Tag Archives: imagination

A Translation from La Tregua

From the chapter called “The Dreamers” in Primo Levi’s La Tregua:

In the evenings — those long Polish evenings — the air of our quarters, already heavy with tobacco and human odors, became saturated with crazy dreams. This is the first fruit of exile and uprootedness: the unreal prevails over the real. Everyone dreamed, dreams of the past and of the future, of slavery and redemption, of improbable paradises, likewise of mythical and far-fetched enemies: cosmic enemies, perverse and subtle, ubiquitous, ambient, like the air. Everyone, with the exception perhaps of Cravero, and certainly of D’Agata.

D’Agata had no time to sleep, because he was in the grip of terror: bedbugs. Naturally, none of us were exactly fond of these troublesome companions, but we had all grown accustomed to them. They were not few or far between, but a little bug regimen, which had invaded all our bunks with the arrival of spring. By day, they nested in the crevices of the walls and in the wooden bedframes, and they would not set out on a raid until the comings and goings of the day had ceased. We were all resigned to surrender a little portion of our blood, even to do so willingly; it was less easy to get used to feeling them steal across your face and all over your body, underneath your clothing. Only those who had the good fortune to enjoy a heavy slumber, and who succeeded in losing consciousness before they awoke, could sleep in peace.

D’Agata, who was a little man, a Sicilian bricklayer, sober, reserved, and fastidious, had been reduced to sleeping during the day. He spent nights stretched out on his bed, watching all around, his eyes huge from the horror, the vigil, the spasms of attention. In his hand, he tightly grasped a gadget fashioned from a stick and a piece of wire mesh, and the wall next to him was covered with a lurid constellation of bloody stains.

At first these habits of his were the target of mockery: was his skin so much thinner than ours? But then pity took over, mixed with a trace of envy, because among us all, D’Agata was the only one whose enemies were concrete, present, tangible, and could be drawn into combat, struck, and squashed against the wall.

Nelle lunghissime sere polacche, l’aria della camerata, greve di tabacco e di odori umani, si saturava di sogni insensati. È questo il frutto piú immediato dell’esilio, dello sradicamento: il prevalere dell’irreale sul reale. Tutti sognavano sogni passati e futuri, di schiavitú e di redenzione, di paradisi inverosimili, di altrettanto mitici e inverosimili nemici: nemici cosmici, perversi e sottili, che tutto pervadono come l’aria. Tutti, ad eccezione forse di Cravero, e certamente di D’Agata.

D’Agata non aveva tempo di sognare, perché era ossessionato dal terrore delle cimici. Queste incomode compagne non piacevano a nessuno, naturalmente; ma tutti avevamo finito col farci l’abitudine. Non erano poche e sparse, ma un esercito compatto, che col sopraggiungere della primavera aveva invaso tutti i nostri giacigli: stavano annidate di giorno nelle fenditure dei muri e delle cuccette di legno, e partivano in scorreria non appena cessava il tramestio del giorno. A cedere loro una piccola porzione del nostro sangue, ci saremmo rassegnati di buon grado: era meno facile abituarsi a sentirle correre furtive sul viso e sul corpo, sotto gli abiti. Potevano dormire tranquilli solo quelli che avevano la fortuna di godere di un sonno pesante, e che riuscivano a cadere nell’incoscienza prima che quelle altre si risvegliassero.

D’Agata, che era un minuscolo, sobrio, riservato e pulitissimo muratore siciliano, si era ridotto a dormire di giorno, e passava le notti appollaiato sul letto, guardandosi intorno con occhi dilatati, dall’orrore, dalla veglia e dall’attenzione spasmodica. Teneva stretto in mano un aggeggio rudimentale, che si era costruito con un bastoncello e un pezzo di rete metallica, e il muro accanto a lui era coperto di una lurida costellazione di macchie sanguigne.

In principio queste sue abitudini erano state derise: aveva forse la pelle piú fina di noi altri? Ma poi la pietà aveva prevalso, commista con una traccia di invidia; perché, fra tutti noi, D’Agata era il solo il cui nemico fosse concreto, presente, tangibile, suscettibile di essere combattuto, percosso, schiacciato contro il muro.

A North American Oceanus (1865)


In the northern part of Minnesota is the greatest elevation of what geologists denominate the eastern water-shed of our continent; lying almost exactly in the centre of North America, here the streams that flow to the north, east, and south, find their source. Lake Superior, that adjoins this section on the east, is the chief of those magnificent lakes that empty from one another into the St. Lawrence, and finally wash the coast of Labrador. The Mississippi, taking its rise in the same region and but a few miles away, flows southward with ever increasing volume to the Gulf of Mexico, and then sweeping around Florida and through the Atlantic, rejoins the waters of Lake Superior off Newfoundland; while the Red River of the North, pursuing a contrary course, empties into Hudson’s Bay and thence into the Northern Ocean. These waters, starting from little rills and springs scarcely more than a few steps apart, after wandering thousands of miles asunder come together and commingle in the Northern Atlantic Ocean.

I keep coming back to this short passage about the eastern watershed in Robert B. Roosevelt‘s Superior Fishing — the perspective it sets out, the way it locates the “source” of the eastern waters at the continent’s “centre,” the divergent flows and courses it maps, and the idea of Northern Atlantic confluence and commingling at which it repeatedly arrives.

