Saturday, August 19, 2023


There's no estate in sleep

nor does it possess

height nor depth

(clumsy crooner!)



Of the barbarous clangour

that makes up the names of its gods

you cannot transcribe

them with your sublunar diacritics.



The human tongue’s

euclidean vocables

have no purchase on

sleep’s 'evidently'.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Paul Nizan's love letter


One measures the sincerity of a love letter by its attachment to the receiver – the lover, or hoped for lover, on the other end of this outpouring of sentiment. That attachment is signalled by a certain privacy of tone more than anything else. The tone in writing is, overtly, a clumsy thing – it is underlining, italics, exclamation points, a rather miserable attempt to make the hand that writes take on a function of the tongue that speaks. To make the tone work, to rise above these poor instruments, requires, even of the most silly love letter writer, a certain sense of nuance. A certain sense of tickling, so to speak. And we know that some are born ticklish, and others aren’t.

Thus, the love letter is bound to an aesthetic purpose that may not be shareable. Love letters that have passed into literature, that please people beyond the narrow circle of the couple, are rarely the most successful love letters in terms of their immediate purpose.

I came across this love letter from Paul Nizan to his wife, Henriette, dated 5 November 1939. P.N. is in the army, at this point, but the war seems “phony” – nothing seems to be happening. It is one of the rare love letters that delights on the two levels sketched above. So, I thought I’d translate it. Which is inevitably to distort it.

Perhaps this gains in poignancy for me, knowing the end of the story – Nizan’s mysterious death in the woods six months later, and the way his name was dragged in the mud by Stalinists for years, and Sartre’s amazing preface to Aden Araby which brought Nizan’s name back into the light.

    “Rirette my dearest.  Received your letter of Nov. 1 yesterday evening. It is so very nice to be able to say, after fifteen years, that we love each other enough to exchange love letters, and that we have triumphed in the end over everything that separates people. This stay in the army has reminded me a bit of my stay in Arabia [About which Nizan wrote his first and most famous book], but we know more things, we are much more deeply complicit, we have learned to go beyond mere literature. So that without doubt this time will not be lost, if it isn’t prolonged up until I have a long white beard and promenade along the Maginot line in a little tank. Julie de Lespinasse, Juliette Drouet, and other women only had to hold tight. You know, the legend says that, in order to appease the combattants and consecrate them exclusively to thoughts of war and the contemplation of their military destiny, the powers that be put saltpeter or camphor in the wine, the salt, and the coffee. This legend, I think, is frivolous : if there were camphor in the wine and saltpeter in the coffee, men with more sensitive palate would have perceived it, but I have no need for the witness of taste : it is enough that I read a letter of yours, or write one to you, that I think of your rose Piana dress, your pleated dress of last winter, of that return from Prague in December 37 when you could not stop climaxing, in order for me to have a personal and physical proof that they haven’t put saltpeter in the wine.  So that we shouldn’t have any worries for my moment  of leave, and it will be enough for me to see your knees, your thighs, that you, without any previous sign, put your tongue in my mouth for us to arrive at some frank result. Perhaps it will be wise for you to renounce the vain usage of panties. And there will be time to talk and to say important things to each other. A propos of the Talmud, I just read that Eben Haeser prescribes that workers not make love more than twice in the week, that savants confine themselves to the sabbath, that muleteers do it once per week, and camel drivers once per month, and only rentiers can do it every day: I will have to put myself in the last category. Also, I read in the Talmud, a naughtier books than I thought, that anyone who makes love to a woman on the bottom will suffer from delirium: ah, but what a wonderful delirium! I embrace you in this spirit. »

Monday, August 14, 2023

jetlag and the astronaut


D.H. Lawrence, drawing on Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, pins the ur-American hero as, famously,  isolate, cold, a killer. In fact it is easy to think that the American Adam, the first man in our cosmology, was clothed in a hazmat suit -  perfect for existing on this planet as a being entirely of the planet, from the rhythms of his blood to the Circadian cycles of his sleep. An astronaut in the anthropocene, a intruder from the beyond, perpetually alien, perpetually exploiter. Bless the alienation and count the money, we all say here.

