Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

In 1704, Antoine Galland brought out the first four volumes of his twelve-volume French translation of a fifteenth-century manuscript of Alf Layla wa-Layla, i.e., The Thousand Nights and a Night. As cultural critic Marina Warner writes in Stranger Magic, the Age of Reason soon went wild for “a book which is a monument to the torrential energies of the irrational.” In these tales anything could happen: An old bottle could house a wish-granting jinn, a severed head might talk, a carpet fly. At any time, and anywhere, the extraordinary and the marvelous would simply irrupt into everyday life. Here, in short, was a world of wonders, but also a realm of luxe, calme et volupté, a land of heart’s desire.

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, as it was titled in its earliest English translation, turned out to be a transformative work, a pivot point in the history of reading. In its wake, fantasy — what Dryden called “the Fairy Way of Writing” — emerged as a branch of modern literature, the “charmed states” of dream and ecstasy became desirable modes of experience, and fabulism or “reasoned imagination”  was newly valued as a way of apprehending the world. The  importance of The Arabian Nights cannot be underestimated. As the great scholar E. F. Bleiler once wrote, this “anthology of adventure, love and supernatural stories build up in the Near East over a thousand years or so,” is “with the exception of the Bible, the non-European literary work that has had the greatest impact on modern western culture.”

In Stranger Magic Warner surveys just how pervasively The Arabian Nights has influenced art and literature since the eighteenth century. On the surface, her book covers what more dogmatic critics would call the West’s cultural appropriation of the East. But while Edward Said famously criticized such “Orientalism,” seeing in it a series of distortions and demeaning simplifications, Warner shows us The Arabian Nights as “a kind of pattern book for later writers, artists and film-makers.”

Thus Stranger Magic covers — take a breath — the legends of King Solomon as a “white” wizard; Western impressions of Sufi mystics, i.e., whirling dervishes; the history and meaning of the flying carpet; the use of Arabian Nights elements in Voltaire’s contes philosophiques and William Beckford’s macabre gothic extravaganza Vathek; the etymology of the word talisman; the haunting notion of sentient objects and talking toys; the development of stage machinery and theatrical special effects; Goethe’s response to Persian poetry in his own lyrics for the West-Eastern Divan; the emergence of the department store and — brilliant phrase — the rise of “promiscuous serial acquisition”; the use of the Arabian Nights in early cinema, with a particular focus on The Thief of Baghdad and Lotte Reininger’s animated shadow film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed; and, not least, Sigmund Freud’s analytic couch, famously draped in Oriental rugs and pillows, the contemporary site of  confession, erotics, daydreaming, and storytelling.

Those last activities, of course, remain at the very heart of the Nights. You will remember the opening frame: Sultan Shahriyar has been cuckolded by his wife and vows revenge on all womankind. He thus marries a new virgin each day, consummates the marriage that night, and cuts off his bride’s head the next morning. Eventually, the vizier’s daughter Shahrazad (a.k.a. Scheherazade) comes up with a daring plan. She weds the sultan, but in the bedroom that night she begins to tell her royal husband a story about a fisherman and a jinn, breaking off her exciting narrative just when…. The sultan, eager to learn what happens next, decides to keep Shahrazad alive for another night, if only until her tale spinning is completed. But, of course, it never is. Cliff-hangers abound, stories are embedded within other stories like Russian dolls, and one tale gives rise to another, as three years slowly pass. The narratives of that thousand and one nights cause the sultan to rethink his evaluation of women (and men). At the end of the last tale, Shahrazad brings forth the three children she has borne her husband, and the couple live happily ever after, or at least until “the destroyer of all joys” finally carries them away.

While Stranger Magic is packed with information and insight, the book isn’t an introduction to the Nights per se. For that, the reader should turn to Robert Irwin’s authoritative, crisply written The Arabian Nights: A Companion. While Warner does summarize “The City of Brass,” “The Prince of the Black Islands,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banu,” and a dozen other stories, using each as a springboard to wide-ranging reflections, her paraphrases shouldn’t be regarded as a substitute for the original tales. Instead the twenty-first-century reader should turn to the two compact volumes of The Arabian Nights translated by Hussain Huddawy, one an Englishing of the most authoritative Arabic manuscript (but consequently only representing the first quarter or so of the known tales), the other a selection from the non-canonical “orphan stories” featuring, among others, the adventures of  Aladdin, Sindbad, and Ali Baba. Should you hunger for more wonder yet, you should then acquire Malcolm Lyons’s three-volume Penguin edition of the complete tales. Be a little wary of all the earlier translations: Some are  bowdlerized or abridged for children, while the Mardrus-Mathers version imbues the book with a distinct fin-de-siècle sensuality. The explorer Richard Burton’s notorious translation, while complete, is composed in a rebarbative, archaic English, while its notes never wander far from lip-smacking accounts of bizarre Oriental customs and  sexual practices — although these are, as I can testify, enthralling to read about.

