Author: Mohammad Ali Jazayery
Source: Int. Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol.13, No.3 (Aug.1981), pp. 311-327
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Source: Int. Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol.13, No.3 (Aug.1981), pp. 311-327
Published by: Cambridge University Press
2. THE DEBATE ON PERSIAN POETRY BETWEEN KASRAVI AND HIS OPPONENTS
In his extensive work on Iranian society and its problems, Ahmad Kasravi (1890-1946), Iranian scholar, jurist, and social thinker, identified much of Classical Persian poetry as a major source of those problems. He discussed his views in a series of articles, in public lectures, and in two books dealing exclusively with the subject. In addition, he touched on the subject, in passages short and long, in many others of his hundreds of articles and dozens of monographs and books, published between 1934 and 1946, when he was assassinated.
The first part of this article presented a sketch of Kasravi's life, the premises underlying his social writings, including those on literature,and his analysis of the poetry of the four major Persian poets Khayyam, Rumi, Sa'di, and Hafiz. According to this analysis, Classical Persian poetry is replete with injurious doctrines such as fatalism, sufism, and nonchalance toward life; it contains excessive praise of wine and shameless talk of homosexuality; and it encourages such despicable qualities as flattery, cowardice, and hypocrisy. Kasravi believed these and similar doctrines and qualities to be incompatible with a decent, honorable, democratic way of life which he desired for Iranians, and to the attainment of which he consecrated all of his adult life; and he attacked the poetry which he felt has been responsible for instilling these doctrines and qualities in Iranians.
Kasravi's pronouncements on Persian poets could not go unnoticed, and soon attracted attention. There was, from the very beginning, some sympathetic response; but it was rather limited.The negative reaction, however, was quite strong. It is with the reaction to these views in Iran that the present installment of this paper deals. It does so in three sections: (A) The public response and the official reaction; (B) the emotional and sentimental reactions, and Kasravi's response to them; and (C) the logical, or pseudological arguments raised by Kasravi's opponents in defense of the poets, and his answers to them.
A. THE PUBLIC RESPONSE AND THE OFFICIAL REACTION
After the publication of Kasravi's first articles on the subject, a number of people responded, either through letters, or in articles of their own. A few, including some poets, expressed agreement with him. Some thanked him for having opened their eyes, saying that, upon reexamining the works of certain of their favorite poets, they had discovered that they no longer enjoyed their poetry, and in fact found much of it meaningless. Some of the poets confessed that, upon rereading their own poems, they could not make head or tail of them, and did not know how they could have written such nonsense. A few of them pledged to change their ways and thenceforth to limit their poetry to moral and other acceptable themes. One or two destroyed their own compositions. Sometimes a person would go to Kasravi in a rage, reproaching him for discrediting Sa'di, Hafiz, or some other poet; but, when Kasravi quoted verses from the poet and asked that person to explain what they meant, the person would find himself unable to do so, and would back out, confessing surprise at his own former inability to notice the poem's meaninglessness.
In fact, a movement of sorts appeared in support of Kasravi's views, at least in Tehran, almost exclusively among the moderately educated. For example, a group of young people, including some high-school students, thought of establishing a society for "fighting against the harm done by the poets." At the Officers College in Tehran, a cadet gave a talk on "how the fighting spirit has been taken away from Iranians and how it can be returned to them." The speaker blamed this loss of the fighting spirit on certain poets more than on anybody else. Such favorable response, however, was far from common, and, even where it existed, was not infrequently temporary, and soon turned out to have been somewhat superficial. We shall see, however, that greater and more widespread support for Kasravi appeared several years later. The opposition to Kasravi was very great and deep, and since Kasravi was persistent in his views, it grew stronger and deeper as time went on. In some cases it turned into outright hostility. There were, in fact, repercussions beyond verbal and reasoned argument. Even the Government, at its highest levels, became involved. This should not be difficult to understand, for the Government interfered in almost every thing, and had the press under tight control through very rigid censorship. Ministerial and other powerful positions were held by men deeply rooted in the poetic tradition some of