Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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

The innumerable ways of being a man

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If you wanted to design the competent man of adventure and science fiction from first principles, you couldn’t do much better than Sir Richard Francis Burton. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken of him as “an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close as any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials,” and, if anything, that description might be too conservative. As Jorge Luis Borges recounts in his excellent essay “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights”:

Burton, disguised as an Afghani, made the pilgrimage to the holy cities of Arabia…Before that, in the guise of a dervish, he practiced medicine in Cairo—alternating it with prestidigitation and magic so as to gain the trust of the sick. In 1858, he commanded an expedition to the secret sources of the Nile, a mission that led him to discover Lake Tanganyika. During that undertaking he was attacked by a high fever; in 1855, the Somalis thrust a javelin through his jaws…Nine years later, he essayed the terrible hospitality of the ceremonious cannibals of Dahomey; on his return there was no scarcity of rumors (possibly spread and certainly encouraged by Burton himself) that, like Shakespeare’s omnivorous proconsul, he had “eaten strange flesh.”

Unfounded rumors about his escapades were circulating even during his lifetime, and the only witness to many of his adventures was Burton himself. But his great translation of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, which is one of my most treasured possessions, is a lasting monument. As Borges observes, it is the legendary Burton who remains:

It will be observed that, from his amateur cannibal to his dreaming polyglot, I have not rejected those of Richard Burton’s personae that, without diminution of fervor, we could call legendary. My reason is clear: The Burton of the Burton legend is the translator of the Nights…To peruse The Thousand and One Nights in Sir Richard’s translation is no less incredible than to read it in ‘a plain and literal translation with explanatory notes’ by Sinbad the Sailor.

This is the Burton whom we remember, and his influence can be strongly seen in the careers of two men. The first is the English occultist Aleister Crowley, who dedicated his autobiography to Burton, “the perfect pioneer of spiritual and physical adventure,” and referred to him repeatedly as “my hero.” As the scholar Alex Owen writes in her essay “The Sorcerer and His Apprentice”: “Burton represented the kind of man Crowley most wished to be—strong, courageous, intrepid, but also a learned scholar-poet who chafed against conventional restraints.” Crowley first read Burton in college, and he said of his own efforts at disguising himself during his travels: “I thought I would see what I could do to take a leaf out of Burton’s book.” He later included Burton in the list of saints invoked in the Gnostic Mass of the Ordo Templi Orientis—the same ritual, evidently, that was performed by the rocket scientist and science fiction fan Jack Parsons in Los Angeles, at meetings that were attended by the likes of Jack Williamson, Cleve Cartmill, and Robert A. Heinlein. (Heinlein, who received a set of the Burton Club edition of The Arabian Nights as a birthday present from his wife Ginny in 1963, listed it as part of the essential library in the fallout shelter in Farnham’s Freehold, and a character refers to reading “the Burton original” in Time Enough for Love, which itself is a kind of Scheherazade story.) It can be difficult to separate both Burton and Crowley from the legends that grew up around them, and both have been accused of murder, although I suspect that Crowley, like Burton, would have “confessed rather shamefacedly that he had never killed anybody at any time.” But as Crowley strikingly said of Burton: “The best thing about him is his amazing common sense.” Many of Crowley’s admirers would probably say the same thing, which should remind us that common sense, taken to its extreme, is often indistinguishable from insanity.

Jack Parsons, of course, was notoriously associated with L. Ron Hubbard, who once referred to Crowley as “my good friend,” although the two men never actually met. And Hubbard was fascinated by Burton as well. At the age of twelve, Hubbard encountered a kind of deutero-Burton, the naval officer Joseph “Snake” Thompson, a spy, linguist, zoologist, and psychoanalyst who seemed so implausible a figure that he was once thought to be fictional, although he was very real. In the short novel Slaves of Sleep, Hubbard writes:

A very imperfect idea of the jinn is born of the insipid children’s translations of The Arabian Nights Entertainment, but in the original work…the subject is more competently treated. For the ardent researcher, Burton’s edition is recommended, though due to its being a forbidden work in these United States, it is very difficult to find. There is, however, a full set in the New York Public Library where the wise librarians have devoted an entire division to works dealing with the black arts.

Burton’s translation might have been rare, but it wasn’t exactly forbidden: a few years earlier, L. Sprague de Camp had bought a full set from his boss at the International Correspondence School for seventeen dollars, and it isn’t hard to imagine that his friend Hubbard occasionally borrowed one of its volumes. Another story by Hubbard, The Ghoul, takes place in the fictitious Hotel Burton, and Burton’s influence is visible in all of the Arabian Nights stories that he published in Unknown, as well as in the smug tone of self-deprecation that he used to talk about his accomplishments. When Burton writes that, as a young man, he was “fit for nothing but to be shot at for six pence a day,” or that “I have never been so flattered in my life than to think it would take three hundred men to kill me,” you can hear a premonitory echo both of the voice that Hubbard adopted for his heroes and of his own bluff style of insincere understatement.

