16 Poems

© Hereus de Roberto Bolaño. Barcelona (Spain), 1981

 

“…31. Soñé que la tierra se acababa. Y que el único ser humano que contemplaba el final era Franz Kafka. En el cielo los Titanes luchaban a muerte. Desde un asiento de hierro forjado del parque de Nueva York veía arder el mundo.

32. Soñé que estaba soñando y que volvía a mi casa demasiado tarde. En mi cama encontraba a Mario de Sá-Carneiro durmiendo con mi primer amor. Al destaparlos descubría que estaban muertos y mordiéndome los labios hasta hacerme sangre volvía a los caminos vecinales.

33. Soñé que Anacreonte construía su castillo en la cima de una colina pelada y luego lo destruía.

34. Soñé que era un detective latinoamericano muy viejo. Vivía en NuevaYork y Mark Twain me contrataba para salvarle la vida a alguien que no tenía rostro. Va a ser un caso condenadamente difícil, señor Twain, le decía.

35. Soñé que me enamoraba de Alice Sheldon. Ella no me quería. Así que intentaba hacerme matar en tres continentes. Pasaban los años. Por fin, cuando ya era muy viejo, ella aparecía por el otro extremo del Paseo Marítimo de Nueva York y mediante señas (como las que hacían en los portaaviones para que los pilotos aterrizaran) me decía que siempre me había querido.

36. Soñé que hacía un 69 con Anaïs Nin sobre una enorme losa de basalto.

37. Soñé que follaba con Carson McCullers en una habitación en penumbras en la primavera de 1981. Y los dos nos sentíamos irracionalmente felices.

38. Soñé que volvía a mi viejo Liceo y que Alphonse Daudet era mi profesor de francés. Algo imperceptible nos indicaba que estábamos soñando. Daudet miraba a cada rato por la ventana y fumaba la pipa de Tartarín.

39. Soñé que me quedaba dormido mientras mis compañeros de Liceo intentaban liberar a Robert Desnos del campo de concentración de Terezin. Cuando despertaba una voz me ordenaba que me pusiera en movimiento. Rápido, Bolaño, rápido, no hay tiempo que perder. Al llegar sólo encontraba a un vieoj detective escarbando en las ruinas humeantes del asalto.

40. Soñé que una tormenta de números fantasmales era lo único que quedaba de los seres humanos tres mil millones de años después de que la Tierra hubiera dejado de existir.

41. Soñé que estaba soñando y que en los túneles de los sueños encontraba el sueño de Roque Dalton: el sueño de los valientes que murieron por una quimera de mierda.

42. Soñé que tenía dieciocho años y que veía a mi mejor amigo de entonces, que también tenía dieciocho, haciendo el amor con Walt Whitman. Lo hacían en un sillón, contemplando el atardecer borrascoso de Civitavecchia.

43. Soñé que estaba preso y que Boecio era mi compañero de celda. Mira, Bolaño, decía extendiendo la mano y la pluma en la semioscuridad: ¡no tiemblan!, ¡no tiemblan! (Después de un rato, añadía con voz tranquila: pero tamblarán cuando reconozcan al cabrón de Teodorico.)

44. Soñé que traducía al Marqués de Sade a golpes de hacha. Me había vuelto loco y vivía en un bosque.

45. Soñé que Pascal hablaba del miedo con palabras cristalinas en una taberna de Civitavecchia: “Los milagros no sirven para convertir, sino para condenar”, decía.

46. Soñé que era un viejo detective latinoamericano y que una Fundación misteriosa me encargaba encontrar las actas de defunción de los Sudacas Voladores. Viajaba por todo el mundo: hospitales, campos de batalla, pulquerías, escuelas abandonadas…”

Roberto Bolaño

Blanes, 1994

Tres (Fragmento de una colección de poemas)

 

_______________________________________

 

…”31. I dreamt that Earth was finished. And the only
human being to contemplate the end was Franz
Kafka. In heaven, the Titans were fighting to the
death. From a wrought-iron seat in Central Park,
Kafka was watching the world burn.

32. I dreamt I was dreaming and I came home
too late. In my bed I found Mário de Sá-Carneiro
sleeping with my first love. When I uncovered them
I found they were dead and, biting my lips till they
bled, I went back to the streets.

33. I dreamt that Anacreon was building his castle
on the top of a barren hill and then destroying it.

34. I dreamt I was a really old Latin American
detective. I lived in New York and Mark Twain
was hiring me to save the life of someone without
a face. “It’s going to be a damn tough case, Mr.
Twain,” I told him.

35. I dreamt I was falling in love with Alice Sheldon.
She didn’t want me. So I tried getting myself killed
on three continents. Years passed. Finally, when I
was really old, she appeared on the other end of the
promenade in New York and with signals (like the
ones they use on aircraft carriers to help the pilots
land) she told me she’d always loved me.

36. I dreamt I was 69ing with Anaïs Nin on an
enormous basaltic flagstone.

37. I dreamt I was fucking Carson McCullers in a
dim-lit room in the spring of 1981. And we both felt
irrationally happy.

38. I dreamt I was back at my old high school
and Alphonse Daudet was my French teacher.
Something imperceptible made us realize we were
dreaming. Daudet kept looking out the window
and smoking Tartarin’s pipe

39. I dreamt I kept sleeping while my classmates
tried to liberate Robert Desnos from the Terezín
concentration camp. When I woke a voice was
telling me to get moving. “Quick, Bolaño, quick,
there’s no time to lose.” When I got there, all I
found was an old detective picking through the
smoking ruins of the attack.

40. I dreamt that a storm of phantom numbers was
the only thing left of human beings three billion
years after Earth ceased to exist.

41. I dreamt I was dreaming and in the dream
tunnels i found Roque Dalton’s dream: the dream
of the brave ones who died for a fucking chimera.

42. I dreamt I was 18 and saw my best friend at
the time, who was also 18, making love to Walt
Whitman. They did it in an armchair, contemplating
the stormy Civitavecchia sunset.

43. I dreamt I was a prisoner and Boethius was
my cellmate. “look, Bolaño,” he said, extending
his hand and his pen in the shadows:
“they’re not trembling! they’re not
trembling!” (after a while,
he added in a calm voice: “but they’ll tremble when
they recognize that bastard Theodoric.”)

44. I dreamt I was translating the Marquis de Sade
with axe blows. I’d gone crazy and was living in the
woods.

45. I dreamt that Pascal was talking about fear with
crystal clear words at a tavern in Civitavecchia:
Miracles don’t convert, they condemn, he said.