them poets themselves, and they were intolerant of views unacceptable to them most of all of such unorthodox views on Persian poetry, views which seemed to many to seek to uproot a major pillar of Iran's ancient and glorious culture, if not its very foundation. Typical of the reaction of the educated elite was an article by Professor Sa'id Nafisi. It was entitled "Hafiz Is Not a Source of Disgrace" the title alluding to Kasravi's comment that "Hafiz is a source of disgrace." Nafisi does not mention Kasravi by name practically none of his opponents did, especially while he was alive; but there is no doubt that Kasravi was the target of Nafisi's attack. The article is an emotional reaction, rather than a critical discussion. It begins thus: In our city there recently have appeared some people who say that Hafiz is a source of disgrace. For the Iranian nation which has clearly shown its praise for this passionate-hearted, sweet-tongued, free-spirited man of Shiraz, and has given him a status similar to that of the prophets, what I am sayingis not new. From Azerbaijan to Kirman and from Khurasan to Khuzistan, there is no one who considers Hafiz a source of disgrace to his land. These few lines of mine [i.e., the article] are [written] so that if someone comes across this dim-sighted view while [studying] the history of Iran and, a few hundred years hence, reads what these nouveau riches, fledgeling Johnny-come-latelies have said, will not assume that, in our days, we agreed with them [i.e., the detractors of Hafiz], that anyone else has believed this unsound idea. Nafisi goes on in this vein for several pages. Kasravi's articles on poetry triggered a series of lectures at the prestigious Anjuman-i Adabi (Literary Society) in Tehran, at that time quite active. These lectures were given by Nafisi, Dr. Sadiq Rizazadeh Shafaq, both of the University of Tehran, and Sheykh al-Mulk Owrang, a Majlis deputy." Soon, the Society, which numbered among its members practically all the important men of letters, including a large number of poets, invited Kasravi to present his views at one of its meetings. He did so in a lecture in 1935. The Society, after discussions, came to the conclusion that from then on poems should be composed in six specified subject-matter areas, and that ghazals were no longer to be written. The text of Kasravi's lecture to the Literary Society was to be published in his journal Peyman. After the first installment appeared, however, Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Furughi, having read it, ordered the police to suppress the following issue, which was to contain the final portion. Kasravi's meeting with Furughi failed to have the order rescinded. The journal came out without the pages containing the text of the lecture. These pages were sent to the subscribers a year later. A more serious repercussion involved Kasravi's University of Tehran position, and occurred soon after Kasravi's attitude toward poetry and his attacks on Persian poets became known. At that time, the Majlis had just passed a law governing the employment of professors for the newly founded University of Tehran. Kasravi was among those who were eligible to be appointed to the new rank of Ustad "professor." He was not given this rank, however, and he explained the reason some years later: One day, while at the Ministry of Education on some business, he called on Mr. Ali Asghar Hikmat, the minister. Hikmat complained to Kasravi about the latter's writings on Hafiz. He was actually referring, as Kasravi explained to him, to a letter to Kasravi written by a reader and recently published in Peyman. The reader had said that (after reading Kasravi's articles) he no longer enjoyed Hafiz. In fact, he said, he could no longer understand many of Hafiz's poems, could not make any sense of them. He had then quoted a ghazal and had asked the other readers to help him in making sense of it. Kasravi called Hikmat's attention to the content of the reader's letter, and a discussion between the two followed. At the end of the meeting, Hikmat told Kasravi that he would be appointed a professor only if he would retract what he had said on Persian poets. Kasravi refused to do so, and gave up the professorship. There were other retributions and acts of hostility toward Kasravi. He was soon isolated from the academic establishment and isolated himself from it. To be sure, his literary judgments were not the only reason for this isolation; Kasravi held unorthodox views in practically all domains of life, and made no secret of them. But the generation of scholars to which he belonged including, among others, Sa'id Nafisi, Abbas Iqbal, Ghulamriza Rashid Yasimi, Dr. Sadiq Rizazadeh Shafaq were more offended by his observations on Persian poetry than on anything else. In August, 1941, in the wake of the British and USSR occupation of Iran and the consequent abdication of Riza Shah Pahlavi, censorship was removed, freedom of speech was restored, and organized political activity was once