I first came across Marina Warner’s books in Alberto Manguel’s personal library, an extraordinary collection housed in a renovated medieval presbytery not so far from Poitiers. In the main room, entirely lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves, amid comfy chairs and elegant reading lamps, I came upon a hardback copy of From the Beast to the Blonde, Warner’s classic study on fairy tales and their often female tellers. I was there with colleagues from the Pompidou Center, preparing a program of events with and around Manguel, whose own books include The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, The Library at Night, and A History of Reading. We invited Warner for a panel on The Thousand and One Nights with Moroccan writer and scholar Abdelfattah Kilito. She was already at work on a book that would be published four years later, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. In the lecture hall, in French, she showed many images and made them speak according to an associative logic of the imaginary that was as fruitful and exciting as it was rigorous and wide ranging. In Stranger Magic, as well as in her previous book Phantasmagoria, Warner studies the continuing significance of “magical thinking” in a modern (Western) culture that fashions itself rationalist and secular.
Warner is a believer in the power of stories to forge destinies. She has authored several subtly erudite works of fiction; her scholarly essays, meanwhile, read like fast-paced digressive detective novels. A few days before meeting her for the first time, I happened to be interviewing Doris Lessing in her London home. When we were finished I asked if she knew Marina Warner. “Of course I know Marina,” she said. “But I can’t keep up with her. Nobody can.”
I have had the good fortune to see Warner on numerous occasions since then, and I have struggled to keep up. To have a conversation with her is to set out on a journey into the dizzying enthusiasms of a mind that is curious about everything, in particular her interlocutor’s projects and ideas.
One morning in late 2012, I went to London to interview her at her home in Kentish Town. She made coffee and gave me scones and yogurt and fruit for breakfast before the interview, and took me out to lunch afterward: ciabatta for her, tagliatelle for me, with tiramisu for two. Here is some of what was said in between.
Marina Warner: So what do you want to do in London today? Because there’s a lot on, you know. Apparently, the show Bronze at the Royal Academy is just beautiful. It’s looking at bronze across all different eras and cultures, so you’d have Chinese Tang statues juxtaposed with works from elsewhere at the same period. And it has the Dancing Satyr, the one they found in the sea off the coast of Sicily.
Omar Berrada: What is it?
MW: It’s a wonderful story actually. In Mazara del Vallo, some fishermen set out — I’m afraid they do evil deep-sea trawling, just throwing out their dredge nets and hauling up everything from the bottom — and somewhere between Sicily and North Africa they found a bronze statue. As they brought it up one of the legs fell off, and it went back down again to the bottom of the sea. So they had the torso, and this wonderful head, flung back with the hair streaming. The eyes are still in, they’re kind of obsidian, inset. It’s a very extraordinary look. Anyway, they saw the leg go down and they went back to get it, and they found it. It’s one of the great wonders of antiquity. It’s like the Riace bronzes, which they also found in the sea.
OB: What did the fishermen do once they found it?
MW: They’ve made a museum for it. In Mazara del Vallo, which is a very obscure, poverty-stricken, probably mafia-ridden port in southern Sicily. That coast, the Trapani Coast, is full of mafiosi. Anyway, they’ve made a little museum for it, which is fantastic, so they’re bringing tourists.
OB: And no genie came out of the fallen leg?
MW: No — but of course there is a way in which these things bring the past back very startlingly. I suppose it was encrusted with barnacles; they had to clean it. But it is amazingly well preserved. It is from the fifth century BC, or perhaps fourth century, that great period of bronze casting. And it was probably on its way to a Dionysiac temple on one of the great, rich North African estates when it went down in a shipwreck. So that’s the connection, an old connection, across the Mediterranean. And of course the cult of Dionysus was thought of as Eastern. He’s meant to come from Thrace, and the whole way that his cult is portrayed is about how the periphery energizes the mainstream.
The Mediterranean connection has been important in literary history, too. I can’t pretend to be the least bit knowledgeable about Arabic poetry, but I’ve listened to Geert Jan van Gelder lecture about the single end-rhyme as well as the intricate internal rhymes and overall structure. The sonnet, which begins in Southern Italy then travels to Southern France, is meant to be related to the Ghazal. They’re not identical in structure but they’re close, and there’s apparently quite a lot of work being done on patterns of transmission of these lyric forms through Sicily and North Africa.
OB: Have you read about the discovery, or rediscovery, of the Muwashshah? It’s a poetic form made out of separate stanzas with a complex rhyme scheme, as opposed to the classical Arabic poem composed of a straight succession of lines with a single end-rhyme throughout. Muwashshahs were being written in Al-Andalus as early as the tenth century. What was “discovered” a few decades ago were about seventy manuscripts of muwashshahs whose last two lines (also called kharja, exit) are in a different language than the Classical Arabic of the rest of the poem — usually vernacular Arabic, though also Romance or a mixture of the two — transcribed into Arabic or Hebrew letters. (Some of the muwashshahs are in Hebrew.) This discovery created a philological stir, as it is believed to be the first poetic corpus in a vernacular Romance language. That is to say before the Occitan lyrics of love and chivalry composed by the troubadours and sung in the courts of medieval Southern France. And the Muwashshah is supposed to have perhaps traveled and influenced the troubadours.
