Nights as Day, Days as Night by Michel Leiris

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“Le rêve est une seconde vie,” says Gérard de Nerval in the epigraph to the dream journal of Michel Leiris, a collection of oneiric texts published as Nuits sans nuit et quelques jours sans jour in 1961, and which appears this week in a new translation—Nights as Day, Days as Night—from Spurl Editions.

If dreams for Nerval were a second life, for the Surrealists they were a life as important as the waking one, their significance distilled in the declared desire of Max Ernst to keep one eye open on the wake world while the other remained closed and fixed upon the interior. Michel Leiris was a friend of André Masson, and was involved with the Surrealists in the early days until a falling out with André Breton saw him expelled from the “official” ranks. The fatuously doctrinaire Breton seemed to fall out with everyone at some point, and Leiris wasn’t alone in being undeterred by any tinpot Stalinism. Nights as Day, Days as Night is a major Surrealist text, a journal covering the years 1923 to 1960 which may be read as a straightforward transcription of one person’s dream life, or as a series of fragmented narratives, anecdotes and fantasies many of which, in their brevity, operate like condensed fictions. Dreams as raw material for fiction have a long history but are seldom presented en masse in an undiluted form. One problem is that a naked description of a dream is unlikely to be interesting to anyone other than the dreamer unless the description is artfully presented. In his lecture on nightmares, Jorge Luis Borges describes his most terrifying dream—an old Norwegian king appearing at the foot of his bed—which he says was terrifying not because of the appearance of a spectral presence but because of the atmosphere in the room, an atmosphere he found impossible to convey to others.

This quality of incommunicability (or a general lack of interest, since “strange dreams” are universal) may be sidestepped if the dreamer is already noteworthy, as with the case of William Burroughs whose My Education: A Book of Dreams is the most obvious equivalent to Leiris’s collection. Burroughs had been mining his dreams for years, however, so the contents of My Education were already very familiar to his readers when the book appeared in 1995. Leiris has the advantage of novelty, and even more than Burroughs he works consciously to make his dreams interesting to a reader. (There’s also some intersection in the Parisian locations; Burroughs included Paris as one of the omnipresent zones in his personal dream landscape.) As with Burroughs, there seem to be occasions when the transcription turns into outright fictioneering. I’ve tried keeping a dream journal myself a few times, and found it difficult to recall anything more than the merest fragments of most dreams. Leiris is selective—many of the entries are separated by several months—but many of his selections run over several pages, and contain detailed descriptions of sequential events. Unless you’re blessed with exceptional recall, some elaboration would seem inevitable given the elusive nature of dreams and their tendency to quickly evaporate in the bleary-eyed morning. From a Surrealist perspective (a non-doctrinaire one, naturally), any subsequent embellishment might be regarded as a literary parallel to the Ernst intention of keeping one eye open while the other remains closed; the dreams become Surrealist texts collaged from Leiris’s dream life and whatever enhancement he applies to the raw transcription. Many of the shorter transcriptions remain faithful to the abrupt disjunctions of the dream state, replete with sudden changes of location, personality and even reversals from subject to object. Literature has the ability to convey these disjunctions much more accurately than other media. Painting, drawing and collage only ever create a single, static image; film has the advantage of movement but, like other visual media, can’t help but make everything seem all too tangible. In film, animation comes the closest to dreams but still lacks the ability to put you inside the consciousness of the dreamer the way that Leiris’s texts do, fictional or otherwise.

Spurl’s Nights as Day, Days as Night is translated by Richard Sieburth, and features a foreword by Maurice Blanchot. Order it here.

Secret Societies and Spirit Boards

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Komposition für einen Rhombus (2007) by Fabian Marti.

Fabian Marti’s print is one of the few works that stood out for me in the press materials for the Secret Societies exhibition which has just opened at the CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art, Bordeaux:

[Secret Societies] deals with the general theme of secret societies through the prism of contemporary art in the current context of media super-exposure – from WikiLeaks to Credit Rating Agencies (CRA), just to quote two current examples. Artists have always been fascinated by the unknown and the occult. But unlike journalists who are mainly focused on investigating present-day news, artists work around the mechanisms of the secret and are better equipped to question the very limits of the ideology of transparency in our era of super-exposure.

Unfortunately many of the works look like the customary state of affairs, with a bunch of contemporary artists doing their usual schtick and not really questioning (familiar gallery buzzword) anything much at all. On the plus side they have a screening of Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother, and also a contribution from Cerith Wyn Evans whose Acephalé reworks in neon the André Masson design for Georges Bataille’s Surrealist secret society. Gary Lachman has created an audio guide for the exhibition which is curated by Cristina Ricupero and Alexis Vaillant, and which runs until February 26th, 2012.

For a more determinedly occult showing this month, there’s Spirit Board curated by JL Schnabel at the Articulated Gallery, San Francisco. And elsewhere I’d recommend the work of Scott Treleaven and Jesse Bransford.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Scott Treleaven

Surrealist cartomancy

ubu.gifReworking the illustrations of the standard fifty-two card playing deck has become quite a common thing in recent years with numerous themed decks being produced in costly limited editions. The same goes for decks of Tarot cards which have now been mapped across a number of different magical systems and produced in sets that often add little to the philosophy of the Tarot but merely vary the artwork. This wasn’t always the case, and certainly not in the 1940s when André Breton and a group of fellow Surrealists produced designs for a fascinating deck of cards that hybridises the Tarot and the more mundane pack of playing cards in an attempt to create something new.

The Jeu de Marseilles was named after the city of its creation, and it’s no coincidence that one of the most well-known medieval Tarot designs is the Marseilles deck. Breton and his artist friends—Wifredo Lam, Max Ernst, Jacqueline Lamba, Oscar Dominguez, Victor Brauner, Jacques Hérold, André Masson and Frédéric Delanglade—were stranded in the French port along with many other artists, writers and intellectuals attempting to escape Nazi-occupied Europe and gain passage to the America. The creation of the card deck became a way of passing the time during several months of anxious waiting.

Typically for a group that had already spent a decade analysing and deconstructing all available artistic media, it wasn’t enough to merely redecorate an existing pack of cards, Breton wanted a thorough reinvention along Surrealist principles. So the traditional suits were renamed accordingly: Flames (red) for love and desire, Stars (black) for dreams, Wheels (red) for revolution, and Locks (black) for knowledge. Even though the number of cards was kept at fifty-two, this highly symbolic structure places the deck closer to the Tarot arrangement of Wands, Cups, Swords and Discs, rather than the usual Clubs, Hearts, Spades and Diamonds. Breton’s socialist sympathies meant that having a royal hierarchy of King and Queen lording it over a humble Jack was quite unacceptable; these were subsequently re-named Genius, Siren and Magus. Again, the name Magus here is interesting for the added occult reference it gives to the design. Alfred Jarry’s grotesque Pa Ubu (above) was nominated as the Joker.

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Flames: Ace; Genius: Baudelaire; Siren: Mariana Alcofardo; Magus: Novalis.

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Stars: Ace; Genius: Lautréamont; Siren: Alice (from Lewis Carroll); Magus: Freud.

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Wheels: Ace; Genius: De Sade; Siren: Lamiel (from Stendhal); Magus: Pancho Villa.

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Locks: Ace; Genius: Hegel; Siren: Hélène Smith; Magus: Paracelcus.

The Jeu de Marseilles was eventually produced as a proper deck of cards (with the original sketches being reworked slightly) and has been reprinted several times since. Copies can still be found at reasonable prices from specialist card dealers.

Thanks to Eroom Nala for research assistance!