again permitted. Kasravi and his group, the Azadigan, became more active in spreading his views, their publications became more numerous and much more widely read, and they started the daily paper Parcham, thus reaching a larger audience. A new and extremely active period began in Kasravi's social-reform activities, including those in the field of Persian poetry, to which he devoted several series of editorials in Parcham. Support for Kasravi's ideas and opposition to them both increased and became vociferous. Not much was written by Kasravi's opponents. The few written attacks on him still did not usually mention him by name. For example, the poet Vahid Dastgirdi, in an article attacking the Farhangistan (Iranian Language Academy), used the occasion, in passing, to attack Kasravi for his views on language purification and for his attacks on the poets "heavenly books." The passage reads in part: Was it, and is it, proper that some babbler of balderdash, a pretender to prophethood, a performer of miracles of uttering nonsensical words, should, in some black sheets, insult Sa'di, Hafiz, Mowlavi and others, who are infact the source of Iran's honor and dignity, and the mainstay of this country's greatness; and to publish his insult with complete freedom in the country of Sa'di and Hafiz? If written discussions were scarce, verbal debate was extensive as well as intensive. Lectures and discussion sessions were held at the meetings of the Azadigan in many parts of the country, and were attended by many. There were heated conversations in homes, on the streets, in schools. Opposing factions formed upon the most casual introduction of the topic. High school students in some cities rose in intellectual rebellion, especially in literature classes, challenging their teachers and sometimes suffering for their boldness. Kasravi and those who sympathized with him were attacked in the Iranian Parliament and other official bodies. Ali Dashti, a well-known politician and fiction writer, for example, at the time (and for many years before and after) a member of the Majlis, said, in part, during the discussion of the program of a newly appointed prime minister and his cabinet: All of those things which should curb people's passions have disappeared. I shall mention a small example, although it is from the field of literature. Those gentlemen here who are familiar with literature know that Sa'di in Persian is similar to the Quran in the Arabic language; that is to say, it is a miracle of eloquence. Hafiz, with that high mindedness, is a source of honor and pride for Iran. In other words, if a nation had only Hafiz, it could pride itself. Mowlavi has a book which is truly perhaps unique in its greatness in the world. Unfortunately, there is a group in Iran today that says these things should be burned. This is all a sign of rebellion. After mentioning Shi'ism, which was also attacked by Kasravi, Dashti asks if "this spirit of insolence and rebellion . . . should not be put to an end." There were also hints on Radio Tehran broadcasts. One speaker, for example, said, in obvious reference to Kasravi and his supporters, that "those who impudently attack poets are ignorant." Saham ad-Din Ghaffari, the chief of the Idari-yi Tablighat (Propaganda Department), in a speech broadcast on Radio Tehran, said, "We must not permit those who oppose poets to gain power." In short, what may be called a Great Debate was on throughout the land. From the classrooms to the halls of Majlis, from newspaper offices to literary circles, students and teachers, politicians and journalists, were involved in a nationwide argument. Emotions ran high on both sides, but more on the side of Kasravi's opponents. A Tehran newspaper, Azad, called for a national trial (Muhakimi-yi Milli) for Kasravi for his persistent attacks on poets. Ironically, the Azad demand was answered by a surge however small of pro-Kasravi sentiment. Having read, or otherwise been informed of, the Azad demand, a number of people sent articles to Parcham supporting Kasravi, who began publishing these articles, announcing that, in response to Azad's demand, he was opening a column, "Davari-yi Tudeh" (People's Judgment) for publishing a number of articles received. After this announcement appeared, other readers sent articles. Some fifty of these articles were published before the paper was suspended a few months later. These articles were written mostly by younger people, including students, and often had a confessional tone. Despite the fact that the support of Kasravi was greater and more widespread during this period than it had been before, reaction to Kasravi's writings on poetry continued to be mostly negative, often quite hostile, sometimes violent. He was widely challenged. Many of his opponents were as unyielding in their opposition as he was in his attacks, and were even louder in voicing their opposition. They objected to his ideas on various grounds, and raised a number of arguments. It is to these that we now turn.
