Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The thousand and one footnotes

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Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Francis Burton

In recent years, whenever I’ve bought a movie on Blu-ray, it’s been with as much of an eye to the special features as to the quality of the film itself. The gold standard remains the special edition of The Lord of the Rings, which is practically a film school in a box, but when I look at my shelves, I see plenty of titles—ranging from The Lovely Bones to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—that I don’t think I’d own at all if it weren’t for their featurettes and supplements. These days, with sales of home media falling everywhere, bonus content is one proven way of convincing consumers to pay for a physical disc, and it appeals to our natural interest in commentaries, ephemera, and glimpses into the creative process. In some ways, you could see them as an updated version of the original bonus feature: the footnote. Footnotes and endnotes originally evolved to meet a utilitarian end, but as everyone from the compilers of the Talmud to Nicholson Baker have long since realized, they can provide peculiar pleasures of their own, a kind of parallel narrative to the main work that allows for asides and digressions that don’t fit within the primary argument. A long footnote is often more interesting than the text to which it refers, precisely because it feels so superfluous, and an entire industry has sprung up around copiously annotated editions of our favorite books, of which The Annotated Sherlock Holmes remains the undisputed champion.

I got to thinking about this after scoring a copy of what amounts to the most extraordinary collection of footnotes in the English language. It’s the sixteen-volume translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton of the Arabian Nights, or rather The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which I picked up for a song this weekend at the Newberry Library Book Fair in Chicago. I’ve coveted this set ever since I first saw it in the library at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and when I see it in my office now, I feel like pinching myself. Much of the book’s fascination emerges from the figure of Burton himself, an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. He was a British adventurer, soldier, spy, and explorer who spoke close to thirty languages; he was among the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, under constant threat of discovery and death; he searched, unsuccessfully, for the source of the Nile; he survived a spear through the face in Africa. His legend tends to obscure his real achievements, but as Jorge Luis Borges notes in his fine essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” it’s the legendary Burton who survives. (Burton was clearly an enormous influence on Borges, and you see echoes of him everywhere in the latter’s stories, particularly in his lists of arcane facts and exotica.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton

And while I’m not sure I’ll make it through all sixteen volumes, I have every intention of reading every single one of Burton’s notes, which have a well-deserved reputation for raciness. Burton notoriously embraced the sexual and scatological elements of the original stories, to the point where the set was originally published in a private limited edition designed to get around the obscenity laws of the time. And there’s little question that his readers saw the annotations as a major selling point. Burton’s challenge, as Borges puts it, was “to interest nineteenth-century British gentlemen in the written version of thirteenth-century oral Muslim tales.” And in order to appeal to “the respectable men of the West End, well equipped for disdain and erudition but not for belly laughs or terror,” he loaded up his work with special features:

The text’s marvels—undoubtedly adequate in Kordofan or Bulaq, where they were offered up as true—ran the risk of seeming rather threadbare in England…To keep his subscribers with him, Burton abounded in explanatory notes on “the manners and customs of Muslim men.”

The result was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a deluxe box set with a commentary track and a fat disc of supplements, and I suspect that many of the set’s original purchasers, like me, were more interested in Burton’s special features—with their vast repository of sexual, ethnographical, and anecdotal material—than in the stories themselves.

As Borges concludes: “At fifty, a man has accumulated affections, ironies, obscenities, and copious anecdotes; Burton unburdened himself of them in his notes.” And boy, did he ever. Among the translation’s unique characteristics is an entire index devoted to the footnotes alone—presumably as a convenience to readers who just wanted to get to the good parts—and browsing through it feels like a trip to a bazaar of indescribable, vaguely dirty riches. (A few of the entires, chosen at random, include: “Female depravity going hand in hand with perversity of taste,” “Hymeneal blood resembles that of pigeon-poult,” and “Women, peculiar waddle of.”) Borges rightly observes that Burton’s commentary “is encyclopedic and seditious and of an interest that increases in inverse proportion to its necessity,” which is true of all footnotes, but especially here. A brief reference in one story to contraception, for instance, inspires two long paragraphs on the history of the condom, complete with prices and advice on usage, and the appendix includes what was then the longest discussion of homosexuality ever to appear in English. A lot of the material seems to have been chosen for its appeal to the idealized male reader of the time, in a sort of anticipation of the articles in Playboy, and as calculated as it all feels, it certainly works. It’s the richest collection of bonus features ever published, and thanks to Burton’s legacy, it comes across as even more. As Borges says, it’s like listening to a commentary track recorded by Sinbad the Sailor himself.

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