Enjoy Orientalism-Lite with 'Stranger Magic'

Stranger Magic is an exhaustive compendium of the various tales in the Arabian Nights collection, as well as a robust and energetic investigation into how these stories of “Oriental” myth and folklore have seeped into the European imagination from the 18th century onward.

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 560 pages
Author: Marina Warner
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-03

In Bill Willingham’s Vertigo comic series, Fables, characters from European fairy tales and folklore are transplanted to modern-day New York City where they live in a secret community known as “Fabletown”. Willingham’s reimagining of these characters and their rich mythological history is for the most part fresh and clever; I went through the first six books fairly quickly and enjoyed them. I then hit a stumbling block with the seventh book in the series, Arabian Nights (and Days).

Characters from the Arabian Nights (also known in English as One Thousand and One Nights) make their brown-skinned appearance in Fabletown. The local fables are aghast that the colourful troop from the Orient has arrived with its harem of women, slaves, and bad English. With tongue firmly in cheek (presumably), Willingham and his team of writers and artists depict what is by now resoundingly familiar: a clash of cultures, people from Over There with their strange and barbaric ways, coming Over Here and disrupting the usual way of life. “Listen here, fellow!” says Prince Charming, newly-elected mayor of Fabletown, to Sinbad’s attendant, “If I understood your interpreter right, then we suddenly have a big, big problem! We aren’t bloody goddamned slavers here, and we don’t allow our guests to be bloody goddamned slave-traffickers either!” To which Sinbad says to his convoy, “These infidels are insane!”

Ah, the hilarity of it all. It’s a classic case of what I’d like to think is, “Having your Orientalism and enjoying it, too.” Because while the American fables may be xenophobic and, dare we say it, racist, Willingham and his team of writers and artists want to show you that the brown people are pretty racist, too! The Arab fables frequently refer to the American fables as, “these infidels!” For added measure, they also say things like, “the Western devils!” It’s all very we-are-the-world, a nod to the essential human nature that underpins all ethnic groups; people will quite naturally resent the Other for looking and being different. No imperial power plays are involved; who cares about geopolitics, it’s all really a drag. Why complicate things? In the world of fairytales, all characters are potentially good or bad, just because. And so we arrive at the point in Willingham’s comic, published in 2006, where an American fable says, “Our guests released the d’jinn.” “With instructions to destroy us,” continues another. Thus, “until we can determine otherwise, we have to assume we are at war with the Arabian fables.”

Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights clocks in at over 400 pages, and is an exhaustive compendium of the various tales in the Arabian Nights collection, as well as a robust and energetic investigation into how these stories of “Oriental” myth and folklore have seeped into the European imagination from the 18th century onward. As much as I admire Warner’s impressive scholarship, and the obvious care and thought with which she presents her arguments, Stranger Magic seems to me like yet another (although admittedly more sophisticated) variation on “having your Orientalism and enjoying it too”.

It’s all the more troubling because Warner’s main themes seem to circulate on one central premise: not all European writers/artists/filmmakers who used, exploited, and revelled in Orientalist tropes intended to feed into the Orientalist project as a form of European/American cultural and political power. No, they just wanted to dream and imagine different things; their minds adrift on the subtle charms of a strange old-yet-new world, like Aladdin on an enchanted flight. (And it’s particularly interesting to note, as Warner tells us, that some of the more popular stories from the Arabian Nights among European audiences, like “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” may be Antoine Galland’s compositions, the French scholar and orientalist who was the first to translate the stories of the Alf Layla wa-Layla.)

It’s all the more troubling because Warner, a writer and mythographer and no stranger to representations of magic in its multifarious cultural forms, seems to assume that artistic “intent” and individual interests and passion preclude the need to situate these works within the larger spheres of cultural and political power. Stranger still is how Warner not only maintains this position, but strengthens it as the book progresses, considering that she acknowledges the impact of Edward Said’s work on Stranger Magic (“it is a matter of great regret that this generous man is no longer here to argue vehemently with us all about my interpretations here”).

