In his personal choice of the "top 10 overlooked novels" in world literature, John Sutherland gives pride of place to one of the great novels of somnolence, Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov (1859), the tragic-comic story of an apathetic Russian land-owner and his lifelong addiction to bed and sleep. Oblomov's long-suffering friends diagnose him with a case of chronic and ultimately incurable "Oblomovitis," but twenty-first-century readers -- especially those who've had enough of the 24/7 society -- may not be so quick to pathologize the supremely languorous lifestyle of Goncharov's hero.
In today's Guardian magazine the psychologist Richard Wiseman spells out some of the dire consequences of sleep deprivation and offers a series of practical tips for combatting insomnia. His article is accompanied by a series of short essays in which writers reflect on what sleeplessness means to them. In contrast to Wiseman, who regards insomnia as a damaging and potentially dangerous symptom of a "world that rarely sleeps", these insomniac authors are willing to attach some cultural and psychological value to their condition: "insomnia…gave me my career" (David Baddiel); "Insomnia has its upside…A writer or painter must be knocked back by shock or suffering that stuns his or her rational mind and allows access to inspiration" (Chuck Palahniuk); "it's best to think of insomnia as an intriguing plus -- as your brain's hidden bonus track that you can't hear unless you keep life's CD spinning overtime" (Chris Cleave); " I try to think of insomnia as an uninvited personal trainer…a slightly nightmarish visitor who can nevertheless be helpful, if approached with sufficient care and determination" (A.L. Kennedy).
A new article by Siobhan Phillips on the Poetry Foundation website offers a brief, eloquent meditation on the "politics of sleep" in the poetry of Lyn Hejinian, Walt Whitman and Bernadette Mayer. "Our pursuit of sleep is languidly compulsive," she writes, "the desired phenomenon shimmering as it does between object and (inactive) activity."
An eerily life-like state of a half-naked sleepwalker has appeared in the grounds of Wellesley College, Massachusetts, as part of a new exhibition of work by the New York-based artist Tony Matelli. A petition to have the statue removed has already been signed by several hundred students.
The California-based artist, Sioin Queenie Liao, has produced a series of charming images in which her napping baby son Wengenn is positioned against a variety of vivid backdrops created from clothes, stuffed animals and other household materials. Wengenn appears as a trapeze artist, a riverside angler, a shepherd, a TV reporter (quizzing Barack Obama), and in many other guises in these tableaux vivants -- or should that be tableaux dormants? Whatever we want to call them, these images offer a memorable insight not into the dreams of children but into the dreams we dream for them.
“To bedward”: The Phenomenology and Ecology of Bedtime Prayer in the Age of Shakespeare
Julia Reinhard Lupton
The University of California, Irvine
Macbeth does murder sleep, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,
Before he smothers her in their bed, Othello asks Desdemona if she has said her prayers tonight. In Cymbeline, we get to hear Imogen say her bedtime prayers (she also reads some pages from Ovid). In Macbeth, as the hero returns from stabbing the king in his bed, he hears two men wake in the night and exchange a prayer, and finds himself unable to say “Amen.”
Evening prayers of various sorts – some said upon greeting the coming dusk and lighting the night’s first candles, others pronounced upon undressing for bed, and a final group said just before climbing into the sack -- were a key part of bed time rituals in Shakespeare’s England. In these prayers, the specter of dying in one’s sleep looms large, but so do sexual dreams and the entertainment of forbidden thoughts. As Andrew Bishop notes on this site, night prayers ask God “for rest, guarding, and companionship during the lonely hours” (http://www.sleepcultures.com/2/post/2013/10/sleep-and-christian-theology-a-guest-post-by-andrew-bishop.html). Imagining micro-dramas of sin and betrayal, arousal and accident, bedtime prayers choreograph speech, posture and gesture in an act that acknowledges creaturely vulnerability in order to build trust. In a beautiful prayer by Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1697-1787), the speaker asked Jesus to lodge him “within your sacred side and under the mantle of our Lady” (http://www.catholicity.com/prayer/prayer-before-sleep.html), transforming the wounds of God and the cloak of Mary into a cosy sleeping pod. Bed time prayers often mention the Queen and her counsellors as well as family, friends, neighbors, and the needy, laying out the speaker’s place in a larger social order. (Sometimes the universities are remembered, too!)
