The Poetics of Stasis in The 1001 Nights (2004)

Raewyn Alexander, ed.: Magazine 2 [aroha, love, l’amour] (November 2004)

The Poetics of Stasis in The 1001 Nights

A few words of introduction: the Book of the Thousand and One Nights (Kitab Alf Layla wa-Layla) is a collection of stories told by a Queen to her husband. It was first introduced to Europe by the French scholar/translator Antoine Galland in 1704. References to the Arabic original go back as far as the 9th century A.D., though most of the tales are undoubtedly later than that. The frame-story of Queen Scheherazade and King Shahryar is probably Persian in its present form – but it has analogues in India (not to mention the Biblical Book of Esther).

The story runs basically as follows (it is never exactly the same in any two versions). Two brothers, Shahryar and Shah Zaman, reign over two neighbouring kingdoms. The younger brother, Shah Zaman, on the eve of his departure to visit Shahryar, kills his wife, whom he finds committing adultery with a cook. He only recovers his spirits when he sees his brother’s wife conducting an orgy with a group of male slaves and ladies-in-waiting. The brothers go out hunting for an answer to their dilemma, and encounter a woman who has been kept in a sealed box by a genie since he abducted her on her wedding night. She threatens to wake the sleeping genie unless they sleep with her, and then takes their seal-rings to add to her collection of 570 other trophies. Convinced by this that women are fundamentally faithless, Shahryar has his wife executed, and makes a pact with his brother that they will marry a virgin every night and have her executed in the morning. Shah Zaman returns to his own kingdom, and the slaughter begins.

After about three years stocks are running low, and the elder daughter of Shahryar’s Vizier asks her father to select her as the King’s new bride. He refuses, but she is insistent. The girl, Shahrazad, arranges that her sister Dunyazad should accompany her, and ask her to tell a story in the cool of the morning, and so the first of the thousand and one nights begins. That story is deliberately left unfinished, and the King’s curiosity makes him postpone her execution to a second morning, and then to a third, and so on and so on.

Every era seems to have its own questions to ask about this collection. In the nineteenth century, the psychology of the main participants, and the inherent implausibility of some of the stories led many writers to fabricate a “1,002nd Night.” In the late twentieth century, our questions took a stranger turn.

The arithmetic of the matter, for instance: Why 1001 nights? One of the characters in John Barth’s novel The Tidewater Tales (1987) admits that “she’d thought the number meant simply plenty and then some ... a taleteller’s number” (533). There is, however, a possible gynaecological aspect to the question. At the end of the Nights (in Burton’s version, at any rate) Scheherazade presents her husband with three sons “one walking, one crawling and one sucking” (Burton, 1885, 10: 54) – as Barth remarks, this means that “her pregnancies must have been spaced about equally through the 1001 nights. 3 ›‹ 266 = 798 from 1001 leaves 203 nights before and between” (Barth, 1987, 454). So far so good, but in “The Story of Scheherazade’s First Second Menstruation” which begins a few pages later, the numbers are “crunched” (his word) very thoroughly indeed:
it would not have been very wise of young Scheherazade to do Night One with Shahryar at a time when she happened to be menstruating ... Seems to me that along with the body count you’d’ve been keeping tabs on the moon and your menstrual calendar before you made your big move, and that once you’d cleared the first hurdle by surviving Night One, you’d want as much time as possible to firm up your position before the night comes when you have to make it on art without sex. (Barth, 1987, 534)

