PETER SZENDY: The one says
what a wonderful story is this, and the other replies
the remainder of it is more surprising. The lines of this dialogue
or some variation of them take place every
night before daybreak in what one could consider
as the emblem of storytelling in general One
Thousand and One Nights introduced in Europe by
the French orientalist Antoine Galland who translated
the collection of stories and started publishing
them in 1704 based on manuscripts for from
the 14th or 15th century. They are now kept at the
Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris with Galland’s marginal
annotations on them. for example, you can see here
the numbering of the Knights. Galland added to the
manuscripts some other stories that were supposedly told
to him by an oral source. This composite
French text was then almost immediately
translated in English in 1706 by an unknown
translator, and it was published under the title of
Arabian Nights Entertainments. With its anonymous and
compensatory character, this first English
version evokes what Benjamin in his
essay on the storyteller imagined as a quote,
the web nets, which all stories together formed
in the end, the network or a texture of texts in which
all the possible narratives would be interwoven.” I quote Benjamin, “one
ties onto the next as the great storyteller,
particularly the oriental ones, have always readily shown. In each of them,
there is a Sheherazade who thinks of a fresh story
whenever her tale comes to a stop,” end of quote. Strikingly, when he mentions
again the One Thousand and One Nights later in
his essay, [INAUDIBLE] emphasizes I quote, “the by
no mean insignificant share which traders handle [INAUDIBLE]
of those who deal in commerce had in the art of
storytelling, not so much in the content of the
stories told then by,” I quote, “refining the tricks with which
the attention of the listener was captured,” end of quotes. Storytelling, Benjamin
adds, plays a crucial role in the household of
humanity, [GERMAN].. Now the word [GERMAN] in
German clearly belongs to an economic or
financial paradigm. It means not only
household but also budget, and [GERMAN],, the verb that
corresponds to the noun means to manage, to economize. In some, storytelling
Benjamin suggests is closely tied to what
in Greek was called [GREEK],, the management
of the house or home. Indeed, narration
might well have an intrinsic early
economic dimension. So with an eye to this economic
fabric or texture of narration, let us reread the end
or the introduction of the first of the One Thousand
and One Nights of which we have already read two lines. The storyteller has
hardly begun her story when dawn approaches
and threatens to break. I quote, “as Sheherazade
had spoke those words– I am quoting the 1706 English
translation– as Sheherazade had spoke those words,
perceiving it was day and knowing that the sultan
rose be times in the morning to say his prayers
and hold his counsel, Sheherazade held her
peace, stopped talking. Lord, sister, says Dunyazad,
what a wonderful story is this? The remainder of it,
says Sheherazade, is more surprising, and
you will be of my mind if the sultan will
let me live this day and permit me to tell
it out next night. Shahryar, who had listened
to Sheherazade with pleasure, says to himself I will
stay till tomorrow. For I can at any
time put her to death when she has made an end of
her story,” end of quote. Contrary to what is
generally believed, Sheherazade doesn’t
tell her stories to the sultan, her husband. She tells them to
her sister, Dunyazad so that the sultan
could hear them. The addressee of the
narratives is double. They are narrated
not to be only heard, but also to be overheard or
heard twice at the same time. Within this oblique or
triangulated narrative structure, it doesn’t
take long before long before we hear about debt. The word occurs in the story
of the merchant and the genie. When it is continued during
the second night after Shahryar has decided to let Sheherazade
live for one more day out of– if I may put it so–
narrotological curiosity. This story strikingly
mirrors the story that frames it– that is to
say Sheherazade’s own story. I quote, “when the merchant
saw that the genie was going to cut off his head,
he cried out aloud and said for heaven’s
sake, hold your hand. Allow me one word. Be so good as to grant me
some respite,” end of quote. Once he is granted this
respite of one year, the merchant goes home
to his wife and children. Quote, “next
morning the merchant applied himself to put
his affairs in order and, first of all,
to pay his debts.” So this first thematic or
diagetic mention of debt– and there will be many others– occurs within a narrative
that in its turn soon includes other narratives. After his one year
respite is over, the merchant goes back to
where the genies expects him in order to kill him, and
there he meets three old men. The first old man asks that
the genie suspend his anger for the time of the story– a story in the story that
will elicit forgiveness. You will pardon the
poor, unfortunate man– that is the merchant–
the third of his crime, the third of his crime. The story told by the
old man within the story of the merchant and the
genie told by Sheherazade thus introduces the
idea that a story can bring about forgiveness– that is to say
absolution, but not the complete solution at once. Rather an absolution
that happens step by step, portion after portion. Quote, “when the first
old man sir continued the sultaness had
finished her story– his story, the second
addressed himself to the genie and said to him–
