First, I wish to tell you a brief story behind this interview. Manoucher Parvin was my professor of mathematical economics at Columbia University some forty years ago. I was a Fulbright Scholar heading to Gdansk Poland to do post-graduate work in foreign trade. Professor Parvin persuaded me to pursue my studies at Warsaw University instead. To my surprise, I was allowed to do that. As a consequence my life changed. Professor Parvin also encouraged me to continue to write poems and to paint no matter where my profession took me. And eventually it took me to Moscow, where I’ve been working for an American company for years.
Decades later during a nostalgic moment in Moscow, I wondered what has happened to my favorite professor, who would made math and economics so alive and who had given me such insightful and life-changing guidance. So, three years ago I googled, “Manoucher Parvin”.
Initially, I did not think the googled person I found was the same Parvin because his scholarly/scientific work was lost in his literary work among the numerous Google entries about him. Eventually, we established email contact. I read his novels. Contrary to most readers, I liked the novel, Avicenna and I, the best until I read Out of the Gray which I was privileged to read “out loud” before it went to print!
How did this happen? After re-establishing contact, I asked him if I could be of any help to him since I’ve always been interested in literature myself. He said he needed someone with a fresh mind—not his usual literary friends—to read the new novel out loud and see how it sounds to the reader and to the listener. To me this was an interesting request. So during one of my trips back home to the US, I read the entire novel out loud for him for the purpose of sound only. At times, I noticed Professor Parvin’s eyes were closed, perhaps due to fatigue but he would open them up if he heard or felt a bump on the road so to speak. He said he closes his eyes in concerts too, to concentrate only on the sounds.
I also read Out of the Gray after it was printed. The ideas and characters in the book are among my favorites – and the cover picture is a work of mind-boggling art by another Iranian polymath, Professor Fereydoon Family. Later I read Parvin’s interviews in Iranian.com and asked him if we could also do one for this novel. He said why not, answering my question with another question. I hope the following interview will shed a new light, in a manner of speaking, an infra red light, on his new work and person and life!
This interview is a composite of conversations by Skype and phone and some email exchanges. I, Barbara Bienia, the interviewer, am BB and he, Manoucher Parvin, is MP:
BB: Why do you write novels and compose poems, Professor Parvin?
MP: To pass time, to feel alive through the joy and pain of creating, to awaken and enlighten myself, and to share it with others. I wish to be active even when dead; I wish to be buried inside clouds moving around, dropped on earth as rain, running in rivers into a sea, and back up to the clouds, thus traveling back and forth forever.
BB: How and why do you switch fields, for instance from science to literature?
MP: Curiosity is an obsession of mine—it is a torture. Curiosity is also an obsession of mankind. It is suppressed in most children through indoctrination. If, for example, the holy books declare Genesis is true, then why should children be curious about alternative explanations? If children are indoctrinated that their country is the best, why should they critique it in order to improve it? Yes, I’m a hostage of my curiosity. I’ll volunteer to go to hell if I’m assured that while burning I’ll learn what matter really is, or what consciousness is, or where new ideas or poems spring from!. I am not afraid of intellectual challenges — at least I tell myself not to be. If you repeat something to yourself long enough, it will become real to yourself. This self-indoctrination is not deliberate usually — it is as natural as the survival instinct. And since all-things are connected in reality, then the knowledge about them must also be interconnected, and integrated. To know reality one must become informed about the essentials of various fields. I’ve done just that. What else can one possibly study except the mind and reality and their connection—which includes everything. This new novel investigates that relationship.
(Now there is a long pause as if Parvin left the interview)
BB: Isn’t the mind a part of reality?
MP: Yes, but they are not the same because the mind studies reality and can alter it. Different fields of study like physics or chemistry, stem from the artificial segmentation of reality. Though useful, this division fails to illuminate the deeper truths about reality, let alone the ultimate truth. For example, the study of the brain requires the union of multiple fields. Art is similar to science in this respect. Unconsciously, I began including science, philosophy, music, poems, dance, painting, etc. in my novels and even in my poetry. This was a naturally evolving approach to the total work of art in literature in my writings. Later I learned that Richard Wagner had synthesized various art forms in theater. Mind you, what a great genius he was not just in creating music but also philosophy, literature, and music theory. My evolving total work of art approach in literature reaches its climax in Out of the Gray if I’m allowed to say so myself! My study of hard science and then social sciences became very handy in my artistic approach. But I had no clue that this would happen! Give me credit for my intellectual instability and my ability to get bored easily!
BB: According to some reviewers – and I agree with them — you show an intense sensitivity to political issues not just in your scholarly work in political economy but also in your literary works including your poetry–why?
