I was enthralled and moved by Azar Nafisi's account of how she defied,and helped others to defy, radical Islam's war against women.Her memoir contains important and properly complex reflectionsabout the ravages of theocracy, about thoughtfulness, and about theordeals of freedom-as well as a stirring account of the pleasures anddeepening of consciousness that result from an encounter with greatliterature and with an inspired teacher.
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It's not 'natural' to speak well, eloquently, in an interesting, articulate way. People living in groups, families, communes say little - have few verbal means. Eloquence - thinking in words - is a byproduct of solitude, deracination, a heightened painful individuality. In groups, it's more natural to sing, to dance, to pray: given, rather than invented (individual) speech.
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Tamed as it may be, sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness - pushing us at intervals close to taboo and dangerous desires, which range from the impulse to commit sudden arbitrary violence upon another person to the voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one's consciousness, for death itself. Even on the level of simple physical sensation and mood, making love surely resembles having an epileptic fit at least as much as, if not more than, it does eating a meal or conversing with someone.
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Total experiences, of which there are many kinds, tend again and again to be apprehended only as revivals or translations of the religious imagination. To try to make a fresh way of talking at the most serious, ardent, and enthusiastic level, heading off the religious encapsulation, is one of the primary intellectual tasks of future thought.
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In contrast to the asexual chasteness of official communist art , Nazi art is both prurient and idealizing. A utopian aesthetics (physical perfection; identity as a biological given) implies an ideal eroticism: sexuality converted into the magnetism of leaders and the joy of followers. The fascist ideal is to transform sexual energy into a "spiritual" force, for the benefit of the community.
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War is a culture, bellicosity is addictive, defeat for a community that imagines itself to be history's eternal victim can be as intoxicating as victory. How long will it take for the Serbs to realize that the Milosevic years have been an unmitigated disaster for Serbia, the net result of Milosevic's policies being the economic and cultural ruin of the entire region, including Serbia, for several generations? Alas, one thing we can be sure of, that will not happen soon.
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Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do -- but who is that 'we'? -- and nothing 'they' can do either -- and who are 'they' -- then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.
Cinema is a kind of pan-art. It can use, incorporate, engulf virtually any other art: the novel, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, dance, music, architecture. Unlike opera, which is a (virtually) frozen art form, the cinema is and has been a fruitfully conservative medium of ideas and styles of emotions.
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With the modern diseases (once TB, now cancer) the romantic idea that the disease expresses the character is invariably extended to assert that the character causes the disease -- because it has not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking and blighting the deepest cellular recesses.
Enemies are somewhere else, as the fighting is almost always "over there," with Islamic fundamentalism now replacing Russian and Chinese communism as the implacable, furtive menace. And "terrorist" is a more flexible word than "communist." It can unify a larger number of quite different struggles and interests. What this may mean is that the war will be endless---since there will always be some terrorism.
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The quality of American life is an insult to the possibilities of human growth... the pollution of American space, with gadgetry and cars and TV and box architecture, brutalizes the senses, making gray neurotics of most of us, and perverse spiritual athletes and strident self-transcenders of the best of us.
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Self-censorship, the most important and most successful form of censorship, is rampant. Debate is identified with dissent, which is in turn identified with disloyalty. There is a widespread feeling that, in this new, open-ended emergency, we may not be able to 'afford' our traditional freedoms.
To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.
But the very question of whether photography is or is not an art is essentially a misleading one. Although photography generates works that can be called art -it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure- photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac's Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget's Paris. Photography is not an art like, say, painting and poetry. Although the activities of some photographers conform to the traditional notion of a fine art, the activity of exceptionally talented individuals producing discrete objects that have value in themselves, form the beginning photography has also lent itself to that notion of art which says that art is obsolete. The power of photography -and its centrality in present aesthetic concerns- is that it confirms both ideas of art. But the way in which photography renders art obsolete is, in the long run, stronger.
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A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs-especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past-are incitements to reverie. The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance.