says to him, “I am going to tell you
what happened to me and I am certain you will
say that my story is yet more surprising than that
which you have just now heard. But when I have
told it to you, I hope you will be
pleased to pardon the merchant the second third
of his crime,” end of quote. Absoluteion occurs by
installments so to speak. After the second old man who
happens to be also a merchant, it is the third old man’s turn
to tell his story to the genie. We anticipate that when its
narration will be completed, the genie will forgive the
three-thirds of the merchants guilt. But its
completion deferred by the interruption
brought about by daybreak is surprisingly elliptical. When Sheherazade
resumes her narrative during the eighth night, she
confesses for the first time that she is unable to
tell the expected story. Quote, “sir, replies
the sultaness, the third old man told
his story to the genie. I cannot tell it to you,
because it has not come to my knowledge. But I know that it
did so much exceed the two former stories in the
variety of wonderful adventures that the genie was
astonished at it and no sooner heard
the end of it, but he said to the third old
man I remit the other third part of the merchant’s crime upon
the account of your story,” end of quote. The narrative completion that
allows for complete forgiveness thus appears as
unfulfilling, and it has to be compensated
by another story– the story of the fisherman
that occupies the remaining time of the missing
but complete story told by the third old man. Quote, “dunyazad perceiving
that the sultan demurred says to her, sister, since there is
still some time remaining, pray tell us the story
of the fisherman if the sultan is willing. Shahryar agreed to
it, and Sheherazade resuming her
discourse pursued it in this manner,” end of quote. Other days and
other nights pass. Sheherazade narrates
how in his turn the fisherman tells another
story to another genie. And when she interrupts her
narration after the 11th night, her sister, Dunyazad,
addresses her with a new variant of the
formula we have by then already heard so many times. I quote, “the Twelfth Night
was far advanced when Dunyazad called and said,
sister, you owe us the continuation
of the agreeable history of the Grecian King
and the physician to ban. I am very willing
to pay my debt, replies Sheherazade, and
resume the story as follows,” end of quote. So here, the
anonymous translator of the English edition
of Arabian Nights has supplemented
Galland’s French text. The English
re-writer or retailer interpolates the word debt in a
passage that doesn’t include it [FRENCH]. And this with the effect
of introducing indebtedness on the matter
diagetic level too. Not only does
Sheherazade tell stories that tell stories that
tell stories about debt, but she’s indebted in
her very storytelling. In other words, her
narration itself has the structure of debt. Arbitrary as it seems,
the English translators interpolation is
nonetheless dictated by a rigorous necessity. For what he translates
are not only Galland’s words but the whole
underlying logic of a narrative made of and about
narratives, the narrative that constantly interweaves
narrating and absolving. To absolve, according to the
Oxford English Dictionary, is not only to acquit or set
free from blame, guilt, et cetera, but also, I quote,
to accomplish, complete, bring to completion. In the frame story of the
One Thousand and One Nights, Sheherazade’s
predicament is that she can’t pay off her debt. Her guilt in the
sultan’s eyes is simply to be what she is,
i.e, a woman and a wife and as such she deserves to die. This structural and
hence irredeemable debt drives her to in debt
herself infinitely to open more and more
narrative accounts without closing
or absolving them precisely in order
to stay solvent. Her narratological solvency
can only be exhausted when at the very end the sultan
decides to forgive her, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH],,
writes Galland, thereby, absolving her narrative,
completing it, and at the same time absolving
her from the obligation to narrate. But the frame story of
Sheherazade’s indebtness and absolution might itself be
part of a larger frame story. Her narrative of
debt and as debt might itself belong to a
broader narrative, the narrative about what Benjamin in his
essay on the storyteller called the household
of humanity. In as much as this
household or management pertains to an economy
of ending as well as to the end or ends of economy. In order to tell at least
a part of this frame story for the frame story of
Sheherazades storytelling, we should fittingly
begin by the end then by what has
for a long time been the very word for
end or ending that is to say surprisingly finance. The first two sentences
listed by the Oxford English Dictionary for finance
are the following. They are both marked
with a cross indicating that the meaning in
question is dead, has ended, has reached its end. I quote, “first ending an end,
obsolete, rare to settlement with a creditor, payment
of a debt, compensation or composition paid or
exacted,” end of quote. One of the occurrences
of the word given as an example of the
first sense ending or end is to be found in John
[INAUDIBLE] dictionary published in London in
1616, an English expositor. There so at the top of the
first column on the page, one reads this laconic definition
that to our contemporary ears almost sounds like a sentence
without a verb, I quote, “fiance, comma, and end,” The reason for the asterisk
that precedes the word is explained in the
brief introduction to the reader toward the