B. EMOTIONAL AND SENTIMENTAL ARGUMENTS
Kasravi's attacks on Persian poets drew profoundly emotional responses. Nor is this surprising in a country where the love of poetry is instilled in school children, is disseminated and strengthened through the printed page (and, more recently, also through radio and television), and where reverence for poetry and the poets is, by rumor and osmosis, transferred even to the generally unquestioning illiterate. These emotional responses consisted of arguments and comments based on presuppositions whose sole justification was sentimental, and which those who held them felt needed no logical substantiation. These arguments were, strictly speaking, external to the issues, though not necessarily any less strongly believed in by those who advanced them; indeed they were even given a patriotic aspect. For example, it was claimed by many that poets are extraordinary men, and that we, ordinary people, are unable to understand what they have said. If what they say seems to make no sense, or to make objectionable sense, the fault is in our ignorance. Kasravi replied that, to begin with, the function of speech is to communicate, to make one's self understood. Why should a poet or anybody say something that cannot be comprehended? Sensible, meaningful speech can be understood even when it is on the loftiest level. It is senseless gibberish that cannot be understood and deciphered. Besides, he asked those who made the claim, if they were not able to understand what the poets have said, how did they know that the poets were superior men? How did they know that they were not vile, corrupt people? Finally, he said to them, "You, who admit to your own ignorance, are certain not to understand what we are saying why, then, are you arguing with us?" In the same vein, Kasravi's opponents told him that poets were great men, and asked how he dared insult them. To them, poets were sources of national pride, and to attack them was not only wrong, but also unpatriotic. Kasravi asked what they meant by "great men." By what standards was greatness to be measured? Not getting an answer - at least a clear and satisfactory one - he answered his own question, using his own criteria of greatness. A person is "great," he said, who renders mankind - or, at least, his (or her) own people - some great service, who does some great good, whose efforts benefit mankind in some significant area of life. For example, a person who helps people in a crisis - a famine, an epidemic, a flood - or fights his people's enemies, or saves people from a tyrant, or provides positive and useful intellectual or spiritual leadership, or lessens mankind's pain and suffering through helpful scientific discoveries or inventions, is a great person. He then pointed out that none of the major poets he was attacking met these tests of greatness. Indeed, he cited the specific cases of Sa'di and Attar who lived during the Mongol holocaust and did not lift a finger to help their fellowmen. Sa'di, in fact, encouraged cowardice and hypocrisy. Many of the poets, he said, were idle parasites, singing the praise of kings and princes, many of whom were worthless people of objectionable character, or savage tyrants. How could such people be considered great, he asked rhetorically. Kasravi's opponents told him that many Persian poets enjoyed fame in Europe and America, where they were highly praised. They reminded him that Khayyam had been translated into many languages, that Goethe had admired Hafiz, that Orientalists spent lifetimes studying and writing about Persian poets and their works and spoke highly of them. Kasravi's answer to all of these observations was basically a very simple one: We have minds of our own, he said, and can think for ourselves. Nothing anybody says - no matter who he is - should stop us from using our own intelligence and reason. As far as Khayyam's status in the West was concerned, Kasravi made several comments. First of all, he believed that Khayyam's fame there was not as great and widespread as it was made out to be. Second, as far as he knew, the translations of Khayyam were not close to the original and his evil teachings did not appear as openly as in the original. Third, translations of the work of Khayyam were meant to provide samples of an Oriental poet's thoughts for Westerners, not to be used as instructions on life and conduct, as "philosophy." Fourth, writing during World War II, he pointed out that the English, French, German, and Russian peoples, with their strong and deep-seated notions of patriotism, zeal, and industry, were quite different from the worn-out and helpless people of Iran, and were not vulnerable to the evil teachings of Khayyam and others. During the war, he said, the British, in their darkest days, knew that victory would not come to them except through perseverance and hard work. They never fell back on Khayyam's ideas: they did not say to themselves, "what will be will be," or that it was useless to try. These comments of Kasravi's by extension apply to other poets as well.
