Please forgive my comparative literature I’m about do, but I believe it must be done. It matters how one reads a book. Sometimes the main character shouldn’t be whom one should cares about. Part 1 of Faust is essentially the tragedy of Gretchen. Gretchen is just a young, pious girl, who is tricked and seduced by an old man named Faust. It must be stated that the character of Faust in part 1 is a bad man. He’s a solipsist, who is unable to feel or see in the lives of others. What I want to express is that he lacks empathy and care, where in contrast, Gretchen literally becomes the embodiment of Care later in part 2 of the story. When I read the tragedy of Gretchen, I empathize with Gretchen who has just committed infanticide, and driven out by her religious community, and condemned to death, she’s consumed by guilt and shame. I see myself in her, because I sometimes share in her grief as having done some wrong. She believes she deserves to be murdered. Faust, towards the end of Part 1, finally has a conscience and comes to rescue her from her fate, but she descends into madness over her guilt. Faust says, “Let the past be past, come now.” But she can’t leave the prison cell because she doesn’t have the key, which is self-compassion. As the jailers come, Faust leaves like a thief in the night.
I once saw a play of Faust, and it summed up the Enlightenment well. Faust, a man who knows everything, goes out into nature. and takes out a ready made laboratory to study nature. He see’s a remarkable butterfly, and he’s so moved by it, that he catches it. Then he does what scientists do, which is stab a pin through it and stick it to a board. This murder confiscates the most beautiful part of the butterfly away. This is what reductionist materialism does. It removes the inner, mysterious life force away and instead, it’s just dead matter. This is what Newton does when he describes the universe as just matter in motion. Locke too.
As I was going through Reading Lolita in Tehran, the Author uses just this butterfly metaphor to describe how Humbert sees Dolores, the young girl to a woman named Charlotte. Charlotte falls for him and gives him the ultimatum, and seeing how he can be closer to Dolores, he marries, which makes him the step father to Dolores. At first blush, looking at Lolita by Nabokov, it doesn’t seem like it deserves to be in the category of monsters, but Humbert is truly a monster. He literally confiscates Dolores childhood, her life. He is her captor, her prison guard, so so she can live out his depraved fantasy. Dolores really is the butterfly that Humbert confiscates, and pins to his board. He takes her on a road tour, but it’s not an adventure to her, and every chance she gets she rebels.
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a courageous piece that compares Tehran to the monster Humbert Humbert. Tehran use to be a progressive place to live, with a liberal university, but all of that changed, and under religious authority, it became ruled by a religious despot, and the marriage age dropped from 18 to 9 years old. Western literature was often band if it was deemed taboo. For instance. Billy Bud was too homosexual because it didn’t have women in the story, irony!
Reading Lolita in Tehran is a story about an English teacher in Tehran who privately teaches a young group of girls English novels. In it, we get glimpses into the girls’ lives, where like Dolores, they rebel too, and the act of rebellion is akin to a prideful protest against tyrannical authority, against men like Humbert, against the religious bigots that have confiscated their lives away from them. Each act of rebellion is savored, from just eating a ham sandwich to refusing to marry some weak man who plans to rule over them. It also shows the hypocrisy of how the fathers will enjoy illegal contraband such as alcohol, but tell his daughters not to even read English books. Often their books were taken from them, often they were jailed, or forced to marry, but the act of reading great literature unlocked the prison cell, they began to see a truth from the page into their lives, and that is the transformative power great literature can have on the soul. It’s a great book, it made me see Faust and Lolita in new lights, and it made me care more.