18 December 2014

from In Search of Lost Time III: The Guermantes Way, part 1 (Marcel Proust, trans. Scott Moncrieff and Kilmartin)

If I had been tempted while asleep to let myself be swept back into my usual current of remembrance, the bed to which I was not accustomed, the careful attention which I was obliged to apy to the position of my limbs when I turned over, were sufficient to adjust or maintain the new thread of my dreams.  It is the same with sleep as with our perception of the external world.  It needs only a modification in our habits to make it poetic, it is enough that while undressing we should have dozed off involuntarily on top of the bed for the dimensions of sleep to be altered and its beauty felt.  We wake up, look at our watch and see 'four o'clock'; it is only four o'clock in the morning, but we imagine that the whole day has gone by, so vividly does this unsolicited nap of a few minutes appear to have come down to us from heaven, by virtue of some divine right, huge and solid as an Emperor's orb of gold.  In the morning, worried by the thought that my grandfather was ready and they were waiting for me to set out for our walk along the Méséglise way, I was awakened by the blare of a regimental band which passed every day beneath my windows.  But two or three times - and I say this because one cannot properly describe human life unless one bathes it in the sleep into which it plunges night after night and which sweeps round it as a promontory is encircled by the sea - the intervening layer of sleep was resistant enough to withstand the impact of the music and I heard nothing.  On other mornings it gave way for a moment; but my consciousness, still muffled from sleep (like those organs by which, after a preliminary anaesthetic, a cauterisation, not perceived at first, is felt only at the very end and then as a faint smarting), was touched only gently by the shrill points of the fifes which caressed it with a vague, cool, matutinal warbling; and after this fragile interruption in which the silence had turned to music it relapsed into my slumber before even the dragoons had finished passing, depriving me of the last blossoming sheafs of the surging bouquet of sound.  And the zone of my consciousness which its springing stems had brushed was so narrow, so circumscribed with sleep that later on, when Saint-Loup asked me whether I had heard the band, I was not certain that the sound of its brasses had not been as imaginary as that which I heard during the day echoing, after the slightest noise, from the paved streets of the town.  Perhaps I had heard it only in my dreams, prompted by my fear of being awakened, or else of not being awakened and so not seeing the regiment march past.  For often when I remained asleep at the moment when on the contrary I had supposed that the noise would awaken me, for the next hour I imagined that I was awake, while still dozing, and I enacted to myself with tenuous shadow-shapes on the screen of my slumber the various scenes of which it deprived me but at which I had the illusion of looking on.

Indeed, what one has meant to do during the day it turns out, sleep intervening, that one accomplishes only in one's dreams, that is to say after it has been diverted by drowsiness into following a different path from that which one would have chosen when awake.  The same story branches off and has a different ending.  When all is said, the world in whch we live when we are asleep is so different that people who have difficulty in going to sleep seek first of all to escape from the waking world.  After having desperately, for hours on end, with their eyes closed, revolved in their minds thoughts similar to those which they would have had with their eyes open, they take heart again on noticing that the preceding minute has been weighed down by a line of reasoning in strict contradiction to the laws of logic and the reality of the present, this brief 'absence' signifying that the door is now open through which they may perhaps presently be able to escape from the perception of the real, to advance to a resting-place more or less remote from it, which will mean their having a more or less 'good' night.  But already a great stride has been made when we turn our backs on the real, when we reach the outer caves in which 'auto-suggestions' prepare - like witches - the hell-broth of imaginary illnesses or of the recurrence of nervous disorders, and watch for the hour when the spasms which have been building up during the unconsciousness of sleep will be unleashed with sufficient force to make sleep cease.

Not far thence is the secret garden in which the kinds of sleep, so different one from another, induced by datura, by Indian hemp, by the multiple extracts of ether - the sleep of belladonna, of opium, of valerian - grown like unknown flowers whose petals remain closed until the day when the predestined stranger comes to open them with a touch and to liberate for long hours the aroma of their peculiar dreams for the delectation of an amazed and spellbound being.  At the end of the garden stands the convent with open windows through which we hear voices repeating the lessons learned before we went to sleep, which we shall know only at the moment of awakening; while, presaging that moment, our inner alarm-clock ticks away, so well regulated by our preoccupation that when our housekeeper comes in and tells us it is seven o'clock she will find us awake and ready.  The dim walls of that chamber which opens upon our dreams and within which the sorrows of love are wrapped in that oblivion whose incessant toil is interrupted and annulled at times by a nightmare heavy with reminiscences, but quickly resumed, are hung, even after we are awake, with the memories of our dreams, but they are so murky that often we catch sight of them for the first time only in the broad light of the afternoon when the ray of a similar idea happens by chance to strike them; some of them, clear and harmonious while we slept, already so distorted that, having failed to recognise them, we can but hasten to lay them in the earth, like corpses too quickly decomposed or relics so seriously damaged, so nearly crumbling into dust that the most skilful restorer could not give them back a shape or make anything of them.

