le clézio on lautréamont and co.: “man’s freedom to seek & reveal himself through visions & dreams”

J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to Dream”

 

We could begin the story this time around 1867, when the young Isidore Ducasse—not yet Comte de Lautréamont—decides to move into a furnished room on the Right Bank of Paris, and when, in 1868, he gives "Le Premier Chant" of Les Chants de Maldoror to the publisher Balitout. This act, perhaps one of the most important of modern literature and thought, begins an epic tale of dreams that ends in death and oblivion. Indeed, between 1868 and 24 November 1870, when the young poet dies at the age of twenty-four, in the solitude and abandonment of the Parisian winter, the story unfolds of one of the most burning and disturbing dreams that poetry has ever known—a dream that throws off flame and consumes the dreamer, in the silence and indifference of those around him, and whose waves will not touch his fellow man until long after, like one of those stars whose fixed and silent explosion seems to outrace time.

Freedom of dreams: this seems paradoxical, since dreams are clearly the freest expression of life. But it is this very freedom that is frightening, because it is a threat to reason and the moral order, which is why society’s prohibitions, censorship, and propriety have sought for so long to obscure or stifle it. Dreams are free, but locked up in the prison of silence, thrown into the dungeon of memory. Dreams are the hidden fire that man must steal off with in order to reveal the other side of himself, in order to attain real freedom.

In the chilly aloofness and hypocrisy of Europe’s nineteenth century, Lautréamont’s sacrifice has something truly cruel and despairing about it, but it allows us to see the error that corrupts the mind of civilized societies at the outset of the Industrial Age. Through its indifference and forgetting, nineteenth-century bourgeois society in its entirety casts Lautréamont out into another world, in both senses of the term: it sends him back to the world in which he was born, to Montevideo, the overseas territories, tomb of the banished; but it also throws him back to a world from before civilization, a primitive, violent, magical world, one to which the rationalism and bankers’ reign of the Second Empire could not give credence. It casts him back toward dreams—that is to say, toward the deepest past of mankind.

It is indeed a question of a return toward our origins. The freedom to dream, and to live one’s dreams, takes us back toward another world, that of prehistorical societies (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense of the term). In the Indian societies of the New World, for example, the social structure in most cases is that of a "loose democracy,"1 founded on equality and the self-sufficiency of the family, where each person can be at once warrior, preacher (or shaman), doctor, artist, or orator. The Indian societies of North America (the Iroquois, Sioux, Comanches, Apaches), of the subtropical forests (the Carib, Tupinamba, and Amazonian tribes), and of South America (the Araucan Indians of the pampas) all testify to this full expression of man, which seems to precede the specializations of the hierarchized and sedentary societies (Mexicas, Mayas, Quechuas). But the importance of this full expression of man is apparent even in the most urbane and organized of societies. The Amerindian religious rites all express these influences—magic, concepts of recurrent and cyclical time, the possibility of man’s identification with the gods—which in a sense form the foundation of "savage" philosophy and which the conquering Europeans will try (successfully) to extinguish.

It is in dreams that the original civilizations of the Americas found their explanations for existence. For the ancient Mexicans, as for the Tupi-Guaranis or the Quechuas, dreams were a soul’s journey outside the body, which enabled contact with the beyond and knowledge of the future. The Mexicas, Purepecha, Carib, and Quechua nations were troubled by dreams (or auguries) to such an extent that they couldn’t find the force to resist the conquering peoples from the East whose coming had been announced by the auguries. Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, the omens multiplied: visions of death and of peoples in chains, lakes of blood, comets, and swarms of insects. As in the books of the Yucatec Mayas’ Chilam Bilam or in the apparition of the gods meeting on the mountain of Xanoata Hucatzio in the Relación de Michoacán, the most ancient dreams associated with the prophecies thus meet up with reality, but only to bring about the destruction of the dreaming peoples.

