Claudia Moscovici

My Interview about Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer in Celebrity Dialogue

Claudia Moscovici: Novelist, Non-Fiction Author & Art Critic PDF Print E-mail
March 11th, 2012
Interview of Claudia Moscovici on CelebrityDialgoue.com
Claudia Moscovici is an American Romanian Novelist, non-fiction author and art critic. Her latest novel “The Seducer” is a psychological story of a married woman trapped in the love of an unassuming psychopath. Claudia is the author of “Velvet Totalitarianism,” a critically acclaimed novel about a Romanian family’s survival in an oppressive communist regime due to the strength of their love.

CelebrityDialogue: What is the basic plot of your latest novel “The Seducer”?Claudia: “The Seducer,” my new psychological thriller, shows both the hypnotic appeal and the deadly danger of psychopathic seduction. This novel traces the downfall of a married woman, Ana, who, feeling trapped in a lackluster marriage, has a torrid affair with Michael, a man who initially seems to be her soul mate and her dream come true. Although initially torn between love for her family and her passion for Michael, Ana eventually gives in to her lover’s pressure and asks her husband for divorce. That’s when Michael’s “mask of sanity” unpeels to reveal the monstrously selfish psychopath underneath. Written in the tradition of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” my novel shows that true love can be found in our ordinary lives and relationships rather than in flimsy fantasies masquerading as great passions.
CelebrityDialogue: What inspired you to write this novel?Claudia: I have always been a big fan of nineteenth-century fiction that focuses on the theme of seduction: I’m thinking of classic novels like Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”. I also read with great interest the libertine novel tradition of the eighteenth-century: my favorite in this genre being Laclos’ epistolary novel, “Dangerous Liaisons”. I think in his depiction of Valmont, Laclos gets the seducer profile exactly right: he is a dangerous psychopath—essentially a social predator who plays games with the lives of others, having malicious fun at their expense– rather than a libertine maverick (as in Casanova) or a tragic romantic hero (as in Tolstoy). I did four years of psychology research of the most dangerous personality disorders—psychopathy and narcissism—to create a realistic and up-to-date psychological profile of the seducer in my new novel by the same name.
CelebrityDialogue: Would you like to introduce our readers to a non-fiction book, “Dangerous Liaisons”, that you wrote in 2011?

Claudia: Although the theme of psychopathy comes up mostly when we hear about (psychopathic) serial killers, it is actually much more commonplace and pervasive, in both fact and fiction. What do O. J. Simpson, Scott Peterson and the timeless seducers of literature epitomized by the figures of Don Juan and Casanova have in common? They are charismatic, glib and seductive men who also embody the most dangerous human qualities: a breathtaking callousness, shallowness of emotion and the incapacity to love. In other words, these men are psychopaths. Unfortunately, most psychopaths don’t advertise themselves as heartless social predators. They come across as charming, intelligent, friendly, generous, romantic and kind. Through their believable “mask of sanity,” they lure many of us into their dangerous nets. My nonfiction book, “Dangerous Liaisons,” explains clearly, for a general audience, what psychopaths are, why they act the way they do, how they attract us and whom they tend to target. Above all, this book helps victims find the strength to end their toxic relationships with psychopaths and move on, stronger and wiser, with the rest of their lives.

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CelebrityDialogue: What exactly is psychopathic seduction?

Claudia: Psychopathic seduction happens when someone is seduced (targeted, lured with false promises or under false premises, deceived, manipulated, isolated and brainwashed) by a psychopathic social predator. Psychopaths are far more common than one thinks. Experts estimate that between 1 and 4 percent of the population is psychopathic. This means that there are millions of psychopaths in the United States alone. The influence of these very dangerous individuals extends far beyond this percentage however. Psychopaths are generally very sociable, highly promiscuous and con countless people: sexually, emotionally and/or financially. They poison tens of millions of lives in this country and far more, of course, internationally.

