Why I Read (reprise)

Was re-reading Burton’s The Arabian Nights on the grounds that I’d rather get my porn from a 19th century explorer’s attempts at translation than the boring sleaze on television, and found myself hijacked by the footnotes.

Here’s Burton on the institution of the Hammam:
“I have noted the popular practice amongst men as well as women, of hiring the Hammam for private parties and picnicking in it during the greater part of the day. In this tale the bath would belong to the public, and it was a mere freak of the bride to bathe with her bridegroom. Respectable people do not.”

And on the subject of the whole roasted stuffed camel, he introduces the unwelcome suggestion that most beasts treated in this manner would have been roadkill:
“This is a favourite Badawi dish, but too expensive unless some accident happen to the animal. Old camel is much like bull-beef, but the young meat is excellent, althought not relished by Europeans because, like strange fish, it has no recognised flavour…. There is an old idea in Europe that the maniacal vengeance of the Arab is increased by eating this flesh; the beast is certainly vindictive enough; but a furious and frantic vengefulness characterises the North American Indian who never saw a camel.”

Burton was no bowdleriser of the text, though he recognised the tendency and the necessity in others:
“It is an unpleasant fact that almost all of the poetry of Hafiz is addressed to youths… Sa’di, the ‘Persian Moralist’, begins one of the tales, ‘A certain learned man fell in love with the beautiful son of a blacksmith’, which Gladwin, translating for the general, necessarily changed to ‘daughter’.”

Several of his footnotes go into precise detail over how much interest may be charged, the distinction between the Jewish and the Moslem (sic) methods of circumcision, the nature and temperament of the Arab horse, and the exact nature of the paradisical tree that supplied every want.

Occasionally, he wields the footnote as a weapon of literary criticism:
“To my surprise, I read in Mr Redhouse’s ‘Mesnevi’: ‘Arafat, the mount where the victims are slaughtered by the pilgrims.’ The ignorance is phenomenal. Did Mr Redhouse never read Burckhardt or Burton?”

And there are five volumes of The Arabian Nights that I have never in my lifetime opened, and that I must go off and read, starting, in tribute to Burton, from the bottom of the page up. Happiness is a warm footnote.

3 comments

  1. You’re aware, of course, of PG Wodehouse’s comment that reading prose is like walking across a manicured lawn, and coming across a footnote is like stepping on a garden rake that hits you on the nose.(His exact quote is much pithier, but I just can’t remember it….old age, old age…)

  2. Yup and I’m glad for Wodehouse’s sake that he never read David Foster Wallace… the footnotes marched across that book of his until they finally stole a coupla chapters, would’ve been like getting hit with the contents of the entire garden shed!As for me, I like footnotes. They’re places where you can put your feet up and rest for a bit. Except in overly academic works, where they’re more like steel traps with the jaws clamping down so hard you think you’ll never move again.

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