Sleep has his house

mystery-and-melancholy-of-a-street-1914[1]
Mystery and Melancholy of a Street-Giorgio De Chirico 1914
Although Anna Kavan is primarily remembered (when she is remembered at all) for her extraordinary apocalyptic novel Ice, she also wrote a number of remarkable short stories and novels, including the compellingly grim Who Are You? and her most surrealistic work, the dream narrative Sleep has his house from 1948.

Taking its title from a poem by the medieval English poet John Gower, Kavan states the works intention in the brief introduction:

LIFE IS TENSION or the result of tension: without tension the creative impulse cannot exist. If human life be taken as the result of tension between the two polarities night and day, night, the negative pole, must share equal importance with the positive day. At night, under the influence of cosmic radiation quite different from those of the day, human affairs are apt to come to a crisis. At night most human beings die and are born.

Sleep has his house describes in the night-time language certain stages in the development of one individual human being. No interpretation is needed of this language we have all spoken in childhood and in our dreams; but for the sake of unity a few words before every section indicate the corresponding events of the day.

Sleep has his house raised little comment upon publication. Traditional English fiction of the time was obsessed by character and the class structure, concerns that Kavan didn’t share in the slightest. Here we are in the realm of universals and archetypes. As well as exploring the nature of dreams, Sleep has his house primarily deals with the mother-daughter relationship (it is safe to say that Kavan had mummy issues) although in the most abstract fashion possible. Kavan’s dream surrogate is simply named B while the mother is just A.

Dream narratives are notoriously difficult to sustain; dreams are by their very nature elusive, incoherent and intensely personal, however Kavan, in prose that is poetic, painterly and cinematic manages to achieve this near impossible feat.

Below is a short excerpt that gives a flavour of Kavan’s night-time language. Although she rarely directly addressed her heroin addiction, the preference for fevered, apocalyptic and macabre imagery shows her kinship with other opiated writers, namely Coleridge, De Quincey and later, Burroughs.

Sleep has his house

Are you afraid of the tigers? Do you hear them padding all round you on their fierce fine velvet feet?

The speed of the growth of tigers in the nightland is a thing which ought to be investigated some time by the competent authority. You start off with one, about the size of a mouse, and before you know where you are he’s twice the size of the Sumatra tiger which defeats all corners in that hemisphere. And then, before you can say Knife (not a very tactful thing to say in the circumstances anyhow), all his boy and girl friends are gathered round, your respectable quiet decorous night turns itself into a regular tiger-garden. Wherever you look, the whole night is full of tigers leaping and loping and grooming their whiskers and having a wonderful time at your expense. There isn’t a thing you can do about it apparently.

The wilder the tricks of the tigers, the more abandoned their games and gambols, the more diversely dreadful become the dooms of the unfortunate A in this dream. Her fugitive shape, black-swathed, varnishes at the end of every cul-de-sac. Through the cities of the world she pursues her fate, in streets where the dead eyes of strangers are no colder than the up-swarming lights which have usurped the brilliance of the stars. From shrouded platforms among the clouds she hurtles down. She plunges from towers strict and terrible in their fragile strength, delicate as jerboa’s bones on the sky, perdurable with granite and steel. Slumped on his stained bar, Pete the Greek, beneath flybown Christmas festoons which no one will ever remove, hears the screaming skid of wheels spouting slush with her blood. Limp as an old coat not worth a hanger, she is to be found behind numbered doors in hotel bedrooms; or dangling from the trees of country churchyards where leaning tombstones like feeble-minded ghosts mop and mow in the long summer grass. The weeds of lonely rivers bind her with clammy skeins; the tides of tropical oceans suck off her shoes; crabs scuttle over her eye sockets. Sheeted and anonymous on rubbered wheels she traverses the interminable bleakness of chloroform corridors. The sardonic yap of the revolver can be taken as the full stop arbitrarily concluding each ambiguous sentence.

 

 

The Message Of The Forest

tumblr_mcalp26zd91qghwp0o1_r2_12801
The Message of the Forest-Toyen 1936
In 1936 Toyen returned to painting after a period concentrating on collages and erotic book illustration, and produced what is arguably her masterpiece The Message Of The Forest, a painting that seems to be an pictorial representation of a particularly sinister Central European fairy-tale.

A massive owl-like creature, painted in a startling shade of electric blue  bears in its one remaining claw the severed head of a young girl. As is frequent in Toyen she plays with scale to induce a sense of disorientation in the viewer. The vivid green of the tree bark and the absolute inky blackness of the night contrast with the pallid mask-like face of the girl, suggesting that the forest, and by extension nature, is essentially inimical  to humanity.

Heavenly Bodies

nadia-maria-041
Nadia Maria
The ethereal portraits of Brazilian photographer Nadia Maria evokes the mysterious borderland between waking and dreams. Citing the hypnagogic visions glimpsed in the moments before sleep as the primary source of her creativity, Maria shows solitary figures (usually women) enmeshed in constellations of stars or seemingly about to undergo a transformation to an entirely different order of being. These photographs confront us with the beautifully bizarre revelations that we each experience nightly when we close our eyes and that we seek to dismiss  every morning; though no light is strong enough to totally dispel that blissful darkness that is the source of all true inspiration.

.

Dreams of Desire 40 (The Girls from the Provinces)

tumblr_m2bmwmqslg1qmsoweo1_12801
Paul Delvaux-Silent Night 1962

As a child Paul Delvaux devoured the work of the writer Jules Verne, especially Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and characters and scenes from Verne would populate Delvaux’s canvas throughout his career. The eccentric Victorian professors are frequently the only male (and fully clothed) figures in the predominantly female (and undressed) Uneasy City that is the setting for all Delvaux’s paintings.

Silent Night is from his later period and there is a variant entitled The Girls From the Provinces that features the same cast of characters in different positions and set in the late afternoon as opposed to night-time. The embracing girls from the provinces, on the right, make explicit Delvaux’s fascination with lesbianism that is usually only hinted at in his paintings.

Dreams of Desire 37 (Blue Hotel)

719b175c87467af7ba5ce403b23a45d51
Joseph Cornell-Untitled (Hotel De L’Etoile Series) 1952
Joseph Cornell (see Dreams of Desire 36 (Girl with Braid) was passionately attached to the idea of travel even though he very rarely left his home state of New York during his life. He created several series of boxes featuring birds, which act as surrogates for his fantasies of flight, and also of hotels, some of which are so otherworldly and celestial they suggest rest-stops for demigods and goddess as they travel between the constellations  more than overnight accommodation for regular humans.

During the 1950’s produced several boxes in the Hotel De L’Etoile series. The word etoile means star and the boxes play with the double meaning of star, the ones in the sky and the ones of the stage and screen. Both kinds were equally unattainable for Cornell, despite several intense platonic relationship with ballerinas; yet he remained a devoted and lucid observer of the night-sky, ballet and movies.

The above box from the series features a cut-out from a girlie magazine, slightly obscured by a singular column. The glass is blue, Cornell’s favourite colour along with white, a shade of blue that evokes sex, melancholy and a luscious eternal night.