Bob Dylan’s Arabian Nights Moment

Today’s conversation made me wonder not only about high/low and text/music genre boundaries but also about whether American bard (and now Nobel laureate) Bob Dylan had ever felt inspired by the Arabian Nights tradition. Of course he has. In his bestselling memoir Chronicles, Dylan recounts how he met his first NYC girlfriend, Suze Rotolo (immortalized on the album cover below).

As Dylan recalls:

Right from the start I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was the most erotic thing I’d ever seen. She was fair-skinned and golden-haired, full-blood Italian. The air was suddenly filled with banana leaves. We started talking and my head started to spin. Cupid’s arrow had whistled past my ears before, but this time it hit me in the heart and the weight of it dragged me overboard… Meeting her was like stepping into the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights. She had a smile that could light up a street full of people and was extremely lively, had a kind of voluptuousness—a Rodin sculpture come to life.

He goes to the movies to try to get her off his mind:

Movies had always been a magical experience and the Times Square movie theaters, the ones like oriental temples were the best places to see them. Recently I’d seen Quo Vadis and The Robe, and now I went to sit through Atlantis, Lost Continent and King of Kings. I needed to shift my mind, get it off of Suze for a while. King of Kings starred Rip Torn, Rita Gam, and Jeffrey Hunter playing Christ. Even with all the heavy action on the screen, I couldn’t tune into it. When the second feature, Atlantis, Lost Continent played, it was just as bad. All the death-ray crystals, giant fish submarines, earthquakes, volcanoes and tidal waves and whatnot. It might have been the most exciting movie of all time, who knows? I couldn’t concentrate.

Finally they meet up again and get together.

Outside of my music, being with her seemed to be the main point in life. Maybe we were spiritual soul-mates.”

Two kinds of magic (love and film), and Dylan associates both with the world of the Nights. Yes, it’s everywhere.

Thanks again for a spirited final discussion, you guys!  And for a wonderful semester.


The Arabian Nights and Tolkien

I have to write this last post because after all Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings are amazing and I want to explore some of the connections between Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth and what we have seen in the 1001 Nights.  While the Nights often focuses on story telling and the frame story of Scheherazade and Shahryar the magical elements and far off adventures seems like a proto-fantasy novel.

We all probably have seen The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit or at least read them, and when viewing these it is hard not to see how the adventure journeys of Bilbo and Frodo are not some what inspired off of the adventures of Sinbad and Aladdin.  While we have discussed (briefly) how The Nights possibly inspired the Canterbury Tales, it would therefore seem that because Tolkien desired to create a new mythology of British Isles, that being drawn to the works of Chaucer would have caused the Nights to be an inspiration for Middle Earth.  It seems that because Tolkien was a professor of philology at Oxford he was primarily concerned with Old Norse Sagas such as The Volsunga Saga and other Norse mythologies.  As Tolkien read and understood these old languages and mythologies it seems that his Middle Earth is similar to a creation by Scheherazade.  They both combine different histories and different cultures to create an overall narrative of some magical and fantastical world.

If I had more time I think it would be interesting to see how the Nights inspired the horror of Lovecraft’s Mythos as a later extension of this.

Shahrazad at the MFA!

img_2339I was browsing the Islamic art gallery at the MFA and this image immediately reminded me of our favorite heroine. Here we see a Persian noble woman reading, which instantly called to mind Shahrazad’s introduction (the Haddawy translation listing her academic credentials, not the Europeans describing her perfect proportions). I like to think this could be her, being the exemplary woman of the Middle East here in Boston yet again!

Movies and The Nights

I believe that it is more difficult to discern if a film adaptation of The Arabian Nights is “good” or “bad”, especially compared to literature. In Dramatic Literature, when analyzing a script we always ask what we call “the Passover Question”. Traditionally on Passover, a child asks “why is this night different from all over other nights?”. In turn, when approaching a script, we must ask, “why this play now?” and why is this play important for this moment?”. I found this much easier to achieve when reading literary adaptations of the Nights. In trying to understand the significance of that piece, I could refer to the historical time-period of the novel or the past of the author. However, for the movies, I cannot answer the Passover Question. It seems that major motion picture studios created many of these films simply for the entertainment value. In that sense, I struggle to gain a comprehension of whether an adaptation is good. Can I consider a movie adaptation of the Nights to be successful if it simply entertains me?

