The Tale of the Envious and the Envied

This week reading the Tale of the Envious and the Envied was very interesting to me.  The Tale seemed to read as a parable similar to the Good Samaritan parable in the Bible.  The tale begins with the Envious and the Envied living side by side in their neighborhood.  As the Envied grows in stature and prestige the Envious only hates him more until one day he pushes him down a well to try to kill him.

What I noticed here in the scene in the well was the invocations of both the Quran and other magic that the Envied dervish used to both escape the well as well as to remove the demon Muaman ibn-Damdam from the king’s daughter.  This reminded me of a lot of pre-Islamic influence in many other Arabian folk tales and mythology.

From my other classes, the ghoul and djinn featured so prominently in the stories here are more pre-Islamic, during the time of Jahaliya, than they are in Quranic inscriptions.  In older Arabic works and pre-Islamic mythology ghouls were regarded as devilish creatures. While the coming of Islam removed some previous customs, much of the mythology was incorporated into Islam.  The ghouls and the djinns began to represent more of their Abrahamic counterparts seen in Christianity and Judaism, where the djinns were more devilish and servants of Shaitan and less independent mischeouvous species.

This can be seen in the well of the Envious and the Envied in that their are the traditional spirits of the well that try to haunt the dervish while the demon that haunts the kings daughter is more like the evil demons seen in the other Abrahamic religions.





Todorov & Characters

I found Todorov’s analysis of characters in The Arabian Nights to be particularly interesting as he provides a new lens for looking at the the characters. My tradition manner of analyzing characters tends to place emphasis on the psychology of the character in question. However, Todorov provides an excellent explanation of Henry James essay, The Art of Fiction, by exploring the idea that characters can be subservient to the actions they undertake. This lens presents all character traits as causal because they provoke action by the character in question. Taking a step further, Todorov explains that the character traits are more than just causal: the character trait is both the cause and effect of the action. The significance of Todorov’s explanation is that the people become living stories as they are characterized by what they do while at the same time what they do is what characterizes them.

Throughout The Arabian Nights characterization is revealed in each of the stories by  the characters telling their own stories: because the characters are defined by their actions simultaneously as their actions define them. As characters appear in stories and begin to explain their own origins, the characters themselves amount to their actions. For example, in “The Porter and the Three Ladies” when the dervishes enter the story, each one is tasked with explaining how he lost his eye and shaved his beard. As each dervish engages in the act of story-telling, each dervish shows his how his character traits caused his actions and how his actions are the product of his character traits. As Todorov explains, this amounts to the fact that narrating equals living in The Arabian Nights. 

The Power of Simplicity in the Narrative

Like others who have already posted, I, too, am fascinated by Todorov’s interpretation of the Nights as an a-psychological collection of works. It is often easy to correlate depth and complexity with quality, but this perspective shows how a work can be instead direct and explicit and still have value. Although the “distance between the psychological trait and the action it provokes is minimal,” as Todorov claims, it allows the narrative to work well as a collection of folkloric lessons.

The lack of distance between character and that character’s actions is actually a very effective way to tell a short story. One of the interesting points highlighted in the presentation on Wednesday was the idea of the male and female realms, specifically through language in the story of the Porter and the Three Ladies. With the females characterized by their ability to work in a figurative realm, and the males in a literal realm, we as readers can being to form further insight into these characters and how they function in the narrative.

The characters are able to form connections through their ability to use an understand metaphors, so the women are not only given power in being able to control a higher domain of language, but also can do so through teaching, rather than undermining. Rather than mocking or speaking down to the Porter, they accept him into their home (their “realm”, so to speak), and help him to imitate and understand metaphors, and bonding with him in a friendly way. Despite the class and gender divide, the women exemplify a way to assert power without judgment.

On Todorov, Structure, & Conversation

“By telling the story of another narrative, the first narrative achieves its fundamental theme and at the same time is reflected in this image of itself.”

– Todorov, 448

I was particularly interested in this quote because it launched me into this hyper-analysis of how every story-within-a-story that we’ve read affects the larger frame.

Every big frame story that Shahrazad tells pretty much has to have another story embedded inside of it.  And, as Todorov explained, these smaller stories reveal something important to the bigger plot.  For the Porter’s story, these small (crazy!) stories are pretty much essential to further the plot and reveal the overall conclusion.  They’re needed to grasp the full meaning of the story itself.

Though we can view these stories in stories as odd or predictable sometimes, it really reminds me of how actual people talk or gossip.  Reflecting on that party-crashing handout, I really feel like the “he said she said he said” prefaces are so conversational and chit-chatty.  Some of those sections in the handout had huge tales, and others were literally like “I heard this dude was a party-crasher.”

