Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night

Two against the gods

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On December 9, 1952, L. Ron Hubbard delivered a lecture in Philadelphia titled “What’s Wrong With This Universe: A Working Package for the Auditor.” It’s even harder than usual to figure what he’s trying to say here, but it appears to be a description of the experiences that an individual might have “between lives,” a transitional phase in which he’s vulnerable to implanted ideas and hypnotism that can influence his goals in his next incarnation. Hubbard described a typical incident:

There was a big building. He was curious, he was very curious, and he…he wanted to know what was in the big building. It was very fancy…He’d heard some mystery had taken place in there so he goes in to take a look. It’s wide open, it’s very easy to walk into, and what does he find? He finds this enormous stone hanging suspended in the middle of the room. This is an incident called the Emanator. By the way, and this thing is, by the way, the source of the Mohammedan lodestone that they have hanging down there that—when Mohammed decided to be a good small-town booster in Kansas, Middle East, or something of that sort. By the way, the only reason he mocked that thing up is the trade wasn’t good in his home town. That’s right. You read the life of Mohammed. And he’s got a black one and it’s sort of hung between the ceiling and the floor and, I don’t know, it—maybe it’s called a casbah or something. Anyway, that thing is a mockup of the Emanator. The Emanator is bright, not black.

Hubbard would frequently suggest that other religions were misreadings of “implants” that the disembodied thetans received before attaching themselves to human hosts, which he casually extended here to the Ka’bah in Mecca. But this wasn’t the point of the lecture, and he quickly moved on.

This aside has received a fair amount of attention because it’s one of the few places where Hubbard explicitly mentions Islam. (His treatment of it isn’t much different from his views on Christianity, which he also saw as a distortion of an image implanted by Xenu: “The man on the cross—there was no Christ!”) Perhaps the most striking moment is the curious description of Muhammad as “a good small-town booster,” which certainly sounds like Hubbard—but he didn’t come up with it on his own. In fact, he took it almost verbatim from the book Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure by the South African journalist William Bolitho, which was published in 1929. Here’s the relevant section, from the chapter “Mahomet,” in full:

The start of Mahomet’s adventure, or in its more usual synonym, the basis of the Mahomedan religion, is this preoccupation of his with the fortunes of his native town. Squeamish pedantry may object to the triviality of the phrase which fits nevertheless with a precision no other can give: Mahomet was a “home-town booster,” and this conception will unlock the many obscurities of his life and his doctrine, with which the most subtle theological speculations and the most careful minutiae of history are incapable of coping with. The door by which he enters is this: “How can we attract the whole world, at least the whole of Arabia, yearly to the Ka’ba?” And the vision of One God, greatest common denominator of religion, is the solution, not the prime inspiration. In fact Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious. The rhapsodies, the epilepsies of the man while he is still struggling toward his invention, are the symptoms of a process which they sometimes assist and sometimes retard; if they were taken as analogous to the painful mental straining of a Rotarian enthusiast racking his brain for a world-beating slogan for the town of his heart it might be irreverent (we regretfully foreswore reverence at the beginning of these studies) but it would not be a joke; nor a mistake.

And we know that Hubbard read Twelve Against the Gods because he told us so himself, in a lecture that he had delivered just a few days earlier, on December 5, 1952:

There is never a great adventurer who did not end his career upon having discovered the sacred treasure of Peru. Bolitho, good old Bolitho, with his Twelve Against the Gods. It’s a wonderful thing to read—gorgeous! And the introduction of Twelve Against the Gods is one of the best pieces of work I know of, even related to a lot of things, and particularly to this subject.

It’s unclear when Hubbard first encountered it, although the occultist Jack Parsons read it aloud at meetings of the Agape Lodge during the period when the two of them were living together. Three decades later, Hubbard allegedly called it his favorite nonfiction book in response to a questionnaire from the Rocky Mountain News, although his answers were actually written up by his spokesman, who dug up the reference in his lectures. (One of the book’s other fans, interestingly, is Elon Musk, who mentioned it approvingly to a reporter last year, leading to a spike in the price of used copies online. I was lucky enough to find it for two dollars this summer at the Newberry Library Book Fair.) It might be a worthwhile exercise—and maybe I’ll do it one day—to read Bolitho’s book systematically to see where else it comes up in Hubbard’s teachings, particularly in the Philadelphia lectures. But we know for a fact that he read the chapter on Muhammad, a figure with whom he shares some superficial similarities. Hubbard’s early knowledge of Islam came primarily from The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Nights, translated by his hero Sir Richard Francis Burton, who wrote in a footnote:

Mohammed…claimed (and claimed justly) to be the “Seal” or head and end of all Prophets and Prophecy. For note that whether the Arab be held inspired or a mere impostor, no man making the same pretension has moved the world since him. Mr. J. Smith the Mormon (to mention one in a myriad) made a bold attempt and failed.

I don’t want to overemphasize these parallels, but it’s impossible for me to read Bolitho’s take on Muhammad without thinking of Hubbard. When he writes “Mahomedanism is a religion, because Mecca’s problem, as a religious town, was religious,” I’m reminded of the founding of Scientology, which was less the outcome of a coherent plan than a pragmatic solution to a specific set of problems that occurred right around the time that the Philadelphia lectures were delivered. Bolitho writes of a turning point in Muhammad’s career: “The lever of his position is now his own converts, his own past, the picked fanatics.” Hubbard was in exactly the same situation in Phoenix and Philadelphia. And many of the most resonant echoes were yet to come. What Bolitho writes of Muhammad just before the Hegira evokes Hubbard’s doomed dream of sailing the seas with his fleet: “The town-booster…has decided to liquidate, and distribute himself the bonus years of the effort of thinking and unpopularity had won for him; he signals the gods of adventure to stop and let him get down.” And these lines near the end of the chapter are chillingly prophetic:

But Mahomet the adventurer has been swallowed by his adventure, which is now openly independent of his personality…Out of the mass of incoherent writings, cursings, distichs, that he is still pouring out in his old age, half buried under the minutiae of new laws obviously inspired by the domestic bickerings of his harem, there is vaguely visible the plan to which the old man is arrived; the species of vast plunder gang, the Bandit State, in which he will brigade all the faithful, the gigantic enterprise or organized looting of the whole world to which he calls his race.

Hubbard was no Muhammad, but he probably believed that he was, and when he looked around him in the late fifties and early sixties, he would have found little evidence to the contrary. And it would be dangerous to underestimate how much he achieved. As Bolitho writes of such religious adventurers: “They have lived on this little earth like an island, and made up their night fires to scare away the noises of the interstellar dark.”

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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