It would be sad, indeed, if we were to misunderstand Said’s project in Orientalism and assume that he undertook his research with the sole intention of heaping guilt upon all those who enjoyed the effects and forms of Orientalism, whether it presents itself through fairy tales, fiction, film, music, or interior décor. If one can be presumptuous, one imagines that Said probably would not have argued vehemently with Warner’s interpretations at all. But he would probably have had plenty to say about how the interpretations are all there is to Warner’s project, despite her desire to “present another side of the culture cast as the enemy and an alternative history to vengeance and war”, as she writes in her conclusion. As Said points out fairly early on in Orientalism: "Orientalism is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient, but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment."

Unfortunately, Warner’s book is an exploration of airy European fantasies more than anything else, which is perfectly fine should one want to delve solely into the aesthetics of the Arabian Nights’ mythologies and tropes. But because Warner set up a tall task for herself, referencing Said’s theories in Orientalism and framing her project as a cultural corrective for the rampant racism and Islamophobia that has become a part of the European/American political and cultural fabric, then it’s only expected that the reader expects a bit more from Stranger Magic than what it is effectively willing to give.

Warner’s Stranger Magic, for the most part, proves the point Said makes in Orientalism: “How then to recognise individuality and to reconcile it with its intelligent, and by no means passive or merely dictational, general and hegemonic context?” She proves this point by leaving this question well alone in her own inquiries. For example, when she talks about Danish-born Melchior Lorck and his art, she's careful to note that in his stylised illustrations, “he seems sensitive to the Islamic prohibition on lifelikeness in representation”. Perhaps he was. And yet, the political implications of Lorck’s presence among Muslims in Istanbul, where he worked as a spy for Archduke Ferdinand I’s mission, are simply glossed over. He was there, Warner tells us in a brief sentence, “to gather information about the Ottoman enemy”.

Stranger Magic shows us that Europe was full of individuals with particular sensitivity or sympathy to the people, practices, and religion of the Orient, and sometimes Warner comes across as wanting her readers to see these individuals as nothing more than passionate or dreamy individuals developing modes of self-expression through foreign myth and fairy tales, or indulging in a few peccadilloes. Perhaps, in many cases, these were simply that: "In numerous letters, Goethe praises the Nights, showing how the stories revealed to him how to give free play to his imagination, and to pass beyond reason’s boundaries in order to express its ideals more fully."

That’s great for Goethe, I’m thinking, but it also speaks to deeper implications that Warner sets out to investigate in her project, but whose ramifications she doesn’t fully explore: that of the popularity of the Arabian Nights during the time of Enlightenment, when reason and rationality exerted a hegemonic force. European audiences devoured the Arabian Nights, Warner posits, because it was an avenue for magical thinking, a place where the European imagination could go and play. But the Arabian Nights also came out of an actual place, a place that, as Said’s Orientalism shows us, has long been Europe’s “cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.”

We’re happy for Goethe’s imagination, but we’re also concerned about how the “East”, as it were, is made to stand for primitiveness or barbarism or backwardness, images that are continually reinforced by interpretations and representations. Willingham’s 2006 comic interpretation that I referred to at the start, for example, shows us a fairytale world in which American fables loathe the Arabian fables for a rational reason: they have harems and keep slaves. They repress people Over There! Meanwhile, the Arabian fables’ loathing of the Americans is simply depicted as something irrational and inherently conservative; the Arab fables hate the American fables because Americans are “infidels” and because Americans don’t want to allow them to maintain their harems and carry on with slavery. They hate us for our freedoms, indeed.

It would have been more accurate if Warned had subtitled her book “An Exploration of How Arabian Fairytales and Myth Have Influenced the European Imagination”. But as it is, it’s a book that’s marketed as one that will “reveal the underappreciated cultural exchanges between East and West, Islam and Christianity”, as it says on the jacket copy. What is presented within its pages is a collection of impressions of how artists and scholars from the West used and interpreted cultural productions from the East. There is very little about “cultural exchanges”.