Such prayers contribute to a larger ecology of sleep that weaves home furnishings, circadian shifts, and metabolic deceleration into a general nesting strategy that detaches consciousness from the world by melting the sleeping subject into her soft surrounds. In Shakespeare’s plays, the accoutrements of sleep include candles, pillows, linens, blankets, and curtains. Arrases not only draped beds to create a room within the room, but also warmed the walls, muting sound and adding edifying stories while sometimes inserting a membrane of storage space between wall and chamber (as in Hamlet). “Possets” or bed time drinks invited sleep to come more easily (Macbeth), as could quiet music and ritual undressing (Othello).
Seeking insight into the murder of sleep in Macbeth, I stumbled on an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library (http://www.folger.edu/Content/Whats-On/Folger-Exhibitions/Past-Exhibitions/To-Sleep-Perchance-to-Dream/). The digital gallery includes Richard Day’s A Book of Christian Prayer, an unusually lovely volume that offers a total of nine prayers designed to ease the uncertainties of the night. My favorite entry is “A prayer to be said when we unclothe ourselves to bedward.” The word “bedward” describes evening prayer as fundamentally an act of orientation, of affective and bodily settling in response to the time of day and its atmospheric attributes. Like many bedtime prayers of the period, the prose-poem links sleep and death. The speaker asks God to not let him die in his sleep:
Now therefore, thou O most loving Father, which hast set me together: dissolve me in such wise as I may feel myself to be dissolved, and remember of whom I am overcome, and consider whither I must go.
Acknowledging that his creaturely estate has been assembled (“set together”) by God, the speaker accepts the coming slumber as a temporary dissolving of consciousness that anticipates the final dissolution effected by death. He asks not to avoid death tout court, but rather to be dissolved in such a way that he feels himself to be dissolved: he wants the courage as well as the opportunity to experience his death as death, so that the loss of consciousness can become the content of a special kind of awareness. Day’s prayer directs mindful attention towards an ambient array of affined dissolutions -- wake and sleep, personhood and creatureliness, investiture and nakedness, life and death – in order to test the timbre of his own subjectivity.
That Day expresses these thoughts on the occasion of undressing for bed subliminally associates the qualities of fabric with the properties of consciousness, each capable of folding, stretching, wrapping, and tearing. Clothes afford donning and stripping, protection but also exposure; moreover, in the act of dressing and undressing, the fabric that becomes largely continuous with our skin as we move about our daily tasks separates and becomes tangible as an occasion for proprioception, or feeling oneself feel. More precisely, Day wants to “feel himself dissolve”: he wants to experience a transitional phenomenon that frays his cognitive capacities even as he exercises those capacities. A kind of immanent and affective Cartesianism draws the melting into air rehearsed each time we fall asleep into a knot of something permanent (thought, mind, soul) that congeals precisely in and as the act of knowingly undergoing the end of knowing.
I am struck by the semantic and emotional undertow connecting Day’s image of dissolution to Macbeth’s description of sleep as “knitting up the raveled sleeve of care.” One picture that emerges here is of sleep winding a tunnel (sleeve) of comforting darkness around the self-abandoning consciousness of a being undone by a day of exertion. We might even say that the image “yawns,” that it evokes the opening and closing of the throat that models the relinquishment of consciousness at the verge of slumber. Shakespeare’s metaphor both affirms the loss of consciousness and poetically tracks that loss in an enigmatically dream-like image of auto-poetic mending. For both Day and Shakespeare, sleep pivots between doing and undoing, coming apart and making new. In the psychotheology of everyday life, evening prayers are atmosphere-responders, mood-regulators, and soul-stewards that tune the speaker’s bodily processes and cognitive capacities to her immediate setting and to the cosmic rhythms and social orders in which she counts her days. In Shakespeare’s plays, bedtime prayers provide a liturgico-domestic score for the perils of sleep and the violation of its soft safeguards as well as an entry into the poetics of experience at the unravelling edges of consciousness. To “murder sleep” is to cut through the layers of protection and repair promised by the soft affordances of both pillows and pillow talk, but also to submit sleep’s softscape to ecological analysis and proprioceptive appreciation.
'3am: Wonder, Paranoia and the Restless Night' is a new exhibition curated by Angela Kingston at the Bluecoat Gallery Liverpool (28 September-24 November 2013), in which over 20 UK and international artists explore 'the strangeness of the night and the extraordinary range of emotions, states, and experiences it witnesses'. The exhibition tours to Chapter (Cardiff), The Exchange (Penzance) and Ferens Art Gallery (Hull).
