Michel Leiris pursues his heroine, Aurora, through a visionary landscape shot through with catastrophes — and his lucid yet baroque language, with its incredible descriptions and ever more extravagant metaphors, is only just able to keep pace.


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Michel Leiris, Aurora and Cardinal Point, Trans. by Anna Warby, Terry Hale. Introduced by Anna Warby. Atlas Press, 2014. [1925.]



This volume collects two classics of Surrealist fiction, both long out of print, by the writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris (1901–1990). Close to Georges Bataille, Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Francis Bacon, and a director of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, Leiris was a pivotal figure in postwar France. He wrote important works in the fields of ethnology and anthropology, as well as a sequence of autobiographical works regarded as classics of modern French literature (most famously Manhood [1939]). "There is scarcely a literary opus today that can compare in authenticity and stature to that of Michel Leiris," Maurice Nadeau wrote of him. In Aurora, Leiris pursues his eponymous heroine through a visionary landscape shot through with catastrophe. His lucid yet baroque language, with its rich descriptions and ever more extravagant metaphors, is only just able to keep pace. Looking back on this novel, Leiris described its tone: "despite the ‘black’ or ‘frenetic’ style of its blustering prose, what I like about this work is the appetite it expresses for an unattainable purity, the faith it places in the untamed imagination, the horror it manifests with regard to any kind of fixity." Cardinal Point is Leiris’ first prose work. Written in 1925, soon after he had joined the Surrealist movement, it employs "automatic writing" to excavate the hidden meanings of ordinary words, a procedure that was to underpin his most vital future works.


In a novel of extremes, whose disgust with “things as they are” includes the whole idea of “novels”, Michel Leiris pursues his heroine, Aurora, through a visionary landscape shot through with catastrophes — and his lucid yet baroque language, with its incredible descriptions and ever more extravagant metaphors, is only just able to keep pace. Leiris himself, looking back on this novel from his youth, exactly described its tone:
… despite the “black” or “frenetic” style of its blustering prose, what I like about this work is the appetite it expresses for an unattainable purity, the faith it places in the untamed imagination, the horror it manifests with regard to any kind of fixity — in fact, the way almost every page of it refuses to accept that human condition against which some will never cease to rebel, however reasonably society may be ordered.
Aurora is one of the high-points of literary Surrealism, and Leiris was an early member of the group. Close to Georges Bataille, Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre, he was a pivotal figure in post-war Paris. A director of the Musée de l’Homme, Leiris wrote important studies in the fields of ethnology and anthropology, as well as a sequence of autobiographical works regarded as classics of modern French literature.
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Michel Leiris, Nights as Day, Days as Night, Trans. by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot. Spurl Editions, 2017.
Excerpts




Hailed as an "important literary document and contemporary pleasure" by Lydia Davis, NIGHTS AS DAY, DAYS AS NIGHT is a chronicle of Michel Leiris's dreams. But it is also an exceptional autobiography, a distorted vision of twentieth-century France, a surrealist collage, a collection of prose poems. Leiris, author of the seminal autobiography Manhood, here disrupts the line between being asleep and awake, between being and non-being. He captures the profound strangeness of the dreamer's identity: that anonymous creature who stirs awake at night to experience a warped version of waking life.

Whatever the setting (from circus shows to brothels, from the streets of Paris to Hollywood silent films), Leiris concentrates on estranging the familiar, on unsettling the commonplace. Beautifully translated by Richard Sieburth, these dream records often read like an outsider's view of Leiris's life and epoch. This outsider is the dreamer, Leiris's nocturnal double, whose incisors grow as large as a street, who describes the terror he feels at being executed by the Nazis, and who can say in all seriousness, "I am dead." It is an alternate life, with its own logic, its own paradoxes, and its own horrors, which becomes alienating and intimate at once. With hints of Kafka, Pirandello, and Nerval, NIGHTS AS DAY, DAYS AS NIGHT is one of Leiris's finest works of self-portraiture.

