Sunday, March 25, 2012

Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic - rev. by Daily Beast

Here is a review of Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic, a new Nights book I recently mentioned. This review is from The Daily Beast and is written by English Professor Brad Gooch, well written for the most part (though is "Palestinian-Arab" really a necessary, if correct, adjective for Edward Said? Maybe the author meant "Palestinian-American," which Said was? Arab-American?), if a bit of a cursory overview of Warner's book.

I've excerpted some passages below, the entire review is here:

"Long before meta-fiction, blog fiction, expropriation, or hypertext, there was Shahrazad, the slinkiest, sexiest, most ineradicable trickster in global literature, telling stories every night towards the event horizon of 1001 Nights to distract her abusive husband, the Sultan, from his resolve to behead each of his wives for infidelity—while her sister curled beside them on the divan, like a kinky teleprompter, or laugh-sigh-gasp track. The result, Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, as it became known after its first English translation, in 1706, kicked off a craze of Orientalism that morphed across supposedly rational Enlightenment Europe in spoofs, follies, turqueries, pantomimes, and lots of camping it up in djellaba, or lounging on “ottomans.” Some of its signature tales—Aladdin’s lamp, Sinbad’s voyage, or Ali Baba’s thieves—were likely only smuggled into the text later by French translator Antoine Galland, spun by him from mere parentheses of plot in the 14th-century Syrian manuscript he was busily mining."

"The jinni (Arabic for “genie” or “demon”) in the bottle of Warner’s book, both menacing and inspiring, is Palestinian-Arab Edward Said and his paradigm-shifting study Orientalism. When I was a student at Columbia in the late 1970s, I audited Said’s course. He was an academic rock star of the moment, wore elegant dark-blue suits to class; as a snarky student exercise I kept note of the number of times he used the word “power” in every lecture. Orientalism was the equivalent of an academic beach book during in the summer of 1979—a “cult bible,” says Warner. While Said didn’t take on the popularization of Arabian Nights directly, especially as triggered by the “lurid and archaizing” Victorian-era version of Sir Richard Burton, he did take on his ilk, exposing orientalist scholars, adventurers, and explorers as trading in stereotypes of Eastern lassitude, femininity, and deception that helped stoke a colonialist, imperialist agenda.

Enough decades have passed for these ideas to be run through the word processor again, and reconsidered. While Said did not deconstruct Arabian Nights directly, he did indict one of its translators, the English Arabist Edward W. Lane, for fostering prejudice. “Said’s furious polemic against Orientalism,” Warner writes, “has dominated perception of the Nights and related Orientalist literature until now.” She stops along her way to absolve this or that orientalist figure of heavy-handed motives, restoring the impulses of sheer infatuation and curiosity that motivated so many of these Arabophiles from Goethe to T.E. Lawrence to Sigmund Freud, with his divan of a psychoanalytic couch covered with oriental rugs and cushions for Shahrazadian talking cures. Warner trots out Edward Lane as Exhibit A of a “charmed encounter” with the Middle East. A sort of method scholar, Lane lived in Cairo, admittedly dressing in Mameluke robes, while translating the Koran, producing a monumental Arabic-English lexicon, as well as his annotated Nights (1839-41) in three illustrated volumes."

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