The first Spanish writers captured this final moment of the dreamers’ society, manifested in its strange rites, dances, and sacrifices. The Relación de Michoacán, chronicle of the Purepecha Indians, shows us a people wholly given over to their omens and dreams. The kings’ power and their destiny depend upon their dreams, during which the supreme gods (Curicaueri, god of fire, or the moon goddess Xaratanga) appear before them and strike up alliances. Father Bernardino de Sahagún recounts that the cruel and bloody festivals of the Aztecs took place in this mytical incarnation of gods dancing among men, as in the ixnextiua festival: "It was their belief that on this festival all the gods were dancing, and therefore all the natives who danced were dressed in diverse fancy costumes, some impersonated birds, others different animals; some represented the bird called ‘tzinitzcan’ [hummingbird], others butterflies; some dressed like drones, others like flies, still others like beetles; some carried on their backs a sleeping man who, they said, represented sleep."2

This magical society, this society of dreams and auguries, will be destroyed by Western civilization in the name of rationalism. For the conquering Spaniards, Portuguese, and, later, Anglo-Saxons or French, these magical societies are antiquated. They must be transformed, confined to reality, in order to integrate them into the rationales of productivity and causality on which the modern world rests. This will also be the Christian church’s role, shared among its millennial illusions and its will to destroy religious and philosophical concepts in contradiction with those of the conquerors.

As has been said, for the Renaissance mind, belief in magic and dreams is absurd and illogical. Founded on the sciences, on observation, nascent humanism can only condemn these obscure aspects of the human soul, since the new ideas come about precisely as a response to the beliefs and superstitions of the Middle Ages. In order to affirm this new "man," it is necessary to kill the old one, the one who lives off dreams and chimeras.

The new era is also that of absolute powers: Charles V, Francis I, and Henry VIII each demonstrate the supremacy of true power, armed force, and merchant empires. Curiously, however, it is in these periods when political powers are most extreme—the immense power of gold and silver, the Spanish flotilla, the Holy Roman Empire, the world divided between Spain and Portugal, the birth of the English Empire, the slave trade, the colonization of the Americas—that the place of doubt, dreams, and magic seems the largest, the most troubling. In France, the biggest witchcraft trials, in Louvain and Pau, take place first under first Louis XIII, then under Louis XIV. The peak of Spain’s rise corresponds in fact to the Baroque Age, which is the age of doubt and questioning.

The dreams of the Baroque Age are a questioning of reality, power, and money and mark the appearance of a certain relativity (as one would say today in this other baroque age which is our own). Time, value, love, goods, and the pleasures of our lives are ephemeral. Who is not familiar with these magical lines from Francisco de Quevedo? "Yesterday has gone; tomorrow hasn’t arrived; / Today is going away without stopping for one one moment; / I am a ‘was’ and a ‘will be’ and an ‘is’ tired."3

Or these mysterious and moving lines from Luis de Góngora:

 

While, to compete with your hair, gold burnished in the sun gleams in vain; while, with scorn, in the midst of the plain, your white brow regards the lily fair; while each lip is pursued by more eyes than follow the early carnation; and while with proud disdain your neck triumphs over bright crystal: enjoy neck, hair, lips, and brow, before what was in your golden youth gold, lily, carnation, crystal bright, not only turns into silver or a crushed violet, but you and all of it together into earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothingness.4

 

The Baroque is not merely a literary mode or school. It is a philosophy, a natural tendency of man, the expression of his nocturnal side, of his dreams and worries. Approximately one hundred years before Góngora’s verses, Quevedo, and La vida es sueño, in the Aztec world on the verge of disappearing, the great Netzahuacoyotl, Lord of the Acolhua people from Tetzcoco, sang the same elegies and laments that would make up the poetry of the English Romantics and of Novalis. One finds here as well the themes of the fragility of happiness, time, the beauty of youth, death and destruction, the final void.

 

Dress yourself in flowers
In flowers the color of the ara of the lakes,
Brilliant as the sun,
The flowers of the raven,
Adorn yourself here on earth,
Only here.
It is thus
Only for a brief moment,
The flowers, for a moment,
We have readied them.
Already, we carry them to the god’s home,
To the home of the Fleshless.5

 

The Baroque asserts nothing other than the right to dream, and it speaks of nothing other than man’s former ties to the supernatural, which is why that right is the dominant force of civilization.

