What Is the Sum of a Night of Jouissance and a Night of Desire?
In A Thousand and One Nights, missing his younger brother, King Shâh Zamân, King Shahrayâr invites him to visit him. While on the point of heading to his brother from his camp on the outskirts of his capital, King Shâh Zamân remembers something he had forgotten in his palace. He heads back and discovers that his wife is betraying him with a slave. He slaughters her and her partner. Then he heads to his brother. The latter notes his brother’s depression; he ascribes it erroneously to nostalgia on account of leaving his kingdom. When King Shahrayâr invites his brother to a hunting trip, the latter, still depressed, declines the invitation. “King Shâh Zamân passed his night in the palace and, next morning, when his brother had fared forth, he removed from his room and sat him down at one of the lattice-windows overlooking the pleasure grounds; and there he abode thinking with saddest thought over his wife’s betrayal …. And as he continued in this case lo! a postern of the palace, which was carefully kept private, swung open and out of it came twenty slave girls surrounding his brother’s wife, who was wondrous fair, a model of beauty and comeliness and symmetry and perfect loveliness and who paced with the grace of a gazelle … Thereupon Shâh Zamân drew back from the window, but he kept the bevy in sight, espying them from a place whence he could not be espied. They walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain amiddlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, ‘Here to me, O my lord Saeed!’ and then sprang with a drop-leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button-loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her. On like wise did the other slaves with the girls till all had satisfied their passions, and they ceased not from kissing and clipping, coupling and carousing till day began to wane; when the Mamelukes rose from the damsels’ bosoms and the blackamoor slave dismounted from the Queen’s breast; the men resumed their disguises and all, except the Negro who swarmed up the tree, entered the palace and closed the postern-door as before.” Feeling then that what he underwent, betrayal, his betrayal by his wife, is not so rare—all the more since he had just committed it, belatedly, by voyeuristically persisting in espying his brother’s wife’s betrayal with a blackmoor, instead of leaving promptly as soon as he made the discovery—King Shâh Zamân regains some of his liveliness. When his brother returns from his trip and notices the change, he asks him about it. King Shâh Zamân confesses to his brother the cause of his previous depression. “By Allâh, had the case been mine, I would not have been satisfied without slaying a thousand women, and that way madness lies!” How little did King Shahrayâr know yet about madness when he heard the account by his brother of the latter wife’s betrayal! Slaying a thousand women for one, in an enraged, revengeful slaughter spree, all at the same time or else first tens then hundreds until the total was a thousand, is an excessive measure but not necessarily a mad sort of behavior. King Shâh Zamân ends up informing his brother of what he saw in the latter’s palace, and then King Shahrayâr gets a confirmation through a repeat of these events a few nights later: “At dawn they seated themselves at the lattice overlooking the pleasure grounds, when …” a loop of the events occurs—with, the way I (imagine that I) see it, the following two variants: the events occur at night; and the blackmoor does not go up the tree and disappear from view and the queen, the concubines and the male slaves do not resume their disguises and then enter the palace and close the postern door as before, but rather the queen, the blackmoor, the concubines and the male slaves persist in their “activity,” and it is King Shahrayâr who leaves (along with his brother?)—the king’s harem has become muharram (forbidden) to him! How come the king did not spring to action and slay then and there his wife, her sexual partner, and her companions? What rendered him unable to do so and to act that night as a serial killer, slaughtering a thousand women for a duration that’s equivalent in abstract terms to the time the scene of jouissance in the palace’s garden lasted before he left? Was it that the gestures and more generally the behavior that he witnessed on the part of his wife and his concubines were of the sort that is seen in nightmares and therefore imply that the king was then in the typical paralysis of the sleeping body? Did the inexorable manner in which the gestures were being repeated, their automatism induce the ineluctable notion that they will go on, this unconsciously dissuading the king from trying to interrupt them and kill the intimate transgressors? Yet again, how to kill his concubines when two of them were bent on stabbing themselves in the back, repeatedly, but failing to accomplish that, the knives again and again not reaching their respective backs, so that, paradoxically, they already seemed undead, to the other side of physical death, where such a compulsive suicidal gesture itself becomes some sort of immortal automatism? Shâh Zamân goes along with Shahrayâr in his decision to “overwander Allâh’s earth … till we find some one to whom the like calamity hath happened; and if we find none then will death be more welcome to us than life.” Did what the two royal brothers see in the palace’s garden at all prepare them for what they then encounter? As they found themselves outside the palace, did they not feel that their surroundings were out of the world and that they were now moving in an extension of the fantasmatic space they apprehended “in” the palace’s garden? While they rested after wayfaring by day and by night, “the sea brake with waves before them, and from it towered