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The Arabian Nights in Historical ContextBetween East and West$
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Saree Makdisi and Felicity Nussbaum

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780199554157

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2009

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199554157.001.0001

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‘The peculiar character of the Arabian Tale’: William Beckford and the Arabian Nights

‘The peculiar character of the Arabian Tale’: William Beckford and the Arabian Nights

(p.195) 8 ‘The peculiar character of the Arabian Tale’: William Beckford and the Arabian Nights
The Arabian Nights in Historical Context

James Watt

Oxford University Press

Beckford's Vathek (1786) is indebted both to the oriental pastiches of Anthony Hamilton and to the orientalist scholarship of Barthelemy D'Herbelot. This chapter begins by examining the generic and tonal heterogeneity of Vathek, via a detailed focus on its critical reception, and on the relations between Beckford and his editor Samuel Henley. By seizing on the historical figure of Vathek, Beckford made possible different allegorical interpretations of his work, allowing readers to see his protagonist as, among other things, an exemplification of imperial decadence. But in interweaving different registers of detail, culturally specific and outlandishly absurd, Beckford also took the language of Orientalist fantasy to a point of near-collapse, ironizing any such solemn constructions of his work. Reading Vathek in the context of the Nights’ contemporary reception, the chapter concludes by suggesting that Beckford sought to keep alive a form of literary invention that would remain non-accountable, beyond critical and editorial regulation.

Keywords:   absurdity, allegory, cultural specificity, decadence, empire, invention, reception, regulation, scholarship

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