The actress Tilda Swinton has recently been in the news for sleeping in public. Periodically this year, Swinton has reprised her 1995 performance piece The Maybe, a collaboration with Cornelia Parker, by sleeping inside a glass box in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Since 2006, the French artist Virgile Novarina (whose profile appears elsewhere on this site) has staged a series of performances entitled En Somme, during which he sleeps in public venues such as art galleries or shop windows; Virgile Sleeps, Jean Seban’s fascinating cluster of short films, both chronicles and interprets a week (January 21st through 26th, 2013) in the life of the sleeping artist.
One might expect all artists to sleep in the same way. On the basis of photographic and video evidence (I haven’t witnessed either of these performances in the slumbering flesh), The Maybe and En Somme are remarkably different. Certainly there are continuities: both develop the traditional association of sleep with death and raise basic questions about mimesis and performance (Is she asleep or just “acting”? [What range!] “Is it a real one or a fake?,” asks one woman of Novarina’s sleeping body). In significant ways, however, these are radically different works. In the case of The Maybe, it is impossible to separate Swinton’s sleep from her celebrity. As an April 17th article in the Huffington Post puts it, “Drop everything you’re doing and hitch a ride to Midtown, because Tilda Swinton is laying her snow-white head down for a nap in New York’s Museum of Modern Art today.” This is partly tongue-in-cheek – hurry, you have the chance to watch someone sleep! – but the irony is secondary to celebrity worship. Moreover, the long lines of museumgoers waiting to approach the slumbering star evoke paparazzi tracking Swinton's every waking (and sleeping) movement. At the same time, The Maybe pushes back against celebrity culture. Swinton exposes herself to the desires of a viewing public in a way that leads one to reflect upon the nature of our obsession with star-gazing. See Tilda like you’ve never seen her before, up close and (im)personal!
Swinton sleeps in street clothes, on top of the sheets on an unadorned bed; she appears as a specimen of celebrity sleeper carefully preserved in a glass case. And yet, she is presumably not sleeping as she would in her bedroom; this natural act is as artificial as it gets. In Virgile Sleeps (and En Somme), Novarina turned a gallery window into a bedroom-cum-exhibition space. He lies under a red blanket, wears a sleep mask and ear plugs, and has books scattered around his head. In Seban’s films, Novarina is both removed from the world – he sleeps during President Obama’s second inauguration, which is broadcast on a café t.v. across the street – and embedded within it. Seban repeatedly moves away from the gallery to provide us glimpses of the Parisian street life into which Novarina’s performance is fascinatingly integrated. We witness a range of interactions with that performance: a young woman poses for a photo with the unwitting sleeper; a boy raps on the gallery window, then hurries away; two young men speak animatedly to one another about En Somme, until one finally yanks the other down the street; numerous others go about their daily lives, paying varying degrees of attention to the sleeper in the window. The cultural curiosity of the artist-as-sleeper is juxtaposed (at first startlingly, and then, upon a moment’s reflection, inevitably) with Alexandre, a homeless man sleeping rough. One sleeper draws our attention, while the other makes us look away. A potential interpretation of both En Somme and Virgile Sleeps is offered by a young woman who observes, “I would say, all in all: Isn’t sleep life itself?” (That she laughs after making this observation captures the sense of whimsy that differentiates the work of both Seban and Novarina from that of Swinton and Parker.)
In Seban’s films (see especially “Wednesday”), the artist does more than sleep. Novarina is fascinated by sleep’s generative capacities, and he regularly half-emerges from his slumbers to produce writing that, when he is fully awake, he re-renders in a more legible hand. As translated, his sentences are wonderfully loopy: “I received no news from any of such beautiful parentheses”; “[Person A:] For a downloaded woman, you are benevolent. [Person B:] Silence!” While sleep is inscrutable in both En Somme and The Maybe, the nature of its opacity is different. For Swinton and Parker, sleep’s unknowability, like the movie star’s, is that of the impenetrable surface; with Novarina, sleep teases us with its depths, eliciting our admiration even as we suspect its having fun at our expense: beautiful parentheses, indeed.
A guest blog post at Interesting Literature by one of the co-founders of Sleep Cultures.