a black pillar, which grew and grew till it rose skywards …. Seeing it, they waxed fearful exceedingly and climbed to the top of the tree, which was a lofty; whence they gazed to see what might be the matter. And behold, it was a Jinni, huge of height … bearing on his head a coffer of crystal. He strode to land, wading through the deep, and, coming to the tree whereupon were the two kings, seated himself beneath it. He then set down the coffer on its bottom and out of it drew a casket, with seven padlocks of steel, which he unlocked with seven keys of steel he took from beside his thigh, and out of it a young lady to come was seen … The Jinni seated her under the tree by his side and looking at her said, ‘O choicest love of this heart of mine! O dame of noblest line, whom I snatched away on thy bride night that none might prevent me taking thy maidenhead or tumble thee before I did, and whom none save myself hath loved or hath enjoyed: O my sweetheart! I would lief sleep a little while.’ He then laid his head upon the lady’s thighs; and, stretching out his legs which extended down to the sea, slept …. Presently she raised her head towards the tree-top and saw the two Kings perched near the summit … she … said, ‘Stroke me a strong stroke … otherwise will I arouse and set upon you this Ifrit who shall slay you straightway.’ … At this, by reason of their sore dread of the Jinni, both did by her what she bade them do; and, when they had dismounted from her, she … then took from her pocket a purse and drew out a knotted string, whereon were strung five hundred and seventy seal rings, and asked, ‘Know ye what be these?’ They answered her saying, ‘We know not!’ Then quoth she; ‘These be the signets of five hundred and seventy men who have all futtered me upon the horns of this foul, this foolish, this filthy Ifrit; so give me also your two seal rings, ye pair of brothers.’” What would the scene of sexual betrayal in the garden have had to be for it to act as a transition from the frame story’s previously realistic narration to a marvelous one? A scene of jouissance. Back at his throne, the king had to assign someone who did not witness the scene of jouissance, for example his vizier, to kill any one of the participants in the orgy, preferably his wife, since for anyone who had witnessed the scene of lascivious automatism, the orgy of jouissance was virtually ongoing even when the participants had ostensibly resumed their conventional behavior. The vizier managed to apprehend the blackmoor and took him in chains to the queen’s closet, where he reprimanded Shahrayâr’s unfaithful wife in this manner: “See what a grace was seated on this brow … / This was your husband.… / Have you eyes?” At this point, she heard a voice in her head interject, “but fail to see,” and then another, unfamiliar voice ask, “What use then are your eyes?” moments before the vizier blinded her with his dagger. Then the latter resumed his questioning: “Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed, / And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?” By the time he repeated the last words, she no longer had eyes. “You cannot call it love”—it is jouissance. Once the vizier interrupted the (virtual) loop by killing Shahrayâr’s wife, Shahrayâr could act. “Then King Shahryâr took brand in hand and repairing to the Serraglio slew all the concubines and their Mamelukes.” Is one night of jouissance, for example the one Shahrayâr espied in the garden of his palace and which included so much compulsive repetition, tantamount to a thousand nights of desire? It appears to be so: “He [Shahrayâr] also sware himself by a binding oath that whatever wife he married he would abate her maidenhead at night and slay her next morning to make sure of his honour; ‘For,’ said he, ‘there never was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of earth.’ … On this wise he continued for the space of three years; marrying a maiden every night and killing her the next morning …” Why not kill in one fell swoop all the women under his rule if “there never was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of earth”? It is because the response of the king to the virtually endless repetition he apprehended (“they ceased not from kissing and clipping, coupling and carousing, till day began to wane …”—when the king [and his brother?] left) was bound to take the form of repetition, of compulsive repetition. After a thousand nights, it seemed that the king would no longer be able to repeat again, since “there remained not in the city a young person fit for carnal copulation. Presently the King ordered his Chief Wazîr … to bring him a virgin … and the Minister went forth and searched and found none …” Within the economy of the book, that form of repetition had at this point to be relayed by another form, albeit one still stamped with compulsion. “So he [the Chief Wazîr] returned home in sorrow and anxiety fearing for his life from the King. Now he had two daughters, Shahrazâd and Dunyâzâd …” Shahrazâd volunteers to be the next wife of the king. “When the King took her to his bed and fell to toying with her and wished to go in to her she wept; which made him ask, ‘What aileth thee?’ She replied, ‘O King of the age, I have a younger sister and lief would I take leave of her this night before I see the dawn.’ So he sent at once for Dunyâzâd and she came and kissed the ground between his hands, when he permitted her to take her seat near the foot of the couch. Then the King arose and did away with his bride’s maidenhead and the three fell asleep.” The king saw in his dream what he had already seen in the garden of the palace a thousand nights before: some figures that appeared from one perspective to be each composed of a couple engaging in sexual activity while covered, except for their faces, within the dress of one of the two participants, but appeared from another perspective, anamorphically, to be each a two-headed autoerotic monster—in the case of the garden obscenity this physical anamorphosis was conjoined to a temporal one between the childless king witnessing these jouissance-inducing composites and the yet to come sexually-polymorphous child who one day would, like Dunyâzâd, take his seat near the foot of the couch, seeing and hearing with his “own [hallucinating?] eyes” and ears the primal scene, his parents, Shahrayâr and Shahrazâd, engaged in sexual intercourse. Shahrayâr awoke with a start from his brief sleep. At “midnight Shahrazâd awoke and signaled to her sister Dunyâzâd, who sat up and said, ‘Allâh upon thee, O my sister, recite to us some new story, delightsome and delectable, wherewith to while away the waking hours of our latter night.’ ‘With joy and goodly gree,’ answered Shahrazâd, ‘if this pious and auspicious King permit me.’ ‘Tell on,’ quoth the King, who chanced to be sleepless and restless … [T]hus … began her recitations.” The “following night,” indeed the “following myriad nights,” Dunyâzâd, yet again present in the room with them, said “to her sister Shahrazâd, ‘O my sister, finish for us that story …;’ and she answered ‘With joy and goodly gree, if the King permit me.’ Then quoth the King, ‘Tell thy tale.’” Shahrazâd’s storytelling had to be such as to counter the king’s vow and his compulsion to repeat marrying a virgin every night and killing her the next morning, but also to integrate the repetition, now of a milder form, that of the nightly storytelling (and of the occasion for it, Dunyâzâd’s “Allâh upon thee, O my sister, recite to us …”). What is the sum of a night ofjouissance, which is tantamount to a thousand nights of desire, and a night of desire? It is:a thousand and one nights. Yes, one way of reading A Thousand and One Nights’s title is to reckon that it refers to both the night of jouissance that the king espied in the garden of his palace, a night tantamount to a thousand nights of desire, and the messianic Night of storytelling by Shahrazâd, a night in which she told myriad stories—until the appearance of a child to the erstwhile childless king notwithstanding that his ostensible mother was at no point pregnant! Who wrote or narrated the frame story of A Thousand and One Nights, more specifically the scene of the orgy in the garden? Who is describing it? Is that description an adequate one? Is that how King Shahrayâr perceived it, if not hallucinated it? Is that how he reviewed it in his nightmares? For instance, did King Shahrayâr actually see what appeared to be twenty slave girls strip, discovering thus that ten of them were actually men? No; in one of his recurring nightmares, a postern of the palace, which was carefully kept private, swung open, and out of it came twenty slave girls surrounding his wife, and then what would nowadays be best described as a cinematic dissolve took place and ended with ten naked concubines and ten naked white male slaves. When Shahrayâr initially heard from his brother that the latter had espied Shahrayâr’s wife betraying her husband, he said, “O my brother, I would not give thee the lie in this matter, but I cannot credit it till I see it with mine own eyes.” He should have soon realized that in relation to some scenes, seeing with one’s own eyes is not enough, and that one has to be told what one saw by a visionary teller. I imagine the king, having ascertained her knack for, indeed greatness in storytelling, saying to Shahrazâd, whether sometime during the series of storytelling episodes or else after she finishes her narration and brings him one child or three children: “While I want you to tell me myriad stories, I also want you to describe to me, narrate to me my discovery of the betrayal of my wife. I can try to describe to you what I saw with my own eyes, but treat my description as only a patchy approximation of what I saw, for that is what I myself feel it is; provide me with a description of what I apprehended (in part by extrapolating from the effects of what I saw on me)—one that is deserving of what I saw and of the effects what I saw induced in me, and one concerning which I would feel: ‘[Today] while knowing perfectly well that it corresponds to the facts, I no longer know if it is real.’” If he still had eyes even after seeing with his “own eyes” such obscenity, it must be that, like some of the figures in Inci Eviner’s Harem, he repeatedly failed to accomplish what he intended to do, to reach his eyes with his hands in order to gouge them out and throw them away (whether from an attitude affined to the Christian one [“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29)], that is, to get rid of jouissance, or else because that gesture itself is [as in the case of Oedipus?] henceforth part of jouissance), because his hands were then guided neither by the physical eyes nor the “mind’s eye,” since both were then overwhelmed with jouissance to the detriment of their usual function. Was Shahrazâd able to reconstruct the events of that day from the reactions of the king to what he saw in the secluded garden of his palace as well as to the myriad stories that she told him during their messianically inordinate Night? Whatever the answer, a “night” is missing from A Thousand and One Nights,. I know I’ll never read all of them …’ Until the worldly reappearance of al-Qâ’im (the Resurrector), there should not be a complete edition of The Thousand and One Nights. The only one who should write the missing night that brings the actual total of nights to a thousand and one is the messiah/al-Qâ’im, since only with his worldly reappearance can one read the whole book without dying.”] the one Shahrazâd should have spent narrating to Shahrayâr the events of the frame story, in particular what he witnessed in the garden of his palace on