Friday, July 26, 2013
Welcome, beautiful traveler. I greet you with a story.
My favorite piece of classical music is Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. I have loved it since long before I knew what it meant, since its passionate Eastern melodies seeped into my consciousness from a phonograph record played by my parents when I was a child. As with many beautiful things, the music all but overwhelms me physically.
It grabs at something inside my chest, sends tides of energy surging through my nerves or my veins, and pulls tears from my eyes every time I listen to it.
Not least among the many wonderful aspects of this composition is its subject matter: the story of Scheherazade, perhaps the most gifted storyteller ever to be written of or imagined.
Scheherazade's tale forms the narrative frame for 1001 Arabian Nights. As the legend goes, the Sultan of Persia (having been betrayed by his unfaithful wife) took a new virgin to be his conquest every night, and then had her beheaded the next day. When this tradition had gone on for some time, Scheherazade, a brilliant and finely educated girl just entering womanhood, came forward and volunteered to be the Sultan's next consort. But she was able to postpone her execution by telling the misogynistic ruler a story that kept him spellbound through the night, and which she left unfinished at the break of dawn, so that he allowed her to live to finish it the next evening.
For each of 1001 nights, Scheherazade repeated this feat, until at last she told the Sultan she had no more stories remaining. Having fallen in love with her, he set aside his vengeful obsession and made her his queen.
Like all of the best stories, this one presents us with a marvelous, idealized hero and asks something of us by way of her example. To know exactly what it asks of us, we must consider two crucial parts of the narrative.
First, Scheherazade is not chosen by the Sultan as a consort – she volunteers. She sees something terrible happening, forms a plan, and steps forward at the risk of her own life to stop a ghastly chain of suffering.
She makes the choice to care for others first, to try to save them even if it means her destruction.
She loves her fellow women, and in loving, finds that she must act.
The second thing we must consider is a question: Does this story end happily for Scheherazade?
She winds up as the queen of all Persia, with a devoted husband who adores her. She has saved the lives of countless other women through her bravery and intelligence and talent. She will for the rest of her life have wealth and servants and luxury beyond asking. There is no denying that the story ends triumphantly for Scheherazade … but will she be happy?
She is, after all, married to a man who was a monster. Perhaps if we shrug and say, "That's just how kings were, back in the day," or "Well, it's just a fable," we can conclude that it doesn't really matter that the Sultan chose, in his rage, to use the faithlessness of one woman as justification for a life of perpetual serial rape and murder. But Scheherazade does not say, "That's just how sultans are," nor does she know that she is living in a fable.
This woman chooses a course that, in its best possible outcome, will bind the remainder of her life to a man who, when he might have said, "Women are treacherous, so I now abandon all contact with them," instead decided to sate himself nightly and order habitual butchery for his innocent victims.
Can she be happy, knowing what he has done?
Here, the story forces us to ask another question. When Scheherazade conceived her plan, did she only set out to save her fellow women?
Or did she set out to save the Sultan as well?
If her goal was merely to prevent further carnage, then she ends the story in victory and affluence, but facing what will probably be a long life of melancholy or even revulsion at her continued intimate submission to a beast, albeit a reformed one.
But if she said to herself, "I can draw this man back from the depths into which he has descended. I can make him whole and good again," then the story ends not just in triumph but in joy.
Scheherazade asks us to put others before ourselves. What we must decide is whether it also asks us to believe wholeheartedly in the possibility of redemption.
No one can make that decision for us – the decision to attempt to tame evil and then forgive it.
But it bears minding that the only way the story ends happily is if Scheherazade believed that she could do just that.
Only in risking her life at least in part for the sake of a madman does she earn the truest possible reward.
Thank you, goddess of love, for challenges, for heroism, and for the absolute, pure wonder of real beauty.