It is in the very era of rationalism, the Age of Classicism, that dreams reveal their power. Cartesian philosophy also has its part of shadow, as Descartes’ dream and the Pascalian illumination bear witness. Writings on the irrational flourish during the years of the Encyclopédie. One can cite not only the writings of Saint-Martin and Swedenborg but also the fantastic tales of this period: Jacques Cazotte with his Diable amoureux, the translations of A Thousand and One Nights, the English Gothic novels by Beckford and Lewis, the German ones by Tieck, and the sometimes absurd, often disturbing tales of the famous Cabinet des Fées, published in Amsterdam at the end of the eighteenth century.

Born of the European wars and the Napoleonic adventure, the Age of Romanticism also dreams of a different society. The second wave of Romanticism (the one which will nourish the young Isidore Ducasse) is at the once the era of the birth of the great industrial empires, colonization, and banks, as well as an era of dreams, of a return to origins, of the resurrection of magic and mysticism. If, as Vladimir Propp notes in his essay on the origins of Russian folktales, most dreams are tied to the tribal or theocratic organization of human societies—the dragon, for instance, as an expression of tyranny and despotism—then the imagination of fantastic literature expresses a demand, a struggle for the freedom to dream.

Romanticism is also the age of messianisms, in the Americas, Oceania, and Africa. The same "wave of dream," as Paul Eluard would later call it, runs throughout the world, pitting conquered peoples against the new industrialized masters. In North America, the Indian "dreamers"—Sioux, Arapaho, Apache—guide the last barbarous nations in total war against the conquering Europeans, who for their part draw on the most effective weapon of all, that of money. Dream dances, ghost dances,6 visions, dreams set the primitive peoples against the modern world and send them on toward the only outcome possible: death. It is a case of a total confrontation between the ideas of the modern world—utilitarianism, logic, determinism—and the prior beliefs in magic and the beyond. Dreams are an insurrection aimed at a new freedom, the freedom of the individual against the prohibitions of classical morality, against logical order; they are a means of access to a new perception of being—i.e., this totality which was the primary value of primitive societies. The deep meaning of Lautréamont’s quest lies in this insurrection of dreams.

After Lautréamont and Nerval, the Surrealists also defend the right to dream, this freedom to dream that can hardly be considered a gentle one. For the Surrealists, dreams are far more than just a poetic theme or means of inspiration. It is a question of a total experience, both physical and metaphysical, from which man will emerge different, changed. It is for this reason that they spoke of a "Surrealist Revolution."

At issue therefore is a complete reversal of values (born, moreover, of nihilism and of the absurdity of the deadliest wars man has ever known). As Breton states in the first Surrealist Manifesto from 1924:

 

To reduce the imagination to a state of slavery—even though it would mean the elimination of what is commonly called happiness—is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself. Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be, and this is enough to remove to some slight degree the terrible injunction; enough, too, to allow me to devote myself to it without fear of making a mistake (as though it were possible to make a bigger mistake). Where does it begin to turn bad, and where does the mind’s stability cease? For the mind, is the possibility of erring not rather the contingency of good?7

 

Man’s freedom to seek and reveal himself through visions and dreams implicates the dangers of limits, which is why the rationalist and progressivist society of the modern world, spawned by the Reformation, cannot allow it to exist. Man—this "definitive dreamer" as Breton puts it, or Lautréamont’s "pubescent dreamer" victimized by the cruelty of his own creator—ust choose for himself the path of his revelation, the means to his freedom. In undertaking this extreme experience, a man sometimes risks his own life, like the poet Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, creator of the movement "Le Grand Jeu"; like Nerval; or like Antonin Artaud, who, in the tradition of his hero Van Gogh, was "suicided by society."

