A chronicle of madness? One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello

To be born is a fact. To be born in one period rather than another, as I’ve already said; and of this or that father, and in this or that condition; to be male or female; in Lapland or in central Africa; and handsome or ugly; with a hump or without: facts. And if you lose an eye, it’s a fact; and you can even lose both, and if you’re a painter it’s the worst thing that can happen to you.

Time, space: necessity. Fate, fortune, chance: all snares of life. You want to be, eh? There’s this catch: in abstract, you cannot just be. The being must be trapped in a form, and for some time it has to stay in it, here or there, this way or that. And everything, as long as it lasts, bears the penalty of its form, the penalty of being this way and no longer being able to be otherwise.

In a world obsessed with identity politics, there seems to be a considerable currency placed on defining and understanding oneself in relation to others. To be authentic. But implicit in claiming, or rejecting any identity, is the assumption that we can know our own selves, and have that knowledge accepted and validated by others. Yet what if that is impossible? What if the image we have of ourselves is at once entirely singular, unverifiable, and at odds to some degree, great or small, with the multitude of images everyone else has of us?

Then you have the crux of the crisis that befalls the protagonist of Italian writer Luigi Pirandello’s classic 1926 novel One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand, newly released by Spurl Editions, the inimitable little US publisher of nearly forgotten literary and photographic treasures.

The premise is simple, if, at first blush, a little contrived. The narrator, Vitangelo Moscarda, is a proud but unambitious twenty-eight year-old, heir to a considerable fortune, who is content to allow others to manage the bank his father founded while he enjoys a life of self-satisfied leisure in the town of Richieri. One day, while he is examining his face in the mirror, his wife offers an unexpected observation about his nose—it tilts to the right—and, wounded by this previously unnoticed imperfection, he quickly finds more to fault: his eyebrows look like two circumflex marks ^^, and his ears are poorly placed, and examination of his hands and legs revel further defects. An innocent remark thus sets off a crisis of identity that quickly escalates, ultimately ending with the complete psychological dissolution of character. As his grasp of reality spins out of control or, perhaps, becomes so precise that he can no longer surrender to the illusions that had previously buffered his existence, Moscardo carefully details the progress of what he calls “his sickness” and the remedy he believes will cure him of it.

Since he first becomes aware that his own view of himself is lacking, it troubles him that his wife is apparently in love with someone else—a construct of him, “her Gengé”—whom he now can only pretend to be. He blames his passivity and indecisiveness on a fault in his character and upbringing:

Unfortunately, I had never been able to give any sort of form to my life; I have never firmly wanted myself to have an individual nature, on my own, both because I had never encountered obstacles that aroused in me the will resist and to assert myself somehow in front of others and myself, and because my spirit tended to think and feel also the opposite of what it thought and felt the moment before. It tended, in other words, to dismantle and separate in me, with assiduous and often opposing reflections, every mental and sentimental formation. And then, finally my nature was inclined to yield, to give way to the discretion of others, not so much out of weakness as out of indifference and resignation in advance to the troubles that could then come to me…

The more he thinks about it, the more he comes to resent the way she manipulates this other version of himself, and grows jealous of this shadow of a being who has now come between them. The one she really loves. He has begun to disassociate.

The narrative is presented as a dialogue of sorts with an audience, the protagonist anticipating objections, inviting attention to certain observations and considerations. Pirandello (1867-1936) was a prolific playwright, and this interactive form of monologue reflects that. But this is an intense and deeply internal journey, one that, once in motion, the narrator is unable or unwilling to halt—even as he is aware of the self-destructive nature of his actions. After all, “self” destruction is his ultimate desire. If he is simultaneously one, nonexistent, and a multitude, he reasons that he should be able to break his various selves apart, shatter the impressions others hold of him—prove that he is not what they think he is.

The scheme Moscardo concocts leads him to engage in irrational, cruel and reckless behaviour and, of course, his goal is not appreciated. Because he has become especially concerned with the widespread reputation, inherited from his father, that he is a usurer, he turns his attention to the financial affairs of the bank in an especially reckless manner. And when money is involved, everyone pays attention. But not in the way our poor hero imagines. His friends and family respond by seeking to have him declared incompetent, a fate he is keen to escape.