46. I dreamt I was an old Latin American detective
and a mysterious Foundation hired me to find the
death certificates of the Flying Spics. I was traveling
all around the world: hospitals, battlefields, pulque
bars, abandoned schools….”

Excerpt from Tres (a collection of poetry)

English translation by Laura Healy

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Poetic Embroidery

 

Dedicated to my blogger friend Kate Davies: http://fabrickated.com/

 

 

The detail was breathtaking: lace embroidered with phrases from Jacques Prevert‘s This Love in Luneville stitch like calligram poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, the embellished bust of a corset with Latin phrases taken from eclogues by Virgil,  and gold lamé representing DanteAlighieri‘s Divine Comedy, which required 1700 hours of work. For the Valentino haute couture Spring/Summer 2015 collection, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli wanted to enhance and embellish love itself; translating the strongest of human sentiments into a language of dresses. Through embroidery, lamé, ciphers, verses, motifs, the design duo recreated the words of the great poets and writers, from Dante to Prévert through to Pasolini and Virgil. The couture masterpieces required up to two months of work and 2,500 hours of embroidery by the house’s master craftsmen to create the works of art presented at the Hotel Salomon de Rothschild, to the sound of Moments in Love from Art of Noise

 
 

“Tutto il mio folle amore, lo soffia il ciela”. White tulle cloud dress, hand-painted in grey and embroidered with vermeil colored lame.
Inspired by the song Che cosa sono le nuvole?, lyrics by Pier Paolo Pasolini and composed by Domenico Mondugno.
2.500 hours of embroidery

 
 

“Cet Amour, c’est le tien, c’est le mien”. White silver tulle cloud dress embroidered with Chantilly and jet calligrams.
Lace overlay of the Jacques Prevert poem Cet Amour from 1945, picked out in luneville embroidery, in the spirit of a Calligram by Guillaume Appolinaire in 1918.
2,000 hours of embroidery

 
 

Canzone dell”Amore perduto powder-coloured tulle cloud dress, embroidered with wilted flowers. Overlay of wilted flower petals of painted chiffon, inspired by the lyrics from Canzone dell’Amore perduto by Fabrizio De Andrè (1974)

 
 


Amor Vincit Omnia, embroidered garnet linen corset, with dusty tulle skirts.
Corset embroidered with a Latin phrase from Virgil’s Les Bucoliques (Eclogues):

“Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedamus Amori.” (Love conquers all and we must yield to Love.)
Book X, line 69 (Dryden).

 

An Elegy on the Death of Keats and Brian Jones

Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of Endymion, Hyperion, etc. /ˌædɵˈneɪ.ɨs/, also spelled Adonaies, is a pastoral elegy written by Percy Bysshe Shelley for John Keats in 1821, and widely regarded as one of Shelley’s best and most well-known works. The poem, which is in 495 lines in 55 Spenserian stanzas, was composed in the spring of 1821 immediately after 11 April, when Shelley heard of Keats’ death (seven weeks earlier). The title of the poem is likely a merging of the Greek “Adonis”, the god of fertility, and the Hebrew “Adonai” (meaning “Lord”). Most critics suggest that Shelley used Virgil‘s tenth Eclogue, in praise of Cornelius Gallus, as a model.

 
 

Dressed in a gender-bending white poet’s robe, Jagger quoted Shelley in memory of bandmate Brian Jones at the Stones in the Park concert in 1969. Photo by Mike Randolph

 
 

Before an audience estimated at 250,000 to 300,000, Jagger read the following verses from Adonais:

 
 

“Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He hath awakened from the dream of life
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. — We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments. — Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!”

Out of Many

 
 

E pluribus unum (Latin for “Out of many, one”, alternatively translated as “One out of many” or “One from many”) is a phrase on the Seal of the United States, along with Annuit cœptis (Latin for “He approves (has approved) of the undertaking”) and Novus ordo seclorum, (Latin for “New Order of the Ages”) and adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782. Never codified by law, E pluribus unum was considered a de facto motto of the United States until 1956 when the United States Congress passed an act (H. J. Resolution 396), adopting “In God We Trust” as the official motto.

The phrase is similar to a Latin translation of a variation of Heraclitus‘s 10th fragment, “The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.” A variant of the phrase was used in Moretum, a poem attributed to Virgil but with the actual author unknown, describing (on the surface at least) the making of moretum, a kind of herb and cheese spread related to modern pesto. In the poem text, color est e pluribus unus describes the blending of colors into one. St. Augustine used a variant of the phrase, ex pluribus unum, in his Confessions.

The traditionally understood meaning of the phrase was that out of many states (or colonies) emerge a single nation. However, in recent years its meaning has come to suggest that out of many peoples, races, religions, languages, and ancestries has emerged a single people and nation—illustrating the concept of the melting pot.

 
 

Naomi Sims and Viviane Fauna in Native American inspired fashions by Giorgio Sant Angelo for Vogue September 1970. Photo by Irving Penn

The Painted World

In the artist’s studio in Gaeta, a coastal town on the Mediterranean, works related to his Four Seasons series include details of Primavera (left) and Estate (right). The canvases, shown when still in progress in 1994, are nailed

 
 

Cy Twombly enjoying local fare at a restaurant in Rome

 
 

Another Twombly painting is propped against a wall in the house, where white tiles cover most of the floors

 
 

In the bright open Gaeta house, a second version of Inverno from Twombly’s Four Seasons series hangs against a wall for inspection. Books of poetry, postcards, acrylics and oils, crayons and pencils fill a table

 
 

Twombly in the terraced garden outside the Gaeta house

 
 

A still life in one of the house’s many rooms

 
 

Found frames and French and American flags are propped against the walls in a hallway. Furniture is covered casually in a room behind

 
 

A Twombly sculpture and an antique stool and frame in another room in the apartment

 
 

The artist in his vast, spare apartment on the via Monserrato in Rome, which house his collection of classical pieces

 
 

Photos by Bruce Weber

Text by Dodie Kazanjian

Vogue, 1994

 
 