So, if a boy child “walks” at twelve to fifteen months, “crawls” from 6 months to a year, and “suckles” before that, it seems “pretty clear” to Barth’s boy genius Chip Sherritt that Scheherazade “must have ovulated and menstruated once after each of her three babies was born, and that she then got pregnant again at the very next ovulation after each of those menstruations – at least after the first and second of them. Otherwise the kids come out to be the wrong ages at the end.” So:
Assuming for the sake of simplicity and ... symmetry, that she first got pregnant on Night One ... She delivers Number One on Night Two Six Seven. That makes him two years and four days old on Night Ten Oh One; he’s been walking for maybe a year ... on Night Three Thirty, she gets pregnant for the second time, and she delivers Son Number Two exactly two hundred sixty-six days later, on Night Five Ninety-Six. That’ll make him thirteen months, ten days old on Night Ten Oh One: not too late to be crawling still ... Seven weeks later she menstruates again, on Night Six Forty-five – you could call that her second first menstruation – and two weeks after that she gets pregnant for the third time. On Night Nine Twenty-five she delivers her third son, so he’s just two and a half months old at the end of the story: nursing, but not crawling yet. Seven weeks later she menstruates again, just as she did after her first three pregnancies ... But the thing to notice is that if she ovulated right on schedule on Night Nine Eighty-eight there and didn’t get pregnant ... then she’s going to menstruate again on Night Ten Oh Two. As a matter of fact, since she always tells her stories just before daybreak, Night Ten Oh One is really Morning Ten Oh Two, and it could be she ... calls in the children and pleads for her life because she realises that for the first time in a thousand and one nights she’s having a normal twenty-eight-day menstrual period. The king hasn’t made her pregnant again on schedule: it’s her first second menstruation. (Barth, 1987, 539)

“How is this night different from all other nights?” (536), then – not because of a case of “Storyteller’s Block” – but because the King “isn’t going to get it again for nearly a week.” (540) Of course, all of this calculation has a rather frivolous air: the main reason for stopping, as another of Barth’s characters adds, “went without saying: that at the end of Night Ten Oh One, Shahryar had been a good boy for exactly as long as he’d been a bad one. It was the right time to make her move, even without the private extra reason.” (540).

All of which leads us to another, more serious level of calculation. If, in the period before his meeting with Scheherazade, Shahryar killed 1001 virgins, then his brother Shah Zaman, who did not have the benefit of her ministrations, must have killed 2002. This forms the subject of Barth’s novella “Dunyaziad” (1972), where Scheherazade’s younger sister, who has been married off to Shahryar’s younger brother at the end of the Nights, gives her own version of the whole story to her new husband, whom she has tied to the bed in preparation for a revenge castration and killing.

Luckily, the brother is able to plead in extenuation that he in fact executed no-one, because his very first virgin told him of a local tradition that there was a land far to the west “peopled entirely with women, adjoining another wholly male: for two months every spring they mated freely with each other on neutral ground, the women returning home as they found themselves pregnant, giving their male children to the neighbouring tribe and raising the girls as members of their own.” (Barth, 1972, 49-50). She advised him, even if this legend were untrue, to make it true with his own exiled brides, and thus avoid a parting of the ways with his elder brother. Dunyazad, reluctantly, agrees to forgive Shah Zaman and try the experiment of trusting him, just as her elder sister, similarly armed with a razor, is persuaded simultaneously to let Shahryar, her own husband, live.

This is not the only complicating factor about the end of the Nights, however. In his book L’Œil et l’aiguille [The Eye and the Needle] (1992), the critic Abdelfattah Kilito sets out to examine the implications of the image, so frequent in the text, “d’écrire, au coin de votre œil, avec un aiguille très fine, toute une histoire chargée d’une leçon morale” [writing, in the corner of your eye, with a fine needle, a whole story charged with a moral lesson] (Kilito, 7). Where do the stories that Scheherazade tells come from? We are told that she “had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers” (Burton, 1885, 1: 15), but does she bring them with her to the palace? Whether the books move physically or not, they are contained within her, and she retells their narratives. At the end of the nights, the King commands that the stories that Scheherazade has told him are to be written down in “un livre en trente volumes qu’ils intitulèrent Le Livre des mille et une nuits. Le roi le déposa dans sa bibliothèque.” [One book in thirty volumes which they entitled The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. The King deposited it in his library](Kilito, 20). The stories are thus protected in three ways – first by being written down at all, second by being recorded in letters of imperishable gold, third by being preserved in the King’s library. In some versions the King himself sends out copies to edify the population, but in most this dispersal is left to a later monarch who reads the one unique copy preserved in the royal archives.