Doubtless one of the last seers of the modern world, Artaud le Momo, poet-magus par excellence, takes his introspective quest to the very edge of madness: "Where others present their works, I claim to do no more than show my mind. / Life consists of burning up questions. / I cannot conceive of work that is detached from life. / I do not like detached creation. Neither can I conceive of the mind as detached from itself. Each of my works, each diagram of myself, each glacial flowering of my inmost soul dribble over me."8 Artaud renders the totality of this experience of being, in which man is the receptor of magical and unreal forces, in the following terms: "Delights and furies, the entire sky / Launches upon us like a cloud / A whirlwind of wild wings / Torrential with obscenities."9 This burning, harassing freedom leads Artaud all the way to Mexico, to the lands of the Tarahumara Indians, where he seeks the Mountain of Signs, the Race Principle, and a complete, ecstatic communion with creation. Later, in the solitude of madness, it leads still further, to the asylum in Rodez.

Acquired through so much suffering, anguish, and pain, this freedom to dream has something mythlike to it. The myth of katabasis comes to mind: out of curiosity, love, or a fascination with the unknown that is the destiny of some, the human hero descends into the underworld, defying danger and taboo, crossing through the portals of death. Most of the heroes of ancient civilizations have made this journey: the giant Gilgamesh, seeking the flower of immortality; Orpheus, for the love of Eurydice; or Quetzalcóatl, the god of Tula, sacrificed by his celestial enemy Tezcatlipoca and reborn at the end of each century in the form of a morning star. The ecstasy of the shamans and the visions of the prophets had no other goal than to undertake, one more time, this initiatory voyage beyond death. The poets and the seers after them sought out this encounter, this meeting with the two truths of man: that of his life and that of his death. Primitive man, or, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, "man without history" (since, by way of this other reality, man abolishes time and death, the very things which make up histories), experienced this meeting in its entirety, in each one of the acts of his daily life. In hiding this truth, the determinist, rationalist, Western society has mutilated the nocturnal side of man, the side of his magical and creative origins. Thanks to the poets’ dreams; thanks to Baudelaire, Nerval, and Lautréamont; thanks to Jorge Carrera Andrade and Octavio Paz; thanks to the writers since Joyce and Proust, up to those of today—Borges, Rulfo, Onetti, Mercè Rodoreda—we know now that this imaginative freedom is one of our most precious assets. Like the ancient Mayas, like the Egyptians and Greeks, we have learned that time is cyclical and that visible reality is only a reflection. As Borges, perhaps one of the last visionaries of our world, so admirably puts it, we have learned that "the whole of time has already happened and that our life is a vague memory or dim reflection, doubtless false and fragmented, of an irrevocable process."10 Is this not the rejoinder to the ancient Aztec proverb that expresses the notions of time and creation through the myth of eternal return? "Another time, it shall be thus, another time things shall be thus, in another time, in another place. What happened long ago and which now is no longer done, another time it shall be done, another time it shall be thus, as it was in very distant times. Those who live today shall live another time, they shall live once again."11

—J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Seminar On Lautréamont And ‘Freedom To Dream,’” University of Oklahoma, 18 February 1997.

 

Published as J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to dream.” World Literature Today v. 71 (Autumn 1997) p. 671-4. Translated by Ralph Schoolcraft III

 

Footnotes

1 The phrase appears in English in the original.
2 Sahagún, A History of Ancient Mexico, vol. 1, tr. Fanny R. Bandelier, Nashville, Fisk University Press, 1932, p. 146.
3 Quevedo, "Metaphysical Poems, #2," in Elias L. Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, tr. Elias L. Rivers, Prospect Heights (Il.), Waveland, 1966, pp. 260-61.
4 Góngora, "Sonnet CLXVI," in Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, p. 163.
5 The translation used here is that found in J.M.G. Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 113.
6 These two phrases appear in English in the original.
7 André Breton, "Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)," in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trs. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1972, pp. 4-5.
8 Artaud, The “Umbilicus of Limbo,” in Selected Writings, tr. Helen Weaver, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976, p. 59.
9 Artaud, "Windowpane of Sound" ["Vitre de son"]; my translation.
10 Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," tr. Alastair Reid, in Ficciones, New York, Grove, 1962, p. 25.
11 Codex Florentinus, facsimile edition, Mexico City, AGN, 1969, tr. Alfredo Lopez Austin, book VI, p. 196. This English translation is also from Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream, p. 208.

 

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