MP: I am a political being too. I think everyone should also be. There are quite a few noble causes waiting to be realized by humans and for humans–and dangers to be avoided like those threatening the habitat of life. The humanenterprise, is not journeying to a good place in our times, I think. I hope the direction will change before it is too late. Humans mismeasure, or underestimate, their collective-ability to change the direction leading to a dead-end. A revolution in collective consciousness resulting in political revolution at national and international levels could redirect the trajectory of the humanenterprise or the consciousness-enterprise on earth since animals also possess some kind, and or degree of consciousness. I’ve never joined a political party, never will. I’m not disciplined enough, and am too independent to do so. That is another shortcoming of mine, perhaps.
BB: Do you wish to say something about Out of the Gray before I ask you a few specific questions about it?
MP: I want to plead, even to scream, to everyone to read Out of the Gray! I think, or hope, that it will take the readers to unbelievable places – to those places which my research, thinking and composition of the novel took me and it was exhilarating. It brought forth a new way of thinking called PayaRah (the eternal path), drawn from human wisdom and knowledge and not from revelations from an extra-terrestrial entity. Not fixed as in holy books, the precepts of this new path evolve. So the Genesis in PayaRah is based on science and its changes and not fixed in ancient words, in myth, or fairy tales.
During the research phase, I even visited a psychiatric ward and an institute for Alzheimer patients several times to see what is going on in these places at first hand. I took my time to talk to physicians, staff and patients, learning a lot from them and from my direct observations in such a way that no amount of reading could do. Some of the patients I talked to reminded me of our political leaders who also need therapy. But patients, may I note, do not have the power to expose masses to dangers.
(A long pause and even Skype detectable smiles.)
BB: Please go on, Professor Parvin
MP: OK. I think the novel will take the reader to a magical place. It took me there, inside the mind, and the light and the dark of the psyche. It took me inside the mind that can imagine an expanding universe within itself! The reader will become a character in the novel; will become a part of the story because he/she is induced, even seduced, to look deep into his/her own mind. It is not sufficient to just look at the deceptive reality that we automatically look at every day.
BB: This assurance about the novel is quite a claim, isn’t it?
MP: Yes, But I stake my reputation on this claim! Out of the Gray is my deepest work and I feel that the process of its creation has enlightened and transformed me. I’ve tried to delve into my mind since I was becoming bored with myself and unhappier with the world as is, and its motion! May I go on a bit more?
BB: Please be my guest
MP: To ascend beyond the noise of routine I do yoga and meditate. Socrates said “know thyself.” We cannot stop tragedies, or the shifting conditions around us. The quality of our happiness is fragile and temporary. Meditation and yoga strengthen our resilience to cope with the inevitable challenges of life and inevitable challenge of death.
BB: May I change the subject. I’ve read some of the reviews about your book. It is claimed that you use the English language in new and unexpected ways that an American writer would not think of, or dare to do. I also felt the delightful peculiarities but could not put my finger on them as to how and why.
MP: From what I am told and read, my English syntax is not always the usual syntax. I bend the English here and there unconsciously. A reader from Chicago University first noted this. My Persian mind is still breathing in my head and it will until my last heartbeat! But since this innovation is not a conscious one I deserve no credit for it. Also, I naturally write and speak poetically, apparently. I invent new words—good or bad—almost routinely as I need them. The computer sternly reminds me, with a little-red-zigzag line under the new words that I’ve trespassed to a world it does not know. I’m an accented man, writing with an accent — no? I’ve naturally invented new notions and words, of whatever value, in Out of the Gray. Just imagine: if our ancestors had not created new words continuously, then language would be very limited now and numbers would end at digit three—like “one, two – many” as aborigines count.
BB: You have included poems and music of different genre in this novel. Why?
MP: Because poems may be more powerful or effective than prose, just as screaming may be more powerful than whispering, or vice versa, depending. I compose poems mostly as I go along, due to an urge from an unknown source. Like in movies, music serves as a background to the story. Also my protagonist, Professor Pirooz, ingests and digests music in his mind just like he ingests and digests oxygen for his body. He is addicted to music as life is addicted to oxygen.
BB: Speaking of music, what does the subtitle of the novel “A Concerto for Neurons and Synapses” refer to?
MP: Ms. Bienia, it is explained in the novel, have you already forgotten it?
BB: Professor Parvin, have you forgotten that this is an interview for your readers, not for me or for you?
MP: You are right; I am wrong Barbara. Well, neurons and synapses are like musical instruments. Playing together with other cells like glia cells, they create the symphony of consciousness—the significant other of matter.
BB: Please summarize the story of Out of the Gray in a few words.
