Friday, July 17, 2015

"curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."

A decade ago, I went to an academic conference that featured in the program a Azar Nafisi as a plenary keynote speaker. "Azar who?" was my thought; hey, I am not a village idiot for nothing!

But, after that meeting, I have often quoted her comments on academics:
[In] conveying knowledge, the academy has a far more important and subversive way of dealing with political issues. Knowledge provides us with a way to perceive the world. Imaginative knowledge provides us with a way to see ourselves in the world, to relate to the world, and thereby, to act in the world. The way we perceive ourselves is reflected in the way we interact, the way we take our positions, and the way we interpret politics.
Curiosity, the desire to know what one does not know, is essential to genuine knowledge. Especially in terms of literature, it is a sensual longing to know through experiencing others—not only the others in the world, but also the others within oneself. That is why, in almost every talk I give, I repeat what Vladimir Nabokov used to tell his students: curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. If we manage to teach our students to be curious—not to take up our political positions, but just to be curious—we will have managed to do a great deal.
"curiosity is insubordination in its purest form."  We don't usually associate curiosity and insubordination.  But, Nafisi, by providing that Nabokov quote in a context that is familiar to me, made that so clear.  Insubordination via curiosity often comes with a price, of course.  But, that is a price--small or big--that we pay if we value the knowledge that results.

Re-reading her essay, I now find more gems, further validating yet another Nabokov observation on re-reading; Nafisi writes:
No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a woman who is taken to a football stadium in Kabul, has a gun put to her head, and is executed because she does not look the way the state wants her to look. No amount of political correctness can make us empathize with a child who is starving in Darfur. Unless we evoke the ability to imagine, unless we can find the connection between that woman or that child and ourselves, we cannot empathize with either of them.
Nafisi continues:
When a Nabokov or a Flaubert writes of the worst tragedies, we read on even as we cry. We celebrate the triumph of that imagination over the shabby reality that kills people like Lolita or Emma Bovary. That is the triumph of art.
I remember all too well my feelings as I read A Farewell to Arms.  Great works in literature have that phenomenal power to take us into the author's imagined world and we feel the emotions that the characters experience.  I don't read them in order to analyze the sentence structure or the word play or anything else.  I read them because I want to understand the human condition, which those great works easily and powerfully convey.

Nabokov's Lolita is on the coffee table.  But, maybe I need to check on the real world before I return to the imagined one.

Why put myself through all these, right?  You forget that a life of curiosity is what I signed up for.  A curiosity that, I hope, will lead to knowledge and wisdom.  After all, to quote Marcel Proust:
We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, and effort which no one can spare us


Anne in Salem said...

I thought curiosity was rebellion. Same concept, I suppose. Curiosity is king. Curiosity that is pursued can make those with little formal education more interesting, more educated and wiser than those with a string a post-grad letters after their names.

Sriram Khé said...

Ah yes, many of the "educated" I have come across--including many who work as university faculty--as some of the most un-curious people ever ... Much like in Pink Floyd's "The Wall," I worry that education is used more and more to kill any curiosity :(

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