middle of the paragraph. Remember, also, that every
word marked with this mark– asterisk– is an old word only
used of some ancient writers and now grown out of use. End of quote. Like the cross in the Oxford
English Dictionary entry, the asterisk here
remarks the meaning, or folds it onto itself– finance as ending has ended. In some, before the
word finance ended up, if I may say so, acquiring
its modern sense– that is to say, the
management of money– it meant ending or end. Do we have to infer that it
has later developed a meaning contrary to its meaning? Has finance become infinite? I will let these questions
resonate and wait, and I will continue my attempt
at telling the frame story for the frame story
of Scheherazade’s narratological indebtedness. Let us pursue, then,
our etymological inquiry into the history of finance. The etymology of
finance leads back to the French word
finance, itself derived from the verb finer. The Littré Dictionary, 1881,
gives the following brief indication– and
I will translate– finance. The ancient language used finer,
derived from the Latin finis and meaning properly
“to finish.” The participle was
“finant,” hence finance– like from croyant, croyance. Finance, then,
seems to have been formed as the present
participle of finer. It was the ending in
progress, so to speak– the very process of ending. More exhaustively
than the Littré, the Dictionnaire
du moyen franais, the Dictionary of
Middle French– that you can find
on the internet– lists a number of meanings for
the verb finer and classifies them is pertaining on the one
hand to the notions of term and/or completion, with
a transitive use as well as an intransitive use. Used intransitively– and we
have to bear that in mind– finer means to die. And then, on the
other hand, there are meanings that
pertain to payment. Finer une somme, finer
du quelque chose, is to acquit oneself of
something, et cetera. As for the noun “finance,” the
dictionary of middle French gives an interesting
example taken from a late medieval
narrative in verse by an anonymous merchant– again, another–
written around 1320. He was a grocer, apparently. This anonymous
narrative is entitled– you will ask yourself,
why anonymous, and how do I know
who was a merchant? It’s because, in the
narrative, the author says something about himself. So this narrative is entitled Le
Roman de Renard Le Contrefait, since the merchant forged– contrefaisait– the famous
anthropomorphic character of Reynard the fox in
order to express opinions under the mask of his model. In the seventh part, the
author says about Judas– I read it quickly
in middle French. [SPEAKING FRENCH] Here is a tentative,
really, translation. So I am completely
out of my field here. Judas, after he
had betrayed God, was filled with repentance. When he saw the misfortune,
he had nobody to help him, for hope didn’t hold. Therefore he hung himself– he knew no other
“finance,” no other ending. Now, it is tempting to read
into this occurrence of the word “finance” the rejection of
one of its senses, money, for the sake of another, the
other one being end or ending– especially if we recall that
this passage draws on Matthew 27:35, where it
is said, I quote, “When Judas, who had
betrayed him so that Jesus was condemned, he was
seized with remorse and returned the
30 pieces of silver to the chief priests
and the elders. ‘I have sinned, he said, for I
have betrayed innocent blood.’ ‘What is that to us?’ they replied. That’s your responsibility.’ So Judas threw the money
into the temple and left. Then he went away
and hanged himself.” So when finance as money
has to be gotten rid of, interestingly, finance as
ending substitutes for it. Though the etymology of finance
has led us to middle French, we should also recall
the history of the word in English, which is very close. Thus, “to fine,”
a verb that means to punish a person
for an illegal act by requiring her to
pay a sum of money. To fine has long had
the now obsolete sense of “to bring to an end,
to complete, conclude,” both senses deriving from
the middle French finer. And the noun, “fine,” also
has these two meanings. The sense of ending
for fine is still alive in Shakespeare’s All’s Well that
Ends Well when Helena declares at the end of Act
4 Scene 4, I quote, “‘All’s well that ends well’
still defines the crown. Whatever the course,
the end is the renown.” The renown, sorry. End of quote. So the crown– that
is to say, the power, the ultimate and
sovereign authority, Shakespeare suggests– lies in the ending that
will be remembered, renown. It resides in what could
still be called, according to the lexicons of the time– think of the
English Expository– the (FRENCH
PRONUNCIATION) “finance” or finance of a storyline. The question that awaits us
now that (FRENCH PRONUNCIATION) “finance” or finance as
“ending” has come to an end, or has exhausted its former
meaning, is the following. Isn’t finance, on the
contrary, becoming synonymous with infinitude? And if it is, what
made that possible? When would finance have come
to mean the unfinishable or the infinite,
the “in-finance?” And, hence, since when
would finance maybe have become
impossible to narrate? This is a debatable question. There are many
stories to be told that would constitute as
many tentative answers to these questions, like
Scheherazade, “I will lend my voice to one
of these stories, postponing the, others deferring
them until another night or day, though I am not
sure that I subscribe without reservations–” neither
does Scheherazade, I guess– “to what I’m about to tell.” And I’m heading
