The Compass of Story – Eastern Bearings in Western Literature

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The Compass of Story – Eastern Bearings in Western Literature

(Voltaire; Goethe; Wilfrid Blunt, and Edward Said)
By Marina Warner

Written 2008

Published in   What is the West? Proceedings of conference at the Axxon Foundation, Stockholm, 2008.

When Jorge Luis Borges commented in an essay on The Arabian Nights: “One of the chief events in the history of the West was the discovery of the East,” his remark could seem just another reflex of Orientalism in its pejorative, complacent Western form. .1 But could Borges have been making a comment based on historical fact, and one which offers the possibility of movement towards mutual understanding? Is it possible that Borges’s perception throws light on an alternative history to the fable convenue, to use Voltaire’s phrase, about the conflicted relations between East and West?

Edward Said’s 1978 study, Orientalism, still provokes intense debate and even more intense hostility towards the author. Said wrote a great deal in the twenty-five years between that work and his death in 2003; in Culture and Imperialism and other essays, he returned to the arguments and evolved new ideas with different emphases. Orientalism was a book of its time, a consciously polemical blast in an era of clamorous political positions in the United States, where intellectuals were engaging with many issues of justice and injustice. It was also a necessary book, a gadfly work, stinging readers into new consciousness and debate. However, as must be repeated, it was one of many works by Said and it does not represent a rich and varied lifetime’s thinking. After all, one of the last essays he wrote was the introduction to the centenary reissue of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a monument of Western humanism. This book by an emblematic Jewish intellectual of broad learning, this glorious confident appreciation of the Western canon, had always inspired Said; and it mattered to him, as he pointed out, that the book was written in Ankara, where Auerbach had taken refuge during the Nazi era and the persecution of the Jews.
Such a meeting between East and West appealed to Said, who discussed rootless “cosmopolitan intellectuals” again in terms of universal humanist culture in his 1993 Reith Lectures. Though he always felt himself to be “out of place” (the title of his autobiography) , he was strongly attracted by displacements that brought one culture in contact with another. As a Palestinian brought up in Egypt and educated in the United States, where he became professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, he embodied such dislocations and contacts and demonstrated their potential; this was a different form of cultural colloquy from the version he called Orientalism in his early book. He was a translated man, between East and West and back again.
In a more recent, posthumous series of essays, On Late Style, Said writes: “Imperialism is the export of identity…”, but while the West exported its identity STET (and still does), he also discussed exchanges that have taken place under a different dynamic and in the opposite direction. The import-export metaphor, taken from commerce – indeed from maritime traffic – is apt in many ways. But it implies delivery and issue of goods that are themselves stable and unchanging, and this imagery does not convey the cultural exchanges involved in Western uses – and abuses – of the idea of the Orient and Orientalism. A different cluster of metaphors – borrowed from biology and husbandry, evoking processes of combination and recombination, involving cross-pollinated, and interfused elements – can be applied more richly. Above all, the term “translation”, the Latin for carrying across, itself analogous to the Greek-derived “metaphor”, can illuminate the way the imagination works in processes of cultural cross-pollination.
The identity of the West was actively shaped by the encounter with Arabic, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures in ways that have not been sufficiently explored or recognised, even when the European debt to Arabic science is remembered. The novel itself, prime exhibit of Western social and psychological inquiry and chief medium of Western self-depiction, was precipitated in its gestation towards new horizons of fantasy by sequences of tales, fashioned on the pattern of The Arabian Nights. Boccaccio in Florence with the Decameron, Chaucer in England with The Canterbury Tales, Straparola in Venice with Le Piacevoli Notti, Basile in Naples with Lo Cunto de li Cunti or Il Pentamerone drew on the stories of The Arabian Nights before their appearance in printed form. They learned from Oriental story-telling methods, introducing multiple oral traditions into their compendiums of tales, mingling high and low elements, and emphasising the vigour and restorative energy of narrative itself in ways that belong to the vernacular streams of story springing from The Arabian Nights. When the first editions of The Thousand and One Nights appeared in French and English translations at the beginning of the l8th century, the genre was already known, loved, and popular: these earlier chains of magic and fantastical tales paved the way for the enraptured reception of the Oriental tale throughout the Enlightenment, when Voltaire, Samuel Johnson and Mary Wortley Montagu, among others, adapted the form to its European guise. The conte philosophique, a kind of short fiction, applies the principle of “reasoned imagination” (in Borges’s happy phrase) to reflect on contemporary society. 2 These acts of imaginative intelligence are cast in the mould of The Arabian Nights, which after its appearance in Antoine Galland’s translation of l704, had a liberating, exhilarating effect on the imaginative intelligence of Western European writers.
In one of his sly, naughty tales in verse, What Pleases the Ladies, Voltaire writes about the power of story-telling: his heroine, a loathly lady, will turn out to be toute belle when given what she desires. She has Scheherazade’s gift of wit and ingenuity, pace and plotting, and is also a magical realist – Voltaire returns several times to the power of fable – of antic fables and fairy toys, and he concludes in mock solemnity:

And now they’ve banished spirits, fairies, too

Reason rules, a story must be true.
But the heart grows dull in a world of grey,
Where sense and logic may not brook demur,
And correctness is the order of the day.
Believe me when I say: it can be right to err.3

Voltaire learned the fantastic use of error from the Nights; he adopted with glee the pulp fiction character of the incident-strewn plots, the sudden and baffling reversals of boon and bane, and the alluring throng of genies, slaves, mutes, giants and dwarfs, alongside the caliphs and viziers of this world, whom he introduced in different disguises in Candide and other satirical missives addressed to his own contemporaries. Above all, he found in the Nights a vast ocean of stories that could refract all his chief concerns: tyranny and arbitrary law, injustice, superstition, idolatry and unthinking conformity, curtailment of speech, and enslavement – mental as well as physical. And not least, through the commitment of the Nights to the concept of Fate, he could confront and grasp the dominant dilemma of his philosophy: the role of Providence. Voltaire’s acerbic Oriental contes provide an obvious instance of the West putting on Eastern dress in order to examine itself more clearly.

The Fate that holds all in its invisible and unpredictable grasp – be it the Sultan who kills his wives in the famous framing story, or the Master of Magic, Solomon, who imprisons genies in bottles for thousands of years and flings them into the depths of the sea – this Fate becomes Voltaire’s target. He perfected a caustic form of Oriental tale to create an arena where he could deal with the question of divine care, as in the most famous of his contes, Candide (l759). Others are even more closely patterned on the sequenced adventures in the Nights and adopt the oriental stories’ characteristic figures of speech (hyperbole, bathos, facetiousness) to ironical ends: Zadig, or Destiny, subtitled A Tale of the Orient, is written in Voltaire’s light-fingered deadpan tone, very dry, very wry. Zadig ventriloquises the fairy-tale mode of Scheherazade, which uses fantasy to put the case for sweet reason. “How can thee possibly… prefer stories that make no sense and have no point?” asks Voltaire’s Sultan in the “epistle dedicatory” framing this tale. To which the Sultanas reply: “That is precisely why we do like them.”
This is double-edged: the fantastic makes sense and has a point but it moves surreptitiously, with cunning. At the end of Zadig, the youthful, wise, beautiful paragon hero is led by an angel in disguise to see the workings of far-sighted Providence in the world. Jesrad the angel reveals to him its just purposes along Leibnizian lines; but even when the angel has put on his greatest burst of eloquence, Zadig finds himself stammering out: “Mais…” That “but”, that faltering objection to the exhibition of Western metaphysical rationality, is spoken by a stock ingénu from Oriental fabulism, the hapless, put-upon hero. This type of Everyman from the Nights acts as Voltaire’s alter ego and mouthpiece. Through fantastication taken to preposterous extremes, Voltaire’s contes set the reader on the ground of scepticism, dissent – and laughter.
This is considered a classical position of enlightened Western discernment, so it is worth underscoring that it was shaped by the encounter of the West with the East: straining credulity to the point when sheer entertaining and invigorating inquiry breaks out characterises Scheherazade’s strategy as she goes on spinning a yarn night after night to save her life and the lives of all her fellow victims. She succeeds in opening the Sultan’s mind to an alternative vision of women and turns him from his blind vengeance.
Voltaire’s talent to amuse – and to provoke and oppose – possesses much subtlety and ambiguity, and so it is no surprise that in Le Taureau Blanc (The White Bull), one of his last contes philosophiques, he sympathises with the seductive, intelligent serpent in the Garden of Eden when he persuades Eve by his eloquence to eat of the fruit of knowledge.
With regard to the uses of the East in his tales, clear procedures emerge: changing perspective can open the eyes of the audience, both inside and outside the text, with the virtues of surprise and rapid impact. An unfamiliar angle of view on familiar conditions will lift the pall of dull custom and conventional values: seeing the Inquisition through the eyes of a stranger unmasks its hideous reasoning and vicious procedures. Montesquieu, in Lettres Persanes, used this device – the viewpoint of a foreign visitor – and Voltaire’s defamiliarisation technique follows this model. By playing on his readers’ assumptions about non-Western barbarity and inferiority and then presenting Western government, laws and society as superstitious, irrational and unjust, their rulers, judges, priests et al as if they were just such barbarians, Voltaire is able to skewer iniquities at home that exceed iniquities commonly denounced abroad (are the