One’s Thousand One Nightinesses

Steven Connor

  • Stranger Magic by Marina Warner
    Chatto, 540 pp, £28.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 7011 7331 9

There can be no new reader, and therefore perhaps no wholly new reading of the collection of stories known as The Arabian Nights. Not because they have been exhausted by retelling and explication, but because we always seem to have encountered them, or some of them, already, somewhere else, at some other time in our lives we are not able quite to pin down. They are, in the phrase George Grote applied to Greek myths, a past that has never been fully present – translations without originals. And yet, just as there can be no authentic first time for the reading of The Arabian Nights, there can be no once and for all signings off either. As Marina Warner observes in her effulgent new study of the lives and afterlives of the tales, even the forms of their inexhaustibility are plural. First, despite the promise of a precise count held out in their title (or one of them at least), you can never be sure you have taken an exact tally of all thousand and one of their tellings. Erotically, they ‘spread and mount like arithmetic’, in the words of Middleton’s De Flores. Second, their complex, nested structure, in which stories mirror, invert and parody each other, gives them a labyrinthine internal relation that is almost impossible to disintricate. Finally, if one takes account of all the reworkings of the tales, it is clear that they are still in the process of being composed. Like Bottom’s dream, they have no bottom. Even in the final pages of this plethoric book, Warner confesses her reluctance to declare her case closed.

Before they ever appeared in print, the stories had been circulating for centuries, crossing the borders between the Christian and Islamic worlds, and commuting fluently between tongue and pen. The many narrative tributaries first came together in a single stream when the French scholar and antiquarian Antoine Galland used a 14th or 15th-century Syrian manuscript he had brought back from his travels in the Middle East as the basis for seven volumes of stories that he entitled Les Mille et Une Nuits, which appeared between 1701 and 1706. They prompted vigorous imitation, and the Orientalist infatuation that spread across Europe in the early 18th century ensured that, having been gathered together briefly in one current, the stories began almost immediately to spread and ramify once again.

Though Galland’s retellings of the stories were intended as documents of Middle Eastern culture, they were far from faithful even to his proximate source. In buffing them up for polite society and smoothing out their eroticism and abrupt shifts of scene and register, his translations appropriated the stories to which they gave release. Most remarkably of all, it seems likely that he was himself the author of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, the two stories that most audiences, in the ‘West’ and ‘East’ alike, would today think of as embodying the essential characteristics of The Arabian Nights. It would be easy and conventional to deprecate this as exoticising invention, but the ravelled history of these tales, early and late, discourages any such purism. Warner quotes with warm approval the judgment of Borges, who, in his essay ‘The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights’, insisted that some misprision is necessary for every reinvention of the tales in translation. Accordingly, Stranger Magic is an account, not just of the tales in The Arabian Nights themselves, but also of their many adaptations and transformations, in the work of writers including Voltaire, Coleridge, Diderot, Beckford, Goethe and Borges. The book devotes time to some of the less well known of these, such as Anthony Hamilton, an Anglo-Irish Jacobite who followed James II to France and there, writing in French, inaugurated the tradition of elegant mockery of the excesses of The Arabian Nights that opened the way for the rationalist arabesques of Voltaire and others. Warner might have included many more. James Joyce pays frequent homage to his antecedent in nocturnal fabulation throughout Finnegans Wake, often using it to suggest the millennial ‘miscegenations on miscegenations’ of which human history is made, and the impossibility of identifying origins with certainty: ‘It is a slopperish matter, given the wet and low visibility (since in this scherzarade of one’s thousand one nightinesses that sword of certainty which would indentifide the body never falls) to idendifine the individuone.’ The most conspicuous absentee is probably John Barth, in whose work, from Chimera (1972), through The Tidewater Tales (1987), The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991) and On with the Story (1996), The Arabian Nights are interbred with many other tall tales and shaggy-dog relations.

More even than an inquisitive, authoritative study of one of the greatest imaginative enterprises of human history, this is a further chapter in Warner’s unfolding of the power – the magical power as it may be – of the magical imagination. Occasionally, her efforts to extol the ‘torrential energies of the irrational’ seem about to lead her into a reflex anti-rationalism, as when she describes the way in which The Arabian Nights taught Goethe ‘how to give free play to his imagination, and to pass beyond reason’s boundaries’ – though she adds, in the nick of time, that this is in order ‘to express its ideals more fully’. Later on, she tells us that the Iranian film Gabbeh ‘vibrates with unspoken resistance to the bringers of death and despair, to the forces of intolerance and injustice, and the destroyers of fantasy’, though she knows better than most how turgid with fantasy many of the purveyors of death and injustice are. Is war really possible without fantasy? Is racism? For, as Warner’s use of the phrase ‘reasoned imagination’ suggests, the opposite of reason is not imagination but unreason. Rather than simply rescuing the maiden Magick from her racking and ravishment by the wicked ogre Reason, there would be good reason to defend the latter against the more fantastical imputations laid against it. One trick for keeping your wits about you in the face of such rhetorical enchantments is to substitute for Reason (the capital letter here being an infallible sign that magical thinking is at work) the milder, more diffuse, but altogether more reasonable wish simply to have good reasons for thinking and doing things rather than bad ones, or none at all. On this view, someone who could see no rhyme or reason in the pleasurable extrapolations of fantasy would have a pretty cracked idea of what could count as reasonable in human life and thought. Without the possibility of free or unmotivated extrapolation, logic would be a limping thing indeed, and quite as stunted and ugly as imagination in the service of unreason.

