Portfolio • Dorothea Tanning
Translated from the French by Tess Scriptunas and Pamela S. Johnson
Regard now this woman who, voluntarily, fanned that flame. Look at her carefully, because she knows that the glow is red, not blue. Red means danger, also blood and love and utterances which are not yet borrowed. It means that one has gone too far to turn back. How it trembles now, the little black hole in the telescope, how it trembles and dilates with its heavy revelation!
Last night there was to be a festival in the village square. From this chamber window I watched them down there, putting the final touches on their preparations—mostly colored lanterns, paper flags and streamers. I trembled in the hot humid air, a heavy pain contracted my heart and I ran to bed, drew the curtains tightly together and crept back to lie motionless among the pillows. I am afraid of people in crowds and the sounds they make, I am afraid, too, of unforeseen events, cats, acts of violence, sickness, steep hills, the power of the unknown and my own potential. All unsurprising fears. Yes, they were outdoing themselves down there, babbling like monkeys, shouting, bursting themselves over their colored paper plans. Then I heard a low sullen rumble of thunder settle the voices like dust, and ten minutes later it began to rain. A good rain, that began as light as whispers. Then the whispers increased and became a torrent. No celebration! I could have cried from happiness. The voices dispersed, swept away. The crowds would not come now. Again at the window, I saw the square deserted in the wet light. The colored streamers blew foolishly forlornly in the wind and dragged in the mud.
It is true I am afraid of these things and many others—collisions, immobilities, histrionics, cancer, aberrations. But, in spite of all this, I am impelled by some curious force to open every door, to enter every cave, to seek among the white birches of dead forests, to wait on the spongy earth of ruined brier-ridden parks, to lie down in abandoned houses.... That is how I came to be here. The owners have been in Italy since the war, there is no caretaker and I found a little door from the garden. No one sees me when I climb the stairs at night and stretch out on the unmade and fragrant bed. And something has happened since I began to sleep here.
Oh woman of vanquished complacencies, oh dread woman of the eternal spiral, do you remember the hiding place of the key of the door of the tunnel of the unspeakable place? Always there is the shrill starched cry, the haunted bird, the smoking escape making signs on the wind. But the bird still grazes the water in his flight, and I wait with a certain defiance.
Have you ever dreamed of flying? I have had this dream often, especially between the age of eighteen and twenty-five, of simply holding out my arms, taking a deep breath and floating skywards. I cultivated this dream, yet I could not induce it. It came always at the most unexpected times, and in the last few years it has rarely come at all.
Two weeks ago, on the night of September third, I dreamed again that I flew. It was the same dream as before. It involved the same effort of will, the same sense of special purpose. But this time there was a unique and elegant detail. I found, abandoned under a pile of flat stones in a shadowy glade, a sort of harness made from bands of cloth knotted together. It was dark red and very beautiful. I was fascinated by the intricacy of its design and after satisfying myself of its proper position, I quickly put it on. It was immediately clear to me that it was a sort of flying gear, for without even raising my arms or making any effort, I rose into the air and floated easily there.
Nothing else important remains of the dream. It was disconnected and irrelevant as dreams always are and this is the last mention I shall make of it. Towards dawn I awakened. The bed curtains fluttered slowly in the fragrant night air. As I lay there, staring into the darkness, I felt a strange heaviness on my mind, my pulse pounded with a dull insistent throb and I remembered the flying as one recognizes the chasm into which he is condemned to leap. I knew inescapably and without the smallest doubt how unthinkable it was that I might forget the flying suit, its intricate design and the fact that at that very moment, it was there lying on a chair in the corner of the room, a dark red velvet gown.
This is the time, oh woman. Let me press my brow against the round golden brow of the moon, quaff the magic mist of her seduction, unreel my burning brain in the tangled skein of her nacreous rays, let me forget my name in the frozen rapture of its embrace! Yes, let me know not my name nor the number of my days.
Even I, who had been driving my entire life toward such an experience, hesitated. There was now, about the whole phenomenon, such an air of command and absolute authority that I realized that it no longer mattered in the least how I felt about its continuance. Trance-like, obeying the momentum of what I had begun, I rose heavily from the bed and walked toward the velvet gown. It was covered with dust and smelled of mold. I shook it out several times, then, suddenly feeling an almost childish excitement, I began tearing it feverishly into long narrow strips. In knotting them together, I didn’t feel the least sense of invention because I was only following the indelibly graven image in my mind. It was difficult, my hands trembled violently, and some knots had to be redone several times before the suit was completed. I put it on.
Nothing happened. I looked at my body, and I smiled at the curious and ridiculous figure that was me, standing in the dim sloth of this forgotten room, wearing only some knotted bands of red cloth. Then I noticed a certain light numbness in my feet and at the same time felt myself assuming a forward-leaning position as one takes in swimming. I understood then, with an indescribable feeling of anguish and fearful ecstasy, that I was no longer standing on the floor but that I was moving slowly up in the warm, calm air. I hovered near the ceiling for about five minutes, reaffirming the “presence” of this wonder and I thought with panic of the bottomless, blind and featureless abyss that waited for me. The experience was real, utterly real, and that was fascinating. I sailed over to the window and glided out into the square. The street lamps had just gone out and the faint gray glimmer of dawn outlined the contours of the trees, the walks and the bandstand in the center of the square. I directed myself towards the bandstand, and, arriving there, I clung to the tiny cupola that rose from its roof. How good it was to breathe the air from that little ledge! How light I was! What countless emotions stirred my blood! Trees, houses, everything lay below me in quiet phosphorescence. Tears streamed down my face.
Where are you, keeper of dead-end streets, whose breasts are parted by the wind, whose veiled eyes see the depth of the abyss? We pity you, we who skate hysterically in the labyrinthine ballrooms, oh yes, we pity you with your sickened brain that suffocated under the motionless viscous lake. You brought your face too close to the telescope and you were captured by the wide dark fabulous thoughts of men and women as they lie down in the night.
The day advances quickly now and to my glazed vision are revealed outlines of familiar sights, empty streets, closed shutters, dirty scraps of newspaper that drift over the square, all of the things from which I am now utterly removed. The way of life down there does not concern me anymore. I sway drunkenly against the little tower. And then, drawing me back into this terrible nest, I suddenly hear a human voice. In horror, I look down. Standing just behind the bandstand, his feet well planted on the cobblestones, is a man. He has flaming red hair, and wears blue overalls. A lunchbox dangles in his hand as he waves to me and calls out some indistinct words. I gaze down at him like an idiot, at his lunchbox and his long gesticulating arms. A thousand terror-stricken thoughts crossed my mind. My predicament was obvious. No other human being could have climbed that steep and smooth-sided tower. Nor has anyone in this town ever before seen a young woman dressed like me, in narrow bands of torn and knotted fabric. What am I doing here in this dawn-lit square? I must make a decision at once. There is another figure coming from the same direction as the red-haired man. He is still a block away and cannot see me. Suicide? I could throw myself from the top of the tower and they would be left only with their conjectures. But I do not want to. And without hesitation, I raise my arms, lean forward and leave the tower. Turning towards the opposite side of the square, I take one last glance at the man, at his open mouth, his petrified look. But I am saved. No one else has seen me and, since I am afraid to go home to my abandoned house, I land on a rooftop where I sink exhausted beside the chimney.
Oh all-powerful news vendor shouting your vile trash, let us die in peace next to the chimerical clock. Keep your murderer’s philosophies, this choking poison of eternal recurrence, keep them all, the butterfly wings, the books bound in spider webs, the acres of word-dust lying at the bottom of your brand new purse.
All day I stayed up on the roof, slumped between the projecting cornice and the chimney. My heart pounded with the enormity of my fear and bewilderment. Sounds of voices and activity in the streets came to me as if through delirium, distant and coarse. I did not move. The flying suit seared my flesh, my cramped joints were pierced with sharp pains, but I stayed. Sometimes I slept, a throbbing and fitful sleep. Sometimes I cried. Yet the night finally came and when it lay quiet and black and mysterious over the town, I rose and flew back to the house where it seemed to me that nothing had stopped and everything had begun.
Nearly two weeks have passed since then. My life has been a burning haze of feverish excitement and indescribable anguish. I have asked a thousand unanswerable questions, imagined a thousand questionable eventualities. I have had to reckon with the banality of the world. The very first day I went all the way to a neighboring town and had my brown hair died blond and pulled up into a bun on top of my head. The style is unbecoming to me but it completely changes my appearance. So much the better. When I came back, I told some friends that I had spent two days in town buying materials needed for my work. They complemented me on my new coiffure and seemed content with the explanation. I heard no rumors. If the red-haired man had talked, he was probably laughed down. I counted on that. But the agony in my head got worse. I only dared use my special talent at night. I have flown aimlessly, indifferently, as far as the next town. I have walked on roofs, peeked in windows, crouched in trees with owls. But I have not made any discoveries, nor found a satisfactory explanation. I dread, above all, the inquiries of men, because, if I were discovered, I would be taken, like a wild animal, and studied by the world like a freak. Journalists, scholars—my life would never again belong to me. What should I believe? What are men’s theories if not ridiculous leaky barrels that spout water like fountains? And yet, like the drunk that burns with desire for the next drink even if it gives him no pleasure, I wait for the dark that I may bring out the knotted bands from under the mattress where they are hidden during the day. Last night I flew out in the rain after the collapse of that abominable festival. It did not take much to make me almost perfectly happy. I floated over the town, the rain was cool and sweet on my body and I was soon in open country. How fragrant the fields were under their shower! A big farm lay spread under my gaze, with its great barns, tall trees and a noble white house. I alighted on a corner of the house, crept under the eaves and knelt to look in the window. A little girl was standing near a low table. She had a long white nightgown and with a large wooden spoon was busy hitting the back of her doll’s face. I closed my eyes.
It was while flying back to the city that I decided to write this story. I am weary. My sex is torn from the pressure of dark red velvet, my eyes ache from two weeks of irregular or no sleep and each time I come face to face with a red-haired man I fear he may be the one who knows. I dread this kind of revelation—it would be like death and I don’t want to die. My brain is already half-paralyzed—I can no longer think, I can only ask questions: why was I given this miraculous power? Must I sacrifice myself to human knowledge? Who am I?
Foremen, night-walkers, no judgment of this being whose fault is innocence, whose crime is magic, whose hair lengthens like the wind to lash her desire. Weep for the tears of the unseen creature, gather the ashes hidden by her shadow. Wait for the egg, falling like a comet in the dark sky, this exquisite egg that bursts in your brain.
“Dream It or Leave It” was first published in French translation as “Rêvez-le ou ne le lisez pas,” in 1947 in Les Quatre Vents—a Surrealist literary journal founded after World War II. The story appeared in an issue devoted to “Le Langage Surréaliste” that also featured the writing of Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Antonin Artaud, and Hans Arp, among others.
Written in English, the story was translated into French by Jeannine Lambert; and translated back into English for this portfolio by Tess Scriptunas and Pamela S. Johnson, using drafts found in Tanning’s unpublished Journal 2 and among her papers, now maintained by the Dorothea Tanning Foundation, New York.
Tess Scriptunas’s work has appeared in the Madison Journal of Literary Criticism.
Dorothea Tanning (1910–2012 ) was an artist and writer. Her books include two poetry collections, Coming to That and A Table of Content (both Graywolf); the novel Chasm: A Weekend (Overlook); and the memoirs Between Lives: An Artist and Her World (Norton) and Birthday (Lapis). Her paintings and sculptures are in the collections of the Tate Modern, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, among many others.
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