Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovico?

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The transformations of social status that were heralded by these developments did not bother me too much; after my baptism of fire, they were almost a bagatelle and only disturbed me due to the anxiety of our father, who crept around the house like someone who no longer feels at home, and who pondered over new forms of existence like a silkworm that is beginning to spin. The children become surly when their father no longer feels in harmony.
It was during this period that I struck up a friendship with opium. Our relations must have lasted for a few months; anyway, it helped me get through a grey winter. Its effect was beneficial for my spirit, although prejudicial to my physical health. Above all, I lost my appetite. This is an effect of almost all drugs, and the words of Mephistopheles, “With unmixed food thy body nourish”, constitute more realistic advice that is incompatible with the spirit world.
I recall, once again, the atmosphere of those nights, when every two years, and almost always adventitiously, I tried one of those cough syrups that contain derivatives of opium. In Benicasin, for instance: a Spanish pharmacist give me a cough remedy that would have cured a whole family.
This memory is specific and is not accessible in any other way; it is more or less as if in the great house of the universe there is a door to a chamber that only a key cut in accordance with a certain pattern can open. From a chemical, magical or erotic point of view, it is the formula that suddenly opens the complicated lock, the “Open, Sesame”. Two juices intermingle, that of the brain and that of the fruit of the poppy.
The atmosphere returned, and therefore the handle, the act of opening, but not the habitation, with its paintings and its furniture. I have always asked myself about the existence of a New World, but not the kind of New World that is discovered in voyages like those undertaken by Christopher Columbus and the great explorers. The confirmation that Columbus obtained, but on a higher plane. Idealism has left this question unanswered; perhaps materialism will find new answers.
In any event, there is a memory of an extreme approach that the spirit attained thanks to its voyages, of the glimpse of a timeless security and the euphoria that it bestows. “Once I lived like the gods”; if not in the light of transcendence, then at least in the transparent light that penetrates dust-covered windows.
It left its traces; it was a guide for free and light marches. The consequences can even be physical. In the French Foreign Legion, Charles belonged to the group of the old veterans; he had already served five years in Indochina, in a country towards which he felt nostalgic until the end of his life. I was a new recruit, a “blue”, and I received different treatment when we were thrown in the brig. I was taken out in the morning to perform exercises on the pretext that I should not lose any time for training, while he was forced to march the whole day, in the courtyard of the prison, along with the rest of the prisoners. The pace was fast, and two bags of sand were added to the weight of their backpacks. This was intended in part as punishment, in part as training for marching. When we met again in front of the salle de la police, I saw the effects of this treatment on his face. He told me that it was nothing.
“You know what? During bad times like that I think of the nights I spent in Indochina; then the images come back, and the time passes before I even notice it.”
In that period, when Charles wanted to smoke opium, which was only possible outside of the base, he had to do so while walking slowly, until at the break of dawn the trumpet called him back to his base. The paths were bordered with bamboo canebrakes, and it was dangerous, but no danger could have penetrated that nocturnal walk.
I mentioned this episode as an example of the fact that, not only danger, but also fatigue, even in its harshest forms, can be overcome. The spirit neutralizes pain, it annihilates it. The fakirs testify to this fact in a crude way.65
It does not seem strange to me that I met Charles Benoit immediately after my arrival, on the first night I spent at that fort, a veritable anthill of fugitives and losers of every variety, of deserters, adventurers, criminals and pederasts. There are affinities that act magnetically. We are lost like a needle in a haystack; but there is a second needle hidden there, too, hence the attraction; it is not chance, but law. The fate of the universe is not death by entropy, but concentration: concentration, too, by sympathy.
It is strange, however, that I met Charles again, almost forty years later, in 1950. In the meantime two world wars had taken place, and a few other events; he had endured battles, flights, councils of war and captivity. In 1921 he managed to cross the Spanish frontier, after having slit open the stomach of a local policeman’s camel with his bayonet when the cop was trying to arrest him. During the Third Reich he was obliged to present himself regularly to the police: the old Legionnaires were under a cloud of suspicion. Now he was devoting himself, like most Swabians, to building his “house”. It occurred to me that fate had reserved for him an existence as a homme de peine; and this corresponded to his inclinations. In Germany he had worked in a brick factory and then in a stone quarry; he had become accustomed to this kind of work in the disciplinary battalion. Now he was carrying hundreds of sacks of manure every day in a fertilizer factory.
I asked him again if this did not seem to him to be too hard a life. And he responded again that for him it was nothing. At first, the odor had seemed unpleasant; but, “What a relief! Now I don’t smell it anymore. Except when it rains; then I smell it”.