MW: That’s interesting because in some Medieval Latin lyric poems, where the person speaking is generally meant to be either Mary or Jesus, there’s a mixture of Latin and vernacular, which creates a kind of intensity as you move from one plane to another; it sharpens your sense of something actually happening, and of somebody actually speaking. When they break into another language, you hear them more clearly. Some of the laments of Mary after Christ’s death take that form — some of the Stabat Mater hymns, as she weeps for him, they sometimes mix French or Provencal or Italian into the Latin. Do you know Peter Dronke’s work? He’s a leading medieval poetry scholar, very fine. He was one of the first feminist critics. He wrote a celebrated book called Women Writers of the Middle Ages back in the Sixties. As well as a book called Verse with Prose from Petronius to Dante about texts that mix poetry and prose, like Dante’s La Vita Nuova, where there’s a prose narrative about, say, the state of his soul, and then these wonderful lyrics come in as the crystallization of the prose narrative.
OB: I should read that.
MW: It’s actually a shame that he doesn’t know Arabic. He knows almost every other language. And he’s very much a Warburgian. They have a very good Arabic Studies Center at the Warburg Institute, you know. Charles Burnett is the leading scholar there for Arabic medical manuscripts. Do you know him? He’s a fascinating man.
OB: Might I have seen his name in Cabinet?
MW: No, that’s D. Graham Burnett, the biologist. He’s brilliant, much younger. Charles must be my age. No, D. Graham Burnett is the one who wrote that beautiful piece about otoliths, the oscillating bone in the fishes’ forehead that allows them to sense where they’re going. I’d never thought of this problem, because underwater there’s no light, so though they have eyes, there’s nothing for them to see by until they get near the surface. So when they’re in the dark they navigate by this kind of gimbal inside their head.
OB: We seem to be underwater today. First the shipwrecked statue off the Sicilian coast and now fish anatomy. Have you written much about the great depths?
MW: No, I haven’t, though I’ve written a lot about water, actually. For a time I had a slight feeling of nominal destiny. I was partly called after Marina in Pericles, the Shakespeare play, and then T. S. Eliot wrote this wonderful poem, you know, “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands… / What images return / O my daughter,” which was also inspired by Pericles. And the Pericles story is all about shipwrecks. Marina, the baby, is lost at sea and then found again by Pericles. And actually my novel Indigo is all about water.
OB: And, it’s based on a Shakespeare play…
MW: Yes, it’s based on The Tempest. It’s got several drownings and such that follow the play. So… I haven’t been so very marine recently, but for a while I was. I do collect shells.
OB: Where do you find them?
MW: I can show you, I’ve got my collection downstairs. I also collect stones. I like natural things. For years I wanted a giant scallop, and the other day I found one. A lot of these things are protected now, quite rightly. When I first started you could buy extraordinarily beautiful things. My favorite present to give people used to be a seahorse. They cost twenty pence or something — in those days it was probably a florin — in a little shop that sold straw and raffia and natural products of that kind. For a long time I wanted to write about seahorses, because the male carries the baby. A friend of mine, Viktor Wynd, has a shop that’s very strange, called Little Shop of Horrors. He sells taxidermy, stuffed things, among others. He found a consignment of scallops; at one point the Chinese decided they would farm them, as a sort of export experiment. It seems not to have been a success. But they are so beautiful, and enormous, and very heavy, too. And the idea that inside this, there was something eating and breathing… . You can’t believe it.
OB: Before I forget — do you know that, at your prompting, Sarah Riggs and I have been reading poems from A Thousand and One Nights together and attempting English translations of them? It’s been fascinating to work on texts with such apparent formal rigidity and such metaphorical invention at once. There is always the risk of falling flat with the English versions — we’re working on the love poems, so there are a lot of tears, and everyone is always dying of love, and every woman’s face is like the moon.
MW: Yes, but the moon in different phases! Sometimes it’s the new moon, with its promise, and sometimes it’s the full moon in its beauty… . That sense of the very tight structure, within which there are infinite variations and repetitions. It’s like carpets — each one is different, but part of the pleasure is the recognition of the familiar; the return of the motifs. It’s a little like the art of the fugue, also. Think of Bach, or the Diabelli Variations. It’s interesting because it’s the same and not the same.
OB: There’s still room for surprise. It’s also interesting to note the range of personae that are given voice in the poems: mothers, fathers, lovers; lamenting, rejoicing, being anxious, etc.
MW: And the mothers are given these intense songs of sorrow and anxiety, full of the sense that something might have happened to your child — rather than something has happened to your child — and also the idea of warding off disaster by imagining it, in order to contain it. I can’t think of many examples of that kind of mental state in Western poetry, though it is a very common human state. It is striking in the tale of Hassan of Basra, for instance. At the same time it’s obviously formulaic, rather than an interior psychological exploration of the kind that Shakespeare is so brilliant at — you can feel the mind tracking its own anxieties in Shakespeare. Obviously it isn’t like that in the Nights, but what’s interesting to me is the range of states that are identified and then given formulaic expression. For instance, female desire — sexual desire — does not get much good press in the West before, well, D. H. Lawrence. I mean, many people say he is a misogynist, but he does actually allow women to have sexual desire, whereas before that — if you look at something like Venus and Adonis, she’s portrayed as sort of disgusting in her passion for Adonis, almost monstrous. This is also true of Phaedra and many others. Zulaikha’s love for Yusuf in the Bible is portrayed as absolutely sinful and characteristically female — you know, treacherous, because of course she denounces him, but also just in itself, illegitimate, illicit lust. Whereas in the Qur’an, the same thing happens, but she’s forgiven because when she reveals how handsome he is everyone understands that this is something that might happen. And that’s very different. The understanding that these are human springs of passion… . I like that in the Nights the heroines are often intrepid and brave, but also rapturously in love, and will do anything for their beloved, and it’s not seen to be something disgusting.
