:: Article

Geometry in the Dust by Pierre Senges: An Excerpt

By Pierre Senges.

Pierre Senges, Geometry in the Dust, translated by Jacob Siefring, with illustrations by Killoffer (Inside the Castle, 2019)


It seems (a rumor): the insomniacs are the only ones to truly know the city, the only ones who possess its secret, surrendering or hushing it according to their humor (a science so profound and specialized — it appears — that even when they say nothing, resorting to the law of silence, the insomniacs still deliver a little bit of their wisdom, simply by virtue of existing and making gestures of denial) — the insomniacs and no one else: because by sleeping with their windows open they are able to take the exact measure of the city, if they perk up their ears and know how to convert that din into straight lines or deduce geometric forms from the disposition of shouts around their bed? because, by staying awake, by conking their heads on the ceiling, by pinning the adjective white to all that surrounds them, the walls and the hours, they cannot but reflect, and own over the course of the night arbitrarily divided into equal parts that they are gradually consecrating the better part of their consciousness to an algebra that is ever the more strict, and a logic ever the more exiguous, even if they otherwise do not hesitate to decline old phantasms such as succubi and black butterflies?


A precise geometry combined with the flight of the bat and the likewise waking sleep of the Maja desnuda would permit them, it seems, to know the city better than anyone: and if they don’t know it, then they reconstruct it.


because they rest their elbows upon their windowsills and eventually see all the city has to offer pass by right underneath their noses? because they have naught else to do other than grasp at the passing minutes, measure out the passing seconds, and, once they have become masters of duration without having bothered to define time, they become masters of space, wiser to the city’s spaces than its architects? because they get out of bed, light a lamp, select a book, abandon it, return to their bed, get out of bed again (where it all starts over), and because in these books, opened at random but seldom read, resides the secret of the city (unless they find it more surely in the alternations of darkness and daylight, of supine and standing postures)? because they observe from their beds or from their armchairs other insomniacs (miniatures, tiny fireflies, silhouettes, Chinese shadows), so extraordinary that the entire city would forgo sleep in the hopes of catching a glimpse? because they capture cats or run after them, chase them down somehow or other?


The figures of Aretino? the combinatorial arts brought up to date by lovers of Persian miniatures and by the translators of Vātsyāyana? don’t believe that: in the city there exist more ways to sleep alone, alas, than there exist erotic postures.


because, having grown tired of fluffing their pillows, they eventually go out to become elements in the landscape themselves?

Did the insomniacs teach you nothing? you’ve never even come across one? by shaking them you were unable, in spite of all your efforts, to extract them from that sleep beyond all measure that steals over them when their insomnia ebbs away at last? were you surprised by the comas into which insomniacs fall in order to escape their insomnias? If so, then go and see the calligraphers: they alone will be able to tell you about the city; their brushes underscore its features and they walk repetitively up and down the same streets in order to complete their writing exercises, or simply to get from one place to the next as rapidly as possible — that is what a few good souls told me, people of sound counsel, wrong one out of two times. They convinced me, I must admit: what


When it comes to letters, whether on stone or on paper, we are all more or less the descendants of Abu Ali ibn Muqla, who brought all writing into this world from a single diamond-shaped point. That calligraphy can be used to describe the city is a fact Abu Ali himself would not have denied: not dissimilarly, al-Zariji used to compare his master, with pen in hand, to a bee building alveoli.


I know of calligraphy, its way of welcoming meaning along with form, of not contemning ornament, but on the contrary embracing it in the full knowledge that a signification will follow sooner or later, from near or from far, to the best of its ability, its way of being mannerist while simultaneously giving an impression of rigor, of preaching modesty while inventing the majuscule — what I know of calligraphy, our own in any case, accords with my idea of the city, as I am only recently beginning to understand it. For, in the public squares, certain oddballs sometimes attempt to superimpose the plan of their neighborhood upon the Hebrew tetragram, or the ninety-nine names of Allah, and then the hundredth, which is the Great Name, the al-ismul-a’zam (all in vain, of course). So I went to see the calligraphers: but much to my surprise, instead of having to wend my way on tiptoe between the desks of scribes while taking care to avoid any ink splashes (because I recall that the Tohu and the Bohu, yet another description of the city, are, according to the Zohar, the ink residues adhering to the tip of a stylus): instead of weaving like a cat between the tables of copyists, I found myself running after young athletes, who have breath sufficient for the four hundred meters, sprinter’s shoes, and paint upon their forearms. I believe I saw on the walls, as I ran, some calligraphies fairly similar to those of our masters of Baghdad or Persia; however, in order to share in the knowledge of the city which calligraphers gain by decorating it, I would have had to catch them, if not as they ran away from me, then on their way back: but this was not meant to be.

I ran after the calligraphers (instead of a peaceful retreat in the writing rooms, walks in the open air, nocturnal capers, torch in hand): I saw them from afar making their upstrokes and downstrokes — sometimes interrupted brusquely by a succession of whistles, or illuminated then darkened lights. Going over their works later, done on vast panels exposed to the sky (the next morning, in broad daylight), I believe I recognized certain traits that are familiar to us, to you and I, we sons of the sand; I believe I recognized the Kufic style of our ancestors, and to be precise the square Kufic style, or the other, more supple style, known as oriental Kufic. I recognized, hastily painted from the bottom to the top of a wall, the writing called jeli diwan, which came to us from the Ottoman empire; and, without wanting to show off my peasant science, but rather to entrust some simple impressions to you, out of friendship, or to keep you company, I will tell you also that on these walls, here and there, I recognized the heavy black stains of the thick maghrebi style, I recognized the tomar script with its straight, hieratic lines, and the riga script, which resembles the sonkhi script with the curls filled in — and also the toloth script (I think), which demands passion and finesse in equal measure. If you find these references tiresome and you wish to escape to somewhere far away from your desert, far from these arabesques, I can inform you that the influence of Ike no Taiga, of Koetsu, and of a few others can also be felt in these streets: during my walks I came across the zhuanshu style used by the Zhous and the li-shu style used by the Hans, and I think I even sometimes spotted the austere, steady markings of Ouyang Xun, on a car door, traced in cock-of-the-rock orange. (Somewhere else, in a chrome hue, the style of the Fleming Jan van de Velde; elsewhere, in a beige tone, the curlicues of Joseph de Casanova; somewhere else, in jet black, the bastard Gothic style; and, to its right, in the same shade, the style called cancellaresca.


Pierre Senges is the author of fourteen books and over seventy plays for radio. His books available in English translation include Fragments of Lichtenberg (Dalkey Archive, 2017), The Major Refutation (Contra Mundum, 2016), The Adventures of Percival: A Phylogenetic Tale (Dis Voir, 2009), and most recently, Geometry in the Dust (Inside the Castle, 2019)Recent works not yet available in English translation include Cendres des hommes et des bulletins (Le Tripode, 2016) and Achab (séquelles)(Verticales, 2015).

Jacob Siefring is a translator and scholar. His book-length translations include The Major Refutation and Geometry in the Dust. His short translations have been featured in BOMB Magazine, Gorse Journal, The White Review, Hotel, and Music & Literature.

Patrice Killoffer, better known simply as Killoffer, is a writer and graphic artist. He was co-founder of the independent comics publisher L’Associationin 1990, and has been a part of the Oubapo group since its creation in ‘92.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 4th, 2019.