One Thousand and One Nights of Modernity

The One Thousand and One Nights is framed by the story of Scheherazade, the beautiful daughter of the vizier to the Sasanian King. The King’s heart has been darkened by his wife’s infidelities. He’s concluded that if she was so pure and still betrayed him all women must be incorrigibly wicked. After sentencing his beloved to death, the King, Shahryār instructs his vizier to provide him with a virgin to marry, only to have her executed the morning after their wedding night. What follows is a succession of marriages and executions in the same vein, bleeding the kingdom dry of young women. In a bid to save the remaining maidens, Scheherazade decides to marry the King, to which her father reluctantly agrees. She has a plan. On their wedding night she begins to tell a rich and imaginative fable but does not end it. This forces Shahryār to postpone her execution if he wants to hear the end of her story. The following night she ends the first story, then starts a second one, again stopping halfway through to trigger Shahryār’s curiosity. This goes on for one thousand and one nights, hence the name. All the stories of the Arabian Nights are housed within this tale with Scheherazade as the narrator.

Like all good stories the Arabian Nights embodies more than just its internal structure. For instance, Scheherazade’s plight is a metaphor for life: without change life’s not possible. And it’s noteworthy that all the stories, which characterise the vast ambit of human experience, are contained within this truism that life must be in a state of constant renewal and rejuvenation to stave off stagnation and death.

To stay enthralled we must seek new experiences, for what is new is already gathering up dust, and what is gathering up dust will soon be replaced by the new. Life is motion and change inevitable. To live a happy and rewarding life is rather like a riding a bicycle. It’s much easier to remain seated on a moving bicycle than it is a sedentary one.

In order to truly be alive there must always be enthusiasm for the new, the modern; there must be incessant excitement about what’s around the corner; about new shoes, new dresses and shirts; new trinkets, new styles, and new ideas. Enthusiasm is the winepress of the soul, without which we can sink into despair. Like Scheherazade, if we don’t tell a new story every day we’ll perish; we’ll lose our vitality and freshness because a fast-flowing river has fresher water than a bird bath.

Fashion is the fetishization of change. For the aforementioned reasons, there’s an instinctive pull to drink from the fountain of youth; but most of all, it’s because fashion carries social distinction. To be fashionable implies a certain amount of wealth and privilege, as it is an abiding feature of the downtrodden that they are too often submerged under a flood of toil to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily struggle for air. People who have been chopping wood all day, or cleaning floors, don’t have the energy to explore new fashionable ideas on gender identity, nor the wealth to buy the latest threads from Milan. But those who can proudly pour forth torrents of song, showing off their virtuosity with rhapsodies of new-fangledness.

The one essential of fashion is to be ahead of its age. That is, there must be something new known only to a few. It must be modern. To be admitted into its great hall of distinction there must be a password that can’t be easily obtained or deduced. And the password must be in a state of flux, lest the uninitiated rapidly become the initiated. Because when the age fully catches up what was once fashionable ceases to mark initiates out for distinction.

Fashion’s race is over when the greyhound catches the hare. In order to avoid slipping back into the great body of humanity, the propelled mechanical hare must always be in advance of the greyhound. Which is to say that a key component of what is fashionable is its artificiality, for naturality might rapidly be caught; it must be somewhat irrational, for if it were rational it would be too easily calculated; and it must also be impractical, for if it were practical it would be altogether common. There are ironical fashions but the sole qualifier of these is the irony. Because the whole point of fashion is to not be of low status; it is to not be poor, economically or socially. There’s a similar dynamic going on in the quite arbitrary and mystifying rituals of the upper-class, which are intended to confer selective prestige and social importance.

Societal problems start to occur when the balance between structure and change is disrupted. Too little change is suggestive of an oppressive society; it is stifling, crippling. Too much change is suggestive of a decadent one; it is muddled, chaotic. Presently, our secular liberal society fits snugly into this latter category.

In the past a small caste of eccentric Bohemian types, whose long leisurely hours combined with substantial wealth and privilege, were a driving force behind many new fads and philosophies. Today’s consumer society has provided the conditions which has engineered a much larger class of would be Bohemians.