Roosevelt starts out pretending to be scientific, dealing with “what geologists denominate,” but soon we have left geology behind. Or, at least, there is something beyond scientific naming, or something unnamed at work here as well, a story that exceeds the scientific bounds of geology, geography and cartography.

The passage describes a North American Oceanus — an ocean stream that encircles the eastern portion of the continent. The eastern stream originates in the elevated northeastern corner of Minnesota, near Grand Portage and in the rills and springs of the Boundary Waters; it divides, separates and flows north, east, and south, until its waters meet again off the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Roosevelt returns to his last point — about the confluence of the eastern waters — three times in the course of this single short paragraph, tracing three divergent courses from Lake Superior to the north Atlantic and the coast of Eastern Canada. If Superior is situated at the source and origin of the watershed, Labrador and Newfoundland reliably mark its destination and point of confluence. There, in the north Atlantic, the waters rejoin and are returned to themselves.

It’s hard to say what to make of this recursive pattern, or how much to make of it. Is it anything more than a tic? The territory bounded by the waters is vast, and comprises (in 1865) the defeated Confederacy, the Union, and Eastern Canada — still, at that time, a British colony. As a Tammany Hall politician, Roosevelt would have been privy if not party to the political shenanigans that would eventually result in the Annexation Bill of 1866. The Bill was never intended to be anything more than a sop thrown to the Fenians and their Irish-American supporters. But it claimed much of the territory described by the eastern watershed — Labrador, Newfoundland, and northern Ontario — as a new territory of the United States: Canada East.  What geologists denominate the eastern watershed of our continent also encompassed, at the time, a political geography.


A Mark I Once Made

I’ve owned this old paperback copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra since the late 1970s. Ever since then, it has been my constant companion.

It was this very book that first awakened me to the pleasures of reading philosophy and the possibilities of doing philosophy, when I was still innocent of all serious philosophy.

I do not know why I first bought the book — it was not exactly recommended reading in the public high school I attended — but I seem to remember that I first read Zarathustra on a hiking trip in the Black Mountains. I know that it was night and there was a fire burning.

Was it The Stillest Hour? I would like to think so. I was reading by candlelight, when the words of Zarathustra’s Prologue leapt out at me. I’d never read anything like this! Whose words were these? In an uncanny way they seemed to be mine — or at least I wanted them to be mine. I couldn’t say I understood them fully but knew those words to be true and I wanted to live their truth.

So I dripped wax on the page, to mark it.


I left my mark in wax — as if I could make these words my secret, as if sealing a letter with wax. A letter, but to whom? To Nietzsche? More likely to myself, promising I would return.

It was just the first, not the last time that the beauty, the passion, the madness and the truth of Nietzsche’s writing in Zarathustra struck me, stopped me in my tracks, overcame me. But I believe it was at that moment that I began to tell a new story about myself and about the world, or at least it was one of the first times I understood that I might have a story to tell. I was 17 years old.

Now, I have little claim on Nietzsche. I am not a professional philosopher and I am not a Nietzsche scholar by any stretch of the imagination. I once wrote a few words about Untimely Meditations in a review of a book by Bernard Williams; and when, in the 90s, I included Nietzsche in my Western Civilization courses I usually taught The Birth of Tragedy or The Genealogy of Morals. But curiously enough, I never taught Zarathustra or wrote about Zarathustra, which of all Nietzsche’s writings has arguably — no, undeniably — had the strongest claim on my life and my imagination. The book has done its quiet, subtle work in my life for nearly thirty five years.

“The dew,” Nietzsche writes, “falls upon the grass when the night is most silent.”

The dream worm

I had a strange dream last night. Or was it a dream? To call it merely a dream doesn’t account for the sneezing fit it brought on. Or the sneezing fit that brought it on. I am still not sure which is the case.

I saw, and I felt, a tiny wormlike creature fly quickly into my left nostril. It was as if I felt it, and at the same moment in my dream state I created a picture to understand what I felt. But I can’t really say whether my body simulated the experience of my dream or whether my dream accounted for my body’s experience.

A worm flew into my nostril. The flying worm was smaller than the tiniest centipede, the size of a nose hair (which is what I am telling myself this morning it was, a stray nose hair I inhaled).

As I imagined the worm making his way through my sinuses and to my brain I began to sneeze; or as I began to sneeze I imagined the worm making his way through my sinuses and into my brain. In any case, the sneezing fit became so violent that it woke me and got me out of bed, my body leading my spirit out of sleep and trying to purge itself of the dream worm.

I sneezed five, six, seven times. No sign of the worm.

Even this morning I worried that the dream worm is in fact a real worm. Having managed to survive the sneezing typhoon, the tiny creature has lodged itself in my brain, where it will do its work.

The worm has no grand strategy. He is there to do the work worms like him have done for ages, addling the brains of their hosts. He doesn’t do it overnight. And he does not do it alone.

The dream worm burrows deep inside the brain, tunneling his way through the delicate brain tissue, until he has lodged himself inside one of the nooks or cracks or crevices that you see in models and illustrations of the brain. He arrives at his niche fat and sated on tissue. Once situated, the worm enters a period of gestation, as if the brain were a giant soft cocoon, where a worm can wait. And, of course, turn — as worms will.

Being mortal the dream worm eventually will metamorphose: not into a butterfly but into a dream. And by the time this worm becomes the chrysalis of a dream my brain will be teeming with other worms, all waiting to be born into dreams. And by then, I sense, it will be too late for me.