Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

Marina Warner's generously big book Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (540 pages with illustrations) is a thoroughly researched examination of the influence of The Arabian Nights on western thought, beginning with its introduction of magical imaginative stories on the so-called Age of Reason in the eighteenth century. I read it recently because I had just read the new translation of Thousand and One Nights by Hanan Al-Shaykh and heard Magdalene Redekop refer to Alice Munro as a Shahrazad in a presentation at the Munro Symposium in Ottawa.
In his review of the book in the New York Times, Harold Bloom says that Warner "persuasively redefines The Arabian Nights as an overgrown garden of the delights and hazards of desire."  Bloom says that one of the important things Warner does in the book is to remind us of our "sore need for another way of knowledge," a kind of knowledge, for want of a better term Bloom calls "literary knowledge."
I have talked about this before in blogs on Jerome Bruner, who in his influential 1962 book, On Knowing:  Essays for the Left Hand, argued that to understand human cognition, one needed an approach that went beyond that provided by the conceptual tools of the psychologist, an approach whose primary medium of exchange was the way of the poet, for poet’s hunches and intuitions create a grammar of their own.   I also talked a bit about this last week in my references to the philosopher Ernst Cassirer who talked about the difference between theoretical and mythical thinking. As Bloom says about Warner, she "shows some of the ways in which storytelling is essential to the kind of knowledge we associate with the so-called Counter-Enlightenment.
In what follows, I will simply cite some of the passages in Warner's book that seemed the most helpful to my own study of the relationship between sex and storytelling in the stories of Alice Munro, commenting briefly on their possible usefulness to me.

Warner: "The power of stories to forge destinies has never been more memorably and sharply put as it is in this cycle, in which the blade of the executioner's sword lies on the storyteller's neck: the Arabian Nights present the supreme case for storytelling because Shahrazad wins her life through her art."
Me: Most everyone who has read Alice Munro knows that one of her primary themes is the importance of story—that is, recalling the past and creating narratives about it, using stories as a way to come to terms with mysteries of human behavior and thought.  She has talked about this in several interviews, which I will pull together later, as well as in many of her stories, which I will refer to in another blog.

Warner: "This is a literature that intends to produce open mouths, shaken heads and inward chuckles. Hyperbole, wild coincidence, arbitrary patterning and illogical chains of cause and effect, all contribute." 
Me: This reminded me of one of the great short story writers of the twentieth century, Raymond Carver. Here is a quote from an essay I did on Carver a few years ago: One of the most familiar images of Raymond Carver recalled by his friends and acquaintances is his participation in storytelling exchanges and his wonder at the mystery of story. Describing Carver’s love of telling and listening to stories; Stephen Dobyns says Carver would scratch his head and lean forward with his elbows on his knees and say, “You know, I remember a funny thing.”  And when someone else told a story, says Dobyns, Carver would “burst forth with oddly archaic interjections like ‘you don’t say’ and ‘think of that"’ Then he would shake his head and look around in amazement." Tobias Wolff describes Carver’s almost “predatory” curiosity when a story was being told, his vibrancy and breathlessness, “as if everything depended on what you might say next. He let his surprise show, and his enthusiasm, and his shock. “No!’ he’d cry, ‘No!’ and ‘Jesus!’ and "You don’t say!’"

Warner: Naguib Mahfouz says Shahrazad's stories are "white magic."  "They open up worlds that invite reflection."
Me: This notion of inviting reflection is important to the short story, for the form began as a means of illustrating moral lessons, which has evolved in a form that is concerned with exploring universal themes.  In both cases, the stories do not exist merely to engage readers in a narrative, but rather a narrative that "means" something that bears thinking about.

Warner: She reminds us that the fairytale does not explore individual psychology or interiority.
Me: The focus in Munro's stories are not a Jamesian exploration of interiority, of examining one's motives, but rather the creation of characters who do things for reasons they cannot themselves understand.  There is some mystery of motivation that denies psychological exploration.

Warner: "The arabesque intrinsically involves a pattern efflorescing on all sides….Endlessly generative and cyclical, arabesque embodies vitality, resourcefulness and the dream of plenitude (no surface left bare) towards which the frame story and the ransom tales themselves are moving…the stories themselves are shape-shifters."
Me: One of the primary innovators of the short story was, of course, Poe.  And  Poe was a great admirer of the "Arabesque."  He even once wrote a story about the 1002 Night.  At the Munro Symposium, Steen Heighton, a writer, notes that Munro's stories are seldom linear and seldom merely functional.  Says her stories are like a hologram—an image fractal like, not limited by the frame. This "dream of plenitude" in which no surface is left bare echoes Poe's fantasy of totality, explored most fully in his long prose poem Eureka, 'but underlying his theory of the short story in which everything is essential to the overall unity of effect.