Indeed, some of the most original and compelling arguments in Stranger Magic concern the uses of Arabian flights of fantasy as vehicles for scientific and technological speculation, for example in the fantasies of flight of Francis Godwin, Cyrano de Bergerac, the amazing John Wilkins and the anonymous Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1750), on whose descriptions of a flying people encountered by a shipwrecked sailor near the South Pole Warner dwells with particular relish. She shows us how Voltaire, while indulging himself in satirical mockery of the bizarreness and exaggeration of The Arabian Nights, also ‘seized this chance for exuberant play to envision, as Shahrazad does in the stories, different regimes of authority, emancipated erotics and prophetic technological innovations’.

The opponents of magical thinking often counterpose it to realism, as though it meant simply the belief in unreal or inexistent things. But magical thinking should be distinguished from a simple belief in magic. The most pernicious forms of magical thinking are those that are too spontaneous or deeply ingrained in habits of action to rise to the condition of thought, and express themselves instead in rituals and instincts – obsessional beliefs about dirt, for instance, or the dangerously deluded estimates most of us make of risk and probability. The form of belief involved in magical thinking is often a much more complex affair than this, and is significantly alloyed with irony. Seen in this way, the magical thinking involved in fairy stories or erotic fantasies is a play with the possibilities of thought itself, a reflexive thinking about the nature and reach of magical thinking. Warner’s book often effects and inspects this kind of chiasmic swivel, whereby the thinking of magic and the magic of thinking change places.

Thinking about magic always seems to involve thinking about the times and places of its origin and persistence. The ‘stranger magic’ of Warner’s title refers not so much to the strangeness of the magic as to its assumed origin among strangers. It could be called ‘the magic of the other’, after Jacques Lacan’s ‘desire of the other’. Where Lacan’s formula implies not just the desire for the other, but the desire to enjoy the other’s own desire, so the magic of the other involves the desire for there to be an other whose assumed belief can keep the possibility of magic alive. The waning of belief only strengthens the belief in what others believe. Attributing magic to strangers, Warner writes, means that magic is ‘easier to disown, or otherwise hold in intellectual and political quarantine’. ‘Quarantine’ seems brilliantly exact here, for it signifies not just hygienic separation, but also a suspension of time that promises a preservation and possible return of magical beliefs that would otherwise be irretrievable.

Ultimately, the magic of The Arabian Nights is self-designating, instanced in what the stories effect as much as in what they relate. ‘Shahrazad’s ransom tale-telling could be described as a single, prolonged act of performative utterance,’ Warner explains, ‘by which she demonstrates the power of words to affect reality.’ Stranger Magic carries forward the highly distinctive magical materialism that impelled Warner’s Phantasmagoria (2006). Where that book explored the many different material forms that have been used to body forth the soul, Stranger Magic finds in the many enchanted and enchanting objects of The Arabian Nights a repeated self-figuring of the operations of fantasy. Can there, after all, be a more literal embodiment of the animism that we see ourselves as having abandoned than the strangely eloquent object that we take a book to be?

The arguments about animation and animism themselves come to life when Warner writes about thing-magic and the magic of particular things in The Arabian Nights: lamps, bottles, rings and, in particular, magic carpets and couches. Paradoxically, though objects seem, in their mute inertness, to be the opposites and impediments to magic and dream, the intercession of objects nevertheless seems indispensable to them. Perhaps this is because objects are liable to remind us of ways in which, in a phrase from Michel Serres quoted by Warner, ‘the subject is born from the object.’ Warner reminds us that Baghdad was one of the richest cities in the world during the years in which The Arabian Nights was being compiled, and was, like Yeats’s half-mythical Byzantium, a city of manufacture, artefacts and energetic trade. The concern with the management of things – their acquisition, exchange, purchase, hoarding, theft – bulks large in the stories. Not only is what Warner calls the ‘thing-world’ of The Arabian Nights richly differentiated, the movements of the stories themselves shadow the movements of goods. They too ‘are objects being traded and exchanged’, as Shahrazad bargains with them for her survival.

Though the ‘eerie materialism’ of magic is often concentrated in charmed or enchanted objects in fairy and folk tale, the magical objects in The Arabian Nights seem to have a particular vitality and dynamism, and the stories are attentive to the ways in which goods are both themselves enchanted and capable of exercising enchantment. The most extended explorations of thing-magic in the book are of flying things and things that enable flight – the flying carpet flits in and out of sight throughout. As with many other objects in fairy tale, its role is to suggest the narrative transports of fantasy itself. Warner follows Philippe-Alain Michaud in making out a deep affinity between the flying carpet and the cinema screen. And, in a superb coup de théâtre in the final chapter of the book, she places Freud’s couch in the tradition of the flying beds and enrapturing sofas that throng The Arabian Nights. She identifies the rug thrown over his couch as woven by the nomadic Ghashgha’i people of northwestern Iran, and uses it to focus the interweavings of textile, fantasy and the navigations of dreaming in psychoanalysis.