Claudia Moscovici The Seducer

CelebrityDialogue: Your novel “Velvet Totalitarianism” is about a Romanian family’s survival against communist regime. Since you have Romanian roots, did any true life events prompt you to write this novel?

Claudia: “Velvet Totalitarianism”, which was recently launched in Romanian translation (“Intre Doua Lumi,” Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), is inspired in part by events in Romanian history as well as by elements from my life and my parents’ lives: including my father’s defection to the U.S., our dealings with the Securitate and our immigration. Nevertheless, I fictionalized both the historical and the biographical elements to give the novel a tighter and more dramatic structure.
CelebrityDialogue: You must have felt proud when this novel was published in Romanian language?

Claudia: I was delighted that “Velvet Totalitarianism” was published in Romania, both because it was written about the history and struggles of the Romanian people and because I have a sentimental attachment and cultural ties to my native country. I was especially happy to see how well-received the novel in translation (“Intre Doua Lumi”) was by the mainstream media in Romania, where it was featured not only in literary and culture magazines such as Scrisul Romanesc and Viata Romaneasca, but also in Forbes.ro, women’s glossy magazines (such as Revista Avantaje), and general interest blogs like Catchy.ro and VIP.net. Since I aspire to being a public writer and intellectual, I wish to reach a wide community of readers, internationally.
CelebrityDialogue: Which are your other major published works?

Claudia: I have published several scholarly books, but I’d consider “major” works only those books that I wrote for a general audience. These include my art criticism book “Romanticism and Postromanticism”, on the Romantic tradition in art and literature and its postromantic survival; my novels “Velvet Totalitarianism” and “The Seducer”, and my psychology book about psychopaths and dangerous relationships, “Dangerous Liaisons”.
CelebrityDialogue: You are the co-founder of” Postromanticism”. For those who may not know, please shed some light on this movement.

Claudia: I believe that art movements are not only diachronic, emerging one after the other, as they tend to be taught in art history, but also synchronic, in that each new art movement borrows from many aesthetic traditions of the past. Postromanticism, the international art movement I co-launched in 2002 with the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto, is no exception. It is inspired by several traditions in art history, including Neoclassicism, Romanticism and art nouveau. Postromanticism places emphasis upon beauty, sensuality and passion in contemporary art. You can see samples of postromantic art on my website, http://postromanticism.com.
CelebrityDialogue: Since you write about love, beauty and passion, what does love mean to you in real life? Were you able to find love in your life?

Claudia: Being a novelist and art/literary critic, for many years I looked mostly at fantasy—since, after all, that’s what art and fiction are–to describe love as a romantic ideal rather than as a daily lived reality. But for the past few years, particularly after studying personality disorders, I have come to appreciate much more the pragmatic and ethical dimensions of real love. To me, love implies mutual commitment, supporting one another through thick and thin, fidelity and caring about one another: everything that the wedding vows promise and that my wonderful and supportive husband, Dan Troyka, has offered me in real life for over 20 years, since we met and fell in love in college.
CelebrityDialogue: What are you working on these days?

Claudia: Since my interests are in several fields—fiction, art and psychology—I always work at several projects simultaneously. This “multitasking” keeps me from becoming bored with any one subject or stuck in a rut creatively. Right now I’m researching the psychology of cults, which will be the subject of my third novel, “The Cult”. Since cult leaders are often charismatic psychopaths, this novel will incorporate a lot of the research I’ve already done to write “The Seducer” and “Dangerous Liaisons”. In addition, I have just finished writing the preface for an exciting new science fiction novel called “The Cube”, written in the tradition of Huxley’s “Brave New World” and Orwell’s “1984”, which will be published by my publisher in a few months. At the same time, I’m working closely with the Romanian-born movie producer Bernard Salzman, whom you’ve already interviewed in Celebrity Dialogue, on the screenplay for my first novel, “Velvet Totalitarianism”. Hopefully this will be an American-Romanian production, since a large part of the plot takes place in Romania. I also continue with my art criticism and am preparing for the launch of “Romanticism and Postromanticism”, translated by the writer and critic Dumitru Radu Popa, in Romania next fall. It’s a Latin country so I’m hoping for a warm reception of postromanticism, the art of passion!
CelebrityDialogue: Thank you so much Claudia. It was a pleasure.

