there are moments when you wish death was like sleep, and that something of you remained suspended in a dream, a mirror that continues to hold your image, while you’re already far away… – Leonardo Sciascia
Who dreams? What relationship does the dreamer have to the being that inhabits their night-time visions? Dreams become memorable to their dreamers as sites of unreal distances and identities, sites where distinctions begin to fray between the interior and the exterior, the personal and the impersonal, autobiography and fantasy. The disconcerting landscape of dreams blurs the boundary between history and fiction, making visible the fragility and impersonality of writing through the displaced idea of selfhood common to both activities and the uncomfortable distance this creates between the written work/dream and the writer/dreamer. Henry James’s discussion of fiction as “unsupported and unguaranteed history” and “the record of what . . .has not been” does not sufficiently describe dreams, which are rather an aporia of memory.
For Michel Leiris, the relation of personal and impersonal is of utmost importance. As part of the milieu in and around the Surrealist movement (of which he was briefly a member), Leiris wrote widely for a number of their publications and became a sub-editor on Bataille’s journal Documents. Though marked by the Surrealists’ influence, the original character of much of Leiris’s work comes from his continual questioning of “the self,” specifically the relationship between writing and autobiography. After an ethnographic expedition to Africa, Leiris published an account of the journey, L’Afrique Fantôme or “Phantom Africa,” which blended autobiography and anthropological observation. This tension runs throughout all his major work, most obviously in The Age of Man, his “coming-of-age” autobiography, and the monumental four-volume The Rules of the Game, an autobiography oriented not chronologically, through episodic exposition, but lexically, through the associations his life has had with specific words.
In Nights as Day, Days as Night, translated by Richard Sieburth, Michel Leiris presents the reader with a series of dream records, along with a few scenes from his waking life, set down between 1923 and 1960. Some of the dreams last for only a few sentences; others extend over several pages, and each of them is almost entirely self-contained. Many sparkle with wit and an amusing flippancy while others sink into horror and are truly unsettling. There are sexual fantasies, physical transformations, compressed temporalities, and sunken spaces. All are narrated through the veil of wakefulness. Their elements bubble up to the surface of consciousness and then disappear.
But Nights as Day, Days as Night is not merely a dream journal. Leiris, as Sieburth reminds us from the outset, “preferred to classify these hundred and so Nights . . . among his poetry” rather than part of his great autobiographical project, and it is as poems that they might be most fruitfully read, prose-poems whose subject is the act of dreaming itself. The Rules of the Game is framed as the “negation of a novel,” and the dreams of Nights as Day, Days as Night intensify this negation. Sieburth’s translation of the book’s title underscores this point: his version speaks of dialectical reversal, of a consciousness in the act of sublation. However, a literal translation of Nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour would be “Nights without Night and Several Days without Day” which presents an altogether more unsettling proposition: an absence doubled by subtracting night from night and day from day. Not a reversal but a suspension between being and non-being, an affirmation of absence. The “second life” suggested by Nerval’s epigram to the book is not merely a world turned on its head but one continually reformed in the act of sleep. In Leiris’s ontology, dream does not form by accretion, a spiral accumulation, but through the repetitious instant of an impossible affirmation and erasure. Each dream is a new beginning: a para-autobiography beyond the rules of the game. The dream brushes reality against the grain.
In the dream of December 17-18, 1924, Leiris sees a painting in the studio of Giorgio de Chirico depicting an empty room indistinguishable from the room in which the dream takes place. Leiris then recalls an earlier dream wherein he saw a Cubist still life and was seized by a sudden feeling that “my entire person was about to become part of the painting, as if my very being had been projected into it by my gaze.” These two dreams are a perfect embodiment of Leiris’s belief that sleep is a space of universal creativity, a place where the difference between exterior and interior is no longer fully operational. Leiris’s dreams suggest that this spatial instability is reiterated through the self-reflexive structure of the dreams, often through pictorialization. In another of his dreams, an imagined painting by Bataille shows a divided space broken by a horizon: “above the sky, below the sea.” A frond of bloodied seaweed moves in the frame; its avatar is a vertical hand with its index finger pointed skyward. The work of art in both dreams functions to expose the mechanics of the dream, its logic, within the dream itself.
