Eros and the Arabesque: The Death Drive and King Shahrayar in the Arabian Nights

The Death Drive and King Shahrayar

Confronted with mounting evidence of a compulsion to reenact traumatic events, which the pleasure principle could not explain — victims of railway disasters, soldiers returning from World War I, and even children were obsessively reliving unpleasurable events in dreams, behavior, speech, therapy and games — Freud developed a theory of the death drive, more primitive and fundamental than the pleasure principle. According to Freud, the death drive is an urge to return to an inorganic state — basically a translation of the law of entropy into psychoanalytical terms. The law of entropy states that matter and energy tend toward a state of greater disorder. Organic life, ever recombining in more and more complex forms, runs contrary to entropy, reproducing in defiance of this fundamental law of physics. So, Freud argued, all organic matter longs to return to its original state, suggesting, therefore, that “the aim of all life is death” (Freud, “Beyond” 613).

Scheherazade and Shahryar by Rene Bull

The compulsion to reenact unpleasant experiences runs throughout The Arabian Nights, as shown in the retelling of the tale of betrayal, which repeats once more in the prologue. The kings determine to set out and search the world until they find someone whose misfortune is greater than theirs (another raising of the narrative stakes). It doesn’t take long before they encounter, a demon (or a genie) who keeps a woman in a glass chest with four locks which he guards at the bottom of the sea. Even these precautions do not prevent her from cheating on the demon when he falls asleep in her lap (the lure of opportunity).

When fast asleep, she carefully moves his large head, then walks directly to the tree where the two kings are hiding and demands that they make love to her or she will call out and awaken the demon. Under the threat of death, they have reluctantly fulfilled her desire (an interesting reversal, since elsewhere King Shahrayar uses his “wives” to satisfy himself). She tells them afterwards, “A hundred men have known me under the very horns of this filthy, monstrous cuckold.” And then she adds, “when a woman desires something, no one can stop her” (Nights 13). The kings are pleased and dance with joy because the demon’s plight is worse than their own.

In spite of this outburst of joy, the discovery that someone is worse off has not resolved King Shahrayar’s story, as the same realization did with his brother, who now vanishes from the story. The resolution of King Shahzaman’s death drive leads to a kind of narrative death. There is no more need to tell stories about him, since the conflict is resolved. This is not true of King Shahrayar, however, who is more convinced then ever that women are not to be trusted under any circumstances except death.

The king begins a reign of terror, marrying the daughters of officers, merchants and commoners (but not the daughters of nobility), satisfying himself with them, and slaughtering them the next morning. In his formation of the theory of the death drive, Freud wrote that sexuality is destructive: “the act of obtaining erotic mastery over an object coincides with that object’s destruction” (Freud, “Beyond” 621). Freud asks, “But how can the sadistic instinct whose aim it is to injure the object, be derived from Eros, the preserver of life?” (Freud, “Beyond” 621).

Later Wilhelm Stekel named Freud’s death drive “Thanatos,” after the Greek god of death, placing it in direct opposition to Eros, the life drive. In Schopenhauer, Freud recognized similar ideas: “For him death is the ‘true result and to that extent the purpose of life,’ while the sexual instinct is the embodiment of the will to live” (Freud, “Beyond” 618).¬† Although explicitly privileging the death drive over the life drive, Schopenhauer still bothered to write about the death drive rather than just killing himself or remaining silent, so we can see, in fact, that the life drive was dominant in Schopenhauer.

Meanwhile, the reign of terror continued “until all the girls perished, their mothers mourned, and there arose a clamor among the fathers and mothers, who called the plague upon his head, complained to the Creator of the heavens, and called for help on Him who hears and answer prayers” (14). Instead of fulfilling the death wish of the people and inflicting the king with the plague, the Creator of the heavens (and the emphasis here is on “creator”)¬†inspires a young woman, the daughter of the king’s vizier, Shahrazad, to save the people — not with death, but with stories!

(To find out more about Shahrazad and the endless continuation of the story, read Eros and Shahrazad!)

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