OB: But aren’t women’s lustful treasons the very premise of A Thousand and One Nights? I am thinking of the frame story that opens the book. The king brothers Shahryar and Shahzaman are both betrayed by their wives. And then when they venture out together they meet a woman who “forces” them to sleep with her, and to give her tokens of her conquest — their rings, to add to the 570 she’s already collected from other men!
MW: Yes, but she was abducted by the Jinni on her wedding day, put into a glass box and carried off by him. And her sleeping with these men is a rebellion against the Jinni that is holding her captive. This is a story of capture and oppression — there is a sense of threat running through the book, that if you treat people badly you will yourself be treated badly. And certainly the whole of the rest of the stories are about undoing the king’s vengeful rage, about Shahryar realizing that he jumped to conclusions and didn’t understand the complexity of human nature. In fact a lot of the stories in the Nights are about not immediately chopping someone’s head off! And of course generally there’s something so lurid, so abject and dreadful in certain portrayals of treacherous women and vengeful men that one wonders if there isn’t an undertow of skepticism, a kind of transaction with the listener or with the reader, that they might perceive it as exaggerated. You learn to think twice about what you might be seeing or hearing; there’s always a play of illusion. Is the person in front of you a boy or a girl? Is the monkey a monkey… or perhaps not a monkey but a prince in disguise? Are the gazelles gazelles, or are they girls?
OB: A suspension of belief…
OB: Isn’t there also a sense of willed clunkiness produced by the book’s cobbling together different versions of each story? And by the travels of the stories from teller to teller and then from teller to manuscript?
MW: And the manuscripts that have served as a basis for the Arabic print editions that we know were all transformed in the process. Same goes for the translations: Antoine Galland, the first translator and disseminator of the Nights in Europe, took a lot of liberties with the manuscripts he worked from. So we’re looking at it through a series of different lenses. The whole thing is an extraordinary process — and because it’s prose, it is subject to more fluidity than, say, Homer. Because verse holds things tighter. Music, too: music might well get transmitted more accurately because though you can change the interpretation, but not the tune. You know, since I wrote Stranger Magic, I’ve got more interested in this fantastic Florence Dupont book.
OB: The Invention of Literature?
MW: Yes, I think it was you who told me about it. She has this model of logos and mythos, which is not a contrast between oral and written but between two types of text. The logos text is institutional, legal, like habeas corpus or the Magna Carta or the length of a meter; whereas literature is mythos, a much more fluid expression, which is carried on the voice, though it remains textual. Mythos is a text in a state of constant metamorphosis, not least because it’s transactional; it’s performed, not enshrined. It’s something that happens between you and me, or between the audience in the theater and the cast of characters on stage. It is very elusive, very hard to trap — and doesn’t get trapped, except when print comes in. That’s Florence Dupont’s point: when print comes in we get a different concept of the canonical text, which turns literature into logos. So that books are tombs of sorts or, as she says, “death masks.” And she has a sort of metaphysical idea that the whole notion of the voice in the mythos, after print, is about reanimating the dead. So we’re back in a way to Dionysus, the Dancing Satyr of Dionysus lost and found under the sea. You make this leap across time — this object comes back from time— and you could say that Dionysiac theater is a way of trying to make the past actually become present again. You know, these mysteries that happened in the past, these tragedies that happened in the past — you try and recover them by performing them, by giving them voice. Because they think that that satyr was probably part, as I said, of a temple, but that temple would’ve also been part of a theater.
OB: But isn’t this something you’ve been working on in almost all your books? I found this quote in Managing Monsters: “Every telling of a myth is a part of that myth, there is no Ur-version, no authentic prototype, no pure account.”
MW: It is true that a lot of the literature that I’ve always loved is this literature that does not exist in a fixed text. But that’s also because I can’t read it in the original! When I first encountered the Epic of Gilgamesh, it spoke to me so vividly — and of course I can only read it in modern languages. We had this conference last year called “Smatterings” — like having a smattering of Babylonian, or a smattering of Greek. I was saying that people are much too hung up on knowing a language thoroughly, on speaking it fluently. Because actually there’s a huge pleasure in having a fragmentary grasp of a language. It may not get you a job, but it can get you musical pleasure and a sense of imaginative possibilities. One of the scholars who came to this conference works on Babylonian and people would say to him, “Well, what did it sound like?” And of course we don’t know… but he decided that he would try and perform it. And now there’s a website, you can go and listen to the Epic of Gilgamesh in Old Babylonian, and it’s had thousands of hits, I mean, it went sort of completely viral. Actually what he did was, he asked people who spoke various languages to read the text aloud in their own accents. So he’s got an Italian reading it aloud, and a German reading it, and an Arabic speaker reading it, so that you can hear it with different sounds. It’s metric, you know, so you get a sort of rhythm, and each time it sounds different yet similar. So he revived the sound of the Epic of Gilgamesh!
How about we go up to my study now? Would you like to see it?
MW: It’s a terrible mess. Always trying to do too many things at once. You could sit in this nice chair…
OB: There are so many images on these walls!