"Both timeless and located in the years and places of the dreaming, this forty-year-long collection of tiny, bizarre moments and longer weird narratives displays what happens at night inside the unfettered imagination of the highly cultivated, emotional, and sensuous man that was Michel Leiris. They are strange, almost unclassifiable literary creations—part involuntary, part consciously arranged—which take as their material not only himself and his friends but also the figures and works of other writers and artists, and blend the realistic and the fantastical with an occasional leavening of pure comedy. Rendered in natural, living English by Richard Sieburth and infused with his vigilant intelligence, this is an extremely welcome re-publication, as both important literary document and contemporary pleasure."—Lydia Davis





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.
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.
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. - Daniela Cascella




Nights as Day, Days as Night is essentially a dream-diary, collecting, chronologically, generally very brief descriptions of some of author Michel Leiris' dreams (and a few 'real-life' experiences) from between 1923 (or before: the first dream is presented merely as a: 'Very Old Dream') and 1960. It is by no means exhaustive -- and, fortunately, at less than two hundred pages, far from exhausting. Dream-collections can quickly become tiresome, but this one remains surprisingly fresh pretty much throughout.
       Leiris' first entry -- that 'Very Old Dream' -- is the perfect introductory one:
In front of a crowd of gawking spectators -- of whom I am one -- a series of executions is being carried out, and this rivets my attention. Up until the moment when the executioner and his attendants direct themselves toward me because it is my turn now. Which comes as a complete and terrifying surprise.
       It is this surely universally familiar dream-quality -- the focused, voyeuristic interiority, and then the sudden turn on itself (or rather, on the dreamer) -- that is a significant part of what fascinates about dreams, the unexpected turns our mind makes, and the question of what is in and what is out of our control. Are we witness or are we actors ? And, as Leiris comes to realize in another dream -- staring into the abyss -- "I am actually gazing into myself".
       Leiris' real world often filters into his dreams, with figures -- often familiar ones -- frequently playing roles. In some cases, Leiris completely re-imagines himself: "I am the actor Jean Yonnel and I am declaiming a Racinian srt of tragedy", one dream begins.
       Among the most beautiful pieces, a dream perfectly mirroring (sur)reality reads:
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).

       Like bizarre thought-experiments of the subconscious, the dreams can be repeatedly revealing -- and also pack a nice narrative punch:
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.
       Some of the revealed mind-workings are wonderful -- "I am going on a trip, so I have to move all the books in my library from one room to another" -- and even the seemingly simplest suggest a great deal even without much actually happening:
I walk along a beach and risk being engulfed by the waves. I am wearing a top hat crowned by flames that seems to be a Pentecostal fire. And I have long hair.
       Leiris occasionally searches for meaning, or connections, often upon waking, but generally is cautious, allowing the dreams to stand on their own. He suggests, about one attempt:
But perhaps this kind of analysis offers the means, as it were, to solidify the dream by providing it a certain logic and by erasing the gap between life and dream through the discovery of their common roots
       For the most part, however, Nights as Day, Days as Night doesn't dig too deep into the connections: this is the dream-volume, a supplementary one of sorts to his life-project, specifically the autobiographical volumes of 'The Rules of the Game', suggesting yet another way of seeing, and integrating experience into this larger picture-of-the-person.
       Leiris even offers the perfect image -- complete with ambiguity, of whether he sees himself in it or not:
On a tomb (mine ?) someone has affixed a sign providing an epitaph that condensed the life of the deceased into a few lines. The sign is entitled "ARGUMENT."
       While particularly of interest as piece of Leiris' larger life-project, Nights as Day, Days as Night stands quite fine on its own, a lively, enjoyable, and often sharp collection with a surprising range. - M.A.Orthofer