Nor was Kasravi intimidated by the Orientalists' praise of Persian poets. Pointing to the origins of Oriental studies in close connection with European governments' political and economic interests, Kasravi said that we could not always be sure of the motives of Orientalists; but whatever their motives, we could only judge their work on its own merit, and should not disregard our own understanding because of whatever they say. On that basis, he could only object to their lavish praise of those Persian poets whose poetry, by his standards, was harmful. Some of his opponents stated that there had been others in Europe, before Kasravi, who had held views similar to his about poetry. They implied that those Europeans had been wrong, that their views had not received acceptance, and that, for that reason, Kasravi's views were not valid, his objections were of no consequence, and would have the same fate. Kasravi considered this line of argument entirely irrelevant, poor, and childish. As we have seen, Kasravi's activities, including his campaign against the poets, became far more intense beginning in 1941. During that year, Iran was occupied by foreign armies, and this resulted in a period of national crisis: The cost of living soared, staple foods became scarce and extremely expensive, and life in general became fraught with problems. Some people felt that, under such circumstances, Kasravi should discontinue his attacks on the poets. "Today, we must think of people starving," they said. Kasravi answered that starvation and other problems then besetting the people of Iran were caused by the evil teachings perpetuated during many centuries, very largely through poetry. He added that the reason that Iranians were starving was not the inadequacy of their natural resources, or any lack in their mental abilities. Why, he asked, should they be so wretched, weak, and helpless that their food stuffs were being taken away by others - the Allied powers - while they themselves were left hungry? Besides, even if some people were dying of starvation, in what way did it follow from this fact that Kasravi should stop his activities? Would his doing so prevent them from dying? Should all activities be stopped because there was so much hunger? Should physicians stop practising medicine, municipalities stop cleaning the cities, the police stop capturing thieves and other criminals? Should no one build houses, make clothes, or take baths? Should fathers no longer think of their children's education? Another argument during the war years was that, by his writings on poets, Kasravi was creating dissension and disunity among the people, when he should be trying to unite them. His answer was that Iranians would never become meaningfully united as long as they were victims of evil teachings in poetry, in the various religions, and elsewhere. Mere exhortation to unity would not bring them together. It would be of no use to say to the Iranians, "Come and unite!" as long as the causes of disunity were not removed. To expect exhortation to produce results is to expect a sick person to get well by being told, "Get well! Drop the illness!" and to give him a sermon on the benefits of health. If exhortation to unity could unite the people and solve their problems, why was it that all the lectures given, all the articles published in newspapers, on the merits of unity, since the Revolution for constitutional government in 1906 had done no good? And, with his characteristic firm belief in telling the truth for truth's sake regardless of its consequences, he asked why he should not expose the poets, and their teaching of fatalism, drunkenness, homosexuality, and the like? When his opponents accused him of creating disunity among the people, he lashed out at them for making excuses and showing hostility when faced with the truth he expressed on the poets. Why did they refuse to accept the truth, he asked them. Did they believe that fatalism was good? That it was good to drink wine and stay drunk all the time? That homosexuality was not objectionable? He said that the accusation that he created disunity among Iranians reminded him of the case of a man who is up to his neck in a filthy swamp, and when asked to wash away the filth with water, answers "but I would get wet!" It was ironic, he said, that a people who were drowning in the quagmire of disunity caused by filthy disunifying ideas were afraid that Kasravi was bringing disunity among them.
A point that came up quite often was the question of taste (in Persian, zowq). Many people pointed out that people's tastes are different some like poetry and some do not; some prefer one type of poetry or a given poet, while others prefer another. It was all a matter of taste, and Kasravi's reasoned discussion had no place in discussing and judging poetry. (In the process, many called Kasravi "bizowq" 'lacking in taste.') Not infrequently differences among people in their tastes in food were used as an analogy. With his insistence on using reason as one's guide in all things, Kasravi, as expected, rejected the argument. He said that there were some things in this world that were harmless, such as listening to music, reading history, and so on. It is in these things that a person can follow his own preferences (his taste, if you like) and not be subject to criticism. There are other things, however, which affect people and their lives and in which they cannot be free to choose. Using the analogy of tastes in food, he said: In harmless foods, people can choose what they like. If, however, a person eats too much, eats poisonous food, or wants to eat the same thing all the time (which would be damaging to his health), he could not be left free to do these things, because they are harmful, they will make him ill, and this would cause hurt and unhappiness for other people as well. Then there are some cases, he continued, where the desire for eating certain things is caused by sickness. When this is the case, as when a child eats, or wants to eat, clay, he should not be left to himself, and should be taken to a physician. Kasravi said that the debate on poetry involved things which had effects on life, and the one word "taste" did not remove the objections to so much of Persian poetry. Emotionally based arguments were often the only ones used by Kasravi's antagonists, to the exclusion of any other. At other times, they were used along with with more substantial points, which we shall now take up.
