"We are brought up from infancy," writes R.M. Vaughan, in a piece on Restless Leg Syndrome, "to appreciate our beds and bedrooms as spaces that provide quiet, rest, solace and pleasure." But the ordeal of uncontrollably restless legs -- a phenomenon poorly understood by doctors and all too easily mocked by those who've never experienced it -- makes the bedroom "a space one associates with a betrayal by one's own body."
Continuing the theme of our most recent post, here is a gallery of images of Hong Kong residents who have taken to the streets as part of the pro-democracy "Umbrella Protest" -- and chosen to sleep out on the streets, to "ensure the protests continue around the clock."
A piece from The Guardian in which Oliver Burkeman reflects on the potential for modern anti-insomnia advice -- particularly guidance about good "sleep hygiene" in the bedroom -- to backfire by producing excessive self-consciousness over the business of going to sleep.
Jonathan Crary's widely-reviewed polemic 24/7 has rapidly established itself as an essential work in the emerging field of sleep studies. In a fascinating new piece in the New Left Review, William Davies challenges Crary's assumption that sleep is "our last bastion of otherness and refusal." For Davies, the tendency to idealize sleep as a realm uncontaminated by market forces disregards the extent to which slumber has already been colonized by "a new consultancy circuit of 'sleep and wellness' expertise." In any case, the figure of the sleeper is an odd sort of mascot for a politics of resistance. "The argument that receptivity and passivity contain sources of hope is a pressing one in our interactive age," he writes, "but surely these have more lively and critical manifestations than mere surrender to nightly unconsciousness."
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 York Times article on recent research that suggests curing insomnia in people with depression greatly increases their likelihood of a full recovery. "Dr. Andrew Krystal ... called sleep 'this huge, still unexplored frontier of psychiatry. ... Our treatments are driven by convenience. We treat during the day and make little effort to find out what's happening at night.'"
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.