Another fifteen years passed before he finally got his sinecure; he became a watchman at a park. I was preparing to help him celebrate his eightieth birthday, which the community where he lived also wanted to celebrate with a party, when I received news of his death in May 1968.
By the way, I have noticed that my ability to distinguish between living and dead friends has declined; I have no other recourse than to always confirm the fact of death and my assent. And even then it is only possible in the light of day, not in dreams or when my mind wanders.
I took drops of a dark and bitter tincture of opium. Having just gone to bed, I began to feel something like a spiritual shift or switch. It could be a change from one vehicle to another, or shifting the gears, or another march. It was not a dream, but something different. Time passed more quickly but also more slowly, at the same time. This seems to be a contradiction; this phenomenon, however, has analogies in the world of technology. The pilot, in his cockpit with its dials and meters, thinks he is flying at a very great speed, but when he looks down towards the earth, he seems to be going very slowly, even when he is flying at more than the speed of sound. This is an aspect of the experience of our time.
I do not recall having visions, like those Charles mentioned, or like those described by De Quincey. They probably came to me in abundance, but remained behind the curtain. Or I have forgotten the details, now that I no longer see them, or with the passage of time. During normal dreams I do not lack images, of which I only remember those that strike me immediately upon awaking. The oneiric material, the seed of the images, is sensitive to light; and such annotations correspond to fixing the film in a photo lab. Only a minute fragment of the world of dreams rises to consciousness, and even that fragment evaporates, in the blink of an eye, if we do not capture it.
Thus, I do not recall visions like those that delighted and horrified De Quincey. Instead, I have preserved a memory of their matrix: the terrain upon which they germinate and grow. The change of images is preceded by transformations of the spirit and of its receptivity. First of all, it is necessary to create a vacuum, just as every painting, every photograph, and every manuscript begins with the vision of a white surface. Time must be neutralized. This light, neutral beginning was pleasant. Sometimes it was interrupted by a soft ringing sound, as if to call my attention.
For De Quincey, this neutral backdrop66 took the form of water; at first, it was like clear water in silent lakes, which later expanded to form seas and oceans. Then, suddenly, the torrent of images erupted; the sea was fragmented into countless faces that gazed imploringly towards the sky. Myriads of generations must have formed a flood over the course of thousands of years.
In this passage, De Quincey says that the sea is “paved” with human faces.67 The image would appear to contain a contradiction: waves and paving stones are not reconcilable. However, this is one of those images that cannot possibly be invented; it unites the prodigious ductility of the spirit with the rigidity of vision. “Towers begirt with battlements that on their restless fronts bore stars”; the gargoyle on the tower, a crocodile, has fixed his gaze for thousands of years on the sea of houses. Now all these things appear together all at once.
This ductility is not just that of the fluid element, but also that of the spirit, which, according to Luther, is “one with water and is in water”. Water not only assumes the exact shape of the rocks over which it flows, but also, merging with them, takes them along in its course; finally, the limits between water and rock are diluted. Even the fish, which the waves transport, swims over granite.
Time passed pleasantly, although it hardly seemed to move. Thus, there are climates that we do not perceive as such, but which are directly transmuted into a feeling of well being; temperatures such as those that I have enjoyed, after sunset, at the Port of Rhodes. We feel neither cold nor hot, as in a lukewarm bath, but we do not note the weight of our body, either, our own weight. This is a pleasure that is bestowed much more frequently upon animals than upon human beings, especially upon the creatures of the sea and amphibians: “Couldst see how happy fishes live….”68
Then it became more mild, and more pleasant: it was a heat that abolished weight, and at the same time made it lighter. The cough that had tormented me for months seemed to be dispelled. This was the effect of the codeine.
The moon was shining into my room; its light illuminated it. Outside, on the dark grassland, the sinuous sandy paths were shining. Robert, the gardener, had returned to work and had raked them. His broken leg still bothered him. Now there were three wounded men in the house. Everything we wanted to start here, was provisional; nothing was the way it used to be.
I was thirsty and wanted to go to the bathroom for a glass of water. A moment before I had taken a teaspoon of the bitter syrup. Then I quietly opened the door to go down the hall; when you are in this state, it is no laughing matter to run into your mother or your father. My mother had her own problems, too, not only because of me and my brother, but because of something obscure and threatening that had insinuated itself into every corner of the house, in every crevice and cubbyhole.
Our personal and economic misfortunes took place exclusively on the surface of fate. My mother felt these misfortunes more deeply than my father: she was more susceptible to the impersonal aggression of fate, to which she responded with an energy that was nourished from the undifferentiated, from the substance of the people.69 Sometimes, seated at the kitchen table, silent and absorbed in thought, she would suddenly say something that could have been written in an old chronicle, for example: “He inherited a beautiful kingdom.”
