Reading Hegel in a Tehran Prison

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Ramin Jahanbegloo in the LA Review of Books:

[I]n a solitary jail cell, books simply help one to survive; one can never underestimate their power and importance in such a place. For prisoners in solitary confinement, reading books can guarantee their mental sanity. Strangely enough, the abstract philosophy of Hegel proved beneficial in pulling my mind out of the horrible dungeon in which I was living. Throughout the many years that I had read and taught Hegel’s Phenomenology, I had never had such an intimate relation with a philosophy in the making. In my cell I would read out loud each paragraph of the book in order to fully hear the sound of the abstract Hegelian concepts. I felt as if I was part of Hegel’s epic voyage of philosophical discovery; I was myself a stage of the process of spiritual history which the philosopher reproduces in his book.

The Phenomenology became an inseparable companion of the long hours of solitude that I spent in my cell, especially during the nights when my inquisitors did not poison my fragile existence, and the prison was haunted by a terrifying silence. While sitting on my blanket on the cold cement and leaning against the wall of my cell, I would take this huge book in my hands and start reading it slowly, in such a manner that only I could hear it. Phrases such as: “Universal freedom can […] produce neither a positive achievement nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the rage and fury of destruction” made my suffering soul tremble with excitement. Wasn’t I myself a victim of this tendency towards destruction, combined with an unyielding and constant suspicion, which leads inevitably, after each revolution in history, to the killing of innocent individuals? I was sharing the same space of death where many had agonized until the last moment before their execution.

This prison has the task not only of extinguishing life, but also of wiping out the individuality that threatens the whole that the revolution espouses. Thus every act, necessarily enacted from the standpoint of individuality, is treated as guilty — a guilt that only confession followed by death can absolve. And the lesson that I could see in all this was simple: a revolution is capable only of condemnation, and the guilty party, like me, must either negate the revolution or be negated by it.

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