The Spice of Life and Other Essays/The Everlasting Nights

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No one has any business with the Arabian Nights who objects to bulk in literature. It is a curious thing which may be noticed by all literary critics, that literature is the only thing in which bulk is considered a defect. The truth is, of course, that size is an element of value in literature. If the quality be really ascertained, the amount, even if indefinitely increased, becomes a merit. A man would as soon think of saying that the field was over-crowded with flowers, that the sky had a surplus population of stars, as of saying that there were too many good stories. The Arabian Nights is a collection of extraordinarily good stories, and while the modern aesthetic critic will probably find the book too long, the person with a taste for literature will find it too short. Surely the greatest compliment we can pay to it or any other book is to find it too short. This defect is the highest of all possible perfections.

Now length in the case of the Arabian Nights is not a mere material accident; it is one of the essential qualities, one of the essential virtues of the book. A short Arabian Nights is as unthinkable as a neat wilderness or a snug cathedral. The whole plan of the book is one vast conspiracy to entrap the reader into a condition of everlasting attention. By a supreme stroke of genius the compiler expressed this in the primary framework and outline. He made the teller of the stories a person inspired to prolong the stories infinitely by the devouring desire of life. It made the wish for an everlasting story one with the wish for an everlasting earthly existence. He made Scheherezade suddenly paralyze the tyrant when the sword was uplifted by a vision of all the stories that remained to be told in the world. She lured him into the golden and enchanted chamber of the first story and then the work was done. He could not get away from the puzzling and alluring sequence of that chain of tales, that endless series of delightful mantraps. Rooms within rooms opened their tempting and tantalizing doors, stories within stories promised a complicated and even confusing pleasure. The tyrant can sway kingdoms, and command multitudes, but he cannot discover exactly what happened to a fabulous prince or princess unless he asks for it. He has to wait, almost to fawn upon a wretched slave for the fag-end of an old tale. Never in any other book, perhaps, has such a splendid tribute been offered to the pride and omnipotence of art.

This is the real idea behind the Arabian Nights. The richness which first strikes the imagination in reading it is a mere symbol. The richness of gold, silver and jewels is a mere figure and representation of that which is the essential idea, the deep and enduring richness of life. The preciousness of emerald and amethyst and sandalwood is only the parable and expression of the preciousness of stones, dust, and dogs running in the streets. In the Arabian Nights everything has a story to tell. Three men come together; one is leading a gazelle, another a dog, another a mule. But the gazelle is an enchanted human being, the dog is a transformed brother, the mule is a man in unhuman shape. There is no traveller so dusty and commonplace that he may not have stories to tell of the terrible continents that lie upon the borderland of the world. There is no beggar so bent and abject that he may not have possession of a talisman which gives him power over the palaces and temples of princes. The possibilities of life are not to be counted. That is the profoundly practical moral buried in the Arabian Nights.

In our early Biblical lessons we were told that the Eastern teacher sat down to teach. There are not, perhaps, many points of resemblance between two such products of Oriental literature as The Book of Job and the Arabian Nights. But there is this in common between them, that we feel that both must have been narrated by somebody who was sitting down, while Ulysses the typical Greek, was toiling with oar and rudder to discover new isles and peninsulas, Job, the typical Jew, was reviewing the whole of heaven and earth while sitting on a dust-heap. Similarly, the Sultan of the Indies heard the tales of the four quarters of the earth while sitting on a cushion. The essential point, the essential lesson of these Oriental literatures is the clear and most moral lesson of idleness. Idleness is not a vice; in the old Chaucerian form of `idlesse' it is a pleasure, and almost a virtue. Its true name is leisure. It is not a trifling with unimportant things, but a vision of all the innumerable important things in the universe which are in themselves even more important than bread and cheese.

Here again, therefore, we come near to one of the essential ideas which give their perennial charm to the Arabian Nights. It is the idea that idleness is not an empty thing. Idleness can be, and should be a particularly full thing, rich as it is in the Arabian Nights with invaluable jewels and incalculable stories. Idleness, or leisure, as the Eastern chronicler would probably prefer to call it, is indeed our opportunity of seeing the vision of all things, our rural audience for hearing, as the Sultan of the Indies heard them, the stories of all created things. In that hour, if we know how to use it, the tree tells its story to us, the stone in the road recites its memoirs, the lamp-post and the paling expatiate on their autobiographies. For as the most hideous nightmare in the world is an empty leisure, so the most enduring pleasure is a full leisure. We can defend ourselves, even on the Day of Judgment, if our work has been useless, with pleas of opportunity, competition and fulness of days.