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Thoughts on “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Food street Lahore

Food street Lahore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new film version of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has just come out, and is made “timely” by the recent terrorist attack in Boston. I hate to use the word “timely” in this context, but I can’t think of a better word to use or a better way of putting things. For one thing, I haven’t yet seen the movie so I can’t really be certain of how timely it is. For another, there’s always a terrorist attack going on somewhere in the world, so in a trivial sense, any movie about terrorism is bound to be timely at any given moment. And I’d hate to suggest that the commission of an atrocity should be the occasion for an entertaining night at the movies. What I mean, however, is that the Boston bombing will undoubtedly pique interest in a film that plumbs (or appears to plumb) the mind of a (would-be) Muslim terrorist, especially since the bombing is fresh in “our” (meaning American) minds, and involves a pair of Muslim terrorists.

It’s interesting that in our culture, evil prompts curiosity about motives in a way that virtue does not. We don’t typically fixate obsessively on questions like, “Why would a terminally ill nurse offer, in the last few days of her life, to function as a case study for other nurses interested in caring for the terminally ill?” Or: “Why would a twelve-year-old girl defy the Taliban and, at the risk of her life, become a political activist in the Swat Valley of Pakistan?” A question like “How and why did a handful of early-twentieth century guitarists revolutionize music by transforming Spanish popular and folk music so as to achieve respectability for it in the classical repertory after centuries of neglect?” is an obvious non-starter, except to a tiny specialized clique of fans of the relevant genre.  And filmmakers rarely make movies on such subjects, either. Who would make them—and for what audience?

By contrast, “Why would someone bomb the Boston Marathon?” or “Why would someone fly jetliners into the World Trade Center?” or “Why would someone decide to commit genocide and launch a two-front war that destroyed his country, needlessly killed millions of people, and induced him to commit suicide?” command rapt and uncontroversial attention. The need to get “inside” the minds of the depraved seems more urgent to most of us than the need to get inside of the minds of the virtuous. After all, since most of us presumably are virtuous, you’d think we wouldn’t have that far to go to get “into” the minds of “the virtuous.” We should already be “there.” On the other hand, since few of us are as virtuous as we should be, maybe the distance we have yet to travel is too unsettling to bear scrutiny.

At any rate, I think Ayn Rand was right to challenge our cultural fixation on depravity in The Romantic Manifesto and elsewhere, and despite the crudity of some of the things she says on this and related topics, I haven’t yet seen a response to her that shows genuine comprehension of what she was saying. In making that claim, I don’t mean to minimize the urgency of questions about evil. I just mean that Rand was right to ask questions about our fascination with it, a fascination that crowds out any equivalent popular fascination with the motivational structure of virtue. For decades now, contemporary intellectuals have come to deride “sentimentality” and “kitsch” with an intensity that religious zealots reserve for “heresy” and “infidelity.” The derision sounds to me less an expression of intellectual sophistication than a symptom of fear.

I wrote a relatively long review of Reluctant Fundamentalist (the novel) for the now-defunct online journal Democratiya back in 2007. (Democratiya was an interesting left-leaning journal that gave me a warmer welcome than most Objectivist or libertarian organizations ever have.) I disliked the book, as I think the review plainly indicates, and though the novel was very well received by book critics back in 2007, movie critics have so far had rather negative things to say about the film. I find it interesting that their reasons for panning the movie echo my reasons for panning the book. I don’t usually agree with Dana Stevens, the film reviewer for Slate, but what she says about the movie is strikingly like what I said about the novel. Having said that, I found previews for the film irresistible, and I’ll probably go and see it at some point.

Cover of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"

Cover of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

An old friend of mine, Waseem Anwar, is Dean of Humanities and Professor of English at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan—the city in which the plot of Reluctant Fundamentalist takes place. Lahore is also Mohsin Hamid’s hometown, as well as the hometown of most of my extended family. Waseem happened to read my Democratiya review at some point, and knowing that I was visiting Lahore last year, invited me to discuss my review with his English classes at FCC. Thankfully (for me), university-level instruction in Pakistan is conducted entirely in English, so I didn’t have to worry about having to brush up on my Urdu to teach the class. I understand Urdu fairly well, and can speak it if I have to, but lack the fluency to have a complex literary-political discussion with anyone above the age of four.