The taxi doesn’t quite make it up the steep hill to Cy Twombly’s house in Gaeta. At the third hairpin turn we get out and walk the remaining 20 yards to a gray steel door embedded in a rough stone wall. Twombly has a little trouble opening it. Tall, lanky, dressed in rumpled white linen pants held up by blue suspenders, he looks more like a provincial winegrower than a famous artist. The door grates on its hinges, and we’re inside a paradise of thick white walls, terraces, ceramic tile floors, and cool interconnecting rooms bare of furniture except for a few striking pieces—bleached Louis XV chairs, a long table piled high with books, blue-and-white fabrics, ornate empty picture frames, Twombly paintings leaning against the walls, and one or two of his little-known, gawky, white-painted sculptures. Twombly throws back the shutters in each room, flooding the house with light and opening up dazzling vistas of the seaside town and the blue Mediterranean.
On the train down from Rome this morning Twombly started telling me and my husband, an old friend of his, about the town as soon as it came into view around the shoulder of a mountain. “Hadrian had a villa here,” he said. “Cicero is buried here, and so is the Roman general who founded Lyon. Catullus had friends here. It was kind of a summer art colony, like East Hampton, but not anymore—that was 2,000 years ago. Gaeta was the name of Aeneas’s wet nurse. She was with him on his return from Troy, and she died here, so he named the place after her. I believe that. Nobody could make that up.” Twombly is full of history, which he relays in the accents of his Virginia childhood. Even his Italian comes out that way—when he says si, si, which he does a lot, it has a southern drawl to it.

Gaeta, 60 miles north of Naples, is where Twombly has done most of his painting in the last few years. Tacked to the wall in the high-ceilinged room he uses as his studio is a large vertical canvas, more than ten feet tall. Titled Summer, it is the last of a series on the four seasons, which will be shown at the Twombly retrospective that opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this month and then travels to Houston, Los Angeles, and Berlin. Autumn, Winter, and Spring (in that order) were finished months ago and have already been shipped to the museum. But “I’m having a real bad time with Summer,” he had told me several times when I spoke with him by telephone from New York. The painting is still unfinished, and Twombly is not happy about letting us see it. When we start asking questions about the Four Seasons, he bristles. “It’s not Four Seasons,” he says. “That sounds like the Four Seasons Hotel. I think of them as Quattro Stagioni. Summer isn’t finished yet, as I told you, and that’s all I’m going to say about that. It’s absurd to talk about paintings that you haven’t finished.”
Cy Twombly is the great outsider of contemporary art. In 1957, at the precise moment when the main energy of the art world seemed to have taken up permanent residence in New York, Twombly moved to Rome. Two years later, he married Tatiana Franchetti, a talented portrait painter from a wealthy and aristocratic Italian family, and he has lived in Italy, more or less, ever since. While his fellow southerners Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were using popular imagery and mundane objects to blaze the trails that would lead to Pop and Minimal art, Twombly chose a different direction entirely. His would lead back through European art and literature to the ancient world of classical mythology, of gods and heroes and the great poetic traditions of the Mediterranean, which in his paintings merges indistinguishably with the modern urban street culture of graffiti, sexual imagery, and raw sensation. His work seems to exist in another time zone.

But Twombly’s work has never been easy to like. The scribbles, smears, blots, and seemingly random markings of his intensely personal style have often evoked the kind of philistine response that says, “My kid could do better than that.” Artists love his work, but will the public come to see it at MoMA? Twombly is definitely “an acquired taste, even within the art world,” says curator Mark Rosenthal, who tried to do a Twombly retrospective a few years ago while at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—Twombly initially agreed but changed his mind in midstream. The National Endowment for the Arts refused to give a grant to the current show, and the Modern was unable to line up a major corporate sponsor.
Twombly is famously difficult and famously elusive, and this has not made his work any easier to see. Ever since the disastrous 1964 show of his Commodus paintings at the Castelli Gallery in New York—their fervid painterliness seemed out of step with the hard-edged commercial imagery of Pop Art, then in ascendance, and nothing was sold—he has shown infrequently in this country. “Cy just evaporated,” according to Leo Castelli. Twombly has avoided exclusive commitments with any dealer, preferring to control the distribution of his rare new paintings through one or two close associates, and much of his major work is in European, not American, collections.
Twombly goes off to another part of the house, leaving us alone with the painting. In addition to Summer, there are three other unstretched canvases nailed to the walls of his studio, part of a second series on the same Quattro Stagioni theme. Twombly often paints a subject more than once: There are four versions of Leda and the Swan, two of the School of Athens, two of Birth of Venus.) His worktables are covered with oil crayons; pencils; tubes of pigment; postcard reproductions of boats and marine scenes; a big Manet art book open to a page that shows a boat painting; stacks of other art books (Ensor, Whistler, Turner); and a book of modern Greek poems in translation, turned to George Seferis’s Three Secret Poems. Several lines of one stanza have been altered by Twombly, with some words inked out. A section of the edited and spliced poem (with a few new words added by Twombly) is written on the canvas of Summer, in Twombly’s inimitable, childish scrawl:

“the shard of white . . .
trembling with white light
with white flat sea
distant in memory
between the deluge of life
our dearest, our white youth
our white, our snow white youth
that is infinity . . .”

Twombly’s paintings often seem to be as much written as painted. His spindly, meandering letters and words can evoke memory and emotion with the power of Chinese calligraphy, but their effect is never literary—the words work within the visual field of a master painter. And Twombly has never painted better than in his Four Seasons series. The paint is luscious, active, full of violent movement. The image of a spectral boat with oars, which recurs throughout the series, is gray in Summer, but hot yellows and reds predominate—sun colors, on a mostly white or unpainted ground. The cut-up lines of poetry appear and disappear, run down one side of the canvas, sometimes partially smudged or painted over. It’s vintage Twombly, aggressive, hesitant, tough, nervous, scatological, poetic, complex, playful, ancient, up-to-the-minute, intensely personal, and grand—a bundle of contradictory impulses that miraculously work together.

Comparisons are inevitable between Twombly’s Four Seasons and Jasper Johns’s four paintings on the same theme, which were done between 1985 and 1986. Twombly had been thinking about the seasons theme for a long time. He played with it in earlier works, such as the 1961 Empire of Flora and the four-panel 1977 Bacchanalia, and in recent years, as the main emphasis in his work has shifted from history and myth to nature, he became drawn to what is, after all, one of the great themes of European art. “All of Jasper’s seasons look like winter,” Twombly says with a sly chuckle. “Mine all look like summer.”

