The classic fable derived from Scheherazade’s telling goes like this ...
Narrative: A dream or a vision compels the Dreamer or Visionary to flee to a distant city where a revelatory encounter teaches him to see himself for what he truly is, the Blessed or the Damned.
Interpretation? Like Scheherazade’s dreamer-protagonist, you attempt to flee your ego yet there is no escape, for you have fled in your reverie to the false refuge of an Altered State – let’s call the place Echoville – where your neuroses are mirrored by a Shadow-Self whose actions challenge you to return to true Selfhood, whereupon you learn whether you’re to be punished or spared.
The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream.In the Arabian Nights, this fable of Fall and Redemption is one of the simplest and, hence, the more striking, for it is straightforwardly linear (insofar as the narrative line passes through a looking-glass).
As I admitted once in an interview with novelist Megan Taylor, ‘At present I am re-reading The Arabian Nights; the story The Ruined Man who Became Rich Again through a Dream has a theme I stole for the final chapter of Sister Morphine, but it is unlikely I’ll ever find a better theme!A wealthy man of Baghdad who had lost all his money, in despair, lay down to sleep and in his dream heard a voice say, ‘Verily thy fortune is in Cairo. Go thither and seek it.’ So he set out for Cairo and in that city he was mistaken for a thief, seized by the police and beaten near to death. After three days in a cell the Chief of Police sent for him, asking ‘Whence art thou?’ ‘From Baghdad,’ the prisoner replied, ‘I saw in a dream One who said to me, “Thy fortune’s in Cairo. Go thither to it.” ’ The Police Chief laughed and said, ‘Thrice have I seen in a dream One who said to me: “There is in Baghdad a house with a jetting fountain and under it a great sum of money lieth buried. Go thither and take it.” Yet I went not for I had no faith in an idle dream, which is only the foolery of sleep.’ The poor man was given money to return home by the Police Chief, whose dream of a house with jetting fountain perfectly resembled the man’s own house in Baghdad, so when the wayfarer returned to his city he at once dug underneath the fountain in his garden, and discovered a great treasure. Thus abundant fortune is given to the Blessed when the dreamer becomes the dreamt in another’s thrice seen dream.
Of course, Scheherazade is really the Muse of all women writers, as a Storyteller-Under-Duress. MsLexia (rather a needy and whiny title for the journal, in my own view) has published works of mine, but Scheherazade* would have been a more apposite and affirming title, don’t you think? There are elements of Scheherazade’s dilemma in Sister Morphine … the narrator, a grief-counsellor, tells her stories to ward off her own grief.’
And, no, I have never found a better plotline in The Arabian Nights than the one I chose for my Sister Morphine all that time ago.
Las ruinas circulares of BorgesThe fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges, of course has taken similar tales from The Arabian Nights to refashion his own parables, notably The Circular Ruins in which ...
Narrative: A Necromancer induces himself to dream over many years the creation of another human being, a Youth conceived as a shadow of himself, and brings him into the world to live in a parallel temple not unlike the ruined pagan temple in which he ritually sleeps. He fears the Youth, his creation, will dematerialise should knowledge dawn that the being is but a projection of the Necromancer’s own mind. But at the moment of his own extinction, the Necromancer learns that he, too, is an imagined creature, made from another’s dreams.
The Dreamer Dreamt by Another is a motif that appears often in the works of Borges, and one must assume that part of his meaning is this: the vividness of everyday existence can be so bright as to extinguish the complementary shadow self that could make our personalities integrated and whole, just as the ‘sun destroys the interest of what’s happening in the shade.’Interpretation? Here Echoville is a mirrored semi-ruinous circular temple in which the objectivisation of the self may be seen, yet with self-knowledge comes the dissolution of the persona, bringing with it derealisation and the self-destruction that follows when disillusion denies the suspension of disbelief that is consentient existence.
As to looking-glass linearity, the epigraph for The Circular Ruins is taken from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll:
It comes from the passage in which Alice is told by a Looking-Glass character that her existence is jeopardised since she is simply a character in another character’s dream ... a character who, in the context of the story, she herself is dreaming as she sleeps in ‘Oh! Such a nice dream!’‘And if he left off dreaming about you ...’
