Michel Leiris had been dreaming at least since 1923, if we believe the first date noted in his collection of dream journals Nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour*. Before 1923 however, the collection opens with an undated text labelled as ‘Very Old Dream’, shifting back the beginning of Leiris’ dreamwriting to a much less clear origin, suggesting hazier chronological and perceptual limits for his project. Where do dreams begin, and when? Do they begin at the edge of writing, or is the writing of dreams a translucent surface that allows them to be perceived in spite of words and through and beyond them?
It is certain that they often end with a scream, a device for Leiris to temporarily, if only formally, conclude an experience which actually never comes to a close, but allows the dream into the day and morphs its language into that of the night: turn the page and there’s a new dream, in the end, another scream. Hushed in words, a scream is the potentially sonorous yet silenced mark that signals the ineffable quality of the materials, visions and emotions from which it is torn. A scream is of the body and reaches beyond it as it’s written, physical and ephemeral, to transform the stuff of dreams into daytime. A scream, conveyed in words and words only, which will never be heard but whose imaginary acoustic reach rips off the fabric of dream only to stitch it again, to dream again. Hushed: the near-absence of voice in the form of croup, slight speechlessness, inability to articulate words despite a drive to utter, is another aspect in Leiris’ dreams that denotes sound as the liminal medium par excellence—at once present and hallucinatory—allowing the transitions, infiltrations and transformations to and from the oneiric realm.
In writing the dream in and out of a scream, Leiris holds on to its borders, to the hypnagogic and the awakening conditions. There is no better clue to prove the fluidity between states in this dreamwriting project than its title. In French, Nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour is a sonorous and sensuous string of words (the sound of words, the sensuous aspect of letters, was always crucial for Leiris to generate writing and sustain it): it suggests a much less clear dichotomy than the English Nights as Day, Days as Night, a more unstable border between the two dimensions, and tempts the reader to locate these texts in a space of metamorphosis. These are not dreams as such, not just life, but one is ceaselessly reflected into the other, and back, in transit. Writing, for Leiris, is precisely that state. That is, the state of poetry.
Nights as Day, Days as Night is not a dream journal: Leiris considered it a collection of prose poems, as Sieburth highlights in his translator’s note. The sort of poetry only he could he write: obsessive and hilarious, not of the emotion recollected in tranquility type, rather, of euphoria and estrangement dissected in immobility. A palpable turmoil underlies these texts, along with a lively sense of invention as play, where arrangements and derangements of words establish their own materiality and tangibility. It is a poetry of the present tense—‘my efforts always take place in the present’, Leiris once wrote, and his dreams are all written in the present because they’re not standing for what was, but what is, in words, as they re-tune each and every now, as they enchant, perplex, and alarm now. Present dreams at the edges of a language, from within language, where being is so close to begin, where the oneiric substance is utterance, and can only start to be manifested as utterance. Language, to quote Leiris from the first volume of his autobiography Scratches, is not ‘a coded telegram holding absolute truths to decipher’, but complex living material reborn every time, playing ‘the human role of an instrument’, ‘the equipment of a toolbox’: it transforms sensations into words and allows these to revert into senses. The Shakespearean ‘dreamers lie and they dream things true’ rings loud in these texts—impossible to untie the fictional from the actual. When the two meet on the page and in reading, can you imagine the spell?
The writing of the dream is not the dream. The sense of presence obtained through words is strong, even when these visions cannot be fully held. In these pages language is felt and perceived as it brushes images, as it thrusts at them: Leiris’ words don’t hold an external truth but set up their own, yet what exceeds them is present and vital.
The writing of the dream will never be the dream, but it will always be interfered with by the dream’s alterity, and these texts are attempts to hold the quiver of such strangeness, its movements.
James Hilllman wrote in The Dream and The Underworld: ‘For dreams are not only “natural phenomena”; they are above all imaginative products. They are elaborations, linguistic and imagistic complexities, attesting to what Freud called “dream-work”.’ Except, in Leiris’s case, very little is concerned with work, a lot with play.
These are not only dreams, but literary operations that enable a poetic experiment precariously balanced on the fragility of its subject matter. And the (dreaming, writing) subject matters too: this is autobiography at its most acute, shaped by mirroring and framing rather than by digging or logic, as the subject’s slightest motions are articulated from within the experience of dream—night as day, into, with, despite and through. Leiris does not ask questions of his dreams: he writes them, not of them. The question is not about recording a dream as other, but how words can become other, and how otherness in turn seeps into and shapes the subject. Leiris’s boundless autobiographical project deploys the dream journal as a reflecting and porous surface, allowing him to look inside and outside the self with all the illusions and tricks of light and perspective that such position can attain. And for Leiris, the ‘I’ has a homophonic twin in ‘game’ (je/jeu, in the title of his autobiography La règle du jeu): the rules of the ‘I’ are the rules of the game, with all the potential for misunderstanding and slippages that such coexistence entails.