I would not have been happy to see her, while I was in that state, in the hallway; it would have caused her pain. With her, it would not have helped to feign being sick or depressed, because she could penetrate any mask with her glance. We are never completely separated from our mothers, not even after our umbilical cords are cut. Sometimes, when I was far away from her, she saw me enter; this, as she said, consoled her. I, too, however, had felt as if I was approaching everything cool and peaceful, while I was lying half-dead in the bottom of the trench, and the combatants were killing each other all around me. That was only a few months before.
A clear light illuminated the vestibule, instilled with a spiritual substance, as if by an aurora borealis. In the bathroom I let the water run until it completely filled a large glass, while time almost stopped. I heard the melody. When glasses, jars or other receptacles are filled under the faucet, we generally do not notice the harmonious sound with which the solid element responds to the passage of a liquid. The rope of water acts like the bow on the string of a violin or like the air blown by a flute player into the metal tube. The glass responds to this like a vibrating substance. The sound becomes more clear as the water level rises. They are not arbitrary sounds, but connected with each other as in an orchestra; we could represent them on a musical score. They are expressions of matter that proceeds from the place where the grid reposes and vibrates. When time expands, we are more sensitive to the sounds that arise from silence. The origin cannot have been characterized by an explosion, since total darkness reigned then.
I heard how my glass was filled, as if going up a staircase. The finest temporal cadences and spatial structures vibrated in unison. At such moments, everything can become a musical instrument, but not one is the same as any other. Just as no hour is equal to any other; each one has its own resonance. The same melody sounds different to us at two in the morning than it does at midnight.
Generally, we do not notice the differences that are very close to the grid; we only begin to perceive them when the corpuscular image is so large that it is trapped in the fabric of the net.
I am still standing in the bathroom and listening to how the glass I am holding in my hand is being filled. These absent-minded moments are typical; they can issue into an endless loop. The loop is the symbol of the infinite; but please note that the loop is not closed; this is one of the subtleties of mathematics.
I hear the harmony of the mobile and the immobile elements; both were transparent: the running water and the glass. The sound adhered to the cylinder of the glass like the sucker of an octopus, and rose along its surface as it was being filled. Then it slid down into it, into its vortex. It was me, undoubtedly, who interpreted its melody there. Or maybe not? Was I within the material or had both my hand as well as the glass and the water been introduced within me, as if by a magic spell? It did not matter; in any event, this proved the truth of the verse written by my brother:
“And melody and instrument are one.”
In the encounter between melody and harmony, which we may call a coupling, time no longer plays any role. However, there is no delay in the enjoyment, otherwise art would cease to exist.
Then came a shock, a sudden unforeseen slip-up on the scale of vision: the water overflowed the top of the glass. I heard it run down the drain and I heard the sound of the subterranean world that sucked with so much force from the depths. A spiral descended towards chaos, until I felt as if I was in danger; I had to get away. I stepped back, but could not snap out of it; the dream included multiple layers. It was a leap in a direction that was out of step with the marching formation.
I took the glass of water and I drank from it; the water was delicious and glittered like the glass in my hand. This is also how the sea glistens on nights when the nautilus, with his flagellum, rises to the surface and his luminous substance leaks phosphorescently onto the nets. I looked at myself in the mirror; my image was powerful, more powerful than I am.
Then I went back down the hall, silently, so that my mother would not hear me. I entered my room, and I found myself there, sleeping; I was able to wake myself up.
What then supervened was a recognition that shocked me as well as made me happy in an incomparable way. A reflection of this happiness must have been preserved in the old idols, whose smiles we find so intriguing. An astonishment shines forth that transcends cultural and racial frontiers. It is something that transcends even the realm of theology: even the gods are astonished like that.
I looked at the clock; two minutes must have passed, maybe three. On nights like that, there were more than a few occasions where I snapped out of it and returned from a long absence. And there was always an inexhaustible happiness in that awakening, so similar to that of the dead man who comes back to life, or to that of the traveler who recognizes his homeland after having been so far away from the frontiers of time.
What happened to the essence during those absences, whose duration was just as indeterminate as their content? What is, generally speaking, that “being” (Wesen)? Long before there were philosophers, a handful of Indo-European auxiliary verbs had already divided up the cosmos.