toward a conclusion. Benjamin’s essay on the
storyteller famously opens by diagnosing the
end of storytelling. I quote, “The art of
storytelling,” he writes, “is coming to an end.” [SPEAKING GERMAN] In other, more ancient
words, storytelling, Benjamin suggests, is
reaching its finance. I quote again. “Less and less frequently
do we encounter people with the ability to
tell a tale properly. More and more often, there
is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear
a story is expressed. It is as if something
that seemed inalienable–” [SPEAKING GERMAN] “to us, the
securest among our possessions, were taken from us– the ability
to exchange experiences–” [SPEAKING GERMAN]. “Storytelling as trading in
experiences, as swapping, borrowing, or lending
one’s life stories– storytelling as an
economic practice, in sum, has long been inalienable,”
says Benjamin– that is to say, unforfeitable or
untransferable– “precisely as the condition
of all experiential transfers. But it has recently become
preempted, so to speak,” he says. “It has been seized
or confiscated.” The reason Benjamin mentions
for this dispossession as one reason among others
is puzzling, though. I quote. “One reason for this phenomenon
is obvious,” he writes. “Experience has
fallen in value.” [SPEAKING GERMAN]
Maybe more literally, its exchange rate, or its stock
market quotation, has fallen. Now, why would the
devaluation of experience lead to the deprivation of the
precious ability to share it? One could think,
on the contrary, that the less valuable
experience supposedly becomes, the more common its
sharing would be. Visit my Facebook page. And I guess yours
is not much better. In any case, having
long been the securest among our possessions,
having long been the safest guarantee
in experiential economics, the ability to
tell stories seems to have shared the
status of death– of finance, we could
say, in middle French. It is not surprising, then, that
Benjamin, later in the essay, considers death as the source
of authority in storytelling. And death, he writes,
is being devalued, too. It loses its status as the gold
standard against which stories can be weighed or evaluated. I quote– it’s a long
quotation from the essay. “The thought of
death has declined.” [SPEAKING GERMAN],, it
has suffered losses. And this is, again, a
financial expression. “The thought of
death has declined in omnipresence and vividness. Dying was once a public process
in the life of the individual, and the most exemplary one. Today, people live in
rooms that have never been touched by death,
dry dwellers of eternity. And when their end
approaches, they are stowed away in sanitoria
or hospitals by their heirs. It is, however, characteristic
that not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but
above all, his real life.” Saying, [SPEAKING GERMAN],,
his life as he lived it. “And this is the stuff
that stories are made of– first assumes transmissible
form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images
is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end,
suddenly, in his expressions and looks, the unforgettable
emerges and imparts to everything that concerned
him that authority which even the poorest
wretch, in dying, possesses for the
living around him. This authority is at the
very source of the story.” We could seek the confirmation
of the devaluation of death in the fascinating scene
towards the end of Goethe’s second Faust, soon after the
last line announced by Faust and quoted by Benjamin
in his 1933 essay on experience and
poverty written three years before the storyteller. Mephisto has just
pronounced Faust dead. [SPEAKING GERMAN], he says. It is finished, borrowing
Christ’s last words in John 19:30. And the lemures, the
spirits or shadows of the departed in
Roman mythology, echo him by declaring,
“It is over.” [SPEAKING GERMAN] Mephisto briefly argues with
them about this stupid word. “Why over?” he exclaims. “What’s over, and mere and
nothing, are the same–” as if Mephisto were questioning
the possibility that Faust’s life is finally absolved– that is to say, complete. And indeed, in the very moment
when the redeeming of Faust’s debt coincides with the
ending of his life– after all, Faust’s
soul, as we know, has to go to Mephisto as
a way of paying him back. In this very instant, death
seems to lose the punctuality, and hence, the
trustworthiness that allows it to function
as a reliable asset. The passage is masterfully
prepared by the insistence of the lemures on the
economics of existence. I quote. “All items were on
short-term loan,” they say, “while burying Faust in his
grave, and creditors are many.” And here is Mephisto’s
lament that follows. “Established usages
and ancient rites– there is nothing we
can count on anymore. The soul used to emerge when
someone breathed his last. I’d lie in wait, and the
nimblest mouse, snap! It was clenched within my claws. But now it hesitates to
leave that dreary place, its noisome home inside
a worthless corpse. Old death has lost
his former metal.” [SPEAKING GERMAN],, so has
lost its expediting power. “I’ve often coveted some
limbs in rigor mortis. Illusion only– they stirred
and began to move again.” End of quote. So the ending becomes
dubious, Mephisto complains, as does the paying off
of the debt of existence. Death is diluted. It is losing its
contours, and the lender is afraid he won’t get
his investment back. Faust’s finance can
hardly be trusted. Perhaps it is already
on the way to what we could call, in the light
of the fascinating history of these words, its
infinite, in-finance. Thank you very much. [APPLAUSE]