Daily Archives: 24 April 2006

Nyazi v. Gatsby in Tehran

“This book preaches illicit relations between a man and woman. First we have Tom and his mistress, the scene in her apartment—even the narrator, Nick, is implicated. He doesn’t like their lies, but he has no objections to their fornicating and sitting on each other’s laps, and, and, those parties at Gatsby’s … remember, ladies and gentlemen, this Gatsby is the hero of the book—and who is he? He is a charlatan, he is an adulterer, he is a liar … this is a man Nick celebrates and feels sorry for, this man, this destroyer of homes!” Mr. Nyazi was clearly agitated as he conjured the fornicators, liars and adulterers roaming freely in Fitzgerald’s luminous world, immune from his wrath and from prosecution. “The only sympathetic person here is the cuckolded husband, Mr. Wilson,” Mr. Nyazi boomed. “When he kills Gatsby, it is the hand of God. He is the only victim. He is the genuine symbol of the oppressed, in the land of, of, of the Great Satan!” …

“Gatsby is dishonest,” he cried out, his voice now shrill. “He earns his money by illegal means and tries to buy the love of a married woman. This book is supposed to be about the American dream, but what sort of dream is this? Does the author mean to suggest that we should all be adulterers and bandits? Americans are decadent and in decline because this is their dream. They are going down! This is the last hiccup of a dead culture!” he concluded triumphantly.

SOURCE: Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004), pp. 126-127

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Sam Harris on Religious Moderates

While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. From the perspective of those seeking to live by the letter of the texts, the religious moderate is nothing more than a failed fundamentalist. He is, in all likelihood, going to wind up in hell with the rest of the unbelievers. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God. Religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism. The texts themselves are unequivocal: they are perfect in all their parts. By their light, religious moderation appears to be nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law. By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question—i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know that he wants from us—religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness.

SOURCE: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Sam Harris (Free Press, 2005), pp. 20-21. The beginning of of chapter 1, Reason in Exile, is available online.

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Religious Trends in Tokugawa Japan

Religion was a particularly thorny issue that Ieyasu’s two military predecessors, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, had already begun to address. Collectively the policies of the three successive generalissimos led to the following situation. First, the upstart religion from the West, Christianity, was banned. The small numbers of Christians who refused to renounce their faith had to go underground. The squelching of the Christian movement in Japan was the precursor of closing Japan off from almost all contact with the outside world. This policy was initiated in 1639 and officially continued through 1854. Second, the Tendai Buddhist main temple on Kyoto’s Mount Hiei had grown to be the most powerful religious institution in Japan. In 1571 Nobunaga burned down the complex, destroying its three thousand buildings and its army of ten thousand warrior monks. Third, the most populist Buddhist religion of the time, the Shin Buddhist Honganji sect, had assembled a huge peasant army of its own that Nobunaga defeated in 1580. The sect then underwent a schism in 1603, breaking into Eastern and Western Honganji, thereby dividing the unity of this Buddhist group. And fourth, under Ieyasu the shogunate began to monitor the philosophical-religious schools of scholars, hoping to maintain at least some control over new developments and ideologies. Accompanying these four political events were intellectual circumstances equally important to the future of Shinto.

The key factors of intellectual change came to a head in the late sixteenth century when something philosophically new took hold in Japan. Throughout Japanese history there had been periods when Japanese groups (mainly religious or diplomatic) made the dangerous journey across the stormy Sea of Japan to the mainland, bringing back home cultural innovations and artifacts. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries especially, groups of Japanese Buddhist monks, mainly from the Zen tradition, went to the mainland to study. When they returned, they brought with them not only further materials related to Buddhism but also books from other philosophical traditions popular in China at the time. For our present concerns, the most significant items in their cargo were works of Chinese Neo-Confucianism. Although Zen Buddhist monastic scholars were studying the texts and introducing them to Japan, the books contained a philosophical system that would ultimately undermine the intellectual hegemony of Buddhism in the country. Neo-Confucianism was a sophisticated syncretistic philosophical movement in China that enriched traditional Confucian teachings with ideas from Buddhism and Daoism. By incorporating key ideas from these traditions into its own, Neo-Confucianism had disarmed the most powerful Buddhist and Daoist criticisms against Confucianism. As a result, from about the twelfth century up to the early twentieth century, Neo-Confucian philosophy (in various forms) generally dominated the Chinese intellectual scene.

These Neo-Confucian arguments against Buddhism entered Japan just before Tokugawa stability and peace brought rapid urbanization. The growth of city life supported schools of learning outside the traditional Buddhist temple complexes that had trained monk-scholars. The samurai (who needed job retraining to find a useful place in the peacetime society of the Tokugawa bureaucracy) and the aspiring merchant class (who needed to acquire culture fast) frequented such urban schools. Furthermore, the increasingly literate urbanites created a demand for widely distributed, printed publications. By the late seventeenth century, literary culture, including philosophy, was thriving in the cities.

SOURCE: Shinto: The Way Home, by Thomas P. Kasulis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2004), pp. 106-107

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