TEN QUESTIONS WITH DAVID MOSHFEGH
Where is your hometown?
I was born and grew up in Tehran, Iran. I was there until I was thirteen years old.
What do you teach?
I teach in the Humanities program at IE, both at the undergraduate level and in the graduate Masters in International Management. At the undergraduate level, I’ve taught courses on European intellectual history from the Renaissance to the present and, in the MIM, I teach a course titled ‘Critical Management Skills’, which is in fact a course on critical decision-making and what this actually means. I’ve also taught extensively in the International Relations program, including courses on Political Theory and on ‘The History of International Relations’. The latter course, which I approach in terms of the rise of something we could actually call the International Order, namely, from the birth of the nation-state to its contemporary crisis, I also teach at both the undergraduate level and in the Masters in International Relations. I also direct the Humanities programming at IE, particularly Humanities Discussion Series, a joint faculty-student initiative that organizes critical discussion of pressing issues through faculty and student presentations.
So are you a political animal?
I read the news obsessively. I think the prevalent disenchantment today, not only with politicians but with ‘politics’ as such, is one of the saddest aspects of life these days, and a symptom of much of what is wrong with it. I come across so many people who prefer conspiracy theories to history and tend to give up on the idea that they might have more of a say about their own lives.
And what is it about history that appeals to you?
I’ve always loved history, ever since I was a kid. So often when I introduce myself and tell someone I’m a historian, they feel the need to confess that History was their worst subject and that they can’t imagine how someone could do it as a living. But, these people take History to mean a bunch of dead facts and don’t see that, fundamentally, it means prying into the lives and stories of others. So, even beyond all of the academic pretensions, if you approach it in this way, there’s a good deal of voyeuristic and vicarious pleasure in it. For the longest part of recorded history, historians were basically chroniclers in courts who fantasized and monumentalized the lives and actions of those who wielded power. For me, History holds the truth about the human experience, about what different societies have imagined, what they’ve thought, how they’ve acted. I don’t believe there is another truth beside this one; thankfully, there is enough of it and we’re continuing to produce more…
What else did you like when you were a kid?
My favorite thing was collecting expensive, foreign bubble gums; it was a fashionable thing to do among Iranian kids who could afford this kind of activity. I loved a lot of things: all the festivals, all the parties, reading my mom’s books, traveling to the Caspian Sea in the North with my family. Growing up in Iran was a lot of fun, even though we were going through the crazy situation of the Iran/Iraq war.
How has your research affected the way you look at the world?
My research puts me at the intersection of the histories of Germans, Jews and Muslims, so I’ve developed a palpable sense of what self-serving demonizing and dehumanizing of others can lead to; and, this is very much an ongoing story, including in Europe today. I’ll put it this way: it’s not a perfect metaphor— and you need to see my qualification below before informing the authorities!—but, in a way, historians are like criminals; because of their work, they’re bound to develop a more honest, less hypocritical sense of what human beings are actually capable of; for example, all historians worth their degree are aware of the basic Machiavellian truth that all states, even the ones we think benign or good, have done horrible things to maintain themselves, all the while using their power to manipulate a wonderful image of themselves. The consequence of such understanding need not be an amoral or relativist attitude or, as in the case of the criminal, a rationalizing one; historians must continue to make judgments but they learn to do so with a bit more honesty, a bit less hypocrisy. Those who demonize others by conveniently and hypocritically refusing to acknowledge their humanity are insufferable enough; in the case of a historian, this should be a punishable crime.
What do you wish someone told you when you were in graduate school?
For God’s sake, just finish and get out! If you look at graduate students, the longer they stay in school the more they go from being people who study things that might potentially end up in museums to becoming potential museum pieces themselves, artificially kept alive and hoping against hope someone will discover or display them. I speak from experience.
What books are on your nightstand?
This is a sore point, since my whole massive library has been sitting in the U.S. since I came to Spain in 2012. When I feel like I’ve lost my sense of things, I read Nietzsche and this usually suffices to reorient me. I love reading Kafka’s novels, short stories and his correspondence. I also like to listen to and read the poems of Hafiz and Rumi with my parents in Farsi. In trying to learn Spanish and to maintain my German and even my native Farsi, I’ve tried the past few years to read mostly in these languages, which of course seriously slows you down. I’m reading NADA right now…
And how do you relax?
I pace a lot.
What are your favorite places in Madrid?
I love all the plazas in Madrid, from the intimate ones like Olavide and Santa Ana to the monumental like Cibeles and Plaza Mayor. It’s what makes Madrid such a grand and convivial place at the same time, which is great combination. I love the city.
Professor David Moshfegh was photographed by Kerry Parke (December 2014.)