That may have been the way they started, but it’s not true any longer. Autunno is saturated with the deep reds and throbbing purples of the wine harvest; it has the word Silenus, the wine god, written across it, and, near the right edge, the words pure wild sex. This is a long way from the stately black-and-yellow Inverno, and the raspy yellows and reds of Primavera, a raw rite of spring, with jagged boat shapes up and down the middle. The day after he finally finished the last in the series, Twombly told me, “My head is completely burning up. All I’m doing is seeing yellow. I wake up in the morning, and the white walls look yellow. I had a great deal of trouble with Summer. At a certain point I was ready to throw in the brush. But I got crazy in a good way here.” By this time, however, the painting my husband and I had seen no longer existed. Twombly had decided to start over on a fresh canvas. I went to see it the day it arrived in New York. You could still smell the paint. It was simpler than the previous one, and much more liquid, wet and runny, with molten streaks of red and yellow and orange. “High on light” was scrawled on the left side in red, “how the dizziness/slipped away/like a fish in the/sea.”

Two days before the trip to Gaeta, in Twombly’s apartment on the via Monserrato in Rome, we had seen a quartet of paintings on the four seasons by an anonymous seventeenth-century Italian mannerist, part of Twombly’s wide-ranging and eccentric collection. Also two huge dark eighteenth-century landscapes by John Wootton, whom Twombly described as the English artist who introduced the work of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin to England. “I look at a lot of artists,’ ” he says. “I’m inspired by—I suppose I shouldn’t say ‘inspired,’ but it’s not really influenced. I am inspired. Art comes from art.” Classical busts of Apollo, Venus, Marcus Aurelius, and other worthies stand on pedestals in the rather grandiose, white-walled rooms of the Rome apartment, where the furniture looks as though it never gets much use.

Twombly started buying antiquities on his first visit to Rome, with Robert Rauschenberg, in 1952. “He spent my half of our grant on Roman sculpture,” according to Rauschenberg. “So I had to go off and get a job with Atlas Construction in Casablanca.” Twombly quit buying classical antiquities a few years ago. “New York decorators started putting a classical torso in every room, and it became impossible,” he says. But when we walk with him in Rome, he constantly stops to look at objects in shop windows—a malachite clock, a tiny piano (“It must have been Mozart’s first”), a miniature sarcophagus with a lapis top (“It’s not very good lapis. The best lapis comes from Afghanistan”). His eagle eye for quality deceives some people into thinking of him as a great decorator, but his various domestic interiors, striking as they are, have almost nothing to do with decoration, or with comfort, either. They all have the transient look of spaces that are used primarily for work.

When Twombly and Rauschenberg were together at Black Mountain College, they were exposed to what their fellow student Francine du Plessix Gray describes as a “grab bag” approach to world culture. “We were reading Ezra Pound’s Guide to Kulchur and then Virgil because Pound tells you to read Virgil and Fenollosa on Japanese art and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Leo Frobenius on African rock painting and Pausanias’s Description of Greece. This sort of nativist American grab-bag attitude reminds me very much of the cultural map implied in Cy’s paintings.”
It might also be said to describe the kind of restless life that Twombly has chosen to lead. For years now, he has spent very little time in Rome. He owns a sixteenth-century villa in Bassano, near the gardens of Bomarzo, an hour north of Rome. Many of his paintings and drawings have been done during temporary stays in other places he likes—Sperlonga, Mykonos, the Seychelles, Robert Rauschenberg’s house on Captiva Island in Florida, an Italian friend’s villa in Bolsena. He travels all the time, sometimes with his wife, Tatiana, who nevertheless leads a highly independent life of her own, and whose hobby is collecting old rosebushes—she was on a rose hunt in Turkistan at the time of our visit to Gaeta. (Their 34-year-old son, Alessandro, who is also a painter, collects iris tubers.) “I fall in love with places,” Twombly tells us. He fell in love with Paris a few years back, rented and furnished an apartment there, but never stayed in it; he found he preferred his circular corner room at the Left Bank Hôtel de la Louisiane. “Simone de Beauvoir lived there. Sartre, too, but of course he went home to mama every night, like a good French writer.”

Last year he rediscovered Lexington, Virginia, where he grew up. He recently bought a house in the town and now spends several months a year there. “I’m like an old dog who’s come home to die. I see people I grew up with, but I can’t talk about old times with them. I can’t remember any of that. It’s not a nostalgic trip for me.” His father, a coach and, later, athletic director at Washington and Lee University there, had acquired the nickname Cy (after the legendary pitcher Cy Young) when he pitched for the Chicago White Sox one summer. He passed it on to his only son, who showed no enthusiasm for organized athletics. Cy’s parents came from old-line New England families—as a boy, he used to visit his grandparents in Bar Harbor, Boston, and Palm Beach—and a sense of that old American aristocracy is never far from the surface of his laconic, laid-back personality. “When he moved to Italy, I think he was recovering that aristocracy that he always felt by nature,” says Rauschenberg. “I couldn’t forget that he couldn’t forget it.”

Twombly has always been a loner. Unlike most successful artists these days, he has no studio assistants and wants nobody around when he’s working. This sometimes leads to odd working habits. “One Twombly I really love is called Untitled, 1958,” says cult-film director John Waters. “It’s all on the very bottom of the painting. It looks like the artist climbed up a ladder, but it was hung so high he could only reach the very bottom. He barely managed a scribble, hardly a mark. And then he fell off the ladder and died. I love art that does that, that makes people crazy.” Waters wasn’t just fantasizing, as it turns out. “I just finished a big painting, sixteen meters long and four meters high, that I’ve been working on, off and on, for ten years,” Twombly tells me. “It’s hard for me to get up on a ladder because I’m all alone in the studio. I could fall off and be lying on the floor for days. So most things happen at the bottom of the painting.”

Twombly answers his own phone—when and if he feels like it. Friends used to reach him by letting his number ring twice, hanging up, and dialing again, but that system is no longer operative. He hates being interviewed or photographed, rules out tape recorders or notebooks, and balks at any sort of direct questions about his life or his painting. (He agreed to teach a philosophy seminar at Washington and Lee last spring and chose his own subject: the idea of metamorphosis. But he quit after one session because the students “asked too many questions.”) He’s definitive in his likes and dislikes—good, unpretentious trattorias over four-star showplaces; espresso in a glass (“It tastes much smoother than in porcelain, like tea tastes better from a china than a silver pot”); shirts and underpants from Brooks Brothers; white linen pants from “Banana” (he means Banana Republic); Bass loafers because “they’re the only ones who make the nonshiny kind”; a 1940s white double-breasted whipcord jacket that he found at a thrift shop. He reads for two or three hours every day in his eclectic fashion—history, poetry, travel books, Walter Pater’s essays, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. He’s never liked the process of printmaking, “because you have to work with all those other people.” He doesn’t want to think of himself as a professional painter (the aristocratic prejudice again), and he works only when he feels like it—sometimes months will go by when he doesn’t paint. He hates to make plans or schedules, moves from place to place on impulse, doesn’t always show up when he’s invited somewhere. “Cy says he’ll be there in half an hour,” Rauschenberg quips, “but he doesn’t say which month.”

