Issue 56, Spring 1973
At first the darkness sometimes forms the vague outline of an ace of spades: from a point in front of you two lines recede, diverge and, after tracing a vast curve, tum back towards you.
Later it becomes an ocean, a black sea over which you sail, as if your nose were the point or rather the stem of a gigantic steamship. Everything is black. No night, no darkness, the entire world is black, intrinsically black as on a photographic negative, and the only whiteness, or perhaps grayness, is in the surge your passage raises on each side of your nose, along your eyes, which are perhaps the sides of the ship, where formerly the ace of spades bad figured as if in mere prelude to this wake, the whitish, undulating trail that you cut in front of you as you glide over the black water. The water encompasses you on all sides, a black, motionless sea, extraordinarily smooth, lacking even phosphorescence, and yet you feel that you could detect every detail, the slightest cloud if there were a sky, the merest shoal if there were an horizon. But there is only sea, and you are all stem cutting without effort, sound, or tremor the deep white tracks of your way, like a share ploughing up a field.
Soon, however, some place overhead, as if an inset, as if a screen appeared and a motion picture negative were projected on it, there is the same ship only now seen from above, in its entirety, and as for you, you are on the deck leaning over the railing or rather the gunnel, in a somewhat romantic attitude. For a long time the double image remains absolutely precise; and indeed if there is any one thing that irritates, that bothers you, it’s that you can no longer manage to tell whether first of all you are the stem all by itself, raising white waves as it glides over the sea, and subsequently, almost simultaneously, some such thing as the consciousness of being this stem, which is to say the entire ship overhead on which you are the motionless passenger who is leaning from the deck in a slightly romantic attitude; or whether, on the contrary, there is first of all the entire ship gliding over the black sea with you, its only passenger, leaning against the gangway, and then a single detail inordinately magnified of this ship, the stem that divides the billows and raises on either side two waves—dense, white, but perhaps too definite in their con-tours to be really waves, they are more undulations, effects of drapery, with something about them rather stately, almost slowed down.
For a long time the two ships—the part and the whole, your stem nose and your steamship body—sail in consort without giving you any chance to dissociate them: you are at once the stem and the ship and yourself on the ship. Then a first contradiction occurs, but it is perhaps only an optical illusion ascribable to differences of scale and perspective: it appears to you that the ship is moving slowly, more and more slowly, perhaps a little as if you saw it from a greater and greater distance, from higher and higher up; and yet you leaning on the gunnel, do not grow any smaller at all, you still remain as visible as ever; and as far as the stem is concerned, it moves faster and faster, it is no longer gliding but shoots over the water, like a motorboat or even an outboard no longer an ocean liner at all.
At this point, and here things become much worse, as if you knew, perhaps by experience, that what is in the process of taking shape is the beginning of the end, since you will never he able to stand the intensity of what is foreshadowed for more than a few moments, for more than a few seconds, even though nothing as yet has been revealed except, perhaps, a premonitory sign at the most, a token whose meaning was not even certain, and whose elucidation you await in the vain hope that everything will stay blurred for as long as possible, because you know already that the moment of awakening is about to lay hold of you, it’s precisely your impatience that has brought it on and every effort you make to delay it only speeds its onset;—at this point, as it does every time, there emerges, not slowly enough, the feeling at once thrilling and dismal, wonderful and heartbreaking, from the start too precise and becoming very soon an almost painful throb: the absurd certainty—or, instead, not yet quite absurd but sure to become absurd—that this is a true memory, exact in every detail: the sea was black, the ship made slow headway through the narrow channel, projecting sheaves of white foam along its sides, you were leaning over the railing of the promenade deck in the slightly romantic attitude adopted by all passengers looking at sea gulls while they take the air; you experienced the same feeling that you now experience, and nevertheless you experience no feeling now other than the perilous, the ever more perilous one of knowing that such a memory is at once impossible and ineradicable.
Later, much later—you may have woken up several times, dozed back to sleep several times, you have turned on your right side, on your left side, you have lain on your back, lain face down, perhaps you have even turned on the light, perhaps smoked a cigarette—later, much later, sleep becomes a target, no, it’s rather you who become sleep’s target. It’s a widening, intermittent focus. In front of you, or more exact-J} in front of your eyes, sometimes a little to the left, sometimes a little to the right, never at the center, a myriad of little white dots gradually draw together, finally assuming some cat-like shape, the profile of a panther’s head, which moves forward, grows larger as it bares two sharp fangs, then disappears, giving way to a luminous spot that broadens, turns into a rhombus, a star, and swoops down on you, missing you at the last second as it goes by on your right. The phenomenon recurs several times at regular intervals—nothing at first, then faintly luminous dots, a panther’s head in out-line, filled out, growing larger, roaring, baring two sharp fangs; afterwards a ball of light that heads towards you, just misses you, passing so close that you almost thought you had touched, felt, and heard it; then again nothing, for a long time—white dots, the panther’s head, the star that swells and brushes against you.
Then, for a long time, nothing; or else, sometimes, later, somewhere, something like a white sun exploding...
