Monday, February 04, 2008

A Decadent Jewel

William Beckford's Vathek is a decadent jewel and a masterpiece of faux Orientalism. The Caliph Vathek seeks ultimate knowledge, using violence and sensory indulgence (precursor of Rimbaud!). He finds this knowledge, and eternal damnation, in the subterranean kingdom of Iblis, the Islamic Satan.

The archaic 18th century prose drips of a heady perfume, a reflection of the baroque pleasures of Vathek. There are dim echoes of Dante's Hell, and of the sorcery of the Pharsalia, as the Caliph's mother raises the dead for necromantic purposes. The halls of perdition reflect Piranesi's labyrinthine prisons, and the palaces of the five senses are a libertine's paradise, with fantastic abundance of sensual pleasures for a man with a truly gargantuan appetite.

Borges wrote an essay on the novel, noting that Vathek's reward and his punishment are one and the same. Lured by a mysterious sword with ever-changing characters, Vathek's odyssey is an inversion of the spiritual quest, as he descends from his station as a beloved, if arrogant, defender of the faith, through cruelty and blasphemy to find himself in possession of all the riches and knowledge he desires, at the price of eternal damnation and torment. A rich and brilliant fantasy, the Arabian Nights as seen through the lens of a decadent 18th century British aristocrat.

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