A brilliant essay by Henry Sussman, The Phenomenology of Jetlag, Kafka is presented as the prophet of our time warped era, the era of insomnia and time zone smuggling – that is, smuggling time zones into other time zones. For instance, my cell phone doesn’t just tell me the time, now, in Paris, where I live, but also the time in the Eastern Time zone of the U.S., where I was visiting. And since I also visited Iowa, which is on Central Time, both of my numbers were off. Kafka, who worked with worker’s insurance and made it to many meetings in Central Europe to talk to factory officials and the like, was well aware of the hazards of sleep deprivation. Its effects could be tabulated in so many injuries, so many fingers cut off, legs wounded, muscles torn, etc. The effects of tearing away the natural attachment of our circadian rhythm from the light and night to which they are primordially coordinate makes for the heavy presence of sleep in his novels and stories. Sleep as something put off, sleep as something that occurs in highly inappropriate settings, such as in the Land Surveyor K.’s meeting with Buergel in The Castle.

Sussman writes: “… the recovering victim of a significant act of spatio-temporal dislocation and abuse, otherwise known as jetlag, is, unwittingly, subject to two sets of spatio-temporal parameters. There is the explicit one, clearly prevalent at the point of disembarkation in the form of a very loose etiquette defining the business day, customary periods for dining and rest and other conventional interactions: and then there is the holdover protocol of what Proust would call habit still operative in the zone of embarkation. It is surely in the most “jarring” and subliminal manner, Fraud would call it “unconscious” and Proust “involuntary,” that the recalcitrant regime operative a the journey-origins asserts itself in such forms oas sudden involuntary waking in a hyper-attentive state or equally abrupt onsets of fatigue at the least felicitous moments of the active day. We associate the sudden-onset phenomena of depth or unforeseen complexity that definitely establish the activity and output of  the parallel and embedded universe of aesthetic sensibility. Via this particular circuit of modernist invention we come to learn that K.’s pronounced episodes of jetlag toward the end of Das Schloss, of a jetlag before the fact, belong to his own heavily disguised apprenticeship as a performance artist.”

I’m unsure about that anachronism of “performance artist” in that last sentence – a phrase from a different embarkation zone than that of K, even if Kafka, as the author of the Hunger Artist, does come close to embodying, with dream-like precision,  the conceptual art theory of the seventies. Sussman’s larger point, though, is something I can affirm in my own disembarked experience now: the grogginess that succeeds a night of highly interruptible sleep on a transatlantic plane flight, and the ordinary surrealism of all the subsequent manoeuvres in the airport, the seemingly endless corridors and stairs and escalators, the passage through security, the waiting for your luggage at the carousel, the barking of the airport security, the awareness of one’s haggard appearance as one waits for the cab, and the sense that one is not in a good state, that one has been pickpocketed of something one didn’t even know one had, i.e. placement in a certain timezone.

Jonathan Crary begins his book, 24/7, with a story about the white crowned sparrow. The Pentagon is very interested in the white crowned sparrow. Why? Because this sparrow can stay awake for up to seven days during the migratory season. The Pentagon wants to unlock the sparrow and apply its lesson to the human astronaut – the astronaut human – in order to correct that flaw, our ability and need to sleep.  For Crary, “The injuring of sleep is inseparable from the ongoing dismantling of social protections in other spheres.”

I’m awake now in the old world, contemplating the injury – and how much coffee it takes to bandage it – and wondering if I really was, yesterday morning, in the New World. What day was that the morning of?  And thinking of the magnificent ending of Thomas Browne’s Garden of Cyrus:

“Night which Pagan Theology could make the daughter of Chaos,71 affords no advantage to the description of order: Although no lower then that Masse can we derive its Genealogy. All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again; according to the ordainer of order and mystical Mathematicks of the City of Heaven.

Though Somnus in Homer be sent to rowse up Agamemnon,72 I finde no such effects in these drowsy approaches of sleep. To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our Antipodes.73 The Huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia.74 But who can be drowsie at that howr which freed us from everlasting sleep? or have slumbring thoughts at that time, when sleep it self must end, and as some conjecture all shall awake again?”




  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...