Banned Books Week 2k19 – Sadeq Hedayat

Last week (September 22-28) was Banned Books Week, and given that I’ve committed this year to reading more books challenged by brain-dead morons, I feel like I can’t not do a blog post about it. The campaign takes place annually during the last week of September. It highlights authors that are persecuted and raises awareness of censorship around the world. In the context of the USA, this means giving people (especially young people) the freedom of a diverse library and protecting them from those that want to control what ideas they consume. You’ll often hear conservatives yelling “It’s my kid so I can raise ‘em how I want”. Because that’s how conservatives see kids: as property and not as people.

This sentiment is encapsulated no better than by the Focus on the Family organization, which can be charitably described as a cult of vile cunts. When they’re not sponsoring gay conversion therapy and telling women what to do with their bodies, Focus on the Family are protesting the Banned Books Week campaign. They argue that books aren’t really banned in America, and that the whole premise is disingenuous. For some reason this response reminds me of when the Alt-Right claims that racism doesn’t exist anymore, or when Brexiteers get upset when you compare them to Nazis, or when those pitiful dullards in MAGA hats reflexively cry “Fake news!” at information they don’t want to hear. They live and breathe denial. They create whatever truth suits their agenda, whether that means stoking fear and paranoia or lulling people into complacency. Their ideal public is one that is passive and easily manipulated, and they understand that a literate public is never complacent.

The truth is that a society committed to freedom of expression and civil rights- or even the most basic notion of progress- must be vigilant. You have to call these fuckers out at every opportunity. Banned Books Week is all about vigilance; we have to be aware of sinister organizations like Focus on the Family that want to keep books out of people’s hands. Nothing scares those of an authoritarian ilk more than a public that is informed. If the Founding Fathers were alive today, they would be celebrating Banned Books Week. Thomas Jefferson would be cutting the ribbon at the grand opening of a new library while outside Laura Ingraham commits seppuku to the immense relief of the known universe.

When I think of the importance of reading- particularly for young minds- I’m reminded of a verse from “Fire in the Booth” by Akala, one of my favorite rappers (and human beings).

 

“So read, read, read!

Stuck on the block, read, read!

Sittin’ in the box, read, read!

Don’t let them say what you can achieve

‘Cause when people are enslaved

One of the first things they do is stop them reading

‘Cause it is well understood that intelligent people will take their freedom

‘Cause if we knew our power we would understand that we can’t be held down

If we knew our power, we would not elevate not one of these clowns

If we knew our power, we wouldn’t get arrogant when we get two pennies

If we knew our power, we would see what everybody sees, that we’re rich already!”

 

The banning of books is all about control- it’s the same instinct whether a government prohibits the sale of a text or a parent demands that a school library remove it from their shelves. An informal ban is still a ban- what’s significant is that in both cases the reader has their book taken away from them. The instinct is rooted in fear of being left behind by a changing world. And no one institution is more desperate and depraved in its obsession with power than organized religion- the great villain in the history of literature and free speech. Focus on the Family are but one tentacle of an immense, foul-smelling, ugly-headed behemoth wrapped around the world and clinging on for dear life.

Which segues nicely into a discussion of the book I chose to read in order to celebrate Banned Books Week 2k19. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to take part, I paused the novel I was on and spent my Banned Books Week reading Three Drops of Blood by the Persian writer Sadeq Hedayat. What’s so interesting about Hedayat is that, more than any other writer I’ve encountered, his life and legacy seem defined by issues of censorship. Throughout his lifetime (1903-1951) his literary works were banned in his native Iran for reflecting taboo subjects such as divorce, sex, death, suicide, and criticism of religion. The increasing sense of alienation he felt in his homeland led to his exile in Paris, where he ultimately took his own life. The more I read about Sadeq Hedayat, the more I’ve come to think about him as a fierce advocate of free speech, a kind of Iranian Voltaire. The hostile reaction to his writing not only determined the character and themes of his later body of work, but it in many ways determined his ultimate fate- it killed him.

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From what I’ve read about his life, the disenchantment he felt towards his country grew into a terrible depression. He felt stateless and silenced- that he did not belong and did not matter. Both his work and his death reflect a lack of hope for the future of Iranian artists to express themselves. And you have to remember, Hedayat died well before the Iranian Revolution. The Iran of Reza Shah was practically a liberal paradise when compared to the medieval dystopia that exists today. The saddest part of reading Hedayat’s work is the knowledge that things only got worse after his death. In a lot of countries, those artists and thinkers who were ahead of their time often enjoy posthumous success. They might even become national icons, celebrated for their visionary work. Hedayat deserves that kind of appreciation from the homeland that he cared so much about. I feel like he should be required reading in the Iranian school curriculum, the same way someone like Charles Dickens or George Orwell is over here. The guy is an authentic genius all their own, and yet the Culture Ministry is only clamping down harder on the sale of his books. In 2005 his magnum opus The Blind Owl was banned from the 18th Tehran International Book Fair, and uncensored versions of his material continue to be prohibited to this day.

But what about the book I read last week, Three Drops of Blood? On the whole I enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it reads a lot like the fiction of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges. It’s surreal and allegorical, but the language used isn’t pretentious or inaccessible. The events of the stories in this collection are all told in a very straightforward manner, but understanding what those events mean is the difficult part. Personally I found it easier to plough through a given story rather than linger about re-reading a cryptic paragraph. I made peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to understand everything as I was going through it, and that that wasn’t necessarily how the stories ought to be read. This process was quite liberating, and I thought of the stories as poetic experiences, which allowed me to take in the rhythm and mood of each piece in a way I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to if I was fretting about comprehension. Only when I finished each story did I reflect on the events and what they meant.

