Literary Self-Disclosure and Forugh Farrokhzad
Socially, disclosure has an inevitable impact upon the literary scene of a historical period because social ideas and perceptions constitute a significant portion of human identity – either of the writer or reader, or of each and all characters in a literary work. Although this effect is not a minor one, it functions indirectly by being involved in the formation of mind and mentality rather than by playing a frontal role. It should also be noted that disclosure’s function is not restricted to this covert task. In a specific period one or other aspects might be temporarily highlighted and assume a different role and function. What I hope to shed light on is the side of disclosure in which it works as a vehicle conveying the literary intention of the writer. In this perspective disclosure displays itself differently and becomes overt in the literary work. No matter if the writer implies it as a consciously chosen device or if it somehow cunningly imposes itself on the writer, and also no matter who or what is its target, its presence is concrete and measurable. I will be focused on Forugh Farrokhzad as a poet who has so far exemplified the best female discloser in the scene of modern Persian literature.
In the world of words written “confessions” are the primary forms of self-disclosure. The Confessions of St. Augustine, written in fourth century, is considered as a precursor of existentialism and the first autobiography as well. Reflecting the anguish of a guilt-ridden conscience, confessions are rooted in a religious or ethical ground. The feature of religious confessions is that they, in the hope to approach God or an external source, reveal the conflicts of man’s inner self in confrontation with evil. In the past, the only possible way to vent inner sufferings and wounds was via a spiritual window since it was installed within a divine framework far stronger than any human-made structure. The challenge of modern man is to explore his own being in search of a meaning that is not dependent on any source outside the self. The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, taking after St. Augustine’s, is an autobiography of the Romantic era associated with optimistic self-examination and self-scrutiny. It was remarkably followed in the nineteenth century by the Romantic writers in France and England and specifically in Russia where it led to confessional writings of Dostoevsky. Today, literary self-disclosure may find itself in all variety of personal expressive writing, from autobiography to confessional novel to expressionistic poetry. No matter what form it may take, philosophically rooted in existentialism, it empowers the individual and requires honesty and truth telling.
At present, the most common form and function of self-disclosure are found within psychiatry or psychotherapy, in which it is considered a means to an end. Either in the old frame, confession, or in the new one, psychiatric vent, self-disclosure is a means that aims to release covert agonies and traumas. In the case of the former, the individual ultimately seeks the Lord’s forgiveness; in the case of the latter the individual looks forward to becoming unburdened. Both of the foregoing processes demand a reward in exchange for a painful disclosure. This reward may be interpreted as something with a magical power to erase ills from the disturbed discloser’s mind and memory. Unlike these, literary self-disclosure entails unwillingness or inability to achieve this reward. As a matter of fact, literary self-disclosure not only does not erase ills from the discloser’s mind and memory, but embeds it in the reader’s mind and memory.
All the characters of a literary work, including the narrator, are shadows – not portraits or pictures – of fulfilled or unfulfilled selves of the writer. From the very moment that they begin to be created in the writer’s mind to their entering readers’ minds they experience a fictional existence. Not only heroes, but also anti-heroes, are entitled to a place at the table where the writer puts his or her selves. Although a writer may intend or tend to allocate his or her selves only to “good guys” of the fiction, the “bad guys” of the imaginative universe grab their seats. This may happen because all selves come from the same source – the writer – or because of the potential equity in this unique wonderland. No matter why and what heroes and anti-heroes appropriate, the fact is that all selves are varied manifestations of the writer’s whole self, a “true self” sometimes unknown to the writer, and consists of better and worse selves. This self, assembling all other different selves, gives voice and elbow room to all actual and potential selves. It includes strong or dominant ones and weak or subservient ones as well as an inner one and an outer one. Thus it covers the dark and light sides of a single identity and comprises masked and unmasked faces of a personality.
Fantasy and its realizations in fiction, drama, and poetry is the territory of all possible selves of a writer. From the perspective of self-disclosure, this is the inner self that deserves to be focused. The lit side of the inner self is eager to show up. However, the dark side is reluctant to show itself. This has to do with the nature of secrets within the mind rather than of an individual’s conscious intention. The collaborative hand of social conventions and the individual’s believes will not allow the person to break the seal of secrecy on certain envelopes in the memory drawer. In a broad sense the dark side of an inner self seeks to conceal the unpleasant – from an unforgivable sin to a trivial fault to a minor imperfection or embarrassing memory.
