Eros and the Arabesque: Pleasure Frames the Story

Pleasure Frames the Story

What gives The Arabian Nights its ageless appeal? Pleasure! The pleasure principle draws in readers (as the promise of pleasure entices the king into Shahrazad’s narrative). Ample evidence of the pleasure principle can be found even before the story begins.

Ferdinand Keller’s Scheherazade und Sultan Schariar (1880)

The version I will be analyzing is called The Arabian Nights, which calls to mind genies and flying carpets, movies and make believe. (This is my frame story.) Rather than making me think of the fundamentalist reality of modern Saudi Arabia, the “Arabian” in the title has an Oriental air, as intricate and colorful as the word “Arabesque.” “Oriental” is no longer an acceptable term because it lumped together all the cultures of the Middle East, India and Asia and was a projection of the European other: tyrannical and hedonistic, exotic and cruel. Although I recognize the underlying assumptions of the term, it is precisely this oriental otherness that the title invokes for me. The word “Nights” hints at sexuality and dreams, and therefore fantasy and wish-fulfillment (another Freudian concept arising from the pleasure principle).

In the more common title, The Thousand and One Nights, the “thousand” promises abundance and the prolongation of narrative. The added “one” implies a continuation beyond the stable number of a thousand and, perhaps a new beginning. The cover of my book, with a strip of gilt flowers down the side and painted flowers along the top, shows a picture from the seventeenth century of a man in a turban and three women draped in colorful fabrics (Parviz and Women by Govardhan), giving the book a look of age and legitimacy. The phrases “Translated by Husain Haddawy” and “based on the fourteenth-century manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi” are written to look like Arabic script with a connecting line running through each word with small flourishes below the line and little dots around the letters like Arabic diacritics or i’jam. All these details give this edition the appearance of authenticity. We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, it is said, but I can hardly wait to begin.

As a frame story of the text itself, the translator in the introduction presents the history of the The Arabian Nights, promising a return to an “original version.” In Freudian terms, this desire for origins expresses a yearning to reunite with the mother in our first, undifferentiated state. The traditional title, The Thousand and One Nights, was borrowed, along with the Shahrazad frame story, from a Persian work, now lost, called Hazar Afsana, or “a thousand legends” (Nights xiv). In the second half of the thirteenth century during the Mamluk domain in either Syria or Egypt, “what may be referred to as the original version” (Nights xiv) appeared, a carefully interwoven collection of folktales, poetry and proverbs from India, Persia and Arabia, which had circulated orally for centuries before being written down, adapted to the culture and religion of Arabia.

The “original” version was copied for a generation or two before it was lost, but similarities between early copies point to its existence. My edition is based on the earliest of these surviving manuscripts: “This translation is the complete text of the Mahdi edition, the definitive Arabic edition of a fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript, which is the oldest surviving version of the tales and considered to be the most authentic” (Nights, flyleaf). Haddawy does not tell us who considers the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript to be the most authentic, and note that “most authentic” is also a comparative, and not an absolute term, or why the oldest version is necessarily the best when dealing a collection of ever-changing folklore, yet my own yearning for authenticity convinces me.

The translator also presents his own frame story in the introduction, an account of the suspense he felt while waiting for a story and the pleasure he experienced when one began. Young and anxious, he would wait impatiently for his grandmother and her visitor to exchange news and gossip before the visitor would tell a tale. The translator remembers the guest as being “one lady or another, Um Fatma or Um Ali, always dressed in black, still mourning for a husband or a son, long lost” (Nights xi). Our first hint of death, he remembers the story-tellers in constant mourning, a grim costume for a purveyor of fantastic tales. (But were they never in mourning for a sister or daughter?) “We would huddle around the brazier, as the embers glowed in the dim light of the oil lamp, which cast a soft shadow over her sad, wrinkled face . . . Then there would be a pause, and the lady would smile at me, and I would seize the proffered opportunity and ask for a story–a long story” (Nights xi). Here the boy takes the part played in the book by Dinarzad, Shahrazad’s sister, the one who asks each night for a story.

