Eros and the Arabesque: The Serial Proliferation of Life in The Arabian Nights


I have heard, O wise and happy Professor, that the end of the story is death, its continuation, life. For Shahrazad this is literally true. While the story continues, she lives. If the story ends, she dies. Full of jealousy and rage, the king has sworn to take a new wife every night, satisfy himself with her and kill her the next morning before his seed has dried in her womb. Thinking to save himself from the cunning of women, the king has unwittingly placed himself in a vulnerable position between orgasm and murder: under the tongue of the most cunning of women, the quintessential story-teller, Shahrazad.

The imminence of death drives Shahrazad to expand her narrative in a thousand and one ways, rationing out her elaborately interwoven tales in short, suspenseful pieces, thereby drawing the king back into the story night after after night after night as she narrates to save her life and the lives of the people. The Arabian Nights demonstrates not just the triumph of the life force, as embodied by Shahrazad, over the death drive, as represented by the king, but the essential interconnectedness of life and death in the endless serial proliferation of stories within and beyond the book.

Sigmund Freud’s developing theories of the pleasure principle, the reality principle, the death drive (Thanatos), and life drive (Eros) will provide a useful framework from which to analyze the mortal literary struggle in the frame story of The Thousand and One Nights. Today some of Freud’s theories have fallen out of favor and he is rightly accused of being sexist and homophobic; nevertheless, he revolutionized how we think about our own brains in terms of conscious and subconscious minds, and he rightly located the life and death drives as central to our psyches and motivation. I will borrow from Freud’s theories as serves my immediate needs and ignore the rest.

Most academic writing overlooks the importance of the pleasure principle, which is why such writing is only read by academics. This essay, however, is full of sex and violence. Read on! Nevertheless, pleasure will be tempered with the reality principle, as I will offer some educational benefits. Moreover, I would never have produced such a long and thorough analysis unless I was personally under the threat of death: a deadline. That deadline has passed, yet I am still revising, evidence of a drive to extend and perfect the paper. It is here, at the intersection of life and death, that creativity becomes the most prolific.

(The next section of this paper, which is even better and more entertaining is: Pleasure Frames the Story.)

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