Reading Group #31 (The Arabian Nights: 'The City of Brass')
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(From the last thread:)
It's been a while since we looked at 'source material' for the Gothic, and one thing we haven't explored yet is The Arabian Nights. As an Arab, I've spent a lot of time exploring my relationship with the Nights (and trying to understand if there is one, once all orientalism is set aside). That said, the tale of 'The City of Brass' has some seriously Gothic conventions. It would be interesting to discuss this alongside our Vathek thread...
Hello veil, glad to see you back (waves happily).
You're reopening old wounds, here - I'm still mourning my long-lost and apparently unidentifiable childhood copy of The Arabian Nights.
I suspect this could be quite a hefty and complex subject. For Brits, at least, at least up until my generation, The Arabian Nights was quite a fundamental element in childhood culture (I seem to remember the young Dobbin had a copy in Vanity Fair) - it must have had quite a widespread literary influence. And, I suppose, there must be a lot of muddy connections with colonialism involved. Also, looking at Wikipedia, there were so many versions published. And then there's this whole 'children's tale - adult reading material' contrast, more so than with any other work I can think of.
I can't remember if I've ever read any of the Sir Richard Burton translation, though I've long wanted to, if only because he's such a fascinating character, so I look forward to reading this.
Yes, I’m glad you’re back, too!
Some interesting opening remarks there, Alaudacorax. For what it's worth, I agree totally.
With regard to the Arabian Nights as a fundamental part of a British childhood, I can certainly remember elements of the stories used as source material for pantomimes (Aladdin, etc.), and I can remember the not-very-faithful animated segment in “The Banana Splits” (which the BBC programmed as children’s afternoon television right through the ‘70s). I don’t recall when I first learnt of the framing story, though. Of course, by age five I’d progressed (as I imagined it, at least) to Marvel comics, and may have skipped over important contemporary selections or retellings.
There is a very strange passage in A Christmas Carol that pertains to this question. The Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge observe the neglected schoolboy Scrooge reading, alone. The spirit directs Scrooge’s attention to a figure at the window ‘“Why, it’s Ali Baba! Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. “It’s dear old honest Ali Baba!”. Scrooge goes on to tell how Ali Baba, joined by Valentine and Orson, “the Sultan’s Groom turned upside down by the Genii”. Robinson Crusoe’s parrot and Friday, all appeared to him.
Presumably this is an hallucination - Dickens never explains. Possibly he never felt it needed explanation. I remember Peter Ackroyd’s biography includes an account of one of Dickens’s friends accompanying him on one of his long walks through the City, and Dickens pointing out curious characters who were not there.
Nevertheless this does show how, by - what, the 1770s, 1780s? - characters from the Nights, alongside Knightly Romance and “the first modern novel”, had somehow become staples of children’s literature (or children’s imagination, at any rate - they may (I imagine)have encountered these characters on stage, or in a toy theatre.
I’ll struggle to read the online text you linked to. I may have to use the Mardrus/Mathers translation. Hopefully I won’t miss too much. The Burton was published in the 1880s, which is of course far too late to influence the development of the Gothic, but does place it slap-bang in the middle of the “second wave” of Victorian Gothic (which Jonathan Rigby, in an interview included on the UK DVD release of 'Island of Lost Souls', sees as responses to anxieties caused by the publication of Darwin’s "Origin of Species" - interesting, but it belongs in the previous thread.)
Well, I've just re-read The City of Brass. I have to say that rather than discerning any influence on the development of Gothic, I was reminded of the ruined cities and long perspectives of time in the work of H. P. Lovecraft and his fellow Weird Tales writers (and the whole train of Sword-and-Sorcery/Heroic Fantasy writers who followed).
I was also reminded of PB Shelley's Ozymandias - but here I have a problem: I was using the Mathers/Mardrus version but I'm not sure that what is presented there as elegiac poetry is the same in all versions.
In fact, prompted by this thread I ordered Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights, which I've flipped through this evening. There is a chapter based around the City of Brass which begins with what I take to be Warner's own version of the story. Although a detailed synopsis (as opposed to a more literary retelling) it differs noticeably from Mathers/Mardrus.
More thoughts to come, I hope.
I want to take back what I said about the Nights having no discernible influence on the Gothic. I got it wrong, basically.
There are a couple of reasons why. Firstly, and inexcusably, I must have had in mind a very narrow, even clichéd version of Gothic in mind: Northern European setting, long dark winter nights, bad weather, castles, that sort of thing.