Freud defined “pleasure” not as an increase of excitation, but as a release of tension. According to this theory, the long wait for the visitor’s tale was key to the pleasurable release brought on by the story. In an essay about sexuality, Freud distinguished between fore-pleasure, which is not true pleasure because it increases tension, and end-pleasure which discharges it: “If an erotogenic zone . . . (e.g. the skin of a woman’s breast) is stimulated by touch, the contact produces a pleasurable feeling; but it is at the same time better calculated than anything to arouse a sexual excitation that demands an increase of pleasure.” The ever-increasing demand induces the energy necessary to complete the sexual act, to reach an orgasm. “This last pleasure,” Freud writes, “is the highest in intensity, and its mechanism differs from that of the earlier pleasure. It is brought about entirely by discharge: it is wholly a pleasure of satisfaction and with it the tension of the libido is for the time being extinguished” (Freud, “Three Essays” 281).

Although a male-oriented term, the word “discharge” should apply to the release of a woman’s sexual tension as well, and accurately describes the translator-as-a-boy’s intense pleasure when the story-telling finally began. Whether we accept the idea that pleasure is always the reduction of stimulation, we must acknowledge that the drive for pleasure is a primal force, intimately connected with sexual instincts, and that increased stimulation creates a desire for release of tension. We will see a pattern of stimulation with deferred release repeated throughout The Arabian Nights, pulling the king back into the story night after night, in a kind of serial erotics. Various stories do reach resolution, but there is always another climax pending, as the suspense is partially, but never wholly resolved.

If the night was early enough, the translator tells us, the visitor would protract the pleasurable experience, adding episodes from other legends. “And even though this sometimes troubled my childish notions of honesty and my sense of security in reliving familiar events, I never objected, because it prolonged the action and the pleasure” (Nights xi-xii). Haddawy reveals conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he wanted to extend the pleasure of the story; on the other hand, he was craving an honest, authentic version, and the “security in reliving familiar events.” (As an adult, he is still looking for the “original version.”) This telling and retelling while borrowing from other tales explains why folklore is so repetitive, as can be seen in the patterns Vladimir Propp studied in Morphology of the Folk Tale.

Freud described a compulsion to repeat and repeat pleasurable experiences, as demonstrated by children who can play the same game or listen to the same story over and over. The translator’s subconscious continued the pleasurable repetition of the stories and extended the wish-fulfillment after the visitor had left: “Then I would go to sleep, still living with magic birds and with demons who pursued innocent lovers and haunted my dreams” (Nights xii). For Haddawy, these tales transformed the “drab fabric of life” into “the gossamer of romance” (Nights xii).

The allure of pleasure can also be found in the foreword, which states that “the purpose of the agreeable and entertaining book is the instruction of those who peruse it.” Although the editor privileges instruction, he begins this statement by calling the book agreeable and entertaining and ends the foreword by describing its power to “delight and divert whenever [a reader] is burdened with the cares of life and the ills of this world” (Haddawy 3).

The educational aims of the text, in comparison, illuminate the reality principle, the “postponement of satisfaction and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure” (Freud, “Beyond” 596). Freud argues that we must train ourselves to defer pleasure for greater long-term satisfaction, as the climax of Shahrazad’s stories are deferred in order to alter the king’s murderous intentions. So we go to school in the hopes of bettering our lives and work for weeks on a paper like this one.

The instructive benefits promised in the foreword are to provide readers with “the opportunity to learn the art of discourse” (perhaps the book has enriched my writing), and to offer up “splendid biographies that teach the reader to detect deception and to protect himself from it” (Nights 3). While these both may be worthy aims, we read The Arabian Nights first and foremost for the sheer pleasure of it.

(Speaking of pleasure, what happens when you take it too far? Find out in the next installment of this paper, Dangerous Extremes of Pleasure in the Prologue!)

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