In her way, Warner adopts this Burtonian style of rambling commentary, albeit eschewing the salacious and merely antiquarian. Take just one of her themes — the secret life of objects. Mechanical horses, beds and carpets fly; rings and relics possess strange powers. Throughout the tales non-living things move and speak, or display “qualia, the particular properties of consciousness.” As a result, Warner points out, “the population of animate objects in fairytale and magic literature began to increase in the eighteenth century, under direct influence of the Nights, and has since exploded.” Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, “gives personality to a candlestick, and invents a conversation between a darning needle and a glass splinter.”

From here Warner goes on to discuss how talismans, fetishes, and amulets  are “charged” or “ensouled,” then segues into Susan Stewart’s On Longing, which examines how we invest teddy bears, blankies, and lovers’ mementos with emotive power through attachment and memory. This naturally leads Warner to recall her Catholic upbringing and her own youthful obsession with holy medals and scapulars. Finally, she concludes by observing, “We now exist in relation to any number of phenomena which work as if by magic. At least that is how it feels to use my BlackBerry, my laptop, my satnav, my blood monitor, my iPod, or to send you in Indonesia a photograph of Kentish Town from my mobile.” As she stresses: “The investment of the individual in these technological and immaterial extensions of our faculties now goes very deep.”

Warner writes with clarity, and sometimes with exquisite beauty. Speaking of a film by Georges Méliès, she observes: “The mise-en-scène of ‘The Persian episode’ includes sumptuous curtains, carpets and sofas, and a voluptuous liquefaction of silks and muslins, ribbons and gems sparkling and shimmering like the jinn themselves in the superby controlled chiaroscuro of Weimar cinema.” At the same time, she’s fond of the occasional technical term, such as proleptic, extradiegetic, or goety.
But then Warner possesses an exceptionally synoptic mind, almost Sherlockian in its sensitivity to connections and repeated motifs. She notes that the evil sorcerers in the Nights are always strangers, usually Persians and Zoroastrian in their beliefs, since magic tends to come from elsewhere and to draw on prohibited powers. Figures like Sauron, Voldemort, and Darth Vader, she adds, are later avatars of these swarthy magians.  She notes that fantasies of flying, in the era before balloons and aircraft, are culturally determined: In the East people just float away on sofas and carpets; in the West they employ more mechanical means, often madly flapping umbrella-like wings attached to corsets. She points out, “Many sites of enchantment in the stories are underground or secret cells and labyrinths: the stories often mimic in their topography the characters’ psychological descent into the abysses of passion.” Similarly, she reminds us that “vows, blessings, curses, apotropaic and expiatory formulae, repeated and performed in the correct way, place language at the centre of ritual; these verbal rituals occupy the heart of fairytale.”

Periodically, Warner  brings home how often modern writers, from Joseph Roth and John Barth to A. S. Byatt and Salman Rushdie, turn to the Nights as a model and inspiration. She paraphrases Borges quoting De Quincey, who declared that his favorite moment in The Arabian Nights took place “when the evil magician, looking for the boy who will help him obtain the lamp, puts his ear to the ground and hears from the other side of the world in China, the footfalls of Aladdin and recognizes that he must be the one.” She notes that Borges could never find this scene in the actual text, so that he finally concluded that De Quincey had produced “a marvelous example of an ideal response to the Nights, in which the reader or listener’s fancy plays freely with the material.”

In the past, people recognized that The Arabian Nights emphasized certain themes: “the wiles of women” and “the injustice of tyrants,” obviously, but also “the caprices of destiny, the perplexity of desire and the power of love, luck in money, and its opposite, misfortune.” Today, however, the book possesses an even deeper, metaphysical attraction. As Warner notes: “The central proposition that reality is a phantasmagoria, that the individual mind creates its own reality, and that other consciousnesses are entering and controlling it, has become a central modern myth, paranoid, solipsistic, and deeply determinist. It has gained purchase because it matches the way many experience their lives.”
That use of the unusual word phantasmagoria may remind some readers of Warner’s previous book of just that title. Stranger Magic is, in fact, simply the latest in an exhilarating series of studies that  reexamine the West’s fantastic imagination. From the Beast to the Blonde, No Go the Bogeyman, and Phantasmagoria explore the cultural meanings of folktales and Mother Goose stories, children’s literature, and fairy tales, the fearful monsters, beasts, and ogres of nightmare, and all the ways humankind has attempted to represent the spiritual. Ranged together, these substantial works, now joined by Stranger Magic, look solid and magisterial on the bookshelf, calling to mind the encyclopedic scholarship we associate with an earlier age. Nonetheless, while Marina Warner is as learned as any Victorian polymath, she also employs contemporary feminist theory and the insights of cultural studies to make us look once more, or look more deeply, at the history of cinema, art, theater, and literature. Each of her books is an Aladdin’s cave of wonders.