MW: Well, I’ve been here a long time.
OB: How long have you been in this house?
MW: Thirty years. A bit longer actually, I’ve been here thirty-three years now. I had to put blinds up. The books had begun to fade. One day I realized that I knew them by their covers, and that I was in danger of losing things, as it were. Because I was looking for a yellow book, or a green book… and they were all turning white! Apparently, that’s a trace memory from when we were hunters. The orientation memory is quite strong, so you remember that something was on the left, and it was green… That’s apparently a very old part of the brain.
OB: From hunting?
MW: From remembering that, you know… catching the glimpse of the… streaking past the… of the brown deer, or the red fish… But it’s also the orientation thing, that’s apparently to do with the older memory. Because it’s true that when you can’t remember something, often the first clue that you have is where you were at the time you’re trying to remember. I mean, you may not remember it right, it may be a false memory, but you kind of think, Yes, I was — wait a minute — I was at… . When I can’t remember someone I met and where I met them exactly, the first thing that comes back is what position I was in in the room… and then I can sometimes bring the room back, and then the face back.
OB: Just like a memory theater.
MW: That’s right. You have to put it in a room. Speaking of which, I have these bookcases arranged by topic. This is my Thousand and One Nights bookcase. This one is because my essays on art are being collected at the moment, to be published in two volumes, and I am writing introductions. This one’s for my next book, Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction.
OB: How about the novel you were writing? The one that’s set in Cairo…
MW: Here are the things connected to that, but I haven’t been able to get back to it, unfortunately. It’s got a bit untidy, look at this! It’s been a while since I’ve been able to return to it. My plan is to try to finish all the things that I’m commissioned to do, and then I will be free to write the novel.
OB: Does that ever happen?
MW: I’ve been saying no, so… the Very Short Introduction book was commissioned seven years ago, so I’m really late with it, really, really late. So I thought I’d get that out of the way, but it’s possible that it’s a psychological delaying tactic, and I just can’t write a novel again. I’m worried about that. But anyway, I’m trying to say no to things. And I have succeeded, but I’ve got a number of things that I’ve said yes to that are keeping me pinned down.
OB: So where shall we start the conversation about your novel-in-progress?
MW: On Tahrir Square! Because at the beginning of the recent uprisings the demonstration was called for January 25, wasn’t it? And that was the anniversary of the day when the free officers rose up against the king, in 1952. That’s when all the foreign commercial interests were attacked, including my father’s bookshop. Though it was attacked very late in the day, it was a sort of afterthought, I imagine, because it was a bookshop. The main attacks of those riots on January 25, 1952, were against the Rolls-Royce Showroom, Barclays Bank, the British Council, Shepheard’s Hotel — the central postcolonial interests exploiting the situation. There weren’t many fatalities; I think there were two, and one of them was at Shepheard’s Hotel. And then, toward the end of the day, Edward Said’s father’s shop, which was the Palestinian Stationery Supply Company — which is still there, I mean not the same shop, of course, but you can still see the art deco building — and my father’s bookshop, which was just round the corner in the same part of modern downtown Cairo. They were sacked and burned. I think it’s not really fully understood what happened in 1952, though.
OB: Is this something you have researched extensively?
MW: Well, I’m not going to write a historical novel of that kind, because actually there have been some wonderful Egyptian novels about history, and it would be very hard for me to learn it. It’s very, very tangled and complex. The Mahfouz Trilogy is a fantastic historical reconstruction, as well as being a marvelous novel of emotions and psychology. I’m going to do a slightly different kind of a book, but I need to know the history in order to do it. And I’ve always been interested in long perspectives, and I’m interested in North Africa as a part of the world that has been fought over since Carthage, since Rome thought Carthage was its greatest enemy. And in a novel you could have a sense of the deep memory of things coming through. I’m not so interested in ancient Egypt, actually. I mean, I think it’s beautiful and everything, but I’m more interested in the history of the Mediterranean as a place of exchange in more recent times. Sort of zero, as opposed to 3000 BC. I mean comparatively recent!
OB: And what do you personally remember? Because you spent the first years of your life in Cairo, right? And in Stranger Magic you mention something that I hadn’t realized, which is that you spoke Arabic as a child.
MW: I remember a lot, actually, and I did speak Arabic. Because we lived in Zamalek and I had little playmates — and of course this was a colonial household, and my parents went out all the time. My mother was only twenty-two, and she was very pretty, and she loved clothes, and she had had an extremely sheltered and boring life in Italy during the fascist period when they were very poor, and her mother was widowed, so their lives were extremely enclosed and very lacking in excitement. And she got to Cairo, which was of course fabulous, incredibly cosmopolitan, and very luxurious and abundant in pleasures compared to what Italy had been like. And England, where I was born, was pretty grim, too.
OB: This was right after the war, wasn’t it?
MW: I was born in November 1946, and we went immediately after. So we arrived in ’47. In fact my father went to reconnoiter it before I was born. He traveled so near to the end of the war that they ran out of petrol in the Mediterranean. They couldn’t find any, so they drifted about for a bit. Finally they refueled, and they got to Malta, and he went to Egypt and looked around and thought, This will be fine. This was before Israel. And they thought they’d be selling English and French books to the whole of the Middle East. Of course the creation of Israel almost immediately produced a hugely different map of the Middle East. And so it was a failure, his project.
OB: What was his project, to start with?