Twombly has always been astute about placing his work, and now it is about to become much more visible in the United States, and not just at the Modern. Fifty Days at lliam, his ten-part painting on the theme of the Trojan War, has been on permanent display since 1989, in a space of its own, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Cy is aware that he misspelled Iliam—it should be Ilium. He laughs off the story that he once said, “My painting isn’t getting better, but my spelling is.”) The Menil Collection in Houston is building a special addition that will be, in effect, a one-man Twombly museum, although Twombly, who designed the floor plan in collaboration with architect Renzo Piano, prefers to call it a gallery; the inauguration will be next February, when MoMA’s Twombly show comes to Houston. The Dia Center for the Arts in New York, which has a large collection of Twombly’s work, plans to install most of it in 1996 in a newly created space on West Twenty-second Street. Twombly has been generous with these institutions because they are so obviously dedicated to his work, but there is no doubt who calls the shots and controls the way his work will be seen. Asked whom to go to for a new Twombly painting, he replies, “I have them.”

Twombly is showing us his garden in Gaeta, a terraced landscape on the hill above the house. It’s a series of what he calls stanze segrete, “secret rooms,” each defined by a different tree—pleached lindens, lemon trees, square-and-cone-shaped laurels, orange trees—with hedges of olive and laurel. It’s a green garden with no flowers. “I hate roses,” he says. “Don’t you? It’s all right if you can hide them in a cutting garden, but I think a rose garden is the height of ick.” Each “room” has stunning views of the sea and of the two ancient castles on the next hill. The red-tile roofs of his own house are directly below. “I love that,” he drawls. “It looks like an Arab village.” He is less pleased with the church next door. “It’s a hideous nineteenth- century Victorian church,” he says, “where everybody wants to get married.”

We walk down the hill for lunch at his favorite local trattoria. It’s full of large families enjoying Sunday dinner. “Sit over there,” he tells me, “so you won’t have to look at the babies.” Kids run in and out and between the tables, getting into fights. “Alessandro was such a good child,” Twombly says ruefully. “If you sent him out to play, he’d send back a note saying, ‘I’m in the garden.’ ” I make the mistake of trying to get him to talk about his New England family (without asking any direct questions), and the undercurrent of irritation that has been building up in him suddenly erupts. “I swear if I had to do this over again, I would just do the paintings and never show them. And then after I’m dead, they could talk about them all they want. I’m just not interested in myself that way. I was brought up to think you don’t talk about yourself. I hate all this. Why should I have to talk about the paintings. I do them, isn’t that enough?”
The storm passes, and we finish lunch. Walking through town afterward, along the seawall, Twombly is friendly and conversational, pointing out the thirteenth-century campanile with its Moorish inlaid tiles and saying how much better the town would look if the houses were all painted white. Twombly has made the ancient world of the Mediterranean his own. He likes to say that he has no sense of time. “Sometimes when I’m writing the date on a letter, I have to ask what year it is.” He talks about the illustrated books he wants to do after he gets through the “anguish” of the Modern show. Some years ago, he did illustrations for the Odes of Horace and for Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender. “I like bucolic poetry,” he says. “Theocritus, Virgil. I’m from an agrarian part of the country. Although I wouldn’t do it if I was in America. When I used to spend time in Bassano, you could still see shepherds tending flocks of goats. Once I actually saw one throw himself down under a tree and play a flute. It still lives here, that Mediterranean world. And nothing that’s living is old to me.”

The Suggestion of an Infinite Book

Jorge Luis Borges at the Hotel des Beaux Arts, Paris, in 1969. Photo: José María Pepe Fernández.

 
 

The Thousand and One Nights

Jorge Luis Borges

1980

tr. Eliot Weinberger, 1984

The Georgian Review (Fall 1984): 564-574.

 
 

A major event in the history of the West was the discovery of the East. It would be more precise to speak of a continuing consciousness of the East, comparable to the presence of Persia in Greek history. Within this general consciousness of the Orient — something vast, immobile, magnificent, incomprehsible — there were certain high points, and I would like to mention a few. This seems to me the best approach to a subject I love so much, one I have loved since childhood, The Book of the Thousand and One Nights or, as it is called in the English version — the one I first read — The Arabian Nights, a title that is not without mystery, but is less beautiful.

I will mention a few of these high points. First, the nine books of Herodotus, and in them the revelation of Egypt, far-off Egypt. I say “far-off” because space was measured by time, and the journey was hazardous. For the Greeks, the Egyptian world was older and greater, and they felt it to be mysterious.

We will examine later the words Orient and Occident, East and West, which we cannot define, but which are true. They remind me of what St. Augustine said about time: “What is time? If you don’t ask me I know; but if you ask me I don’t know.” What are East and the West? If you ask me, I don’t know. We must settle for approximations.

Let us look at the encounters, the campaigns, and the wars of Alexander, who conquered Persia and India and who died finally in Babylonia, as everyone knows. This was the first great meeting with the East, and an encounter that so affected Alexander that he ceased to be Greek and became partly Persian. The Persians have now incorporated him into their history — Alexander, who slept with a sword and the Iliad under his pillow. We will return to him later, but since we are mentioning Alexander, I would like to recall a legend that may be of interest to you.

Alexander does not die in Babylonia at age thirty-three. He is separated from his men and wanders through the deserts and forests, and at last he sees a great light. It is a bonfire, and it is surrounded by warriors with yellow skin and slanted eyes. They do not know him, but they welcome him. As he is at heart a soldier, he joins in battles in a geography that is unknown to him. He is a soldier: the causes do not matter to him, but he is willing to die for them. The years pass, and he has forgotten many things. Finally the day arrives when the troops are paid off, and among the coins there is one that disturbs him. He has it in the palm of his hand, and he says: “You are an old man; this is the medal that was struck for the victory of Arbela when I was Alexander of Macedon.” At that moment he remembers his past, and he returns to being a mercenary for the Tartars or Chinese or whoever they were.