MP: Professor Pirooz, the protagonist, notices his absent mindedness is getting worse and worse. For instance, coming out of the pool he lets his bathing suit down in a crowded swimming area thinking he is already in the men’s locker room. The new carpet around the pool is of the same color as in the area exclusively for men. Other episodes of forgetfulness, some funny or saddening, happen. Frightened that he is developing dementia, he seeks medical help. But, he falls in love with the beautiful and brilliant Dr. Juliet Puccini, a junior faculty member of the university. She introduces Pirooz to a new brain/mind seminar with the participation of prominent world scientists in different fields and a philosopher of ethics. An interactive, funny robot, called Zero Zeta Hertz (or otherwise, ZZ) is also a member of the seminar. They are to explore the mind from different perspectives and synthesize their ideas. Pirooz is to relate the mind to social phenomenon. How the mind and society interact. There are three doctoral candidates finishing their dissertations. One investigates the biochemistry of love, the second the biochemistry of happiness, and the third the genetic and socioeconomic roots of racism. The professors explore topics such as consciousness, unconscious, conscience, memory, mental illness, and God. The potential of artificial intelligence and its difference with biological intelligence is also explored. The language is simple; scientific notions are simplified; a high school graduate should have no problem following almost all the discussions easily. As a lifelong teacher my guess, this guess, has a good chance of being good.
Dramatic subplots keep the readers on an emotional and intellectual tightrope. They involve the members of the seminar as if they were the experimental objects of their own theories. The tense and heart wrenching love story of Juliet and Pirooz has shocking twists and turns as it falls into perilous quicksand. The readers of Iranian.com must become my readers to find out what happens. Is not this a major purpose of this interview – to seduce readers to read Out of the Gray?
BB: You forgot to mention a character, a reptile called Tuatara, who has existed for 300 million years. Tuatara feeds Pirooz with her eggs when he is stranded on a little obscure island off the coast of New Zealand. Through a delightful and enlightening free verse the man and the beast discuss the origins and nature of existence, life, consciousness, and the philosophy of being. Tuatara is also called the third eye. Tuatara asks: What is wrong to just eat, play, sleep, and make love? Why do humans got themselves entangled with this mess called civilization?
MP: As an interviewer you should not be so generous complementing the interviewee!
BB: You are right. I did not want to tell you but Tuatara is my favorite character in the novel even above Pirooz and Juliet. Now please tell us if this novel is biographical as your other novels?
MP: Yes to some degree.
BB: Could you please elaborate a bit.
MP: All the scientific stuff about the brain and mind is authentic – the result of years of research and ponderings. The discourse contains speculations beyond the current brain sciences, but that is normal since at the boundary where the knowns and the unknown meet — speculations prosper. The story has fictional elements but it is mostly a true story.
BB: What are you doing now and how do you “pass time” to use your own words.
MP: I’m an old snow bird now flapping with difficulty between Cleveland and Miami Beach and occasionally elsewhere and playing chess everywhere to escape reality and to focus on unreality. When a chess game ends, it ends period. The mistakes made in one game have no impact on a new game unlike in life, where mistakes today could impact tomorrow and even the rest of one’s life. Playing chess is like going to a cognitive tavern to get intoxicated yet remain sharply alert.
Anyhow no matter where I actually am, I still feel I’m not there because I take flight to my imagined world often. Nature is my companion. The sea and the sky are good listeners. We talk. I understand their sign-language! While among crowds I feel lonelier. At home I feel safe and busy with my work. So I am not so lonely. I respond to reality, the places and times, which speak to me and inspire me. My writing is my speaking back to reality. I am doing my part! What else can I do?
BB: Please go on, Professor Parvin.
MP: I’ve two major projects to complete. One is my sixth and last novel. It is about the origin and nature of poetry, love of poetry, and poetry of love. I thought I had more to say on this subject beyond my novel in free verse, Dardedel. The other project is a nearly finished Memoir which deals with the evolution of my identity in particular and identity in general. How identity is formed, reformed, and deformed in life. I’ve made up my mind to write about things that no biographer or memoirer that I know of has touched. So wait and see. If I was a composer of music I would entitle it: The Requiem for two Fuzzy Lives: The Real and the Imagined. I’ve a few projects that will never see the whiteness of paper and the blueness of times, perhaps. I’m in a race with time as always and persuaded, or dragged on, by my curiosity as always. What a relentless malady.
BB: Is there anything else you would like to share?
MP: Not really. But let me try. I’ve been blessed with healthy genes, good health and stamina. I was never reprimanded by my father and mother but always supported — they let me be and become what I wished to become. All along I’ve had great teachers in quality institutions such as Alborz High School and Columbia University. My accomplishments, whatever they are, mostly result from my initial fortune. As I said before, do not give me that much credit for what I’ve done—of whatever value. But I admit I’ve worked very hard throughout my life — many times to the point of exhaustion and breakdown. One cannot learn and create without an unrelenting struggle. But fate has also hammered me with some horrible misfortunes that I’ve managed miraculously to survive from. All of these will be reported in my memoir which I’m rushing to finish at least to a point where others could polish and publish it. I think everyone should write a memoir. If there are enough authentic memoirs then this collection will show why we become who we are and how.
BB: Thank you for your teaching and guidance decades ago, Professor Parvin, and thank you for the interview.
MB: Thank you, and thanks to Iranian.com for the opportunity.
Out of the Gray: A Concerto for Neurons and Synapses was published by IBEX Publishers.