The most irritating book I read this year

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca in its summer fundraiser today for as little as $5 per month!

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.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.