Some Fragments - On Writing
translated by Peter Behrman de Sinety
in Ways of Re-Thinking Literature
edited by Tom Bishop and Donatien Grau
Routledge, May 2018
Over the course of the past fifteen years—and others have spoken to me of having had the same experience—I have dreamt on several occasions that I was reading dazzling pages, written in a style I judged perfect. I would not dream that I had written these pages myself; I would attribute them to a friend, to one of my professors or to an author I had studied. One night, I read the magnificent first page of a novel by Gilles Deleuze.
In waking, alas, nothing remained—not a single phrase, not even a word, nor the slightest notion of what it was about. Sometimes, I would realize I was dreaming: I would see myself in the midst of my dream, and I would do all I could to catch a few fragments of these sublime texts before waking. But they always slipped through my fingers, like a powder too fine to hold, a substance from another world that couldn’t be borne across from dream to waking without dissolving entirely. At times I would doubt their existence: I would tell myself that these texts didn’t exist even in the dream itself, and that there was nothing more than an illusion of reading, incited by the dream.
But the last time I had this kind of a dream I finally managed to recover a fragment of text.
It was in November 2015, shortly before the Paris attacks. We were spending a few days in Turin, where we had rented a little apartment on Via 20 Settembre, right behind the vast Piazza San Carlo. It was on the top floor of a building that must have been built near the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the twentieth century. At any rate, it was built around the time of the first electric elevators, for the one that proudly presided at the center of the stairwell here—with its singularly vast dimensions, its sliding gate which you had to close by hand and its ivory buttons that took long moments to transmit the signal you had given them—did not seem to have been installed after the fact, as you so often see in Paris even in the most sumptuous buildings. Rather, the elevator seemed to have been conceived from the very beginning as one of the building’s centerpieces, perhaps even as a token of luxury rare at the time. The building’s main entrance was monumentally high; in the entrance hall immense golden plates with “ATTORNEY” written in huge letters welcomed and intimidated the visitor. It was a décor straight out of The Trial by Orson Welles. Nothing had changed since the days in which this place had been the very model of luxury and modernity—nothing except that it had lost all trace of both luxury and modernity. During the few days we spent there, the building stayed somber and deserted; not a single contrite citizen caught in the machine of tedious legal proceedings sat in the antechambers waiting for his short-tempered attorney to condescend to give him a hearing.
Since you had to close the sliding gate yourself, you didn’t have a precise sense of the moment at which you would rise, a sense which comes in modern elevators precisely from the automatic closing of the folding doors. Two or three times the mechanism took so long to engage that—thinking it was perhaps temporarily out of order and afraid of getting stuck in this antique carcass—we started to reach out to open the gate before thinking better of this, for exactly at that moment the first jolts made themselves felt and it would have been even riskier to interrupt this laborious onset at the wrong moment. Often, as a precaution, we took the stairs. I don’t think I’d ever set foot in such an old elevator.
All the way at the top, the studio in which we were staying looked like a museum dedicated to the 1990s: we had the use of a television set dating back to before the introduction of flat screens, with a VCR and a line of VHS cassettes. Aside from the invisible Wifi connection, no equipment seemed to have been added to the room in at least twenty years, as if a cultural heritage officer were scrupulously watching over the place. We realized fairly quickly that each time a tramway passed below a hellish noise shook the room as the whole building trembled.
On the second evening, we had dinner at a trattoria on the Piazza Carlo Alberto. We liked the place and came back again the next evening. But this time it soon became obvious that the weakness I had felt over the course of the afternoon was the early symptom of a nasty infection. My stomach turned at the sight of the pizza’s thick, soft crust, almost raw; I could hardly swallow a bite. The next day, I was quite a pitiful walking companion: I came back early and went to bed in the afternoon. I fell into one of those feverish states in which you can no longer distinguish very clearly between night and day, waking and sleeping, dream and reality. When I’m like this I often have dreams that I call hyperrealist—dreams whose plot holds nothing extravagant, in which I’m in the same room, at the same time, and the only thing that I’m dreaming is that I’m awake, that I’m getting up at night to quench my thirst. These hyperrealist dreams are the ones that obliterate in the most disturbing way the frontier between dream and reality: the awareness of dreaming has no reason to recognize the dreams as dreams and therefore lets them easily pass—until the sensation of actual thirst wakes me up and informs me that it was only in dream that I feverishly arose to go pour myself a glass of water in the middle of the night.