The meeting of eye and pillow gives birth to a mountain, a fairly gentle slope forming a quarter circle (or more precisely the lesser arc of a circle) that stands out in the foreground, darker than the remaining space. This mountain isn’t interesting; it’s normal. For the time being your mind is absorbed by a task that you must perform but that you are unable to define exactly; it seems to be the sort of task that is scarcely important in itself and that perhaps is only the pretext, the opportunity, of making sure you know the rules: you imagine, for example, and this is immediately confirmed, that the task consists of sliding your thumb or even your whole hand onto the pillow. But is doing this really your concern; Don’t your years of service, your position in the hierarchy. exempt you from this chore? This question is plainly much more important than the task itself, and there is nothing to help you solve it, you didn’t think that so much later you would have to account for things in this way. Besides, on further reflection you realize that the problem is still more complicated: it isn’t a matter of knowing whether or not you should slide your thumb in a manner befitting your rank your duties, your seniority, but rather of this: sooner or later in any event, you will have to slide your thumb up, but on top of the pillow if you have sufficient seniority, underneath ; if you haven’t, and of course you have no notion of your seniority, which seems considerable but perhaps not considerable enough. Perhaps they have even picked a moment to ask you precisely this question when no one, not even the most upright of judges, would be able unquestioningly to assert that you have or have not got sufficient seniority?
The question could also be asked about your feet or thighs. It in fact means nothing: the real problem is one of contacts. There are theoretically two kinds of contact: between your body and the sheets, as in the case of your left thigh, your right foot, your right forearm, part of your belly—a contact that is fusion, osmosis, liquefaction; and between your body and itself, where flesh meets flesh, where the left foot is crossed over the right foot, where the knees meet, where your elbow ventures against your stomach—these contacts being sharp, hot or cold, or hot and cold. Obviously it’s possible with hardly any risk to reverse the whole operation and assert that, on the contrary, the left foot is under the right foot, the right thigh under the left thigh.
What is most clear in ail this is that obviously you are not lying down, either on your right side or on your left side, legs slightly bent, arms embracing the pillow, but that you are hanging head downwards like a hibernating bat or, more, like an overripe pear on a pear tree: which means that at any moment you may fall, something that in fact strikes you as not particularly bothersome, since your head is perfectly shielded by the pillow; but you are duty bound to escape this ranger, even if it is minute. But if you review the means at our command, it does not take you long to realize that the situation is more serious than you first reckoned, if only in that loss of horizontality is rarely conducive to sleep. There-tore you must make up your mind to fall, even though you foresee that this will scarcely be enjoyable (one never knows when the fall will end) but above all you don’t know how to go about falling, it’s only when you aren’t thinking about it that you start to fall, and how can you not think about it since it so happens you art thinking about it? It s something no one has ever seriously faced and that nevertheless is of some consequence: there ought to be texts on the subject, authoritative texts that would enable one to deal with these situations, far commoner than is generally believed.
Three quarters of your body have taken refuge in your head Your heart has settled in your eyebrow, where it has made itself perfectly at home, pulsating like a thing alive. with, at the most, a very slightly exaggerated acceleration. You are obliged to perform a roll call of your body, to verify the wholeness of your limbs, your organs, your entrails your mucous membranes. You would certainly like to rid your head of all these lumps that encumber and weigh it down, and at the same time you are pleased at having saved as much as you could, for everything else is lost, you have no more feet, no more hands; your calf has quite melted away.
All this is more and more complicated. First you would have to remove your elbow, and in the space thus vacated you could place at least part of your belly, continuing in this manner until you were more or less reconstituted. But it’s frightfully difficult: some parts are missing, of others there are two, others have swollen to inordinate size others put forward utterly insane territorial claims. Your elbow is more elbow than ever (you had forgotten that anything could be so thoroughly elbow), a nail has replaced your hand. And of course it’s always at that very moment that the tormentors decide to intervene. One sticks a blackboard eraser in your mouth, another stuffs cotton in your ears; several pit sawyers have started working in your sinuses; a pyromaniac sets fire to your stomach, sadistic tailors squeeze your feet, cram too small a hat on your head, force you into too tight a coat and use a necktie to strangle you; a chimney sweep and his accomplice have let a knotted rope into your windpipe which in spite of their praiseworthy efforts, they are unable to extract.
They are there nearly every time. You know them well. It’s almost reassuring. If they’re around, sleep isn’t far away. They will make you suffer a little, then get fed up and leave you in peace. They hurt you, it’s true, but you keep towards your pain—as towards all the other feelings you discern, all the thoughts crossing your mind, all the impressions you receive—an attitude of complete detachment. Without astonishment you see yourself astonished, without surprise surprised, without pain assaulted by the tormentors. You wait for them to calm down. You relinquish to them every organ they want. From afar you see them wrangling over your belly, your nose, your throat, your feet.
But often—so often—this is the ultimate trap. The worst then comes to pass, emerging slowly, imperceptibly. At first everything is calm—too calm; normal—too normal. Every-thing seems set never to move again. But after that you are aware, you begin to be aware, with a certainty more and more relentless, that you have lost your body—no, rather you see it, not far away from you, but you will never be one with it again.
You are no more than an eye. A huge, steady eye that sees everything, your limp body as well as yourself, the beholder beheld, as if it had turned completely round in its socket and without uttering a word was gazing on you, your inside, our dark, empty, sea-green, startled, helpless inside. It looks at you and pins you down. You will never stop seeing your-self. You are unable to do anything, you are unable to escape yourself, you are unable to escape your gaze, you will never be able to: even if you managed to fall asleep so deeply that no shock, no summons, no searing pain could wake you up, there would still be this eye, your eye, which will never shut, which will never fall asleep. You see yourself, you see your-self seeing yourself, you watch yourself watching yourself Even if you woke up, your vision would abide, identical, unchangeable. Even if you managed to accumulate thousands, or thousands of thousands of eyelids, there would still be, behind them, this eye to see you. You are not asleep, but sleep will not return again. You are not awake and you will never wake up again. You are not dead, and not even death could bring you deliverance.
—Translated from the French by Harry Mathews