Excerpt: 'Nights as Day, Days as Night' by Michel Leiris, translated by Richard Sieburth
Curtain for Rossini’s Otello (detail), Giorgio De Chirico, 1964
DECEMBER 16–17, 1924
One night, drunk, on the Boulevard de Sébastopol, I pass an old wretch of a man and call out to him. He answers: “Leave me alone . . . I am the master of the heights of cinema.” Then he continues on his way to Belleville.
THE SAME NIGHT
So distinctly do I see the relationship between the rectilinear movement of a body and a picket fence perpendicular to the direction of this movement that I let out an ear-splitting scream.
THE SAME NIGHT
I imagine the rotation of the earth through space, not in some abstract or schematic fashion, the axis of the poles and the equator made tangible, but rather as it really is. The rumpled face of the earth.
DECEMBER 17–18, 1924
In his studio Giorgio de Chirico shows me an album containing reproductions of his paintings. Each of these reproductions is accompanied by a handwritten note indicating the theme of the work, providing either a succinct description of the painting in question or a statement of what the artist intended when undertaking it. Read in sequence, these texts turn out to be a series of brief poems.
Upon waking, only a fragment of one of these texts will stick in my mind: “ . . . épeurés et apeurés” [frighted and affrighted] – which is not a mere phonetic nicety; rather, the nuance implied by the difference of the initial vowels puts into play a number of distant meanings.
One of the paintings is entitled Jupiter’s Finger Passing through the Partition. The canvas depicts an empty room, dark, with receding walls. From the right wall there emerges an enormous finger, an index finger (probably) or else a middle or ring finger. No clear distinction between this room that is painted more or less as a trompe-l’oeil and the room that I’m actually in.
In another dream (which I had years ago but am unable to date even approximately because I didn’t note it down anywhere), I was looking at a cubist still life hanging in a museum or some other exhibition. Suddenly it seemed to me 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, and I was seized with fright: if the world is really that way, a world without perspective, how go about inhabiting it?
I observe the following bit of dialogue between André Breton and Robert Desnos, or I read it as if it were a fragment of a play with stage directions:
A.B. (to Robert Desnos). The seismoteric tradition . . .
R.D. (turns into a stack of plates).
My friend André Masson and I are soaring through the air like gymnasiarchs. A voice calls up to us: “World-class acrobats, when are the two of you finally going to come down to earth?” At these words, we execute a flip over the horizon and drop into a concave hemisphere.
JANUARY 20–21, 1925
I see the word “bât” [packsaddle] written in capital letters while apparently hearing the strains of a violin. Then there follows, without my reading the letters this time: “convolutions . . . prismatic gloom . . . ”
JANUARY 21–22, 1925
I set out on an excursion boat from a small river port where pirate and corsair ships of the 17th and 18th centuries are moored. Every type of vessel is represented; there is even a steamboat similar to the tugs one sees on the Seine. The flagship is huge and is made up of two hulls linked together by a single deck, an arrangement that allows smaller boats to sail through the flagship widthwise and to pass under the deck as though it were a fixed arch. The sails are capable of only one movement: they can be lowered or raised like drawbridges or like wings, according to that simple up-and-down movement to which the flight of birds used to be so schematically reduced in sketches made by designers of flying machines.
The excursion boat takes me to the ruins of the abbey of Jumièges. After a long walk through the halls and stairways, I come across my brother lying in bed. I ask him what he’s doing there. He replies that he is the director of the “Abbey Clinic,” then (the dream now extending into a half-awake revery) he explains to me the ritual of the “Tactile Exam” that is observed in the region at various prescribed dates: a number of girls, naked, their faces masked, are gathered into one of the monastery’s crypts; a young man, chosen by lot, leaves a nearby village at midnight and makes his way into the crypt blindfolded; his task is to feel up the girls until he has recognized one of them by purely tactile means, and if this girl also manages to recognize him in turn, he makes love to her. There is a similar game called “Aural Exam,” in which the method of identification involves the voice.
The working drawing of a shape I would roughly describe by comparing it to the profile of a Pharaonic pschent, reduced to the crown of Upper Egypt alone, truncated at the top and without any framing in the front. It is the “hennin of the void.” No line defines the base of this headdress (so that the design remains open to that side), whereas the tip – or the crown – is indicated by stippled lines forming an obviously convex lens, which I can only identify (in my revery) as a glass object that is called a “lens” in optics and that can just as easily be concave as convex. The words “stem or finger” and “finger or stem” run like captions along the length of the two curved lines whose double bulge outlines the profile of the pschent. All of this against a “black background of night,” expressly designated as such.
MARCH 14–15, 1925
Sidled up to a woman named Nadia – to whom I am drawn by very tender feelings – I am at the edge of the sea, a shore on the order of Palm Beach, a Hollywood beach. Playfully, just to scare me and to ascertain how hard I would take her death, Nadia, an excellent swimmer, pretends she is drowning. In fact, she does drown, and her lifeless body is brought to me. I begin to weep until the wordplay “Nadia, drowned naiad” [Nadia, naïade noyée] – which comes to me just as I am waking – appears to be both an explanation and a consolation.
Excerpted from ‘Nights as Day, Days as Night‘ by Michel Leiris; translated by Richard Sieburth. Forthcoming March 22, 2017 by Spurl Editions.