One may say that for the public table the writer seeks to present his or her best. It can be argued that this ideal presentation is achievable without a need to reveal the writer’s concealed inner self. Some writers prefer an impersonal approach that enables them to keep a clear and observable line between their real life and the fictional world created by their imagination. Compared to those who involve themselves so deeply in the creative process that they merge with it, they look like dabblers in a pool instead of swimmers struggling in an unpredictable sea. They may perform aquabatics but also enjoy a very distinct life on land. They keep their literary identity distinct from their personal one, either because they consider literary creativity as a profession rather than a way of life, or because they are reluctant to probe into their own depths. Regardless of the approach chosen, writers may feel an urgent need to spotlight an unpleasant personal defect embedded in a certain “self” in order to perfectly present it. Hence, both groups to a different degree encounter tough decisions. Avoiding revelation when it is required by the work leads it to incompleteness or leaves its structure imperfect.
Surrounded by an atmosphere of tension, the planet of fantasy reflects a broad spectrum of varied conflicts that drive characters to seek a resolution. Interestingly, its fictionality not only does not make it avoid conceivable conflicts but also highlights all forms of dissonance and antagonism. From the start of the journey, the writer encounters different routes leading to the creation of an imaginary world as well as the onset of the life of a literary work as an independent being. Disclosure represents one of these routes. Within literature, no objective is acceptable other than a literary end identified by its literary quality. Disclosure in literature does not target the advantages of some and the disadvantages of others, for if it did, the literary essence would be a sacrificial lamb offered in exchange for what can easily and efficiently be obtained in the media. The disclosure of a writer is not to bring forth a feasible benefit for anybody, including and especially the discloser. If literary aims are fulfilled, readers are led toward endless possibilities of discovery. Regardless of what writers dream up when they select disclosure as a route, the key criterion for the success of the odyssey is whether or not the readers are led to that magic land.
If full disclosure is chosen as an option, it must serve the ultimate objective of the journey. But it imposes requirements. First and paramount, it demands sincerity – not a quality easy to find, though for some it is innate. If the journey is a divine duty to writers, they, as devoted pilgrims, have no choice other than believing in the necessity of being honest and open with and to themselves and others. Beyond a doubt self-disclosure in a literary context demands the utmost truthfulness and openness; otherwise it fails to prove its legitimacy as the best route of the pilgrimage. This drives the writer to the stage of an ordeal that not everybody can endure. The trial measures loyalty to the work rather than to any other thing, including personal affairs and interests. Nothing can guarantee survival but complete attention and devotion to the work.
Literary self-disclosure also demands constant rebelliousness against one’s own self. Not every self-discloser can meet these Herculean demands, for this type of rebellion only occurs in the absence of self-satisfaction as well as of self-justification. Unlike a strip teaser expecting a tip, a literary self-discloser who strips does not expect any recompense, including relief or consolation. On the contrary, from the very beginning, the self-discloser feels, if not consciously, that the journey is nothing but a persistent exposure to a state of total vulnerability. Rebellion against the self, coming from an unknown source of agitation, urges the rebel to practice strict self-observation in the search of purification. While rebellion against other people brings in some sort of confidence and satisfaction, this form has nothing to offer except the possibility of a wider scope of sensibility to emotional impressions. Of course, from the writer’s viewpoint, nothing is more desirable than this range of sensibility. All forms of opposing actions and reactions, including and particularly those pertaining to an individual who plays the dual roles of defendant and plaintiff, are exhausting, if not debilitating. Nevertheless, a real rebel looks at the rebellion as the most proper response to existence, and keeps rebelling against established authority, which sometimes may be one’s own self.
