Reflections on Insomnia (Part 2)

Chagall night


(Continued from Part One . . . .)

It seems only fair, at this point, to say something about how to deal with insomnia; how to approach it with a sense of purpose, how to break its hold on the poor sleepless victim, especially if that victim is you. A ‘cure for insomnia’, maybe.

Gayle Greene’s 2008 book, Insomniac, provides an exhaustive and at times entertaining account of the author’s attempt to find an effective treatment for the condition. Her investigations bring her to the conclusion that the medical world is really not interested in insomnia. Other sleep disorders are prioritised, such as sleep apnoea: ‘Apnoea is where the money is,’ one researcher tells her; ‘apnoea is where the career opportunities are’, says another. ‘No one wants to know about insomnia, I’m afraid,’ a GP told me once. ‘There’s nothing we can do about it. It’s probably genetic, at least in part.’ That much appears to be true, since both my siblings experience recurrent bouts of insomnia. Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) — persistent jerky movements in the lower limbs — from which I suffer, also seems to be genetic, and occasionally exacerbates my insomnia. Unfortunately, if you have RLS, you are automatically excluded from attending any of the UK’s very few sleep clinics, even if the insomnia is not contingent on the RLS. So there’s not a lot of help from the medical profession, other than sleeping pills (which are now more heavily regulated than ever before) or referral to a counsellor, who, like Harvey’s, will recommend adherence to a regime of sleep hygiene, along with hot milky drinks, sprinkling lavender on your pillow, recordings of waves breaking on the shore, gentle mood music, a warm bath before bed, whatever.

Paradoxically, in the light of medical science’s silence on the topic, a global sleep industry has emerged in recent years, flooding the online market and airwaves in much the same way as the multifarious alternative diets and healthy eating campaigns, all products of a consumerist philosophy in which we must be sold the fashionable advice, follow the tweets of the media’s self-help guru of the moment, buy the widget, get the app. Sleep has become a commodity, like any other. According to a recent report, the sleep aid industry turned over an estimated $76 billion last year, the millennial malady taking over from depression, which hogged the headlines in the 90s: remember Prozac Nation?

Roger Ekirch’s fascinating 2005 study, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, exposes the idea of a solid eight-hour stretch of sleep as a recent invention. Indigenous and non-industrialised peoples have very different sleep patterns to those of us in the industrialised nations, where a couple of centuries of the Protestant work ethic has forced people into following a sleep routine that has its basis in nothing more scientific than the demands of a capitalist means of production. In the medieval and pre-modern period, people in Europe took a first, and then a second sleep, retiring with darkness, but rising before sunrise and getting on with their various tasks; sewing or weaving, cooking, having sex, and returning for a second sleep — or not — always knowing that they could grab a snooze later in the morning, or a siesta in the afternoon. ‘In Colombia,’ a Colombian friend told me, ‘we like to take our siesta before lunch’ — and he was only half-joking. Why are we so uptight about our eight hours of uninterrupted sleep?

Perhaps if we were less neurotic about sleep, we wouldn’t deem insomnia such a problem. I continue to spend much of the night up and about, but it comes in waves; a few weeks on, a few weeks off, and when I’m sleepless I try not to let it bother me. If I can’t sleep, I don’t worry. I just get up and do stuff. I talk to my dog, I bake bread; I meditate, I read, I write. The worst thing for the insomniac is fear of sleeplessness; it becomes an incremental malaise. I don’t sleep; I worry; I sleep even less because I’m worried about not sleeping. And so on, in a vicious cycle of anxiety, self-blame, fear, and more sleeplessness.

Marina Benjamin remarks that her insomnia is ‘to a large extent a First World, post-capitalist artefact’, but confesses that the knowledge is of no use to her, unless she does something with it. In her case, as in Harvey’s, part of the solution lies in writing about it. ‘But then the fear that presses in on me is that my work might be fated never to transcend the neurotic’, she adds — a fear, I must admit, that may have seeped into my writing of this essay. In the vast context of what is wrong with the world, does my insomnia count for anything at all? Probably not, but neither is that the point. When seen in perspective, not much of what affects us in the daily round counts for much, but it is from those very flakes of the everyday, alongside the debris of our dreams, that we make sense of the things around us; and if by writing we improve our own understanding, we might, with luck, temporarily lighten the load of those who share our fears and concerns. Otherwise, why write at all?

Benjamin’s ‘taxonomy of darkness’ may seem like a recondite matter, but it articulates the surging mess of the nocturnal — and the unconscious — that spills over into the everyday. This is what gives us succour. Myth — humankind’s way of ordering the unconscious —  has always been alive to the mysteries of darkness in order to better understand the world. This, after all, is what myths do. Orpheus failed in his mission to rescue Eurydice from Hades, but on his return sang more beautifully than before. ‘Ancient heroes’, writes Benjamin, ‘who wished to see things for what they really were had to pass through underworlds, or they dwelled in caves; sometimes, like Oedipus, they could see clearly only once they had been blinded.’ In some traditional societies (and in ancient Egypt) seekers after spiritual knowledge would spend a period of time in incubation, isolated from the world. Who knows, perhaps the self-isolation imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic will harvest benefits in just this way.