MW: Well, it was backed by W. H. Smith. It was in the spirit of what would now be called soft power — I mean, it was a colonial enterprise along the lines of soft power. My father had been in North Africa during the war, thought he liked it very much, thought, This is a society we can sell books to. And W. H. Smith bought the idea. And so he established two bookshops, one in Zamalek, which was an actual shop. And then there was the retail business in downtown Cairo, which was also a sort of shop, but it didn’t have a storefront — didn’t have a window. The commercial part of the business was going to be educational books, and the idea was that they were going to sell them all through Africa and the Middle East. But the shop itself was going to be selling ordinary books for people to read. He also had a secondhand business in antiquarian books. And so they went out all the time because there were cocktails all the time, and dances, and supper parties, and picnics on the Nile, and God knows what. And my mother was always in these beautiful dresses that she made herself. I remember her looking very pretty, and rustling, and chinking with her jewelry and — you know, she was so young, I can barely remember myself at that age — and my father was a bit older. So most of the time I was with our two servants and my nanny, who were all Arabic speakers. Which is why I spoke Arabic. I was extremely fond of my nanny. And I’m glad that I was able to find a photograph of her.
OB: Did you remember her when you saw the photograph?
MW: I remember her very well, actually. The first thing I did when I decided to write this book, which was ages ago, was to write down everything I could remember before I did any research. Before looking at any of the old photo albums or anything. Of course, I’d seen the albums with my mother over the years, but I tried not to think through the photographs — I tried to do it just as an exercise in memory, to remember as much as I possibly could. And I allowed myself to use objects — I went through the house dredging up objects that we’d had in Egypt. Some of them are very small, not very important objects, but they can bring up these memories. So the first thing that I did was a sort of inventory. And the working title is “Inventory of a Life Mislaid.” That’s why I’ve got odd objects here like coat hangers and things. In that first stage I actually managed to write quite a lot, though I could certainly expound it.
OB: And when you did this, you had not been back to Egypt at all since you left as a girl? How old were you, then?
MW: That’s right. I was five or six. I wrote about the day the bookshop burned. And I’m really glad I did it this way, because I found my father’s papers and accounts after my mother died, and of course it turns out I remembered everything wrong. Which is really interesting, and I want to make that part of the novel, because I had extremely vivid memories. For example: of my father coming back from the office, and saying there was trouble downtown and a lot of burning buildings and things, and of course I found in his own memory, and his reports to his backers, that he went back many, many times over the course of the day. He kept coming back to see if we were okay, and going out again to see what was happening and so forth. I mean, I remember this dramatic moment of once, but actually he was constantly back and forth. That’s not very major, of course, but it’s interesting that I had such a vivid picture.
OB: And you did eventually go back to Cairo, didn’t you?
MW: Two years ago now.
OB: Was that for the novel?
MW: Yes. Well, I was invited, actually. I wanted to go, and I sort of told people that I did, and I was invited to the Cairo Book Fair.
OB: So what was it like to go back? Do you remember arriving and…
MW: Ah, amazing. It was so powerful to be there. Radwa Ashour actually found the bookshop for me. I had the address, but it was just this little alley, and nobody knew where it was. She found it. It’s actually very near where she lives. One of the sad things is that I can’t remember any Arabic. I went to French school, so I spoke French. And everybody wanted me to keep up the French. And I spoke Italian because of my mother. But nobody suggested I keep up Arabic.
OB: So no memories of Arabic whatsoever?
MW: Well, there is one thing I remember from my trip to Israel in the 1980s, though it may be a fancy on my part. Years and years ago, after I wrote the Virgin Mary book, I thought I would do a book on women in the Crusades. It’s an interesting aspect of the whole Crusader enterprise that they couldn’t have done it without women. I mean you can’t settle a land without women. And the women were not very compliant with the Christian project. There were lots and lots of complaints from the churchmen that the women were deviant. They would go to the markets, they would fraternize with the, you know, they weren’t being true Christians, and so forth. Some of them would go native. The women didn’t seem to have the same messianic mission to Christianize the Middle East. I also had an interest because a lot of the first women who were brought over to marry Crusaders and soldiers were from Southern Italy. And then the demography was such that a lot of women survived when the men didn’t, so when the Crusader kingdoms were disintegrating, a lot of areas — particularly the outlying regions like Tripolitana — were held by women, and there they were, backsliding and fraternizing with the enemy… I was very interested in this story, but I didn’t end up writing it into a history book — I eventually gave up and went for fiction, so it all ended up in my novel The Leto Bundle. And Leto herself at one point is a kind of Crusader hostage. They took women hostages and traded them. I was interested in all the ways that women lived in that period. And of course it’s an allegory of our time, too. Think of the settlements for instance. But I could never remember the history well enough. It’s extraordinarily complicated — there are millions of different rulers and millions of battles, and everybody is called Baldwin! But anyway, I was in Jerusalem, and I loved the old city, I felt so happy there. And I think that was a trace memory. As soon as I entered the walls… I don’t know what it’s like now, but in the Eighties the old city still had a very Arabic feeling — the cries of the porters and the bustle and the smells and the shops and the whole souk feel of it. I felt blissful. I’m thinking it had to do with memories of childhood. We always used to go to the souk with my nanny — I remember because she always bought me sweets…
OB: So it was a sound memory.
MW: Sound, yes. I still feel it sometimes, because you hear a lot of Arabic in London now.
