12 June 2013

The Invention of the Cliffhanger - Scheherazade Civilizes a Despot with 1,001 Stories

The other day, my wife read her 2nd grade class a story about a dog who could not resist temptation. At the end, she told them that it was not a story about a dog. "Then what is it a story about," they asked. And in the question about that story, they begin to ask the questions that make a person conscious and not just reactive.

The cliffhanger, the chapter or episode ending that creates great suspense and demands resolution, may have been invented in the Orient about 1,000 years ago in a story that may best illustrate the civilizing power of stories.

Once upon a time, a powerful ruler returned early from a hunting trip to find his wife in the garden in the midst of an orgy. He was shocked. He was outraged, hurt, and angry. And he was a ruler who ordered his wife executed. He carried his betrayal with him, convincing himself that women were incapable of fidelity.He hit upon a solution to marriage that would not leave him vulnerable to further betrayal: he would marry a virgin and then have her executed in the morning, before she had a chance to betray him. Repeatedly. It's the story of excessive power, misogyny, and distrust. And had Scheherazade not come into the story, this despot would have remained a brute.

Scheherazade volunteered to marry this ruler to stop the slaughter of young virgins. At first it seemed as though she'd simply put herself into a parade of butchery, a parade in which she might at best be a speed bump. But she had a plan. Scheherazade knew how to tell a story. And she knew how to punctuate a story with a cliffhanger.

So, the first night the ruler made love to her and then, before he fell asleep, she told him a story. (The story of Ali Baba, the 40 Thieves and and magic words,"Open Sesame.") She did not finish the story, though, telling her new husband, "Wait until tomorrow," for the ending. The ruler - who was compelled to learn how the story ended - in turn told the executioner, "Wait until tomorrow." The reader is doubly hooked: first on the cliffhanger in Scheherazade's story and then on the cliffhanger in the form of her husband's executioner.

The second night Scheherazade finished the story but started another. Again the ruler could not bear the thought of not knowing how things turned out and again he ordered the executioner to wait another day.

This continued for 1,001 nights and in the end, Scheherazade had cured the ruler of his madness, his misogyny, his abuse of power and had even given him children. He had fallen in love with her and the world got a wonderful framework for stitching together a series of stories, a collection alternatively called Arabian Nights or 1,001 Nights, stories about flying carpets, magic lamps, genies and wishes come true, bravery, cowardice, calumny, the rise from rags to riches .... and a despot tamed.

I tell this partly because it is such a great story but also because it is illustrative of how stories tame us. The child told a story is first made to see the monster more clearly, and then to see it as fiction. The vaguely articulated fears about what is under the bed or in the closet become the well-told stories about what is vivid until the book is closed, dissolved until we pick up the book again. Through stories the child gains some control over feelings. More stories give us more nuance and in that we find more options. The ruler's one story of how women could not be trusted was replaced by Scheherazade's 1,001 stories about thousands of characters, places and situations. The one big - and wrong - idea gave way to a thousand smaller ideas. As he experienced the stories of so many characters, he began to see life as something richer, saw that lives came in many shapes and sizes and trajectories and in that he began to see that he, too, could be someone else. Life was not just one way and more specifically, his life did not have to be just one way.

Stories still tame us. It may have been the first myths and stories told around a campfire that turned frightened apes into the first humans. It is possible that stories are the vehicles through which we first learn empathy, learn not just to think of others but think and feel like others. And it's hard to imagine civilization without such skills. 1,001 Nights is not just brilliant story telling. It seems to be the first time story tellers became conscious of how stories turn animals into humans.

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