Eros and the Arabesque (Part V)

Eros and Shahrazad

Freud expanded the concept of the pleasure principle, as he developed his theory of  the death drive, into a broader, more inclusive life drive, which he associated with Eros, the Greek god of sexual love: “the libido of our sexual instincts would coincide with the Eros of the poets and philosophers which holds all living things together” (Freud, “Beyond” 619). Eros represents not only the sexual instincts, but thirst, hunger, self-preservation, reproduction, and creativity. Shahrazad, who holds all the living tales of the book together, is “intelligent, knowledgeable, wise and refined. She had read and learned” (Nights 15). This educated woman approaches her father, the vizier, and demands that he offer her to the killer king.

The desperate vizier tries to save his daughter’s life by dissuading her with a story in two parts. The first half ends with the moral “I would be sitting pretty, but for my curiosity” (Nights 17), a proverb which Shahrazad later uses in “The Third Dervishes’ Tale,” tying together her own frame story and her tale. The moral of the second half  of the vizier’s tale is that it is appropriate for a man to beat his wife to teach her some sense and save everyone grief.

At the end of the story, the vizier says, “If you don’t relent, I shall do to you what the merchant did to his wife” (Nights 20). Shahrazad, who knows the threat of a beating is just a story, says, “Such tales don’t defer me from my request. If you wish I can tell you many such tales” (Nights 20). Her store of narratives trumps her father’s. As further proof of her narrative courage, she threatens to go behind her father’s back and tell the king that the vizier has refused to give up his daughter. Why would she be afraid of her father when she is not even afraid of the murderous king? Her aim is to overcome masculine violence against women, so she is not easily dissuaded. The vizier relents.

Shahrazad then sets up the life-preserving scene which will be repeated a thousand and one times. She says to Dinarzad, “Sister, listen well to what I am telling you. When I go to the king, I will send for you, and when you come and see that the king has finished with me, say, ‘Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us a story.'” (Nights 21).

Dinarzad’s principal function in The Arabian Nights, as previously mentioned, is to ask for a story, since the king never asks himself, except to request the conclusion, or the death of the narrative. The king is included in the audience, as shown by the “us” in “tell us a story,” yet Shahrazad will begin each tale by addressing only the king.  Although the story is ostensibly for both, the real audience is Shahrayar, who holds the death sentence over Shahrazad’s head. This makes the statement “if you are not sleepy” more significant, because if Shahrazad goes to sleep instead of telling a story, she will die. The story-telling takes place at night, a time of sleep and silence, but also a time of sex and dreams, and therefore fantasies and stories.

Shahrazad adds, clearly stating her overall purpose, “Then I will begin to tell a story, and it will cause the king to stop his practice, save myself and deliver the people” (Nights 21). Notice that  says she will “begin to tell a story,” important because no ending is implied, as Shahrazad symbolizes the endless continuation of the story. The article “a” in “a story” indicates that, although there will be many tales, they will be woven together artfully into a single whole (as already seen in the repetition of phrases, character types, and plot lines). Most importantly, Shahrazad explicitly connects the telling of stories with the end of violence, preservation of self and the delivery of the people. Dinarzad answers, as Shahrazad will reply many times to the request for a story, “Very well.”

The first night is the most dangerous. Shahrazad has to get the king to change his repetitive narrative of marrying and murdering, for a new kind of story in which the death sentence is prolonged until the suspense created by each of Shahrazad’s interlocking tales is resolved. When the king begins to fondle Shahrazad, she starts crying. The king asks why (although this should be pretty obvious). She explains that she has a sister and wants to bid her goodbye before morning. This is a weak point in Shahrazad’s plan: the king might not send for her sister. In fact, why would he, if he plans to use her sexually and dispose of her in the morning? Yet he has already shown a hint of empathy by asking why she is crying or maybe he is turned on by having another woman as observer to the sexual act. Whatever his reasons, the king lets Dinarzad come to the royal bedroom and wait under the bed while he satisfies himself.

After the king has released his sexual tension and is about to fall sleep, Dinarzad comes out from under the bed and says as instructed, “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night before I bid you good-bye at daybreak, for I don’t know what will happen to you tomorrow” (Nights 23). Dinarzad has added to the line Shahrazad gave her “one of your lovely little tales to while away the night,” highlighting the quality of fiction to entertain and pass the time. The entertainment value is what Shahrazad is selling; the instructional benefits are hidden. Dinarzad’s suspenseful statement “for I don’t know what will happen” is at once a reminder of the death sentence hanging over Shahrazad’s head and a subtle shift from certainty of death to a chance of life. If she doesn’t know what will happen, then her sister might live. Her fate is not certain.

The first night is also the only night that Shahrazad asks the king for permission to tell a story, another dangerous point in her plan because he might not agree, but with the promise of a continuation of pleasure beyond the orgasm and with time to kill, the king accedes. Shahrazad commands, “Listen.”

She begins, “It is said, O wise and happy King . . . ” “It is said” is more commonly framed in English as “They say . . . ,” and implies common knowledge or folk wisdom. The opening also echoes the beginning of the book itself, “It is related–,” which suggests a tale related by many people, emphasizing the folkloric origin of both frame story and tales. With only two exceptions, Shahrazad will begin every night with a variation on this beginning. The most common opening  is “I heard” (or “I have heard”), which indicates the role of the listener who has become the story-teller in an ongoing tradition of story-telling.

Addressing the king at the beginning of almost every story reminds the king that the story is for him (in spite of Dinarzad’s request to “tell us a story”). The direct address also blurs the line between different levels of narrative, since the listener, the king, is included in the tale (and many characters throughout are reflections of the king). “O wise and happy King,” however, is not a description of Shahrayar, who is not behaving wisely, nor is he in any sense happy; it is a narrative construction of the type of listener Shahrazad would like him to become. The ultimate purpose of Shahrazad’s stories is in fact to turn him into a “wise and happy King.” On other nights she calls him “O King,” “dear King,” “O glorious King,” but most often “O happy King,” especially towards the end of the book. The word “wise” is repeated only twice, but “happy” is given hundreds of times, implying that it is more important that the king become happy. Wisdom can develop out of the king’s happiness, but in his bitterness, there can be no wisdom.

(What is this compared to what I will tell you in the next section? It will be even better and more amazing! Life + Death = Stories, Stories, and More Stories.)

6 thoughts on “Eros and the Arabesque (Part V)”

  1. As a Freud-hating developmental psychologist (although one who recognizes his brilliance) I find this all extremely fascinating. And not just because of the sex and violence.

    Well done.

  2. There is a lot to hate in Freud — his sexism, his homophobia, to name a couple — but as you said, Mike, he was brilliant and he did revolutionize how we think about our own minds (a meta-activity). Originally my essay was going to draw on theory from a wider range of psychologists and philosophers, but in the end I found almost everything I was looking for in Freud: the pleasure principle, the dangerous extremes of sexuality, the reality principle, the death drive, the life drive and the interconnectedness of life and death.

  3. Your comment, Mike, led me to revise my introduction. There are a lot of Freud-haters out there and I think my paper will be more effective if I acknowledge the fact and make explicit what I am borrowing and what I am leaving out. Thanks for the encouragement.

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