William Beckford’s Vathek, An Arabian Tale (1786) is perhaps the most bizarre response to Europe’s love affair with all things ‘Oriental’ in the eighteenth-century. The age witnessed a rich immigration of Eastern art and culture, as evidenced by figures such as Mary Elizabeth Wortley Montagu, who ‘smuggled’ in her letters on Turkish society and customs after a two-year stay in 1716–1718. Once the letters were finally published in 1762, the market had already been established by the French translation of an Arabic classic, The Thousand and One Nights. Antoine Galland’s translation, Les Mille et une nuits (1704–1717), quickly became a bestseller, reaching eighty editions by 1800 and finding their way into many distinguished bookshelves (even Mozart owned a copy).
It is no coincidence that Beckford’s own addition to the Nights — a contemporary reviewer claimed it was the one-thousand and second tale — was originally written in French, and then meticulously translated for the English public. French not only allowed him to commune with the Tales in the ‘original,’ but gave him a certain editorial distance from his own prose, allowing him to indulge in aberrant tropes with irony and a knowing wink.
The plot is simple and hardly does justice to the sheer gusto of the prose, which is both ridiculous and sublime (often in the same sentence). The great potentate, Vathek, is visited by a strange Indian who gives him exotic gifts, including swords with arcane writing upon them. However, when the Indian refuses to indulge Vathek’s whims, he disappears without decoding the text. Vathek is then stricken with ceaseless thirst and given a single means of deliverance: he must appease the “Giaour” (the Indian) by sacrificing fifty of the kingdom’s most beautiful children to his appetite. Vathek doesn’t think twice, and holds a sporting competition for the best and brightest to secure their parents’ permission.
However, the Giaour reneges on his promise, not only devouring the children, but withholding the promised key that opens a subterranean chamber of wonders. After escaping the parents’ wrath with the help of his mother (the evil sorcerer, Carathis), Vathek mounts an expedition to find the Giaour and make atonement. Along the way, he battles wild animals, meets fantastic dwarves, and becomes smitten with the daughter of a powerful emir, Nouronihar (who shares his wicked delight in torturing her underlings). Despite the emir’s best efforts to keep them apart, Vathek and Nouronihar escape to find the Giaour, who with some misgivings allows them to enter the temple of Eblis and learn the true secrets of eternity. However, eternity is hardly what they expected, as they merely find a room crowded with people writhing in agony, clutching hearts which now burn with an endless flame. Despite his Faustus-like appeals for mercy, Vathek is denied Mahomet’s deliverance, who abandons them to the enslavement of Eblis.
Understandably, Vathek sits uneasily amidst the other English ‘Oriental’ fictions of the period, such as Johnson’s Rasselas (1759), Hawkeworth’s Almoran and Hamet (1761) or Sheridan’s The History of Nourjahad (1767). Though Beckford seems more attuned to the culture than his predecessors, his work is just as contrived and ‘romantic,’ at least in the Gothic sense of the word. Indeed, Walpole’s famous novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764) provided the blueprint for Beckford’s tale of gothic mayhem and heightened sensibility. For unlike Johnson, who only pays lip-service to local customs, Beckford relishes the seraglios, eunuchs, and slave-girls as a decadent four-course meal. Every sentence of the work seems a source of intense joy for the author, who savors in obsessive alliteration and grotesque imagery. If he often loses sight of the story, it is because these digressions are the story; he wants the reader to lose him/herself in the pages of the novel like the twisting corridors of a haunted mansion.
This is less surprising when we remember that Beckford more or less lived in a haunted mansion — or at least a building that bore a passing resemblance to those featured in The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho. Fonthill Abbey, the ancestral seat he refashioned according to his literary bent, boasted twelve miles of walls, a 276 foot tower (which later collapsed), and a sultan-like storehouse of art and antiquities. He also reportedly hosted reenactments of his favorite stories and novels among his friends, and if we believe the legends, the entire plot of Vathek itself. Additionally, Beckford was dogged by the shadow of scandal (though married, he had scandalous relations with young men) and devoted his life to travel and the discovery of esoteric knowledge. Compare this to Vathek’s own ambition to “know every thing; even sciences that did not exist.” So this begs the question, how should we ready the inspired hodgepodge he left to posterity: as an autobiographical cipher or a parody of Gothic/Oriental excess?
From the first paragraph, he offers a clue through his grotesque description of Vathek’s anger: “when he was angry, one of his eyes became so terrible, that no person could bear to behold it; and the wretch upon whom it was fixed, instantly fell backwards, and sometimes expired.” The qualification “sometimes expired” is delightfully bathetic, and suggests that the Gothic terror is to be taken with a pinch of salt — or a glance back at Walpole. The first third of the work can be read as a virtuoso display of every Oriental trope in the literature: elaborate feasts, exotic names, fearful rituals, and overwhelming sensuality.
Whether by accident or design, Beckford seems to reduce the Arabic landscape (at least, as seen through English eyes) to a single perspective: appetite. The story is a virtual ode to eating, drinking, and all manner of tactile sensations. Beckford never misses an opportunity to describe the dishes being served to tickle Vathek’s depraved palette, or the endless ways he tortures his subjects and enemies. The most obvious example of this is when the Indian merchant is kicked and beaten by Vathek and a team of underlings: “being both short and plump, [the Indian] collected himself into a ball, and rolled around on all sides, at the blows of his assailants…while the Caliph, pursuing him closer than the rest, bestowed as many kicks as he possibly could.” The image of the caliph and his henchmen playing football throughout the palace with a “plump” Indian is the humor of nightmare, a joke made in the ultimate bad taste.
