The Flying Carpet, or Weaving the Story: Narrative Intelligence in Action & Early Technology
by Marina Warner
In a conversation at the ArtReview Bar in February 2019 the art historian and writer Marina Warner spoke with the artist Shezad Dawood and the technologist Marc Davis on the relationship between storytelling and technology. To complement the talk, we are pleased to republish an excerpt from Warner’s Stranger Magic: Charmed States & The Arabian Nights (Vintage and Harvard University Press, 2013). In it, Warner discusses how modes of communication and how different technologies have served as metaphors for the means by which we narrativise the world around us. A video of the talk can be accessed here.
Teasing out certain strands in the uses and significance of carpets in the cultures where they are made can throw light on the flying carpet as a metaphor for narrative intelligence, structure and pleasure. Carpets may include the whole range of artefacts worked in fabric and thread, woven on a loom or stitched on a frame, as in embroidery. Helen of Troy, in Book 3 of the Odyssey, is making a tapestry of the war in which she is playing such a crucial part, when she pauses to looks out from the battlements beside Priam the king of Troy and pick out for him the Greek heroes fighting on the plain below. It is implicit in Homer’s lines that his work of telling the story of the war and her picture-story in her loom or frame are analogous records, the metre of the verse corresponding to the structure of the weft and the woof, the resulting image an orderly patterning of events and characters.
Text derives from the Latin texere, to weave. Alluding to the interconnectedness of text and textile in Latin languages, the Moroccan poet Abdel Khatibi notes that the word bissat, an alternative term for rug in Arabic, also describes a poetic metre, and he emphasises the role geometry plays in a range of media, especially the repeating and endless geometry of curved forms and loops, stitches and knots, involved in the Arabesque. Women are weavers in many cultures, though not exclusively so; they are also storytellers, singers, balladeers; repositories of a people’s memories and dreams.
Persian or oriental carpets only rarely tell stories or contain figures. On the whole, their body is webbed and interlaced with abstract, geometric, ornamental elements and designs. The motifs are ancient, familiar, and conventional: circles and stars, palmettes and rosettes, medallions and paisley commas, key and other border motifs, the creatures, angels, dragons, grotesques, birds and other animals sprinkled here and there, are all recognisable, but the key to their relations is not given.
The greatest connoisseurs and traders who have studied the patterns can only talk in generalities: one carpet symbolises paradise, another the cosmos; flower vases appear in some designs, combats of beasts in another. Their symmetries and repetitions convey experiences processed as symbols, offering a harmonious vision in colour and form; but the figures’ semantics elude pinning down. The hieroglyphs are stubborn, perhaps ultimately without significance, without ulterior referent. Some designs belong in certain broad groups: prayer rugs for example represent the mihrab or niche at the head, and point in the direction of Mecca; and a beautiful pattern, under the generic title of the Tree of Life, unfolds paradisiacal scenes of flowers and fruits with animals in harmony.
In the cultures where they originate, carpets are not floor coverings only (although they do serve this purpose). Spread on the ground, they define a space – a zone for prayer, a ceremonial enclave, an official precinct. In an essay on the poetics of the carpet, the Italian art historian Sergio Bettini stresses the nomadic origins of carpetmaking and insists on the architectural function of rugs laid out on the ground: to demarcate the dwelling. But it is not a fence or a wall, it is the space of home itself: The true carpet,’ he writes, ‘… isn’t a garment that covers the body or a drape that adorns a house; for the simple reason that it is itself the house.’
If a carpet rolls out a separate space on the flat plane, the nomadic tent institutes it in three dimensions by means of awnings, curtains, canopies, which are also worked with intricate patterns. The fabrics create distinctive spaces, sometimes public and sacred, sometimes private. The Kaaba itself is screened by richly patterned curtains, for example. But fabrics are also suspended to screen private places of intimacy – nooks, pavilions, alcoves – Scheherazade is depicted with the Sultan on the frontispiece of the Galland edition of the Arabian Nights illustrated in Amsterdam in 1728-30 in such a bed-tent, and her sister Dinarzade, when her presence is invoked, is present but screened behind a curtain, a veil. Cleopatra, so famously delivered to Caesar rolled up in a rug, according to Plutarch’s entertaining account, was not improvising on the uses of carpets as unusually as it has generally seemed to modern readers. The carpet carves a private world for its user; it is a kind of portable harbour, a more than usually splendid mobile home. This capacity to institute a place apart that is safe and even sacred bears on the properties of narrative to move from place to place and where it halts to demarcate a new space in time.
