Ahmad Kasravi on Literature

Kasravi was an outstanding scholar, arguably Iran’s most notable historian since the 14th century; a remarkable linguist, who published in Arabic, read English and French and virtually taught himself Pahlavi, old and modern Armenian, the defunct Iranian Azari language and Esperanto; a social and religious reformer, and the founder of his own ideology. In the process, he also made vehement attacks on creative literature in general, on Persian poetry in particular, and on the classical poets, his prime targets being the heroes of classical Persian poetry, in particular, Sa‘di, Hafiz, Khayyam, and Rumi, although he mentions some others too, e.g. Nezami and Anvari, among the classics, and Iraj and Eshqi, among the moderns.

As a thinker who, by the time he was 50 – and four years before his death by assassination – had conceived a fairly comprehensive, although relatively simple, ideological framework with a well-defined moral code for human action and interaction, Kasravi regarded literature of any value at all only to the extent that it was in the service of society and promotion of the public good, demanding that it should advocate ‘the series of truths that every rational person must accept’. There is no evidence that he was aware of the modern controversy on ‘art for art’s sake’ or ‘art for the public good’ between the European romantics and classicists of the 19th century, which had been followed by a similar conflict between the European modernists and socialism realists of the 20th, though there was some awareness of this among Iranian intellectuals at the time. But, in its various forms, that controversy is as ancient as public art itself, and it always suggests itself to any prophet or ideology that is convinced of having all the requirements of the happy living. And insofar as it would call the entire society to conform to its norms of belief and conduct, it would not discriminate between the holders of rhyme and reason. The problem though is that all competing ideologies hold a different ‘series of truths that every rational person must accept’; hence, the poet who conforms to one of these must be condemned by all the others, even though he is trying to write ‘for the public good’.

It is almost immaterial whether or not Sa‘di must be condemned on the charge of being a pederast, Hafiz, of being a nihilistic beggar, Khayyam, of being an amoral and reckless drinker, or Rumi, of advocating a parasitic life. Their real crime is that their work did not conform to the precepts of Kasravi’s design for virtuous living. In Kasravi’s opinion, imaginative literature, fiction as well as poetry, is a waste of time except in the very minority of cases when it may be devoted to the promotion of good living according to his gospel. Yet this denies the very ‘literariness’ of literature, i. e. all the forms and objectives that distinguish it from religion, ethics, sociology, journalism or politics. Therefore, Kasravi’s view of literature is more of a negation of its value than a critique of some of its forms and substances, or some of its producers and promoters.

Homa Katouzian
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