Monday, August 15, 2011

Review of Andrei Codrescu’s _whatever gets you through the night: a story of sheherezade and the arabian entertainments_ (2011)

From 1001 Nights

Review of Andrei Codrescu’s whatever gets you through the night:  a story of sheherezade and the arabian entertainments (2011).

Princeton University Press:

On the first day of class each quarter I tend to tell the students a little about myself.  Most of the students in Revelle (I currently teach at UCSD’s Revelle College Humanities Writing Program) are science majors, from solid academic backgrounds, and many of them are beginning, what I foresee to be, successful and long careers as scientists, engineers and doctors.

As such, and being freshman undergrads for the most part, they often have little understanding of what a humanities graduate student is, or even what the humanities is, or why it might be important to their lives.  So I set myself up against this task each quarter, for both them and to try to answer these questions for myself, and begin by declaring their sections with me to be the most important class they will ever take in their lives…

It’s a kind of cheesy and high and mighty statement to be sure, but it’s one, beneath the self-deprecatory remarks, that I really believe, not because of myself or my personal role in their class, but because of the importance of the material, the importance in its role in understanding their selves. 

I also tell them that I am a Literature major and that the reason I am most interested in Literature, and the (also kind of cheesy and high and mighty) reason why I think it’s the most important thing in the world to study, or read, or write or talk about, is that it is the study of life at its most true, via stories.

Stories are the things that drive us along each day, ping ponging through it all, they are the first things that wake us up, the last things that put us to sleep, and the things that confuse us as dreams during the night.  Without stories you can’t have life, you can’t have any of the secondary, lesser units of humanity: engineering, politics, science, dna, robotics, nuclear physics, mathematics, economics, astrobiology or whatever. 

It’s why I’m drawn to the Nights.

It’s also a very long, but related, introduction to this post, my review of/reflections on Andrei Codrescu’s whatever gets you through the night:  a story of sheherezade and the arabian entertainments, and why I find it so interesting. 

On page 153 Codrescu writes:

“The fold was the manner in which words were hinged to time in order to make one story attach to one another; we could also call this a drive, the mechanism that propelled words to gain dimensions, first as a story, then as an oft-repeated story traveling the world through storytellers, then as a three-dimensional object performed for an audience, and finally, after having gained sufficient circulation and weight, as flesh.  Flesh was story in all its dimensions.  Yes, Sheherezade discovered that words could be made flesh; storied characters became alive through telling and then stayed alive as long as they were told by others, dying only when they stopped traveling, when their seed dried up and their bodies shrank to nothing.”

Codrescu, incredibly prolific poet, writer, fictionist, professor, thinker, one of the voices on the cool PBS documentary on Coney Island I just happened to view last week & etc., (, gets to the meat of the Nights, and to storytelling itself, in his book. 

I have to admit I wasn’t expecting what this book was when I got it, I was expecting another vaguely Nights based riff on something or other to do with the Middle East, Ali Baba, or some romantic this or that.

What Codrescu does, however, is reinvents the Nights for the 21st century in a very exciting way.  His book is a “new” “translation” of the Nights, or at least some of its beginning stories, but is also a compendium of Nights related lore, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Greek mythology, Plato’s Symposium, Saddam Hussein, Deleuze & Guatteri, Edward Said, Richard F. Burton, Edward Lane, Andrew Lang, Husain Haddawy, feminism, circumcision, underage brides, the contemporary Middle East, Wikipedia, DNA science, the past, the future, and present, among other things….

At its best the book is a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for the Nights.  It gets into the corners of previously unrevealed, yet nagging, things, and presents them:  What was the sex like for Shahriyar every night with a new bride?  What was it about Scheherazade’s stories that made Shahriyar not kill her?  What was Dinarzad doing in their bed and why wasn’t that weird, or was it??  Who was Scheherazade exactly, and perhaps most importantly, what did she do all day while waiting for her king to return in the evening?  What are those people doing with those pearls (read the book!)??!  How do you spell “Scheherazade” exactly?

All of these questions, and some possible answers, are suggestively brought up throughout the book in an at times playful, at times brutal, at times academic, at times popular, at times digressive, at times self-reflexive, at times factually incorrect, at times suggestively right-on, prose.

His book dives into the center of the Nights, and, like a family therapist, tries to get everyone together at the table to talk about things.  We finally get to see Haddawy and Burton and Galland together, talking to one another, as indeed they truly are, and have been, for decades:

“Richard F. Burton, or Clotho, the “spinner,” began to spin the story of what happened before Sheherezade assumed her storytelling destiny, with another invocation to Allah.  He said, ‘Praise be to Allah, the Compassionating, Lord of Three Worlds…,’ and so on, through all of Allah’s ninety-nine official names plus ones he set himself to inventing, such as ‘Who set up the Firmament without Pillars in its Stead and Who stretched out the Earth even as a Bed…’ until Husain Haddawy, Lachesis, the allotter, interrupted him angrily, exclaiming, ‘Why can’t you just say, ‘God knows and sees best’?’  Galland laughed.  This was not his duel.” (76)

The stories, as they are told here, and really, as they exist in the Nights and its textual identities, come second for the most part.  Codrescu finally, however, situates its storyteller, the fecund Scheherazade (or “Sheherezade”) as the focal point of the point of the Nights, as the Eve character of life, as indeed she should be, and manages somehow to overcome all of the seriousness that so many approach the Nights with, and find a kernel of its true essence within the net that he works in.

His book is peppered with “facts” that don’t seem to add up, just like most of the “facts” surrounding the history of the Nights, and his extensive footnotes rival Burton’s, both in length and in attempts at providing a Burtonesque shock value where footnotes and other appendages overshadow the actual text itself:

At one point, in footnote 46 (pages 78-9), he delves into artistic representations of Christ throughout history, “The wound in the side is sometimes depicted so that its meaty edges allow for a view to the interior of Christ’s body:  the bleeding carnal edges resemble a menstruating vagina or bleeding mouth.”...

The book opens with a quote from the Wikipedia page on the Nights, and a more appropriate form to suggestively have define something as nebulous as the Nights probably doesn’t exist.  The wiki page is rife with errors, political fighting, cultural battles, misunderstood conclusions, and a lot of crazy junk.  A lot like the stories in the Nights.  A lot like life itself.  And it can be changed by anyone willing to edit it, and battled over by hordes of wiki editors and other experts armed with this book or that to quote from. 

I wonder if people who are unfamiliar with the Nights - my own cursory conversational research suggests there are quite a lot - will appreciate the insider’s view of the Nights that Codrescu provides, or that they will find the stories and their constant sidetracked highways particularly compelling or pleasant reading, or that they will know what’s going on with this guy Burton, or Haddawy, or Galland, but that’s not the point of the book, and a reader insisting on a romantic or Middle Eastern infused Nights, or a clear definition of the Nights, will surely be confused, if not provoked.

whatever gets you through the night is a remarkable addition to the unstoppable history of the 1001 Nights, and it ends unfinished in the future, with the still living Scheherazade, and her endless stories, piled on top of each other forward over time by humankind, waiting to be told, to be revealed, to be laughed at, so that we, and Shahriyar, want to live one more day, to hear another story, to never see the end, to understand ourselves and others, to see ourselves stripped onstage, in the spotlight, and living forever.

And here is John Lennon, too:

1 comment:

  1. A new Nights book! I look forward to reading it.