C. SUBSTANTIVE ARGUMENTS
The next set of responses to Kasravi's observations on Persian poetry were more substantial. They concerned the nature, content, and purpose of poetry, and the work of the various poets. They were points that could be debated on logical grounds. Perhaps the most common argument against Kasravi - often the first one used - was the poets' use, or supposed use, of symbolic language, in which words such as "love," "lover," "beloved," "wine," "wine seller," "drunk," "beggar," "sodomite" (shahidbaz), "cupbearer," "tavern," and many others, designate not their apparent meanings, but much more sublime spiritual concepts. Kasravi, first of all, objected to this kind of language, even where such symbolism could be shown to be present. Why should anyone say one thing and mean quite another, he asked, especially when the relation between the real and the symbolic meaning was so unlikely, so unreasonable? The very fact of using this kind of imagery is something for which poets should be chastised. Second, he pointed out, it is often clear from the context that the poet intended the original meanings - the real meanings - and that symbolic interpretations are out of the question. In other situations, it is at best in doubt whether the poet used such words as "wine," "tavern," "wine-cup" figuratively or literally, and if a figurative interpretation is to be assumed, the interpreters are not always agreed on which of several supposed interpretations would apply in any given situation.
Kasravi, as we have seen, scored some poets for their talk of homosexuality. His opponents argued that the poets had not actually been homosexuals, but had just pretended to be in their writings. Kasravi answered that, if that was the case, they should be condemned even more strongly. He said that it was quite likely that poets made claims which were unfounded. They may have boasted of accomplishments which they did not have, or related happenings that had never occurred, or even confessed to crimes of which they were not guilty. A poet may boast of learning he does not possess, complain of the trials and tribulations of love without ever having been in love, boast of drunkenness without ever having touched wine. In a similar fashion, he may relate his homosexual adventures without being a homosexual. But this, he believed, is even worse than if the poet were actually guilty. No decent man, he said, no man in his right mind, would confess to a crime, or an immoral act, of which he was not guilty. Another argument was that "religious and philosophical thoughts are different from poetic thoughts." He said that, as far as he knew, there are certain truths in the world which philosophy, religion, and the sciences are all searching for, and which everybody should learn and adhere to. If poets imagine a different type of world for themselves, or if they do not consider themselves in need of truth, and are not in search of it, they should come right out and say so. And if the poets were permitted to get away with such excuses, what would we say to gamblers, robbers, pickpockets, etc. if they said that religious or social ideas are different from "thiefly," "pickpocketly," etc., ideas? Kasravi's opponents complained that he expected poets to follow reason, while poets follow their emotions. Kasravi answered that, first of all, emotions are not all equally wholesome, they cannot all be given approval. Some emotions are good, proper, morally right, and, therefore, admirable and commendable; others are bad, evil, wicked, dishonorable, offensive, morally wrong, and, therefore, objectionable. For this reason, emotions could not be left completely free and should be guided by reason. If they were to be left free, all laws, all courts, should be abolished. He said that perhaps his antagonists believed that, of all people, only poets should be given freedom to follow their emotions. If so, he asked, how would they justify this idea? Why should an exception be made in the case of poets? Furthermore, he added, Iranian poets had followed their caprices, their whims, not their emotions. Elaborating this statement, he said that "emotion" is that which is evoked by events, or situations, as when one is outraged at injustice, saddened by a loss befallen him, or gladdened by some happy event. To string together rows of words purposelessly, simply making rhymes and thinking up poetic conceits, is nothing but caprice. It is false, he said, to contend that all poets follow their emotions. Kasravi's critics sometimes tried to justify Persian poetry on the grounds that "literature is the language of emotions" or "the language of the people," that it reflects people's feelings. This, he said, hardly applies to most Persian poetry. He illustrated his point by analyzing the situation during the Mongol period. The Mongol invasion, he said, brought great calamities upon Iran and the world of Islam. Millions of people were killed or enslaved; thousands of women and girls were ravished. Yet the poets of Iran were hardly stirred by these events. One can hardly find a qasida describing the outrages of the Mongols, or mourning and lamenting the savage massacres, the bloody horrors. Not only did the poets not express sympathy with the people, but, Kasravi reminded us, hopeless flatterers that they were, they composed qasidas praising the Mongols; some of them were so shameless that they called Genghis Khan God's messenger. Even worse, they went right on with their talk of wine, love, and homosexuality. Worst of all, they disparaged action and hard work in their poems, and propagated fatalism, which, at such a