the night he discovered the betrayal of his wife—in the process narrating to him the occasion for her subsequent narration. Since the book we presently have does not include such a narration by Shahrazâd, one of the outstanding tasks in relation to A Thousand and One Nights has been not so much to do an audiovisual adaptation of various episodes of the work (as, for example, Pasolini did in his Arabian Nights, 1974), but to provide a fitting rendition if not of the entirety of the frame story then of the episode in the secluded garden that Shahrayâr apprehended. I consider that Eviner’s Harem is an artistic adaptation of the missing narration by Shahrazâd in A Thousand and One Nights. Yes, in her Harem Inci Eviner provides us with an audiovisual rendition neither of what the various Ottoman sultans would have seen (or might have fantasized) regarding their harems nor of what their Orientalist guests might have fantasized (or would have seen if, like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu [1689–1762], they were privileged enough to be granted access to the harem), but, unbeknownst to her, of what King Shahrayâr of A Thousand and One Nightsapprehended one day in the secluded garden of his palace. Fittingly, both Eviner’s Haremand the palace garden’s scene of the frame story in A Thousand and One Nights unfold in two acts: regarding the harem of A Thousand and One Nights’s frame story, “a postern of the palace, which was carefully kept private, swung open and out of it came twenty slave girls surrounding his brother’s wife, who was … a model of beauty and comeliness and symmetry and perfect loveliness and who paced with the grace of a gazelle …. then they [the twenty] stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then … the Queen … cried out in a loud voice, ‘Here to me, O my lord Saeed!’ and then sprang with a drop-leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He … bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button-loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her. On like wise did the other slaves with the girls … and they ceased not from kissing and clipping, coupling and carousing …”; and Eviner’s Harem begins with a video shot of Antoine-Ignace Melling’s Intérieur d’une partie du harem du Grand Seigneur (Inside the Harem of the Sultan; watercolor and ink heightened with white gouach; from Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore, an album Melling [1763–1831] made when visiting Istanbul upon the invitation of Sultan Selim the Third) to then dissolve to her rendition of the figures engaged in various lascivious, compulsive gestures—when, following the jouissance in Eviner’s singular contribution, we see the original Melling work again as a result of the loop, the latter seems to be a (Freudian) screen memory. At one level, what the king watched in the secluded garden of his palace was somewhat akin to what a twentieth or twenty-first century spectator might watch in a gallery or museum: a loop—in the case of the king, the loop of jouissance. Very few works require intrinsically (rather than expediently, thus extrinsically) to be looped; Eviner’s Harem is one of these few, since its figures’ gestures are subject to the repetition compulsion. It itself may very well induce in its viewers a compulsion to repeat … viewing it (as happened to Chris Marker regarding that great film revolving around repetition, more precisely the compulsion to repeat, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which he reported years ago having watched nineteen times)—as well as other things? Is Inci Eviner’s Harem, this work exhibiting jouissance, itself something that should not be witnessed—at least not by those uninitiated in Evil (one will not enter, one cannot enter hell with desires, however flagrant they may be; one can, indeed one is bound to “find” oneself in hell through jouissance)[For a different conception of hell, read my book Undying Love, or Love Dies(Sausalito, CA: The Post-Apollo Press, 2002; available for download as a PDF file at →).]? If so, then it would be a work whose title does not refer primarily to a historical harem but is self-referential: what is forbidden to vision is Eviner’s Harem. From Melling’s Intérieurd’une partie du harem du Grand Seigneur to Eviner’s Harem, the (primary) meaning of “harem” changes, from seraglio (The Redhouse Turkish-English Dictionary) to one that is closer to its Arabic etymology (“harem: Turkish, from Arabic … harama, to prohibit; seehrm in Semitic roots” [American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition]), more specifically to the Arabic muharram (forbidden, prohibited, or made unlawful). In Eviner’s Harem, while the following inscription can be read on one placard, “Lady Montagu was here,” another inscription can be read on a second placard: “There’s a smear on the wall.” Whereas the inclusion of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who accompanied her husband to Adrianople and Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1717 following his appointment in 1716 as Ambassador to the Ottoman Court, and some of whose letters are collected under the titleThe Turkish Embassy Letters, in Melling’s Intérieur d’une partie du harem du Grand Seigneur would have been seemly, her inclusion in Eviner’s harem can be considered a smear campaign, since the one who wrote the sort of letters that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu penned cannot have been in the latter surroundings. If there is a smear on the wall, if there is a stain (can there be jouissance without a stain? Is jouissance itself the stain?), a blot on the wall, then it is Eviner’s Harem itself, for example while being screened at Nev gallery in Istanbul.
Inci Eviner, Harem, 2009, single channel video loop, 3 min., color.
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