The most irritating book I read this year

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The most irritating book I read this year, and I mean that in a good way, was Time Will Say Nothing: A Philosopher Survives an Iranian Prison, by Ramin Jahanbegloo. It goads you into thinking about topics like torture and Toronto.

He is an Iranian philosopher: not just a philosophy prof but one who aspires to philosophize. He came from a well-off family, had a good career at home and abroad. Then one day in 2006 he was arrested and held for 125 days in Evin prison. He was accused and interrogated for spying on behalf of a foreign power. He confessed, falsely and copiously, once he figured out what they wanted. They insisted he was working for France so he invented some French names and gave those as contacts. Then he was released. He wasn’t physically tortured but it hardly matters. When Galileo was merely shown the “instruments of torture,” he swiftly agreed that Earth is the centre of the universe after all.

“I have no regrets . . . I went along with their lies. It was the only way I could continue to work and create an ethos of honesty and solidarity,” he writes. Fish gotta swim, philosophers gotta philosophize.

It’s not that he crumpled, almost everyone seems to, it’s his lack of ambivalence. It stymies our expectations of torture victims. That’s what’s challenging. He didn’t take the route of Socrates, who accepted death serenely. But then Socrates had been rightly charged with corrupting Athenian youth. He wasn’t falsely accused. So it’s complicated. I’m not at all judging Jahanbegloo’s choices but I find them highly provocative. It leaves you pondering what to make of him and how you’d handle it yourself.

Then he moves to Toronto, where he now lives. He pretty much hates it. This too is refreshing. There’s no de rigueur gratitude or homage to Canadian niceness, tolerance and multiculti. He says the main reason they took him in was for the “moral mileage” people at U of T and Ottawa got from it.

He calls Canada “a country with no metaphysical foundations,” a uniquely philosophical form of slagging. He says, compared to Iran, living here is “the best way to end up with an uncreative and boring future.” He has specific gripes: nobody gave him tenure, he doesn’t feel feted enough and other academics complain that he name-drops too much (a page later he mentions Vaclav Havel, who he met — twice). He says his students consider “mediocrity a form of normalcy.” Massey College is “a haven of second-class snobs . . . intellectually crippled by meaningless existence.” I’m not cherry-picking, most of this was excerpted in the Star.

It’s harsher than anything he says about his interrogators at Evin, but maybe they deserve more compassion than the porter at Massey. I mean it. That’s what philosophers do at their best. They challenge sacred assumptions. Toronto was overextended on its smugness; that’s how things got so bad here.

Something else is also at play. Everyone wants their lives to have meaning, but especially figures like thinkers and writers; they stake their identities on what they stand for. As a political prisoner you’ve had that meaning stamped and validated, your captors verify it. Then you’re freed and go somewhere like Canada. All you’ve lost is the significance of your existence. There are numerous formerly imprisoned writers here, sponsored by PEN Canada, who tend to share that sense of lost purpose along with found freedom. It’s a hellish dilemma. You can try to rebuild a meaningful life but you have to start almost from scratch.

It doesn’t just happen to foreigners. The celebrated writer Elizabeth Smart came home to Canada in her final years. She was feted and acquired a whole new following of young Canadian women writers. But it wasn’t ever enough. “I only want to be useful,” she’d moan and whine, especially in her cups.

Writers and thinkers yearn for that kind of relevance in their own poignant ways. But if there’s a missing piece in this memoir, which proclaims its devotion to empathy and compassion, it’s the failure to recognize that same need even among benighted Canadian students, scholars or the customers at Tim Hortons.

Anyway thanks, Ramin Jahanbegloo, for the read and the ride.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

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