19 February, 2007

The Enormous Room

I needed no second invitation to sleep. Fully dressed, I fell on my paillasse with a weariness which I have never felt before or since. But I did not close my eyes: for all about me there rose a sea of most extraordinary sound. . . the hitherto empty and minute room became suddenly enormous: weird cries, oaths, laughter, pulling it sideways and backward, extending it to inconceivable depth and width, telescoping it to frightful nearness.

— e. e. cummings
Like my mother, I have problems with insomnia. My schedule fluctuates from day to day—I sleep 5 hours, 3 hours, 11 hours, during the morning, the evening, and the night. When I settle down to bed with my wife my mind hurtles with unconscionable celerity, permitting me no slumber. I try pills. I try drink. I try mental exercises. Nothing.

When at last the dark envelops me, I too find myself in some sort of enormous room. They are all with me, every person I have known and know no longer, haunting me. I arrive at a party. I see old faces, still intimately familiar. We are friendly again, or perhaps they act as aggressors. At any rate, our business remains unfinished. Are they grown, or do I see them still as children? I long to drink from Lethe and forget forever. . . but it is impossible. I fear the guilt and the humiliation will be with me, in my dreams, until I die. I have the Freudian mind, unable to eradicate the spectres of its distant past. When I awake, my erstwhile acquaintances recede once more into history.


So it was in the Renaissance. I have in my hand Marcus Vattasso et Henricus Carusi, eds. Codices Vaticani Latini: 10301-10700 (Rome: Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1920). In this tome, hundreds of bound volumes are catalogued—tegumentum ex charta spissata, membrana obtecta—filled with fragments of classical and mediaeval texts. One book contains chapters and treatises by Aristotle, Gerardus Senensis, Nicolaus Damascenus, Marcus Aurelius and the Pseudo-Dionysius; another features Johannes Neapolitanus, Thomas de Virago, Hervacus Natalis Brito, St. Cyprian, St. Isidore, Jacobus Egidius, Raphael de Pornasius, and Guido de Terrena. These are both volumes from around 1450. Panofsky wrote of the humanist 'perspective' on the classical past—as Gombrich observed, he was thinking too much in metaphors. I don't feel any sense of perspective when I read the contents of these jumbled compendia. I feel confusion and loss, a mortal tangle of quires, awaiting oblivion, or else Erasmus and the Aldine Press.

The enormous room of the past became the Adagia, and other such works. When Plato and Plutarch began to be read again, after a thousand years of absence, their old faces were still miraculously familiar. Their features had been copied in late antiquity by the great pagan and Christian visages. So they were seen as grown men—under the veil of Macrobius, Augustine and Eriugena—and as children, fresh-faced and ready for the taking. When Europe awoke to the dry lights of the Age of Science, the classics again receded into history, although their ghosts lingered, and linger still.


When I have loved you once, I shall never stop loving. I am robbed, memorious, incapable of forgetting. The night reminds me. It is a wretched condition.


Raminagrobis said...

When I saw this title, I thought it might be a reference to the J. G. Ballard story of the same name…until I realized that (1) the story is in fact called ‘The Enormous Space’ and (2) I certainly wouldn’t have had you down as a J. G. Ballard fan. Borges, yes, but not Ballard.

Shawn Thuris said...

I dream of rooms and hallways I've known, buildings usually remembered in the wrong city. And how they might be navigated on foot, or by a fly, or by a rubber ball thrown very hard, or by a laser and a set of well-placed mirrors. The people I've known are there, mismatched with the places I've known them. They melt imperceptibly between ages, identities and genders, maybe to spare me the discomfort of dwelling on any one of them for long.

It is something like the feeling of reading a miscellany. Pleasant and unpleasant sensations, hints trailing off in different directions, and a mild sense of confusion at the end.

Robert said...

Conrad, what an interesting thought for a February Monday. I was talking at lunch to an eminent Musician and his wife on the subject of composing; and yes he does have to get up in the night to write it down, tune after tune simply pours out of him from dreams.

And as for;

....Love unrequited…this takes one to a lighter hearted scene:

“For you dream you are crossing the Channel, and tossing about in a steamer from Harwich –
Which is something between a large bathing machine and a very small second-class carriage –
And you're giving a treat (penny ice and cold meat) to a party of friends and relations –
They're a ravenous horde – and they all came on board at Sloane Square and South Kensington Stations.
And bound on that journey you find your attorney (who started that morning from Devon);


With apologies to you and the Lord Chancellor.


and as for the palliasse…..