In front of a crowd of gawking spectators — of whom I am one — a series of executions is being carried out, and this rivets my attention. Up until the moment when the executioner and his attendants direct themselves toward me because it is my turn now. Which comes as a complete and terrifying surprise.”
A few weeks ago I reviewed Spurl Editions’s new translation of Jean Lorrain’s novella Monsieur de Bougrelon (1897) — about two Frenchman on a strange vacation in Amsterdam, led by the enigmatic Bougrelon, which takes them through brothels and seedy bars — and one of their upcoming releases would make a perfect follow up: Michel Leiris’s Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour (Nights as Day, Days as Night, 1961). A book that largely resists classification, this is a combination of surrealist autobiography (literally, in the sense that is was written by a leading Surrealist and figuratively in the sense that it is predictably and wonderful surreal), prose poem (which is how translator Richard Sieburth refers to it), and dream journal. Anyone who has a fascination with the Surrealists or 20th century Paris will find much to love and the work’s appealing strangeness certainly lingers in the memory — I can’t stop thinking about it.
Leiris may be remembered as one of the more minor personalities of Surrealism, but he is a fascinating figure, as is evidenced by Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour. It’s as if Leiris has cracked open his own heads and strewn the contents across the page; despite its oneiric and disjointed subject matter, the vignette-like work touches upon many different aspects of his life. He was introduced to Surrealist circles by artist André Masson, though he also counted figures like Robert Desnos and Max Jacob among his friends; many of them briefly appear throughout these dream sketches. Like seemingly everyone in France in the ‘20s, he had a falling out with Surrealist leader Breton, before going on to collaborate on Georges Bataille’s Documents magazine (which Spurl should add to their list of future translations). In the sense that these figures and fragments of memories appear in the journal, Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour is reminiscent of Paul Bowles’ collection of short fiction, Points in Time (1982), inspired by Bowles’ years on the African continent and his anthropological (and musicological) study of its many cultures.
Like Bowles, Leiris traveled to Africa, where he became an anthropologist, though he continued his surreal writing experiments. His 1934 book, L’Afrique fantôme, led to his position at the Musée de l’Homme, one he would hold for the next 30 years. He visited the country again and became passionately involved in the protest against the Algerian War. War creeps into Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour, and it becomes the most personal and visceral when Leiris reveals his fears about being tortured or executed in WWII; the book was written — or rather compiled — across several decades and thus details a fascinating shift in both his writing style and thematic concerns. There is something genuinely unselfconscious about Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour, and in particular Leiris excels at portraying the ordinary as exotic; it is impossible not to be drawn into his world despite (or perhaps because of) the frequent terror and anxiety that possesses both his dreams and waking thoughts.
In addition to violence, erotic fixations constantly reappear and this text transcends the Surrealist fascination with automatic writing for something divine and deeply personal that captures the feeling of lucid dreaming in literary form. In her introduction to one of Leiris’s masterworks, L’age d’homme (known as Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility in English), Susan Sontag writes,
In 1929, Leiris suffered a severe mental crisis, which included becoming impotent, and underwent a year or so of psychiatric treatment. […] His character, too, is described under the aspect of limitation: Leiris presents it as ‘corroded’ with morbid and aggressive fantasies concerning the flesh in general and women in particular. Manhood is a manual of abjection — anecdotes and fantasies and verbal associations and dreams set down in the tones of a man, partly anesthetized, curiously fingering his own wounds.”
