Formulaic Surprises: How 1,001 Nights Startles with Sameness
Part Three of “The Worlds of Scheherazade”
Building on Lit Hub’s five-part Finnegan and Friends podcast, the new season of The Cosmic Library, “The Worlds of Scheherazade,” plunges into and out of the 1,001 Nights with guests Katy Waldman, critic at The New Yorker; Yasmine Seale, translator of the 1,001 Nights; Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist; Mazen Naous, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst; and Hearty White, host of Miracle Nutrition on WFMU.
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The 1,001 Nights are full of patterns; the stories have formulas, and this anticipates the world of television, comic books, and video games. Yasmine Seale, translator of the Nights, says in this episode, “Formula is essential to the work. It draws its force from accumulation. It draws its meaning from pattern.”
Formulaic narrative doesn’t necessarily mean mind-numbing sameness. It can mean the opposite. Hearty White, the host of Miracle Nutrition on WFMU, talks in this episode about watching formulaic Three Stooges episodes, which don’t limit the viewer’s imagination. Instead, you get the sense that an artist like Hearty White is liberated by the formulaic, finds a field in which to play and invent by using clichés or patterns. He says in this episode, when talking about formulaic story, “I think what it does is, it frees you from the involuntary compulsive predicting that you have to do when you’re navigating your life. Maybe because the same thing is happening all the time, you don’t have to guess.”
For Katy Waldman, critic at The New Yorker, stories that serially, repeatedly, go on and on also work with the sense that “things might end… but something will persist. And what on earth will that look like?” She describes a dystopian version of the liberating experience Hearty White finds in ongoing, repetitious story. Still, in either case, attention moves repeatedly toward something beyond repetitions. We are, once more, in the world of night and the dreams that surpass the night.
Yasmine Seale is a translator of 1,001 Nights. Her translation of Aladdin was published in 2018 by Liveright, and her translation of other stories from the Nights are in the new Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1,001 Nights also from Liveright.
Jim Al-Khalili OBE FRS is a theoretical physicist and professor at the University of Surrey. He is the author of twelve books, including The House of Wisdom.
Hearty White is host of Miracle Nutrition on WFMU—a radio show of inspirational dada.
Katy Waldman is a critic at The New Yorker, where you can find her writings on books, TV, and more.
Mazen Naous is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He translates from Arabic, works on music and literature, and the 1,001 Nights are one of his areas of specialty.