to misunderstand what kind of book Nafisi has written. The Republic of Imagination is that particularly American creature, the jeremiad. In a jeremiad, the author attacks the way that this generation has betrayed its past or its destiny by falling into moral sloth. (At one point, Nafisi asks whether the crusaders of our recent past suffered so much or fought so hard “so that we would become such a bunch of sissies.”) Jeremiads are about uplift, not accuracy.

Some jeremiads attack their reader overtly, addressing their audience as “you.” Some take care to include the writer in the indictment and thus level their reproach at a communal “us.” The Republic of Imagination does a bit of both, but in the end does neither. It castigates the other guy.

Nafisi’s argument depends in no small part on her premise that, as a Persian who has seen firsthand a government’s armed assault on literature, she knows better than native-born Americans the value of American novels. By the same token, she seems to believe that native-born readers will agree with her from the get-go. Nafisi assumes that we will naturally support her unequivocal distinction between the individual (good) and society (bad). She figures her audience will prefer to be “quintessential individualists” like Huck Finn, rather than philistine, commodity-crazy boosters like Sinclair Lewis’ George Babbitt. Rhetorically, her book makes sense only if we accept, as Nafisi does, Carson McCullers’ claim that to be American is to be in essence solitary.

So, in spite of the book’s explicit thesis, The Republic of Imagination imagines that we are indeed serious about our reading. It compliments us by pitting us against the enemies of literature and congratulates us for our willingness to accept the hard responsibilities of our natural, national loneliness. But it is not clear what Nafisi thinks those responsibilities entail. 

As her chapter on McCullers draws to a close, Nafisi tells us that we must mature, cast off adolescent solitude, and reach for some new kind of communion. But because she so mistrusts “society” and the constraints it imposes, she really cannot imagine what shape that new community would take. Like McCullers, she can only gesture toward it. Her epilogue on James Baldwin seems to suggest that solidarity smacks of “ideology” and restriction if it goes beyond individual acts of empathy or the occasional protest march.

For all its passion, The Republic of Imagination founders because Nafisi just doesn't seem to like politics of any stripe. In fact, she is unable to imagine real individuals being fulfilled in social relationships that extend beyond friends, family, and reading groups. In the end, then, she sacrifices the republic for the individual imagination.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

comments powered by Disqus