Midnight Automatic

Marguerite Duras’ Summer Rain is a story of automatic reading. Ernesto, an illiterate adolescent of indeterminate age, finds a book with a hole burnt straight through the middle of it. One of seven children, the sight of the book, so mistreated, makes some of them cry. Their parents love books but are too impoverished to own many, stealing biographies of famous people that pass the time, caring little about the grand achievements that warrant the writing, enjoying instead the descriptions of quotidian minutiae that affirm their own lives despite the vast distances between them.

The parents’ children are uneducated. The book found is unreadable in more ways than one. But Ernesto holds the damaged book against himself and begins to read it anyway.

Just like that, he said, without thinking about it, without even knowing what he was doing. And then — well, then, he stopped bothering whether he was really reading or not, or even what reading was — whether it was this or something else. At first, he said, he’d tried like this: he took the shape of a word and quite arbitrarily gave it a provisional meaning. Then he gave the next word another meaning, but in terms of the assumed provisional meaning of the first word. And he went on like that until the whole sentence yielded some sense. In this way he came to see that reading was a kind of continuous unfolding within his own body of a story invented by himself.

I have a friend who writes. English is not her first language but she is fluent. She also writes in English better than most. I find her writing beautiful and we talk about writing often. She dismisses the compliments I pay her, however, since I have read so few of her words. But I feel like I have read enough to know a writer when I see one.

She asks for my help, tentatively. She is thinking about a poem and wants to use a particular word, but she is uncertain whether her usage is entirely correct. I say I am happy to confirm or deny it, but the opportunity is deferred. “Not tonight.”

Her dad calls her. She speaks to him only briefly in her native language. In hindsight, I presume she says hello and exchanges some information about this and that, how she’s doing, what she’s been up to, perhaps concluding the brief exchange with the fact that she has company and can’t talk long. But at the time, I think nothing of what is being said.

Afterwards, she seems embarrassed. She is Eastern European, and is self-conscious of how her language may sound to English ears — ears attuned in a racist country that is known for disparaging those who speak freely in their own tongue. But I am momentarily enthralled. I have often felt this way. I remember meeting a friend for coffee once, whilst at university in London. She is speaking Russian to her mother over FaceTime when I arrived. She too apologised, but I loved to hear her speak a language unknown to me. The words were meaningless, mere shapes of sound. I listen attentively, perhaps even rudely, but don’t think to apologise myself. I don’t know what is said and I don’t look for meaning, only music, and I hear it.

When my friend asks me to confirm that she is using an English word correctly, I don’t want her to care either way. I wonder why she wants to use it in the first place — presumably for how it sounds. Her English is fluent but still a foreign tongue. What makes any great poet is surely their ability to still hear the music.

Word of Ernesto’s intuitive reading spreads. He goes to school for ten days but doesn’t want to return. He is angry and his mother senses it but he cannot tell her why. “Why not?” she asks. “Because it would upset you, so I can’t”, he replies. “And why would it upset me?” “Because. And anyhow, you wouldn’t understand what I said. And if you wouldn’t understand it there is no point in my saying it.” But this is less a caveat and more the very crux of the problem at hand. He adds: “It’s not what I’d say that would upset you. You’d be upset because you wouldn’t understand.”

She smiles and implores him to try and say it anyway. She waits. “Mama, I’d say… Mama, I’m not going back to school because at school they teach me things I don’t know.” She doesn’t understand. She does understand. She intuits a feeling like only a mother can.

I can’t sleep. I leave my friend’s house close to 2am and walk home. She offers to let me stay on the couch but I don’t want to wake up in the same clothes. It has been a long day, a lovely evening, and I want my own bed. But I don’t sleep for more than two hours at a time, waking up periodically and dozing for many more hours in between.

I have a dream that my flatmate has found somewhere else to live, without me, leaving me destitute.

Over the weekend, I make two new friends in Manchester. One of them talks about wanting to feel more in tune with her body. She describes a friend she knew once who was so annoyingly self-aware, knowing exactly what her body needed, setting about acquiring those needs whether it derailed present plans and schedules or not. Always listening.

I feel like, right now, my body isn’t listening to me. I need to sleep, I think, but the body does not comply. Even when it gets what I want, regardless of what I’m thinking, my brain, the organ apart from my thoughts, changes its mind. I wake up again and again. Sleep is broken.

