Modernization in Literary Culture

  December 04, 2021   Read time 4 min
Modernization in Literary Culture
The educational politics of the early Pahlavi period are generally conceived of as an integral and pivotal part of Reza Shah’s “revolution from above,” which was to change Iran swiftly into a modern centralized nation-state.

Within this context, the foundation of Tehran University (officially inaugurated in 1934) is certainly an enormous landmark. This university, which has been the most influential institution of higher learning in Iran up to the present day, is positioned as a standard bearer of modernized education and as a pioneer in the teaching of modern ways. Research has highlighted the circumstances of its founding: its institutional aspects, political impact, the persons involved, and the subjects taught. The publications that deal with the foundation of this university concentrate on the institutional, as well as on the social aspect of cultural modernization. In this context, we learn about which disciplines were implemented in the new institution, about the teachers and professors, and about the social background of its students, but little is known about what was taught in its classes, what the professors actually talked about in front of their students.

As far as I know, there is only one curricular text pertaining to the founding period of Tehran University that has been available on the common book market ever since: Mohammad Taqi Malek al-Sho‘ara Bahar’s three-volume literary history, which has become known under the title of Sabk-shenasi (Stylistics). In 1937, the Minister of Culture, ‘Ali Asghar Hekmat commissioned a textbook for the newly established Ph.D. course on Persian literature from Bahar, who at that time taught literature classes at Tehran University. Bahar took on the task and wrote Sabk-shenasi, the three volumes of which were not published until 1942 and 1947 and therefore do not, strictly speaking, belong to the Reza Shah period. But as the work was the outcome of Bahar’s lifelong reflections on literature and literary history, which he had previously published separately in various articles, we can safely assume that Sabk-shenasi is a product of the early Pahlavi period.

The complete title of the work Sabk-shenasi ya tarikh-e tatavvor-e nasr-e farsi: bara-yi tadris dar daneshkadeh va dowreh-ye doktori-ye adabiyat is threefold: the first part, Sabk-shenasi (Stylistics), refers to the basic theoretical concept underlying Bahar’s study. The second part, Tarikh-e tatavvor-e nasr-e farsi (The history of the evolution of Persian prose), offers an alternative theoretical approach; whereas the third part refers to the work’s institutional function: Bara-ye tadris dar daneshkadeh va dowreh-ye doktori-e adabiyat (A textbook for the Faculty of Literature and its doctoral course). The genesis of the work implies that it has to be read critically both as a programmatic text for the imagined community of the Iranian nation and as a basic text for the implementation of Persian literature as an academic discipline. Wali Ahmadi regards Bahar’s work as crucial for the institutionalization of Persian literature as a discipline and contend[s] that the exemplary status of the text rests significantly on the recognition of its particular disciplinary or institutional achievements. [ … ] It is necessary, then, to situate and examine Sabk-shinasi precisely within the context of a literary history bound to a national imaginary order and the institutional politics of literary studies.

Ahmadi considers Sabk-shenasi to be conditioned and informed by its ideological and institutional frameworks. As a text that “was produced during the formative era of the modern Iranian nation-state," it supplied this state with a stratified narrative of literary history. Sabk-shenasi was written in the service of a state which intended to force unity and homogeneity upon a land of infinite cultural diversity, to inscribe the singular nation on the body of the singular state, thus leading to a congruous nation-state. The inception of a unified nationstate, however, necessitated the creation of a unifying culture, with literature playing a pivotal role in the process.

This observation is certainly true. The overall conception of Sabk-shenasi was in line with a nationalistic approach to Iranian literary history. A close reading of Bahar’s text nevertheless reveals ideas inconsistent with the neat pattern of a national unity pursued along the lines of the supremacy of Iranian civilization. Bahar’s idea of how to create a national identity was incorporative rather than reductive. Although he played a significant role in the process of the modernization of learning in Iran, Bahar tends to be overlooked when the focus is on the modernists as dominant trendsetters in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Every period that frames an accelerated political development and displays a tendency towards enforced ideological features will mainly be dealt with along the guidelines of these very features. Radical approaches like Akhundov’s and his followers’ call for the swift and total Westernization of Iranian society tend to attract general attention. This is all the more true since the state policies of nationalism and modernization during Reza Shah’s reign follow these patterns, and our prevailing perception of the cultural stylization reflects the dominant political concept and rhetoric of the time.