Warner’s book is far from tedious and uninteresting, although her prose does overreach itself at points. She also has a tendency to repeat her argument, or recast a particular theory in a few paragraphs as a matter of trying out new forms of flowery prose. The book could have very well done without phrases like “The exotic places and fantastic oriental courts are all veils – and not very thick veils at that – transparently draped over Western error”. I can think of a few people I know who would shudder at this use and abuse of a veil metaphor. The veiled Muslim woman has become a common trope in American and European writings, made to represent all that is Other; an Other that is apparently forever oppressed, repressed and in need of saving by enlightened First World interventionists. That these tropes are employed to describe Orientalist aesthetics in Warner's prose strikes me as lazy and clichéd. Maybe if we want to start rethinking Orientalism we would have to start with interrogating the language we use to talk about it.

Warner is at her strongest in the second section of the book, ”Dark Arts, Strange Gods” where she tells us that “the Orient in the Arabian Nights has its own Orient”, and explores the themes of othering and borders within ethnicities and religions in the geographical regions of these stories. Particularly fascinating also is the third section, “Active Goods”, in which Warner thinks about objects and the role of talismans or charms, objects imbued with “power”, and how connection to a thing changes our relation to it: “Affective bonds change objects,” she writes, “they charm them.” It’s an interesting illumination that provokes one to consider the popularity of magic in mass culture in the era of late capitalism, and to consider how commodity fetishism is a concept that neatly merges with the idea of the “charmed objects” of myth and fairytales.

Stranger Magic’s every page is packed with details and nuggets of information, but because of its thematic entanglement with Orientalism, it ultimately left me perplexed and troubled. I can’t help but situate the book within a larger project that is intent on reclaiming Orientalism, as it were, without really understanding (or perhaps choosing to misunderstand) Orientalism’s material, cultural, and political implications for the people who still continue to live “in the Orient”, and how it continues to exert force as a system of knowledge.

For example, in an attempt to show how it's possible to have your Orientalism and enjoy it too, Maria Bustillos recently wrote a piece fittingly titled "Enjoying Orientalism". In it, she admits to being “a huge fan of Orientalism in all its forms” and ties it to labour practices in Chinese factories and the presumably “orientalising” assumptions that Americans make about the Chinese proletariat as essentially victims without agency, and bizarrely concludes with, “It's not necessary or desirable to abandon all our fantasies of China, or for the people of other nations to abandon their Hollywood ideas of us.”

That's bizarre, because Bustillos doesn’t seem to see, or doesn’t want to see, how it’s not about “enjoying Orientalism” or not (no one is able to take Orientalism away from you, even if they tried, so enjoy your symptom!), but more about how it’s used and what it’s made to stand for. Both Bustillos and Warner seem to want to evacuate Orientalism of its political dimensions, making it only about aesthetics and pleasure and enjoyment. It's almost as if Bustillos (and to a certain extent, Warner) are simply saying, “Leave me to my Chinatown and my Persian rugs! Besides, can’t you see that we’re all just trying to understand each other through our purchase of cultural commodities?”

It’s one thing for Warner to talk about the “traffic across the frontier of Islam and Christendom, a frontier that was more porous, commercially and culturally, than military ad ideological history will admit” in Stranger Magic, but it’s another to think about the literary, cultural, political, social, and yes imperial implications of the industry that formed around Arabian Nights and how it was, and is, used outside of the places from where these stories were formed. Too much of a “celebration” of how stories mingled and merged and birthed playful imaginations across borders has a danger of overriding the ways in which these points and moments of exchange were used or manipulated as a means of furthering geopolitical expansion, civilising missions, and imperial ambitions. And this, of course, is nothing but all too familiar magic.

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