She writes down snatches of conversation in a notebook recently given to her. Words. Phrases. She pulls poetry out of my ramblings. She asks me to write something down too and hands the notebook over but I’m stunned. I do nothing but write, but then can’t write on command. “Just write a word”, she says. I explain my impulse is to fill an entire page, write out loud, speak and write simultaneously, put on the page whatever is coming out of my mouth in unison.

I wrote about her in my journal last week. It ended up on the blog the other day. The chronology is disjointed, but she noticed. No one could probably identify her but herself. I apologize, again not wanting the people in my life who choose to read me to feel like I have reduced them to characters. But she doesn’t seem to mind, or seems somewhat enthralled by the intrusion. Still, she tells me things and begins to caveat certain parts of conversation with a disclaimer: “Don’t put this on the blog.” I wouldn’t dream of it. I too only want to record fragments, phrases, words from without that resonate, words that speak to me as if I had said them aloud to myself.

This automatic writing is its own kind of automatic listening. I feel like an interpreter, translating feeling as it washes over me. The fragments feel like parts of a dream, like the scenes relayed and captured are little things felt throughout the day, coming back to mind as they are processed internally. Maybe I can’t sleep because I am writing too much. Maybe this automatic writing has replaced the unconscious processing of my dreams. I don’t need to dream right now. I only need to write.

Blanchot, The Space of Literature:

The need to write is linked to the approach toward this point at which nothing can be done with words. Hence the illusion that if one maintained contact with this point even as one came back from it to the world of possibility, “everything” could be done, “everything” could be said. This need must be suppressed and contained. If not, it becomes so vast that there is no more room or space for its realization. One only begins to write when, momentarily, through a ruse, through a propitious burst of energy, or through life’s distractions, one has succeeded in evading this impulse which remote control of the work must constantly awaken and subdue, protect and avert, master and experience in its unmasterable force. This operation is so difficult and dangerous that every writer and every artist is surprised each time he achieves it without disaster. And no one who has looked the risk in the face can doubt that many perished silently. It is not that creative resources are lacking — although they are in any event insufficient — but rather that the force of the writing impulse makes the world disappear. Then time loses its power of decision; nothing can really begin.

The next night I still can’t sleep. It is not yet midnight on a Tuesday but the neighbourhood is deathly quiet. Unable to write in my journal in the dark, I turn to the blog directly for the first time in a while, the white of the page of my laptop screen making the night around me ever darker. I chain-roll cigarettes and scare myself, picking up a now-empty pack of cigarette papers that an earwig has just made its home. I jump, inadvertently flicking it into the black. I flick ash into the black as well. But I’m tired, clumsy. I ash the keyboard and the mouse pad. I spill curls of loose tobacco over Duras. Smoke wisps around my fingers in the blue light and quickly fades from view, into the night.

Into the night, I write.

“If there’s anything I say on the blog that makes you uncomfortable, I can remove it.” I have already done this before, a few weeks ago, for someone else, again likely unidentifiable but feeling themselves seen, disliking hearing their own thoughts and phrases echoed back to them.

She doesn’t mind. Although still cautious about the content of what I might say, she wants me to write about her, or perhaps to her. I show her the book that arrived in the post: the letters shared between Nin and Miller. “You can be my Miller”, she says. I agree, recognising the sentiment meant, though I’m sure neither of us would want anything resembling their tumultuous relationship. Only that basic bond: the love of writing. Underneath the bond, the almost perverse desire to be read also. She can write about me too if she wishes.

Ernesto’s mother tells him to go find his brothers and sisters. Ever since he started to read, they have been visiting the Prisu and “pretending” to read too. The suggestion that their reading is make-believe makes Ernesto angry, but his mother is defiant. The fact of the matter is, they can’t read. If they can read, “what are those kids reading?”

“They’re reading whatever they like, for crying out loud!”

“But where, for Pete’s sake? Where is it, the write they’re supposed to be reading?”

“The write’s in the book, of course!”

“Next thing they’ll be reading the stars.”

The earwig returns, crawling over my elbow in the dark. I do not see it. I only feel it. Another panicked flick into the night.

I drink a beer, hoping it will make me sleep. I decide to write and smoke until I have finished it. I remembered that the doctors recommended warm milk instead, like mothers.

