Passionate, genuine & deeply
Thoughts on philosopher Ahmad Fardid
June 8, 2003
The more I thought about Daryoush
debunking of Ahmad Fardid and Anoushe's indignant
rejoinder, the more I felt the need to contribute to this debate
based on my own experience.
I do not intend to dispute Ashuri's conclusions about the weaknesses
of Fardid's scholarship and personality. Nor would I challenge
the tragic reality that, like his intellectual hero Heidegger,
(not to mention Hegel) Fardid was politically naive and myopic
enough to mistake a local tyrant for the bounty of the destiny.
(I can elaborate in greater detail on the origins and the nature
Fardid's political naiveté and Quixotic illusions but that
will draw me away from my main purpose here.)
What I do intend to challenge is the wholesale vilification of
the philosopher's life and work. The fact that Fardid is deified
in some circles does not justify
demonizing him without reserve. I sometimes wonder what is gained by depicting
personalities who, for better or for worse, have shaped our intellectual or
political history, in a broad, monochromic brush. Part of my admiration
for Abbas Milani's "Iranian
Sphinx" is because he has managed to avoid this pitfall, but I digress.
I consider Fardid as a passionate and genuine - though deeply
flawed - intellectual. He had many faults but he was by no means
the villain, fraud, or opportunist
we are led to believe. What is more, he had a plethora of personal virtues
that remain eclipsed both in panegyric praise and savage critique
of his life. I feel
obligated to flesh out these attributes and to defend him against unqualified
blame. I believe a detailed and nuanced portrait of Fardid will help explain
his impact on the creme of the crop of the Iranian intellectuals from Ale
Ahmad to Ashouri himself in a way that the unflattering caricature
of a shallow charlatan
Like Daryoush Ashouri, I knew Fardid personally. What is more,
I owe him a debt of gratitude. For five years I audited his
classes (though I was in the department
of sociology not philosophy.) On more than one occasion I, Ahmad and a couple
of other student strolled all the way from class to his modest house around
the Vesal Shirazi street, while the peripatetic philosopher
regaled us with scintillating
ideas. Later, we would sit in his yard or in his den and wax philosophical
We realized Fardid had nothing to gain by spending time with us:
teenage freshmen who were not even philosophy students. Nor was
he looking for "disciples." He
actively dispersed obsequious hangers on. Adamantly opposed to even oblique praise,
he would interrupt the speaker with an adage from his native Yazd: "Agha
jan saram o beshkan, vali nerkhamo naskan!" In other words, don't diminish
me by your praise.
In my opinion, the only reason he would converse with anyone
who would listen was his "love of knowledge" (the original meaning
of the term "philosophy.") Fardid was genuinely excited, preoccupied,
even obsessed about the possibilities of bridging East and West and exploring
their intertwined destiny. The fact that Fardid was interested in the subject
doesn't mean that he got it right; only that he was sincere and passionate about
the project. He "lived" philosophy. That is something I can attest
I do not believe that Fardid's sometimes laughable etymological
deductions should be taken as the sole measure of his philosophy.
Nor should the reader of Ashouri's
piece conclude that every Fardidian etymological deduction is false. (This
may not have been Ashouri's intent but the philosophically uninitiated
may jump to
that conclusion.) Who, for example, can deny the enormous impact of Fardid's
ingenious translation of Heidegger's "DaSein" to "Havalat e Tarikhi" based
on a reading of Hafiz?
Concerning what "is" outlandish in Fardid's
thought one does well to remember instances of falsehood, foolishness, and patent
nonsense in the works of thinkers whose greatness no one disputes -- in my own
field I can name Kant, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Spencer, Parsons, and, of course,
Heidegger. When it comes to chastising occasional lapses: sins of intellectual
omission or commission, I am reminded of the anecdote told about Bozorgmehr the
Sasanid Iranian sage and statesman who, upon confessing ignorance on a certain
issue was lambasted by his interlocutor: "How can you draw such a large
salary if you are so ignorant?" Bozorgmehr responded: "Lady, if I were
to be paid on a scale proportional to my ignorance I would be the richest man
on earth. My salary is based on what little I do know."
As magnanimous as Fardid was to students whose simple greetings
figures much lesser than Fardid couldn't be bothered to return,
he was indifferent, even dismissive
toward administrators and "official" scholars. He unabashedly (and
sometimes unnecessarily) attacked those he considered as unworthy, underhanded
or overbearing. In short, he was, to us, the exemplar of the maxim: "comfort
the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. " And yet, we were never left
with the impression that his attacks were of a personal nature. He saw his contemporaries
as carriers of ideas and trends. He was reticent in praise of his colleagues
as well. He would grace even the prominent luminaries of his time (Hossein Nasr,
Simin Daneshvar) as "pesar e khoob", and "dokhtar e khoob" (Nice
boy, nice girl.)" His colleagues took him seriously, warts and all. I remember
Khanum Daneshvar once smiled and said of Fardid: Ahmad considers all of us Gharbzadeh."