I should have remembered, without having to read it in The Haunted Castle, that the Gothic partakes in Romanticism’s interest in/love of the exotic. From the perspective of 18th Century London or Paris, that would include Southern Europe; The East; the Medieval Past (but not, or not so much, the Classical World. I imagine this was already familiar from schooldays (education - for those lucky enough to receive it - pretty much meant Latin, and learning about Ancient Greece and Rome, didn’t it?)). Plus exotic peoples such as Gypsies, Bandits and so forth.
The Castle of Otranto is set in Southern Europe and in Medieval times, of course. Mrs Radcliffe set her novels in the past. It took a while for the Gothic or “terror-romanticism” to “come home”. So the fact that the stories in the Nights take place in bustling marketplaces, grand palaces, the desert, at sea, does not disqualify them from playing a part in how Gothic literature developed in the West.
I haven’t mentioned all the magicians and sorceresses, Jinn, the ghouls that haunt cemeteries, and all the other supernatural beings. It might be thought that they are the clearest link between the Nights and the Supernatural side of the Gothic. However, the impact of the Nights was in large part due to its novelty, and the Jinn and so forth have counterparts in European culture or folklore. Even if the resemblance is superficial, I can imagine that, for the first European readers, these beings might even have been comfortingly familiar among all the strange names and customs.
I totally agree.
I also love that you framed this arguement without even once bringing up Beckford. :D
I haven't finished! - it's taking a long time to work up to Beckford!
The other reason why I was wrong, was that I ignored how Romanticism developed as a reaction to the rational, Newtonian, clockwork universe of the Enlightenment. Rather than launch into an under-researched essay on that whole massive change in sensibilities, I'll just look at how the Nights seems to have got into the mix.
The first translation of the Nights into a European language (French) was made by Antoine Galland and published at the beginning of the 18th Century. He had also taken over the editorship of Barthélemy d’Herbelot’s Bibliotéque orientale ou Dictionnaire universal contenant généralement tout ce qui regarde la connaissance des peuples de l”Orient, on d'Herbelot’s death. “This work, with over 8,000 entries, has been described as the first attempt at an encyclopedia of Islam”. (Details and direct quotes from The Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin).
The translation was an immediate success. There was already a taste for fairy tales of a sophisticated style in the salons in the 1690s, and by the early eighteenth century they had already begun to take on more orientalising settings. (I’m relying on Irwin and on Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic, here).
Europe was of course aware of Islam and the east because of the proximity of the Ottoman Empire (“The Turk”) to Eastern Europe. Commercial and Imperialistic interests were active in India (not at this stage solely or even chiefly British; Goa had fall to the Portuguese 1510). Chinese porcelain was imported and it was in the 18th Century that Europeans discovered how to make porcelain themselves. The imports (and the home-made versions) were decorated with scenes of chinese life.
So (as Warner writes) the fashion for oriental romancing had a fair wind.
The Nights were soon translated into English but for a different audience, reflecting the differences in French and English society at the time (and it is English rather than British). France was an Absolute Monarchy and the audience was the aristocratic ladies of the salons. England was an imperfect democracy, with a constitutional monarch whose magical powers had been transferred to Parliament (if anyone out there can describe the outcome of “the Glorious Revolution” better than that, please do!), and an emerging middle class (full of, incidentally, many very bright people who did not go to Oxford or Cambridge - because they ware non-conformists - but did very well for themselves in business instead. They also did well for us all, eventually, as they, and their successors, were the people behind the Industrial Revolution).
The English version of Galland’s Nights was printed in serial format in a journal called the London News.
By the time he wrote Vathek, William Beckford had almost a century’s worth of oriental tales to read, enjoy, and draw inspiration from. He could also draw from the orientalising traditions of both England and France. Indeed, Vathek was written in French. It’s not difficult to imagine the aristocratic, amused, even cynical, atmosphere of the salons would appeal to Beckford over the rougher, mercantile, London coffee-house.
Actually, since writing that last paragraph I’ve glanced through Robert Irwin’s book again, and there is a potted biography of Beckford which suggests the main source for Vathek was Beckford’s own life!
Perhaps giving more weight to the idea of a Francophile Beckford, Irwin also suggests that he may have come across the details of the real-life Vathek in the Bibliothéque orientale.
I've just looked at Touchstones, and Piet Prins has sneaked in under cover of the "wrong" Haunted Castle. Never mind.
Having read the first 50 or so pages of Marina Warner's book, I was thinking about the Jinn, as they are presented in the Nights. Although I wrote earlier about their resemblance to creatures of Western folklore, my reading has reminded me of their connection to King Solomon - how he tamed them and used them to build the Temple - and I started to see resemblance to the spirits that feature in Renaissance magic.