pyres of autos-da-fé in Spain any better than the judicial beheadings of the Ottomans?) Voltaire also adds positive comment to this ironical perspective: the Orient is important to Voltaire not only as a lens through which to observe his own society and its limits, its mores and prejudices, but in itself contains lessons to be learned. In Zadig, the hero comes upon a quarrel between believers from different faiths – each maintaining with threatening vehemence the superiority of the god or gods he worships. Zadig manages to calm them by demonstrating Voltaire-style that they are all deists (after a fashion) and unanimous in their fundamental faith. He thus perceived common threads between diverse cultures as well as distinctions that served his narrative ends of surprise and shock. In certain specific matters, Voltaire also chose to dramatise other civilisations’ laws and customs not only to lambaste the West but to point the way to social and medical reforms. For instance, he advocates inoculation against small-pox. It was Mary Wortley Montagu, one of his friends, herself disfigured by the disease, who introduced the practice into Europe after she travelled to Turkey on an embassy in 1716-18 and saw mothers, grandmothers, or nursemaidss introducing a scab into the nostrils of babies in order to protect them from the danger. (Of course, Voltaire’s advocacy of tolerance did not include official churches, and all clergy, Eastern and Western, came under his lash: his play Mahomet could certainly not be produced today without provoking tumult – and worse.)
The literary manoeuvres of impersonation and masquerade involve many later significant European writers in Eastern mimesis, also directly inspired by Oriental culture. In Germany in 1819, the Romantic poet Goethe published the West-östlicher Divan (the West-Eastern Divan, a long lyric sequence of love songs and drinking songs, which ventriloquises the medieval Persian poet Hafiz. In terms of East-West self-portraiture, it is significant that Edward Said and his close friend Daniel Barenboim turned to Goethe’s anthology when they named their youth orchestra. Under Barenboim’s direction, The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has become a celebrated music-making organisation, which unites players from all over the Arab world and Israel in the teeth of immense logistical difficulties (special visas and passports are needed to allow the players to travel).
The orchestra came into existence in Ramallah in the summer of l999; its establishment was politically heroic and anachronistic, and it remains so. Its existence brushed against the grain of so much in the region at that time, and its struggle to survive continues even more acutely now (the new war in Lebanon in 2006 severely tested the players). But both its founders markedly rejected interpreting the orchestra as a political body: in his 2006 Reith lectures Barenboim affirmed that the work of the orchestra was musical through and through. Although the communal involvement of playing together, he said, could figure as an allegory of unity-in-diversity that was not its purpose. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra does not belong to community arts projects; it is an intensely disciplined, working organisation that meets at a summer school each year to rehearse and to learn. As Said writes in his book On Late Style with regard to Richard Strauss, its ideal might be described as the will to live “at ease as music in an entirely musical world.”
The repertory of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra includes all the composers whom Said holds up for examination and praise in that book: late Beethoven, Strauss and Wagner – Wagner played in Israel, yes, not as provocation, but as music. Even more than the achievement of this orchestra’s existence and its quality of performance, the aspect of this imaginative and ambitious undertaking that illuminates Said’s rich ideas of lateness radiates from its name: the name that it acquired from the moment of inception and that was never debated or changed. The West-Eastern Divan embodies the orchestra’s vision.
Goethe’s poems, composed in the intense lyric tradition of Arabic classical literature, are lushly Orientalising in character. Yet this imitativeness was not understood by Said as imperialist in character: Goethe’s cycle represents an alternative Orientalism, born of the historical cross-pollination that has occurred between East and West - here was a body of Orientalist poetry that could give its name to the new orchestra, the remarkable and visionary fruit of Said’s last years and of his own late phase, produced during his protracted struggle with death over nearly ten years.
Goethe had come across translations – some of the very first into a European language – of the Persian lyric poet Hafiz from the fourteenth century and had fallen entirely in love with his work. Or at least these are the enraptured terms that Goethe felt captured the intensity of his response:

And though the whole world sink to ruin, I will emulate you, Hafiz, you alone! Let us, who are twin spirits, share pleasure and sorrow! To love like you, and drink like you, shall be my pride and my life-long occupation.

Now, oh my song, speak forth with fire of your own! For you are both older and younger than his. 4

Goethe was sixty-five when he discovered this exhilarating fresh elective affinity with Arabic poetry – with Rumi as well as Hafiz and the tradition’s lyrics, paeans, revenge-songs and epigrams. But of course the lateness in this work doesn’t depend on his hoary head and beard, but on several qualities, as diagnosed by Edward Said, which are evident in that ecstatic panegyric he wrote to Hafiz.

First, in these lines different temporalities collide and fuse: the fourteenth century medieval Arabic poet passes through the mediumship of translators – Joseph von Hammer in Stuttgart and Tübingen, and Sir William Jones in England – both of whom had rendered Hafiz only a short time before. Goethe was very quick indeed in taking up the possibilities – and the challenge – of this hitherto unknown body of literature. As Goethe writes to Hafiz, the song he makes in response to his new “twin spirit” takes on a life of its own, out of time, both older and younger. This quality of singing literature refers in the German tradition to vernacular forms that inspired Goethe to compose some of his most effective, dazzling poems – such as the Erl-King, set by Schubert – ballads, curses, spells, tales, dirges, lullabies, serenades and other kinds of love song. In this interest, Goethe was also out of time – indeed David Luke, the translator and editor of his poems, comments that he was not so much a pioneer of Romanticism or a belated emulator of his younger English contemporaries, but unaware of them: “The odd historical position of Goethe,” he writes, “is that he had, in certain important senses, repudiated romanticism in advance, before it had properly got under way – certainly before it was ever called ‘romanticism’.” The elements of Romanticism that Goethe rejected connect to belatedness as discussed by Said: late style, according to his view, is marked by a turn away from moral gravitas, direct advocacy and unified subjectivity; it involves a degree of letting go, giving rise to unexpected changes of direction, to inconsistency, experiment, ‘anachronism and anomaly’. 5

Secondly, Goethe understands this poetry precisely as song: words take wing, as Schubert said of the Lied, and fly free of the ruinous world into an aesthetic, fiery ether of passion – of love and sorrow. Literature here struggles to free itself from constraints of reference, meaning, and even sense, into a wordless state of transport (even of self-annihilation). One of the most famous poems, “Song and Form”, describes this new strain of music as a shaping of the fluid waters of the Euphrates into a sphere:

We let our hands

With ravishment

Sweep through Euphrates’

Liquid element.

