No sleep till Brooklyn, I chanted all summer, racing against the night, elbow and index finger at right angles to the page, the arithmetic of the numbers on the top corners of Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ teasing me as they ascended, stopped, and started again with each volume. In shedding notions of linear or real-time, and therefore morality, I was forced to exist outside—the landscape, the book, myself, you.
The last volume is called Time Regained, arrived at after, of course, significant hours of your life have been spent. With this paradoxical circularity and dark circles around my eyes, I returned to Brooklyn, a city that belonged to me in a younger, more foolish avatar, and, as if to recreate—or continue—that exhausting sensation of being a-part, of recognizing The Great Disjunction between signs and the signified, I took a fellow Proustian insomniac to Sleep No More.
I arrived too early, he too late. I received a six of diamonds, he a seven of spades. He drank scotch, I, gin. He was listening to the piano, I to the bass. There were already storeys of separation between us.
We wore our masks, and for a moment, were all the same. Suddenly, that big gaping space closed. But I didn’t see him till we were back at the bar, when he took off his mask and said, 'My nose hurts.'
Matthew Oaks (center) with audience members; ©Yaniv Schulman.
Meanwhile, I flailed through darkness and found myself in a meandering installation of useless things, a set for ontology, rooms stacked high with paper, books, photographs, carpets and clocks, beds and pillows, and bathtubs, sand, brick, statues, torn pages and swiveling mobiles, clothes hung to dry, steel desks and wooden desks, mirrors, idols, sofas, toys, animals, altars, cutlery, lipstick, stones, sheets, trees; a dark wonderland of riddles, metaphors and philosophical quandaries stacked and embedded in nooks and crannies and crammed into dead ravens and tea cups, semiotics stuffed into salt-shakers.
After unknown seconds, I reached a maze made of twigs, dimly lit in blue, my eyes dilated, legs tracing the letter H, parallel to where I had been, perpendicular to embrace the gulf between then and now. Carving the first initial of my own name was the caveat for my own ego: this experience would be mine alone, this story, hence, is written through what I saw and how I hurt.
At the end of the labyrinth was a circular hut. Through a window left listlessly ajar, a young woman, unmasked, in an apron, was visible, but only partly, in fragments. I made her up, the starter to the idea that we can never really see people whole, that it is always through multiple layers of lenses that we view them.
I stood and waited for something to happen, a safe rule to keep in mind in general. She opened the door, pulled me into the hut and held me close to her. Around the hut, hung cut-out letters: the H stands out. She took off my mask, poured me a cup of tea, and fed it to me with a spoon. She held me again, all the while whispering into my ear. The story she told was, I deluded myself, a story told solely to me, portending some magical catastrophe. About a little girl, flying to the stars, but the stars were dead. About a little girl, rowing a boat, but the stream was dry. She cried. Or so my memory distorted her words so that I heard only her—my—nostalgia for the wonder and awe of lost childhood. Her words rang straight from my ears to my heart, as if meandering away from the instinctual brain that rationalizes, like the labyrinth that had brought me there in the first place.
She kissed me, put my mask back on and let me go. I stood outside, scaleless, pining for her again. Can you act such intimacy? Who was she, unblemished angel in white? How could she repeat this for another? I was struck, simultaneously, my anonymity and my sense of self. I felt giant, the universe miniscule. The tiny hut seemed to contain the whole world. And just like Proust’s Madeleine, this slight touch hyperbolized into love. I still think of her sometimes. Break.
I wandered lost, in inertia, downstairs. A woman in a maid’s dress danced aimlessly, with intention, through the corridors, kissed a mirror, then stood back in front of a statue of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and spat at it.
(l-r) Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth and Sophie Bortolussi as Lady Macbeth with audience member; © Yaniv Schulman
In the first volume, Swann’s Way, Proust, in the wake of the Marquis de Sade, writes an elaborate episode of sadism, in which the daughter of a great composer, Monsieur Vinteuil, spits on the photographic image of her father, in order to please her female lover. The spit dribbles down the Christ eye. Sleepless, or on the verge of death, this scene foreshadowed the deliverance of morality to projections and the breakdown of the classics: religion, literature, the arts, science, even mathematics. You are forced to choose your own adventure, and any combination is right, every scene, seen by you equates to a form of love.
I walked up the stairs, unaware now of what floor or which map I was on. I found an old medical book open to the page of the ‘cross'. It instructed the reader on how the ‘x’, signified breakage. The cross, on the face, is also the nose. The nose is the instrument through which we smell our suspicions, the lies we tell, the part of the body—in Proust’s anti-Semitic world at least—that depicts identity and ideology, but not quite. Break.
Twenty-seven ticking clocks in the room had, by then, been draped over. You could hear them ticking, but there is no time. Break.
I stepped into a room full of raw wooden crates. Stacked and piled, box over box. A big ‘H’ was typed on one of them, as if this game of chance and probability needed farther elucidation, an actor sat at a desk, shuffling a stack of cards.
Tired, I leaned back against a column, watching him. He stared back at me. He offered me the stack of cards, I don’t want to fall in love again. I didn’t flinch. He furrowed his brow, staring at me. The masked audience around me watched me. They looked the same. I reached out. He dropped the cards. They fall to the floor. A six of diamonds reminded me of a seven of spades, somewhere else. He thrust his body against mine, and whispered, ‘I want to show you something.’ He held my waist, and walked me through the boxes, and down what might have been one or ten flights of stairs. Masked intruders followed.
Hundreds stood watching the final scene in which an actor hangs himself. My actor, as Moses, parted the audience, holding me. We stood inches before the decisive moment. We waited, the rope was pulled, I shivered, he gripped my waist tight. The show over, he led me through to the familiar bar. He lifted my mask and kissed me. Smiling, I whispered, thank you, he lifted his finger to quiet me, but the words had already slipped, the spell of disbelief broken. Break.
My friend came to me as I ordered a gin, as if nothing had happened, he ordered a scotch, took off his mask and said, 'My nose hurts.' I wanted to say, it's probably broken. I was. Stripped of an ego by my own ego, I was, am not, and might be.
—Himali Singh Soin
(Image on top: (l-r) Nicholas Bruder and Sophie Bortolussi with audience members; © Robin Roemer Photography.)