I was flat-on-my-back tired today. I read and stared at the ceiling. I’m not hallucinating, or at least I don’t think I am, but the living room ceiling looks high–higher than the kitchen ceiling. So I took a nap. I got up in time for a doctor’s appointment, where I apologized for seeming slow and tired. The doctor says I don’t seem slow and tired. Whew! What a relief. When I came home, I drank coffee. The ceiling looked normal. I’m getting a cold. I thought I was seriously tired, but it’s just a cold.
While I was sleepy, I began to think about sleep disorders in literature, because colds are so unromantic.
Here is a Short List of Sleep Disorders in Lit
1 In Carolyn See’s There Will Never Be Another You, set in a post-9/11 near future shaped by paranoia about terrorism, teams of doctors are trained to deal with chemical or biological attacks. Edith’s son is one of the doctors, but she doesn’t care about this aspect of life right now. She is grieving over her husband’s death, and takes an Ambien every time she wakes up, so she can sleep round the clock.
I woke up on the couch, where I’d been sleeping for the last two months. I was alone. I looked at the ceiling for quite a long time. and then I said, “Let me just keep my eyes open.”
The insomnia, pills, and grief are a small part of a very complicated novel. See’s strange, lively, brilliant novels are always surprising and beautiful.
2 Gail Godwin is excellent on insomnia in her 1974 novel, The Odd Woman. The heroine, Jane, an English professor at a Midwestern university, has insomnia, and, no wonder! Her life is a mess! She is having an affair with a married man, she realizes she cannot give failing grades to the scatty papers turned in by a hippie draft dodger and a black student from the ghetto, and then her grandmother dies. Jane’s mother has serious insomnia.
Her mother, Kitty, a veteran insomniac of many years, read spiritual guides. She had a large collection of them in different languages, spanning the centuries from Boethius to Thomas Merton, and she kept them stacked, according to a private rotating section, on the tray table next to her side of the bed which she shared–after almost 25 years–with Jane’s stepfather, Ray. … When the malady grew more challenging,… she resurrected her Latin or went into the tongue of her father’s forebears. And recnetly–as if she anticipated further demands on her nights–she had been teaching herself Italian with a dual-language edition of La Vita Nuva.
3 Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. Le Guin, an award-winning science fiction writer, is always compelling, but I have never returned to this terrifying novel. The hero, George Orr, has dreams that alter reality, and takes drugs to try to control it, then consults a manipulative psychotherapist who does not have his best interests at heart.
4 Gabriel García Márquez’s The Hundred Years of Solitude.” If you like magic realism, you’ll love this mythic novel. At one point, a mythical Latin American town, Macondo, is struck by a plague of insomnia. The insomniacs no longer remember the names of objects, plants and animals, and have to label them.
5 Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. There is more than one dream in Wuthering Heights, a story of doomed love. Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, an orphan, are reaised together and are soulmates. After Catherine’s father dies, her brother, Hindley, turns Heathcliff into a farmhand, and Catherine ditches him for the refined Edgar Linton, Before she marries Edgar, she has dream in which she goes to heaven and gets thrown out because she weeps to “come back to earth.” She knows that she should not marry Linton, because Heathcliff is her other half.
It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s so handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”
6. Last but not least, here is a beautiful “Ode to Sleep” by Statius, translated by Kathleen Coleman. POETRY WILL CURE YOUR INSOMNIA!
What is the charge, young god, what have I done
Alone to be denied, in desperate straits,
Epitome of Calm, your treasure, Sleep?
Hush holds enmeshed each herd, fowl, prowling beast;
The trees, capitulating, nod to aching sleep:
The raging floods relinquish their frim roar;
The heavy sea has ceased and oceans curl
Upon the lap of land to sink in rest.
The moon has now in seven visits seen
My wild eyes staring; seven stars of dawn
And twilight have returned to me
And sunrise, transient witness of distress,
Has in compassion sprayed dew from her whip.
Where is the strength I need? It would defeat
The consecrated Argus, thousand-eyed,
Despite the watch which one part of him keeps,
Nerves taut, on guard relentlessly.
On Sleep, some couple, bodies interlocked,
Must shut you from their night-long ecstasy;
So come to me. I issue no demand
that you enfold my eyes’ gaze with your wings —
Let all the world, more fortunate, beg that.
Your wand-tip’s mere caress, your hovering form
Poised lightly on tiptoe; that is enough.