The soul’s brand slaked,

A song resounds

The poet cups his hand,

The water rounds. 6

Jaroslav Stetkevych, in a fine essay on early Western variations on Arabic literature, comments that the poet “opts for the song, for the validity of the lyrical, for the expressive against the mimetic”.7

Thirdly, most crucially, as well as most obviously, the twinning of kindred spirits forges a bond across languages as well as time and genre: between East and West – as the title of the cycle conveys. Goethe was pursuing his vast vision of Weltliteratur; this was writing as eclectic, cross-pollinated and irreverently experimental technically: for example, Goethe with great glee adapted the form of the “so-called Mohammedan rosary in which Allah’s name is glorified through 99 attributes…” in order to compose a cycle of love songs to Suleika – a litany of praise to the beloved.8 At this early point in the history of the cultures’ encounter, Stetkevych points out, “Arabic poetry was admitted in an unmitigated way into European literary sensibility both practically-experientially and theoretically as a tributary to already existing or newly evolving poetics.” This scholar distinguishes this movement from the study of the culture as a form of scientific ethnography designed to contain and control it, which developed along a different path and at a later stage.9

But the traffic was not only one way; as also happens in the transmission of The Arabian Nights, Arabic writers later revisited the literary variations that Goethe had introduced into their lyric tradition, and retranslated his translations.

Goethe was someone who threw himself into any number of subjects and sciences – he was a scientist and a botanist, a mineralogist and a meteorologist and a dedicated and eccentric student of optics and colour theory. His enthusiasm for the literature of the Middle East inspired him to contact Orientalists and even to learn Persian (he acquired enough Arabic script to pen two or three poems for his lyric collection in the manner of Hafiz). He does not present himself as originating the poems so much as channelling them; he unfolds motifs and tropes from the lyric legacy of Arabic poetry: erotic, languishing, potent, full of deep stirrings of desire and passion, of roses, nightingales, the desire of the moth for the flame, but also humorous and lively in their extolling of nights of drinking – in one epigrammatic verse, Goethe scolds a waiter for pouring carelessly from a bottle of vintage l811 – a year which had produced a splendid wine. These are verses which make a virtue of the quality that Italo Calvino – in his own late thoughts in Six Memos for the Millennium – describes as leggerezza – lightness. Lightness does not have to be pliant or easy or smooth. It can be, as Edward Said argues in On Late Style, an “aesthetic of resistance”.

How does the name of the orchestra illuminate Said’s famous – and controversial – critique of Orientalism? How does Goethe escape the stigma to become, through his anachronistic conversation with Hafiz, the presiding genius of the new orchestra? I think the deep underlying affinity that late Said felt for late Goethe can be found in something Goethe wrote when he first encountered Hafiz’s poems:

All that was kept and harboured by me which was similar to it in material and spirit distinguished itself and did so with even more vehemence as I felt necessary to flee from the real world, which was threatening itself both openly and quietly, into an ideal world, in which a pleasurable role was entrusted to my desire, ability, and will.”10

This may sound close to Romantic escapist solipsism – as well as showing rather debased and flagrant symptoms of Said’s Orientalism. But it would be a mistake to leave it at that – or not to puzzle out how The West-Eastern Divan becomes for Said and for all of us now so much more than that. In his self-obliteration Goethe sinks himself into the being of Hafiz, and through him, takes his culture into self-dissolving relation with the Arabic tradition. Again and again in his thoughts on late style, Said is concerned with just such dissolutions of the self through instability, polyvocality, plurality and internal inconsistencies and discordance. For example, on Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, he writes: “Don Alfonso devises a game in which human identity is shown to be as protean, unstable, and undifferentiated as anything in the actual world.”11 And again, later, Said quotes Adorno on late Beethoven: “Touched by death the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the infinite powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.”12

Through such examples of mirroring, projection and exchanges of identity, the tangled and overworked concept of the Other can be unravelled and refreshed: the stand-off between Us and Them, built on the premise that “You are Other”, can be differently inflected by looking at this history. Rimbaud’s rebellious manifesto, Je est un Autre (I is an Other) echoes a far wider strategy than his enfant terrible reputation might lead one to expect. To imagine oneself as Other lies at the foundation of the most fertile explorations of the Western self and selfhood; this changed angle of view, extending the range of person and personhood through a variety of different cultural modes helped to put the questions about society and humanity that constitute the very ground of art and psychology in the West.
Alongside Voltaire’s Oriental contes and Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, an event in the history of British-Arab relations in Egypt provides a third example of translations between East and West as they operated in establishing European self-awareness. Known as “the fox-hunting episode”, it took place in the desert not far from Cairo, one Sunday in July l901.13 In the early hours of the first light, when the air was still fresh and the temperature had not yet risen in that torrid season, a group of English Hussars in mufti (civilian dress) rode up to the wall of the estate of Wilfrid Blunt near Heliopolis, and raised a fox. The pack of foxhounds had only recently arrived – imported – to increase the range of sporting activities available to the large number of British officers and troops who had been “protecting” the country since l888. This was one of the first – perhaps the first –meet to take place in Egypt. To the sound of the horn and no doubt a Tally Ho! or Tantivy! or two, the hounds ran through a gap in the wall and some of the huntsmen followed.
Blunt was an English gentleman adventurer, writer, political activist and horse-breeder; he spent the autumn and winter in Egypt, farming and raising his famous Arabian horses. The property was an extensive garden and plantation known as Sheykh Obeyd after the tomb of a prophet who was buried there, and the Blunts had come upon it by chance twenty years earlier while out riding in the desert on one of their early intrepid journeys exploring the region. The Sheik’s resting place stood in a former Khedival pleasance, a walled-in paradise of fruit trees, jessamine arbours, fountains, ponds and lawns that had fallen into neglect. The Blunts were able to buy it for a song; restored it and built a main house on the land with a smaller villa for guests. The staff camped in the grounds, Bedouin-style, under the palm trees.
Lady Anne Blunt was an outstanding horsewoman and a fluent speaker of Arabic; the grand-daughter of Lord Byron, she brought her husband the whole romantic and political heritage of that poet. Blunt was in many respects his natural successor: renowned for his looks, notorious for his loves, a man gifted with eloquence and energy, aristocratic and rich. But he also knowingly assumed the Byronic legacy, and his heroic anti-imperialist politics belonged in that tradition. Both of the Blunts dressed in Bedouin costume when living at Sheykh Obeyd and gave their guests the same to wear.
Blunt was away on his English estates, where he spent the summers, when he received a telegram informing him that his stud manager and two guards had been arrested and were now in prison, charged with assault. He moved promptly and vigorously to defend them and obtain their release, writing to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and sending a fusillade of letters to the papers. Through blood and wealth, he had all the necessary connections and the incident received huge publicity. But none of it had any effect on the state of his staff, still suffering the law’s delays and life in the cells.
What had happened was that as soon as the pack entered the grounds of Sheykh Obeyd, the stable staff were roused and met the huntsmen with sticks and loud protest and began to beat them back out of the garden. They were, wrote Blunt, under absolute instructions not to allow anything to disturb the brood mares that were kept in the stables there. The Egyptian fox, he continued, was a pet, the equivalent of an English cat, and excellent for catching rats and wholly unsuitable for fox-hunting, English-style. He also deplored the custom of Europeans – Greeks and Italians especially – of shooting migratory birds and he always left his servants under strict orders that any sportsmen with guns found wandering on his land should be summarily confronted and turned off it.
He had scathing words, too, for the British inability – or was it reluctance? – to provide adequate policing of foreigners’ behaviour, their habitual trespassing on Arab territories and other abuses of the local people. “I should personally be most glad to be relieved from the burden of this necessity [of guarding his own property]” he wrote, “but while the Executive remains as weak as it is against lawlessness, especially European lawlessness, everyone living outside the town has in the first instance to defend his own head.”
A lively correspondence flew back and forth in the diplomatic bags and in the newspapers. Blunt had gone native, wore Arabian dress and behaved like a pasha, inveighed his detractors; he was notoriously uncivil to ramblers and harmless sportsmen out for a day’s fun; more seriously, his withering denunciation of Egyptian law courts and their subservience to British interests was groundless. Blunt’s head groom and the two others remained in goal for the duration of these exchanges. When the sentences were eventually reduced, as it turned out, they had already served them – and more. Lord Cromer, the effective ruler of Egypt at the time, did not send the pack of hounds back to England, but he did advise restraint, forbade hunting on Sundays and requested that respect be shown for property.
So, Blunt’s friends and enemies agreed in one respect: his sympathies lay with the locals, against the occupying powers. He took the side of Arab servants against His Majesty’s officers (Queen Victoria died in 1901) when they had raised their hands against their superiors; he adopted the customs of the tribe in another place and another setting in full and outspoken admiration.
The fox-hunting in Cairo incident was a minor affair. But as Blunt saw, it contains in germ the structures of contempt and arrogance, ignorance and casual discrimination that ramify through conflicts of much greater importance, then and in the future. Blunt was far-sighted when he argued that such behaviour revealed the injustice and the folly of British imperialist attitudes and cultural assumptions. In his Bedouin dress, acting on behalf of his tribal servants, with his stud farm of Arabian brood mares, his Khedivial pleasance, and his expertise in Arabic and Arab customs, Blunt advocated autonomy for Egypt (in the same way as he supported Home Rule for Ireland). His case demonstrates that a Victorian millionaire from the most traditional stratum of the ruling class was capable of adopting a radically different viewpoint. His Orientalism was not a mode of colonising but exemplifies the way translation into another culture and another persona inspired self-identification and loyalty. For every regiment of Hussars who went fox-hunting on others’ land regardless, there was someone – a writer or artist or thinker – who was trying to oppose their casual trespasses.
Blunt’s larger vision of the catastrophic course of British imperialism was ignored. Five years later, a group of British sportsmen out shooting in the Delta began picking off tame pigeons raised by local fellahin – peasant farmers – for market. The fellahin resisted the huntsmen and a riot broke out during which one of the British men was killed. In the swift judicial reprisals, the British court hanged four of the peasants and sentenced forty-eight others to various exemplary penalties, including four public hangings and several public floggings.14 As Voltaire had dramatised so swingeingly in Candide, this way of encouraging others was not clever – setting aside the question of justice. The ‘Dinshawai Incident’ of June l906 became a landmark on the road to Egyptian independence, a cautionary example of imperial excess expounded to every schoolchild in Egypt, like the Boston Tea Party in 1773 or the storming of the Dublin Post Office in l916.
Wilfrid Scawen Blunt is the kind of singular aesthete and adventurer who punctuates the unfolding story of European thought: a sultan-like figure out of The Arabian Nights, as he knew and wanted to convey, but one with prescient anti-imperialist views and a deep knowledge of Egypt and the Middle East. Like Said, he, ltoo, was someone who was ‘ translated’, belonging in both East and West, imaginatively invested in more than one language, culture, and place, and profoundly questioning of expected political and cultural every context.
The Arabian Nights is in itself a work of translation and interweaving: many languages, voices and hands have worked on its making, between oral story-telling in the bazaar to the many recensions and variations that have followed in every medium (dance, opera, film, as well as literature). Translations have been a major force in connecting East and West: one of the products of this encounter and exchange has been the uncoupling of imagination from belief: not the way of the Bible or of the Koran, but the way of The Arabian Nights and the lyric poet Hafiz: freedom to speak and freedom to delight.


