All-Nighters is an exploration of insomnia, sleep and the nocturnal life.
The narrator of Chaucer’s poem, “The Book of the Duchess,” cannot sleep. As his fitful thoughts come and go, he lies awake. He hasn’t slept for so long, he fears he may die of insomnia. But what is the reason for his sleeplessness? “Myselven can not telle why,” he says.
The English expression “to fall asleep” is apt because the transition between waking and sleeping is a gradual drop from one state of being into another, a giving up of full self-consciousness for unconsciousness or for the altered consciousness of dreams. Except in cases of exhaustion or with the aid of drugs, the movement from one world to another is not instantaneous; it takes a little time. Full waking self-consciousness begins to loosen and unravel.
When I have insomnia, I cannot drop into the zone between waking and sleeping — this half-dreaming, half-aware state of words and pictures does not arrive.
During this interval, I have often had the illusion that I am walking. I feel my foot slip off a curb and fall, but before I hit the pavement, I feel a jerk and am fully awake again. I also watch brilliant mutating spectacles on my closed eyelids, so-called hypnogogic hallucinations, that usher me into sleep. Sometimes I hear voices speak a single word or a short emphatic sentence. In “Speak Memory,” Nabokov tells about his own visual and auditory semi-oneiric phenomena. “Just before falling asleep I often become aware of… a neutral, detached anonymous voice which I catch saying words of no importance to me whatever — an English or Russian sentence.” He, too, had visions, often “grotesque” that preceded sleep. Although hypnogogic hallucinations are poorly studied except in relation to narcolepsy, many people without that affliction report seeing pictures or just colors and shadows when they linger at the threshold of sleep. What distinguishes these experiences from dreams proper is awareness, a kind of double reality. As Nabokov writes of his images, “They come and go without the drowsy observer’s participation, but are essentially different from dream pictures for he is still master of his senses.”
When I have insomnia, I cannot drop into this peculiar zone between waking and sleeping — this half-dreaming, half-aware state of words and pictures does not arrive. As Jorge Luis Borges observes in his poem “Insomnia”: “In vain do I await/ the disintegration, the symbols that come before sleep.” My internal narrator, the one who is speaking in my head all day long, refuses to shut up. The day voice of the self-conscious thinker races along heedless of my desire to stop it and relax. Chaucer’s narrator seems to have a similar problem: “Suche fantasies ben in myn hede,/ So I not what is best to doo.” And so, like many insomniacs before and after him, he picks up a book and begins to read.
I was 13 when I had my first bout of insomnia. My family was in Reykjavik, Iceland for the summer, and day never really became night. I couldn’t sleep, and so I read, but the novels I was reading only stimulated me more, and I would find myself wandering around the house with rushing fragments of Dickens, Austen or the Brontës whirring in my head. It is tempting to think of this form of insomnia, the inability to fall asleep, as a disease of agency and control, the inability to relinquish high self-reflexive consciousness for the vulnerable, ignorant regions of slumber in which we know not what we do.
In “The Generation of Animals,” Aristotle regards sleep as a between world: “…the transition from being to not-being to being is effected through the intermediate state, and sleep would appear to be by its nature a state of this sort, being as it were a borderland between living and not-living: a person who is asleep would appear to be neither completely non-existent nor completely existent…” Sleep as nearer to death than waking or, as Macduff calls it in “Macbeth,” “death’s counterfeit.”
In sleep we leave behind the sensory stimulation of the outside world. A part of the brain called the thalamus, involved in the regulation of sleeping and waking, plays a crucial role in shutting out somatosensory stimuli and allowing the cortex to enter sleep. One theory offered to explain hypnogogic hallucinations is that the thalamus deactivates before the cortex in human beings, so the still active cortex manufactures images, but this is just a hypothesis. What is clear is that going to sleep involves making a psychobiological transition. Anxiety, guilt, excitement, a racing bedtime imagination, fear of dying, pain or illness can keep us from toppling into the arms of Morpheus. Depression often involves sleep disturbances, especially waking up early in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep. Weirdly enough, keeping a depressed patient awake for a couple of nights in the hospital can alleviate his symptoms temporarily. They return as soon as he begins to sleep normally again. On the rare occasion that I have had both a migraine headache and suffered from a whole night of insomnia, I have found that the insomnia appears to cure the migraine. No one understands how either depression or migraine are related to, or overlap with, the sleep cycle.
Chaucer’s insomniac reads Ovid’s “The Metamorphosis.” It does not put him to sleep. He gets very interested in it and spends many lines reporting on his reading. I read in the afternoons now, never at night, because books enliven the internal narrator to one vivid thought after another. No doubt my obsessive reading kept me up that summer long ago, but the permanent daylight of Reykjavik in June must have played havoc with my circadian rhythms, my normal 24-hour wake/sleep cycle and, without darkness, my body never fell into the borderland that would carry me into slumber. When I look back on it, I think I was more anxious about not sleeping than about anything else I can name, and this is still often the case when I am seized with a fit of wakefulness. I am lucky it doesn’t happen so often. It is bitter to hear the birds.
Siri Hustvedt is the author of four novels, including “The Sorrows of an American” and “What I Loved,” and two books of essays. Her most recent book, “The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves,” is a neurological memoir. Her work has been translated into 29 languages. Her Web site is sirihustvedt.net.
Sleep is SO over-rated :-)