Who do the stories come from, then? Logically, there are only three witnesses to the whole train of events – the King, Scheherazade herself, and her sister Dunyazade. “La fonction royale de Shâhriyâr ne s’accorde avec la vocation de conteur; dans les Nuits, les rois sont toujours en position d’auditeurs, jamais de narrateurs ... Quant à Dunyâzâde, il n’est pas dit que sa mémoire lui permettrait de prendre les relais de sa soeur. Elle apparaît avant tout comme une complice” [The royal rôle of Shahryar is not consonant with the vocation of story-teller; in the Nights, kings are always in the position of listeners, never of narrators ... As for Dunyazade, it is nowhere said that her memory would allow her to follow in her sister’s footsteps. She seems more like an accomplice] (Kilito, 24). We are left, then, with Scheherazade – who must either retell all 1001 nights of stories to the scribes – “En fait, il lui faudra plus de mille et une nuits, car désormais elle ne va pas raconter mais dicter ses contes, et la dictée prend évidemment beaucoup plus de temps que la narration” [In fact, it will take her more than a thousand and one nights, because from now on she will not be telling but dictating her stories, and dictation obviously takes far more time than narration] (Kilito, 25):
Mais peut-être ne s’est-elle pas donné tant de peine, peut-être a-t-elle tout bonnement remis aux scribes ses livres, ceux du moins qui ont servi de base à ses histoires. Le mille et unième livre ne serait alors qu’un extrait, un fragment, une citation des mille livres qui constituaient la bibliothèque de la reine de la nuit. (Kilito, 26)

[But perhaps she didn’t go to all that trouble, perhaps she simply lent the scribes her books, at any rate those which were the basis of the stories. The thousand and first book would accordingly be no more than an extract, a fragment, a citation of the thousand books which constitute the library of the Queen of the night.]

However idle this speculation may seem, the point I wish to make is that it is the same kind of conjecture as John Barth feels driven to make about the Nights. In fact, in the “Dunyaziade,” he settles the argument over the source of Scheherazade’s stories by sending a thinly disguised version of himself back in time as a genie, who prompts her with stories from his own copy of Burton’s 10-volume English translation of the collection!

When the argument is not concerned with arithmetic, it centres on labyrinths. Kilito (15) refers in his book to Jorge Luis Borges’ claim that on the 602nd Night:

el rey oye de boca de la reina su propia historia. Oye el principio de la historia, que abarca a todas las demás, y también – de monstruoso modo –, a sí mismo. ?Intuye claramente el lector la vasta posibilidad de esa interpolación, el curioso peligro? Que la reina persista y el inmóvil rey oirá para siempre la trunca historia de Las Mil y Una Noches, ahora infinita y circular ... (Borges, 1989-90, 2: 47)

[The King hears his own story from the Queen’s mouth. He hears the beginning of the story, which embraces all the others as well as – monstrously – itself. Does the reader really understand the vast possibilities of that interpolation, the curious danger – that the Queen may persist and the Sultan, immobile, will hear forever the truncated story of A Thousand and One Nights, now infinite and circular?]

Kilito claims that this idea is to be understood only symbolically, and that only the naïve reader will go from version to version of the Nights trying to verify the fact. Certainly it is the case that on page 199 of Burton’s sixth volume Scheherazade begins to tell the story of the “King’s Son and the Ifrit’s Mistress,” which does loosely resume the story of Shahryar’s encounter with the woman kept in a chest by the Genie from the frame-story. Elsewhere, in “El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan” [The Garden of Forking Paths], Borges attributes the phenomenon to a copyist’s error, but in a context that makes it clear that what essentially concerns him is his own story’s theme: how a single book can become infinite:

Antes de exhumar esta carta, yo me había preguntado de qué manera un libro puede ser infinito ... Recordé también esa noche que está en el centro de las 1001 Noches, cuando la reina Shahrazad (por una mágica distracción del copista) se pone a referir textualmente la historia de las 1001 Noches, con riesgo de llegar otra vez a la noche en que la refiere, y así hasta lo infinito. (Borges, 1985, 2: 169-70)

[Before uncovering this letter, I’d been asking myself how a book could be infinite ... I remembered, too, that night in the middle of The Thousand and One Nights when Queen Shahrazad, through a magical slip of the copyist, started to retell the story of The Thousand and One Nights, with the risk of again arriving at the night on which she would begin it, and so on to infinity.]

