Section 12

Abdelfattah Kilito: L'Œil et l'Aiguille: Essais sur les Mille et Une Nuits (1992)

Lecture 12:

The Point of an Ending

  • Richard F. Burton, trans., "Conclusion to the Nights" (1885): from the Course Book of Readings: 215-22.
  • Heinz Grotzfeld, "Neglected Conclusions of the Arabian Nights: Gleanings in Forgotten and Overlooked Recensions" (1985): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 470-85.
  • Abdelfattah Kilito, "The Eye and the Needle" (1992): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 500-04.

Plot Summary:
Shahrazad asks King Shahriyar to spare her recently born children and herself. The King will spare her out of respect for her stories. King Shahriyar weds Shahrazad and his brother is invited for the festivities. When he hears of the stories of Shahrazad, Shahriyar’s brother wants to wed her sister Dunyazad. Lots of festivities take place. Shahrazad’s father becomes Viceroy and Sultan of Samarcand. King Shahriyar lets chroniclers write down the The Stories of a Thousand Nights and A Night. After both brothers have died a wise ruler lets folk copy and spread the stories now known as The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand Nights and A Night.
– Adapted from The Arabian Nights (2013-15)

Franz Kafka (1883-1924))

The Eye and the Needle

Verily my adventure is wondrous and were it graven with needle gravers on the eye corners it would be a warning to whoso would be warned and a matter of thought to whoso would think.
– Quoted in Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994): 110

P. G. Wodehouse: Summer Lightning (1929)

So what is the point of this long excursus through some of the crazier regions of fictional artifice, ancient and modern? I suppose - in the final analysis - it's to make you dissatisfied: dissatisfied with tepid rehashes of the same old stuff, the same tired scenarios, the same clichéd denouements. P. G. Wodehouse wrote in the preface to one of his "Blandings" novels: "A certain critic - for such men, I regret to say, do exist - made the nasty remark about my last novel that it contained 'all the old Wodehouse characters under different names.'"
he will not be able to make a similar charge against Summer Lightning. With my superior intelligence, I have out-generalled the man this time by putting in all the old Wodehouse characters under the same names. Pretty silly it will make him feel, I rather fancy.
It isn't just because we've become jaded that we require novelty. It isn't like the need to tempt the palate of a food critic with ever stranger and more extreme tastes. It's because there's a difference between fiction as sustenance and fiction as comfort food.

In his book The Eye and the Needle, Abdelfattah Kilito examines the implications of the Arabic phrase (translated above) about engraving a story in the corner of your eye as a metaphor for making it tell. Franz Kafka put it slightly differently when he wrote of the need to "break the frozen sea within us."

It is, in short, the ethics of fiction - the longterm justification for telling such deliberate lies on such a grand scale - that should concern us here.

Robert Barr: The Unchanging East (1900)

The Arabian Nights, it has often been claimed, has done much for East-West relations by familiarising Western readers with certain aspects of life in Muslim countries, ever since it was first introduced to Europe in the early eighteenth century. However, it’s also given rise to a number of pernicious myths about the ‘unchanging East,’ as well as to many foolish generalisations about ‘Oriental’ cultures generally.

After all, are there any European writings from that era which we would now regard as reliable guides to the manners and morals of (say) France or England? Does Defoe's Moll Flanders provide an accurate account of London street life today? Could Voltaire's Candide give useful tips to contemporary travellers? And yet, again and again, we read of characters and situations in the East that they are ‘just like in the Arabian Nights."

Islamophobia and misrepresentations of Arabic culture have been a European staple since before the Crusades. Read properly, the Nights should give us insights into the common origins of folk cultures all around the world, but also into the similar motivations of fictional characters in stories of all ages and times.

Fantasy, realism, or psychological fiction all share, in the final analysis, the same broad objective: to surprise their readers into entertaining thoughts which cut across their preconceived ideas and prejudices. Right now the fear of "Islamic extremism" is at a premium in the West. Go back a couple of decades, and it was the threat of militant Communism.

It isn't that such threats are necessarily unreal. Just that the best way to deal with them is not to attempt to be even more violent and unreasonable than your opponents. Rather, without understanding the motivations behind people's actions, no advances can be made. The way to break the cycle is to think our way out of it. One of the best ways of doing that is by indulging in the extended thought experiments we call works of fiction.

Frank Kermode: The Sense of an Ending (1967)

Richard F. Burton (1821-1890): Arabian Nights

Creative Portfolio (iv)

A chance to share as much as possible of the final draft of your fiction portfolios before their date of submission next week.

H. J. Ford: Scheherazade (1898)

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