James Clifford has written at length, in The Predicament of Culture, of Leiris’ refusal of narration as linear and concluded trajectory, and of his leaning toward the chronicle and its possibilities for dead ends, and repetitions and wasted efforts: writing ‘as is’. Language gets in the way though, as the claims of tel quel give way to the pressure of the moods and atmospheres that deform his words, rhythms, pauses. There is no chronicle of dream as such, but what erodes it and therefore shapes it. No return to the dream, but notes and reinventions of dreams in the now of every instance of writing. It is only in between ‘the clenched gesture of writing’ and ‘the relaxed posture of dreaming’—to quote his own notes in Scratches—that Leiris can capture ‘the strange series of sonorous vibrations whose vague perception fascinates me.’
From the gleeful account of Leiris and Masson flying in the air ‘like gymnasiarchs’, dropping into a concave hemisphere, unwilling to ever come back to earth, to the irony in a vision of Desnos turning into a stack of plates while being lectured by Breton; from the mystery in a dream of de Chirico and misunderstanding through misplaced vowels, to a dream of the writer ‘exteriorised’, his head pressing ‘against the very substance of my mind’, to a manuscript that turns into streetcar rails… there isn’t much magic around these dreams, rather, visions and visual puns in their absurd truth. Not having the French version in front of me, I wonder how many of these eccentric images might actually be generated from within word play or assonance, as often is the case with Leiris’s writing.
At times surgically detached, absurd, or disarmingly comical, Leiris’s dreamwriting is not romantic, fantastic, Swedenborgian or psychoanalytical: the dream is a half-broken prosthetic device attached onto the mechanism of words, to keep them moving out of synch with the writer’s Self but attuned to the minor self, to the workings of his psyche, breathing, holding his breath, and screaming—and very, very close to the substance of Leiris’s life.
Sometimes they are written with irresistible flippancy, at others a phosphoric consciousness shines through with dark wisdom. Dreams, if we so wish to continue calling them, or prose-poems that out-torture Mirbeau, out-oneirise de Nerval, and out-epaté Baudelaire. Funny, dreadful, serious, deadpan and delirious. From openings such as ‘In need of money, I hire myself out as a bull in a corrida’ to petrifying tales of possession that tempt to reverse the expression ‘I had a dream’ to ‘a dream had me’; dreams in which the recurring presence of fellow artists and authors suggests another way for literary criticism made by tangents and illicit similarities; recurring dreams of suppressed erotic desire, sexual phobias and inhibitions, fearful dreams of being captured and killed by the Nazis during the war; circular dreams of void and dead time, when the scariest inversion of the process of awakening precipitates the dreamer into death. In the process of self understanding enacted through the writing of dreams—that Blanchot, in the foreword of this book, calls neutral vigilance at the gathering point of the night—Leiris asks how the self can be plural. He continues to operate in the lunar, lucid landscape of de Nerval, wondering what happens when ‘I’ continues to exist under another form, not as Rimbaudian solemn other but as many unpredictable, deceiving, irreverent, sinister, or tormenting others.
Held in a book that begins with de Nerval, and ends at every turn of the page and off them into each of our dreamwriting selves, psyches, and senses, these dreams are not escapes but adjustments in perception: they demand we assume a sidelined position, to experience enchantment, to tear apart and reshape the contours of what is known for certain, between childlike levity and exhilarated despair.
* Translated in English by Richard Sieburth as Nights as Day, Days as Night and now available from Spurl Editions with small adjustments to the old 1987 Eridanos version
Michel Leiris (1901–1990) was an author, ethnographer, art critic, and former surrealist who pioneered a unique form of autobiographical writing. Praised by Susan Sontag, Maurice Blanchot, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, he made powerful contributions to modern French literature. His autobiographical works include Manhood, The Rules of the Game, and Nights as Day, Days as Night.
Richard Sieburth is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at New York University. He has translated works by Henri Michaux and Louise Labé, and he received a PEN/Book of the Month Translation Prize for his translation of Gérard de Nerval’s Selected Writings.
Daniela Cascella is an Italian writer. She is the author of F.M.R.L. Footnotes,Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Zero Books, 2015) and En Abîme: Listening,Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zero Books, 2012). Her texts and reviews have been published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Gorse, 3:AM Magazine, Music and Literature, The Wire among others, and in anthologies on Koenig Books, raster-noton, Uniformbooks, Cura Books, Vanguard Editions. She is a Contributing Editor at Minor Literature[s].
Author and translator bios courtesy of Spurl Editions.