Thoughts on adaptations

I think what is most interesting about this final unit is that what we are working with are self proclaimed adaptations, although I feel like we crossed this line far before the translator’s debate. Even though I was on Galland’s team (legal council?) I think once we forayed into the European translations via his work, we truly stepped into the adaptive realm. As the orphan tales are only tangentially related to based stories, they are basically inspired by rather than a part of the collection; “Ali Baba” is to “The Porter” what Disney’s Aladdin is to The Thief of Baghdad. The only difference is a claim to authenticity which, while giving it some legitimacy also opens it up to criticism it cannot support. While an adaptation of a different genre (music, drama, film, etc) cannot claim that same legitimacy, it does allow it an artistic freedom and a licence to augment to the creator’s content. Does it make it faithful? Not in almost any of the cases we were presented with, yet it does allow an artistic expression that does not need to be justified: the audience expects a collage of borrowed, old and new. However, in terms of actual integrity, Galland and Rimsky-Korsakov are working on almost identical planes.

Furthermore, I think back to the first assignment (and blogpost!) of the semester which was, of course, about adaptations, which brings the course into a full circle. Yet the reason that was the introductory question is because most people’s familiarity with the nights comes from some sort of adaptation: I remember myself (and others) saying that we were familiar with some sort of adaptation, but would like to read the original. Obviously, as we soon learned, that is a complicated and almost impossible wish, which only became more and more convoluted as translations melted into adaptations, as aforementioned with Galland, but also very much with Burton and Lane. Then of course comes the question of the new originals and the question “poisonous fruits” and how they are to be dealt with. Like it or not, as Haddaway himself admits, the most famous tales are those “fruits”, orphan tales, fallacies or adaptations that were tacked on to please audiences. Perhaps they are most ubiquitous because they were created for that very purpose; perhaps because they came out of deep study and translation of so many Nights tales.

In seeing how these adaptations came into the norm, it is also interesting seeing them augment again and again. The cruelly elegant transformation from Sabu to Abu, which is at once a nod and an insult: once a headliner, now a monkey. It is also interesting to see how much Robin Williams’ character was based on his counterpart in Thief, even in appearance: the old movie becomes the new original, a basis for the new movie, which serves as an introduction to the world of the Nights for an unbelievably vast audience. Also, in doing some research about Sabu, the film he was discovered for, Elephant Boy, is based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling called “Toomai of the Elephants” – which is a British man’s mythologization of India; the story itself was published in The Jungle Book collection which underwent a similar treatment to Aladdin via Disney.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Frame Story

Although I lack the proper vocabulary to discuss classical music on a professional level, I can say I picked up on the frame story motif when listening to “Scheherazade: Orchestral suite after A Thousand and One Nights.” Considering the Nights origins in oral storytelling, Korsakov’s musical representation is a novel mirror of that tradition. Just as different translators have distinct interpretations (and thus, distinct publications) of the Nights, Korsakov uses an orchestra to illustrate his own take on the tales.

Putting together the meaning of Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” seems similar to putting together a puzzle. Before you can analyze what is actively happening, you have to determine who or what those actions belong to. For example, visualizing the frame story through this piece would be challenging if you didn’t discern the voices of Scheherazade and the King. What stood out to me while listening to different sections of the piece were repetitive measures, which would overlay or underlay different sections of the piece. This conflation is what seems to underscore the tales occurring in their relation to the frame story. It’s a distinct reminder that the stories are constantly linked to their frame, and encourages the listeners to stay engaged with both the outer and inner frames simultaneously.

Listening to Rimsky-Korsakov

As someone who has little classical music understanding or training, I listened to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade to see what themes I could pick up on.  I like how the mood at first is dark and foreboding as if Sultan Shahraman is killing the women before the arrival of Scheherazade.  The orchestra starts low and threatening before the first song of Sinbad and the Sea.  This part of begins the main theme where you can hear the leitmotif of Scheherazade and her beautiful narration.

To me I wonder what this says about adaption or translation of the 1001 Nights.  I could easily imagine the music of Rimsky-Korsakov being placed into a larger telling of the stories.  I could imagine that in audiobook reading of the Arabian Nights the music could play into the background while the narrator relates the story.

As the music is not specifically titled, it evokes a sense of awe and inspiration as well as the Nights sense of adventure.  In this, the music of of Rimsky-Korsakov is more of an adaptation as the main themes of the Nights are maintained without the exact plot. The inspiring theme of Scheherazade is the maintained frame story while the themes of Sinbad and the Festival of Baghdad are developed.  However, in this final adaptation  of 1001 Nights, the adaptation is unfaithful to the spirit of the perpetuity of the stories.

With the final theme of the Festival of Baghdad, Scheherazade’s theme overpowers the Sultan’s theme and by doing this the situation of Scheherazade and Shahraman is resolved; a quickly resolved conclusion.