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The photographer is now charging real beasts, beleaguered and too rare to kill. Guns have metamorphosed into cameras in this earnest comedy, the ecology safari, because nature has ceased to be what it always had been - what people needed protection from. Now nature - tamed, endangered, mortal - needs to be protected from people. When we are afraid, we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.
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Every culture has its southerners - people who work as little as they can, preferring to dance, drink, sing brawl, kill their unfaithful spouses; who have livelier gestures, more lustrous eyes, more colorful garments, more fancifully decorated vehicles, a wonderful sense of rhythm, and charm, charm, charm; unambitious, no, lazy, ignorant, superstitious, uninhibited people, never on time, conspicuously poorer (how could it be otherwise, say the northerners); who for all their poverty and squalor lead enviable lives - envied, that is, by work-driven, sensually inhibted, less corruptly governed northerners. We are superior to them, say the northerners, clearly superior. We do not shirk our duties or tell lies as a matter of course, we work hard, we are punctual, we keep reliable accounts. But they have more fun than we do... They caution[ed] themselves as people do who know they are part of a superior culture: we mustn't let ourselves go, mustn't descend to the level of the... jungle, street, bush, bog, hills, outback (take your pick). For if you start dancing on tables, fanning yourself, feeling sleepy when you pick up a book, developing a sense of rhythm, making love whenever you feel like it - then you know. The south has got you.
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Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art. Even more. It is the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world - in order to set up a shadow world of 'meanings.' It is to turn the world into this world. ('This world'! As if there were any other.) The world, our world, is depleted, impoverished enough. Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.
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This philistinism of interpretation is more rife in literature than in any other art. For decades now, literary critics have understood it to be their task to translate the elements of the poem or play or novel or story into something else. Sometimes a writer will be so uneasy before the naked power of his art that he will install within the work itself - albeit with a little shyness, a touch of the good taste of irony - the clear and explicit interpretation of it. Thomas Mann is an example of such an overcooperative author. In the case of more stubborn authors, the critic is only too happy to perform the job.
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Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance. First, the subjects of deepest dread (corruption, decay, pollution, anomie, weakness) are identified with the disease. The disease itself becomes a metaphor. Then, in the name of the disease (that is, using it as a metaphor), that horror is imposed on other things. The disease becomes adjectival. Something is said to be disease-like, meaning that it is disgusting or ugly.
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One feature of the usual script for plague: the disease invariably comes from somewhere else. The names for syphilis, when it began its epidemic sweep through Europe in the last decade of the fifteenth century are an exemplary illustration of the need to make a dreaded disease foreign. It was the "French pox" to the English, morbus Germanicus to the Parisians, the Naples sickness to the Florentines, the Chinese disease to the Japanese. But what may seem like a joke about the inevitability of chauvinism reveals a more important truth: that there is a link between imagining disease and imagining foreignness.
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The age-old, seemingly inexorable process whereby diseases acquire meanings (by coming to stand for the deepest fears) and inflict stigma is always worth challenging, and it does seem to have more limited credibility in the modern world, among people willing to be modern - the process is under surveillance now. With this illness, one that elicits so much guilt and shame, the effort to detach it from these meanings, these metaphors, seems particularly liberating, even consoling. But the metaphors cannot be distanced just by abstaining from them. They have to be exposed, criticized, belabored, used up.
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Sisyphus, I. I cling to my rock, you don't have to chain me. Stand back! I roll it up-up, up. And ... down we go. I knew that would happen. See, I'm on my feet again. See, I'm starting to roll it up again. Don't try to talk me out of it. Nothing, nothing could tear me away from this rock.
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory-part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt. But there is collective instruction... What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds.
A great private collection is a material concentrate that continually stimulates, that overexcites. Not only because it can always be added to, but because it is already too much. The collector's need is precisely for excess, for surfeit, for profusion. It's too much-and it's just enough for me... A collection is always more than is necessary.
As long as art is understood and valued as an 'absolute' activity, it will be a separate, elitist one. Elites presuppose masses. So far as the best art defines itself by essentially 'priestly' aims, it presupposes and confirms the existence of a relatively passive, never fully initiated, voyeuristic laity which is regularly convoked to watch, listen, read, or hear - and then sent away.
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