I suppose as a talkative person, I immediately related the Nights’ way of storytelling (as explained through Todorov) to how we interact with others.  I believe we converse with others following this sort of branch-and-twig structure of conversation, where we are pressed to divulge more and more details.  You can kind of think of it like this:  Every topic is its own street, and in every one of those streets, there are many houses, and in every house, many rooms, and in those rooms different objects…Hell, we can even go all the way down until we reach their atoms, probably.  We can go on and on, pressing for more details, and every detail has its own story as well.

I could probably go into what Pinault said about oral tradition, but thinking about it this way makes me feel like reading the Nights out loud would actually feel very natural.  I almost feel like I would understand why the King is curious to hear more – it’s almost like she cut their conversation short (even though he’s not talking).

Thoughts on Narrative-Men

Tzvetan Todorov’s commentary on 1,001 Nights entitled “Narrative-Men”, left a lasting impression on me. In the article, he refutes certain Western critics who claim that the Nights displays a-psychologism, in that it lacks character depth. However, Todorov argues that the characters do have depth, even though the readers do not learn the characterization through verbose narrative. Instead, we see it through the actions of the character. I believe this idea contributes to the fact that the Nights has continued to captivate audience for a thousand years. It is part of human nature that we are captivated by both the predictability and the uncertainness of human being. Most of the times, humans act as we expect them to. Reliable people act reliably. For example, when the Merchant told the demon, he would return to the same spot in a year after saying goodbye to his family, as a reader, I  believed he would follow through with his actions.  However, once in a while, people do things that we never expect. Three women who seem to be having a good time laughing and drinking with their porter suddenly begin to beat two hounds. People are both predictable and  unexpected, which makes what we do, not just what we think, so interesting.

In addition, there also exists a certain truth in human action. Narrators can sugar coat characters’ thoughts and people can even deceive themselves into believing their own lies. Therefore, action is a particularly accurate way to measure how someone truly thinks because it is normally their innate response to their own feelings. For this reason, I enjoy reading plays more than novels. When I watch the actions of otherss, I feel that I am diving deep into their minds.

Structure of 1001 Nights

Now that we’ve read a good chunk of the 1001 Nights and I think I’m starting to get of sense of how it function, I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure of the Night — that is how it all fits together. I don’t think I would classify 1001 Nights as a novel because there’s not one main character which runs through the narrative. You could argue that the main character is Scheherazade, but to do so I think it to discount all of the stories she tells. If 1001 Nights is just about Scheherazade, then the stories she tells are just a means to an end. Theoretically we could cut out all the tales and substitute the sentence “and then Scheherazade told 1001 marvelous tales and the king married her. The end.” Obviously this is not the case. The stories are the core of Arabian Nights. You can pull a story from the nights and it’s still a great story in isolation; you can’t do that with the chapter of a novel.

The other extreme is to consider 1001 Nights as a collection of short stories, but again I think this is a disservice to the Nights. There are short story collections that are thematically linked, more than just a bunch of short stories printed together, but I don’t think that adequately describes the 1001 Nights either. The stories in 1001 Nights are more than thematically linked. They have an almost plot-like coherency maintained by Scheherazade’s into and outro to every night and their progression. No matter how engrossed in the stories we get, 1001 Nights don’t let us forget that Scheherazade is the one telling these stories to save her life. While you can pull stories from the nights and they retain their readability, by doing so you would be losing the overall narrative force of Scheherazade which defines 1001 Nights.

So how can I classify 1001 Nights based on structure? It’s too loose a structure to be a novel, yet too coherent to be reduced to a series of short stories. I don’t know if there’s a term for what the 1001 Nights it, but I think it’s somewhere in between a novel and a series of short stories and I don’t think it can really be classified as either without being brutally reductive. I’m looking forward to reading the ending of 1001 Nights (which I remember reading somewhere might be tacked on) and see how that factors into this whole idea.

Perception, Deception and Persephone

I was really fascinated by the idea of Persephone factoring into “The Porter”. This is a collection that famously touched and inspired every part of seemingly every culture (as evidenced by the video we watched at the beginning of class on Wednesday) and yet, the idea that this collection ties to the ancient Greek myths truly threw me for a loop. It is, however, completely unsurprising, as the only kind of stories that are as ubiquitous as the Nights are Greek myths and Bible stories, and so the idea that the two should intersect and overlap really is not that radical. There are tales that are proper, or rather, moralistic in Greek stories such as The Odyssey but there are also bawdy and comic tales, just like in the Nights. That is also true of every culture, where there are “high” and “low” stories, the only difference is that we, as a “Western” society, expect certain societies to retain either only high or only low tales.
With the racist and deeply Islamophobic debate currently dominating the media, it appears as though many people expect Muslim cultures to be painfully proper: ie, a woman MUST wear hijab, she MUST not interact with men, she MUST read the Quran, etc.  There is a twisted idea of adab indoctrinated upon American (and European) society. On the flipside, there are those who view the bawdy parts of the tales as examples of a different kind of homogenized storytelling.