Husain Haddawy, (trans), The Arabian Nights, 2 Vols (New York: W W Norton, 1990 and l995).
Robert L. Mack (ed) Arabian Nights Entertainments, from original anon trans of 1708, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Wilfrid Blunts Egyptian Garden/Fox-Hunting in Cairo, (London: The Stationery Office, 1999).
Hendrik Birus, “Goethe’s Approximation of the Ghazal and its Consequences”, in Ghazal as World Literature I: Transformations of a Literary Genre, Th. Bauer and A. Neuwirth (eds), BeiruterTexte und Studien 89, 2005, pp. 415-429.
Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights: Lectures, trans Eliot Weinberger, (London: Faber & Faber, 1984).
Jorge Luis Borges, The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922-1986, ed, Eliot Weinberger, (London: Penguin, 1999).
Goethe, West-Östlicher Divan (The West-Eastern Divan) in Goethe, Selected Verse, intro and ed David Luke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964, 1986).
Wolfhart Heinrichs, “Ta’Abbata Sharran, Goethe, Shakir”, in Reflections on Reflections, ed Angelica Neuwirth and Andreas Christian Islebe (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2006), pp. 191-249.
Jamel Eddine Bnecheikh and Andre Miquel (ed and trans), Les Mille et une Nuits, Vol 1: Nuits 1 á 327, (Paris: La Pleiade, 2005).
Elizabeth Longford, Passionate Pilgrimage: The Life of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979).
The Earl of Lytton, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt – A Memoir by his Grandson, (London: Macdonald l961).
Roger Pearson, The Fables of Reason: A Study of Voltaire’s Contes Philosophiques (Oxford: Oxford University Press, l993).
Edward W. Said, On Late Style, ed Michael Wood, (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).
Edward W. Said, Orientalism, (New York: Random House, 1978).
Edward W. Said, Out of Place, (London: Granta,1999).
Jaroslav Stetkevych, “Arabic Poetry and Assorted Poetics”, in Malcolm Kerr (ed), Islamic Stuides: A Tradition and its Problems, (Malibu: Undena, 1980) pp. 103-123.
Voltaire, Candide and Other Stories, ed and trans Roger Pearson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

