A long time ago, when I was much younger and considerably more daring than I am now, I taught a course for a few years entitled "Love and Sex in Literature." My students and I read and discussed a number of books and stories that have been called pornographic, e.g.: Fanny Hill, De Sade's Justine, Henry Miller's Sexus, The Story of O, etc. I got into a bit of trouble for teaching the course, with one of my colleagues bringing charges of unprofessional conduct against me. However, I had presented research papers at a number of professional conferences and had published several scholarly essays about erotic literature. International scholars judged my research significant and valuable, and I was declared "innocent" of the charges against me.
But that was another time and I won't dwell on it at this time, although I will come back to some discoveries I made about sex and storytelling while teaching the course. I bring it up simply to indicate that I have been thinking about the relationship between sexuality and storytelling for some time now. My interest actually began when I read John Barth's "Dunyazade" in his collection of novellas entitled Chimera (1972). The story is Barth's tribute to his long-distance love affair with the iconic storyteller Sharazad.
Barth's version of the famous frame tale of Thousand and One Nights is told by young sister Dunyzade. During the thousand and one nights while Sharazad engages in multiple ways of making love and myriad ways of telling stories, she and the genie John Barth,(who appears to her from the future when both utter the same magic words at once, "the key to the treasure is the treasure") theorize about the relationship between these two "life-saving" phenomena. Barth/genie tells Sherry that in his own time and place, there are scientists of the passions who maintain that language itself originated in infantile pregenital erotic exuberance, polymorphously perverse, by which "magic phrases" they seem to mean that "writing and reading, or telling and listening," are "literally ways of making love." Whether this is actually the case, neither the genie nor Sherry care; yet they like to speak "as if" it were (their favorite words, Sherry's sister observes).
This theory "accounted thereby for the similarity between conventional dramatic structure—its exposition, rising action, climax and denouement—and the rhythm of sexual intercourse from foreplay through coitus to orgasm and release." Even more basically, Sherry and the genie talk "as if" the relationship between teller and told is basically erotic, in which the good reader is as involved as the author:
Narrative, in short—and here they were again in full agreement—was a love relation, not a rape: its success depended upon the reader’s consent and cooperation, which she could withhold or at any moment withdraw; also upon her own combination of experience and talent for enterprise, and the author’s ability to arouse, sustain, and satisfy her interest—an ability on which his figurative life hung as surely as Sharazad's literal.
Just to refresh your memory about the frame tale of Thousand and One Nights: There are two brothers—King Shahrayar of India and Indochina, and his younger brother Shahzaman, who rules Samarkand. After Shahzaman catches his wife having sex with a kitchen boy, he kills both and, grief-stricken, goes to visit his brother. One day he sees Shahrayar's wife having sex with a slave along with twenty other slave girls and men. He tells Shahrayar, who cuts off the head of his wife and all twenty-one slaves.
Shahrayar declares that each day he will marry a virgin, have sex with her, and then order his Vizier to kill her in the morning. After many girls have died, the Vizier's daughter Sharazad, a refined and intelligent young woman, tells her father that she wants to marry the king so that she might find a way to save the girls of the kingdom or else die. She instructs her younger sister Dunyazad to stay with her and after the king has had sex with her, to say, "Sister, tell us a story." Sharazad's plan is to finish the story in the middle of the night and then, at her sister's urging, begin another one that she cannot finish by morning. The king, wanting to hear the end of the story, postpones Sharazad's execution each morning for over three years.
Hanan al-Shaykh, one of Egypt's best-known novelists, who has often been called "the new Sharazad," said in an address entitled "The New Sharazad" at Virginia's Sweet Briar College in 2000, that she was not pleased at this designation, for she felt the archetypal storyteller was the epitome of oppressed Arab women—traditionally only good for sex and entertaining men.
However, al-Shaykh says that after reading One Thousand and One Nights, she realized that Sharazad was not just telling stories to save her life, but rather to take risks--to assume the role of the artist, creating a mosaic that concealed her own power, thus ceasing to be a victim. Her greatest discovery was that the women in these stories were not passive and fearful, but rather strong and intelligent.:
Sharazad took the role of the artist, the creator, the story-teller who would test her own ability and rise above common artistry. She would penetrate every insight in order to tell stories that would excite, provoke, thrill, educate, and persuade indirectly, like transparent spiders’ threads continuing without taking breath, without finishing her story, fully aware that if she stopped to take that single breath between stories, she would be offering her neck to the sword, and she would be giving the king a chance to remember his twisted logic and his dark emotion."
I recently read Hanan al-Shaykh's new translation of Thousand and One Nights, subtitled "A Retelling. I have a ten-volume set of Richard F. Burton's famous translation of Alf Laylah Wa-laylah, and over the years, have pulled a volume off my bookshelf to randomly read a story, that always compelled me to read another and then another. But, if you are daunted by the multi-volumes, I recommend al-Shaykh's new one-volume translation.
Al-Shaykh has stayed away from children's stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba , saying she preferred to stick with stories about marriage and sex and love and power about misogynists who killed their wives or lovers and women who had to become cunning and manipulative to save themselves. She has restored the sexuality that the famous English version by Edward Lane in 1838 deleted. The need to tell stories is the underlying driving force of Thousand and One Nights, beginning with Sharazad who has the most powerful motivation of all—to tell stories or to die. Stories lead to stories, which lead to other stories, until the reader is drawn so far away from the originating story that it begins to seem that only stories exist, and that the reader may never find his or her way back to reality. Indeed, the "word "reality" becomes increasingly problematical.
In a piece in The New York Times entitled "Narrate or Die," on April 18, 1999, A. S. Byatt said:
"The stories in Thousand and One Nights are stories about storytelling without ever ceasing to be stories about love and life and death and money and good and other human necessities. Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood…. We are all, like Scheherazade, under sentence of death, and we all think of our lives as narrative, with beginning, middles and ends."
In an interview in The Atlantic, (Joe Fassler, "The Humanist Message Hidden Amid the Violence of One Thousand and One Nights, June 25, 2013), Hanan Al-Shaykh says that Sharazad is working on the King through the stories, educating him, maybe even brainwashing him, as the stories slowly teach him to give up his bloodlust and his blanket condemnation of women. She says the book indicates a role for literature to make us more human—not polemical, not political, but on a human level. The stories humanize us and make us better, she says. How a story can do this is something the cognitive psychologists are trying to determine in their study of what is called Theory of Mind.
Some Remarks about Sensate Focus and the Suspension of Disbelief next week. Also some remarks about Marina Warner's 2012 book Stranger Magic: Charmed Stories and the Arabian Nights.