As my insomnia has progressed over the years and has become the norm, rather than a ‘condition’ or illness, I have become expert at dressing in the dark. I seem to ‘see through’ the dark, in the same way that swimming underwater for long periods one begins to notice things in ways that the beginning snorkeler would not. As I reach for my clothes at four this morning, having failed the 15 minute rule (by which, if I haven’t returned to sleep after 15 minutes, I get up) I realise I can find my clothes without really looking for them, and this is not memory at play, so much as a kind of second sight, an ability to manoeuvre my way in pitch darkness.
This is not the only difference in my perception of darkness. Marina Benjamin remarks, in a lovely passage near the start of her recently-published account, Insomnia, that when she is up at night,
‘the world takes on a different hue. It is quieter and closer and there are textures of the dark I have begun paying attention to. I register the thickening, sense-dulling darkness that hangs velvety as a pall over deep night, and the green-black tincture you get when moisture charges the atmosphere with static. Then there is the gently shifting penumbra that heralds dawn and feels less like the suggestion of light than a fuzziness around the edges of your perception, as if an optician had clamped a diffusing lens over your eyes then quizzed you about the blurred shapes that dance at the peripheries of your vision. In sleeplessness I have come to understand that there is a taxonomy of darkness to uncover, and with it, a nocturnal literacy we can acquire.’
I like that, about the ‘nocturnal literacy’. I also feel as though I have learned to read the night, and by certain hints and textures within the darkness can guess with a high degree of accuracy what time it is when I awaken, if I have the good fortune to have fallen asleep, which usually takes place for the first couple of hours after going to bed, and usually while still reading (more on this phenomenon here).
These are the ‘good’ nights of insomnia, when sleep is achieved, even in relatively small doses. Two or three hours as a rule, four at a stretch, five a feast, six a bonanza. The bad nights are something else. The bad nights, or stretches of them, are less a topic for speculation, more a desire to shut down completely. And certainly not a matter for general discussion. I mean, I try not to mention my insomnia to people I don’t know well. I wrote about this once in injured tones:
‘An insomniac is never short of advice from well-meaning friends and relatives. Everyone has experienced difficulty in getting to sleep, and many people feel that this qualifies them to offer advice based on the authority of experience. “Oh, I have trouble sleeping”, they will tell you, and what they mean is that they have struggled from time to time to get to sleep, have tossed and turned for a while, or woken in the night and found it hard to return to their slumber; but essentially these setbacks rarely make a dent on their seven or eight hours of regular sleep.
Such people find it impossible to conceive of the extent of disability endured by a serious Contender for the World Title, such as myself. Let me make it clear that insomnia is not a question of simply not being able to get to sleep – it is, cumulatively, a massive derangement of the senses, a perpendicular longing, a lacuna within narrative time, a backsliding acceleration into the entrails of night, awaiting the dawn as a mortally injured man might await morphine, in the hope that with the light will come sleep, if only for an hour, or half an hour.’ (from The Vagabond’s Breakfast).
This was written in the Bad Old Days of my insomnia, back in the early years of the Millennium. I manage my sleeplessness better these days. And I read about the experience of others in this strange fellowship of insomniacs.
Here’s Teju Cole, from a delightful essay titled ‘Unnamed Lake’ in his collection, Known and Strange Things. It starts on a sleepless night:
‘I paced inside my own mind like a tiger inside its cage, like the Tasmanian tiger going back and forth, maddened by the prospect of its coming doom. Where I had been pinned down in sleeplessness by one small glare, my eyelids now trembled with the flashes coming from within. So quick was the succession of images, each one of which presented itself like a problem to be solved, that I could not at any instant remember what had gone before. It seemed to me instead that my consciousness had become like a narrow, high-walled corridor crammed with everything I had lately read or seen, every landscape I had recently passed through or touched on in my thoughts’
Cole’s narrative then progresses through a sequence of seemingly unconnected insomniac images and filmic accounts until settling on the Tasmanian tiger already mentioned:
‘In a small enclosure in Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1933 . . . a Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, paces. His name is Benjamin. He has a doglike head, and stripes on his back like a tiger. But he is neither canine nor felid; he is marsupial. He is also a carnivore, a hunting animal, though not an especially fast or particularly strong one. The thylacine was first described in 1806 by Tasmania’s deputy surveyor-general George Harris: “Head very large, bearing a near resemblance to the wolf or hyena. Eyes large and full, black with a nictitant membrane which gives the animal a savage and malicious appearance.”’
Nictitant? Adapted for winking or blinking, according to the OED. Blinking before death?
Something about this passage fills me with foreboding, as though I know what is going to happen next. The pathos in that line: “he is . . a hunting animal, though not an especially fast or particularly strong one,” suggests, surely, that Benjamin, or his species, have been granted evolution’s short straw. ‘Doomed by poor DNA’ according to one article. The Tasmanian tiger was hunted to extinction, and Benjamin, the sole survivor of his race, was captured and placed in a cage, around which he paced, ceaselessly, as we can see from this footage on youtube, in a short sequence that fills me with tenderness and fear, and a terrible sense of the mutilated world.
Perhaps in response to this clip, or reflecting on the fates of animals in general, Cole, in his essay, comes up with the image of an unnamed lake that lies ‘underneath all reality’ and it is precisely there, I feel, that we might find the thylacine, Benjamin, and perhaps all other lost and extinct matter.
‘At moments, you may notice that what you are looking at contains both its own obliteration (the promise of death) and a curious quantity of eternity, like a single body possessed by two spirits. Survival and extinction are both indelibly there. There is a quality of listening in the dead of the night (the “dead” of the night) that is perhaps not conducive to writing or interpretation, but that heightens the possibilities of what can be heard, or that might lead one to believe that there is an unnamed lake underneath all reality, and that there are places where the ground, insufficiently firm, can suddenly plunge one through into the subterranean truth of things.’