OB: You mentioned Edward Said, earlier. You were friends with him, right?
MW: Yes, absolutely. In fact he thought we had had the same French nuns at kindergarten.
OB: He was a bit older, though…
MW: Well, yes, he was born in 1935, eleven years earlier than I was. So later on I would tease him that he hadn’t been there in 1952, during the revolution: I was there, and I saw it, I remembered the burning and everything, while he was in boarding school in America! Anyway, Egypt was sort of a bond between us. I first met him in the early Nineties; he gave the BBC Reith Lectures the year before I did. The BBC had somehow neglected to organize the lectures for two years, so they decided they had to mend their ways, and they announced the program for the next three years all at once. And those were Steve Jones the biologist, Edward, and me, and they had a press reception, to announce the new series. I met Edward there. And of course he was devastatingly seductive and charming. I really liked him. And he was always extremely good to me. You know his character was very irascible and vehement — he could be scathing and terribly unmanageable in his opinions. But he was always just total generosity to me. He was really, really a friend. And he very much gave me his support. He invited me to Columbia to give lectures; he was an ally of mine. People have accused me of being Jesuitical in my approach to his work or to Orientalism in Stranger Magic. But I don’t think that’s fair. I think that Edward’s work changed really quite profoundly in the light of what had happened, and of the effects of Orientalism, which was published in 1978. So I think that my view of him is actually quite true to what he did.
OB: There was a charge that your account was untrue or inaccurate in some way?
MW: Well, my picture of him doesn’t make him as radical as he was when he wrote Orientalism. But I think it’s true to how he himself developed. You know, his last essay is on Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, and Erich Auerbach for him was a figure of a true scholar. So it wasn’t a dialectical kind of opposition between East and West or literature and politics… . And he really liked the fact that Mimesis was written in Ankara, that Auerbach was in flight from the dreadful persecutions in Europe and found refuge in Ankara, where he wrote what is considered a monument to humanist addition. And Edward pays honor to that. And there’s a lot in this vein even in work he was writing at the same time as Orientalism, so it’s not just a later evolution. Of course, a lot did happen in light of the criticisms of Orientalism — not necessarily a retreat, but a deeper explanation of what he meant about attitudes to the Orient in Western literature. He also detonated a vast scandal much later when he said that Mansfield Park bore all the traces of the slave-trading economy of Britain at the time. And people said, “Oh! Don’t besmirch our Jane Austen, there could be no thought of — .” But they’re completely wrong. Jane Austen is totally rooted in the mercantile empire and its relationship to slavery. I mean, he pointed out something profound and important about Jane Austen, which isn’t only in Mansfield Park. Mansfield Park has the actual Bertram fortune rooted in the Caribbean, so that’s a direct link. But in Persuasion, her adoration of the British Navy is part of the whole romance of the book.
Anyway, Edward always caused controversy. People were jealous of him. He was very handsome — that matters! He was very handsome and very successful. He had aura, and people have an ambiguous relationship to aura. If Said had been short and fat, he wouldn’t have provoked the same animosity. He was a star. And of course, the strongest thing about it all is that he adopted Palestinian identity. So here was this rather patrician American, if you like, by formation, adopting, embracing wholeheartedly, very courageously — because when he started speaking for Palestine in America, it was really a brave thing to do, and it remained a very brave thing to do — and he got a huge amount of abuse for it, of course. But I think his intellectual position needed to be looked at again. And I think that in Edward’s work, there’s enough about entanglement, reciprocity, and mutual interdependence that one could interpret a reservoir of Orientalist attitudes like A Thousand and One Nights in a different light, invoking Edward’s work. That’s what I was trying to do. But you know, when Stranger Magic went out to readers at Harvard University Press, one of the reports was just absolutely vile, mostly an attack on Said. It said things like, “These pious invocations of Said all the time… this work is absolutely discredited.” Every time Said’s name was mentioned, he exploded. But HUP, to give them their due, decided to set this report aside.
OB: They published the book all the same.
MW: Yes. And I have to say, it was helpful to me, because I had not anticipated there being so much rage. When I wrote the book, I was writing it from a climate, in England, of acceptance of Said’s arguments. But then I realized I had to anticipate objections, and so I was able to present my argument about Said more clearly, and build in a sense that many people are hostile to them. Of course there are people who have discredited Orientalism for making mistakes and for being single-minded. But this was a manifesto of a book, at a crucial period, and it was a marvelous act of awakening of conscience and consciousness. I wrote a book around the same time on the Virgin Mary, in 1976, and that’s also a highly polemical book, and most of the conclusions are wrong! I predicted that the cult would wither and die. I could not have been more wrong. But they want to reprint it now, so I’ve had to write a contextual introduction. But you know, that’s what happens — to me, Orientalism is a landmark polemic, a book that made a lot of new research happen, a lot of reformulations and rethinking. An excellent gadfly book in the best Socratic tradition. The fact that every page is not exactly like an encyclopedia would be is beside the point. And of course even encyclopedias are full of opinion…
OB: Can I ask you why you decided to write a book about A Thousand and One Nights? Or rather, how the corpus of stories found in A Thousand and One Nights relates to the Western corpus of stories you extensively studied in your other books on myths and fairy tales: From the Beast to the Blonde, Monuments and Maidens, Fantastic Metamorphoses, No Go the Bogeyman, etc.?
