The Books Interview: Marina Warner

You describe yourself as being "irresistibly attracted to myths". Has that always been the case?
It started when I was a child. I was brought up a Catholic and I was quite fervent, because I was sent to a convent school. I don't experience myths as supernatural now in the way that I did when I was a believer - I don't consent to these imaginings but I think the imagination has its own life that one lives in and enjoys.

What drew you to writing about the Arabian Nights specifically?
If you want to learn about a culture, you look at what buildings the people lived in but you also want to know about their cosmos. We orient ourselves by imaginary co-ordinates, as well. I wanted to look at the magical world of enchantment of the Arabian Nights, which seems so absurd and preposterous, and try to posit that it holds one's attention because it reproduces values and the ways that we orient ourselves.

You say storytelling is "the fullest metaphor for love against death". What do you mean?
There's a profound message in the Arabian Nights: when someone is in a rage, a murderous rage [as the sultan is], if you expand his mind by showing him different aspects of human psychology and stretch his experience through stories, you can, in the end, calm him down. That's what the stories were told for and there are many others like them. I've just bought a book called The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco and these are stories told in the marketplace in Marrakech until recently. This supply is inexhaustible and it has its social aim - to broaden and deepen people's minds.

You say that the tales lack interiority. How?
Fairy tales are very different from Henry James or Virginia Woolf or Proust - they don't have specificity. This literature of enchantment presents the possibility that people are not consistent within themselves and that all kinds of unpredictable events will take place in someone's life that will make them behave out of character. A person who has done a lot with this is Philip Pullman. He shows that the metamorphic animal, the soul, goes through all these shapes and shifts and materialises in the world the vagaries of the person. Since I started work on this theme, philosophers have increasingly been coming round to this view of the discontinuities of personality. Derek Parfit's last book, On What Matters, has been greatly acclaimed and Galen Strawson takes it to such an extreme point that it almost undermines the concepts of responsibility and the law altogether. He seems to say, "You, when you were five years old, were not you as you are now and therefore what you did when you were five can't be factored into our understanding of you now." I don't subscribe to that. I think that it's a symptom of the difficulties in our virtual world, where our power over ourselves is diminished and economic systems are making us feel bewildered.

The Arab world has changed dramatically. Will that change the way we read the stories?
The Arab spring has a cultural component. One of the frustrations that people were feeling in countries under dictatorships was that their culture was being attenuated. There's been a lot of film-making, poetry and music in Egypt and Tunisia. Even in Saudi Arabia, people have been trying to express a more imaginative side that has flourished in Islamic culture for centuries. You'll find out that some of the figureheads are singers or poets. If these revolutions succeed, we'll see a terrific sign of what Islamic culture is.

You write about Edward Said. How do you think he would respond to current events?
I think he'd be so excited. It's a tragedy he's not around. He'd be a wonderful figurehead, too: he was so courageous in his stand about Palestine. I'd only just started this book when he died. I was frightened that he wouldn't like me writing about [the Arabian Nights]. I got a phone call - it was the last time I spoke to him - and he said that he loved it. I undertook the book in a spirit of wishing to modify the stark argument of Orientalism. I wanted to think about how our cultures have been interwoven in more positive ways.

What is your next project?
I put aside a book because I thought I'd better finish this one. I shall go back to it -

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral