Apr/May 2012

In Charm's Way

How The Arabian Nights cast its spell across the ages

George Prochnik


When the young Samuel Coleridge discovered The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment in 1798, the book so impressed him that he became, he wrote, “haunted by spectres.” His father, aghast at the effect the Nights was having, torched the child’s copy of the tales. But they’d already worked their spell. Coleridge credits the book with turning him into a dreamer, indisposed to all bodily activity, “fretful, and inordinately passionate.”

Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic has a double mission: On the one hand, the author traces, with a swelling, orchestral richness, why the Nights held such potent sway over figures like Coleridge, becoming a runaway best seller in Europe and retaining a lock grip over the Western imagination for generations. But she also shows why its themes and preoccupations remain relevant today. Citing the success of authors like Dan Brown and the spread of various superstitions, she argues that interest in magic is waxing in popular culture. For many, she observes, this is a worrisome trend, symptomatic of a larger cultural slip toward the morass of irrationalism. Yet confessing herself “irresistibly attracted to myths in all their metamorphoses,” Warner is unwilling to cede the whole realm of sorcery to mob rule. Stranger Magic explores, with immense learning and panache, how it might be possible to develop an intellectual, reasoned relationship to magic, conjuring an alternative to the binary choice between Enlightenment thought and esoterica.

Warner groups her different meditations on the Nights into five big sections that consider, among other things, the seminal role played by legends of King Solomon in the contents and architecture of the Nights and occult rites in multiple intellectual traditions ranging from Renaissance Europe to Egyptian civilization. Throughout, she explores how the tales exerted their influence on culture and thought: A look at how stylistic costumes cribbed from the Nights liberated European authors to fantasize in new, exotically polyphonic veins (such as William Beckford’s work of “Oriental Gothic” Vathek) segues into the book’s final part, “Flights of Reason,” which explores how the images of airborne humans and genies in the Nights supplied a scaffolding for several centuries’ worth of thought experiments in flight.

Each section further unfolds in pleats filigreed with history, miniature biographies, conceptual etymologies, and personal reminiscences from Warner’s own life of intrepid learning. She tracks the evolution of magical objects, such as the spell-encrusted talismanic garments of Ottoman courts, back to the wealth of magical apparel strewn through the Nights. And she follows the historical shape-shifting of archetypal figures such as Aladdin, who remains the most popular character in visual stagings of the book. For all his iconic stature, Aladdin, Warner shows, may not even have figured in the original Nights, quite possibly having been a creation of the tales’ first translator and publisher, Antoine Galland, at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Standard notions of cross-cultural pollination don’t begin to convey the bacchanal of East-West exchange at work in the reception of these stories.

Warner sprinkles the historical detective work of Stranger Magic with her own versions of key scenes from the Nights, and her verve as a storyteller is among the book’s delights. “Abu Mohammed the Lazy,” one of these retold tales, about the quest for the world’s largest gem, is not uncommonly elaborate, yet it interweaves a magical ape, cannibals, a demonically possessed virgin bride, talismanic flags, fighting snakes, genies, and a trip into the stratosphere followed by a plunge into the ocean. By the end, Warner notes, the original purpose of Abu Mohammed’s tale has been utterly displaced: “The story has been so stuffed with riches of every kind that the stone . . . has become a trifle.”

This notion that the splendors of a story can reapportion values in the material world—reversing decrees and attracting bankable fortunes—reflects the framing scheme of the Nights themselves: Shahrazad’s plan to forestall her death sentence by beguiling the Sultan Shahriyar with a long night of stories. She survives as long as his appetite remains piqued for more words.

Similarly, as we navigate the twisting lines of influence Warner teases out in Stranger Magic, we as readers become mesmerized—wondering where she will go next. In one bravura flourish, Warner cascades from interpretations of Joseph’s dreams in Genesis and the Koran through numerous passages in the Nights, then moves nimbly from somnambulist illusions in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Proust’s “nocturnal poetics,” on to Jung and the Surrealists, and then to shamanism among a nomadic, reindeer-herding people on the Mongolian-Siberian border. The passage peaks with a nightmare recounted by Barack Obama in Dreams from My Father involving a leopard and a giant in a ghostly mask. Here, Warner uses the Nights to lay bare the many influences at work in a future president’s “shamanic vision”—and shows how contemporary politics have left behind the biblical cadences informing the rhetoric of figures like Martin Luther King Jr. for a bewitched land bordering more closely on the Nights’ terrain.

Stranger Magic is equally sensitive to the magical valuations that operate in consumer culture. Writing of the “secret life of things” central to many stories in the Nights, Warner registers the growing potency of our “personal, electronic prostheses—mobile phones, iPods, and laptops.” She contends that the strain of Oriental storytelling at work in the Nights, in which charmed objects play so large a part, “underlies this modern strain of animism, and its vision both foreshadows the eerie cybernetics of our hardware media and gives a way of understanding our relationship with them.”

Anyone who happened by an Apple store in the wake of Steve Jobs’s death and saw an impromptu shrine festooned with flowers and scribbled notes at its entrance will feel the relevance of Warner’s words here. Since the sparkly pleasure dome of branded objects we live in is no less fantastical than any genie-conjured palace compound in The Arabian Nights, we’d do well to gain a better grip on just who our twenty-first-century genies are.

Stranger Magic is a large volume, and it can sometimes be difficult not to get disoriented, or suffer what Warner nicely dubs “eyeskip” in the twists and involutions of the arabesque patterns being traced. However, one of the merits of the book is that it teaches us why getting lost now and again can be salutary. In our absurdly busy, bottom-line-fetishizing lives, digression has become a bad word. But it’s precisely the wide-roaming, whirling vicissitudes of Shahrazad’s tales that dazzle the sultan and keep her alive. Stranger Magic reveals that the fate of the human spirit hangs not by a single thread, but by an extravagant skein of fancy.

George Prochnik's most recent book is In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (Doubleday, 2010).

Advertisement