Saturday, September 3, 2011

a formless and black mass which all of a sudden passed from the depth of night into a blaze

When you left me at the end of the last post I was preparing to fall asleep, so I'll pick up there again and say that if Macbeth doth murder sleep then he's only doing what we should all want to do, because sleep murders us, it disintegrates us utterly for hours every day, and if a person came along and did the same thing then they would be our enemy, and we would do anything to stop them, and the government would wheel out its guns and the private householder would stay up all night with a pitchfork, but sleep, evil sleep!, sleep weasels its way into our lives when we're young, and so we think it's as natural as a parent, that's how early it arrives -- and we have no idea how much it hates us, and it's easy to deduce that it hates us, I mean, if I came into your house and knocked you unconscious for hours you wouldn't think I liked you.

What value do we have when we're asleep, I wonder, as I put down my Claire Tomalin; what am I about to do, going under like this in an irresistible submarine, and why not stay awake and find out more about Nellie Ternan, knowledge that might be useful one day, you never know -- a quiz -- ten million dollars -- some detail of Nell Ternan's life, and I whip it out and behold, I am rich, and then I contact Powell's and ask if they still have that copy of Holbrook Jackson's Anatomy of Bibliomania with the blue hardback cover and the margin notes. I move to Tasmania and never see a desert again. Standing on Flamingo today, where it joins the Strip, I looked away down the road to the west and saw the bare scraped mountains with their drawn combed thighs standing up in the distance with the brooding silent meaningful stare of the Victorian Houses of Parliament at the top of Bourke Street, when you're standing in the arcade, by the Myer windows, right in the path of a tram, which is when you move, before they ding at you, and then run you over, and you lose a leg; you are not that toddler who fell under a lawnmower in Maryknoll a few days ago, there are no parents to comfort you -- you are an adult -- so now you lie there in the middle of Bourke Street ruining the view for others with your screaming and your pools of blood.

Proust wrote about sleep but how rare that is; books usually inhabit the waking part of life as though it is the only life we have, the only life the author has; they are not authors but waking authors and so perhaps somewhere there are sleeping authors who write the books we will never read. Ivan Goncharov pretends that he is dedicating a chapter to "Oblomov's Dream" but this only an author's dodge, no, Oblomov does not dream, he appears to fall asleep, "Sleep had cut off the slow, leisurely flow of his thoughts and carried him off in an instant," translates Stephen Pearl, but he is really awake in the past, remembering himself in childhood, his family home, his parents, his schooling, everything factual and blissful and sane. This is not a dream, it is a time machine, it is an author's manoeuvre. We know that the description we are reading is not a description of a dream because no dream is that long and that neat. Not even life is that neat. It only becomes that neat if memory and wishful thinking collaborate to neaten it.

Doctor Prunesquallor, at one point in Gormenghast, dreams about the other characters with such mysterious insight that we can guess he has merged partly with his creator and achieved a unique and godly perspective on the book that he himself inhabits. Otherwise he has merged with us, he looks back over the book with our eyes, and understands the experience of reading in a confused dream-way, in scraps, as we do when we sleep, and any book might seem like this to one of the characters if they dreamed back on it afterwards, just gestures and scenes, compressed and vivid, not necessarily connected; and in this dream the villain running across the earth is accompanied by a shadow made of rats. The rats never appeared in real life but they are a summary.

Some authors give their characters prophetic dreams, and Iris Murdoch makes a joke out of that idea in The Italian Girl when she has one character come in near the start of one chapter and then another chapter and then another, describing almost the same dream, which stars, I think, a ringing telephone. The normal reader, who recognises a trope when they see one, will probably decide at first that the author is foreshadowing, and maybe they will even take it seriously the second time, but by the third time it's starting to feel ridiculous, and by the forth time we are in the position of readers who are being asked to decide if these dreams are foreshadows as well as running gags, or if they are only running gags. So the dreams have become mysterious to us, but not in the way that a dream in a novel is usually, predictably mysterious. The mystery is usually, What Will This Prophecy Look Like When I See It Realised Concretely In The Plot? Cassandra comes on, the other characters fleer and scorn and the audience thinks wisely, "No, you should listen to her, you should pay attention" -- then the story continues, events occur, and the audience says, "I was right, fantastic, brownie points for me."

But once the serious atmosphere of prophecy has been destabilised by humour we've been pushed closer to the role of the other characters in the play, who feel, uneasily, that this is something too crazy to believe, and then what are we?