time, is more dangerous than lethal poison. One of them, Sa'di, who was an eyewitness to the Mongol holocaust, refers to A.H. 656 as the year when he was having an enjoyable time and this was the very year during which the massacres of Baghdad and elsewhere had taken place. One of the few occasions on which Sa'di mentions the Mongol invasion is in a poem in which he mourns the killing of the Caliph al-Musta'sam, saying that it would be right and fitting for the heavens to weep tears of blood over his death! The thousands of other people who were killed apparently counted for nothing, as far as the poet was concerned. Nor did any of the heartrending inhuman acts of the Mongols deserve mention by him. In another poem - a panegyric - he wished Hulagu's son a life lasting a thousand years. Does any of this reflect the state of people's feelings, Kasravi asked. Similarly, Kasravi was unhappy with the performance of the Persian poets during the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. This movement provided the poets with a unique opportunity to use their talents constructively, by arousing the people to action through simple effective poems, but they did little to rise to the occasion. Of the few who did compose poems related to the Revolution, most wrote to flatter this or that person. Many found in the movement little but a source for new poetic similes or conceits, continuing to talk of wine and the beloved. It was almost exclusively in folk poetry that simple natural emotions were expressed, and, Kasravi noted, many writers belittled such poetry. Kasravi's opponents said that poets often gave, or perpetuated, good advice in conduct, and thus rendered a service to humanity. He said that the effectiveness of advice depended on a number of factors: the person who gives it, the person to whom it is addressed, the nature of its content. Mere exhortation or admonition is not enough. There has been hardly a preacher of evil teachings who has not also uttered some good words. The advice given by a thief, a drunkard, a dishonest person, a beggar, cannot be effective. It can do no more than diminish the value of advice. He also reminded his readers that a poet's behavior in some cases was contrary to his own good advice, which thus lost any effect it may have had, for actions speak louder than words. Furthermore, many poets, Kasravi pointed out, have given conflicting, contradictory advice. The same poet now preaches fatalism, now exhorts his readers to hard work. At one point he urges courageousness and bravery, at another, he encourages cowardice, and so on. And, needless to say, contradictory, irreconcilable teachings are found among the various poets. Kasravi also warned that, not infrequently, what has been considered good advice is found upon closer scrutiny to be harmful and damaging. Some said that we should take good advice no matter who gives it; that we are not concerned with the person, but with his words. Kasravi said that we are - or should be - concerned with the person. The strength of advice, its effectiveness, depends on the person who gives it. Moral and ethical advice, he pointed out, is different from scientific statements, where the character of the person making them is not usually relevant. The effect of moral and ethical advice, he said, is not based on logical proof, as is the case in science. Rather, it is based on the hearer's faith in the person giving the advice, on the hearer's willingness to follow that person on the latter's moral authority. It is therefore essential that the person giving advice be a person of integrity and honesty, a person of impeccable morals, who is thus worth following. The ineffectiveness of advice given by morally unqualified people, Kasravi said, can easily be seen in Iran. There have been literally hundreds, even thousands, of people dispensing moral advice through the centuries - and yet what good have they done the country? The Iranian people are weak, confused, of feeble character - in no small measure as a result of these millions of cheap empty words. It was said that we should retain all the words of advice that exist, or that will be produced in the future, and simply ignore the bad ones. Kasravi said that, first of all, those who could not tell good from bad, right from wrong, beneficial from harmful, and have said all kinds of things, good and bad, indiscriminately - so that it is left to the other people to sift their utterances - can hardly be accepted as moral guides, which is what poets are assumed to be. Second, if the people can judge these utterances, and can tell what is good and what is bad, why is there a need for advice, and for people to give it? Kasravi felt that there is much too much "advice" floating around in Iran, and in the East in general. This mass of words includes a great many ambiguous, abstruse, obscure moral teachings for which poets, more than anybody else, have been responsible. This situation, he said, has had two harmful consequences. One is that people learn many types of contradictory advice, and on any given occasion use that which happens to coincide with their whim of the moment. He used the analogy of a father who one day tells his sons that God has created the various types of food for our enjoyment, and that we should eat as much as we can; and another day tells them that they should be concerned with their health and eat moderately. The sons, Kasravi said, would follow the first advice when they like a particular food which they want to eat more than is good for them; and they will take the second advice when they do not like some food that is offered to them.
