January 22, 1905 [Le Diable noir/The Black Imp]

When I was a boy I suffered from an illness, the exact nature of which escapes me. But I must have had some sort of fever, for what I remember most was lying in my bed, an insurmountable lethargy forcing me into immobility. I want to write that it felt as though a great soft weight pressed upon me while I slept—invisible, but as real as any brick of lead. But perhaps all I'm remembering is Wilkie Collins' story, "A Terribly Strange Bed," and confusing its remarkable details with my actual experience—and what a wonderful confluence that is, the imaginary and the real filtered through memory and emerging reinvented as autobiography—or better yet, the impression of autobiography, a re-imagined past whose details fade but whose impact is as real today as, well, as it may be un-real.

Collins' narrator relates a "terribly strange" occurrence while a young man in Paris. Bored with fashionable gambling houses, he insists upon visiting a place "'where we can see a little genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken gaming with no false gingerbread glitter thrown over it all.'" He and his friend find such a house, but the narrator gets more than he bargained for:
We had come to see blackguards; but these men were something worse. There is a comic side, more or less appreciable, in all blackguardism—here there was nothing but tragedy—mute, weird tragedy. The quiet in the room was horrible. The thin, haggard, long-haired young man, whose sunken eyes fiercely watched the turning up of the cards, never spoke; the flabby, fat-faced, pimply player, who pricked his piece of pasteboard perseveringly, to register how often black won, and how often red—never spoke; the dirty, wrinkled old man, with the vulture eyes and the darned great-coat, who had lost his last sou, and still looked on desperately, after he could play no longer—never spoke. Even the voice of the croupier sounded as if it were strangely dulled and thickened in the atmosphere of the room. I had entered the place to laugh, but the spectacle before me was something to weep over.

What a pleasure it is to copy out a Collins description.

The climax of the story occurs when the young man, drunk and laden with gambling winnings, succumbs to the advice that he stay at the house and sleep in one of the rooms. He stumbles into bed (after having secured the room), but at first cannot sleep, "in a high fever" that causes him to toss and turn. Eventually, though, he calms down, his thoughts wandering. In a dreamy, heavy state, he notices something—I will write it out once more—"terribly strange":
... that the bed-top [of the four-poster bed] was really moving, was steadily and continuously sinking down upon me, [and] I looked up shuddering, helpless, panic-stricken, beneath the hideous machinery for murder, which was advancing closer and closer to suffocate me where I lay.

I looked up, motionless, speechless, breathless. The candle, fully spent, went out; but the moonlight still brightened the room. Down and down, without pausing and without sounding, came the bed-top, and still my panic-terror seemed to bind me faster and faster to the mattress on which I lay—down and down it sank, till the dusty odour from the lining of the canopy came stealing into my nostrils.
So. Was my own fever-dream of a suffocating weight imagined? Has my actual childhood illness mingled with Collins' Gothic little story? Again, some urge toward—how can I put it? "Universality of Expression"? or something else: "Eradication of Individuation?" They sound either too theological or too psychological. Perhaps more of the second; but maybe it's just my wish to lightly smudge the past, smear the line between my own experiences and those of the various artworks I have encountered in story and song, on canvas and in stone—and now running along the surface of celluloid, image after image, each in succession all but identical to the previous, but each moving on, like strung beads of time. And I'm seeing myself more and more in the reflection of those beads, like eyes—my eyes, but different as each moment passes.

And so I come to The Black Imp, another pell-mell giddy plunge from Georges Méliès. A hotel room contains an imp, one of Méliès' leotard-clad tumblers, vexed by the entrance of a guest, a Personage of Importance. Typical bed(room)lam (ho-ho) ensues, as the imp drives the Personage to apoplexy—and the room to ruins. The innkeeper returns, blaming the Personage for all damages, who exits, leaving the imp triumphant.

True, merely a comic-melée version of Collins'—or my?—menacing nocturne. But watching Méliès' indomitable imp allowed me to add another layer of instant memory to the only autobiography I seem to cherish, the one that I invent—with infinite assistance by everything else—more real than recollection. I suppose this is why even my diary avoids the minutiae of my life; it seems I'd rather record something other than myself—while indulging that self to caper among the drawers and corners, the imp disclosed.


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