The poetic form is one continually held in relation to absence. Leiris’s older contemporary Paul Valéry defined the poem as “a profound hesitation between sound and sense.” The possibility of enjambment is the mechanism which drives this hesitation: the potential for meaning to be delayed or interrupted by being pushed down to the line beneath. The final line of the poem, which cannot be enjambed, therefore puts the poem’s existence as a poem into crisis. The poem no longer holds the possibility of continuation, but must fall into silence. In contrast, the prose-poem sits at the horizon of this poetics. Its mode of hesitation is lumpen, swallowed in one gulp. Its enjambment runs from end to end or not at all. This tension exerted by the prose-poem as a form of expression parallels the relation between the experience of dreaming and the written dream. For the dreamer the dream is a pause, a hesitation which ends with the restoration of their waking life. The end of the dream returns us not to silence but to speech. But given a written form the dream becomes disconnected from the life of the dreamer: its end is truly an end. It is a disjunction of meaning that leaves the dream complete, and diverts the moment of poetic crisis. In doing so, Leiris’s dreams elide the catastrophe at the poem’s end, instead their ending implies an uncomfortable softness, a glottal stop that sets each dream loose. The cumulative effect of reading the successive dreams in Nights as Day, Days as Night, with Leiris as the dreamer who unites them, can never more than partially reconnect this severed thread; and the interspersed recollections from his own life can only perform minimal reparative work. This insistent forward progress, in contrast to the tension of constant enjambment, makes the book deeply compelling. The dreams are poems whose forms have coagulated, partially glued by the prosodic structure more commonly found in autobiography. Leiris’s writing is not concerned with searching for essence or to “explain the flower by the fertilizer.” The texture of lightness he employs disrupts any temptation for psychoanalytic interpretation and, unmoored from the banks of autobiography and conventional poetic form, the dreams drift on an interstitial surface.
* * *
Leiris does not deny the ontological status of his dreams. His descriptions allow their thinness and weakness to be exposed: a vulnerability which is reflected back onto the act of writing. This indeterminacy accentuates an affinity between the two practices. Blanchot remarks, in his powerful foreword to the book, that upon waking the dreamer is left with a peculiar sense of distance, “a distance between self and self,” and the realization that the one who is present in the dream is apart from their waking “I.” This fissure of non-identity makes it possible to speak of the “kinship of dreaming and writing.” Like a text a dream is both fragmentary and complete, a whole from which pieces are always missing.
Poetic and narrative crisis are made manifest by death’s presence within the dream poems; death is often framed as the space just beyond, or just beneath, the surface of the dream. In his dream of March 19-20, 1943 Leiris writes: “I was in a sense being precipitated downward by my dream, plunged into a sleep from which I would never escape, and which would be my death.” More unsettling still is the following dream which ends with a description of a chamber resembling an athanor containing a “grotto whose blackness opens the secret abysses of nature right by my side, leaving me separated from the antechamber of death by little more than a vague doorway of dusty leaves.” Death is exiled from autobiography but not from dreams. A Nervalian “second life” may have many deaths. However, as with the act of writing, the risk of death is illusory; ultimately it can only exist outside the two processes. In a space without perspective the winged bull of Nineveh is “no more substantial than an inflatable toy.”
The athanor appears too in The Rules of the Game when Leiris speaks of language and synesthesia: in such a context, the alphabet “belongs to the domain of sight” even as the vowels and consonants are made flesh by a tongue’s alchemical action on air to transmit speech to ears. The act of transmutation harks back to the idea of writing and dreaming as liminal practices, transcriptions between night and day, eye and hand, inside and outside. This liminality gives them a blurred texture in which space and time are ungrounded. The time of sleep is both collapsed and stretched. Complex dream narratives each unfold inside an elongated instant. The dream’s dissonant duration echoes that of autobiography. Writing accentuates this motion of compression and extension while, at the same time, reducing it to nothing by fixing it in suspension. In the written dreams, absence and distance fuse together and then, in a split second, evaporate.