Looking at the sky of modern Persian literature through the telescope of self-disclosure, at once we are fascinated by Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Born in Tehran, Forugh was the third of seven children of an urban middle class family. Her father was a military officer of Reza Shah Pahlavi’s era. Unlike her four brothers who were sent to Germany to pursue their education, she studied in a Tehran high school until the ninth grade and then was sent to a technical school to study dressmaking and painting. At sixteen she fell in love with a distant relative who was much older than her and married him despite the objections of both families. The new couple went to Ahvaz, a town in the south of Iran. A year later Forugh gave birth to her only son. Her marriage failed soon and she came back to Tehran, where she could live as a single woman who was most concerned about proving herself as a poet in a male-dominated culture. During her short turbulent lifetime — coloured by romantic entanglements and brief sexual encounters as well as a life-changing love affair with E. Golestan, the renowned writer and filmmaker — Forugh published four collections of poetry. She also made a documentary film, “The House Is Dark”, which won the prize for best documentary film in the Oberhausen Festival of 1963. She was killed in an automobile accident at thirty-two. Some years later her fifth collection of poetry was published.
As most critics agree, the literary career of Forugh is divided into two distinct but attached periods: during the first she published three books of poetry (The Captive, 1955; The Wall, 1956; and The Rebellion, 1957); in the second, two other (Another Birth, 1964; and her posthumous volume: Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, 1974) were published. The two periods clearly reflect how painstakingly she went through an evolutionary process and how elaborately she succeeded in transforming a sentimentalist persona, whose most prominent feature was explicitness in retelling sexual relationships, into an exalted persona who accomplished transcendence through love and discovered the mystery of an ambiguous language befitting comprehensive human love.
For my argument, the similarities of the two periods are more important than the differences. From the start Forugh did not deviate from self-disclosure. She was consistently rebellious and personal. An urgent need to express herself, along with her openness and defiance, led Forugh to choose no other route than self-disclosure towards her artistic ends. By reviewing the poems of Forugh’s five collections, one can easily trace the inevitable self-disclosure of a poet that in her constant approach towards an aesthetic perfection unveils herself as frankly as possible. References to the poet’s private life, as well as indications to her moods, feelings, and emotions are abundant, overt, and unambiguous. In addition, the quality of intimacy leads the reader to identify the persona with the poet. The reason why her poetry is so autobiographical, as a critic argues, “…has to do with her conception of poetry as a companion, mirror, and means to self-knowledge.” He states that Forugh thought “that she should live and compose poetry as frankly and unhypocritically as possible.” (1)
Many critics have discussed why and how Forugh rebelled against traditions and a patriarchal society that did nothing but restrict and restrain a woman like her who struggled with every breath for liberty. Her first three books embodied her protest against any authority that wanted to subordinate and subdue her. During this period, she insistently questioned ethical constraints and all the representatives of dominant ethics, from God to her close relatives, by following her passions and her emotions, whether in real life or on paper. Facing limitations on her life as a woman poet in a society tangled in the purgatory of confused tradition and modernity, she not only rebelled against restrictions and prohibitions, but also questioned herself. Her clearness in questioning and even condemning herself while doing the same with others reflects both her innate openness and her inevitable rebelliousness. If we consider the whole canon of her poetry as a kind of Bildungsroman, as some critics do (2), the first three books will be appreciated not only as honest confessions or frank self-revelations, but also as grounds for some of the best contemporary Persian poetry that happen to be female voice.
As feminist criticism has often pointed out, the marginalization of women’s voices has been a barrier to women’s progress. In women’s literature, voice has also been used for resistance. In other words, despite a resistance to voice, the result of centuries of patriarchy, some women have been able to slay the silence in order to assert their presence. In search of a way out of spatial and verbal exclusion, struggling for survival in a society dominated by men and their exclusive voices, Forugh realized that her own voice could be the only manifestation of survival. She stated, “The Voice Alone Is Left!” Conventional boundaries existed in a social system rooted in Eastern patriarchal traditions make any individualistic efforts, including finding and sustaining a personalized voice, so challenging that attaining an independent voice seems difficult enough for men, let alone women. Feminine experience, formed by history and genetics, must address its advantages and disadvantages in order to achieve empowerment. It is in the process of this sophisticated interplay that factors used to be, and continue to be, obstructive turn out to be facilitative. Moved by external pressures and impelled by inward drives, Forugh rebelled against obstructions instinctually and intuitively rather than consciously. A personalized feminine voice evoked by pure poetic sensations led her to a deep understanding of the forms and functions of an enriching poetic response in answering not only the personal desires of the poet but also the universal demands of human beings. Her total devotion to her poetry and her rebellious nature, among other factors like the love late in her life, were features that helped Forugh to transcend barriers so rapidly.