The other harmful consequence of these thousands of words is that people, noticing that poets and others give advice freely but do not practice what they preach, conclude that advice is just empty words, and they would not heed advice. "In other words," he said, the result is that people "are long on words and short on deeds." When Kasravi pointed out the poets' (and others') failure to practice what they preach, his critics countered with the rhetorical question: Have all the 'ulama' and 'fuqaha' practised what they have preached? Kasravi's answer: If they have not, then they are just as bad as those others. Furthermore, he added, the problem in the case of the poets is not merely that they have not followed their own advice, and that they have committed hideous sins; but - far worse - they have considered those sins - flattery, abusive language, homosexuality, and many other misdeeds - to be art, and have bragged about them. In short, Kasravi wanted the people to discard and forget all the millions of words of advice, in Persian and Arabic, in prose and in verse, and to discourage the production of more such words in the future. For, he believed, if the Iranian people are decadent and weak in character, it is not because of ignorance (of what is right and what is wrong). It is because their minds are cluttered with contradictory and confusing advice. Indeed, far from accepting the common assumption that guidence given in the form of advice, adages, aphorisms, maxims, was helpful in educating people for a good life, he felt that they actually worked as impediments to such a life. As often, he used an analogy to make his point clear. He said Iranian people's minds are full of many contradictory ideas from past centuries, like a pool that is full of foul-smelling slime and water. As long as the pool is not cleaned, whatever fresh clean water is added to it will become slimy and foul-smelling. In the same way, once an idea finds its place in a mind, as have so many harmful ideas in Iranians' minds, the person cannot rid himself of it by merely adding to it whatever else he hears, good and bad, unless his mind is actually purged of the slimy idea. It is only then that he will be free, able to judge for himself the right and wrong of what he hears. Kasravi, as we have seen, attacked the poets for their addiction to flattery, especially for praising some of the worst tyrants, and asked why they had applauded these tyrants and not censured them. He was told that those poets had been fearful for their lives and could not speak out against mighty kings and princes. This excuse was entirely unacceptable to Kasravi, who had all his life stood up against powerful men. He was apparently aware that not everybody had Kasravi's own strength of character. He said that the fear for their lives might at best excuse the poets for not denouncing the tyrants. But why, he asked, did they actually praise and applaud them, and why in such extravagant language, to the point of calling a man like Ghengis Khan a Messenger of God? And what is one to think of a poet living in the twentieth century who praises Tamerlane, long dead and entirely incapable of harming the poet, for "unlimited justice"? What excuse could he have? Kasravi's critics tried to explain away the objectionable nature of some of the poetry which he was attacking by the unfavorable environment in which the poets had lived. They said, for example, that Sa'di and Hafiz had written poetry during the Mongol and Timurid period, which was one of decadence and corruption. They insisted that those poets, and their poetry, should be judged in that light. Kasravi answered that considering their environment might, at the most, cause us to reproach them a little less, to accept their time and place as their excuse. Such consideration could not mean condoning and praising their poetry and propagating it among people. This poetry, he said, was harmful and should be discarded, no matter where or when, under what circumstances, and for what reasons, it was composed.
Kasravi's overriding concern in life was to identify the problems of Iranian society, problems which had made that society decadent and corrupt, and which none of the solutions suggested since the nineteenth century - modernizing the army, literacy, higher education, introduction of laws, a great Revolution and the consequent establishment of constitutional government, Westernizing - had solved or (as he saw it) could solve. He searched far and wide and concluded that the root cause of all ills of Iranian society was in ideas - ideas accumulated over a thousand years and entrenched in the minds of the great majority of Iranians. And Persian literature, especially Classical Persian poetry, was, perhaps more than anything, responsible for keeping these ideas alive and attractive. Having determined this, Kasravi placed that poetry under a very precise critical microscope, pulled out the worms that were eating at the minds and hearts of Iranians, and tried to crush them to death. But ideas do not die easily, as Kasravi soon found out. And so he kept on fighting relentlessly. Kasravi's attack on Persian poets at first appealed to a few, as much because of its novelty, in some cases, as because of its merits. It also outraged many, especially in the literary, academic, and political establishments. As time went on, the number of his supporters grew, slowly, and the number of his detractors grew, quite fast. There was inevitably a clash between the two groups. A Great Debate developed, in many ways unique. There were arguments and counter arguments. Most often during the debate, Kasravi and his supporters concentrated on substantive issues, on the effects of poetry on the psyche of the Iranians. Those on the other side grew emotional, and tried less to defend the poets on logical grounds than to justify them for sentimental reasons and by appealing to the argument that those poets had lived in times and places, different from our own, in which their performance, however objectionable, was natural. But, no matter how, or if, their poetry could be explained, it cannot be justified.