Claudia: Thank you for this interview, the pleasure was mine.

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March 11, 2012 Posted by | Bernard Salzman Velvet Totalitarianism, book review, Celebrity Dialogue Bernard Salzman, Celebrity Dialogue Claudia Moscovici, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Nat Karody The Cube | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on My Interview about Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer in Celebrity Dialogue

Confessions of A Would-be Salonnière: My Favorite Twenty-first Century Salons

When I openened a twitter account a few months ago, it wasn’t difficult to find the phrase that best captures me: “Born in the wrong century, a would-be salonnière.” Ever since college, when I first learned about Marquise de Rambouillet–the refined hostess who led the most talented artists and writers of her day in scintillating intellectual discussions in the elegant alcove of her drawing room–I knew that I had missed my opportunity and true calling in life. Sure, women may be able to be and do whatever they want today. Society is less sexist, more democratic. But in an era when entertainment news outdoes even socio-political news in popularity and readership, what hope is there for placing art, literature and philosophy at the center of public attention again?

The main problem I encountered in being a contemporary salonnière was: Where are the salons? Most academic discourse struck me as too technical and specialized to draw a large audience. Fortunately, while an undergraduate at Princeton University, I had the enormous privilege to study with scholars who epitomized the salon tradition of worldly intellectuals: Professor Robert Fagles, translator of Homer’s epic poems, and Professor Victor Brombert,  a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, who encouraged my love for world literature and culture to the point where I decided to pursue Comparative Literature for both my undergraduate and graduate studies. Many years later, I discovered quite a number of online salons, where writers, artists and intellectuals converge to discuss their works, in a clear, interesting and sophisticated fashion. I’d like to share with you some of my favorite contemporary salons. 

Litkicks.com. I discovered Litkicks ( http://www.litkicks.com/) in October 2009, when I found on the internet an article about a fellow Romanian-born writer, Herta Müller. The article was called “Herta Who?” by Dedi Felman and it was about the dissident writer’s recently awarded Nobel Prize in Literature. At that point, the founder of Litkicks, Levi Asher, also wrote a brief note on the blog about my recently published novel on similar themes, Velvet Totalitarianism, 2009/Intre Doua Lumi, 2011. We got in touch by email and I became a regular reader and occasional contributor on the blog. Litkicks features articles on literature, poetry, art, philosophy, music, cinema and politics.

Levi was a software developer (and culture lover) on Wall Street when he started Litkicks.com in 1994, which became, along with Salon.com, a pioneer culture blog. The website was originally launched to support Beat Generation poetry and experimental fiction. Over the years, it has expanded its scope to include contemporary literature in general, essays on nineteenth and twentieth-century French poetry and fiction (including Michael Norris‘s excellent essays on Proust), lively political articles, and Levi’s top-notch Philosophy Series. Litkicks includes articles on established authors published by the big publishing houses as well as reviews about talented independent writers published by smaller presses. The blog has thousands of readers a day, but thanks to a loyal following of regular contributors and commentators, it retains the intimate feel of a community of friends engaged in intellectual discussions and debates.

Catchy.ro. Founded in 2010 by the Romanian journalist Mihaela Carlan, Catchy.ro (http://www.catchy.ro/) is quickly catching on as Romania’s premier blog. Discussing all aspects of art, entertainment, politics and culture, Catchy.ro is inspired by the highly successful The Huffington Post, founded by Arianna Huffington in 2005 and recently acquired by AOL for a whopping 315 million dollars. Part of The Huffington Post‘s enormous success stems from Arianna Huffington’s pull and connections with wealthy investors. To offer just one notable example, in August 2006, SoftBank Capital invested 5 milliion dollars in the company. However, its success can also be attributed to the high quality of its articles and the popularity of its over 9000 contributors. Without question, The Huffington Post gathered some of the best bloggers in every field it features. Moreover, the blog has not merely adapted, but also stayed one step ahead of the curve in its use of technology, recently introducing “vlogging“–or video blogging–which is taking off and making journalism even more multimedia and interactive.