This is exemplified in one of the book’s later dreams where Leiris is bound for execution. His friends are spectators lined up beside a wall of rock. He escapes by falling into an alleyway, a fall which awakens him but only into another dream. On this upper surface the dreamer is explaining how to cut short dreams through an act of voluntary falling. In the next few sentences Leiris describes reenvisioning his dream:
Still asleep, I go over this dream in my mind and I repeat certain parts of it. More specifically, this second version features a rectangle of white paper that is given to those who are about to be shot to death. They are allowed to write their last words on it, and when the time comes for them to be executed, the piece of paper is placed not over their eyes but over their mouth, like a gag.
Here the dream enacts its own repetition, a new beginning precipitated by a fall. The act of writing replaces speech, the victim is gagged: the mouth is simultaneously opened and silenced. Leiris describes the French word for dream, rêve, as “something akin to the gossamer veil that clogs the throats of persons suffering from the croup.” Like the words gagging the execution victim, the act of dreaming is a disturbance of language, one in which speech is clogged and stifled by the dreamer’s distance from himself. This indeterminacy is evident in one of the book’s “undated” dreams in which the gesture of removing glasses corresponds to the moment of awakening, overlaying the dream-gesture with actually opening one’s eyes. In another passage a young man is challenged to identify a woman from a large group of masked, naked female bodies using only his sense of touch. The contest takes place in a monastery crypt accessed from a ruined abbey. The “Tactile Exam” is paired with an “Aural Exam” in which the voice replaces the touch of the bodies, the ear replaces the hand. In each case there is a dissonant synesthesia where the eye, ear, mouth, and hand become simultaneously heightened, symbolic, and overturn one another. The dream turns out to be a limbo between the dreamer and the dreamed self.
What has become of death in this intrusion, this contamination of the world of somnolence? Towards the end of the book Leiris describes the feeling he is left with after another kind of sleep, a anesthetics-induced unconsciousness following a minor surgical operation. “No sleep is quite like this sort of blank or void,” he writes, its dreamlessness is a state without opacity or duration. This “lesion,” a wound that is “indescribable,” is something that seems “never to have existed at all.” It is a “truly dead time”, a space of unreflective darkness, one with no surfaces. To return to the opening comparison, “Sciascia’s wish” must go unfulfilled. Death shall not resemble sleep. The poetic form and the dream form, as linguistic hesitations, are inadequate to it.
Against the dazzling lexical play of The Rules of the Game, Nights as Day, Days as Night strikes a distinctly minor key, but this weakness is also its greatest strength. Beautiful, and full of light in every sense of the word, it is an excellent experiment in using dreams to ask questions about the nature of writing, and the relationship of both these practices to death. Resisting the temptation to use dream logic merely as a way to question the reality of the “real world,” or to position the dreams as coded sets signifiers ready for interpretation, Leiris’s writing, by attempting to recapture the lightness and texture of the dreams, instead opens itself up to something much more profound. Death remains a place that words cannot reach. The death which enters into the dream is only a dream-death; the subsequent death of the dream reveals it as such. The “coffin-boats” float endlessly on an unformed sea. The dream’s crisis is one of ending without ending: of never truly ending. And though the dream too is a space without words, it leaves a trace which the poetic form may attach itself to, drawing a line between writing and the dream as those practices which operate at the horizon of language, where its communicative function has all but disintegrated, and what lies beyond it is truly unspeakable.
Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic living in London. He has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Berfrois, Gorse, and The Quietus, among others. His short fiction has appeared in the Newer York and Black Sun Lit. Find him on Twitter and at Obliettes.