MW: Well, that’s exactly the reason — I realized that there was a huge gap in my approach, and sort of in general. I realized that even people like Charles Perrault and Madame d’Aulnoy — in the early 1700s, the landmark era for the fairytale as a form — had been very influenced and shaped by contact with Galland and his translation of A Thousand and One Nights. And that I had just missed it. And in fact, in the little book that I am writing now, the Very Short Introduction to fairy tale, I am treating A Thousand and One Nights as entirely integral to the history of the fairy tale. And I think that that’s right, because even before A Thousand and One Nights came out in Europe, a lot of the ballets and spectacles and processions and pageants that took place in the court had these Oriental scenes… Madame d’Aulnoy was the first person to use the phrase Conte des fées, in the title of her 1698 book. Perrault calls them Contes de ma mère l'oye.
OB: Mother Goose!
MW: Yes, Mother Goose. And in one of her books, Madame d’Aulnoy has a preface in which she says that she had heard these stories from une vieille esclave arabe, an old Arab slave woman. And at the time I just thought that it was a façon de parler, a figure of speech, but I realized that it’s a very interesting one, because either she wants to give her book authenticity by claiming she has an Arabic source for her stories, or she did have an Arabic source for her stories. Either way, it’s important, a very interesting and overlooked thing that she says. So that was one reason. My other reason was political, because I feel very anxious about the way Islam is perceived monolithically, but I didn’t feel very well equipped to write a political essay. I can’t write political analysis; I never feel I know enough to do political articles. What I do know is literature, so I thought I would try and draw a slightly different kind of picture of what relations have been or what perceptions are, to show an alternative history. Of course, you can put me into the Orientalist camp, in the Saidian sense, because I was sort of saying, Well no, we must also think of the Middle East as a place of pleasure and sophistication and luxury, etc. — you know, the views that Edward had decried about Oriental luxury and dissipation, softness, and so forth. Though where I was laying the emphasis is not so much on what the Orient is shown to be, but on the entanglement. The idea that this was an important encounter for our European imagination, and had been of inestimable influence that had not really been fully acknowledged, for reasons that, I think, have to do with the time period that A Thousand and One Nights were discovered in. The book was not just a collection of fairy tales of medieval origin, but actually contained elements that were revealing of modernity, in a kind of unconscious way.
OB: Are you thinking for instance of all the tales that have to do with the phantasmagoric nature of money, being received in a context of rampant capitalism? Like the wonderful, hilarious Ponzi scheme that is staged in the story of Marouf the Cobbler?
MW: Yes, contrary to silver or gold coins, paper money has no intrinsic value — it is based on faith, and of course a lot of A Thousand and One Nights’ stories are all about the effects of objects invested with meaning by faith, the sort of talismanic structure that is magical thinking. It is a notion I am very interested in, the relationship of leaps of imagination or thought experiments to the actual progress of science. When I first lectured on this aspect, people were very skeptical and mocking. I gave a lecture in Munich and the audience was really quite hostile to the idea that these magical thought experiments could have any bearing at all on modernity. I was talking about flight and the idea that the carpet was actually a rather deeper intuition about aeronautics than, say, ornithopters as invented by Leonardo… It’s much less likely that an ornithopter will get off the ground than a carpet, because a carpet is basically a sail, and a sail will lift. But this Munich audience was very stuffy and didn’t like the idea at all, they thought it was nonsense. But now I find people have totally accepted it! It’s now second nature, everybody knows that a flying carpet is a sail and this is an aeronautical intuition, perfectly understandable!
OB: This reminds me that Philippe-Alain Michaud included Hans Haacke’s Blue Sail in his recent Flying Carpets exhibit at the Villa Medici in Rome. It also makes me think of your previous book, Phantasmagoria, where you’re looking at all these Victorian scientists trying to scientifically test the existence of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena — that was almost an exact inversion of magical thinking.
MW: It was obviously a dreadful step, that positivist step into trying to prove the existence of phantasm. But it was a necessary step and we’re indebted to those people. They did take risks; they tried to find out why we have premonitions, why we have fears of ghosts. Now we pretty much know that you can’t take a photograph of a ghost, but we only know it because so many people made fools of themselves trying to do it. So we should be grateful to them, really. I got rather upset writing that book, actually, because I didn’t know I was going to get into such a tale of human failure and folly. I mean, the very eminent people who were involved in the whole experiments with ectoplasm showed such little understanding of themselves… . When I was doing the research in the Cambridge library, I found all of these photographs in which they’re holding the medium’s feet under the table because they wanted to make sure that she wasn’t using her feet to produce the phenomena. So you get, for instance, a professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, under the table on all fours, holding the booted legs. And then they photograph it because they want to show that the medium is being controlled by somebody of moral stature, who therefore wouldn’t be her accomplice. But of course, it’s just such a pre-Freudian document, you can’t believe the lack of self-understanding involved in these things. And I think of it also as a warning that we may be doing that too! It isn’t as if we’ve learned from them about that area of experience. Think of projects they had here in England like DNA identity cards, which we probably avoided only because it turned out to be too expensive.
OB: It’s interesting that you just mentioned Freud, because in Stranger Magic you have this chapter on the carpet that Freud had over the couch on which his patients would recline.
