Eros and the Arabesque (Part III)

Dangerous Extremes of Pleasure in the Prologue

The sexual instinct, which Freud said is so hard to “educate,” can be carried to such extremes that pleasure becomes destructive, even self-destructive. From the point of view of self-preservation, Freud writes, the pleasure principle is “from the very outset inefficient and even highly dangerous” (Freud, “Beyond” 597). The prologue, which establishes the frame story of King Shahrayar and Shahrazad, is dripping with destructive sexuality.

Filled with fraternal longing — as opposed to murderous misogyny — Shahrayar, the king of India and Indochina, has summoned his younger brother via his vizier (“who had two daughters,” we are told parenthetically, “one called Shahrazad, the other Dinarzad” [6]). The sisters, who stand in contrast to the two brothers, do not enter the story for another ten pages, yet the mention of them near the beginning in effect frames the frame story.

Shahrayar had given his brother Samarkand, a city (now in Uzbekistan) which commanded a key position on the Silk Road, along which goods and stories were traded. The Arabian Nights, an anthology of folk tales, could never have existed without trade, which is why merchants in the book are as common as kings. An anthology, however, cannot build or maintain suspense. At the end of each story, there is a temptation to close the book, or in Shahrayar’s case, to kill the story-teller. As we shall see, the elaborate use of frame stories, the arabesque structure of the book, is what prolongs the suspense and makes A Thousand and One Nights much more than an anthology.

The first example of the pleasure principle carried to dangerous extremes occurs when King Shahzaman, the younger brother, is preparing to leave for India, an elaborate process taking a full ten days. On the last night, Shahzaman camps outside his city near his brother’s vizier, but returns at midnight to say goodbye to his wife. This is a weak excuse to surprise a wife in the middle of the night, but a convention common in tales of betrayal: the king leaves the castle but goes not far away, returning in time to catch the unfaithful. The wife has indulged her sexual instincts even before the king was safely away on his journey. A lure of opportunity similar to this one is repeated three more times in the frame story, unifying the episodes.

Shahzaman catches his wife in the arms of one of the kitchen boys. That she was cheating on him was bad enough, worse that it was with a boy so far below the king in social status. Losing faith in all women at once from this single example of infidelity, Shahzaman thought, “No. Women are not to be trusted” (6). He drew his sword and slew the lovers. Dragging them by the heels, he threw them from the top of the palace into the trench below, where the refuse and the sewage of the city soured.

Violence against women is a theme that runs throughout the The Arabian Nights and the  background to every story Shahrazad tells. Any inclusion of violence against women becomes a comment on Shahrazad’s own situation, tying not only the individual tales together with a repetitive motif, but also stories and frame. In this case, the violence against women precedes Shahrazad’s story, causing the reader to take the threat to her life seriously.

The second example of a self-destructive sex drive occurs when Shahzaman arrives in India. Shahrayar notices his brother is deeply troubled and tries to draw him out on a hunting trip, a more common lure of opportunity than the one mentioned above (found in the Arthurian legend as well, when Mordred persuades Arthur to leave the castle on a hunting trip in order to catch Guenevere and Lancelot together). Shahzaman refuses the invitation and stays behind.

As he is looking out a window, his brother’s wife enters the garden with twenty slave-girls, ten white and ten black. The ten black girls remove their clothing and reveal themselves to be men. They mount the ten white slave-girls. The king’s wife calls out “Masud! Masud!” and another black man drops from a tree. Rushing to the king’s wife, he raises her legs, goes between her thighs and makes love to her. That his brother’s wife was cheating on the king was bad enough, worse that it was with a black man and possibly ten others. Issues of gender, class and race reappear throughout the tales, acting as unifying threads, but only prejudices against women are challenged; assumptions about class and race are left unquestioned.

The shift from a kitchen boy to a black slave (and his ten companions) is the first example of a raising of the narrative stakes throughout The Nights, an attempt to take each story to a higher level.  Rather than allowing suspense to dissipate at the end of each tale, the promise of a better and more amazing tale extends the suspense even when a story ends. Shahrazad says each night, “What is this compared to what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live? It will be even better and more entertaining” (Nights 23).

Realizing that his misfortune was lighter than his brother’s resolves the story of King Shahzaman, whose care and sorrow leave him: “I am no longer alone in my misery; I am well” (Nights 8). Shahzaman exchanges the insult to his individual masculinity for a recognition of a shared fate, a universal cuckoldom. “This is our common lot,” he thinks. “Even though my brother is king and master of the whole world, he cannot protect what is his” (Nights 8).

When Shahrayar returns, he notices his brother’s dramatic improvement and insists that his brother explain, first the cause of his sorrow and then the reason for his transformation. When the king has heard of the betrayal of his brother’s wife with a kitchen boy, he shakes his head. “In my opinion, what happened to you has never happened to anyone else. By God, had I been in your place, I would have killed at least a hundred or even a thousand women. I would have been furious; I would have gone mad” (Nights 9).

The king has accurately predicted his own reaction, for when he asks the cause of his brother’s miraculous recovery and hears the reason, then sees the orgy repeated the next day with his own eyes (through the ruse of another hunting trip), he exclaims, “Perish the world and perish life!” (Nights 11). With these exclamations, the king sets himself up explicitly as being an enemy not only of women, but of life itself. Thus begins his own repetitive tale of destructive sexuality.

(What will the enemy of life do? Find out in The Death Drive and King Shahrayar!)

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