“Every pair of soldiers was supplied with a palliasse or bed case by the Barracks Master to sleep upon. Each palliasse measured 6 ft by 7 ½ ft (183 cm x 229 cm) and was made out of two pieces of ticking osnaburg. To show government ownership, the palliasse were "stamped each with durable marking stuff (G.R) in each corner." Thirty-six pounds (16.33 kg) of straw were supplied for filling each palliasse and replenished every three months. Typically palliasses were filled through length-way slits in the centre top side, were either tied or buttoned closed after the palliasse was full. When not in use as mattresses "the palliasse which is to be doubled once from the length" with the bolster inside.
I filled my palliasse with straw and spent many adolescent dreams upon it in 1965; no, not especially comfortable and can’t remember the dreams in detail. Wish I could!

As a Lord Chancellor, also in a wretched condition, said; "....and some fluff in your lung, and a feverish tongue,
and a thirst that's intense, and a general sense that you haven't been sleeping in clover;
But the darkness has passed, and it's daylight at last, and the night has been long – ditto, ditto my song – and thank goodness they're both of them over!

Ashley said...

A new reader of your blog--very much enjoying it.

I've never slept through a single night in my life and never hope to.

My sleep is so sporadic that I rarely dream (or, perhaps, remember) anything at all.

The only dream I continually have is of walking in the middle of a dark river with other folks similarly interested in an end.

My other dreams are so mundane they make me ashamed of my inner life.

Chris said...

Good God, Mr. Roth. I'd love to meet a girl who thinks like you.

The last sentence of the post spoke to me particularly. There are several girls with whom I have been involved that I still cannot put out of my mind. I ceased trying to do so long ago. It seems the only thing to do is reassure oneself of the vitality and importance of the present. Do not live in the past, for it is gone forever, and when the spectres of past experience float in the darkness smile upon them as a learning experience, a class taken in this Great University.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Ram: You're quite right. No to Ballard, yes to Borges. How well you know me!

Shawn: I am not spared the discomfort, alas. Is it perhaps like reading the Varieties?

Robert: thank heavens for your eternally unpredictable responses!

Ashley: thanks. Actually I find that the sporadism of my dreaming helps me to remember it--I tend to wake up in the middle.

Erik said...

Ye wavering forms draw near again as ever
When ye long since moved past my clouded eyes.
To hold you fast, shall I this time endeavour?
Still does my heart that strange illusion prize?
Ye crowd on me! 'Tis well! Your might assever
While ye from mist and murk around me rise.
As in my youth my heart again is bounding,
Thrilled by the magic breath your train surrounding.

Ye bring with you glad days and happy faces.
Ah, many dear, dear shades arise with you;
Like some old tale that Time but half erases,
First Love draws near to me and Friendship too.
The pain returns, the sad lament retraces
Life's labyrinthine, erring course anew
And names the good souls who, by Fortune cheated
Of lovely hours, forth from my world have fleeted.

They do not hear the melodies I'm singing,
The souls to whom my earliest lays I sang;
Dispersed that throng who once to me were clinging,
The echo's died away that one time rang.
Now midst an unknown crowd my grief is ringing,
Their very praise but gives my heart a pang,
While those who once my song enjoyed and flattered,
If still they live, roam through the wide world scattered.

And I am seized with long-unwonted yearning
Toward yonder realm of spirits grave and still.
My plaintive song's uncertain tones are turning
To harps aeolian murmuring at will.
Awe binds me fast; tear upon tear falls burning,
My stern heart feels a gentle, tender thrill;
What I possess, as if far off I'm seeing,
And what has vanished, now comes into being.

J.W. von Goethe: Introitus to Faust (transl. by George Madison Priest, http://www.levity.com/alchemy/faust01.html)

Sir G said...

insomnia is a rotten, rotten disease. there is nothing worse than not being able to sleep. my commiserations.

Lori Witzel said...

Only sporadically, but always uncomfortably, insomniac.

I love how you take those irritating grains of sleepless sand and spawn pearls. I've written a few poems when sleep won't come -- my own slight effort to wring something good from insomnia's sandpaper abrasions.

(Found you via MountShang, and am glad I did.)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Lori; hope to see you here again.