Warner: "The experience of reading the stories and reflecting upon them is open-ended; surprise is an essential trait, but as we, the audience, quickly learn that surprises must be sprung, it becomes more difficult for the story to catch us off guard."
Me: This reminds me of the fact that the most important point in the short story is the ending.  In the O. Henry type story, the ending was a surprise.  In the  Chekhov type story, it was open-ended.

Warner: She says the narrative wheel of the book parades a variety of narrative forms: proverbial anecdotes, riddles, lyric songs, love poems, epigrams, jokes.  "There is really no rhyme or reason for the unfolding of plots.  When a motive drives the action, envy rules.  Besides envy, lust is the principal catalyst."
Me:  Well, no question that lust is a "principal catalyst" in many Munro stories.  But lust is not a simple matter of the physical, but rather is tangled up with the notion of adventure, freedom, assertion of self, etc.

Warner: "The stories do not obey internal rules about character, motive, verisimilitude or plot structure; they do not easily fit existing theories about fiction, history or psychology."
Me: This relates to the problem of motive in Munro's stories. It is also true that Munro's stories do not follow the traditional rules of the short story (whatever those are).  At least, many recent critics and reviewers has suggested that her stories are not typical short stories (whatever that is).  More about this later.

Warner: "Given the intricacy of the rules, as you lose yourself in the labyrinth, the prosody resembles something fiendishly patterned, more terza rime than heroic couplets."
Me: Losing yourself in the labyrinth is always possible in the Nights.  But, it is also always imminent in the stories of Alice Munro—readers often get lost in the intricacy of the structure of her stories.

Borges has said that all great literature becomes children's literature.  Warner says this paradox depends on the deep universal pleasure of storytelling for young and old: stories like those in the Arabian Nights place the audience in the position of a child, at the mercy of the future, of life and its plots, just as the protagonists of the Nights are subject to unknown fates, both terrible and marvelous."  Borges has said that the greatest literature displays "reasoned imagination."
Me: I need to examine more the implications of Borges' notion of "reasoned imagination."  For the short story often exhibits the paradox of being a fantastic story that is meticulously controlled. See Poe for the most important influence on this in the 19th century.

Warner: "The intricacy and system of a woven carpet imply a strong degree of predictability; the symmetry and recursive repetitions work like oracles: the patterns must come out in a certain sequence, so discerning them becomes paramount but not quite patent.  It needs finesse to read a carpet's complexities." She quotes Nabokov, who said in Speak, Memory: "I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another."(p. 125)
Me: I like this.  It not only reminds me of Henry James' story "The Figure in the Carpet," but, more generally, it reminds me of the intricacy of the short story form that requires a careful close reading, for the short story always works more as a language pattern than merely a temporal plot.

Warner: "The Nights inspires a way of thinking ab out writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time—dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force.  Both of these principles draw away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasize instead the agency of literature.  Stories need not report on real life, but learn the way to changing the experience of living it." p. 29.
Me: This is a key passage in the book for me, especially the notion that the principles of the stories in Nights draw away from the idea of art as mimesis and move more toward the  idea of art as being self-reflexive.  If you take a look at the history of criticism of Munro's stories, you will notice that early critics focused on her stories as simple realism.  Later critics have tended to focus more on their structural artifice.

Warner: Talking about Giambattista Basile, Italo Calvino says: "A reading in which metaphors, rather than being considered an ornament that adorns the fundamental interweaving of plot, subplots and narrative functions, move them forward into the foreground, as the true substance of the text, bordered by the decorative arabesque threadwork of fabulous vicissitudes," the weaver conjugates structural motifs in infinite combinations within a basic structure of frame, ground and figure, and then inflects each one differently through variations of color, dimensions, quality of material.
Me: This is good, for it emphasizes that metaphor is the very heart of the story, that metaphor is constructive, constitutive not merely ornament.  William Gass talks about this as "model-building" and Walker Percy talks about the constructive process of metaphor as mistake. The notion of the story as being like a carpet woven of various motifs to create a meaningful pattern is crucial.

