by James Pate on Dec.05, 2011
There is a house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness…
– from The Epic of Gilgamesh ( translated by N.K. Sanders)
One of my favorite passages from The Epic of Gilgamesh is the scene where Gilgamesh’s rival/friend/possible lover Enkidu has a nightmare about a house of darkness shortly before he dies. In the house is a goddess reading from the book of the dead, and rulers and princes have lost all power, and now act as servants. What I find interesting in the passage is how bleak this vision of the afterlife is, circa 2500-1500 B.C. No wonder Gilgamesh goes through a violent existential crisis after Enkidu’s death. This is death at its most material: dust, clay, feathers, and darkness. No light, no air, no Platonic salvation, nothing ethereal.
Thousands of years later, Beckett would use similar imagery to convey dissolution. His characters sit in darkness, or are sometimes only mouths speaking from out of an immense darkness. It’s another example of the way Art is an installation piece playing on a constant loop, feverishly re-imagining its own dreams and nightmares, despite the wishes of certain avant-gardists for it to march gloriously into some freeze-dried future.
I bring this up as a roundabout way to approach Jaime Saenz’s The Night, a book that reminds me a great deal of Enkidu’s dream. (I should mention Kent Johnson was the one who recommended the book to me. He and Forrest Gander did a translation of The Night that came out in 2007.) In this book, Saenz takes us through another dream of darkness, a place where night and body inhabit one another without becoming entirely merged, and where self and darkness inhabit one another, with only the thinnest line of distinction between them. In one of my favorite passages, he writes:
What is the nature of night’s other side?
To put it bluntly, it is the nature of the night’s other side
To sink into your spine and colonize your eyes, to see
Through them what it can’t see on its own.
The night, or rather the night’s other side, invades us, possesses us, and looks through our eyes to see the human world, the world it would otherwise not be able to see. But of course in the process we are infected by this other night. If it can see through our eyes, can it taste with our tongue? Can it feel with our fingertips?
I also like how the gaze here is double. We look through our eyes but so is the night. Whatever attracts our eyes will attract the night’s eyes. And the eye itself takes on a monstrous element here: what would somebody staring into our eyes at that moment see? Would they sense the night’s presence in our gaze? Would they be aware that the night was staring at them too?
The passage reminds me of other disturbing images of The Eye: the eyeball that is slit in Un Chien Andalou, and Bataille’s obsession with the eye rolling upward in orgasmic ecstasy or in death. And the eyes in 2001 that looks out at the edges of the universe but also into the darkened theater, at us.
What is the other side of the night? Saenz writes:
the other side of night is a night without night, without
earth, without shelter, without rooms, without furniture,
A few lines later he adds about the night:
—it’s the dock at the very side of your body
and, at the same time, it’s inconceivably remote.
As with much mystical writing, and in a manner reminiscent of Vallejo too, Saenz likes to define things (an event, a sensation, a feeling, a time/place) through negation and paradox. The night is the dock near your body, yet remote, even “inconceivably” so, as if this night is a far away country that existed thousands of years before you were born. Also, the other side of night is not day, but instead this “night without night.”
“A night without night”: it suggests an inhuman night, a night that no longer keeps human time, and a night that no longer adheres to any human definition of night. Not the Platonic Form of night (which would be humanly intelligible), but rather “night” without form. Night beyond the first night and last night.
In section three, Saenz goes into more detail about “night’s other side.” He writes:
Not anyone can pass to the other side of the night;
The other side of the night is a forbidden dominion, and
Only the condemned enter there.
He goes on to describe these condemned as being alcoholics. (Kent and Forrest Gander mention that Saenz was a massive drinker in their introduction.) He tells us the night’s other side will be revealed only to “those whose eyes go white at the thought of being / blown apart by alcohol. // With those. // Only on those will alcohol confer the grace of everlasting / baptism on the other side of the night.”
These lines remind me of several things: the Christian ritual of turning wine into sacred blood (“the grace of everlasting / baptism on the other side of the night”), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano with its exploration of the dark sublime achieved through the means of alcoholic excess (“blown apart by alcohol”), and Deleuze’s discussion of alcohol in The Logic of Sense, where he compares it to madness, saying that in both we see the dissolution of the ego in favor of a split between the about-to-be and the already-was, that paradoxical no-space where “I” is already someone and somewhere else (though he also says there were other less drastic roads toward that end, and that he means his examples of madness and drink to be descriptive not proscriptive).
Night, drink, the self, the invasion of the night into the self, into our eyes, the night that looks through our eyes, the alcohol that blows us apart, the other side of the night.
In Poe, there is a recurring scenario: a charater, or a group of characters, sit in the dark, thinking. The curtains are closed against the sun. No lamps are lit. But something about this artificial night allows them to think in ways that would be impossible in the daylight. And once night arrives, they open the door, and they go out into the street. In other words, night never leaves them. Night becomes not a moment in time, but a condition.