Readings — From the January 2015 issue

In a Waxworks

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From Adventures in Immediate Irreality, by Max Blecher, out next month from New Directions. Blecher, who wrote frequently about his experiences of depersonalization, was born in Romania in 1909 and died in 1938 of tuberculosis of the spine. Translated from the Romanian by Michael Henry Heim.

In small, insignificant objects (a black feather, a banal little book, an old snapshot of frail, long-forgotten figures with the suffering that comes from serious internal ailments written all over them, a dainty ashtray made of green porcelain in the form of an oak leaf and forever smelling of dead ashes), in the plain, simple memory of old man Samuel Weber’s thick spectacles: in such domestic gewgaws and trifles I find the melancholy of my childhood and a nostalgia for the futility of a world that engulfed me like a sea with petrified waves. Brute matter — in the deep, heavy masses of earth, stone, sky, or water, or in its least understood forms: mirrors, paper flowers, painted statues, glass marbles with their enigmatic internal spirals — has always kept me a prisoner bumping painfully against its walls, yet spurred me on to share in the strange and senseless adventure of being human.

Wherever my thoughts turned, they ran into rampart-like objects and inertias that brought me to my knees. Contemplating the infinite forms of matter, terrorized by their diversity, I twisted and turned for nights on end, distressed by the endless series of objects filing through my memory like an escalator with thousands upon thousands of unremitting steps.

To keep the flow of things and colors inundating my brain, I would picture the evolution of a single object, or even merely its contour; or, attempting to inventory the world, I would imagine a chain of all the shadows on earth, the strange, uncanny gray realm that lies sleeping at the feet of life, a black man stretched veil-like over the earth, his spindly legs poured out like water and his arms of dark iron, or wandering through the downcast branches of horizontal trees: the shadows of ships skimming the sea, shadows unstable and aqueous, brief intimations of sadness, here now then gone, racing the foam.

The shadows of birds in flight, jet-black, as if out of the depths of the earth and into a darkling aquarium.

And the lone shadow, lost somewhere in space, of our sphere of a planet.

At other times I thought of vertiginous mountain chasms, of caves and grottos, and of the warm, supple, ineffable cavern that is the cavern of sex. I had somehow managed to procure a small flashlight, and, crazed with insomnia and the onslaught of objects filling the room, I would plunge under the covers and conduct an intimate, intricate yet arbitrary study of the creases in the sheets and the miniature valleys they formed. Without a precise, demanding occupation of that sort I would never have been able to calm down. My father once came in at midnight and caught me poking my flashlight under the pillow. He took it away but made no remonstration; indeed, he said not a word. I believe he found the discovery so aberrant that he lacked the vocabulary and moral category to apply to it.

Several years later I saw a picture of a wax casting of the inner ear in an anatomy book. Every canal, sinus, and cavity was filled in, forming a positive image. I cannot describe the impression that picture made on me. I all but fainted at the sight of it. In a flash I divined that the world could exist in a reality more real than ours, a positive cavern structure where everything hollow would be filled in and the prevailing reliefs hollowed out into identical spaces that were completely devoid of content, like the strange, delicate fossils that reproduce the traces of a shell or leaf left over the ages to carve out the deep, fine imprint of its contours in stone. In such a world we humans would no longer be fleshy, gaudy excrescences full of complex, putrescible organs; we would be pure voids floating — like air bubbles in water — through the warm, soft matter of the universe.

It was in fact an intimate, painful sensation I had experienced many times during adolescence, when in the course of endless wanderings I would suddenly find myself terribly isolated. It was as if the people and houses around me had suddenly been glued into a thick, uniform paste in which I existed as a mere void moving hither and yon with no rhyme or reason.

Objects, on the whole, I perceived as backdrops. The notion of the world as stage accompanied me everywhere: life seemed to unfold in the midst of some sad, artificial performance. Indeed, the only way out of the tedious vision of a lackluster world was to see it as theater, bombastic and passé.

In summer, I would go to the matinee and emerge only at nightfall: I was waiting for the light outside to change, for the day to end. I would thus ascertain that in my absence an important thing, an essential thing, had taken place: the world had assumed the sad responsibility of carrying on — by growing dark, for example — its regular, intricate, theatrical obligations. Again I had to accept a certainty whose rigorous daily return made me infinitely melancholy. In a world subject to the most theatrical of effects, a world obliged every evening to produce an acceptable sunset, the poor creatures around me seemed pitiful in their determination to keep themselves busy and maintain their naïve belief in what they did and felt.

There was only one person in our town who understood these things and for whom I felt admiration and respect: the town idiot. She alone among all the rigid townsfolk, their heads brimming with prejudices and conventions, she and she alone retained the freedom to shout and dance in public whenever she pleased. She would roam the streets in rags — filthy, gap-toothed, her red mop disheveled, maternally cradling an old box full of bread crusts and dustbin treasures. She would show her sex to passersby with a panache that, were the intention different, would have been called “a model of elegance and style.”

How wonderful, how sublime to be mad, I would tell myself, noting with profound regret how far the powerful, stupid conventions I had been brought up on and the oppressive, rational education I had been subjected to had removed me from the freedom of a madman’s existence. I believe that anyone who has failed to experience such a feeling will never know the world in all its glory.

My basic, elemental impression of the world as stage took on a frightening intensity whenever I entered a wax museum, but the fright was laced with a vague pleasure, and to some extent with the strange sensation everyone experiences at one time or another — that of having lived in a certain setting before. Should I ever sense the impulse for a goal in life and should such an impulse require a link to something truly profound in me, something absolutely essential to my nature, I believe my body would have to become a statue in a waxworks and my life a simple and never-ending contemplation of its exhibits.

In the mournful light of the carbide lamps I felt I was truly living a life all my own, in a manner unique and inimitable. All my daily activities could be shuffled like so many cards: I cared for none of them. Man’s lack of responsibility for even his most conscious acts was perfectly obvious to me. What did it matter that I or somebody else performed them, given that the diversity of the world engulfed them in the same uniform monotony.

In a waxworks — and only in a waxworks — there was no contradiction between what I did and what happened. Wax figures were the only authentic thing on earth: they alone flaunted the way they falsified life, and their strange, artificial immobility made them part of the true spirit of the world. The bullet-riddled, blood-stained uniform of a sad, sallow Austrian archduke was infinitely more tragic than any real death. A woman with a pale yet luminescent face, lying in a glass box and sheathed in black lace, a striking red rose between her breasts, her blond wig coming undone at the forehead, the rouge in her nostrils aquiver, her glassy blue eyes staring motionlessly up at me — how could she fail to hide a deep and troubling, unfathomable message? The more I contemplated it the clearer its sense seemed to be, though it remained lodged inside me, still vague, like a word I wished to recall. All I could catch was a distant rhythm.

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