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In bed but awake. Only that which never sleeps can be traced. The tracks do not stop until you fall asleep. The hypnagogic trace, the trace that erases all doubt through its impossible relationship with both waking and sleep. The long-drawn-out potential of falling asleep: a lingering wakefulness that ultimately still fails. Rather than nod off, you want to remain in the transition between these stages, in the liminal passage. For a mystic like Swedenborg the gap between sleep and waking was a state that conferred an increased receptivity to the intuitions of divine revelation. Within the framework of his astral correspondences he strove to induce this state himself.[1]Through hypnagogic visions, which is what we would call some of these experiences today, we believe we are perceiving obscure figures, shapes, patterns, voices, images. These visions do not come right away, they wait for us on the threshold, we are led into them. In the middle of the 19th century, a French dream researcher suggested that such visual experiences were entoptic, that is to say, they originated in the eye itself: in arterial debris and turbidity floating around in the eye’s vitreous humour.[2] This hypothesis possibly explains why thinkers such as Bergson and Freud to some extent overlooked the borderline terrain of falling asleep in favour of the world of dreams. In an undated note Walter Benjamin observes that “every image is a sleep in itself”[3]. Benjamin’s interweaving of the image and subconscious is reminiscent of Freud’s characterization of the state into which the analysand would ideally be put:

What is in question, evidently, is the establishment of a psychical state which, in its distribution of psychical energy (that is, of mobile attention), bears some analogy to the state before falling asleep – and no doubt also to hypnosis. As we fall asleep, ‘involuntary ideas’ emerge, owing to the relaxation of a certain deliberate (and no doubt also critical) activity which we allow to influence the course of our ideas while we are awake. […] As the involuntary ideas emerge they change into visual and acoustic images.[4]

The hypnagogic state takes place in the cleft between the conscious and the unconscious. It is an aesthetic topos that emanates from surrealism.[5]The experience that made me aware of the hypnotic effect of the condition was a military exercise in falling asleep. The exercise involves visualizing an inner space while obediently repeating the phrase:

Don’t think.

Don’t think.

Don’t think.

(The command is, of course, absurd, its negative mantra usually has the opposite effect on thinking.) Nonetheless, the place gradually transitions into another type of spatiality, one that we cannot defend ourselves against, and whose presence can be characterized specifically as hypnagogic. The place marks the transition between wakefulness and sleep. One thing that stands out as a perfect equivalent to this place is Kohei Yoshiyuki’s series of photographs The Park/公園 (1971-73). It is not so much a physical location as a point in time: the park happens. It is when we are there that constitutes “there”. It is impossible to say how long we are there (it could be a matter of minutes or even of years). It is terribly early: a lustrous stupor. We have been left standing or lying somewhere in the dark. We have forgotten everything else. Daily newspapers lie open on the morning grass like improvised picnic cloths. Handbags, half-smoked cigarettes, carelessly arranged shoes and sandals. An opened umbrella serves as a parasol. The flash casts a shimmer of summer heat over everything: a colourless radiance, which at some points lights up the park, not so that anyone will be woken up, but so that we will remain half-asleep. Clothes become ivory white in this light. Plants white or pearl grey, leaf shadows dissolve before tautening again, into sharp, black shadows.


Flashes of being that glanced off me, kindling me. Lightning-like bursts that came to me: Look! I blazed up. And the sign withdrew. Vanished.[6]

What language does this park speak? From where does it speak? From the park’s interior, an unchanging, faintly echoing noise is heard. The rustling sound of feet that now and then change position. Drowsy touches, no scripted lines. The official topography of the city park frames the place as a realm of leisure, an urban landscape of fabricated wilderness: carefully elaborated environments of artificial nature. The park also has an unofficial, “invisible” topography: the intricate grid of hidden paths trodden by park visitors seeking contact with others, leaving their tracks under the foliage, in bushes and thickets, between leaves and branches, on park benches and against tree trunks. Such is the landscape in the works of Yoshiyuki and Matts Leiderstam. Extras in scattered constellations, an undefined number: arm to back, back to back, arm in arm, vigilant like the van Eyck brothers’ angels; not too close, not too far apart. Some are turned to face someone outside the picture. They stand like statues, petrified while orbs and dust particles slowly settle over them.