In several stories of the Arabian Nights, a constellation of objects are united in a particular semantic field: carpet, tapestry, sofa, divan, daybed, beds, drapes and coverings communicate pleasure, luxury, secrets, magical powers and enchantments. As furnishings they also suggest a specific form of consciousness, the state of reverie that arises when someone is still awake or rather semi-awake, but certainly not asleep, a receptive state of consciousness – reverie and daydream, rather than dream; subconsciousness rather than unconsciousness; mind-voyaging, the state of being ‘lost in thought’.
These practical functions then flower into figurative meanings, which have expanded further as material conditions themselves have changed. Aside from the cultural coincidence of carpetmaking and storytelling among nomadic peoples, the flying carpet of the Arabian Nights miraculously embodies the fairy tale mode of narration in three fundamental ways, in its structure, its two-dimensionality, and its handling of time and motion.
The first, structure reveals correspondences: the work of building the story corresponds to the weaving and knotting of this kind of plot. Adventure stories, fairy tales, and romances, as found in the Nights, conjugate a repertory of elements whose recurrence in different combinations adds to the satisfaction of the audience, bringing with it the pleasure of recognition.
Secondly, the planar character of the flying carpet, its two-dimensionality, flatness and patterning, contain and order all constituent elements at an ever-indeterminate scale – large or small – in the same way as a story compresses and organises swathes of raw material. [The Italian writer] Cristina Campo evokes how an oriental rug unfolds a surface on which ornaments play in a mise-en-abyme. ‘The borders themselves are eloquent,’ she writes. ‘Above all, the number of the borders speaks, for it can reach twelve or thirteen, enclave within enclave, discourse into discourse. A hierarchy of allusions is assigned to the succession of borders, from the inside towards the outside.’ This structure rhymes with the storytellers’ methods in the Arabian Nights, which has been imitated so effectively by recursive plot structures in fantasy works such as The Matrix (1999) or Inception (2010). Just as stories within stories give the Nights its defining involuted structure, so oriental carpets are often banded, with one frame set inside another. The vantage point such a rug or story offers situates the receiver above the action or symbols depicted and consequently occupies an omniscient, detached, and even-handed organising principle, similar to the narrator of a story like Scheherazade. Solomon’s wisdom presupposes his ability to survey and grasp the world from a sovereign position; he is embarked on a flying vehicle which encapsulates his ability to synthesise and order experience. The unfurled carpet which rises above the action and spreads out level and moves over it embodies the features that distinguish traditional, unauthored narratives, originating in oral culture; the repetition of motifs, their imbrication in bands and borders also reproduces graphically the stratification and condensation of story elements and methods in an anthology like the Nights.
More precisely, a carpet or rug miniaturises the view as it were from an aerial vantage; this flying position serves a synoptic function, for the angle above (Solomonic, god-like) gives the full overview: plan with elevation included. It does not allow for parallax which might obscure something, as the conceit of Henry James’s famous parable of writing, the short story called ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ (1896), explores so tantalisingly.
The history of the relations between text and textile, fantasy and flight provides remarkable instances of the logic of the imagination at work at a profound, unconscious poetic level. These instances also support my central argument that the forms of enchantment that have suffused modern culture after the Nights lie deeper than magic tricks and transformations, predictions and superstitions, but are rather meshed into the very fabric of expression and representation today. The intricacy and system of a woven carpet imply a strong degree of predictability; the symmetry and recursive repetitions work analogously to oracles and predictions: the patterns must come out in a certain sequence, so discerning them becomes paramount but not quite patent. It needs finesse to read its complexities. Many of the stories in the Nights establish such a pattern and follow it to its outcome, which could have been anticipated. Much of the pleasure for the reader arises from failing to do so like the protagonist or other characters in the story; or, in some cases, succeeding in doing so when the characters in the story did not – the story ties up its subjects and its audience in crafty knots and self-mirroring devices: the man who recognised his own house in another man’s dream about a fortune hidden in a courtyard under the floor; the appointment at Samara when they three robbers indeed meet death under a tree, as foretold, because they fight there over the treasure and kill one another; these are stories that double back on themselves in symmetrical order; riddles that come out according to preordained structural rules. Vladimir Nabokov catches this recursive character of time in the Arabian Nights when he brought in the image in his memoir, Speak, Memory:‘I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another.’
 Sergio Bettini, ‘Poetica del tappeto orientale’ in Aloïs Riegl, Antichi tappeti orientali (Quodlibet, Macerata, 1998), 224-242
 Ibid., 224-242.
 Cristina Campo, in ‘Notti’, from Gli Imperdonabili ( Milan: Adelphi, 1987), 67
 Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (London: Penguin, 2000), 125