If I mention Catchy’s precursor in some detail, it’s because I believe these are also some of the features that have helped the Romanian blog grow so quickly during the past year, since its inception. Catchy “like a woman” targets primarily a female audience. But ultimately its panel of excellent journalists–with expertise ranging from art, to literature, to philosophy, to music, to fashion to pop culture and, above all, to the most fundamental aspects of human life itself, like health, love and marriage–draws a much broader audience of both genders and every age group. Like The Huffington Post, Catchy.ro also treads perfectly the line between intellectual writing and pop culture, providing intelligently written articles for a general audience. As some of the more traditional Romanian newspapers have struggled and a few even collapsed, the up-and-coming blog Catchy.ro shows that in every country adaptation is the key to success.

Agonia.net.  Started by the technology expert and culture promoter Radu Herinean in 2010, Agonia.net (http://english.agonia.net/index.php) is a rapidly expanding international literary blog. It includes sections on prose, screenplays, poetry, criticism and essays. Agonia.net has the following assets: a) it publishes well-regarded writers and intellectuals, b) it’s contributor-run so that it can grow exponentially and internationally (with sections in English, French, Spanish, Romanian and several other languages in the works) and c) it has a team of great editors that monitor its posts and maintain high quality standards. Agonia. net improves upon the model of online creative writing publishing pioneered by websites like Wattpad.com, which are contributor-run but have no editorial monitoring. Because of lack of editorial control, Wattpad.com has not been taken seriously by readers and publishers despite its vast popularity with contributors. Any literary blog that has a chance at being successful has to have the capacity for handling a large number of incoming contributions while also maintaining reliable editorial standards. Agonia.net seems to have mastered this delicate balance.

In participating in these exciting artistic, literary and intellectual forums, I’m starting to feel like my calling as a 21st century salonnière might not be an anachronism after all. I invite you to explore each of them and see which ones fit your talents and interests best. 

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

November 9, 2011 Posted by | Agonia.net, Agonia.ro, Arianna Huffington, book review, catchy.ro, Claudia Moscovici, communist Romania, Confessions of A Would-be Salonnière: My Favorite Twenty-first Century Salons, contemporary fiction, culture blogs, Diana Evantia Barca, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi, Levi Asher, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, litkicks.com, Mihaela Carlan, Princeton University, Radu Herinean, salon, salonnière, salons, The Huffington Post, Velvet Totalitarianism, Victor Brombert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Multimedia Launch of Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi) in Romania

I’m happy to report that my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, was launched in Romanian translation (by Mihnea Gafita) under the title Intre Doua Lumi (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011). The presentation will include my talk about the book as well as a book trailer produced by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video produced by Andy (Soundland) Platon (see the below). This was the first multimedia launch, in which a book trailer and music video accompanied the presentations of the novel.

The political commentator Adrian Cioroianu, the literary critic Alex Stefanescu and the film producer Stere Gulea introduced my novel in light of their respective fields. The book launch took place at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest (ICR Bucuresti) on September 21, 2011 at 18:00 p.m. (Aleea Alexandru nr. 38, sector 1, 011824, Bucuresti, România).  

This novel is being made into a movie by the Romanian-American cinematographer Bernard Salzman (http://bernardsalzman.com/)

I’m pasting below the Advance Praise for my novel as well as Diana Evantia Barca‘s article about it in Catchy.ro and Anca Lapusneanu‘s article about it (and intellectual freedom) in Revista VIP.

Advance Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi

A deeply felt, deftly rendered novel of the utmost importance to any reader interested in understanding totalitarianism and its terrible human cost. Urgent, evocative, and utterly convincing, Velvet Totalitarianism is a book to treasure, and Claudia Moscovici is indeed a writer to watch, now and into the future.

–Travis Holland, author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Archivist’s Story, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

Claudia Moscovici’s first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, triumphs on several levels: as a taut political thriller, as a meditation on totalitarianism, as an expose of the Ceausescu regime, and as a moving fictionalized memoir of one family’s quest for freedom.

–Ken Kalfus, author of the novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country

 (2006 National Book Award nominee), of The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003) and of PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies (1999).

Western intellectuals have often blurred the fundamental differences between the imperfect free world they have been fortunate to enjoy and the totalitarian world of communism they never had the misfortune to endure.  Claudia Moscovici’s Velvet Totalitarianism is a powerful corrective to that ivory tower distortion of reality.  Moscovici makes her readers viscerally feel the corrosive psychological demoralization and numbing fear totalitarian regimes impose on those who live under them.  At the same time, with style and wit, and informed by her experiences as a child in communist Romania and then as an immigrant in the United States, she tells a story of resilience and hope.  Velvet Totalitarianism is a novel well worth reading, both for its compelling narrative and for its important message.

–Michael Kort, Professor of Social Science at Boston University and author of the best-selling textbook, The Soviet ColossusHistory and Aftermath

This vivid novel by Claudia Moscovici, historian of ideas and wide-ranging literary critic, traces a family of Jewish-Romanian refugees from the stifling communist dictatorship of their homeland through their settling in the United States during the 1980’s. This fascinating and compelling story is at once historically accurate, exciting, sexy and a real page-turner. Ms. Moscovici is as sensitive to the emotions of her characters as to their political entanglements.

–Edward K. Kaplan, Kevy and Hortense Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities at Brandeis University and author of Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Moving between extraordinary and ordinary lives, between Romania and the United States, velvet totalitarianism and relative freedom, dire need and consumerism, evoking her Romanian experience in the seventies, the emigration to the U.S. of her family in the eighties, and the 1989 uprising in Timisoara and Bucharest that marked the end of Ceausescu’s regime, Claudia Moscovici offers her readers a multifaceted book—Velvet Totalitarianism—that is at once a love story, a political novel and a mystery. Love is the last resort left to people in order to counter totalitarianism under Ceausescu’s rule. It keeps families united, allowing them to resist indoctrination and hardship and to make sure their children enjoy the carefree beautiful years that are their due. Love gives the protagonist of the novel the strength to overcome cultural differences between Romania and the U.S. and to invent in turn a form of personal happiness in a context that, while far from being as harsh as her initial one, does not lack its own problems.

– Sanda Golopentia, Professor of French, Brown University

Cold historical facts and figures tend to leave us emotionally indifferent. The impact of a nation’s tragic events on one single person or family is much better understood and more profoundly felt. This is what makes Claudia Moscovici’s book, Velvet Totalitarianism, so very special. Her novel is prefaced by a well-researched history of Romania under communism. Depending on one’s point of view, Moscovici’s work could be considered as the fictionalized story of a real Jewish-Romanian family under communism, based on her own recollections and that of her family and supported by true historical facts; or a brief history supported by the fictionalized story of a real family. It’s a book well worth reading. The novel is a page-turner, witty and well written.

–Nicolae Klepper, author of the best-selling book, Romania: An Illustrated History.

September 3, 2011 Posted by | Adrian Cioroianu, Advance Praise for Velvet Totalitarianism, Alex Stefanescu, Anca Lapusneanu, Andy Soundland Platon, Bernard Salzman, Bernard Salzman Intre Doua Lumi, Bernard Salzman Velvet Totalitarianism, book launch of Intre Doua Lumi, book review, catchy.ro, Claudia Moscovici, Claudia Moscovici si Libertatea Intelectuala, Claudiu Ciprian Popa, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Curtea Veche Publishing, curteaveche.ro, Diana Evantia Barca, Editura Curtea Veche, fiction, ICR Bucharest, ICR Bucuresti, Intre Doua Lumi, Intre Doua Lumi by Claudia Moscovici, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Mihaela Carlan, Mihnea Gafita, Revista VIP Velvet Totalitarianism, Romanian Cultural Institute, Stere Gulea, Velvet Love, Velvet Love by Andy Platon, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Dystopic Utopias in Speculative Fiction and Art