That memorable invention belongs to the poet Robert Graves. To Alexander had been prophesied the dominion of the East and the West. The Islamic countries still honor him under the name Alexander the Two-Horned, because he ruled the two horns of East and West.

Let us look at another example of this great — and not infrequently, tragic — dialogue between East and West. Let us think of the young Virgil, touching a piece of printed silk from a distant country. The country of the Chinese, of which he only knows that it is far-off and peaceful, at the further reaches of the Orient. Virgil will remember that silk in his Georgics, that seamless silk, with images of temples, emperors, rivers, bridges, and lakes far removed from those he knew.

Another revelation of the Orient is that admirable book, the Natural History of Pliny. There he speaks of the Chinese, and he mentions Bactria, Persia, and the India of King Porus. There is a poem of Juvenal I read more than forty years ago, which suddenly comes to mind. In order to speak of a far-off place, Juvenal says, “Ultra Auroram et Gangem,” beyond the dawn and the Ganges. In those four words is, for us the East. Who knows if Juvenal felt it as we do? I think so. The East has always held a fascination for the people of the West.

Proceeding through history, we reach a curious gift. Possibly it never happened; it has sometimes been considered a legend. Harun al-Rashi, Aaron the Orthodox, sent his counterpart Charlemagne an elephant. Perhaps it was impossible to send an elephant from Baghdad to France, but that is not important. It doesn’t hurt to believe it. That elephant is a monster. Let us remember that the word monster does not mean something horrible. Lope de Vega was called a “Monster of Nature” by Cervantes. That elephant must have been something quite strange for the French and for the Germanic king Charlemagne. (It is sad to think that Charlemagne could not have read the Chanson de Roland, for he spoke some Germanic dialect.)

They sent the elephant, and that word elephant reminds us that Roland sounded the olifant, the ivory trumpet that got its name precisely because it came from the tusk of an elephant. And since we are speaking of etymologies, let us recall that the Spanish word alfil, the bishop in the game of chess, means elephant in Arabic and has the same origin as marfil, ivory. Among Oriental chess pieces I have seen an elephant with a castle and a little man. That piece was not the rook, as one might think from the castle, but rather the bishop, the alfil, or elephant.

In the Crusades, the soldiers returned and brought back memories. They brought memories of lions, for example. We have the famous crusader Richard the Lion-Hearted. The lion that entered into heraldry is an animal from the East. This list should not go on forever, but let us remember Marco Polo, whose book is a revelation of the Orient — for a long time it was the major source. The book was dictated to a friend in jail, after the battle in which the Venetians were conquered by the Genoese. In it, there is the history of the Orient, and he speaks of Kublai Khan, who will reappear in a certain poem by Coleridge.

In the fifteenth century in the city of Alexandria, the city of Alexander the Two-Horned, a series of tales was gathered. Those tales have a strange history, as it is generally believed. They were first told in India, then in Persia, then in Asia Minor, and finally were written down in Arabic and compiled in Cairo. They became The Book of the Thousand and One Nights.

I want to pause over the title. It is one of the most beautiful in the world . . . . I think its beauty lies in the fact that for us the word thousand is almost synonymous with infinite. To say a thousand nights is to say infinite nights, countless nights, endless nights. To say a thousand and one nights is to add one to infinity. Let us recall a curious English expression: instead of forever, they sometimes say forever and a day. A day has been added to forever. It is reminiscent of a line of Heine, written to a woman: “I will love you eternally and even after.”

The idea of infinity is consubstantial with The Thousand and One Nights.

In 1704, the first European version was published, the first of the six volumes by the French Orientalist Antoine Galland. With the Romantic movement, the Orient richly entered the consciousness of Europe. It is enough to mention two great names: Byron, more important for his image than for his work, and Hugo, the greatest of them all. By 1890 or so, Kipling could say: “Once you have heard the call of the East, you will never hear anything else.”

Let us return for a moment to the first translation of The Thousand and One Nights. It is a major event for all European literature. We are in 1704, in France. It is the France of the Grand Siècle; it is the France where literature is legislated by Boileau, who dies in 1711 and never suspects that all his rhetoric is threatened by that splendid Oriental invasion.

Let us think about the rhetoric of Boileau, made of precautions and prohibitions, of the cult of reason, and of that beautiful line of Fénelon: “Of the operations of the spirit, the least frequent is reason.” Boileau, of course, wanted to base poetry on reason.

We are speaking in the illustrious dialect of Latin we call Spanish, and it too is an episode of that nostalgia, of that amorous and at times bellicose commerce between Orient and Occident, for the discovery of America is due to the desire to reach the Indies. We call the people of Montezuma and Atahualpa Indians precisely because of this error, because the Spaniards believed they had reached the Indies. This little lecture is part of that dialogue between East and West.

As for the word Occident, we know its origin, but that does not matter. Suffice to say that Western culture is not pure in the sense that it exists entirely because of Western efforts. Two nations have been essential for our culture: Greece (since Rome is a Hellenistic extension) and Israel, an Eastern country. Both are combined into what we call Western civilization. Speaking of the revelations of the East, we must also remember the continuing revelation that is the Holy Scripture. The fact is reciprocal, now that the West influences the East. There is a book by a French author called The Discovery of Europe by the Chinese — that too must have occurred.

The Orient is the place where the sun comes from. There is a beautiful German word for the East, Morgenland, land of evening. You will recall Spengler‘s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, that is, the downward motion of the land of evening, or, as it is translated more prosiacally, The Decline of the West. I think that we must not renounce the word Orient, a word so beautiful, for within it, by happy chance, is the word oro,gold. In the word Orient we feel the word oro, for when the sun rises we see a sky of gold. I come back to that famous line of Dante: “Dolce color d’oriental zaffiro.” The word oriental here has two meanings: the Oriental sapphire, which comes from the East, and also the gold of morning, the gold of that first morning in Purgatory.

What is the Orient? If we attempt to define it in a geographical way, we encounter something quiet strange: part of the Orient, North Africa, is in the West, or what for the Greeks and Romans was the West. Egypt is also the Orient, and the lands of Israel, Asia Monor, and Bactria, Persia, India — all of those countries that stretch further and further and have little in common with one another. Thus, for example, Tartary, China, Japan — all that is our Orient. Hearing the word Orient, I think we all think, first of all, of the Islamic Orient, and by extension the Orient of northern India.

Such is the primary meaning it has for us, and this is the product of The Thousand and One Nights. There is something we feel as the Orient, something I have not felt in Israel but have felt in Granada and in Córdoba. I have felt the presence of the East, and I don’t know if I can define it; perhaps it’s not worth it to define something we feel so instinctively. The connotations of that word we owe to The Thousand and One Nights. It is our first thought; only later do we think of Marco Polo or the legends of Prester John, of those rivers of sand with fishes of gold. First we think of Islam.

Let us look at the history of the book, and then at the translations. The origin of the book is obscure. We may think of the cathedrals, miscalled Gothic, that are the works of generations of men. But there is an essential difference: the artisans and craftsmen of the cathedrals knew what they were making. In contrast, The Thousand and One Nights appears in a mysterious way. It is the work of thousands of authors, and none of them knew that he was helping to construct this illustrous book, one of the most illustrious books in all literature (and one more appreciated in the West than in the East, so they tell me).

Now, a curious note that was transcribed by the Baron von Hammer-Purgstall, an Orientalist cited with admiration by both Lane and Burton, the two most famous English translators of The Thousand and One Nights. He speaks of certain men he calls confabulatores nocturni, men of the night who tell stories, men whose profession it is to tell stories during the night. He cites an ancient Persian text which states that the first person to hear such stories told, who gathered the men of the night to tell stories in order to ease his insomnia, was Alexander of Macedon.

Those stories must have been fables. I suspect that the enchantment of fables is not in their morals. What enchanted Aesop or the Hindu fabulists was to imagine animals that were like little men, with their comedies and tragedies. The idea of the moral proposition was added later. What was important was the fact that the wolf spoke with the sheep and the ox with the ass, or the lion with the nightingale.

We have Alexander of Macedon hearing the stories told by these anonymous men of the night, and this profession lasted for a long time. Lane, in his book Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, says that as late as 1850 storytellers were common in Cairo. There were some fifty of them, and they often told stories from The Thousand and One Nights.

We have a series of tales. Those from India, which form the central core (according to Burton and to Cansinos-Asséns, author of an excellent Spanish version) pass on to Persia; in Persia they are modified, enriched, and Arabized. They finally reach Egypt at the end of the fifteenth century, and the first compilation is made. This one leads to another, apparently a Persian version: Hazar Afsana, the thousand tales.

Why were there first a thousand and later a thousand and one? I think there are two reasons. First, there was the superstition — and superstition is very important in this case — that even numbers are evil omens. They then sought an odd number and luckily added and one. If they had made it nine hundred and ninety-nine we would have felt that there was a night missing. This way we feel that we have been given something infinite, that we have received a bonus — another night.

We know that chronology and history exist, but they are primarily Western discoveries. There are no Persian histories of literature or Indian histories of philosophy, nor are there Chinese histories of Chinese liberature, because they are not interested in the succession of facts. They believe that literature and poetry are eternal processes. I think they are basically right. For example, the title, The Thousand and One Nights would be beautiful even if it were invented this morning. If it had been made today we would think what a lovely title, and it is lovely not only because it is beautiful (as beautiful as LugonesLos crepúsculos del jardín: The Twilights of the Garden) but because it makes you want to read the book.

One feels like getting lost in The Thousand and One Nights, one knows that entering that book one can forget one’s own poor human fate; one can enter a world, a world made up of archetypal figures but also of individuals.

In the title The Thousand and One Nights there is something very important: the suggestion of an infinite book. It practically is. The Arabs say that no one can read The Thousand and One Nights to the end. Not for reasons of boredom: one feels the book is infinite.

At home I have the seventeen volumes of Burton’s version. I know I’ll never read all of them, but I know that there the nights are waiting for me; that my life may be wretched but the seventeen volumes will be there; there will be that species of eternity, The Thousand and One Nights of the Orient.

How does one define the Orient (not the real Orient, which does not exist)? I would say that the notions of East and West are generalizations, but that no individual can feel himself to be Oriental. I suppose that a man feels himself to be Persian or Hindu or Malaysian, but not Oriental. In the same way, no one feels himself to be Latin American: we feel ourselves to be Argentines or Chileans. It doesn’t matter; the concept does not exist.

What is the Orient, then? It is above all a world of extremes in which people are very unhappy or very happy, very rich or very poor. A world of kings, of kings who do not have to explain what they do. Of kings who are, we might say, as irresponsible as gods.

There is, moreover, the notion of hidden treasures. Anybody may discover one. And the notion of magic, which is very important. What is magic? Magic is unique causality. It is the belief that besides the causal relations we know, there is another causal relation. That relationship may be due to accidents, to a ring, to a lamp. We rub a ring, a lamp, and a genie appears. That genie is a slave who is also omnipotent and who will fulfill our wishes. It can happen at any moment.

Let us recall the story of the fisherman and the genie. The fisherman has four children and is poor. Every morning he casts his net from the banks of a sea. Already the expression a sea is magical, placing us in a world of undefined geography. The fisherman doesn’t go down the the sea, he goes down to a sea and casts his net. One morning he casts and hauls it in three times: he hauls in a dead donkey, he hauls in broken pots — in short, useless things. He casts his net a fourth time — each time he recites a poem — and the net is very heavy. He hopes it will be full of fish, but what he hauls in is a jar of yellow copper, sealed with the seal of Suleiman (Solomon). He opens the jar, and a thick smoke emerges. He thinks of selling the jar to the hardware merchants, the smoke rises to the sky, condenses, and forms the figure of a genie.

What are these genies? They are related to a pre-Adamite creation — before Adam, inferior to men, but they can be gigantic. According to the Moslems, they inhabit all of space and are invisible and impalpable.

The genie says, “All praises to God and Solomon His Prophet.” The fisherman asks why he speaks of Solomon, who died so long ago; today His Prophet is Mohammed. He also asks him why he is closed up in the jar. The genie tells him that he is one of those who rebelled against Solomon, and that Solomon enclosed him in the jar, sealed it, and threw it to the bottom of the sea. Four hundred years passed, and the genie pledged that whoever liberated him would be given all the gold in the world. Nothing happened. He swore that whoever liberated him, he would teach the song of the birds. The centuries passed, and the promises multiplied. Finally he swore that he would kill whoever freed him. “Now I must fulfill my promise. Prepare to die, my savior!” That flash of rage makes the genie strangely human, and perhaps likable.