Benjamin and Harvey both find solace in those fragments of their lives and the lives of others that come to them at night and in the half-light, and the process of piecing things together, in the manner of a collage, or a mosaic, is something that is evident in the making of both these books. Both women have succeeded in forging something coherent and many-layered out of the scraps and shards scattered by sleeplessness. Benjamin’s account is more cerebral, speculative, and overtly digressive, while Harvey’s — as befits a novelist —relies more heavily on narrative and on pasting in images from her own childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as well as the interjection, by instalment, of a story about a man who robs cash machines, a seemingly random tale, which, however, has its own random logic. What, we might ask, is this story doing in a book about insomnia? (In her LRB podcast, Harvey admits that she fully expected her editor to ask her to pull it). But its randomness, perhaps, is precisely the point. It is a piece in the puzzle, another clue dropped into the narrative: remember when the therapist suggests a jigsaw as a gentle way of passing the empty hours of her sleepless nights?

Benjamin writes approvingly of Joseph Cornell’s collage technique: ‘that art of reassembling fragments of pre-existing images in such a way as to form a new image . . . using the images of the commonplace to make something new.’ This idea can be likened to a comment made by the novelist Brian Aldiss, and cited by Benjamin in an article she wrote in The Guardian around the time of her book’s release: The ‘great attraction of insomnia,’ Aldiss observed, is that ‘the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instinct and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind.’ The idea is taken up again, and pushed a little further, towards the end of Benjamin’s account, when she suggests that insomnia, by picking up ‘the frayed thread-ends of one’s own existence’  might, just sometimes, evoke ‘the faintly delectable buzz of a cosmic hum that was there before human beings came into existence and will be there until the end of time’ — something which, in another language, might be called God.

And it seems apposite to me, in writing of insomnia, to equate such quasi-religious yearnings with the idea of the disintegrating self. This soul work relies heavily on a breaking down of the self in order to achieve some kind of integrity. ‘My self is a self understood through fragments. My self is a scattered thing’, writes Harvey (who, it seems, is well-versed in Buddhist philosophy). ‘I look in the mirror and I don’t know myself very much. I look at what I write and it’s like being introduced to my soul. Every time for the first time, not always liking what I see.’

And so we arrive inevitably at the role of writing in this business of insomnia. Harvey takes up a line she discovers in Larkin: ‘the million-petalled flower of being here’ — a phrase, she claims, that acts ‘like a steroid straight to the veins.’ The words appear to her as a revelation, when she is plunged deep in her insomnia — and I can see why. It is such a spectacularly un-Larkinesque sentiment, for one thing. For another, it is one of those lines, as Harvey claims, that can knock one’s life a little off axis. One can equate such an epiphany with Benjamin’s flurry of cosmic consciousness, late in her book, as well as with the idea that sleeplessness might at times act as a crucible for intense creativity (though it can also, it goes without saying, be exactly the opposite). ‘Writing’, Benjamin claims, ‘is  . . . one of the few observances — sleep obviously being another — that get me beyond myself. Gets me ‘out of the way’, as we say in creative writing classes.’

The paradox that remained with me after reading Benjamin’s book was that while the insomniac wants to sleep, craves sleep, would give anything, at times, for some sleep, there is also a desire to follow the imaginative threads left hanging by insomnia, and to use them creatively. This paradox is summarised at the very end of her account, when she writes: ‘I want to flip disruption and affliction into opportunity, and punctuate the darkness with stabs of light’, before concluding, emphatically, almost defiantly: ‘This is the song of insomnia and I shall sing it.’

Harvey tells it rather differently: ‘Writing is dreaming’, she says: ‘It is lucid dreaming — the work of the subconscious that has a toe in the conscious, just enough to harness the dream’s waywardness. I always heard it said that writing draws on the subconscious, but that isn’t true. It is the subconscious, and it draws on the conscious.’ She continues: ‘In the last year, writing has been the next best thing to sleep. Sometimes a better thing than sleep. I am sane when I write, my nerves settle. I am sane, sane. I become happy. Nothing else matters when I write, even if what I write turns out to be bad. I proceed from some open and elusive subconscious formlessness roughly called ‘me’, definable only by being nothing and nowhere, just the silence in which shapes move.’ How fitting, then, that her book ends with a celebration of swimming as the ‘cure for insomnia’.

On certain days of summer, when I take myself out to sea for a long swim, there is just that sense of joy tinged with an intimation of danger that are the necessary preconditions for writing. Swimming, like writing, is precisely that: being nothing and nowhere in a silence where shapes move.


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