Following Moscardo’s misadventures is akin to witnessing an existential train wreck. However, his insights into the limitations of self-awareness, and the nature of being in the world are profound. And, his observations of others are, for a narrator whose world falls apart with the  revelation of his own physical flaws, filled with vivid, typically unflattering, detail:

To judge by his appearance, Canon Sclepis didn’t seem to contain all that power of authority, that stern energy. He was a tall and thin priest, almost diaphanous, as if all the air and light of the hilltop where he lived had not only faded him but had also rarified him, and had made his hands almost transparent in their tremulous frailty and his eyelids finer than onion skin over his pale oval eyes. Tremulous and faded was his voice, too, and his smiles were empty on his long white lips, from which often a little blob of saliva would hang.

In navigating a very fine line between wisdom and madness, Pirandello has, in Moscardo, crafted a protagonist who is complicated, tragic, and strangely sympathetic.

Most famous perhaps, for his plays  “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and “Henry IV”, Pirandello was known for his ability to parlay his acute psychological insight into entertaining drama. That talent was recognized with the 1934 Nobel Prize for Literature. But he was also an important novelist and writer of short stories. This, his last novel, took him more than a decade to complete. Although it harvests territory familiar to Pirandello’s greater body of work, the tone is pessimistic, the style spare and the setting abstract. In that way it foreshadows the Theatre of the Absurd, in particular the work of Samuel Beckett. As translator William Weaver notes in his introduction, One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand was not well received when it was first released. It was, he suggests, ahead of its time. In 1990, when this translation was initially published, Weaver recognizes that “(t)he terrible honesty of the novel and its protagonist has, with time, become all the more desirable and impelling.”

How then, will today’s identity obsessed climate respond?

An excerpt from the opening chapters of One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand can be found at 3:AM Magazine.

 

Dream on: Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris

I am lying in bed exactly as I would in reality, except that my forehead is pressed against the white powdery wall of a large cylinder made of lime, a cistern of sorts, exactly my height, and which is nothing other than myself, actualized and exteriorized. I feel this other exterior forehead pressing against my own, and thus I imagine my head is pressing against the very substance of my mind. [Undated]

A curious thing happened as I ventured into the dream writings of French author, Michel Leiris. I expected, perhaps, a surrealist-inspired fascination with the stuff of dreams, the settings, the strangeness, and the symbolism of nocturnal (or aided hallucinogenic) adventures. And there are, among the fragments and the longer descriptive accounts he collected between 1923 and 1960, many vivid images and observations. But this is not a self-indulgent, introspective endeavour. Nights as Day, Days as Nights demonstrates a psychoanalytical restraint, and an observational interest in the quality of dream life (and its echoes in the half-awake and “real life” realms). Consequently, as I made my way through his recorded recollections, I could not help but reflect on my experience of dreamed realities. In sharing Leiris’ journey, I caught glimpses of my own.

Born in 1901, Michel Leiris is widely regarded as a pioneer of confessional literature, known for his extensive autobiographical writings. He was drawn into the sphere of the surrealists early in his literary career, and although he broke with them before long, their influence would linger. He was also an accomplished ethnographer, who participated in anthropological missions into Africa in the 1930s, and worked at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris for much of his life. Given this context, his dream writings which, remarkably, span almost four decades, were nurtured in a rich, fertile soil. But, as translator Richard Sieburth indicates in his introduction, Leiris preferred to classify these notes, collected and published in 1961, among his poetic works, casting a different light on his lifelong exploration of the self. In his essay “Dreaming, Writing,” written to accompany the original release of Nights, Maurice Blanchot remarks that the reserve that Leiris shows in his transcribing of his dreams—not attempting to dissect them—should be respected in the reading. What he offers here is literary, not autobiographical or analytical: “These were once dreams, they are now signs of poetry.”

