Eugene Thacker


In tall forests dreams silently hang – anomie of every living cadaver. Thick carpets of lichen grow over roots of calcified lava. Towering assemblies of bird, bark, and branching leaves sway in a slight delirium, asking nothing, accepting everything. The stillness of a hand-written note, nailed to a tree.

Everything dissipates into ether and weightless rains. In the submerged quiet kelp-like crystals wordlessly emerge. Seas of indifference.

We have yet to consider the possibility that depression is purely material, maybe even elemental. Cioran: “Left to its own devices, depression would demolish even the fingernails.”

Philosophers are fond of returning to classical culture when they run short of ideas. But the gods of Greek and Roman myth are so showy and shameless, decked-out extroverts forever trying to outdo each other in an eye-rolling pantomime of human drama. We’ve forgotten about the retractable gods.

Somnus, known also by his Greek name Hypnos, is the god of sleep – and not the god of dreams. In English we derive, perhaps ironically, the word “insomnia” from Somnus. Somnus makes a brief appearance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where he is depicted as living in a dark cave, cloaked in a kind of perpetual slumber. Like cats, Somnus is asleep more than he is awake, rendering the terms asleep and awake problematic.

It is Iris, the messenger goddess of light, who makes the journey to the cave of Somnus, which Ovid describes as a “cloud-wrapped palace” where “Sleep has his hearth and his home.” Somnus’ dwelling is shrouded in quiet – no chattering human voices, only the faint, lulling sound of the river Lethe running over the languorous pebbles of the cave floor. On a black couch overlaid with feathers and dusk rests lethargic Somnus, surrounded by a slow-motion whirlwind of mist and haze, which, Ovid tells us, are many phantom dreams, more numerous than leaves in a forest or grains of sand on a beach.

Iris comes to make a request of Somnus – that he fabricate a dream to be conveyed as a message. But Somnus has some trouble waking up, and even when he does wake, he is still half-asleep. Once his task is done, Somnus – all the while saying nothing – simply goes back to sleep. Dreaming is barely worth the trouble.

To assemble a lexicon of futility – why the philosopher is really a librarian, the poet a book-thief.

Even in this tenebrous hall of mosses there are a thousand tiny translucent commentaries, distilled to nothing except eroded archaea and limestone.

Like many of the Surrealist poets of the 1920s, Robert Desnos participated in the séances conducted at André Breton’s apartment on the Rue de Fontaine. The experiments were initially suggested by René Crevel, who had recently attended a Spiritualist séance, and was fascinated by the communication that purportedly took place between the living and the dead, via a spiritual medium. Breton and his co-conspirators decided to adopt this as a technique for producing literary texts, and it was not without a touch of false modesty that Breton, in his first manifesto, would go so far as to describe the Surrealist poets as mere “recording devices” for the beyond.

When the period of the sleeping fits began, it was nothing more than a pretentious parlor game, poets playing with a Ouija board. That was until Desnos showed up. It turned out he was – much to his own surprise – quite gifted at putting himself into a sleep-like trace. He could do it at a moment’s notice, even in the middle of a bustling Parisian café. In this state, he could be questioned and would give strange and surprising replies, sometimes speaking and sometimes writing, sometimes even drawing. When prompted, he would divulge entire fantastical narratives, interweaving elements from myth and popular culture, overlaid with a lyricism that is still unparalleled in the literature of the period. Desnos’ books Mourning for Mourning and Liberty or Love! assemble these texts, which hover in the space between prose and poetry, sense and the senseless: “But what will human beings have to say when confronted by these great mobilizations of the mineral and vegetable worlds, being themselves the unstable plaything of the whirlwind’s farcical games and of the marriage between the lesser elements and the chasms which separate the resounding words?”

The god of sleep and the sleeping poet, both, it seems, drawn to the allure of an unhuman slumber.

From a blurred horizon, quiet black-basalt pools bore into the rocks and our own patiently-withering bones. Slumbering swells of a salt-borne amnesia course through our fibrous limbs. Scorched, wandering brine secretes from every pore.

The Sepulcher a Book. Nietzsche once commented that he could never completely follow Schopenhauer’s pessimism because, in its saying “no” to the world it must eventually negate itself – it is a form of thought that constantly undermines itself. In fact, Schopenhauer was so successful at being this type of pessimist that a reviewer of his last book assumed that Schopenhauer was already dead (he was not – but found the review disappointing nevertheless).

Plankton-fed, sleep-drugged eyes cast down in the direction of the sacred.

“Nothing is more unbearable to a person than to be in a state of repose, without passion, without occupation, without distractions, without purpose. One then feels one’s nothingness, one’s abandon, one’s insufficiency, one’s dependency, one’s powerlessness, one’s emptiness. Straightaway there arises from the soul ennui, depression, sorrow, spite, despair.” In passages like these one senses that Pascal was almost looking forward to it.

On Accedie. Partially-exhausted. Somewhat tired.

We can make a list, a partial list (it will always be partial). There is the Book of Azathoth, the Book of Eibon, the Cthäat Aquadingen, the Cultes des Ghoules, De Masticatione Mortuorum in Tumulis, De Vermis Mysteriis, the Liber Ivonis, the Revelations of Glaaki, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten, the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the Sigsand Manuscripts, the G’harne Fragments, the Poakotic Fragments, and then there is, of course, the Necronomicon.

They are penned by obscure and neglected authors, most of whom have gone mad or mysteriously disappeared. The books themselves are difficult to find; if one is lucky there is a dusty old copy in the Miskatonic University library (though you will most likely find it has mysteriously gone missing). One almost never mentions them casually (e.g., “What are you reading?” “Oh nothing, just the Necronomicon”). When they are mentioned, they are mentioned with ominous ceremony. The dreaded Necronomicon, the unmentionable Book of Eibon, the blasphemous De Vermis Mysteriis.

The idea that a person might be driven mad by a book is fantastical, even absurd – especially today, as physical books themselves seem to be vanishing into an ether of oblique and agglomerating metadata. We are so used to consuming books for the information they contain that we rarely consider the possibility that the books might in turn consume us. Thomas Frognall Dibdin’s The Bibliomania; or, Book-Madness (1809) uses a quasi-medical diagnosis to describe individuals literally consumed by books, obsessed not just with their contents, but with their materiality: “There is, first, a passion for Large Paper Copies; secondly, for Uncut Copies; thirdly, for Illustrated Copies; fourthly, for Unique Copies; fifthly, for Copies printed upon Vellum; sixthly, for First Editions; seventhly, for True Editions; and eighthly, for Books printed in the Black-Letter.”

Holbrook Jackson’s Anatomy of Bibliomania (1930) goes further, tracing that fine line where the love of books (bibliophilia) turns into book madness (bibliomania). And the madness of possessing books turns with great subtlety into the madness of being possessed by books. Jackson even recounts what is no doubt the pinnacle of bibliomania – the “bibliophages,” who are so consumed by their books that they eat them, devoutly incorporating them into their anatomies, effacing all distinction between the literal and the figurative.

Beyond this there is only the “bibliosomniac,” or the book-sleeper. Briefly mentioned in the Commentario Philobiblon, a anonymous commentary on Richard de Bury’s mid-14th century treatise, the book-sleeper is defined as “a special type of monk, one who is asleep like a book [codex],” and who reads books while in a kind of sleep-induced trance – though it is unclear whether or not the book itself is also in a trance.

Arabesque ink from tentacular sleep winds itself around our ovate dreams. We seem to speak only in the imprecise geometries of black volcanic sands. Huge, impossibly regular shapes of rutted charcoal rocks hover above us, as if waiting.

Depression is philosophical only to the extent that it makes philosophy not worth the trouble.

Sadness strangely involves a certain kind of enthusiasm. Chamfort: “There is a melancholy that takes on the grandeur of the spirit.”

A black glow in the deepest sleepwalking seas, invisible like our crystalline joints and our fibrous limbs and as tangible as our tenebrous theaters of doubt.

On Bibliomania. It is striking how many of the works of pessimism are incomplete – Pascal’s Pensées, Leopardi’s Zibaldone, Lichtenberg’s Sudelbücher, Joubert’s Carnets, the stray fragments of Kafka, Klíma, Pessoa, Walser...These are not just works that the author was unable to complete, cut short by illness, depression, or distraction. These are works designed for incompletion – their very existence renders them dubious. I like to think that this is why such works were so precious to their authors – but also so insignificant, a drawer of paper scraps, in no particular order, abandoned at one’s death, like one’s own corpse. Still, even an incomplete work can be finished.

The luminous point where logic becomes contemplation. Lost in thought. Adrift in deep space. Dreamless sleep.

An inverse relation between acquiring a book and reading it.

A sigh is the final stage of lyricism.

“I leaf through books, I do not study them” (Montaigne).

Among the hundreds of pages that comprise the Anatomy of Melancholy, Burton provides this, his shortest and most concise definition: “Melancholy is the character of mortality.” He also adds that melancholy is a chronic condition.

Someone who becomes sad every time they realize the world turns round.

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EUGENE THACKER is the author of several books, including In The Dust of This Planet and After Life. He teaches at The New School in New York City.