 

There are several great novels associated with the dystopic utopia tradition, but without a doubt four of the most notable are: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Such novels distinguish themselves from both fantasy and science fiction. In an interview, Atwood stated that she prefers the name “speculative fiction,” a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein, to describe A Handmaid’s Tale (NY: First Anchor Books Edition, 1998): “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships. Speculative fiction could really happen.” (“Aliens have taken the place of angels: Margaret Atwood on why we need science fiction,” The Guardian, June 2005). Speculative fiction has become an umbrella term that includes utopian and dystopic fiction as well as apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, some of which may also be considered to be science fiction or fantasy. The best speculative fiction, I believe, reveals what has already begun to happen and extrapolates with amazing lucidity how social and political ideals can turn into our worst nightmares. Every utopic ideology, from Marxism to eugenics and from primitivism to technocracy, has within it the seeds of its own dystopic undoing. Each one shows part of what has happened in our cultures and how things could get a lot worse.

 

Margaret Atwood’s novel illustrates what could take place in any culture or society where the women’s movement joins forces with the radical right to create a “purer” society.  In such a world, “freedom to” (dress as one wants, choose one’s profession and life partner) becomes “freedom from” (being a sex object, having too many choices of partners, location or profession). But “freedom from” is only a euphemism for lack of civil rights, for constraint, for invisibility itself (as women are enshrouded in a veil and even wear blinders on top of their heads, so they can’t see or be seen). It is a dystopic utopia; a contradiction in terms. Some societies have already implemented such a “freedom from” in the name of various religious or political ideologies. However, as Atwood underscores, no society—even the most seemingly open-minded and liberal–is immune to it. Totalitarian constraints can happen anywhere, even in the U.S, which, in fact, is the setting for her novel.

 

While Margaret Atwood envisions a danger that could happen, George Orwell describes a social experiment that did happen.  To many who have lived through the totalitarian phase of communism in Eastern Europe, as I have, Orwell’s 1984 is, in many respects, a historical novel: one that goes hand in hand with Robert Conquest’s monumental history, The Great Terror.  Newspeak, thought police, brainwashing; the physical and psychological torture of political prisoners to confess to nonexistent crimes and the show trials were all part and parcel of how the NKVD and other Secret Police organizations ruled  with an iron fist during communist dictatorships. O’Brien, the Thought Police agent in the novel, states the open secret of totalitarian regimes: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” (1984, NY: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1949,  p. 272)

Perhaps the only speculative aspect of Orwell’s utopic dystopia is, as O’Brien himself points out, that those put on show trials die purified of their thought crimes and convinced of the righteousness of the new regime. They often are not, as were the victims of Stalinist purges, the embittered martyrs of a lost freedom. O’Brien promises Winston: “I shall save you, I shall make you perfect” (251). Perfection in 1984 is a world with no objective parameters of truth and falsehood or of right and wrong. It is a world in which the past is a convenient fiction for the present; a world where the difference between fear and blind trust is obliterated.  The Thought Police aims not merely to oppress man, but also to gaslight him: to get him to accept relativism without question. “We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him,” states O’Brian (263). He pursues: “We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him… Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation” (263).

 

By their very nature, utopias are ideological and dogmatic. They often represent a reaction to one form of constraint or dogmatism with an equally strong reaction in the opposite direction.   Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (NY: HarperCollins, 1932) probes another aspect of ideological dreams that could easily turn into nightmares: the social experiments of eugenics and the supposed biological justifications for social hierarchies and castes. Written during a time when the Nazi party was already starting to implement eugenic policies—described, in some ways, in the novel–Brave New World doesn’t spare democratic societies its sharp social critiques either.   Huxley describes the dangers that capitalism and industrialization, if left unchecked, can pose for humanity. Human beings are reduced to little more than automatons, consuming mood altering drugs and engaging in ritualistic sexual activities to compensate for lack of thought and the superficial and impersonal nature of their emotional ties.

