Fall 2008

Perchance to Dream: An Interview with Eluned Summers-Bremner

The meanings of insomnia

Brian Dillon and Eluned Summers-Bremner

“Naturall men have conceived a twofold use of sleepe; That it is a refreshing of the body in this life; That it is a preparing of the soule for the next.” So writes John Donne in his Meditations, neatly summarizing the biological and metaphorical significance of sleep. Nightly repose is for the poet both a physical necessity and a representation of the big sleep to come: it is brutish and metaphysical at the same time. Not to be able to sleep means to have lost touch with both one’s animal existence and with one’s place in the universe. But at the same time, the insomniac feels himself or herself painfully reduced to bodily being and prey to a racing, over-stimulated mind. Sleeplessness, it seems, is always at least doubly freighted with meaning, as well as being physically tormenting.

In her recent book Insomnia: A Cultural History (Reaktion, 2008), Eluned Summers-Bremner, senior lecturer in English at the University of Auckland, traces the history of wakefulness from classical times onwards. Medieval ascetics, she notes, relished a harsh bed and a night of pious watchfulness. Lack of sleep, Summers-
Bremner argues, became a particularly pressing concern—rather than an impressive feat of alertness—in the early modern period, when the secularization of time and the uncertainty of financial speculation left many unable to sleep at night. In the eighteenth century, stimulants available at the coffee house—caffeine, tobacco, and enlivening conversation—were both distractions for the sleepless and impediments to slumber. Today, insomnia is seen as a besettingly modern malady: popular medicine recommends that we regulate our circadian rhythms and reduce our intake of stimulants. But at the same time, not sleeping is a heroic indicator of our work ethic and productivity: the corporate warrior deliberately spurns slumber as a sort of weakness. Brian Dillon interviewed her by email in July.

Cabinet: You write that the inability to sleep is a double privation: the absence of oblivion, the negation of a negative. Insomnia seems to confront us with emptiness—the vacant expanse of the hours to come—and a troubling fullness: too much thought, too much awareness of our own aching, twitching body. Can you say something about this doubleness?

Eluned Summers-Bremner: This is very interesting: one’s bed is a place of peaceful promise and fulfillment on a night of good sleep, but a place of torture and despair on a night of bad sleep. Yet the one can turn into the other very quickly and at times the two can overlap. One smoothes down the sheets, gets back in, and it all begins again.

Descartes’s credo “I think, therefore I am” can be said to articulate a crucial gap in being, because, although we can imagine ourselves able to think and be at the same time, this trick is made possible by an act of sleight of mind. There is something about attempting to think being and yield to being in the same moment that is difficult for us to manage. We can only do it by momentarily leaping ahead of ourselves: we can’t think and be on the same topological plane. While we’re thinking, we’re fully involved in that activity, which requires us to ignore an equally significant range of other activities. We can’t go on being without sleeping, but we can’t sleep while we’re thinking either, at least not in the rational sense. Our material being operates on mutually inaccessible yet continuous levels, and it’s intriguing to think that insomnia might be one of the human events (to put it in Alain Badiou’s terms) that demonstrates the strangeness of our materiality most clearly.

John Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, ca. 1791.

Quite apart from the distractions that might keep us awake, it seems that sleep is increasingly deprecated. Do you have a sense of when this “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” attitude arose? 

The American version of the Protestant work ethic, in which time became increasingly valued according to its ability to produce money, is something we’ve clearly inherited. We now also have a very strange thing happening whereby most of us know about the benefits of good sleep and the health risks of not getting enough, but at the same time our work practices and environments increasingly encourage us to, if not ignore this knowledge, then certainly micromanage it. So I think we practice, or perhaps are forced to practice, a kind of disavowal about our sleeping habits. I’m talking here of people whose work is affected by globalizing work environments, where the reigning logic is maximum efficiency and if that means working to get something done by a certain time on the other side of the world, we do it. We increasingly fit our sleeping around the other interactive components of our complex lives.

But having said that, I am not sure that the disavowal of knowledge of the benefits of sleep begins with us. It’s possible that the maximizers, if not the originators, of the Protestant work ethic—Dutch burghers made wealthy by world trade and Calvinist reforms—felt something similar. They knew they ought not to spend time worrying about material wealth since all that was good was stored up in heaven, yet knowing that one ought not to worry about something is a recipe for self-consciousness, and so also for insomnia. Furthermore, as religious faith loses ground to secular concerns, people have even more to stay awake worrying about, because in addition to the lingering question of the fate of one’s soul—which has not yet gone away—they become more involved in the activities of wealth: legal defense of one’s goods, owing and pursuing debts, and so forth.

How far do you think the history of insomnia is linked to the increasing privacy of the bed and the bedroom among the middle classes? Is it possible that expectations of solitude and silence—as compared to those who shared their nights with extended family, livestock, and vermin—make sleeplessness less bearable?