For Leiris, language plays an important role, not only in the translation of the remnants of dreamed (or fantasized) experience, but in the very substance of dreams. At times he plays linguistic games to escape or alter the events unfolding in his sleeping imagination, at other times he may reflect on the words used to his record remembered scenarios:

 The word rêve (dream) has something cobwebby to it, as well as something akin to gossamer veil that clogs the throats of persons suffering from the croup. This is no doubt due to its sonority and to certain formal connection between the v and the circumflex accent that precedes it (this accent being nothing more than a smaller, inverted v); hence the idea of interlacing, of a finely woven veil. Dreams are spiderlike, given their instability on the one hand and their veil-like quality on the other. If dreams are like the croup, it is probably because they are linked to the notion of nocturnal disturbances (like those bouts of false croup from which I suffered during the night as a very small child). [July 27–28, 1924, Real-life]

Leiris’ dreams are, essentially, recognizable to anyone who remembers their own dreams (since some people seem to be unable to do so). We have all likely had dreams that were bizarre, where a reality we think we know is distorted or shifts, situations that are sexually tinged, or charged with anxiety, or so terrifying that we awake with a start. And what about those dreams that feature people or places that are familiar, but oddly out of time? Or the multi-layered dreams, those that seem to descend or surface to different levels of consciousness—dreaming you are awake, only to discover you are still asleep? The beauty that comes through (and it is not always beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word), is the sensitivity with which Leiris records his experiences. He is capturing the thoughts, images, memories or ideas that come to him, whether he is awake, half-asleep, or sleeping—his dream life is not confined to one realm of the day—with little intervention or commentary. He may muse about an interpretation of some aspect, but only in passing. Most offerings are presented raw, so to speak, and in vivid detail:

By a pool, a row of giant toads the size of chimpanzees, all covered with moss. They would appear to be part gorilla, and their colours range from green to gray to brown. The finest specimen—to the extreme left of the row—is bottle-green with huge eyes like frosted lightbulbs. They are all getting ready to dive into the water and crawl back into their shells (?). It occurs to me that if I dressed up in knickerbockers and wore a large green felt cap, I would look like a toad. [September, 1933]

Having a record, albeit at times sporadic, that spans a significant period of one man’s life, from roughly the age of twenty-two to sixty, offers insight into another important quality of the dream space. Figures from his “waking life,” as he puts it, appear—and for Leiris this is a fascinating cast, he knew Georges Bataille, Georges Limbour, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and countless other well-known writers, poets and artists. But it is his wife, Louise Godon, whom he calls “Z,” who is the abiding presence throughout, whether she is out with him, waiting to meet him somewhere, or comforting him when he awakens with a scream. Other, often anonymous, women may attract his attention in his dreams, but she is never far away, so it seems, from his heart or mind.

Of course, events in the real world also infiltrate the realm of dream and fantasy. During the war years, Leiris’ accounts show a striking amplification of military imagery and themes of impending death, ranging from the allegorical to the theatrical to the disturbingly realistic. This is to be expected, but these records collected and presented, chronologically as they are, map the interior response to exterior terror, in real time. The dreamer, now in mid-life, evolves during these years. He almost seems to become a more astute listener to his own anxious imagination. The entries recorded in the post-war years feature longer, more detailed, but no less surreal, narratives.

When Michel Leiris organized and published this collection in 1961, he would still live, and continue to dream, for another twenty-nine years. Alongside his autobiographical writings, he engaged in a rigorous and formal journal keeping project that spanned seventy years (1922-1989), but Nights as Days, Days as Nights stands as a particularly engaging poetic gift. The invitation to spend time in someone else’s dreams may seem odd, after all, our own dreams are typically of less interest to others than they are to us. But Leiris has a rare ability to transmit these imagined episodes in a way that is not only interesting, but encourages us to recall the way we experience ourselves and others in our own dreams, to become alert to the recurrences, the insecurities, and the wonder that lingers. As such, this very personal project becomes universal, enriching the nights and days of those who are open to it.

Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris, translated by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot, is published by Spurl Editions.