Nothing short of idolatry
Jalal Al-e-Ahmad was a neo-Islamist who cross-fertilized Third-Worldist rants on Nativism and Imperialism with Heidegger's rage against Machinism
November 29, 2005
Anger can be a very positive phenomenon. It can when it acts as a catalyst for change, it can when it energises the individual to action. It can even inform judgment rather than cloud it in a welter of crass emotions. At best it is another emotional tool to fine-tune the faculties to make the best choices. At worst it defines the mind rather than refines it.
It is in this tradition that in the 19th century we had the expression: 'Angry Young Men', in Europe. One can say that Beethoven was an angry young man of his time. His anger- instinctively an emotional reaction- nevertheless spurned him on to create. His anger provided the positive energy that would propel him towards musical innovation. It may have given him that tension which is essential if one is to think the unthinkable.
One may wonder why he was angry or rather who was he angry at!?! I choose to look at the character flaws of the man, which may provide an insight into this remarkable individual. The man's hair is always depicted as dishevelled sitting atop an otherwise handsome face. He will have been under the patronage of moneyed men (composition was not a very secure vocation; is not today either you have to be damn good at it); which moneyed men he absolutely despised. Despite their generosity he looked down on them and even greeted his publisher every morning with the rather rude: 'Good Morning Stupid...'.
This betrays a man of immense self-assurance and monumental ego. He was an erstwhile admirer of Napoleon and to this end he had dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte. When however he heard that Napoleon Bonaparte had declared himself emperor he was so incensed that he crossed out the name of Napoleon on the manuscript and started to hate the tyrants guts. This suggests to me some one who admires nay reveres a capable and ingenious individual but hates authority. He above all hates those who act as monopolisers of power (in this case Napoleon) or parasitic rentiers (the moneyed men some of whom were his beneficiaries) but loves those who are individual and avant-garde.
Here however is the crux of the matter; not withstanding his enormous gift for creativity, his anger may actually be driving him to expose the mediocrity of these figures of authority by prolific innovation. 'Here', he says 'I am, a poor man who has an intellect and mental capacity far above anything you have to offer, I can not even hear and yet I create melodies and orchestration that any one of you can only dream of'.
The angrier he gets at this hazard of existence the more he wants to rob their noses in it and the more prolific and ingenious his music becomes. In other words his anger refines his mind and judgment but does not define it. The output of his mind is a mockery of mediocre figures born to privilege and power.
In our own blighted land, the cherished country we call Iran, we have had variations on the theme of angry young men: Mirza Agha-Khan-e-Kermani, Akoundzadeh, Talbof, Dr Ahmad-e-Kasravi. These are all angry young men of one type or another. They are the thinkers who though not innovative perhaps by European standards were none the less courageous people who defined their time.
A few days ago I was scanning the pages of Iranian.com to find articles of interest to read. I chanced upon an article on Jalal-e-al-e-Ahmad. A few days hence I read a letter in response to that article in the letters section. Both intrigued me not least because of the issue of anger in regards to this man and his works (can I call it that or should I say rants).
On any reflective reading of Al-e-Ahmad it would actually be hard not to in some way hold him responsible for the calamity of 79. I would personally hold him and Shariati as the two arch demons who through their unenlightened teachings sullied the minds of a whole generation of people.
Al-e-Ahmad was a former Tudeh Communist who had along with Khalil Maleki joined the Third Force (Neerooy-e-Sevom). He was a hardened disciple of Maleki. He had been an influential figure in the Jebh-e-Melli and was to turn in to the voice of a disaffected generation who suffered the angst created by 1953. Up to now and as some one who stands diametrically opposed to his view point I would just accept him as another dissident; his right, his views so on and so forth.
My trouble with him, and as I will argue below, is that his bequest to posterity is nothing short of idolatry. I am certain he would not have seen it in these terms and I am even more certain that this was not his original intention. Idolatrous though he most certainly was or rather his way of thought was idolatrous-like.
Ale-e-Ahmad certainly was an angry person and as Shahriar Zahedi [see: "Naghdchehee bar Ale Ahmad"] quite rightly conveys this anger defined his mind. He did have an interesting take on rapidly modernizing life in Pahlavi Iran except that the interest was aroused precisely because it was so base and primitive. It excused us from further thought and creative reflection.
In 'Westoxification' he argues that it is lamentable that the instruments which the old peasant uses per se are replaced by imported machinery. His analytical framework is based upon Heidegger's anti-Machinism which he argues is so alienating to the Iranians. The Iranian whose culture has not produced that machinery, does not understand that machinery and whose own culture is now undermined by the import of that machinery has lost his true identity. He is almost mesmerized by the arrival of this machine which has brought nothing but a feeling of awestruck wonder. He has been charmed by the guile of Western prowess and machinery to the point of being indifferent even resentful of his own.
His discourse is one that rails against the inferiority complex that his compatriots feel faced with this unstoppable onslaught of the Western culture and influence. With that machine has come a set of values all adding up to a new cultural whole which is alien to the psyche of Iranians. The machine is almost the smoking barrel of the West's 'Soft Power'.