Ernesto’s mother is a mystery to him. She speaks of home and all the children are enthralled by her tales of a land unknown. Duras describes her speech, how it has changed since she and her husband first emigrated to France:

The mother has forgotten the language of her youth. She speaks like all the other people in Vitry, and without an accent. She only makes mistakes in the conjugations of the verbs. But there survive from her past certain ineffaceable sounds, soft words that she seems to be paying out slowly, chanting sounds that moisten the inside of her voice and sometimes make the words emerge from her body with her realising it, as if she were being visited by the memory of a language long forsaken.

My ears are attuned to the night. My thoughts and fingers are focused on the writing; my eyes on reading Duras, barely illuminated by the screen. Moths pass in front of the light sometimes, and much smaller insects too, with a grace that is carefree and inane. But my ears still prick up and keep me alert, keep me awake. I hear rustling in the bushes — hedgehogs, perhaps; cats, mice or rats; unknown objects falling through leaves; bugs and critters maybe. Birds chatter faintly in the distance. Seagulls squeak, oddly at this hour, fellow insomniacs. A little further away, I hear the white noise of traffic, tyres over tarmac, coming from the Coast Road. Very occasionally, I hear cars singular, closer, the infrequent coming and going of unknown individuals. There is a train depot nearby for the Newcastle Metro. I hear engines idling, wheels braking. I hear cracks and clicks as the houses and fences ease into the night’s chill.

The only thing I don’t hear, until there is nothing else to record, is the clicking of my fingers at the keys. I do not hear my writing.

It is midnight now. I think of Blanchot, as I often do. Again, quoting Mallarmé, from The Space of Literature:

“Certainly a presence of Midnight persists.” But this subsisting presence is not a presence. This substantial present is the negation of the present. It is a vanished present. And Midnight, where first “the absolute present of things” (their unreal essence) gathered itself together, become “the pure dream of a Midnight vanished into itself”: it is no longer a present, but the past, symbolized…

Ernesto continues to try and explain to his family why he doesn’t want to go to school, why he has decided to leave in the first place. His reasoning, once he manages to find away to express it, sounds excessively profound.

I understood something I still find it hard to express… I’m still too small to say it properly. Something like the creation of the universe. I was rooted to the spot: all of a sudden I was looking at the creation of the universe…

His father doesn’t understand. “Ernesto, you wouldn’t be going a bit far, would you…” His mother seems more intrigued. “And have you anything to say about it, Ernesto?”

“Not much.”

Ernesto reads the world into existence but cannot explain how it all came from nothing, or from someone who cannot read. The realisation transforms the boy into something of a nihilist. There is no point to anything. No meaning to be gleamed. Not really. It all just is. Ten days at school and the boy has unlocked the secret of the universe: the silence of it all; the “everything”; the vanished presence of the present.

I wonder what I look like, sat in the dark. I wonder what the neighbours think of me — this person always perched at the rusted black garden furniture, writing at any and all hours. I wonder if they talk about me, my predictable presence. I wonder if they worry that I sit up late, that I smoke too much. I wonder if they have heard the despair from the house that has seized me in months gone by.

We do not know our downstairs neighbours. I think they find my presence intrusive. I can see directly into their living room from the garden. They watch The Simpsons a lot on a big screen TV. The man who lives there plays video games late at night sometimes. A few weeks ago, the woman ran out panicked to her bins, wearing only a baggy T-shirt, as if she had just woken up, but found the idea of a retreat inside more embarrassing than a dash to her destination. I glance but then consciously avert my eyes.

Either side live two old ladies. One has a dog; she gardens sometimes and we say hello to one another. She is spritely and seems to live an active life. I see her out the front of her house sometimes too. On the other side, a woman who looks much frailer, much more grey. She potters out to fill her bins and hang out her washing only. I say hello to her too, but on the first few occasions she looks at me frightened.

The other day, I woke up early and came out into the garden. It was a Sunday at 9am. “You’re up early,” she said, lifting the lid on her recycling bin. I make up some random and inane excuse, blurting out whatever comes into my head just so I have something to say. She doesn’t hear me. I repeat it. “It’s good to catch the sun”, I say, as it beams down at an angle from the east. “Yes, that’ll be it,” she says, as if I have answered a question asked internally, which she did not say out loud.

I finish my beer. I’ll write more tomorrow. I’ll read more Duras at a café in the afternoon, perhaps. Or maybe I’ll sit in bed and write some more, if sleep still refuses to take me.

Leave a Reply