I think if you’re encountering a writer for the first time- particularly one from a different era, language, or culture- then you should seek out contextual and biographical information to help you understand what he or she might be getting at. So I read the introduction and did my research online. One thing that stuck out to me was that Hedayat’s bibliography can best be understood as the fusion of two great passions- Western literature and Persian folklore. Among Hedayat’s favorite writers were Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and Franz Kafka. He spent a lot of time as a student in Paris, and took the styles and techniques of Western fiction back to Iran and used them to explore native themes and issues. Throughout his body of work, Hedayat addressed freedom of expression, the lack of meritocracy in Iranian society, and the displacement of Iran’s ancient Zoroastrian faith. He was a sharp critic of the monarchy and the clergy, and his relentless efforts to hold these two institutions accountable for their abuses of power led to his ever-increasing sense of isolation.

Of the stories I read from Three Drops of Blood, the one that stood out to me the most was “The Stray Dog”. It still occupies my thoughts a week after reading it. In short, it’s about a pedigree dog named Pat that now lives on the streets, scavenging for morsels of food where he can find it, all the while getting the shit kicked out of him by the villagers. In his efforts to make sense of his situation, Pat reminisces about his early life. He remembers all the way back to when he was a pup, sucking at his mother’s teat. He remembers his master’s house in the countryside, where he spent his days playing endlessly with his brother and his master’s son. The happy life he was accustomed to all changed one day however, when his master brought him along on a trip to the village. Upon arrival, Pat catches the scent of a bitch in heat. Pat strays from his master and follows the scent. His master calls for him, and though Pat can hear him, he is unable to resist the scent of the female. He finds the bitch in the back yard of a house and for the next few days the two dogs hook up. When he is discovered by the bitch’s owners, he is angrily cast out, and from that day forward every human he encounters in the village is hostile and violent towards him. He looks desperately for his master but he can’t go back to the life he knew. He’s lost now forever. Every day he yearns to be fondled again the way he was in his early life. He hopes that his master will come back. He wishes more than anything to be supping from his mother’s breast again. As time goes by he begins to fear human contact. The memory of his past life is still strong, but he now associates humans with pain. The story ends when one day, a stranger comes to town and caresses Pat. It’s the first time he’s been shown any affection since he left his master. After petting him, the man gets into a car and leaves the village. Pat chases after the car as fast as his legs will take him. He follows the scent of the car through the countryside, until at last he succumbs to the heat, and lays himself down in a roadside ditch. As he slowly dies beneath the scorching sun, he is aware of three crows circling overhead, waiting to pluck out his eyes.

There’s a lot of metaphor going on here, of which there have been various interpretations over the years. Before I got to thinking about what the story meant with any specificity, I thought about the overall tone. This is a story that’s bleak, nihilistic, almost elegiac in its mood. It doesn’t offer any hope. There is a sense of futility and inevitability about the plot; that it is futile for Pat to try to recapture the happiness of his youth, and that it is inevitable that he will perish alone and unloved. You can’t go back again. I’m captivated by this idea that you can’t escape your true nature. Even though Pat had known nothing but a life of discipline and devotion to his master, the call of the wild was too powerful to ignore. He can hear his master calling for him to come back, but he is unable to abandon his instinct to mate. It’s not a decision to follow the scent- it’s his nature. It’s predetermined. And it’s this unavoidable instinct that dooms him. There’s something about that that just fascinates me.

The story has been observed by scholars to be heavily influenced by the Existentialism of Sartre and the Psychoanalysis of Freud. For instance, the pull that Pat feels toward the scent of the bitch evokes the Oedipal motif of “striving toward the mother”, a desire to return to the uterus that can’t ever be fulfilled. It’s also been speculated that Pat represents how Hedayat saw himself in relation to the elites of Iranian society, a starving dog with no agency or meaning, routinely pushed around and abused. The dog is regarded as a nuisance, as without a soul. But Hedayat writes as though the dog is very much equal to the humans in spirit. Pat’s eyes are referred to as being human. This tells us straight away that Pat has a soul, so to speak. The desire of the crows to peck his eyes out reflects the desire of the Iranian establishment to censor Hedayat’s work, because to rip out his eyes is to strip him of his dignity, to once and for all, with chilling finality, silence his right to express himself. It’s been speculated that the circling of the crows represents the Shah, the clergy, and the academic elite waiting for Hedayat to die.

And frankly I can’t think of a more fitting story to have read during Banned Books Week. Sadeq Hedayat understood the importance of an educated, literate public- not just to keep the various offices of power accountable, but to prevent a nation’s intellectual and cultural stagnation. Hedayat criticized Iran out of a deep love for it, out of an understanding that once Persia had been at the forefront of progress. The Achaemenid and Sassanian Empires in particular were among the most advanced civilizations of their respective eras. Perhaps the crowning achievement of the Ancient Persians was their efficient administrative bureaucracy, which neighboring societies and even invaders of the Iranian Plateau were all too eager to emulate. At the heart of Cyrus the Great’s system of semi-autonomous satrapies was an inclusive ideology that respected freedom of expression and belief. The Persian Empires were nothing if not high-functioning models of multiculturalism. The “Cyrus Cylinder” has been described by some commentators as “the first human rights charter in history”. Of course, Cyrus wouldn’t have thought of this in the same way we do now, but what is indisputable is that his approach to statecraft was way ahead of his time. Maybe…just maybe, if Cyrus were alive today, he too would be celebrating Banned Books Week.

As Sadeq Hedayat once wrote, with a sentiment eerily similar to the Akala lyrics I posted above, “In order for the people to be kept in line, they must be kept hungry, needy, illiterate, and superstitious.”

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