Nothing is Quite What it Seems

Excellent example of In Our Time yesterday. A discussion on “The Arabian Nights“; not an earth shatteringly significant subject you might think, and you might be right about the subject, though (like the programme makers it seems) I had expected some material I could link to “Anecdote” and the power of story telling – is there a more archetypical example ? But, the process of analyzing it academically and culturally was the real subject – the meta-subject of the show – and shows how little we really know. Melvyn Bragg’s own post-programme notes summarise that beautifully.

The programme this morning ought, on the surface, to have been a swish ride to the new worlds which percolated into Europe in the Middle Ages ” Chaucer, Boccaccio ” and then came in full flood with the translation of the 1001 Arabian Nights.

Instead what we ran into, I thought, was a most interesting example of scholarship. The fact seems to be (fact is a tough word in this context) that the origins of The Arabian Nights are genuinely obscure. Did they start in India?  What influence did Persia have  on them?  Did the Mamelukes take over?  What about other tales, nothing to do with The Arabian Nights, that were added?  Was the Scheherazade an authoring or a holding operation?

Gerard van Gelder was impish and wonderfully scholarly about this. -He seems to be a man who, apart from his great authority in the area, adores to surf among the footnotes.  This is indisputably charming, but when you are trying to push through a structure which seems to make sense on the page, it is a little tense.  His darting hither and yon meant that at one stage I thought we’d reached the end of the programme before we were halfway through!  On the other hand, his contribution was delightful.  He seems to me to be an academic totally untarnished by the media.  He doesn’t listen to anything that talks on the radio, he told me.  Music on Radio 3 is about the limit.

We had with us Robert Irwin, who is acknowledged as a world authority on The Arabian Nights which he demonstrated with an opening that was so masterly that I thought we were in for a fistful of gold medals.  We nearly were but the bug was the origin.  Ideas that I had garnered from the notes seemed too blunt an instrument from time to time.  We were in an area of nuance, speculation, counter-intuitiveness, all the delights of high scholarship.  Marina Warner sailed majestically to the rescue with her clarity and concluded for us, with perfect timing, on the story she liked best. It did feel a bit like a magic carpet trip.

Listening to vanGelder’s thought processes “surfing through the footnotes” as Melvyn put it, put me in mind of a previous quote about digression and the power of the discursive mind …. which I can’t quite place at the moment.

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