Man Ray’s portrait of Leiris (1930).
This self-analysis is a major feature of Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour and in it Leiris regularly attempts to analyze his own dreams. He writes of “nocturnal disturbances” that possess and obsess him. His wife, Louise Gordon — known only as “Z” (for her nickname Zette) in the book — appears as a figure of romantic and erotic love, as well as a balm for his fears. His dreams include many sex scenes between the two of them, including one of my favorite moments, when he describes a tryst with her that takes place in front of a painting authored by Leiris’s close friend and collaborator, Bataille. Other writers known for their own erotic obsessions figure into the book; Nerval is referenced often — along with Baudelaire, though less so — and the persistent yet subtly perverse sense of eroticism evokes Bataille. But Leiris also writes of attraction to (and possible affairs with) other women, which he writes about with guilt and anxiety.
But his greatest anxiety seems to come from the dreams where he realizes — with horror — that he is dreaming and is either slipping into the void, or has lost control over his own consciousness. He writes, “The dream I’m in the middle of begins to resemble a state of waking that is about to end: unable to resist falling asleep in the dream itself, I sense that this dream is about to conclude, not with a return to reality, but with a plunge into the void of unconsciousness.” As with L’age d’homme, his fixations are just as physical as they are abstract and damage to or invasion of bodies is a persistent theme.
Perhaps my favorite of the longer chapters details a dream where he and Z enter into a torture museum. Leiris writes:
“Everywhere I see racks, torture boots, gibbets, corpses splayed on wheels, pillories, stairways littered with dismembered limbs, and every conceivable type of torture device or other contraption reminiscent of Piranesi’s Prisons. In the first hall, torturers wearing white smocks are engaged in human vivisection.”
It is this sort of vivid detail that explodes throughout the book and though a relatively short work at less than 200 pages, many of them comprised of “chapters” that are single paragraphs, Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour is a compelling example of Leiris’s power as a writer and is certainly proof that he deserves as much attention as some of his colleagues (and arguably more attention than, say, Breton).
Speaking of colleagues, French philosopher and writer Maurice Blanchot provided a worthy introduction that crystallizes many of the book’s themes, while also brilliantly (in his way) examining dreams themselves. Blanchot writes,
Dreams are sites of similitude, mediums saturated with resemblances, in which some neutral power of similarity, existing prior to any particular designation, is constantly on the lookout for a figure whom, if need be, it might activate into a likeness. It is Faust’s mirror, and what he sees in this mirror is neither the young girl nor the likeness of her face, but rather resemblance itself, the undefined power of similarity, the infinite scintillation of reflection.”
The figures and events within Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour is made up of a series of mirror images and reflections. Leiris’s preoccupations, fears, and desires begin to resemble each other as we become acquainted with him and, through them, he becomes a strangely charismatic figure. Sympathetic, introspective, and perhaps doomed, Leiris’s powers of observation of his own dreams are every bit as potent as any anthropological writing and I hope that this volume introduces many new readers to his charms and powers. Spurl’s new volume captures the poetry, absurdity, and beauty of Leiris’s book thanks to a translation from Richard Sieburth. A comparative literature professor at New York University, Sieburth specializes in writing about and translating German and French literature; perhaps I’m biased, because he has translated a number of some of my favorite authors, from Walter Benjamin and Georg Büchner to Henri Michaux, as well as Nerval, and I suspect his knowledge of the latter assisted him here. Regardless, he does Leiris proud. - Samm Deighan