The look incited me and also forbade me to enter; I was outside, in a state of animal watchfulness. A desire was seeking its home. I was that desire. I was the question.[7]

Who is narrating the space? Whose is the night? It is the night of the body, the night of the sign. The reduction of the picture space to being the sign of alien bodies, language in the bodies, in the disposition of bodies, that is, in their location, how they bind themselves to the surface of the substrate, how tightly bound they are; how their faces stand written, how their gazes write themselves out of the place. We are in the place where the bodies are, and at the same time somewhere else. We stand in the place and look in at it. We stand outside the place and look out from it. It is enough, for gaze is action in this night. We move in the direction of the people. They are not there. Who were these people? Where are they now? Are they still there? We answer (or think) something about the park lights being turned off, its indeterminate darkness from which they would never get out,

as if it were understood that even if the light were to fade away, the things it had illuminated would not disappear, what it had fallen on would stay, not cease to be here, to glow, to offer itself up to the act of naming again.[8]

The light names things. It names that at which all of the picture’s eyes are directed. It is also the light of the eyes, the light from before we existed, so bright that it is impossible to see it. The light illuminates a place where we have not been for a long time. At the same time, we seem to recognize every single event, if not every single face. We see ourself (in others). It is, of course, pointless to compare ourselves with other people, objects, trees, with what we are not. We are not them. We are not theirs. We are not where they are. They are not inside us, but in front of us. They show themselves. Through them it reveals itself. When we sleep it is no longer there. It is awake then. Is this what it means to live an event as an image?

To live an event as an image is not to see an image of this event, nor is it to attribute to the event the gratuitous character of the imaginary. The event really takes place – and yet does it ‘really’ take place? The occurrence commands us, as we would command the image. That is, it releases us, from it and from ourselves.[9]

We have finally got the right not to greet the people we know. If we are greeted it is by the image itself: a ghostly embrace. Living an event as an image has something to do with nearness and forgetting. The event lives in us. It come to be in us as a forgotten, but still possible closeness. Some part of us is still there in it. The image’s subversive tenderness: something soft, not marble. We think of it in terms of visibility. The image is now visible, but at the cost of its own invisibility. The invisible has to be covered up or forgotten. Shyness or forgetfulness in the unseen, in what the image appears as/flees from. The image does not depict an event. It constitutes the event itself, the place where that event lives and is made possible. The hypnagogic state is an intermediary state, an attempt at a move to dissolve the boundary between event and image. If the event is what is there in the background and the image is what is there in the foreground that hierarchy ends up in ruins. It is a collapse that does not permit itself to be talked about, but which we can speak to. ︎

[1] See Emanuel Swedenborg, Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams, 1743-1744 (London: Swedenborg Scientific Association/Swedenborg Society, 1989). For an overview of Swedenborg’s hypnagogic experiences, see Lex Lonehood Nover, Nightmareland: Travels at the Borders of Sleep, Dreams, and Wakefulness (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2019), 152-154.

[2] The researcher in question is Alfred Maury, see Larry Sommer McGrath, Making Spirit Matter: Neurology, Psychology, and Selfhood in Modern France (University of Chicago Press, 2020), 127.

[3] Walter Benjamin, On Hashish (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 98.

[4] Sigmund, Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1976), 102.

[5] For a review of the surrealists’ hypnagogic and dream-based aspirations, see Lynn Gamwell (ed.), Dreams 1900-2000: Science, Art, and the Unconscious Mind (New York: Cornell University Press).

[6] Hélène Cixous, Coming to Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 7.

[7] Hélène Cixous, Coming to Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 8.

[8] Hélène Cixous, Coming to Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 8.

[9] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 48.