For the past few years, I have tried to pay closer attention to the prejudices that guide my reading habits, and to try, albeit slowly, to be more liberal in them. It is not easy for me, and I am rather at the beginning of this endeavor than the end. My reading tends to go hand-in-hand with projects which, however unlikely it is that I should complete them, are important to me, and that I would have to put off or postpone were I to make a resolution to read only women, say, for a year, as was fashionable for certain literary-minded people recently. I also would not care to start avowing – as I often get the sense some have – my enthusiasm for writers I don’t care for especially, in order to feel, and to give the impression, that I am on the right team, politically speaking. Jean Rhys, Gillian Rose, Christine Brooke-Rose, are all people widely praised who have left me indifferent. I do not say that they are bad – I am sure they are not bad – but that their writing didn’t move me. It is not a matter about which to be both decent and sincere, because sincerity, misread as “honesty,” so easily gives way to inconsideration and bluster, and there is always some measure of social reward ready for the person who breaks decorum and “tells it like it is,” even when telling it like it is involved willed ignorance, a lack of self-reflection, and plain meanness; to lie to oneself and others is ridiculous, and yet to imagine one’s tastes are pristine, and that my being unmoved by the aforementioned authors has to do with some unimpeachable facet of my personality immune to the contempt so long and so often shown to women’s writing would be naive.
At any rate, for reasons I have yet to clarify, I have found myself closer to women writers in certain genres than to those in others. When I was writing Aesthetics of Degradation, I read a great deal of writing on traumatology, narratology, deviance, compassion, and so forth with no especial concern for its authorship, but when I put together the notes for it, I was surprised to find how important women scientists and scholars had been for me, from psychologist Katherine Nelson to neuroscientist Tania Singer to theologian Linda Holler, whose thesis that touch is integral to the development of moral sensibility I found intuitively convincing, despite her book’s mystical inclinations. For years, journalists like Alma Guillermoprieto and Anna Politkovskaya have impressed me with their bravery and rigor. And then there is poetry, which is a special case insofar as I have so little ear for it and am so easy to dismiss it. More and more, it is women poets who touch me deepest.
I don’t know why this should be, but maybe it has to do with a feeling for proportion in regards to the literary self. One of the worst habits evident in contemporary literature – derived, though I don’t think its perpetrators realize this, from the specious apologies so often profferred in business English – is the use of adverbs to qualify one’s own feelings. “I was deeply moved,” “I sincerely felt,” and the like. Not only is the English adverb always already suspect – a thing to be looked at askance, to be sounded out before use – not only is it often a mere spacer – in sentences of the “he caressed her softly” – but it also partakes of a twin arrogance a sensitive reader is likely to find repugnant: first, the need to take up space with oneself, to distinguish oneself by means of degree, to exaggerate the depth of one’s every sensation or thought, and second, the constant presumption of an understanding of oneself that flies in the face of psychology, of any intelligent person’s observations of human behavior, and often of the evidence the author gives of himself in his text.
The exaggeration of self, which finds its lowest expression in contemporary adverb-laden prose, is also, for me, the chief displeasure of so much poetry by men. Recently, for example, I have been reading Klaus Thewelet’s Book of Kings, devotes hundreds of pages to Gottfried Benn and particularly his “Death of Orpehus.” Benn is emblematic of the hunger for grandeur, the self-conscious ceremoniousness in donning the poet’s robes, a willed kinship with the classical that strikes me as no less infantile than the wish to imitate a superhero. This is not a criticism of Benn – I am not competent to criticize Benn – but simply a comment on my tastes. There is something unseemly to me about so much ambition.
Or to take another poet I enjoyed as a teenager, John Berryman – now so much of what I see in the Dream Songs is a pedantic inflation of sentimental self-regard.
The other day, my wife asked me to watch a film she had thought of showing one of her classes, The House is Black by Forough Farrokhzad – her copy of the film is subtitled in English, and she wondered whether her Spanish students would get bored if they didn’t understand the words. The film was moving (Mohsen Makhmalbaf has called it the most beautiful Iranian film): the images, which show affection not for suffering as an exemption, but for the world of those who suffer, and also the words.
Forough Farrokhzad published her first book of poetry at 19. She married young, had a son, and was early divorced. One has the impression that she lusted for freedom and suffered for it: her poems are filled with images of rupture, rebirth, and flight. She took several trips to Europe, and stayed some time in London, to study film. When she returned to Iran, she filmed The House is Black at a leper colony in Tabriz, the city whence Shams-i-Tabrizi, the spiritual teacher of Rumi, would travel, to Konya, where he encountered his student.
I cannot write about her work too much yet. I am only coming to know it. There are a few books in English, listen below. Here is the end of one of her long poems. Do not trust the translation; it is not from the original.
Perhaps the truth of those two young hands
those two young hands
remained buried beneath incessant snow
and when spring, in the coming year,
will sleep with the sky that lies past the window
and from its body the green fonts
will rise from the thin branches
then it will flower, my friend, my lone, close friend
Let us have faith in the coming of the cold season.
Hasan Javadi and Susan Sallee (trans): Another Birth: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad with her letters and interviews.
Farzaneh Milani, Veils and words: the emerging voices of Iranian women writers.
A Rebirth: Poems, translated by David Martin, with a critical essay by Farzaneh Milani.
Michael Craig Hillmann, An Autobiographical Voice: Forough Farrokhzad, in Women’s Autobiographies in Contemporary Iran, edited by Afsaneh Najmabadi.