on December 1, 2012
This is an interesting and at times frustrating study of how tales from the Arabian Nights made their way into European cultural and intellectual thought in a period largely confined to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Warner's enthusiasm for tracing the cultural effects produced by stories steeped in magic and fantasy on societies facing rapidly modernization is catching and she leads the reader down some fascinating paths as she links the spells cast in the Nights to the talismanic properties of modern currency exchange and the fascination with genies on flying carpets to the technological interventions leading to the rise of flying machines at the turn of the 20th century.
The study's strength, as well as its weakness, is its wide, expansive scope. Warner ranges over a wide variety of material and figures, from Voltaire to Anna May Wong. I sometimes found the jumps too dizzying and disorienting and would have preferred a more slow-paced tour through her large collection of source texts. But Warner does have a tale-weaver's charisma and one is compelled to stay on the journey despite its excessively rapid twists and turns. Warner, I suspect, would say that the scattered manner in which she has organised this thematic study is rather part of the point.
What this book most sorely lacks is a good copy-editor. The study is marred with moments of some severely undisciplined sentences. The worst passages are in her recapitulations of some of the stories from the Nights that preface the different segments of her study, each devoted to a particular, loosely-defined theme.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in revisiting the influence of the "Orient" to European modernity. Warner's examples, ranging from Goethe to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, provide useful starting points for reconsidering appropriations of the orient to a west increasingly defining its modernity as a process of demystification and disillusionment. Perhaps a clearer prose style would have allowed this study to capture more of the narrative magic contained in the tales comprising The Arabian Nights.
on June 27, 2012
I want to believe that Warner is one of the geniuses of the Counter-enlightenment, that she is at once an artist and an intellectual who sees through the veneer of rationality that both hides the dominance of Enlightenment brutality and coldness and even more deeply conceals and distorts the deeper magic in the knowledge of myth. I love her work, and I take it as a gift from friendlier gods that she writes so intelligently of the imagination and so imaginatively of a level of human intelligence increasingly banished from our midst. She is keeping something indespensible to human sanity and consciousness alive, and I think she is doing so in a time that arcs more and more toward the unforseen disasters of a rationality and a technology that is not friendly to a larger and deeper kind of human existence. This a form of charm that can disenthrall our blind veering toward disaster and reengage us in living acts of intelligent imagination. I say we have more of it.