Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Lolita and Motorcycle Maintenance

We would take turns reading passages aloud, and words literally rose up in the air and descended upon us like a fine mist, touching all five senses. There was such a teasing playful quality to their words, such joy in the power of language to delight and astonish. I kept wondering: when did we lose that quality, that ability to tease and make light of life through our poetry? ... What we had now, this saccharine rhetoric, putrid and deceptive hyperbole, reeked of too much cheap rosewater.
Just for a change of pace, I thought I would read a little to you from Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi.

Her 2003 memoir is riveting. It is an insight into the time of the Revolution in Iran, but mostly into her own character and family and the serious trouble that a trivialized morality can get us into. The bullies are not far off in any society and they think themselves righteous, even martyrs. There is a distinct lack of humility in the bully. And it plays on fear rather than quality, and of course the protection of what it perceives as its own privilege. These are not the immature bullies of our youth, but their matured and unregenerate older selves.

The title of Nafisi's book is misleading. The description of her at-home class on literature is lovely in the first two parts of the book, but her own personal story, which I am just beginning, is a richer wine of her reaction to the evil that still is in the world. Such evil appears whenever the bully cannot admit that he or she may be wrong.

I am reminded of that classic, Robert Pirsig's, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, on which there is a brilliant recap at CBC here. Listen to it. We heard it on Ideas just a few days ago.

It is not just an Islamic revolution that can suffer degeneration, as Nafisi so ably recounts. Christian fundamentalism has the same character. Yet it is not just the religious that are narrow or reeking of too much cheap rosewater. Anyone who fears is subject to problems arising from protection of what it perceives as its own privilege, whether this is financial, cultural, or as simple as saving face.

What possibilities are there to make us fully tangible, fully solid, whole, delighting as wisdom at the foundations of the world?

I admit, I both know and don't know how this works. My knowledge is inarticulate. I can only appeal to those in whom it is beginning to work, for we must be changed. We fail too often and too consistently. So how do we change?

The link above has a touch of a hint: "Hear chastening and be wise, and do not be dismissive." Such a negative is easily dismissed. It is a stronger negative than cheap rosewater, but it cannot be administered by human power. So no bully can say: hear chastening, to someone who disagrees with him or her. (Bullies come in all shapes and sizes).

Wisdom is an internal mystery. It is not imposed by governments or any other outside forces. It cannot be bought or sold. Yet it shouts at the town gates, the place of government.

For the moment, for Canadians in the midst of a long election campaign, for Americans in an even longer one, what should I ask? Let each individual voter, religious or not, of whatever stripe say: what have I missed in the inner me that I should listen to? Pay attention particularly if you think you are right and you know other people disagree with you. Who stokes the enemy within? You are the motorcycle. Maintain your engine.