It turned out to be a great experience, one that brought out some interesting comparisons and contrasts between Pakistani and American students. My students at Felician College tend to be quiescent, self-absorbed, politically apathetic, and reluctant (so to speak) to offer strong opinions of their own on moral and political subjects. The fifty or so students I met at FCC were just the reverse—loud, brash, politically engaged, (generally) well-informed, and astoundingly articulate in English, a second language for almost all of them. Amusingly (but to Waseem’s distress), they turned out not to be particularly interested in discussing Hamid’s novel, much less my review of it. What they were interested in was American foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. They seemed particularly eager to grill the nominally-Pakistani-but-substantively-American professor who’d taken such brazen potshots in his review at their hometown favorite. “How could I justify America’s drone policy?” they wanted to know. “And what did I think about the Raymond Davis affair?” Good questions, even if they weren’t in the syllabus, and I was happy to discuss them. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how receptive they were to my answers.  By the time class was over, I’d learned a few things about the Raymond Davis affair that I hadn’t learned from assiduous reading of American newspapers, and they learned a few things about drones (and asked a few questions about “sovereignty”) that weren’t typically addressed on Geo News. I call that progress.

I read somewhere that Mohsin Hamid came by later that year to address the same students at the same place. I don’t know what he said, but I’d be curious to find out. I somehow doubt it had anything to do with my review.

Though I didn’t particularly like Reluctant Fundamentalist, one person in the audience at FCC demanded that I say at least one nice thing about it. I hadn’t prepared for that question, but luckily for me, the question came up near the end of the 90-minute session, by which time an answer had spontaneously occurred to me. Hamid is very good at depicting the disorientation of a person who is caught between two different cultures—in this case a Pakistani caught between Pakistan and America. I find that phenomenon very much worth depicting and thinking about;  it raises deeper philosophical questions than most philosophers (in my experience) are apt to realize. In my view, Hamid does a much better job of dealing with this “cultural disorientation” theme in his non-fiction essays—many of which I enjoy and admire—than he’s done in his fiction. But whatever its literary flaws, Reluctant Fundamentalist captures something important about the “cultural disorientation” dynamic. In that respect, it belongs to the same genre as A Passage to India, Jerusalem, The Joy Luck Club, The Namesake, and The Satanic Verses, among many others. My own favorite in the genre is Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. I’ve taught Season many times (in ethics classes), and an essay of mine on the novel is due to be published soon.

Forman College, Lahore, Pakistan

Forman College, Lahore, Pakistan

What does any of this have to do with Objectivism? I’ve already mentioned one connection—the depravity/virtue issue. But there are other subtler connections as well. Many Objectivists disdain the “caught between two cultures” fictional genre, partly because so few of them have ever been caught between two cultures in the way depicted by this genre, and also because the genre demands empathetic identification by the audience with the trapped character—and empathetic identification is not exactly a trait encouraged within “the Objectivist community.” Objectivists likewise associate this genre with racism or tribalism, and shun it on the grounds that they prefer not to internalize the widespread romanticization of ethno-tribalism; it seems a capitulation to “multiculturalism,” widely seen as a bad thing by Objectivists. But there is more to multiculturalism than is dreamt of in Objectivist polemics. (For a typically reductionist and oversimplified Objectivist discussion of multiculturalism, read this. Here’s another one. And another one. Here’s a typical Objectivist attempt to defend “Western culture” without defining the term, while attacking ethnic pride, and while taking quasi-ethnic pride in “Western culture.” Here’s an uninformed “Western culturalist” attempt to defend systematic rights violations in the name of Objectivism. Here’s another.  Here’s a more reasonable discussion, but still oversimplified, and still one that leaves the “Western” in “Western culture” undefined.)

What I think Objectivists often fail to realize, however, is that they, too, are “caught between two cultures”—between “the culture of Objectivism” and the wider culture of the “non-Objectivist world.” Like immigrants, they have trouble (sometimes enormous trouble) negotiating the passage back and forth from one culture to the other. Like immigrants, they tend to be ambivalent about both cultures, and find themselves oscillating by turns between membership in the one and membership in the other. Like immigrants, they want members of each culture to understand the other culture, because they see something of value in it that those remote from it can’t see as clearly (or see at all). Like immigrants, they face questions about dual or divided loyalties. Like immigrants, they face linguistic difficulties. Like immigrants, the passage between cultures affords opportunity for assimilation as well as ghettoization, for heroism as well as tragedy or farce.To my knowledge, one of the first scholars to suggest this line of thought was Stephen Cox, who in a very perceptive essay in Will Thomas’s edited collection The Literary Art of Ayn Rand, suggested that Rand was (by virtue of her immigrant status) an outsider-looking-in at America and thus well-equipped to see what America was and re-imagine what it could be (“The Literary Achievement of The Fountainhead,” pp. 39-53). In my view, Objectivists would do well to go back back, re-read all of Cox’s Rand scholarship, read some post-colonial/immigrant literature in the light of it, and re-think what they think they know about the relationship between Objectivism and multiculturalism. Judging by the preview, the nearest showing of “Reluctant Fundamentalist” might not be a bad place to start.



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