In Charles Simic’s poem “The Congress of the Insomniacs,” everyone is invited: “Stargazing Peruvian shepherds,” “Old men on the sidewalks of New York.” Anyone who’s ever spent a sleepless night, prisoner to an unceasing mind, is a member of this body, the gathering place a hotel ballroom with ornate ceilings peopled with angels and mirrors on every side of the room, and yet in Simic’s poem the space feels strangely empty: a place where everyone belongs but where everyone is alone. This is the paradox of insomnia: an experience so many of us share, and one that leaves you feeling utterly isolated. Insomnia is a place, like Simic’s hotel, where many of us check in every night — but every one of us who does so, does so alone.
“When you cannot sleep you fall in love with sleep,” Marina Benjamin writes in her latest book, “Insomnia,” a svelte work of nonfiction that bridges memoir and the history of sleeplessness. In addition to being a senior editor at the magazine Aeon, Benjamin has written three other memoirs and she knows her way around the form, drawing out personal details and reminisces and connecting to them to a larger history of sleep and its discontents.
At the heart of Benjamin’s book is a fundamental paradox of insomnia: it’s too-muchness — too much alertness, too much consciousness. Insomnia, as she explains, is the product of excess: “An excess of longing and an excess of thinking.” It is these twin excesses that guide Benjamin as she delves into this kingdom of the midnight vigil, the land of dripping faucets, ticking clocks and the other tiny noises that bedevil sleep. A nightmare world where even nightmares are welcome, since these, at least, are accompanied by unconsciousness.
In such a place, you quickly become resentful, selfish. As Benjamin knows well, there is no empathy among insomniacs. When you can’t sleep, everyone who can is your enemy. “Insomnia makes an island of you,” she writes. “It is, bottom line, a condition of profound loneliness. And not even a dignified loneliness, because in insomnia you are cannibalized by your own gnawing thoughts.” Acting as her foils are two companions, both two masters of sleep: her dog and her partner, here given only the name “Zzz,” as if to highlight the difference between the two of them. Charting the very different way each of them face sleep, she reveals a central conundrum for insomniacs: the resentment you develop toward those whose sleep comes easy, even for those for whom you care the most about. “In insomnia we encounter the very heart of love’s darkness: the essential otherness of the beloved.”
What is to be done in such a condition? There is some discussion here about medical and herbal treatments for insomnia, as well as failed experimentations with earplugs (“beyond the hush they create — the welcome muting of the carnival noise beyond my window — earplugs open up a strange inner world of mysterious echoes and thinking silences”). But Benjamin’s real focus here is less self-help than understanding what insomnia does to the mind, and how it changes the chambers of perception. This is where “Insomnia” gets interesting.
Lest this seem to be a book about torture, frustration and resentment, Benjamin also recognizes the possibilities inherent in these late-night vigils. “Perhaps one of the lessons I can take from my insomnia,” she writes, “is that its interest lies less in what it is that we see when we are wide awake at night, prickling with longing and with an enervating need to hunt down truth, than in how we see. It is about paying attention to what lies at the peripheries of our being, or just across the border….” The trick is to not (always) fight your insomnia; if it’s here to stay, you might as well embrace it and see where it takes you.
Where it takes Benjamin is on a wild ride through mythology, science and art. She pings between mythological stories of sleepers and gods of sleep, dreamers and insomniacs, as well as cultural and literary approaches to sleeplessness. Like a night-ride through an insomniac’s mind, Benjamin’s book moves from thought to thought, driven by tangential linkages rather than logical progression. To search for some kind of order or structure in her book is less satisfying than simply going along for the ride, as the train of thought moves from René Magritte to the history of sugar production to Robinson Crusoe to the epic hero Gilgamesh, who “is one of the literature’s great insomniacs, locked out of sleep by a sweeping exultation over the many battles he has won and the multitudes of lives he has taken. … Insomnia is greedy, after all. It is also, in Gilgamesh’s estimate, a triumph: not for him the darkness of mortality. For him there is only the light of the everlasting vigil — the eternal watch for enemies — and an appetite for battle, which, in turn, precludes sleep.” These ideas and meditations often slip away from the reader before they’re fully-formed, as though Benjamin’s prose, itself sleepless, can’t hold on to one thought for too long before another is conjured.
But the writing itself is so luminous that you hardly notice. Early on, Benjamin offers this description of her dog, which manages to capture both the natural beauty of a sleeping pet and the thinly veiled resentment of the insomniac toward those animals who move so effortlessly between sleep and waking: “Curling in beside me on the sofa, he is out within minutes, legs splayed like bagpipes, his warm little body rising and falling. If I so much as twitch he snaps awake instantly but without any sense of alarm; he just lifts those liquid brown eyes towards mine, wanting to know if the world is unchanged.” It’s writing like this, effortless as a sleeping dog, that carries you through “Insomnia,” the kind of book for those late hours of the night, keeping you company when you’re most alone.
Dickey’s most recent book is “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.”