An Englishwoman should not forget that many of Borges’s stories were directly inspired by English authors: Conan Doyle’s studies in scarlet (problems solved by inductive detection sharpened by the intermediations of cocaine) and G. K. Chesterton’s brown studies (problems solved by intuitive detection aided by the intercessions of the divine).
Note: It has only just occurred to me that A Study in Scarlet, written in 1886, was really rather an avant-garde title for Conan Doyle, when one considers that James McNeill Whistler in the same year was elected president of the Society of British Artists. So really the atmosphere of Conan Doyle’s London was not quite as pea-soupy as Borges might have supposed.
Appointment in Samarra.So, the three-pipe problem of the thrice dreamt dream as a parable of Ego and Alter Ego – when Conscious fears or desires are transmuted by Subconscious fears or desires in the Echoville of Looking-Glass-land – still concerns the dreamer when considering other specimens from this literary genre, even those from the pens of the most hard-bitten pulp fictionists.
John O’Hara’s first novel, for instance, Appointment in Samarra, begins with this epigraph:
Now. Should you pursue the origin of this fable you will run into a pea-souper of daunting obfuscation. Suffice to say, some scholars believe, erroneously, that the origin of novelist Somerset Maugham’s celebrated parable (quoted in his theatrical drama, Sheppey, 1933) is When Death Came to Baghdad, a ninth century Arabian Sufi story in the sage Fozayl ibn Ziyad’s so-called Hikayat-I-Naqshiyya (Stories-with-a-Design).A merchant in Baghdad sends his servant to the marketplace for provisions. Shortly, the servant comes home white and trembling and tells him that in the marketplace he was jostled by a woman, whom he recognized as Death, and she made a threatening gesture. Borrowing the merchant’s horse, the servant flees as fast as the horse can gallop to Samarra, a distance of about 75 miles where he believes Death will not find him. The merchant then goes to the marketplace and finds Death, and asks why she made the threatening gesture. She replies, ‘That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’
Let me record here: no such collection of stories is known to exist, nor does the adjective naqshiyya (from naqsh, ‘picture, drawing’) seem a likely contemporaneous construction. Nor is it possible that the sage recorded the fable since we have no surviving writings from this very early Sufi, who probably died about 803. Another problem is that this title is clearly in New Persian (i.e., in the Arabic script), which was not yet in literary use at the time of Fozayl ibn Ziyad, otherwise known as Fudail ibn Ayad or Al-Fudhayl bin Iyyadh.
This is a perfect fable, elegantly symmetrical, with a dramatic punch unequalled by most western fictionists. Yet its origin is cloaked in mystery, a condition of recognition that would have profoundly satisfied Borges.
As it is, the fable has been cited often as a parable of the powerlessness of mortals to escape their brute fate and, as to similar metaphysical resonances derived from eastern mysticism discernible in 20th Century popular American fiction, Appointment in Samarra is spoken of in the same breath as The Postman Always Rings Twice.
The Postman Always Rings Twice.This theme of the inescapability of fate finds contemporary expression in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the classic crime novel of 1934 by James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity. In a Borgesian paradox that outrivals the master, nowhere in the novel does a postman appear, nor is one even alluded to.
Cain, it is to be believed, had an explanation for the title saying it arose from a discussion with screenwriter Vincent Lawrence. According to Cain, Lawrence spoke of the anxiety he endured when waiting for the postman to bring news on a submitted manuscript — specifically noting that he would know when the postman had finally arrived because he always rang twice. Cain then seized upon the phrase as a title for his novel.
In their understanding of the phrase’s significance, the ‘postman’ represents Fate, and the ‘delivery’ represents the protagonist’s own death as just retribution for murdering his lover’s husband.
This echoes the Samarran second appointment with death, since in both cases the protagonist misses the first ‘ring’ by escaping retribution. However, Messenger Death ‘rings again’, and this time the ring is heard and Death’s Chosen are fated to die and be judged in purgatorial Echoville.
In the words of Alan Seeger (C1916) ...
*Footnote 31.08.13 : Oh dear. Once again originality fails me, because reading a biographical sketch of Jean Cocteau I learn that Cocteau founded the magazine, Schéhérazade, with Maurice Rostand and François Bernard in 1909.I have a rendezvous with Death ...
At midnight in some flaming town ...
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.