And it was Burton’s presentation of himself that resonated the most with Crowley and Hubbard. Burton was the patron saint of the multihyphenates whose fans feel obliged to garland them with a long list of careers, or what Borges calls “the innumerable ways of being a man that are known to mankind.” On their official or semiofficial sites, Burton is described as a “soldier, explorer, linguist, ethnologist, and controversialist”; Crowley as a “poet, novelist, journalist, mountaineer, explorer, chess player, graphic designer, drug experimenter, prankster, lover of women, beloved of men, yogi, magician, prophet, early freedom fighter, human rights activist, philosopher, and artist”; and Hubbard as an “adventurer, explorer, master mariner, pilot, writer, filmmaker, photographer, musician, poet, botanist and philosopher.” But a man only collects so many titles when his own identity remains stubbornly undefined. All three men, notably, affected Orientalist disguises—Burton during his forbidden journey to Mecca, Crowley in Madhura, India, where he obtained “a loincloth and a begging bowl,” and Hubbard, allegedly, in Los Angeles: “I went right down in the middle of Hollywood, I rented an office, got a hold of a nurse, wrapped a towel around my head and became a swami.” (There are also obvious shades of T.E. Lawrence. Owen notes: “While the relationships of Crowley, Burton, and Lawrence to imposture and disguise are different, all three men had vested interests in masking their origins and their uncertain social positions.” And it’s worth noting that all three men were the object of persistent rumors about their sexuality.) In the end, they never removed their masks. Burton may or may not have been the ultimate competent man, but he was a shining example of an individual who became the legend that he had created for himself. Crowley and Hubbard took it even further by acquiring followers, which Burton never did, at least not during his lifetime. But his cult may turn out to be the most lasting of them all.

The birds and the books

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The Anatomy of Melancholy

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What have you bought based on its cover alone?”

In evolutionary biology, there’s a concept called the good genes hypothesis—closely related to the delightfully named “sexy son hypothesis”—that states that such seemingly useless traits as elaborate plumage in birds can indicate real genetic advantages to potential mates. It’s hard to keep a bright, bulky set of tail feathers intact, and since it makes it harder to flee and increases visibility, it even puts its owner at increased risk of being eaten. A male that is capable of surviving with an inconvenient tail presumably has correspondingly good instincts or stamina, and it’s those qualities, rather than the tail itself, that make him attractive to females. Plumage or other aspects of a bird’s appearance can also be a sign of overall health. Parasites, for instance, can reduce the sheen of ultraviolet feathers in such species as the satin bowerbird, and comb size in roosters is a decent proxy for levels of testosterone, which affects health in other ways. And the size of the comb can be reduced by such issues as intestinal worms. In other words, there appears to be a strong evolutionary rationale on the species level for developing some sort of quickly processed signal, even if it seems otherwise pointless, that allows females to distinguish between prospects at a glance.

You could say much the same about art. It’s impossible to accurately and rapidly judge a book or movie in its entirety, so audiences develop heuristic shortcuts to make decisions about what to consume, and many of these cues are all but unconscious. Sound design, for example, is an exceptionally useful way to distinguish between films, but only in a negative sense. Many excellent movies have made a point of violating the usual standards of conventional cinematography, with grainy film stock, digital video, or shaky camerawork, but few have ever made an aesthetic virtue out of muddy sound. When we see a clip from a movie with awful sound design, we know at once that it’s likely to be amateurish in other important respects. (Of course, this is only really useful when it comes to independent productions: most studio films have advanced to the point where such technical departments as sound and lighting are always of high quality, even if other aspects suffer.) If I were an independent filmmaker, no matter how small my budget, I’d spend whatever it took in order to get an experienced sound team, as well as a good editor, and I’d prioritize it well above the cameras. We’re likely to give a low-budget movie with sloppy cinematography the benefit of the doubt, but we’ll turn off a movie with bad sound within a few seconds.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

Similar factors apply to our choices of what books to read. As with movies, such aspects as cover design, typography, and paper quality are most effective as negative indicators: if the publisher clearly hasn’t taken much of an interest in a book’s tactile and visual qualities—either out of indifference or because of a lack of resources—it isn’t likely to have lavished much care on the contents, either. (Whenever I open a novel to see a ragged right margin and a sans-serif font, I close it at once. It may not be fair, but I don’t want to spend hours staring at that kind of page.) The fact that a book is handsomely packaged doesn’t mean that it’s any good, but it at least indicates the publisher’s confidence in the material. Such rules of thumb don’t always work: The Goldfinch is about as gorgeously mounted an example of the bookseller’s art as you’ll find, but I found it underwhelming as a novel. But I don’t think it’s an accident that the books I love are almost always a pleasure to handle as well as to read. This doesn’t mean that they have to be gilt-edged and hand-tooled, and in fact, handsome leather editions of the classics often strike me as in bad taste. But I’ll always have a weakness for a cleanly designed, attractively typeset paperback with a little heft to its pages.

In short, I’ve spent much of my reading life operating under the assumption that a book that shows obvious care in small details of design and presentation will devote a similar degree of attention to its words and ideas, at least on the editor’s side. And I’m not often steered wrong. Looking around my home office, I see countless titles to which I was drawn mostly because of how they struck my eye. It’s likely that I was first attracted to the Burton Club edition of The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night because of how nice it looked lined up on the shelves of St. John’s College in Annapolis, and I’ve discovered many books that ended up being hugely important in my life, like The Anatomy of Melancholy, because they stood out in a used bookstore. And it’s fair to say that my own prejudices and tastes have been shaped by a lifetime of browsing in particular kinds of bookshops, in which the most interesting titles often dated from an era before digital typesetting and the widespread use of sans fonts. Someone who browses for books online, as I increasingly do, will develop a different set of heuristics, and if I recently became obsessed with the titles published by the Bollingen Library, it’s because they invariably come close to my ideal of how a book should look. And now that every new book’s contents are nothing but metadata, browsing itself is going out of style. But it never hurts to check out the plumage.

Written by nevalalee

October 9, 2015 at 8:38 am

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