Warner:  "According to a fairytale principle, mystery rules human drives."
Me: This echoes my frequent observation that motivation in Munro stories is always ultimately mysterious, driven by the demands of the pattern and the story.

Warner: She says some of the marks of oral storytelling are: multiple reprises and repetitions, doublings of characters, generations and incidents."
Me: Yes, I see this in oral storytelling; it aids the memory process for the teller.  But it also carries on in the written story as well.  I wonder why.

Warner: "The dream quality of the Nights depends on a feature of the storytelling mode itself, more fundamental than its optical magic.  When the stories use language to institute impossible realities, images become reality and metaphors' status is dissolved so that any referent becomes fact.  This mental slippage, turning the figurative into the literal, is typical of the dreaming mind, which happily—and often amusingly—makes puns, especially on homonyms and proper names."
Me: This notion of images becoming reality and the figurative becoming the literal reverses our naïve assumption that story is mimetic.  Instead of the story imitating reality, reality imitates story.  Need to refer back to Oscar Wilde's famous discussion of this in "The Decay of Lying."  Why is it important to a study of Munro's stories? Because it reverses the naïve assumption that her stories are mimetic with realistic plots and real characters.

Warner: "The inner life of characters in the Nights flows into their outer circumstances without resistance, and it is not always clear what is dream and what is not.  What you dream looks ahead: perhaps the pattern of all things lying ahead has been set and can be descried in the right conditions." She says Proust aspired to the dream-like qualities of Nights.
Me: We like to think that we can easily distinguish between dream and reality; really, all it takes is a pinch, right to wake us up to reality—as if reality were as certain and secure as all that.  I think Munro's stories depend more on dream than many critics have believed.

Warner: She says Borges' Circular Ruins is an allegory of writing; it "demonstrates how imagination at work in literature forges the impossible through language and opens up meanings to depths beyond sense: the not-sense that magic unfolds." She talks about magic in Nights in which common artefacts are ages of wonders and riches—the marvelous in the banal. "Magic in the stories is by definition capable of imbuing lifeless things with vitality, which often endows single objects with power to affect the group and the whole society—the collective as well as the personal." Hugo van Hofmannsthal once asked, "Where is depth to be found? And answered, On the surface." She discusses the "slippage between object and metaphor, as occurs in the case of talismans and other magical devices in the Nights, where the literal materiality of a thing dissolves into the virtual reality of its powers."
Me: This reminds me of one of Raymond Carver's comments that I have quoted before: "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power."

Warner: "Observation, imaginative projection and interpretation transform objects of attention and can stimulate them to move and utter—subjectively."  . She refers to Jonathan Lamb's book, The Evolution of Sympathy. Lamb uses the term realism to characterize the ability to be as if "I were you."  She says Hans Christian Andersen was the write most influential in adopting techniques of sympathy from the Nights. Warner: She says that Coleridge's "Suspension of disbelief" is related to the notion of sympathy through identification.
Me: This ability to take oneself out of the self and project into the other is related to "Theory of Mind" that I have discussed in an earlier blog. See also Cassier on mythic thinking, and Eliade on sacred transformation.

Warner: "Lyric combines words and music to create a tempo that readers and listeners experience physically, as in dancing; poetry here struggles to free itself from constraints of reference and meaning, to reach a wordless state of transport (even of self-annihilation."
Me: Since the short story is more closely aligned with poetry than with novel, there is something in the form of this need to break free of the constraints of reference—using  language to transcend language.

Warner: She talks about Freud's couch: "The relation between couch, confession, erotics, daydreaming and storytelling reverberates wonderfully in the figure of the most famous daybed in modern culture, and a prime site of modern fantasy, the couch which Sigmund Freud covered with oriental rugs and cushions."
Me: This is the oriental rug motif again--the figure in the carpet, the notion of the story consisting of interrelated patterns of language that create a form that in itself has meaning.

This has gone on so long, but Stranger Magic is, after all a long book, and, as it is, I have only modestly raided it for material that I think might be helpful.  There is much more in Warner's book than I have been able to suggest.  But I am in a hurry now to get to the stories.  As always, for me, it is the story that must dominate my discussion, not the historical or theoretical context that I might use to  ground that discussion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was going to simply leave a link here to my new blog with my short stories, but I actually read this post and thought it was very thoughtful. There's certainly a lot to be said, in particular, about the influence of arabesque imagery in many classic Western short stories. Thank you.

I will still leave my link but only as an afterthought.