Insomnia as a pathology or problem, rather than insomnia as the outcome of something else like demon possession, vigil, or all-night celebration, does seem to come into prominence as the bed and bedroom become more private, which of course has not necessarily ever been the case lower down the social scale, where people sleep where they must. Sleep seems to become a matter of private property and public concern in its own right in the early decades of the twentieth century, and an increased emphasis on psychologization—a sense of the privacy of the mind—is part of that. I do think privacy, solitude, and silence can create pressures in themselves: we often complain about noise stopping us from sleeping—the tick of a clock, the neighbors’ stereo—but when viewed historically, sleep conditions can be terrifically varied, so what sends one to sleep most often is likely to be the environment one has become used to.

“The Insomniac,” from Codex Vindobonensis (series nova 2644), a late-fourteenth-century medical manuscript. Courtesy Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

You argue for a link between modern insomnia and capitalist anxieties. What are the factors that interrupt the merchant’s slumbers, roughly from the fourteenth century onwards? And how are those worries expressed by the sleepless?

In the thirteenth century, annual confession becomes obligatory for all Christians, and priests find themselves dealing with an increasing number of “cases of conscience.” People want to know whether Church teaching, such as the requirement for Sunday rest, should always prevail over professional activities. Time becomes secularized in the sense that individuals become increasingly responsible for their use of it, while the answer to the question of how this use of time interacts with the final account of each person’s life held in heaven is not knowable in advance. So there is an understandable increase in anxiety around labor and rest, and the accumulation and disposal of wealth. And as time is becoming the responsibility of the individual, it also becomes more liable to abuse. Wasting time becomes a sin from the early fourteenth century and labor becomes associated with working out one’s salvation, a more active, but also potentially more conflictual process than simply performing penitential acts.

These increasingly individualized anxieties co-exist, however, with a cosmology in which night is a time of temptation and danger, and in which the devil takes increasingly labile forms. The rise in importance of towns means more focused night-watching too: keeping the wrong people outside the city gates and guarding the wealth, or the wealth to be made, within. There seem to be new anxieties around the question of borders, of what the individual is and is not responsible for, anxieties that become more difficult to resolve in later centuries as trade networks make people more dependent upon each other.

When I was reacquainting myself with Chaucer’s background, I was struck by the number and variety of jobs he did and how little actual time he had—time in which he could afford to burn light to read and write by, or use natural light—for his writing work. His insomnia can be seen to express anxiety not only about finding time to write, however, but also anxiety about finding time to sleep, since sleep and dreams were considered such rich sources for the creative imagination. So if wealth creates anxiety about eternal rest that seems to have disrupted people’s sleeping, as there is some evidence that it did, so does the need to earn it. Add these two together, and we can see the beginnings of our own more frenetic calculations about the relative merits of sleep time versus work time, rest versus productivity, and so on. 

You point out that until the eighteenth century it was usual for people to wake in the night after what they called their “first sleep,” occupy themselves with work, prayer, and so forth, and go back to sleep later. Can you say something about this fractured sleep? Nowadays, such waking would be seen as one of the symptoms of clinical depression. 

There is some evidence to suggest, as E. Roger Ekirch demonstrates in his book At Day’s Close, that waking at least once in the night, and even getting up to do things, was more common in this period than in the eighteenth century and later. One has to bear in mind the practicalities of early modern sleeping: in town one might be routinely woken by church bells, night watchmen, revelers, and so forth, while in rural areas there would be livestock and domestic animals to tend to, and in winter a fire. And the expectation to sleep in one long, unbroken period can be problematic if it causes anxiety on waking that then affects one’s chances of getting back to sleep. 

The hiatus between the first and second sleep seems to point up a difference in expectations between the early modern period and the later industrialized era: the difference between trusting that one would be able to go back to sleep after one’s first sleep, since we know this was something many people achieved, and our tendency to see sleeping in segments as a point of failure. The earlier emphasis on sleep as a communal activity—whereas for us, sleep is an individual achievement—may also have played a part in normalizing segmented sleep. The fact that the first and second sleeps originated in the system of the canonical hours of the day and night developed by the Christian Church, marking points—three or four of them at night, known as vigilae or “watches”—at which monks and nuns pray for others seems as though it might have been of some comfort to people, not necessarily a comfort they were conscious of, but one that was built into their worldview. The thought that others were also awake or waking in the night might have helped to normalize the experience, and the thought of others’ praying might have helped too, especially if one was vexed about the fate of one’s soul.

Marco de Gastyne, “The Anguish of the Infantryman: ‘I can’t sleep in this silence!’” Illustration for La Baionnette, December 1915.

The eighteenth century seems especially wakeful. Boswell and Johnson were extremely exercised by the problem of getting out of bed in the morning—to the extent of Boswell’s imagining a mechanical device that would eject someone from bed—while Pope wrote in bed into the small hours. Is it in this period that we first encounter the notion that there is simply too much going on for people to sleep well or long enough?

Johnson felt oppressed by a need to keep inventing and thinking when he couldn’t sleep—which of course wasn’t always helpful—while simultaneously fearing the final judgment and being found in the more-animal-than-human act of sloth. He knew he had capacious gifts and worried—often, through the night—about whether he was using them in the right way and how that use would be computed at the end. I would say “his end,” except that the concerns driving Johnson seem bigger than that. He was obsessed with the question of void, which he called “vacancy” but which seems to have been something more materially pressing than the term suggests, possibly having to do with his inability to stop thinking, and judging those thoughts as devoid of spiritual value, seemingly in the same moment—always filling up voids and emptying them. Matters of profit and loss also vexed him continuously; his housekeeper once found him in the act of attempting to calculate the national debt.