 

Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NY: Random House, 1953) issues a powerful warning against censorship: books are burned because of their dangerous, potentially conflagrating ideological effects. However, as the author states in an interview in the late 1950’s, the novel also touches upon the alienation among people caused by an excess of information and too much exposure to the mass media: “But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog… The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. … There she was, oblivious to the man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleepwalking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction” (quoted by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, NY: Ayer Co. Publishing, 1975). Obviously, the author’s critique can be exponentially multiplied today, when most of our human contacts are mediated by ipods, computers, twittering, Facebook and other technological gadgets and social/mass media networks.  The future is already here. Each of these speculative novels not only predicted it, but also critiqued it in a way that remains very current.

Why are these speculative novels still relevant and important today? I’d like to explore this question by using as my point of departure a few famous quotes by leading writers and intellectuals.

1.“Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world.” H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia

Any society is flawed; any political institution, no matter how inclusive or democratic, has some corruption, inequality and unfairness in it. Utopian visions hone in on those weaknesses and injustices to imagine a better world, a world without these flaws. They function, in some ways, as a magnifying glass that allows us to see better the problems with our societies and institutions and as a mirror to imagine their obverse side.

2. “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Almost every speculative novel is, in many respects, more multidimensional and more lucid than any political ideology was or ever could be. It captures both sides of the coin: the utopic vision and its dystopic, more realistic downsides. As Hawthorne puts it: both the ground you build a better society upon and the place you segregate its outlaws and its casualties.

3. “All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.” Toni Morrison, Online NewsHour interview, March 9, 1998

Utopic visions offer the best vantage point for social critiques. As Morrison points out, they are almost always correctives for hierarchies and injustices in the real world of the have’s from the perspective of the have not’s.  Since each society has so many distinctions and hierarchies, the have’s and the have not’s are not a binary dichotomy (between races or classes), but more of a fractal of many social and cultural dichotomies.

4. “Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache… Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell, Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun

Utopic visions will always exist because nothing in our world can ever be perfect. We will always suffer from the “toothaches” Orwell alludes to. There will always be something wrong with our social and political institutions, no matter what they are. The need to imagine a world without whatever specific flaws we choose to focus on in our societies is therefore also inevitable. We will temporarily see in those utopic visions a better society. However, as Orwell points out, in reality, we might only be exchanging a toothache for a headache, or one problem for another.

5. “In the next few years the struggle will not be between utopia and reality, but between different utopias, each trying to impose itself on reality… We can no longer hope to save everything, but… we can at least try to save lives, so that some kind of future, if perhaps not the ideal one, will remain possible.” (Albert Camus, Between Hell and Reason)

As a counterpoint to Orwell’s cynicism, we can safely say that not all utopias (or dystopias, depending upon your perspective) are equal. Some hells are hotter than others; some political and social structures worse than the next. Utopic visions offer a horizon of possibility. They enable human beings to at least try to aspire to creating better social institutions and governments.

6. “Life without utopia is suffocating, for the multitude at least: threatened otherwise with petrifaction, the world must have a new madness.” E. M. Cioran, History and Utopia

A world without utopic visions is a world deprived of imagination, where one only sees what is and remains blind to what could be. Utopias enable us to dream and envision another way of life, perhaps a better world. They are healthy fantasies and necessary regulative ideals: as long as we remember their dangers and undersides, as each of these great writers reminds us.

 Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

 

July 21, 2011 Posted by | 1984, Aldous Huxley, Alex Bustillo, Alex M. Bustillo, Bataille, book review, book reviews, Brave New World, Claudia Moscovici, communism, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Dan St. Andrei, dystopic utopias, Eastern Europe, Eroticism, Fahrenheit 451, fantasy, fiction, George Orwell, historical fiction, history, Holocaust, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, mainstream fiction, Margaret Atwood, Myopia, photographer Alex Bustillo, photographer Dan St. Andrei, Ray Bradbury, Romanticism and Postromanticism, science fiction, speculative fiction, Story of the Eye, The Handmaid's Tale, utopia, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature

 

 

In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini mandated that all Iranian women must observe an Islamic dress code, which included wearing the veil, under the threat of death for those who refused to abide by these laws. This happened at about the same time that the totalitarian leader of my own country, Nicolae Ceausescu, was starting to impose draconian measures on Romanian women. Between the years 1979 and 1989, Ceausescu instituted a series of laws that controlled women’s sexuality and reproduction by banning birth control and abortion. This was part of his narcissistic fantasy of doubling the population of the country, so that he could have more power. Eventually, as I described in my novel Velvet Totalitarianism, such measures lead to tens of thousands of unwanted children, many of which were placed in unimaginably bad conditions in the infamous Romanian orphanages. To my mind, both measures—in Iran and in Romania–represented a way of establishing power over women rather than being a reflection of religious or ideological (communist) values.

Having been sensitized early in life to these displays of totalitarian power, many years later, when I read Azar Nafisi‘s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), I was especially moved by the author’s critique of the uses of the veil to control Iranian women’s bodies. I was also very impressed by her creative allusions to Anglo-American literary history—the book is divided into four sections–Lolita, Gatsby, James and Austen–to launch her compelling cultural critiques. Many of you have probably already read this book, but if you haven’t, I highly recommend it. Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, about a sociopathic sexual predator whose fetish is prepubescent girls functions as Nafisi’s main metaphor for Iranian laws, which, she states, imposed “a dream upon our reality, turning us into figments of imagination.” These female figments are objects of simultaneous control and temptation: temptation through prohibition by hiding the female body.

Recently, I ran across the images of an artist who, I believe, launches an equally powerful and creative critique of the veil by unveiling women. Majeed Benteeha is an Iranian-born photographer, poet and aspiring film producer. Moving back and forth between Tehran and New York City, he simultaneously combines and clashes both worlds, in a spectacular mix that challenges cultural assumptions on both fronts. His images often feature veiled women posing nude in an iconic fashion that seems more sacred than profane. Benteenha’s strikingly original photography violates religious orthodoxies–about feminine modesty, about the religious and social connotations of the veil–only to show us another way to respect women and all that they represent: love, maternity, sensuality, desire, intelligence.

His images are simple, beautiful, erotic and dramatic. They include symbols associated with the Muslim faith, but also seem very European in many respects. Perhaps unwittingly, Beenteha’s photography alludes to works like L’Erotisme, by the French anthropologist and philosopher Georges Bataille, which presents the sacred as inextricably related to the profane: not just for Muslim societies, but for all cultures in general. Bataille famously states: “The essence of morality is a questioning about morality and the decisive move of human life is to use ceaselessly all light to look for the origin of the opposition between good and evil.” It seems that is precisely what Beenteha’s artistic short film below underscores, in its mirroring and contrast between a universal modernity and Muslim tradition; between light and dark; between masculine and feminine; between tenderness and predation; between desire and contempt. You can view his photography and artistic films on the links below.

http://www.youtube.com/user/ClaudiaMoscovici#p/a/f/0/Mv3P-3kPfzo

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com


June 3, 2011 Posted by | Ayatollah Khomeini, Azar Nafisi, book review, book reviews, books, Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, controlling women's bodies, controlling women's sexuality, critiques of the veil, Iran, Islamic dress code, literary criticism, literature, Lolita, Majeed Benteeha, Majeed Benteeha photography, Nicolae Ceausescu, Photographer Majeed Beenteeha, photography, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Romania, Romanian orphanages, sensual photography, sociopath, sociopathy, Surrealism, the veil, Velvet Totalitarianism | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Unveiling the Veil in Contemporary Iranian Art and Literature