These are, like Ariel in The Tempest, summoned and controlled by magicians. Magical acts are carried out by the spirits carrying out the magicians orders, as servants. The magician does not directly perform the magic with thunderbolts hurled from his hands (or whatever).
As I understand it, the ideas of Renaissance magic come from Neoplatonism and Kabbalah (although Kabbalah is itself heavily influenced by Neoplatonic ideas). It just brings home the fact that both Medieval Europe and Medieval Islam are cultures that have grown out of the fall of the Classical World and contain elements that can be traced back to a common source.
Glad to see someone else has peeked at Irwin's companion to the Nights! It's certainly much more germane, engaging, and less-glossed-over than the other stuff I've read dealing with the origins and impact of the fictions themselves; Irwin, too, is an actual scholar of the language, culture, and religion and I think his lenses, from sex to sharia, are some of the most avidly-researched out there: if not THE most...
As an Arab-American, there's a point at which I ask myself: do you enjoy these tales, and things like Vathek, because you are some kind of oriental orientalist or because you believe they bring up interesting East/West dialogue between both poles of your own identity? And then I dropped the bull****, because frankly, I just like a good story and my identity needn't be perceived as 'conflicting' (that would play into the hate politics reeling through my country, and that's just not this girl's style). Sorry for the brief personal interlude, but the Nights and her ilk bring up a lot of baggage, both positive and negative, in Jourdain land. :D
I think orientalism overlaps with the love of the exotic, and because the latter is so common (I'd dare say universal, especially in childhood), we are all given reason to "worry", in this more enlightened age, about the implications of indulging that taste.
But. Once past twelve, where's the harm?
Sorry for the extended absence, folks, but I'm ready for a new thread if you're all still hanging around these parts...
A little Lovecraft. I mean, why not?
I've been AWOL a bit recently, too (too long a story!); but, coincidentally, I finally got round to reading this right through last night. I logged-in to LT this morning especially to have a read of this thread, prior to an attempt at getting my thoughts in some sort of order.
With any luck I'll post something tonight - if only to say I have nothing constructive to add!
ETA - Apologies for tardiness.
Okay - I have nothing constructive to add.
However, can I just say that I got quite absorbed in this once I started reading it and I enjoyed it. So much so that a nice edition of the Burton is now yet another work for which I'm hankering.
The reason I said that was that I read this in the introduction, by N. J. Dawood, writing in 1954 or earlier, to my Penguin Classics Tales from the Thousand and One Nights -
What Burton gained in accuracy he lost in style. His excessive weakness for the archaic, his habit of coining words and phrases, and the unnatural idiom he affected, detract from the literary quality of his translation without in any way enhancing its fidelity to the original.
Passing over the self-contradiction in it ('gained in accuracy' - 'without ... enhancing its fidelity'), the three 'faults' he lists I see as 'enhancements' - I see them as an integral part of the delight. They add to the exotic and 'other' feel of the work. I think I 'get it' and Dawood doesn't. He was bilingual and born and raised in Baghdad, and a real expert in the field, and, perhaps, he was up too close to the subject and forgot to look at the end product in its proper context - as an exotic entertainment for a relatively non-knowledgeable, Victorian-Brit audience. In the context of 'Vathek' and 'Otranto' it seems to me to fit right in and even surpass.
Or, perhaps, it's simply a matter of differing tastes.
Either way, on the strength of 'The City of Brass' and a few other excerpts, I took exception to his comments.
Okay, that said, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by this thread. My TBR pile is already threatening to get taller than I am (if it isn't already); and now I really want to read the Burton translation - which seems to be pretty hefty - plus the Robert Irwin and Marina Warner works that houseful mentioned above.
I'm intrigued about whether and how the 'Nights' might interrelate with the various, Western collections of folk tales - Greek and Roman myths, Chaucer, The Decameron, perhaps even the Brothers Grimm and similar. The Wikipedia entry (for the 'Thousand and One Nights' in general) gives hints of some early connections and it seems a fascinating subject - but such a vast amount of reading, and my work-rate seems woefully low these days. Not to mention spread impractically widely - I think I'm suffering from literary gluttony.
I think "literary gluttony" better describes someone currently reading 49 books (he said sheepishly).
#17 - Ah, now, I've cheated, you see. I created a 'Long-term reading' collection and transferred into that all the anthologies and such that I'm slowly working my way through. It serves the triple purpose of stopping me feeling guilty when I'm not making progress with them (amusing how a little change in terminology does that), allowing me to put them back on the shelves without completely forgetting them, and giving me a quick reference for where I've got unread short pieces when I want a change of reading.
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