When we say, “he is absent” (abwesend), this expression can refer to a state in which that “he” is also, at the same time, present (anwesend); the suffix, “-ent” (wesen) must therefore express more an activity than a state. The present and the absent are cleavages of being. Essence has a temporal power; being, a supratemporal power. If we are speaking of a plant, of an animal, of a man, or of a State as “essences/entities” (Wesen) we include in its meaning the reference to a process of “something that is decomposing” (Verwesendes).
Light is absent in shadow, the word is absent in silence, woman is absent in man. However, the absent borders on the essence and finds itself at the same time “present”. If it is separated from it, one runs the risk of ending up like “the man who lost his shadow”.
The German word Wesen (“essence”) is also originally linked to Vesta, the goddess of the home. When the master, who was absent (abwesend), returned to take possession of his property (Anwesen), he found everything in order.
De Quincey’s ode to opium must have been inspired not only by knowledge, but also by personal experience, at least in passages like this:
“Thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles—beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos; and, ‘from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,’ callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the ‘dishonours of the grave’. Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!”70
He then proceeds immediately to the chapter, “Introduction to the Pains of Opium”. It is not by chance that being entombed and imprisoned play the main role here. Piranesi’s Carceri, which De Quincey had once viewed in the company of Coleridge, notably influenced his visions. In fact, those prisons full of machines, where spiral staircases seem to ascend and descend into infinity, represent a Baroque model of the Labyrinth. Such works presuppose a geometric fascination, an upwelling of the deepest layers of the world of numbers, which crystallize forms. This has been a recurring motif in art since its very beginnings; one fine day the eye was obliged to see the sinuous twisting of a river as meanders, and since then this game of lines has been endlessly repeated. An anonymous person saw geometric necessity behind geographic chance. Discoveries of this type have been made for millennia. A plume of the ancient serpent has been captured. This sense of claustrophobia weighs not only on the artist; he transmits it to the spectator, as if he had pronounced a magic spell. Among our contemporaries, we must mention Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), a master of fantastic perspectives whose objective precision shocked as well as perplexed. A rare bird in our contemporary world: a painter who simultaneously knows how to see and knows his job. He is himself aware of this: “No matter how objective or how impersonal the majority of my subjects appear to me, so far as I have been able to discover, few if any of my fellow-men seem to react in the same way to all that they see around them” (1960).
Even more distressing than captivity in prisons, for the author of the Confessions, is being walled-up in the heart of the pyramids, where the merciless and ineluctable victory of time is petrified. There, reptiles with sharp fangs lurk as eternal guardians, especially the horrible crocodile. He is always there; his sudden appearance, his eruption, recalls the chronicles of travelers who saw him erupt unexpectedly from below the dried up mud of the Nile.
These horrors are concentrated in the famous passages of the Confessions that have fascinated generations of readers. They describe a meandering course: “I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.…. The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him, and (as was always the case almost in my dreams) for centuries. I escaped sometimes, and found myself in Chinese houses, with cane tables, &c. All the feet of the tables, sofas, &c., soon became instinct with life: the abominable head of the crocodile, and his leering eyes, looked out at me, multiplied into a thousand repetitions; and I stood loathing and fascinated.”71
These images depict the automatism of movement and the rigidity that characterize the dream-states of opium. Although an infinite number of things happen, time does not pass. Sometimes, the dreamer becomes aware of his condition and suffers a disturbance in the foundations of his perception, as if an emergency brake had stopped a flight at the speed of light. The millwheel, from which the images leaked, did not turn in time.
In De Quincey’s time, paleontology was still in its early stages, otherwise he would have undoubtedly observed that his galleries of horrible reptiles recalled the dinosaur: as the original reptile that, buried for thousands of years in strata of limestone and slate, is finally brought to light. In such accelerations the whiplash effect is extraordinary. Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, who, as a hypersensitive, did not need opium, also experienced it. Thus, in her poem, The Marl Pit:
Ah, on this slab of slate there are jellyfish;

they seemed still to be brandishing their pointed rays

at the moment when they were hurled from the bosom of the sea

and the mountain sank down to crush them.

Of a certainty the ancient world is no more,

and I am a fossil, the bone of a mammoth, in it!


And my dream takes on a new course,

I was covered with sand like a mummy,

my robe dust, my face ashes,

and not even the scarab was lacking.
De Quincey (1785-1859) was born before the Westphalian poet (1797-1848) and outlived her. Nonetheless, The Marl Pit was written twenty years after the Confessions, and by that time paleontology was no longer in its infancy. If I say again that the dinosaurs are indebted to von Droste at least for their partial resurrection, it is not to be taken lightly.

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