Near the gate is the quarry to which our heavier slumbers repair in search of substances which coat the brain with so unbreakable a glaze that, to awaken the sleeper, his own will is obliged, even on a golden morning, to smite him with mighty blows, like a young Siegfried.  Beyond this, again, are nightmares, of which the doctors foolishly assert that they tire us more than does insomnia, whereas on the contrary they enable the thinker to escape from the strain of thought - nightmares with their fantastic picture-books in which our relatives who are dead are shown meeting with serious accidents which at the same time do not preclude their speedy recovery.  Until then we keep them in a little rat-cage, in which they are smaller than white mice and, covered with big red spots out of each of which a feather sprouts, regale us with Ciceronian speeches.  Next to this picture-book is the revolving disc of awakening, by virtue of which we submit for a moment to the tedium of having to return presently to a house which was pulled down fifty years ago, the image of which is gradually effaced by a number of others as sleep recedes, until we arrive at the image which appears only when the disc has ceased to revolve and which coincides with the one we shall see with opened eyes.

Sometimes I had heard nothing, being in one of those slumbers into which we fall as into a pit from which we are heartily glad to be drawn up a little later, heavy, overfed, digesting all that has been brought to us (as by the nymphs who fed the infant Hercules) by those agile vegetative powers whose activity is doubled while we sleep.

We call that a leaden sleep, and it seems as though, even for a few moments after such a sleep is ended, one has oneself become a simple figure of lead.  One is no longer a person.  How then, searching for one's thoughts, one's personality, as one searches for a lost object, does one recover one's own self rather than any other?  Why, when one begins again to think, is it not a personality other than the previous one that becomes incarnate in one?  One fails to see what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings one might be, it is on the being one was the day before that unerringly one lays one's hand.  What is it that guides us, when there has been a real interruption - whether it be that our unconsciousness has been complete or our dreams entirely different from ourselves?  There has indeed been death, as when the heart has ceased to beat and a rhythmical traction of the tongue revives us.  No doubt the room, even if we have seen it only once before, awakens memories to which other, older memories cling, or perhaps some were dormant in us, of which we now become conscious.  The resurrection at our awakening - after that beneficent attack of mental alienation which is sleep - must after all be similar to what occurs when we recall a name, a line, a refrain that we had forgotten.  And perhaps the resurrection of the soul after death is to be conceived as a phenomenon of memory.

When I had finished sleeping, tempted by the sunlit sky but held back by the chill of those last autumn mornings, so luminous and so cold, which herald winter, in order to look at the trees on which the leaves were indicated now only byt a few strokes of gold or pink which seemed to have been left in the air, on an invisible web, I raised my head from the pillow and stretched my neck, keeping my body still hidden beneath the bedclothes; like a chrysalis in the process of metamorphosis, I was a dual creature whose different parts were not adapted to the same environment; for my eyes colour was sufficient, without warmth; my chest on the other hand was anxious for warmth and not for colour.  I got up only after my fire had been lighted, and studied the picture, so delicate and transparent, of the pink and golden morning, to which I had now added by artificial means the element of warmth that it lacked, poking my fire which burned and smoked like a good pipe and gave me, as a pipe would have given me, a pleasure at once coarse because it was based upon a material comfort and delicate because behind it were the soft outlines of a pure vision.  The walls of my dressing-room were papered in a violent red, sprinkled with black and white flowers to which it seemed that I should have some difficulty in growing accustomed.  But they succeeded only in striking me as novel, in forcing me to enter not into conflict but into contact with them, in modulating the gaiety and the songs of my morning ablutions; they succeeded only in imprisoning me in the heart of a sort of poppy, out of which to look at a world which I saw quite otherwise than in Paris, from the gay screen which was this new dwelling-place, of a different aspect from the house of my parents, and into which flowed a purer air.

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