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Perchance to Dream: A Literary Experiment : NIGHTS AS DAY, DAYS AS NIGHT by Michel Leiris; translated by Richard Sieburth with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot and an introduction by Roger Shattuck (Eridanos Press: $22, cloth; $13, paper; 169 pp.)

July 17, 1988|Lawrence R. Smith | Smith is author of "The Plain Talk of the Dead," "The New Italian Poetry: 1945 to the Present," and is editor of Caliban. and

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.

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