Throughout the book, a pornographic sense of violence seems on the verge of derailing the narrative. Slave girls pinch eunuchs to death and Vathek’s mother proclaims her “taste for dead bodies, and every thing like mummy” — a particularly gruesome pun. And while Beckford avoids depictions of sex, the dark prospect of rapine lurks in every corner, as when Vathek warns his guards that “You see how enormous [the Indian’s] performances are in every way; what would be the consequence should he get at my wives!” (Jacks 38). This is just after the Indian has downed countless bottles of wine and half the food on the table; clearly, one appetite is the same as another, and in this world, both people and animals are despoiled with abandon. We are put in mind of the masquerade parties at Fonthill Abbey, where Beckford played sultan to his friends’ eunuchs and slaves.
This sense of burlesque looms large in the work, as Robert Mack points out in his Introduction to Oriental Tales: “Homosexual writers are at home in the oriental tale, as are female authors; it is a place to be free of the restrictions of the mundane realism tied to the demands of the market-place and the goings on of ‘real’ society.” However seriously we take this story itself, there is an gleeful sense of play in the work, where flagellation wars with flatulence in a single paragraph. Like the seraglio itself, Beckford sequesters his darkest desires and most fervid fantasies within the confines of the Arabian Nights, with enough jokes and moral wisdom to remind the reader that it’s all in good fun — and bad taste.
If the mix of fantasy and farce is a precursor to Romanticism, so, too, is the most innovative aspect of the work: the dense, scholarly footnotes that accompany the text. The casual mention of genii in the story (a term which was already well-known to English readers by 1786) receives a veritable dissertation in the notes, claiming, “It is asserted, and not without plausible reasons, that the words Genn, Ginn, Genius, Genie, Gian, Gigas, Giant, Geant proceed from the same themes…as if these supernatural agents had been an early production of the earth, long before Adam was modelled [sic] out from a lump of it.”
Strangely, these footnotes were not assembled by Beckford, but a clergyman friend, Samuel Henley, to accompany the English translation. Though he may have had pretensions of being an Orientalist, Henley was curiously tone deaf to literature or the aims of a popular novelist. Ignoring the gothic extravaganza of the plot, Henley insisted on seeing the work as “an ‘illustrative’ social-historical document, from which commentators such as himself might expect ‘great assistance.’ ” The notion that a work like Vathek could contribute to the ethnographic study of Arabic culture is either a testament to Henley’s naiveté or the primitive state of contemporary scholarship. Despite his earnest efforts, the notes fail to convince or add anything but a level of absurdity — indeed, incredulity — to the novel.
If Henley failed to read Vathek in the proper light, then we should ask the same of Beckford: was he sincerely impressed by Henley’s pedantry? After all, he insisted on seeing the footnotes as an integral part of the text, even after the two had a reported falling-out. The notes do put us in mind of similar Gothic formulas before and since, notably Walpole’s original framing of The Castle of Otranto as a work discovered in the library of an old English family, and “translated by William Marshal, Gent., from the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto.” A true Gothic text is always a meta-text, meaning the package is as important as the story itself, hence the love of frame narratives and letters. Clearly Beckford wanted to write an Oriental fantasy with the veneer of old scholarship, not unlike the ‘world building’ prized in modern fantasy novels. If nothing else, the footnotes are like the words “based upon a true story” that precedes a horror movie, and makes the terror more distressingly palpable.
We also see a distinct family resemblance to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), which contains its share of scholarly glosses, some of them obscuring the poem itself (and betraying the same kind of Orientalist lore). Though Coleridge enjoyed the ruse of antiquity, he chiefly employed them as a satiric commentary on the genre itself. The Gothic pursuit of verisimilitude belied its role as fiction and entertainment; so Coleridge added glosses that threatened to demystify the experience of Romantic poetry. Surely Coleridge had Henley’s notes in mind, particularly the following passage, when he tries to defend Beckford’s use of an astrolabe: “It may, however, be remarked, to go no higher, than Sinesius, bishop of Ptolemais, invented one in the fifth century; and that Carathis was not only herself a Greek, but also cultivated those sciences which the good Mussulmans of her time all held in abhorrence” (Jack 117). Beckford and Coleridge must have been splitting their sides.
Should we read Vathek as little more than a calculated lampoon to upset the Enlightenment pretensions of his peers, and indulge in some old-fashioned debauchery? If so, how do we account for the presence of Mahomet in the story, who watches silently — and disapprovingly — of Vathek’s actions? Beckford never intends the reader to sympathize with the caliph or be moved by his plight. Multiple layers of grotesquerie and humor provide a distancing effect, so that nothing seems real or vital; the story unfolds like a puppet show of Dr. Faustus, with no doubt of his final damnation. After all, when Vathek finally attains his forbidden knowledge, the narrator informs us, “Almost at the same instance, the same voice announced to the Caliph, Nouronihar, the four princes, and the princess, the awful, and the irrecoverable decree. Their hearts immediately took fire, and they, at once, lost the most precious gift of heaven: — HOPE.”
By ending the story with lost hope and the judgment of heaven, Beckford may have simply been bowing to the conventions of the genre; even Walpole punishes the evil Lord Manfred in Otranto. Or is Beckford condemning his own actions and reckless pursuit of knowledge and pleasure wherever they might be found? Was the story — like another veiled autobiographical work, The Vision (1777) — a way of working out his demons in print? Unfortunately, Henley’s notes shed no light on this interpretation, perhaps the very reason he preferred to bury his head in scholarship. The story remains like the mysterious smile of the sphinx, universal, yet untranslatable, awaiting its Rosetta Stone to reveal the face of the author inside.