Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY, WE BEGAN tidbits gleaned from Marina Warner’s “Travelling Texts,” in London Review of Books, discussing The Arabian Nights. Today in Part 2, there’s a Frenchmen who translates (and adds to), an Englishman who’s misogynistic, and a sofa that’s alive.

European Orientalism. Warner writes, “Like a dance craze or charismatic cult, The Arabian Nights seized readers’ imaginations as soon as translations first appeared—in French between 1704 and 1717, and in English from 1708.”

A French edition, likely early 1900s, of Les Mille et Une Nuits. Image from

French savant and explorer Antoine Galland discovered a manuscript of the tales in Syria and translated them. What’s more, he embellished the tales here and there. After all, as Warner notes, “… the stories were anonymous and composed at different times in different places.”

Ali Baba’s brother Cassim “was so alarmed at the danger he was in that the more he endeavoured to remember the word Sesame the more his memory was confounded.” Illustration, 1909, by Maxfield Parrish.

Shaftesbury’s 1711 Review. “In countries of the book’s origin,” Warner writes, “the stories were considered popular trash…. In Europe, a similar sense that they had negligible status as literature came about because so many of their early enthusiasts were women.”

Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, 1671–1713, English politician, philosopher, and writer. Author of Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 1711.

For example, in 1711 the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote about women’s “passion for a mysterious Race of black Enchanters: such as of old were said to creep into Houses, and lead captive silly Women.”

Come to think of it, there’s a bit of this in Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio had its debut in 1782. Image from

A Sofa Tale. Furniture was another aspect of Europe’s love affair with Orientalism. (Two centuries later, Carlo Bugatti, automaker Ettore’s father, specialized in Orientalism’s artistic evolution.) The sofa, for example, was of Turkish origin, from the Arabic ṣuffa, a carpet or divan.

Warner cites a sofa story by 18th-century novelist Crébillon fils in his Le Sopha, Conte Moral, 1742.

Claude Prosper Joiyot de Crébillon, 1707–1777, French libertine novelist, the fils, son, added to distinguish him from his actor father.

In the story, a young rake is transformed into a sofa as punishment for his misdeeds. “Like a genie in a lamp,” Warner writes, “he’s sentient but captive. He eavesdrops on many gallant conversations, but will be changed back into human shape only when and if a couple makes true love when sitting on him.”

A sweet tale, and somehow reminiscent of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Flying Carpets Not Real?? Warner observes, “The most popular tales of all, the ones that have become synonymous with The Arabian Nights and have been retold in children’s book and films (‘Aladdin,’ ‘Ali Baba,’ ‘The Ebony Horse,’ ‘Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou’), are probably Galland’s invention, concocted of pomegranates and ebony, damask and jasmine, in tribute to the style of the original stories.”

Gad. Leave out “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou,” and we lose belief in flying carpets.

The Magic Continues. Warner adapts a phrase of American poet Wallace Stevens: “… the spirits of The Arabian Nights opened a space in which heterodox fantasy could be indulged without danger—believed in without having to believe it true.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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