We’ve already seen some of the problems associated with Scheherazade’s retelling all her stories for the King’s library – also the temptation to a 1,002nd Night. Borges finds those ideas comparatively uninteresting. In his late poem “Metaphors of the Thousand and One Nights,” he tries to sum up the collection’s appeal in terms of recurrent images – the River, the Web of a tapestry, the Dream, and the Map. His images, for the most part, emphasise change and flow – but a flow confined to a static, circular course – and this seems to be one of the things that these obsessively self-questioning twentieth-century readings of the Nights have in common.

At the end of his reading of the story “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” the critic Andras Hamori emphasises the idea of arbitrary, almost self-satirising patterns of repetition – the threes and sevens which abound in the story (and which Borges also refers to in his poem) – and points out that they have a certain quotient of terror when imposed ethically. The marriages imposed at the end of the tale by the “Commander of the Faithful” Harun al-Rashid solve no real problems, but indicate his tendency to exert power over things he does not even understand: something also signalled in his discovery, again at the very end of the story, that as titular head of Islam and thus the heir of Mohammed and Solomon, he has power even over such supernatural beings as Jinnis and Jinniyahs.
Are the Nights, too, then, trapped in a kind of stasis – which, my Etymological Dictionary informs me, originated as a pathological terms referring to a general stoppage of circulation in the veins and arteries of the body (for which read the body politic, bodies of laws and conventions, and so on)? Well, yes, on the surface this is the state of things in Shahryar’s kingdom. It is a spiritual wasteland, plagued by a dragon – or an idealist disillusioned by the world as it is. In the Grail legend, the Waste Land is cured by a question which the wise do not think to ask; Shahryar, similarly, is cured by a reenactment of the materials and minutiae of life – a total reeducation in the structure of his world. Scheherazade thus becomes, in a very literal sense, the mother of the nation – her skill at subcreation cures an imbalance in Creation.
So why are authors and critics so fascinated with this construct? Is it not, finally, with the idea of retelling our dilemma until it forms a curative pattern. It seems, then, that W. H. Auden’s tribute to Sigmund Freud:

He wasn’t clever at all: he merely told
The unhappy Present to recite the Past
Like a poetry lesson till sooner
Or later it faltered at the line where

Long ago the accusations had begun (Auden, 92)

ought to be matched against the title of an essay written at the height of the furore over the anti-novel and the nouveau roman: “Scheherazade Runs out of Plots, Goes on Talking; the King, Puzzled, Listens: An Essay on New Fiction” (1973). Borges ends his poem, then, with a message meant specifically for us:

Sigue leyendo mientras muere el día
Y Shahrazad te contará tu historia
(1989-90, 3: 170)

Keep reading as the day declines and
Scheherazade will tell you your own story.

Works cited
  • Auden, W. H. (1979). Selected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson. London: Faber.
  • Barth, John. (1982). Chimera. 1972. London: Granada.
  • Barth, John. (1988). The Tidewater Tales: A Novel. 1987. London: Methuen.
  • Borges, J. L. (1989-90). Obras completas (1 – 1923-1949; 2 – 1952-1972; 3 – 1975-1985). 3 vols. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores.
  • Borges, J. L. (1985). Prosa completa (1930-1975). 4 vols. Barcelona: Editorial Bruguera.
  • Burton, Richard F., trans. (1885). The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments. 10 vols. U.S.A.: The Burton Club, n.d.
  • Galland, Antoine, trans. (1965). Les Mille et Une Nuits: Contes arabes. 12 vols. 1704-17. Ed. Jean Gaulmier. 3 vols. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1990, 1985, 1991.
  • Hamori, Andras. (1975). On the Art of Medieval Arabic Literature. 1974. Princeton: Princeton UP.
  • Kilito, Abdelfattah. (1992). L'Œil et l'aiguille: Essai sur "les mille et une nuits." Textes à l'appui: série islam et société. Paris: Editions la Découverte.
  • Skeat, W. W. (1988). An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 1879-1882. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


Magazine 2 (2004): 7-18.
[This paper was first read in slightly different form at the STASIS Conference, Auckland University, on 9 June, 1995, under the title “Barth, Borges and the Poetics of Stasis in The Thousand and One Nights." That version is available online at:]

[3249 wds]

Magazine 2 (2004)

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