Readers looking for the ultimate cure to this nocturnal ailment will be disappointed: Insomnia does not provide the tools for getting rid of sleeplessness. Instead, Marina Benjamin examines what it offers. ‘If we insist on defining something in terms of what it annuls then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself? And how can we tell if there is anything to be gained by its presence?’ If insomnia is a presence as much as an absence, what, then, does it replace sleep with?
Author of nonfiction and memoirs such as The Middlepause and Living at the End of the World, Benjamin goes beyond insomnia’s scientific definition by entering the realm of the night, darkness and imagination. Rather than following a closely-knit argument, she weaves verses of poetry, historic paragraphs, interpretations of paintings and scientific experiments into her text. Writing by fragments, she imitates how an insomniac jumps from thought to thought throughout a sleepless night. ‘Nothing is more inimical to rest’, she writes, ‘and yet I am powerless to stop it. It is like waterboarding the mind with meaningless overflow, a smothering drip, drip, drip of surplus thought’. Although her fragmented writing mimics this continuous dripping, it is not ‘meaningless overflow’. Instead, Insomnia unravels the condition’s overlooked potential through continuously crossing borders, between different times, literary genres, space and definitions of the condition.
For psychologist Dr Rubin Naiman, there is a side to insomnia which, rather than being physiological, medical or marketable, is deeply personal, mythical and romantic. This latter side appears in Benjamin’s retelling of several well-known stories that centre upon nocturnal activity. According to Greek myth, Ulysses’ wife Penelope vows that she will only marry again after she has finished weaving her tapestry. As she waits 20 years for her husband’s return, she secretly unravels her tapestry at night to avoid marrying her suitors. Under Benjamin’s pen, Penelope’s insomnia becomes a creative and constructive force, inverting the patriarchal representations of her nocturnal occupations. Rather than unravelling truth by night to weave lies by day as (often male) scholars have focused on, she makes insomnia the fruitful space of uncertainty and hope. As for Scheherazade, the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, insomnia is her last resort when she becomes the bloodthirsty Persian King’s new mistress. She avoids execution by weaving unending stories at night, keeping him waiting for the next chapter.
Both heroines trump continuity and time by allowing hope to enlighten the darkness of sleepless nights. They are figures of ‘border-crossing bravery’, which appeals to Benjamin. She writes: ‘I don’t want to slip unknowingly from being into nothing, but to be party to the drift and transgression, and alive to the excitement and danger that entails. It is a knife-edge business, that is for sure. And it demands that I embrace uncertainty’.
Being an insomniac myself, Insomnia resonated with my own experience. While insomnia is personal and stems from private disturbances, traumas, or chemical deregulations, its symptoms are shared: troubled, unending thoughts, anxiety, and lower mood and focus during the day. Insomnia encapsulates these supposedly opposing private and shared aspects. Benjamin portrays her own experience, using unique and vivid metaphors: ‘In my heightened, near-euphoric states of sleeplessness, I can count a handful of memorable occasions when I have felt this way, porous as the night itself, open to whatever might come my way and at one with the fluid universe. Most of the time, though, the very opposite is true. I feel contracted in insomnia, hemmed into my own head and oppressed by the impenetrable dark. My bedroom is like an oven awaiting the igniting flame: a dead space.’ But she also joins a broader community by exploring the insomniac minds of artists, poets, fictional characters and fellow therapy patients. She welcomes us into the conversation through the pronoun ‘you’: ‘when insomnia strikes in night’s viscid and inky depths the limits of your vision are all too palpable. You feel occluded by darkness; pressed into your bed, all your horizons are obliterated. It is suffocating, this oppression.’
By merging time and space, shows her subtle understanding of what insomnia offers. In the dark hours of the night, it reshapes our surroundings and perception of time, which affects how we perceive ourselves. ‘What if waking life is incapable of adequately attuning us to the needs of our unconscious minds?’ Benjamin does not explicitly answer this question, but it provides a starting point for reflecting on what the insomniac mind is capable of. When you are lying awake, having nothing else to do but think, you start imagining situations from the past, present or future, and unravel different paths that you might have taken, or might take in the future, as well as their possible consequences. You often come back to the same paths, ones you wish you had taken, are scared of taking, or long to access. For Benjamin, this is the unconscious mind showing itself – a realm the conscious mind cannot normally discern. In an insomniac state, our only interlocutor is ourselves, and while being forced into this monologue with a sleepless – most of the time overanxious – mind can be excruciating, it can be eye-opening too. The same happens with earplugs: while they block external noise, they unlatch an internal world of organic sounds. They ‘fill up the void with something other than nothing’. Here Benjamin illustrates the double role of insomnia: filling while depriving.
Benjamin’s book reflects this double role: it fills up the void of the blank page but it also deprives us of ready-made answers. Its occassional vagueness can be frustrating, but this is also part of its appeal. Insomnia is a meditation, not a scientific essay. It is a ‘song’, a mind-opening text about uncertainty and hope.
A podcast and video of Marina Benjamin’s discussion of her book can be found here.