Around 10 o’clock in the evening I had the urge to reread on my smartphone some sonnets sent to me a few days earlier by G.M., a poet, translator, and scholar who specializes in Voltaire and Nietzsche and the relation between them, on which he wrote his thesis. That night, I dreamt that he had sent me more sonnets, and they had, of course, the aura of texts that exist only in dreams. A moment arrived in which, all while dreaming, I became aware of what was happening: I gathered my mental strength, determined to return to the surface of day with a fragment, with a piece of the perfect text. I knew from experience that it was futile to try to come back with the entire text; I decided to focus immediately on a few lines and hold on as tightly as I could. I hoped that the feverish state in which I found myself, in which the boundary between waking and dreaming was blurred, might finally allow the precious merchandise to pass from one realm to another.
The surfacing began. I could feel the golden text crumbling between my fingers, faster and faster. And yet a little remained, a little still remained. And when I awoke—a miracle—I still had two lines in my head ripped from a sonnet which had otherwise vanished, two lines which I didn’t have to jot down on a piece of paper as I kept repeating them to myself and gazing inwardly on them as on a trophy. I had done something I had sought to do for many years. I had proven the existence of texts read in dreams, that the dreaming mind isn’t subject to an illusion of reading, but reads real phrases. I had broken through the dream wall.
Here are the two lines:
Have you known, O Mary, Virgin,
That night of Hellenic rutting?
(La connais-tu, Vierge Marie,
Cette nuit des ruts helléniques?)
Certainly, I was very glad to have ripped a fragment of text from the realm of dreams for the first time; but I couldn’t conceal from myself a certain disappointment.
First of all, they were short verses, eight-syllable lines and not alexandrines. I like octosyllabic poems: they have something lively about them, enchanted, musical; I find those of Mallarmé very pleasing for example, and when I wrote a pastiche of Mallarmé in 1997 it was a sonnet in octosyllables. Nevertheless, I would have been more impressed with the literary output of my dreams if they had known how to compose alexandrines—beautiful and noble alexandrines, like those of Gérard de Nerval that had evidently inspired my fragment:
Do you know, Daphne, that song of the ancient days
At sycamore’s foot, or under the white laurel. . .
(La connais-tu, Daphné, cette ancienne romance,
Au pied du sycomore, ou sous les lauriers blancs…)
Also, my two verses weren’t rhymed. Of course one could suppose that in the totality of the lost sonnet (a form in which the rhymes traditionally interlock with each other) these two verses would have rhymed with others, but I would have liked to have had slightly firmer evidence of the lost poem’s ineffable virtuosity. It was plain, for that matter, that the classical rule of the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes had not been respected.
Finally, it had to be admitted that this strange anticlerical squib wasn’t particularly sublime. It was fairly easy to interpret it as an allusion to the sarcastic wit of Voltaire and Nietzsche, the two thinkers on whom G. was a recognized authority. It wasn’t impossible to pad the interpretation a little: this was Dionysus mocking the mother of “the Crucified”; it was the prideful last cry of paganism, before the Great God Pan died and Christianity won out. It was the uproarious laughter of the ancient days, when orgies were mystical and sensuality was innocent. It was the mirth of Julian the Apostate… But none of this was enough to redeem the fragment from its trivial prosody and impoverished imagery.
When a few days later I told G. about this experience of which he had been the protagonist, he made an amused but dubious face and clearly gave me to understand that he too was disappointed by the verses of which I had dreamt he was the author. We were at the Petit Suisse, a café next to the Théâtre de l’Odéon. I did my best to hold forth on the fragment’s Voltairean or Nietzschean character, to which I would have thought him more receptive. He said to me with a knowing look: “And what about Turin…” “Turin?” I said, without emphasizing the question mark, as I could feel there was perhaps something here that I couldn’t admit to be ignorant of. “Turin” he said again, hardly able to believe that I hadn’t grasped his allusion. “Yes, Turin…” I said, pretending not to have forgotten that Turin was the town in which Nietzsche had gone insane upon seeing a poor horse whipped by a driver on the Piazza Carlo Alberto.