Wednesday, September 26, 2007


The two major events in Nights scholarship since the bulk of this book was written, between 1991 and 1995, have been the appearance of Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen's 2-volume Arabian Nights Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA / Denver CO / Oxford, UK: ABC Clio, 2004) - a peerlessly authoritative (and instantly indispensable) work of scholarship - and the completion of Andre Miquel and Jamel Eddine Bencheikh's fully-annotated 3-volume French translation of the Arabic text in the Bibliotheque de la Pleiade (Paris: Gallimard, 2005-6).

The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia includes (in volume 2 pp. 743-82), a list of stories and editions of the Nights which largely supersedes my own more tortuous attempts to reconcile the numbering systems created by the two pioneers in this endeavour: W. F. Kirby and Nikita Eliseef. Nevertheless, I have still thought it worthwhile to include my story-concordance in this collected version of my Arabian Nights papers to date. There are certain features in it which may make it useful even to those who have the Encyclopedia to hand.

The main reason why it seems opportune to publish this material now is the fact that it embodies a certain attitude towards the Nights, and towards their place in the larger scheme of Comparative Literature which has not yet found enough of a voice. Origin studies and linguistic analysis are still in the ascendant.

I prefer to approach the Nights from the point of view of the cultural impact they've had than to attempt to answer questions about what they really are.

In one sense the answer is obvious: a collection of Arabic tales translated (with supplementary materials) by the Frenchman Antoine Galland between 1704 and 1717. In another sense, it's the constantly-morphing concept of a book which has beguiled and bedevilled writers, critics and translators for 300 years - a process which shows no signs of abating, as postmodern relativism permeates ever deeper into popular culture.

We no longer have so much trouble imagining a book which could be said to have invented and written itself. Do we find it any easier to read, though? I would suspect not. "In dreams begin responsibilities." The more uncertain and malleable our readings become, the more responsibility we have to assume for them. Are the Nights, finally, simply a vessel for stereotypical Western fantasies of the Oriental other, or is it possible to claim a more positive cultural role for them over the past three centuries of European hegemony?

- Dr Jack Ross, Massey Albany, September 2007


harvey molloy said...

I cannot ignore the frame around the work, the ornate border. For me, the tales are always an injunction to tell a tale in order to stave off a death sentence. (Great idea; keep talking!) For this reason the nights cannot be reduced to "a vessel for stereotypical Western fantasies of the Oriental other." The nights themselves are more intriguing than this reduction. And this is probably exactly why you love them. Great blog, Jack.

Jack Ross said...

Thanks, Harvey.

Actually, I couldn't agree more. I love the idea of simply talking in order to postpone violent death. That's what makes Scheherazade the patron saint of writers ... and yet it's interesting how much the collection has always appealed to Europeans -- since 1704, in fact -- and how little currency it's ever had in the Middle and Near East, its presumed point of origin.

I have a few thoughts on this affinity in Chapter 5 of the blog, "The Poetics of Stasis," which you might find more interesting than some of the drier stuff in-between.