While I am on this subject, I would like to offer a slightly different
take on another one of Fardid's idiosyncrasies: his anti social
antics. He told us many
stories about misbehaving in public, political, and academic occasions. Also,
we witnessed a few such episodes ourselves. On one occasion he interrupted
Ayatollah Motahhari who was delivering a lugubrious but naïve lecture on critique
of Hegel's logic by shouting from the first row: Aagha jan, taghsir az tarjomeh-hast!" (dear
sir, the fault is that of the translations of Hegel.) Motahhari accepted the
criticism and said: you may be right but I am not criticizing the real Hegel
but the one that is presented to us in Persian. In these misadventures, we concluded
he intended to emulate the persona of "Bohlul" (the "wise-fool" in
the Persianate folklore) or that of "Schlemiel" (in the Ashkenazi Jewish
culture.) He didn't mean to be funny or rude but disruptive and transgressive.
It is said of Hegel, that when he taught his students would be so absorbed
in his lectures as to lose all awareness of their surroundings. Only when the
fell silent would the students notice that stars had risen and the university
was deserted. In my entire academic career I have experienced such a thrill
only in Fardid's classes. Another anecdote concerning the impact of Hegel's
could be invoked concerning Fardid's instruction: students saw the world in
a different light after each and every lecture. We felt the entire world budge
a little and sundry pieces of it fall into place as Fardid, his unlit "homa
baizi" cigarette in hand, wiggled his Archimedean lever under a world of
thought. I fell in love with Heidegger through Fardid.
The first book I bought
and read upon coming to the United States was a collection of Heidegger's works.
My interest and hope in Heidegger has since waned (though my enormous respect
for him hasn't) but I owe it to him as well as his Iranian disciple to teach
me that the business of thinking is not a myopic, humdrum, routine affair.
It is said of the great Italian thinker Giambattista Vico, that
he illustrated his
thoughts with fireworks rather than charcoal. Fardid, I propose, dipped his
pen in Vico's inkwell.
Fardid's turbulent intellect was absorbed in the enterprise of
synthesizing (promisingly or otherwise) the results of his studies
of Eastern-Islamic civilizations, namely,
Hafiz, Rumi, Shabestari, and others with the Western philosophy, as interpreted
by Heidegger. Fardid's project remains unfinished and fraught with shortcomings
and errors. Nevertheless, it remains an enormously intriguing and valuable endeavor.
Heidegger himself on several occasions (including in his encounters with DTSuzuki
concerning "transmetaphysical thinking" and in his valedictory interview
with Der Spiegle) optimistically alluded to the possibility of a convergence
of Eastern and Western thought but he never explored the subject matter himself,
citing a lack of knowledge and insight about the non-Western universe of discourse.
Ahmad Fardid, from his corner, hoped to produce a blueprint for the endeavor,
but he only succeeded in vaguely adumbrating certain contours of it.
The most prevalent charge against Fardid has been that he never
wrote anything of importance. He was, to paraphrase Reza Barahani's
snickering epithet, an "oral
philosopher" (filsoof e Shafahi.) This was, to be sure a puzzling attribute.
Although Fardid tried to justify his expository reluctance to the poverty and
contamination of the language, (in the Heideggerian sense) I suspect his reticence
stemmed from his paralyzing perfectionism. His predicament reminds me of Efimov,
a character in Dostoyevsky's unfinished novel "Netochka Nezvanova" in
which the protagonist, a violin performer, having had a brush with the sublime
majesty of pure art abandons his musical instrument for good. Nevertheless, lack
of written work, per se, should not be taken as the final verdict against a thinker.
Socrates and, in more recent times, George Herbert Mead are exemplars of teachers
whose profound thoughts have reached us solely through the transcriptions of
their faithful students.
However, Fardid's predicament reminds me less of the above two
than that of another lonely scholar: Georg Simmel. Neither thinker
accepted or acknowledged direct
intellectual descendants; although their energies and ideas were widely adopted
by successive generations of thinkers (and uncomprehending parrots) during
and after their life, in ways that would have infuriated them.
Simmel, the author
of the magisterial "Philosophy of Money" once said: "my own legacy
is like money. People take it and use it without any attribution to me." Fardid,
too, witnessed many occasions. I remember when Reza Davari published some notes
based on Fardid's readings of Hafez with no attribution to his source of inspiration.
Fardid was not amused by what he considered plagiarism but his main objection
had more to do with the contamination and simplification of his ideas
than any questions of authorship. Concerning the ignorant use, if not the patent
abuse, of Fardid's legacy, I am reminded of a vulgar and vicious attack on "modernism" by
self proclaimed Fardid students in the post revolutionary Iran leading to a
comical war by proxy between Heidegger (Fardidians) and Popper (Soroushians.)
Let me close with an anecdote apropos of this quaint predicament
of Fardid: his inability to produce intellectual progeny: Once,
responding to a young author
who had published an article in a popular daily in Tehran, and who had dedicated
it to Ahmad Fardid with these words: "Everything I know, I have learned
from Professor Fardid" the philosopher shot back:
"You have learned
nothing from me, youngster, get back to your homework." Later that day,
still smarting from what he considered an offensive praise, he offered the
"Every spring I buy grass seed from the store across the street and cast
it in my lawn, but what grows there is just quaint and curious weeds and not
have put in the ground. The same is true of those who claim my legacy or
oppose it. They bear no resemblance to what I have sewn."
Mahmoud Sadri is Associate
Professor of Sociology at Texas Women's University. He has a doctorate
in sociology from New York's New School for Social Research
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