In the book entitled: 'On the service and betrayal of intellectuals', he identifies the clergy- in amongst five separate groups who have most cultural impact on Iranian life- to be the most uncorrupted. He argues that it is they who hold the key to Iran's salvation. He symbolically holds out his hand to Sayed Ali Khamenei (in those good old days that power had not yet corrupted the pipe smoking Sayed) to forge a bond between the Iranian intellectual and the Clergy.
The most nauseating aspect of this newfound love between this former Bohemian Marxist and the sacred 'stenchocracy' is his salivating over none other than the arch reactionary Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri. The Neo-Islamist who has cross-fertilized the Third-Worldist rants on Nativism and Imperialism with Heidegger's rage against Machinism is now enthralled with arguably the most grotesque figure in contemporary history of Iran.
As far as he is concerned the Pahlavis are just a historical detail in a bigger picture; one that represents Modernism as the enslaver of the Iranian people by culturally emasculating them. The Pahlavis are simply the agents of that slave master. They are the jail-keepers.
The mediocre mind of our intellectual is unable to discern the empowering aspect of technology. Our intellectual is so incapacitated by the straitjacket of his thoughts that he is unable to see how technology can free up labour to work in other more productive sectors of the economy. Our great intellectual is unable to see that with the diffusion of technology- not abstracting away the sometimes enormous adjustment costs- a whole economy is propelled into a new era. Which era of unprecedented growth had not been witnessed in Iran to that date. And why should he trouble himself with such vulgar pursuits as Economic growth; why?
He is so oblivious to the exigencies of history that he does not realize that Modernism as an idea has not been forced on us by the Totalitarianism of the Pahlavis. Modernism was forced on us gradually and by command of history. A portentous and sometimes painful history which saw many of our lands taken over by Tsarist Russia. A troubled and neutered lion whose limbs were enfeebled by diseases of tribalism and religious ignorance. A humoured and blinded beast who is teased by the rod of the British in one direction only to be teased away by the lash of the Russians the other.
No the ascendancy of the Pahlavis that he so laments was not inevitable. The ascendancy of the Pahlavis was just one outcome bearing a certain probability of occurrence. The other perhaps stronger possibility will have been the total destruction of Iran as a unified nation. Still not that the former Communist turncoat might have troubled himself with putting this in perspective.
And perspective is exactly where we need to look at in order to deconstruct the idolatrous thought process of Al-e-Ahmad. In absence of such perspective; about the only relationship that Al-e-Ahmad sees between his compatriots and the Machine is one of unnatural coexistence nay enslavement. He does not see the great capacity of the Iranian culture to absorb alien ideas and building on it as it has done a thousand times before. He only sees the false fits and starts; which to a more discerning mind are only an essential pre-requisite of adaptation and experience. And suppose we talked about his now beloved Islamic confession, has that always been part and parcel of Iran's heritage or has it been a foreign import too?
Al-e-Ahmad is idolatrous precisely because he has chosen to erect a grotesque effigy; his political religion, which he hopes in fullness of time will protect and preserve him. His world is not just governed by misplaced anger but fear of the alien that he so singularly does not understand. To ward off this alien he wants his other apparently equally estranged compatriots to worship at the alter of the idol he has masterfully crafted. It is nothing tangible, it is nothing empowering, it is nothing enlightening; it is simply the reversion of a whole nation to what they know best.
This is not simple religiosity but idle worship masquerading as religion. The object of that worship is not just the monotheistic god we know but it is the god of political leadership that is the clergy, the god of refuge that is Nativism, it is tradition that is the god of spiritual security and harmony. In short it is a good cop bad cop world in which his fears and anger find solace in this new defined iconography.
He knows better than any one else that even if his enterprise prevails (which sadly it did) and his compatriots RE-embraced the age of darkness (which sadly they did) the world is not going to stop for him and his compatriots. In fact with or without Iran and with or without Al-e-Ahmad Modernism will march on (which it has). All he has to hope for are his lifeless icons and native mythology and confessional narrative to have the power to rise up to this demon which so haunts him. He is like Judas in absence of Moses.
He is also angry precisely because in his heart of hearts he knows that the idol he has erected (today standing on a plinth made of bones and broken flesh) is not the answer either. His anger is one borne out of frustration (with himself) than creative tension and energy. This anger has not refined his mind but defined it. This is why he has so much negative anger; he is a failed, intellectually bankrupt, narrow-minded and uncreative idol-worshipper. The only comfort that he has in his prosaic mind is that he will share the idolatrous ways of his compatriots which he holds in great contempt any how. Justification by numbers; that is it! Nothing more and nothing less.
If Da Vinci thought like Al-e-Ahmad; instead of studying the world and defining god in the image of man, he would have taken up Idolatry or even Devil worship. In the end his discourse would not have been any the richer than that of the Papal theocracy he so despised. He would not have stopped there he would have ditched all reason to appeal to the basest instincts of his audience to emulate him.
You do not believe me? Look at what eventuated from the machinations of these ennobled fools like Al-e-Ahmad and Ali Shariati. The Messiah that both yearned for came through in the shape of another grotesque icon that was the biggest idol of them all: Ruhollah-Ul-Moosavee-ul-Khomeni. The rest my dear readers is history as they say.