Clearly, modern Iranian writers and poets, like others involved in intellectual activities, have felt an urgent demand to approach identity and self-discovery. However, restrictions imposed by a deep-rooted tradition have made and still make the process of finding and establishing a new identity strenuous and problematic. Men find it difficult to disregard the advantages and privileges offered by tradition. For women the story is different; they are more willing to replace old by new, for after all they have been wounded by impositions and discriminations of a patriarchal system ignoring their human rights. This difference, resulting from different historical backgrounds, partly affects the method and the forms of self-disclosure performed by men and women. Although the necessity and importance of new definitions and new identifications are clear to all who want to have a living presence in the present era, on the whole men are hesitant, if not reluctant, to disclose themselves, whether for the fear of losing their dominant position or because of their expectations and illusions of and about their masculine image. The self-aggrandizement induced by social mechanism of a traditional society is so inhibiting that it doesn’t often allow men to strip off their veils even when they put pen to paper only for this purpose. In spite of a powerful tradition of expressing the burning desire to unveil in Iranian mystic literature, male writers appear to spin words to provide themselves with a protective cocoon promising the impending appearance of a wonderful butterfly rather than to reveal an ugly pupa. Having suffered from so many imposed deformations, however, female writers seem to discover that in the process of liberating their pens, as well as their minds and souls, disclosure is more helpful than cocooning.
Besides the socio-cultural factors distinguishing a female discloser from a male one, femininity, in the sense of gender, has its own role in forming and manifesting self-disclosure. A line should be drawn between female nature and all the impositions of a tradition-ridden society and male value structure wishing to re-establish patriarchal principles. Female nature embodies the biological and psychological features of women regardless of any other outward impacts. Thus, it implies factual characteristics rather than advantages or disadvantages of a gender. One of the attributes ascribed to femininity is the quality of caring and care giving that reflects maternalism and in a context of disclosing may generate more understanding and also more sympathy towards others. Patience and receptiveness, reflecting a psycho-sexual feminine attitude, are also among features that may affect self-disclosure in different senses: inclination to accepting the accusation and consequently the position of a “sinner” as well as displaying love, affection, compassion, and forgiveness towards “sinners and wrong doers”. Similarly, womanly curiosity and attention to details may add feminine touches to the texture of literary self-disclosure. Last but not least is the female approach to notions of bravery, honesty, and rebellion, which make a significant difference in a self-disclosing context. Men, for example, tend to define bravery in the frame of heroism and victory; women may interpret it as facing the reality of their inferior status and imposed gender limitations. Should men find honesty as an ethical virtue, women consider it as a librating force. And finally, when men pursue a subversive aim in rebelling, women follow a constructive inspiration in rebellious attempts.
By and large, female experience offers a feminine spirit to a self-disclosing literary text that cannot be considered as a criterion for literary evaluation per se. However, this spirit in the case of women writers can deservedly indicate their laborious struggle to achieve their own individuality and, through this and by this, to enrich universal literature. Regardless of a feminist or non-feminist perspective, finding and retaining a female voice become crucial for women authors as the natural way to prove themselves independent literary individuals. Needless to say, nobody can predetermine a unique way to create literature, either in a sense of adhering to a gender-based voice or in a sense of choosing self-disclosure as the only format for literary quality. But it is undeniable that, as Forugh stated, quite naturally a woman writer may have a feminine vision that is different from a male’s. I’d go further and emphasize the inevitably different approach, if not vision, women have to choose if they want to be faithful to their existence and their presence not only in reality but also in mind and imagination. This faithfulness to one’s experience is what makes Farrokhzad determined to be “the voice of her existence”. In order to do this, she perceived her poetry as a mirror reflecting not the lights but the shadows of herself and her life, a mirror that could reveal the name of the saviour to the woman poet who, despite all inhibitions and suppressions, disclosed herself truthfully to universalize her personal experience and to lead the reader to endless discoveries.
1. Michael C. Hillmann, A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press & Mage Publishers, 1987), 2-3
2. Farzaneh Milani, Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1992), 136