Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Preface



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



5 comments:

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.

Sara Forcella said...

Dear professor,

just one question on your web article "A new translation of the Arabian Nights". I'm interested in the frame story, and after having read it I was wondering which one of the manuscripts contains the end of the frame story (the Syrian one or the ZER's one?). I mean, the happy ending we know about the marriage between Shehrazade and the king after 3 years of storytelling and the birth of their children. Can you tell me more about the origin of this happy ending? Is it of Persian or Indian origin, or is it a later addition, perhaps even dating back to Galland's translation?
Thank you in advance for your kind response

S. Forcella

Sara Forcella said...

Dear professor,
just one question on your web article "A new translation of the Arabian Nights". I'm interested in the frame story, and after having read it I was wondering which one of the manuscripts contains the end of the frame story (the Syrian one or the ZER's one?). I mean, the happy ending we know about the marriage between Shehrazade and the king after 3 years of storytelling and the birth of their children. Can you tell me more about the origin of this happy ending? Is it of Persian or Indian origin, or is it a later addition, perhaps even dating back to Galland's translation?
Thank you in advance for your kind response

S. Forcella

Dr Jack Ross said...

Dear Sara,

I've written to you directly with more detail than I can include here, but I'll summarise here:

The happy ending with the three children does come from the later ZER version of the Nights, and is included in both the Bulaq (1835) and Macnaghten (1839-42) editions of the Arabic text. It therefore recurs in Burton's and all the other complete translations of that version.

The Syrian version, as represented by the MS Galland (critically edited by Muhsin Mahdi in 1984), has unfortunately not come down to us in complete form, and so the very summary "ending" Galland's 1704-17 translation includes is purely an invention of the translator, Antoine Galland, deduced from the opening of the frame-story, which is all he had available to him. Husain Haddawy's excellent English translation of the Mahdi edition of the Syrian ms. includes a brief one-paragraph ending which Haddawy calls the "Translator's Postscript."

It would therefore be unsafe to assume that the details of the ZER ending date back any further than the late 17th-18th century when ZER was being compiled in Egypt (partially, it's thought, at the prompting of Europeans determined to find a complete "original" text of the Nights, with all 1001 nights accounted for -- rather than the 200-odd included in Galland's ms.)

You mention further some earlier references to the frame-story in various sources which mention a discrepancy between one child or three being presented to Shahryar by Shahrazad. I'll just say here that virtually everything about the Nights is speculative, with the exception of the (very few) fixed dates, and contents, of the printed texts.