BECAUSE THE NATURAL domain for the operation of comprador intellectuals, true to the origin of the term in facilitating commercial transactions, is the middle class morality of their host country (now mutated into an empire), innuendo and insinuation are among the principal tropes of their operations. By far the most immediate and intriguing aspect of Reading Lolita in Tehran is its cover, which shows two female teenagers bending their heads forward in an obvious gesture of reading something. What exactly is it they are reading, we do not see or know. Over their heads we read “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” The immediate suggestion is very simple. The subject of the book purports to be reading Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in Tehran, and here are two Iranian-looking teenagers in their headscarves reading (one thing or another). The two young women appear happily engaged with what they are reading, and they do so in such an endearing way that solicits sympathy, and even evokes complicity. What better picture to represent the idea—leaving it to the imagination of the observer that they are indeed reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita ? Right? Wrong.
A moment of pause on this cover begins to reveal something entirely different. Under the banner of Reading Lolita in Tehran, the image and the caption put together—in a classical case best read and analysed by Roland Barthes in his magnificent essay on “The Photographic Message”—suggest the tantalising addition of an Oriental twist to the most notorious case of pedophilia in modern literary imagination. Both as social sign and as literary signifier, the term “Lolita” invokes illicit sex with teenagers. The covered heads of these two Iranian teenagers thus suggestively borrows and insidiously unleashes a phantasmagoric Oriental fantasy and lends it to the most lurid case of pedophilia in modern literary imagination. Under the rubric that he called a photographic paradox, Barthes gave a brilliant diagnosis of how such imitative arts as photography “comprises two messages: a denoted message, which is the analogon itself, and a connoted message, which is the matter in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it.” (Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” in A Barthes Reader. Hills and Wang, 1982: 195-198).
The denoted message here seems quite obvious: these two young women are reading “Lolita” in Tehran—they are reading (“Lolita”), and they are in Tehran (they look Iranian and they have scarves on their head). The connoted message is equally self-evident: Imagine that—illicit sex with teenagers in an Islamic Republic! How about that, the cover suggestively proposes and asks, can you imagine reading Lolita in Tehran ? Look at these two Oriental Lolitas! The racist implication of the suggestion—as with astonishment asking, “can you even imagine reading that novel in that country?”—competes with its overtly Orientalised pedophilia and confounds the transparency of a marketing strategy that appeals to the most deranged Oriental fantasies of a nation already petrified out of its wits by a ferocious war waged against a phantasmagoric Arab/Muslim male potency that has just castrated the two totem poles of the US empire in New York.
Read this. This is just fantastic.