Proust is strong on the subject of dreams because he doesn't treat them like toys, like hammers for banging in plot-nails, as Goncharov does, or like jokes, although the dreams in Temps Perdu are both useful to the book, and also funny. He respects the strangeness of a dream and he can give you an idea of it in prose. There's a good example in Cities of the Plain, when the narrator dreams about his dead grandmother, and the grandmother in the dream is dead and alive at once, as she is to his brain, to his consciousness; he is used to thinking of her as a living being because she has been alive all his life but at the same time he knows she's dead, and these two pieces of information wrestle together as he sleeps.

In the dream he has decided that he is going to visit her but but his father tells him that he shouldn't try, "she is quite lifeless now," and yet, he adds, this person with no life would somehow suffer from headaches if her grandson asked her to think too hard -- therefore he mustn't go. She exists somewhere -- his father even offers him the address -- then he says, "I don’t suppose the nurse will allow you to see her." The son pleads. "You know quite well I shall always stay beside her," he says, "dear, deer, deer, Francis Jammes, fork," as he wakes, surfacing, the cloth of the dream coming apart and snagging up things here and there.

The argument between the father and the son is bizarre, it doesn't make external waking sense, but it makes total emotional-sense and dream-sense. His grandmother, exists, in emotion and memory, she is present in every dimension of his life except one -- but he can't reach her, thanks to this thing called death, which acts like an invisible wall or a series of magical excuses keeping them apart. His father has intercepted his desires before (we learnt in Swann's Way that he prefers not to let the narrator kiss his mother goodnight) so let him represent this standing-in-the-way being called Death. It is mad and it is absolute expressive sanity. It is the epitome of poetry, it is metaphorical.

Proust follows the narrator up out of the dream and describes him going through that migration, emerging from sleep like a man stepping off a plane in a foreign country and remembering the airport where he got on.

But already I had retraced the dark meanderings of the stream, had ascended to the surface where the world of living people opens, so that if I still repeated: “Francis Jammes, deer, deer,” the sequence of these words no longer offered me the limpid meaning and logic which they had expressed to me so naturally an instant earlier and which I could not now recall. I could not even understand why the word ‘Aias’ which my father had just said to me, had immediately signified: “Take care you don’t catch cold,” without any possible doubt.

He observes, and he has the patience to describe his observations, and translate them into the language of fiction (he must have adapted the tenor of his own dreams, and re-understood them into his character) and draw conclusions and even make the sad situation droll; he brings science and philosophy into his book, and the whole work is a kind of compendium or hybrid, with its false-memoir, myth, analysis, theory, and philosophical deduction, its mixture of cartoon character-tags with deep character-depth, and also here a nod to his friend Francis Jammes, who was the poet he was visiting on that night in World War I when he came home in the dark with bomb-smashed spears of glass stuck to his hat. Céleste was frightened for him but he told her it was wonderful, his eyes were stars, and the sight of aeroplanes flying over Paris appeared later in Time Regained. "The city seemed a formless and black mass which all of a sudden passed from the depth of night into a blaze of light, and in the sky, where one after another, the aviators rose amidst the shrieking wail of the sirens while, with a slower movement, more insidious and therefore more alarming, for it made one think they were seeking an object still invisible but perhaps close to us, the searchlights swept unceasingly, scenting the enemy, encircling him with their beams until the instant when the pointed planes flashed like arrows in his wake. And in squadron after squadron the aviators darted from the city into the sky like Walkyries."

Strange thing. Hours after I'd posted this I was reading André Gide's North African Journals when one of Gide's friends appeared in Biskra, and it was Francis Jammes. "I was waiting for Jammes with delicious impatience."

Jammes gives me his cane. It is made of ironwood and comes from the "Islands." It delights the children here because the handle is a greyhound's head: it is polished like jade, and yet so crude that it seems to be whittled. I've never seen anything so odd. Down the shaft, there are verses in capital letters, including these:

A squirrel had a
rose in its teeth, a donkey
called him crazy.

And these, which he used to put at the top of all his letters:

A bee sleeps
in the thickets of my heart.

(translated by Richard Howard)


  1. Wikipedia says this about Francis Jammes: "his poems are known for their lyricism and for singing the pleasures of a humble country life (donkeys, maidens") - I very much like the words they have chosen to put within those brackets

  2. Heh heh heh, I didn't see that. "Shall I write about donkeys in this one, or maidens? Or donkeys with maidens? Or maidens with donkeys? And how many maidens? And how many donkeys? Indoors or outdoors? A stable? A house? What will they eat?" A poet could make a whole career out of conjunctions of maidens and donkeys.