“I came to Michel Leiris not through the ‘conventional’ trajectory—say, through his automatic writing of the surrealist revolution, his engagements with psychoanalysis, or his reinvention of anthropology—but through something like black studies. In 2017, one of my teachers, Brent Hayes Edwards, published his translation of Leiris’s Phantom Africa, a document that is at once French colonial anthropology and transgressive diary. How you come to something changes the object. In The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat, a collection of fragments recently published by Semiotext(e), Leiris comes to Édouard Manet’s Olympia as I might come to Laure, Manet’s black model: subsumed by the romance of the everyday.” —Tiana Reid
What circus isn’t the most beautiful thing in the world—the world and its beauty shown in all its beauty?
The circus—where misfortune, if it exists, is not on the bill—offers a glorious vision of the world: the triumph of man over animals and over his own body, which scoffs at constraints like gravity while intelligence, which makes him king of the creation, knows how to thwart causality, as the illusionist’s thaumaturgy proves.
Animals who have been taught clever tricks (monkeys, dogs, seals), others who have been tamed (elephants on parade, the trunk of one gently holding the tail of another and deftly maneuvering masses that seem freshly detached from the telluric crust, spirited horses who are nevertheless obedient, decorated, braided, and so tightly bridled that their mouths almost touch their chests), others still who are dominated either gently or by force behind quickly arranged metal grates (lions, tigers, and less imposing but equally dangerous beasts who have been reduced, barring accident, to innocuousness).
All the marvels of the world—or those that can be assembled—enclosed in a circular space with a narrow perimeter. Harmony, accord, a “concert” of nations that reunite to fly their flags and celebrate one another. The human comedy, illustrated in debonair fashion by foolish Auguste, who makes a mockery of the shrewd, brilliant clown. The promises of evolution kept by those who walk or ride the unicycle upside down, improving upon the upright position that followed walking on all fours so many moons ago. The thrilling promotions of the small circuses of yesteryear: the usherette who turns out to be an equilibrist and the cashier a serpent charmer.
On sawdust or brush carpet, the sublime art is in the rendezvous itself: In poses like those the men of bronze took (a race of carnies with metallic skin which, I think, is now extinct), marmoreal beings sing a hymn to the splendor of the unique structure of our species.
Fun for everyone (adults as much as children), the circus—rich or poor—is also a beautiful lesson, since the modest or sumptuous range of its beauties makes visible, even to those who will never believe in terrestrial paradise, how beautiful it is to live in the world.
Toward the end of the summer of 1957, at the Champ-de-Mars in Florence, a stratospheric grand finale crowned Circus Togni’s performance: Emerging from a perfume vaporizer, fluffy clouds of steam covered the entire ring, under the starry sky that the roof of the canvas tent had become through a play of luminous projections. Girls, clowns, dwarves, all of the artists were there, including a trio (a woman and two men as scantily clad as ancient statues) who minutes earlier, at the center of a circle of water jets, had imitated figures from a Bernini-style fountain.
Ten years later, near the Hilton hotel in Berlin, the entrance of the Sarrasani circus seemed, at night, as if it were at the end of a long avenue bordered by a double bank of electric lamps: a trompe l’oeil owing to a perspectival effect created by converging lines of lamps focused on a huge panel behind the doorway, an immeasurable, dreamlike correspondence.
Oversensitive to pain, if it’s not sybaritic, and distressed by medical exams focusing on organs located below the waist that involve the insertion of a tubular instrument into the antrum or narrow pass to be explored, I demanded—braving the taunts of the doctor who had prescribed the tests that the vesicle trouble I was suffering from required—full anesthesia, even though a local anesthetic is common practice in such a case. In my defense, I will say that another practitioner, our family doctor, who considered the thing to be quite painful from personal experience, encouraged me to make this demand, insisting on it all the more because, unlike his colleague, he knew me well!
Rather than being knocked unconscious by the injection as soon as it was given to me, I felt myself—contrary to my expectations—slide gradually into unconsciousness, which surprised me a little afterward. When I woke up, while coming out of the blank spell caused by the anesthetic, a strange feeling came over me that didn’t disappear right away and that I shared in confidence with the family doctor, who was kind enough to escort me, and then again with both him and my wife in the room where I am now, the little room I’m staying in at the Victor-Massé clinic near Pigalle and the clubs I used to frequent in the days when, as a single man, I used to roam the streets at night: My head was spinning terribly and I had an abominable case of cotton mouth.
After several minutes of gradually coming to my senses, I realized what was actually going on: I wasn’t drunk at all but under the effect, not yet entirely dissipated, of the anesthetic, and I was mistakenly under the impression that I had attended a wild party during which I drank so much that I had passed out.
When I returned to myself completely, I thought I could trace this illusion back to its probable source. Hadn’t I noticed the lighting fixture in the operating room’s large disc literally plastered with electric projectors aimed at my body laid out underneath? So it must have been this strong light coming from above, and the fact of being surrounded by various people gathered together as if for an anatomy lesson (my usual doctor, his fellow surgeon who conducted the operation, the anesthesiologist, and a nurse) that caused me to imagine—in a kind of very brief dream—that, drunk as a skunk, I was at the center of a crowd in a room as brightly lit as the expression a giorno suggests, a boisterous celebration supervised by a chandelier.
Could we hope to be blessed with such a vision at the moment of death? That’s the ending—a dubious but rather assuring one—that I gave, the day for this sort of adventure reduced to a flash that didn’t even, strictly speaking, qualify as a scene, to the account I had managed to make of it. Today, seven years have passed, and a memory returns to me: the other doctor, the one who considered full anesthesia excessive, and tried to encourage me by telling me about a patient of his who had recently endured the ordeal himself and considered it very manageable, crudely adding that obviously it was nothing like “spending the night with a dancer.” Combined with what was perhaps a bit of shame about having shown myself to be overly pusillanimous, had this idea of a sexcapade with a ballerina hovered over me when, emerging from a sleep that, while it anesthetized me, certainly didn’t submerge me in complete darkness, I created a memory of scandalous drunkenness in the brouhaha of a party under a chandelier worthy of an opera cupola?