“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. - John Coulthart


It is hard to ascribe a genre to Michel Leiris' "Nights as Day, Days as Night" ("Nuits sans Nuit et quelques Jours sans Jour" in the original French). It is a book made up of dream episodes, and a few waking reveries, which have been compiled over almost 40 years of a man's life. But is it an autobiography? Are these dream episodes really surrealist prose poems in disguise? Is it a history of the French imagination from the early '20s until the early '60s, including the Nazi occupation? The fact that it is all of these simultaneously, and many other things as well, is what makes this book so fascinating.
One of the early defectors from the original surrealist group headed by Andre Breton, Michel Leiris in some ways stayed more faithful to the original precepts of surrealism than those who stayed in the group much longer than he did. He scorned the traditional forms of the novel and poetry. He believed that the recollection of and meditation on dreams constituted a kind of serious scientific research--and he maintained this notion, as this book testifies, throughout his life. But what he actually does with these dreams is as difficult to define as the genre of the total work. He sometimes offers them to us as "prose poems," occasionally with dazzling virtuosity. For instance, consider this dream from 1954:
"In need of money, I hire myself out as a bull in a corrida. As the papers are being signed, the impresario insists that I undergo an inspection to make sure that I indeed have the five horns stipulated by the contract; he has after all guaranteed that he will furnish a 'bull with five horns.' Two of these horns are supposedly on my head; two more are protrusions of my shoulder blades which the impresario verifies by touching them. My wife is present, and I tell her it gives me the chills to be touched there, just below my nape, on the very spot where the death-blow will fall. She says to me: 'It's just a lousy morning you'll have to get through. Once it's all over, you'll feel fine. . . .' I get incensed. 'Once it's over, I'll be dead!' Beside myself with rage, I shout at both of them: 'I'm not going to fall for this!' And I add: 'I'd rather take my chances as a bullfighter!' The contract will not be signed and the dream ends there.
"Almost everybody to whom I have recounted this dream has asked me where my fifth horn was located."
The combination of the ludicrous (but fatal) situation, the mystery of the creature he has become, and the emotional narrative (with its wonderful final turn) make for a richly evocative piece. This has the profundity and ineffable quality of great surrealist art.
However, most of the dreams are not in this form. The typical format, if it can be said there is one, since there is so much variety, is the recounting of the dream and a few words of analysis. Although Leiris, like all the surrealists, was well-versed in Freudian psychology, he refuses, with the exception of one dream, to indulge in such analysis. He retains (and values) the mystery of the dream world, its coexistence on an equal footing with the world of waking reason. Many of these dreams seem to have the weight of political prophesy, or of second sight, or "objective change," as Breton termed it. And yet Leiris makes no total statement. He simply recounts and analyzes or elaborates on these dream-texts, as if they were separate cultural objects, like the artifacts he studied as a professional ethnographer. What results is much less unified and dramatic than the visions of Breton in "Nadja" and Aragon in "Paysan de Paris"; the poetic fireworks of the unconscious are missing. But Leiris' scientific distance makes these texts appear less self-consciously literary, less contrived, and finally more real and mysterious.
Above all, "Nights as Day, Days as Night" stands as a companion piece to Leiris' great work, his memoirs ("L'age d'Homme"). The existence of both books establishes a stunning assertion, that the dream life of a person is as valid and telling as the more usual memoirs. In fact, Leiris seems to be suggesting that only when the unconscious mind and the conscious mind are seen together, and the network of connections between politics, sexuality, fear, the exotic and the mundane, is reconstructed in all of its mystery, can the person begin to be known. Somewhere we begin to see the total life of a person come into view, like the metamorphic vision of a paradisal dream city that recurs throughout this book. It is the surrealist New Jerusalem, where the rational and irrational come together to produce the "supreme point," the place of final knowing. - Lawrence R. Smith
Image result for Michel Leiris, Aurora and Cardinal Point
Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, Trans. by Richard Howard, The University of Chicago Press, 1992.


"Not only one of the frankest of autobiographies, but also a brilliantly written book, Leiris' Manhood mingles memories, philosophic reflections, sexual revelation, meditations on bullfighting, and the life-long progress of self-discovery."—Washington Post Book World

"Leiris writes to appall, and thereby to receive from his readers the gift of a strong emotion—the emotion needed to defend himself against the indignation and disgust he expects to arouse in his readers."—Susan Sontag
Image result for Michel Leiris, Rules of the Game I: Scratches.

Michel Leiris, Rules of the Game I: Scratches. Tranas by Lydia Davis, Paragon House Publishers,1991.

"For me his work is not only a document that enriches our knowledge of man, but also a personal testament that touches me deeply."--Francis BaconScratches is the first volume in Michel Leiris's monumental four-volume autobiography, Rules of the Game. In this volume, the celebrated French writer examines his inventory of memories, explores the language of his childhood, weaves anecdotes from his private life with his old and recent ideas. In the end, he so mercilessly scrutinizes what was familiar that its familiarity drops away and it blossoms into something exotic.
As Leiris recollects his childhood, his father's recording machine becomes a miraculous object and the letters of the alphabet--from A (or the double ladder of a house painter) to I (a soldier standing at attention) to X (the cross one makes on something whose secret one will never penetrate)--come magically to life. Also here are evocations of Paris under the occupation, his journey to Africa, and meditations on his fear of death, which he tried to exorcise through his autobiographical writings.







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