I am grateful to Mariam Said for background material on The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and am greatly indebted to Philip Kennedy, from the Dept of Middle-Eastern Studies, New York University, for guidance to critical material on The West-Eastern Divan by Goethe, to Akeel Bilgrami, Heyman Centre of the Humanities, Columbia University, and Michael Wood, Dept of English, Princeton University, for inviting me to take part in the symposium at Columbia University where this essay has its origins. I thank them very much indeed for their help.


Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights: Lectures, trans Eliot Weinberger ( London: Faber & Faber, 1984) p. 42.

2 Jorge Luis Borges, Prologue to Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, trans. Ruth L.C. Simms (New York: New York Review Books, 2003), pp 5-7:7..

3 Voltaire, Candide and Other Stories, ed and trans Roger Pearson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 178-189.

4 Goethe, “Unbegrenzt (Uncircumscribed)”, in Goethe, Selected Verse, intro and ed David Luke, (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1964, 1986), p. 237.

5 Michael Wood, introduction to Edward Said, On Late Style, ed. Michael Wood (London: Bloomsbury, 2006) p. xiii.

6 Goethe, “Lied un Gebilde (Song and Form)”, ibid, p. 236.

7 Jaroslav Stetkevych, “Arabic Poetry and Assorted Poetics”, in Malcolm Kerr (ed), Islamic Stuides: A Tradition and its Problems, (Malibu: Undena, 1980) pp. 103-123:104.

8 Goethe, “Dschelaleddin Rumi”, from The West-Eastern Divan, quoted in Hendrik Birus, “Goethe’s Approximation of the Ghazal and its Consequences”, in Ghazal as World Literature: Transformations of a Literary Genre I, Th. Bauer and A. Neuwirth (eds), BeiruterTexte und Studien 89, p. 424, 2005.

9 Jaroslav Stetkevych, “Arabic Poetry and Assorted Poetics”, in Malcolm Kerr (ed), Islamic Studies: A Tradition and its Problems, (Malibu: Undena, 1980), p. 113.

10 Goethe, Annals, 1815, quoted in Birus, op cit, p. 419.

11 Edward Said, On Late Style, ed Michael Wood (London: Bloomsbury, 2006) p. 66.

12 Ibid, pp. 10-12.

13See [Tim Coates, ed.], Wilfrid Blunt’s Egyptian Garden/Fox-Hunting in Cairo (London: The Stationery Office [1901]/Uncovered Editions, 1999).

14 See Harry Adès, A Traveller’s History of Egypt (MOreton in Marsh: Chastleton Travel, 2007), p. 299.

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