Essentially, in our industrial age the increased capacity for production has demanded increased consumption. Because economic expansion entails the increased freedom of how to make your money and, crucially, the increased freedom of what to spend your money on. Moreover, technological advances, and civilisation’s dominion over the world’s resources, means that, in most cases, people are consuming far more than they are producing.

A very rudimentary understanding of economics will inform you that unhappy spendthrifts create employment and growth, and contented misers, unemployment and decline. Thus, in order to remain economically competitive, liberal society has had to largely obliterate timeless wisdoms, such as prudence, temperance and responsibility, replacing them with desire of the flesh, idolatry and a whole litany of confused causes. Which is why the Gods worshipped by societal planners of this age lack the metaphorical vison of their predecessors. They are as bland as the market efficiency principle and as sterile as cost-benefit analysis.

This unbridled consumerism has created in a large enough pool of society a corrosive mixture of indolence, extravagance and entitlement to precipitate a tumult of social reform. People have more time and energy and means to consume more and, thus, change more. And so, out of waste and luxury and lethargy, the sickness they call Progress came into the world.

Excessive consumption, in all things, is the hallmark of liberal society in the industrial age. Hence, people will take good ideas and will stretch them to their implausible extremes. Such ideas, on account of feeling modern and progressive, will quickly take on the tint of fashion. They’ll carry social credits.

But to invoke the God of Progress as a reason for reform, without fully anticipating the consequences, is to brag about the mere fact that today is not yesterday. To declare that today is better than yesterday is like sneering at a lady because of her age. An ideal which is simply modern is already becoming ancient. Death is staring at it in the face. Because new philosophies come and go like the clouds in the sky. Iridescent ethical systems come and go as often as the fashionable change their shoes. Simply because iridescence happens to be the defining characteristic.

Unless society is built on truisms it is not built at all. Clearly, there would be little safety in a society in which the remark that murder was wrong was open to debate. Similarly, there would be little certainty in a society in which every truth is enveloped in a subjective mist; in a society where there’s an insistence that no objective or absolute truth can be affirmed; in a society that isn’t even too sure what a man or woman is, so leaves it to individual men and women to define. But there can’t be a multiplication of personal truths for the same reason there can’t be a multiplication of the earth and sun and moon. Truth is eternal otherwise it’s not Truth.

Certainly, an idea is no truer for being modern than it is false for being modern. To wed truth with change is dangerous because every age has its follies, spurred on by forces inimical to reason and sound judgement. To wed truth with change is to not fully grasp the blinded fate of Progress to which every age unwinds.

Liberal consumerism undervalues moderation. Indeed, it can even be paradoxically immoderate when claiming to be moderate. But moderation and stability are not necessarily a limitation but a liberty, for they provide the structure and discipline to be able to hit out in all directions. Moderation acts as a reliable barometer which can measure extravagance. It will reveal a light if only in the long fantastic shadows that it throws from common things. Immoderation, however, leaves us only in a gloomy vagueness of shifting shadows. It will nurture a cultural stampede akin to wild buffalos on the western prairie.

Society will always grow riotous in a long period of decadence; a hurricane of change will sweep all before it, laying havoc on the very foundations upon which it was built. But at some point, the liberal economic clock, which has hitherto had such a mechanical influence on the minds of its members, will be wound back. Because tempests don’t go on forever; they blow themselves out, and usher in a period of calm. Like the perfect stillness of a morning after a ferocious night-time bombardment.

On this front, the conclusion to Scheherazade’s tale on the one thousand and first night of the Arabian Nights is, I think, most instructive. Having exhausted her reservoirs of imagination she enters the bed chamber with trepidation, fearing for her life. But Shahryār has long since fallen in love with her and spares her.

The meaning? With age we grow accustomed to the world, while some are young enough not to have grown accustomed to anything. We slow down, while younger generations are forever in a spin moving from one thing to the next in eager anticipation. The old are closer to death and are resistant to change because it starts to remind them of their own mortality. Whereas the young think themselves immortal and are resistant to structure because they are restless.

What is true of people is certainly true of epochs. Long periods of change incubate structure; long periods of structure incubate change. As sure as trees shedding their leaves in autumn and the flowers blossoming in spring.

We are approaching the one thousand and first night.