Educated eighteenth-century Londoners were certainly overstimulated, but in ways they understood as well as in ways they didn’t. People knew they were interested in newspapers and politics, of course, but didn’t know about the biochemical effects of coffee, or that the food they were eating and the times at which they were eating it weren’t conducive to good sleep. They didn’t realize that if you go to sermons where the preacher rails at you for being slothful and you don’t allow yourself to have a rest even there—where evidence suggests things were often dull and quiet, unless one happened to be in front of William Law—and then go home to focus on your inability to rise early, no matter when you’ve gone to bed, your sleeping is unlikely to improve. 

In the nineteenth century, women’s insomnia seems not only to arise from different causes from men’s—often from sheer boredom and lack of daytime stimulation—but to be coded differently in terms of its social significance. Is there in such cases a closer identification of sleeplessness with hysteria or neurasthenia than in the case of the male insomniac?

A feminizing discourse of “nerves,” “nervousness,” and anxiety about the longer term effects of this new condition is part of the century’s response to the ways people—men and women—themselves responded to industrial, urban work environments, in which they were being increasingly treated like components in a vast network of production and machinery. Insomnia was one of the symptoms of occupying such environments. As to women’s and men’s insomnia, the reinvention and reclassifying of hysteria by psychoanalysis and other medical or pseudo-medical fields may have meant that insomnia carried a lesser social stigma when exhibited by women than by men. A hysterical paralysis of the arm doesn’t end where the arm physiologically ends in the nerves and muscles, but at the point at which the sufferer thinks of or visualises his or her arm ending. Insomnia is like the hysteric’s physical symptom insofar as our thoughts can’t get us out of it; they can only make it worse. 

There were also, of course, a number of wars being waged in the period, in which only men fought, although women did war work of a non-combative 
kind such as nursing. And insomnia is both a nightly by-product and a long-term remainder of extended periods of combat, of waiting to go into combat, and so on. I think there’s probably a closer identification of sleeplessness with hysteria in the female insomniac in the nineteenth century, if only because hysteria is considered a feminine malady at this time, but also perhaps a closer identification of sleeplessness with neurasthenia in the male, because neurasthenia—nerve damage—is the term used for male hysteria anyway, when it shows up again in full force after World War I.

I wonder to what extent insomnia has always been judged morally. Blanchot wrote that the insomniac “always appears more or less guilty” and there is certainly nowadays a popular notion that the sleep-deprived are weakening their health. They’re not exactly to be counted alongside the obese and the sedentary as potential drains on health services, but maybe that is coming….

Well, the devil is depicted, from medieval times, as an insomniac, and one can’t go much lower morally than that. Even if insomnia hasn’t always been judged morally, I think it has always been open to expressions of moral purpose or abuse. The rhetoric of the National Sleep Foundation in the US, which characterizes sleeplessness as an epidemic that threatens national health, comes very close, at times, to blaming the sufferer. People are said to be putting themselves at risk for injury, health and behavior problems, and so forth. 

At the same time, there’s a certain heroism to 
sleeplessness: E. M. Cioran—who was reputed not 
to have slept for fifty years—said that “insomnia is 
a form of heroism because it transforms each new day into a combat lost in advance” and that “insomnia is truly the moment when one is totally alone in the universe. Totally.” I wonder if insomnia is essentially solitary.

I think it is essentially solitary in one sense. That is, it feels so. When you can’t sleep, you can imagine everyone else is happily sleeping and feel aggrieved and resentful. I think this mode of thinking can be a trap, however. The American poet Edward Hirsch says the sleepless form an unacknowledged community whose members recognize each other by their haunted looks, and while I admire Hirsch’s writing enormously, I also feel there’s something a little too self-congratulatory about that. In reality, insomnia is both an experience of solitude and an experience of community. Each of us must sleep each night or two or we go mad. And when we can’t sleep, we are marked by our exclusion from humanity, or so we are apt to feel. It’s strange to think that we might most truthfully enact our belonging to the human community by the act of falling into unconsciousness, the place in which we imagine others to be blissfully dwelling. Insomnia might not be unlike democracy in this respect: your only chance to get what you want—your vote choice, your sleep—means yielding up your material singularity, allowing yourself to (re)join the masses. It may be that we belong least to our conscious selves, and most to our communities, when we sleep.

Eluned Summers-Bremner is senior lecturer in English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She has published Insomnia: A Cultural History (Reaktion Books, 2008) and is currently writing A History of Wandering (Reaktion Books). Her book Ian McEwan: Sex, Death and History is forthcoming (Cambria Press) and she is working on studies of trauma, the affective work of love and reading, and a project on mid-century British fiction and World War II.

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet and the author of a memoir, In the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005), which won the Irish Book Awards non-fiction prize. His writing appears regularly in such publications as Frieze, Art Review, Modern Painters, the London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement. His book Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives will be published in 2009.

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