Freud defined magical thinking as the omnipotence of thought, and dreams of power are indeed everywhere in magic – both in the kinds of power that one magically dreams for oneself, and the power such dreams have over us. Questions of power growl and grind beneath the candied and volatile delights of The Arabian Nights. We are not allowed to forget for long that their frame-story, in which the princess Shahrazad tells stories to divert the sultan and avert her own execution, involves storytelling for dear life. There is a consonance between this frame and the political circumstances which Warner tells us have bookended the writing of her book, which she began during the first Gulf War in 1990-91 and brought to an end during the Arab Spring of late 2010 and early 2011. Warner does not underestimate the cruelty and violence that run through the stories, which mirror the colonial relations between East and West that obtained during the years of the stories’ cultivation and circulation through Europe. At the same time, she is not prepared simply to reduce the story of the intercourse of stories between West and East from the 18th century onwards to one of ignorant domination. Early in Stranger Magic, she tells us that as a girl she saw the confederacy of Shahrazad and her sister Dunyazad against the cruel sultan as ‘the fullest metaphor for love against death, expressed through the alliance of girls against men in power over them, and ultimately for imagination over experience’. And throughout the book she offers a gentle but insistent qualification of the view associated with Edward Said’s Orientalism, that the fantasies of the West about the East can be reduced to the use of knowledge as power. Warner’s purpose is to engage more seriously than Said with the work of enchantment that is performed reciprocally between West and East, showing how the alternating movements of the stories emphasise connection and exchange as much as epistemic domination. One of the representative moments in this encounter is found in Scott’s The Talisman, in which Saladin visits Richard the Lionheart as he lies sick in his tent. He cures him by means of a magic talisman and thereby ‘transmutes conflict into reciprocity’.

One of the many unsatisfying things about Said’s concept of Orientalism – at least about the way it has been taken up – was its encouragement of the belief that there was, in what is so incautiously and incuriously known as ‘the West’, a single system of reifying fantasy that applied in the same way to the many different forms and locations of ‘the East’, including, improbably, large parts of North Africa (some of them west of the Greenwich Meridian) and the many cultures of India, China, the Far East and even the Pacific. Of course, this mad confection is supposed to be part of the fantasy that Said’s work allows us to recognise; and yet the doctrine of Orientalism itself may have bloomed into a fixated fantasy that eclipses its purported historical object. One of the many ways in which Warner’s book restores grain and texture to this picture is in pointing out that The Arabian Nights itself follows the logic of ‘stranger magic’, attributing the exercise of the more dangerous kinds of magic to other peoples – often the Zoroastrians or Persian mystics whose dualism was deprecated by Islam – such that ‘the Orient in The Arabian Nights has its own Orient.’

Among Warner’s revisions to the idea of Orientalism is her analysis of the much more specific, if still highly variegated, fantasy of ‘Arabianism’. The force of this diffuse body of assumption and projection is indicated clearly enough in the fissure between the word ‘Arabian’, from which images of scimitars, stallions and pomegranates emerge irresistibly, and the more worldly ‘Arab’ or ‘Arabic’. Indeed, it is likely that these latter terms have been systematically preferred in recent times in conscious disavowal of their predecessor – a political confederation of Middle Eastern states could never now be known as the Arabian League.

Stranger Magic has a lively and affectionate chapter on the pantomime history of Arabianism, in which mockery and burlesque are to the fore. One of the few areas here in which one might have wished for more is the discussion of the vulgar arabesque, which, as the degradation of the dream of the Oriental, often becomes an expressive figure for the tawdriness of dream itself. Joyce captures this ironic degradation in his story ‘Araby’, in which a young man’s dreams of erotic and exotic fulfilment move towards the sourest of epiphanies in a drab Dublin bazaar. The numberless Meccas, Granadas and Alhambras doing duty as bingo halls conjure its contemporary equivalent.

Jung said that the job of the mythographer might be not so much to spell out the meaning of myth as to ‘dream the myth onward’. This is in a sense what Warner has undertaken to do, for her account of The Arabian Nights and their transmigrations is itself knitted into the fabric of the history she presents. Each section of her account is prefaced by a retelling of one of the stories, usually a neglected or less well known one, and in the writing and the reading, the separate threads of her argument – her accounts of the history of magic, or the responses of particular writers to the stories, or the nature of magical things, or the politics of enchantment – pass under and over each other. Warner’s scholarly imagination has never been less than compendious, but it has never before been so intricately wrought, or drawn together with such ingenuity the hitherto distinct currents of her writing, as mythographer, fabulist, critic, speculator and polemicist.