The fisherman is terrified. He pretends to disbelieve the story, and he says: “What you have told me cannot be true. How could you, whose head touches the sky and whose feet touch the earth, fit into that tiny jar?” The genie answers: “Man of little faith, you will see.” He shrinks, goes back into the jar, and the fisherman seals it up.

The story continues, and the protagonist becomes not a fisherman but a king, then the king of the Black Islands, and at the end everything comes together. It is typical of The Thousand and One Nights. We may think of those Chinese spheres in which there are other spheres, or of Russian dolls. We encounter something similar in Don Quixote but not taken to the extremes of The Thousand and One Nights. Moreover, all of this is inside a vast central tale which you all know: that of the sultan who has been deceived by his wife and who, in order never to be deceived again, resolves to marry every night and kill the woman the following morning. Until Scheherazade pledges to save the others and stays alive by telling stories that remain unfinished. They spend a thousand and one nights together, and in the end she produces a son.

Stories within stories create a strange effect, almost infinite, a sort of vertigo. This has been imitated by writers ever since. The “Alice” books of Lewis Carroll or his novel Sylvia and Bruno, where there are dreams that branch out and multiply.

The subject of dreams is a favorite of The Thousand and One Nights. For example, the story of the two dreamers. A man in Cairo dreams that a voice orders him to go to Isfahan in Persia, where a treasure awaits him. He undertakes the long and difficult voyage and finally reaches Isfahan. Exhausted, he stretches out in the patio of a mosque to rest. Without knowing it he is among thieves. They are all arrested, and the cadi asks him why he has come to the city. The Egyptian tells him. The cadi laughs until he shows the back of his teeth and says to him: “Foolish and gullible man, three times I have dreamed of a house in Cairo, behind which is a garden, and in the garden a sundial, and then a fountain and a fig tree, and beneath the fountain there is a treasure. I have never given the least credit to this lie. Never return to Isfahan. Take this money and go.” The man returns to Cairo. He has recognized his own house in the cadi’s dream. He digs beneath the fountain and finds the treasure.

In The Thousand and One Nights there are echoes of the West. We encounter the adventures of Ulysses, except that Ulysses is called Sinbad the Sailor. The adventures are at times identical: for example, the story of Polyphemus.

To erect the palace of The Thousand and One Nights it took generations of men, and those men are our benefactors, as we have inherited this inexhaustible book, this book capable of so much metamorphosis. I say so much metamorphosis because the first translation, that of Galland, is quite simple and is perhaps the most enchanting of them all, the least demanding on the reader. Without this first text, as Captain Burton said, the later versions could not have been written.

Galland publishes his first volume in 1704. It produces a sort of scandal, but at the same time it enchants the rational France of Louis XIV. When we think of the Romantic movement, we usually think of dates that are much later. But it might be said that the Romantic movement begins at that moment when someone, in Normandy or in Paris, reads The Thousand and One Nights. He leaves the world legislated by Boileau and enters the world of Romantic freedom.

The other events come later: the discovery of the picaresque novel by the Frenchman Le Sage; the Scots and English ballads published by Percy around 1750; and, around 1798, the Romantic movement beginning in England with Coleridge, who dreams of Kublai Khan, the protector of Marco Polo. We see how marvelous the world is and how interconnected things are.

Then come the other translations. The one by Lane is accompanied by an encyclopedia of the customs of the Moslems. The anthropological and obscene translation by Burton is written in a curious English partly derived from the fourteenth century, an English full of archaisms and neologisms, an English not devoid of beauty but which at times is difficult to read. Then the licensed (in both senses of the word) version of Doctor Mardrus, and a German version, literal but without literary charm, by Littmann. Now, happily, we have a Spanish version by my teacher Rafael Cansinos-Asséns. The book has been published in Mexico; it is perhaps the best of all the versions, and it is accompanied by notes.

The most famous tale of The Thousand and One Nights is not found in the original version. It is the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp. It appears in Galland’s version, and Burton searched in vain for an Arabic or Persian text. Some have suspected Galland forged the tale. I think the word forged is unjust and malign. Galland had as much right to invent a story as did those confabulatores nocturni. Why shouldn’t we suppose that after having translated so many tales, he wanted to invent one himself, and did?

The story does not end with Galland. In his autobiography De Quincey says that, for him, there was one story in The Thousand and One Nights that was incomparably superior to the others, and that was the story of Aladdin. He speaks of the magician of Magrab who comes to China because he knows that there is the one person capable of exhuming the marvelous lamp. Galland tells us that the magician was an astrologer, and that the stars told him he had to go to China to find the boy. De Quincey, who had a wonderfully inventive memory, records a completely different fact. According to him, the magician had put his ear to the ground and had heard the innumerable footsteps of men. And he had distinguished, from among the footsteps, those of the boy destined to discover the lamp. This, said De Quincey, brought him to the idea that the world is made of correspondences, is full of magic mirrors — that in small things is the cipher of the large. The fact of the magician putting his ear to the ground and deciphering the footsteps of Aladdin appears in none of these texts. It is an invention of the memory or the dreams of De Quincey.

The Thousand and One Nights has not died. The infinite time of the thousand and one nights continues its course. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the book was translated; at the beginning of the nineteenth (or end of the eighteenth) De Quincey remembered it another way. The Nights will have other translators, and each translator will create a different version of the book. We may almost speak of the many books titles The Thousand and One Nights: two in French, by Galland and Mardrus; three in English, by Burton, Lane, and Paine; three in German, by Henning, Littmann, and Weil; one in Spanish by Cansinos-Asséns. Each of these books is different, because The Thousand and One Nights keeps growing or recreating itself. Robert Louis Stevenson‘s admirable New Arabian Nights takes up the subject of the disguised prince who walks through the city accompanied by his vizier and who has curious adventures. But Stevenson invented his prince, Florizel of Bohemia, and his aide-de-camp, Colonel Geraldine, and he had them walk through London. Not a real London, but a London similar to Baghdad; not the Baghdad of reality, but the Baghdad of The Thousand and One Nights.

There is another author we must add: G. K. Chesterton, Stevenson’s heir. The fantastic London in which occur the adventures of Father Brown and of The Man Who Was Thursday would not exist if he hadn’t read Stevenson. And Stevenson would not have written his New Arabian Nights if he hadn’t read The Arabian Nights. The Thousand and One Nights is not something which has died. It is a book so vast that it is not necessary to have read it, for it is a part of our memory — and also, now, a part of tonight.