Marina Warner seeks source of imaginative leaps in Stranger Magic
Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights
By Marina Warner. Chatto & Windus, 540 pp, hardcover
Novelist and historian Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights is a book that deserves to be read at leisure—preferably while reclining on that Middle Eastern invention, the sofa, and sipping a steaming mug of Coffea arabica.
At least that’s one of the first impressions it makes. Another is that, curiously, it’s a book that has taken on the attributes of its inspiration. Like the sticky bundle of folk tales, religious parables, erotic fantasies, protofeminist polemics, and swashbuckling lore supposedly invented by Shahrazad, Stranger Magic is a discursive skein of interrelated thoughts. Unlike the Arabian Nights, however, it’s also a work of scholarly diligence, although it’s no less readable for that.
Among Warner’s many arguments is that the Arabian Nights ranks with the Bible, the Odyssey, and the legend of Gilgamesh as one of the most important documents of oral literature—even if it has been variously debased, bowdlerized, and deceptively augmented since first appearing in print, circa 1704. This now seems true, even if Muslim scholars have long treated the Nights as little more than pulp fiction.
More contentious is her claim that the arrival of the Nights in Europe set the stage for an explosion of “magical thinking” that, ultimately, produced the nonlinear narratives and abstract art forms we enjoy today. Shahrazad’s story collection, Warner claims, not only is talismanic in itself, but acts to inspire other leaps of the imagination. The original tales, she argues, draw their audience “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 clear the way to changing the experience of living it.”
That’s a fascinating thesis, although it hints at the book Warner hasn’t written: how have the legends of the Nights shaped Arab culture? Granted, in her conclusion she notes that “Shahrazad’s way” of telling truth to power is behind the new narratives of the Arab Spring. Others might argue that in this context the magical thinking of the Nights, with its emphasis on the miraculous, could breed the kind of fatalism that cedes power to tyrants. This is a line of thought worth following—but for opening the discussion, and for producing a brilliantly provocative volume of her own, Warner deserves high praise.