Can you imagine what it would be like to live in a world without sleep? Writers of SF and speculative fiction have been restlessly pondering this question in recent years, and the ‘sleepless world’ narrative now represents a thriving corner of the SF universe. Dana and Meir Gillon’s The Unsleep (1962), in which a future society becomes addicted to an over-the-counter ‘cure’ for sleep, founded the sub-genre. Recent notable contributions include Nancy Kress’s SF trilogy, Beggars in Spain (1993), Beggars and Choosers (1994) and Beggars Ride (1996); Jeanette Winterson’s magic realist short story, ‘Disappearance I’ (1999); Charlie Huston’s futuristic noir thriller, Sleepless (2010); Adrian Barnes’s postmodern disaster narrative, Nod (2012); and Michael Symmons Roberts’ BBC radio drama, ‘The Sleeper’ (2013). It goes without saying that all of the aforementioned works are dystopian in character. None of these writers believe for a moment that a world without sleep would be anything less than nightmarishly unpleasant. But for all their dystopian gloom, these texts are often tinged with a degree of optimism about the future of human slumber. It is rare for sleep to be fully or finally eliminated in the futures envisaged by sleepless world SF; slumber has a reassuring habit of infiltrating the worlds from which it has been supposedly banished. Purveyors of sleep-defeating technology and champions of anti-sleep ideology, meanwhile, are typically exposed as futuristic Canutes struggling absurdly to hold back the irresistible tide of human somnolence.
But why would writers invest so much imaginative energy in persuading us of something that no one would seriously dispute: namely, that sleep is a natural, inescapable and indeed pleasurable part of what it is to be human? We can consider two different ways of answering this question. The first is that literature can revitalize our imaginative relationship with a region of human experience that is all too easy to take for granted. Though we may acknowledge sleep’s importance in a general way, we struggle to appreciate sleep in the ways that we can appreciate, say, food or sex. It is in the nature of healthy sleep that we don’t -- indeed can’t -- notice it as it happens. And if we have slept well, then we don’t tend to devote much time to thinking about sleep when we are awake; it is a natural commodity available to all, at no cost, in inexhaustible quantities. For these reasons, we tend to be oblivious to the oblivion of somnolence. How can literature re-sensitize us to the value of sleep? Viktor Shklovsky theorizes that the goal of literary language is to refresh our jaded perceptions of everyday life, to make us look as if for the very first time at everything we take for granted in our lifeworlds; it is the job of art, as he famously puts it, ‘to make one feel things, to make the stone stony’. We might add, in a Shklovskian spirit, that the goal of sleepless world narratives is to make sleep sleepy, to rescue it from obscurity and restore it to us as a tangible and central element of human experience. They do so not by pushing sleep into the open but rather by subtracting it from everyday life in order that we may inspect the gap that it leaves, a sleep-shaped gap that we are more than likely to fill with a renewed appreciation of the hours we spend in the oblivion of slumber.
Another way of answering this question would be to refer sleepless world texts to the historical contexts in which they have emerged. This sub-genre is readable not as a set of prophecies about some nightmarish alternative world of the future but rather as a series of extrapolations from what is already happening in contemporary western society. Sleepless world texts are the fictional equivalents of Jonathan Crary’s polemical book, 24/7: Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which mounts a fierce critique of the sleep-eroding effects of a global capitalist system that resents every minute we spend asleep, scandalously delinquent in our economic passivity, neither producing nor consuming. One minor but telling symptom of the modern hostility to sleep that Crary notices is the design of ‘serrated’ public furniture in, say, bus shelters or parks, on which it possible to perch but impossible to sleep. The eviction of the sleeper from public space is an entirely characteristic move from a system that seems willing to abolish sleep’s very conditions of possibility in a bid to capture our round-the-clock attention and participation. From the perspective of a writer like Crary, sleepless world SF is not a paranoid vision of the future but a lightly disguised portrait of a dystopian present in which the ‘unsleep’ has already happened.
Crary’s case is polemically one-sided -- and it has good reasons for being so. It is difficult to see how an attack on, say, the use of sleep deprivation as torture could be too angry or too forthright in its denunciation of what governments can do to people at their most vulnerable. But it seems fair to note in response to Crary’s book that for many commentators rumours of sleep’s demise in the twenty-first century have been greatly exaggerated. Matthew Wolf-Meyer argues in The Slumbering Masses that we live not in a 24/7 society of continuous wakefulness but rather in one where sleep has been ever more systematically integrated into our lifeworlds as a responsibility we need to discharge in a regular and timely fashion -- according to timetables laid down by the education system, employers, government etc -- in order that we may perform at our best as alert, productive, well-slept citizens. Sleep does have a future, it seems, so long as it continues to function as the obedient servant of productive wakefulness. In this sense, Wolf-Meyer’s study offers what turns out to be an altogether gloomier prognosis than the SF works that celebrate sleep’s natural irrepressibility in the teeth of institutional resistance and pharmacological control. How might the regimes of wakefulness analysed in The Slumbering Masses be challenged? What would it take for sleepers’ rights to be asserted? Maybe the next wave of sleepless world narratives will help us to answer these questions.