MW: Yes, and you can still see it in the Freud Museum, which is a magical place. His collections are there, and his library. My interest in it began as a kind of envoi in a lecture, in the sense that after talking about carpets, I’d say, “And here we have the ultimate flying carpet — the couch.” But then I thought, I can’t just use it as an envoi in the book, I must go into it more deeply. So I went to the Freud Museum and to the library, and it just opened up in this amazing way. I had no idea that the carpet in question had been an engagement present given to him by his cousin who was a trader in antiquities. I didn’t know there were actual connections with the Middle East. And obviously it was a deliberate choice to put it on the couch, and as a deliberate choice it seemed to have convincing unconscious associations, because it was an engagement present, because it created a sort of nest, an Oriental nest. The type of décor that was definitely associated with decadence and symbolism and bohemia — Oscar Wilde was one of the people who also put a carpet on his sofa… . Yes, that’s my last invention of modernity that’s foreshadowed by A Thousand and One Nights: psychoanalysis!
OB: You do write somewhere, though, that the fairy tale is a genre which does not explore individual psychology or interiority, and you talked earlier about the poems of A Thousand and One Nights as formulaic rather than psychological. For some reason I am thinking of this phrase by Borges to the effect that all great literature becomes children’s literature….
MW: Well, he might be talking of the phenomenon of books being expurgated in order to turn them into children’s literature — all the classics, Gulliver’s Travels, or Robinson Crusoe, or even Homer… I think historically there was a turn against imagination for adults. There was a sense that if you were grown up, you were supposed to look at representations of reality. It’s difficult to know when that happened, because certainly the Romantics were not doing that, so it’s possibly Victorian… but if you look a little closer at the Victorians, you see that someone like Dickens was absolutely steeped in fairy tale, and there are very strong traces of fairy tale and fantasy in his work. I mean he has actual fables, like A Christmas Carol, but his plot structures — the outcomes are very often rags-to-riches, and his characters are more like types, they don’t actually change very much. There’s nothing like the sort of psychological development that you get in Henry James. Even George Eliot, who has very profound analyses of social conditions and circumstances and character, wrote Silas Marner, which is really a fairy tale. So it tends to be a bit fugitive: the closer you get to the ideal that adults are realistic representational analysts of experience, the more it becomes elusive. Look at Proust! Amazing depths of individual analysis, but at the same time very strongly indebted to the structure of A Thousand and One Nights, which he invokes. He himself acknowledges how passionately he loved the projection of fantasy, even as he was one of the great observers and deep empirical excavators of reality.
Nevertheless, there was a continual trend, getting very strong toward the end of the nineteenth century and then the beginning of the twentieth, that anything fantastical is to be packaged for children. In fact I’m the beneficiary of it, because I had lots of books when I was young that could have been adult books but had been made into picture books for children. I had the myths of Greece and Rome, and I had the Norse myths, and many others, full of very unsuitable material, censored of course… but not totally censored. I certainly knew all about Phaedra and all about the Minotaur, and the incest and rapes of the gods. I used to play them in the garden with my sister. We’d play the rape of Persephone. I’d say, “I am going to be Zeus and you’re Persephone!” Or “I’m Pluto and you’re Persephone!” And she would say, “I don’t want to be Persephone!” Oh dear, racing around the garden pretending to rape my sister…
OB: Your books don’t really look like children’s books, but they certainly are very “illustrated.” I was wondering what your process of composing a book was like. Do you use pictures as a starting point? And where do you find them?
MW: Well, I’ve got thousands of pictures here, which used to be very carefully filed. But my filing systems have rather disintegrated recently. Earlier boxes, like this one, you see, are all carefully filed, look: “Black Madonnas,” “Amazons,” “the Sphinx,” “Leda,” “Metamorphosis.” They’re all right there. But I’m very behind with my filing these days. Oh, and then I have lots of collections of little things. And I used to collect these things, which I love — these accordions. Look at that nice one, that’s a very nice one… I’ve got two, are they both the same? Yes, they are, you can have one — do you want one? They’re called leporelli, you know, from the so-called “Catalog Song” in Don Giovanni, which Leporello sings. They unfold. And then I also have folders and folders of bigger pictures.
OB: But I assume you also go to libraries. Not everything is in your house.
MW: No, no, of course. At the Warburg Institute they have a photographic library, and I’ve used that all my life. It’s just fantastic. In fact, I quite hope that they’ll want my pictures when I die… but, of course, by then everything might be digital. Though digital has limits. At the Warburg they collect a lot of ephemera, which are not really caught by web systems. They actually cut and clip auction catalogs, for instance, so they have amazing records of things that have vanished — that vanish into private collections and you never see them again. And then look, I have all these holy pictures collected from shrines. It would be very hard to find these in an archive. They were all picked up in churches all over the world; it’s quite a collection. This one was in a Coptic church in Egypt for instance. A Jesus with blue eyes… I can’t read them, of course. You could tell me what they say.
OB: This one says, “Anta abra’u jamalan min bani al-bashar” — You are more beautiful than the sons of men.
MW: There’s another one. That must be Demetrius or someone, or maybe they’re special Coptic saints. I have so many of them because I did a very foolhardy thing while in Cairo. I was trying to find my way around, and someone picked me up, and I let him pick me up, because of course it’s frightfully useful to be with somebody who knows the city, and he turned out to be an old Copt. So he took me to Coptic churches… . It’s a shame that my filing system is a bit out of date. But one day, maybe, when I’ve got more time, I’ll start filing again. Anyway, we should have lunch. Aren’t you hungry?