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We’ve all had those nights when we wake up in some dark hour and can’t get back to sleep no matter what method we use to try to trick ourselves back into unconsciousness. I’ve found watching a good nature or outer space programme can often lull me, but sometimes nothing works. Although I occasionally go through periods when sleeplessness plagues me night after night leaving me exhausted and bleary-eyed throughout the workday, I’ve never considered it to be a serious or chronic problem. But other people experience more severe cases that are seriously debilitating – such as my partner who has tried many different treatments.

Most books about insomnia offer advice or methods for overcoming it, but what I appreciate so much about Marina Benjamin’s short, impactful and beautifully-written book “Insomnia” is that she approaches the condition from a more philosophical point of view. It’s a deeply personal account because she’s someone who has suffered from insomnia for years and tried just about every scheme out there to sleep better. But rather than write a guidebook she offers a different kind of solace in how we’re all unified by sleep or the lack of it. She draws upon references from mythology, psychology, art and literature to illuminate how we often have an uneasy relationship with our night time selves.

I enjoyed how the author gives such a radically different look at the condition and the meaning of sleep itself. She challenges the conception of sleep as a peaceful state noting how the body can often be restless during the night and a realistic version of Sleeping Beauty probably wouldn’t keep her name if she were pictured snoring and sweating. She’s also mistrustful of viewing mindfulness as a form of tranquillity when she sees it as a tragic kind of stasis: “It leaves the world unchanged.” These observations are really helpful at encouraging us to rethink how we consider and relate to sleeping.

‘Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte

‘Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte

She also raises many good points about the portrayal of women in relation to sleep in fairy tales and mythology. She draws upon a dizzying range of fascinating references, but they remain in context and illuminate different ways of considering sleep. I was most drawn to her reflections about the odd loneliness which accompanies insomnia but she observes how “Imprisoned within these solitary cells of wakefulness, insomniacs make for a strange kind of collective… No doubt we could easily spew a textbookful of shared anxieties. Yet we cannot commune with one another.” It feels like this relates to ideas (central to this blog) about how reading is such an essential lonely activity, yet it also unites us in a cultural conversation. Any solitary space where we can consider ideas with such concentrated intensity seems to come attached to a feeling of melancholy because those ideas won’t ever flourish as fully in the blunt arena of normality.

Marina Benjamin playfully refers to her partner as Zzz (because he often is asleep while she’s still awake.) It creates a unique sort of estrangement being perpetually awake while your partner is asleep and this adds another dimension to the loneliness of insomnia. She observes how “Zzz is next to me, but miles away. In those lonesome hours when I fear I might drown in a well of unspecified longing, I sense a danger that my most intimate space might also become my most alienated. Estranged from the night, I am locked out of my own rest. If I reached out to Zzz would I even find him?” It feels only natural that the overactive sleepless mind becomes consumed with paranoias, fears and poetic turns of thought. Being exposed to too much night we think of the daytime and night time self as being two distinct states of being, but this impactful book does a lot to creatively bridge the space between them.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMarina Benjamin
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A plague of sleeplessness descends over the majority of the population in this eerie dystopian novel by Kenneth Calhoun. Nobody understands why this suddenly happens although there is speculation that includes a wide range of wild conspiracies. Without the rejuvenating assistance of sleep the majority of population lose all reason and now “the unguarded gate in their heads was now propped wide open to suggestion and persuasion.” Only a handful of people are still able to sleep without assistance. The book follows these few as they navigate the deteriorating social landscape and search for their loved ones lost to the agonizing spell of sleeplessness.

The thriller aspect of “Black Moon” is essentially like a zombie novel. The few unaffected must stagger around pretending to be sleep-deprived in order to avoid detection. If they get caught asleep they are attacked by the perpetually awake masses as they are jealously enraged by the sight of those resting peacefully. There are some creepily brutal scenes involving things like a woman trapped in a tree with a circling angry mob, a man undergoing brain surgery by half-crazed doctors and a truckload of captive sheep being driven by a man with a perpetual erection who is slowly going insane. Yet, unlike a horror genre novel, this book deals with the real-world mysterious interplay between consciousness and unconsciousness.

More than the physical threats of the perpetually awake masses or the body breaking down from lack of rest is the nightmarish terror of losing ones mind and all the fear and unrestrained carnal rage rising to the surface causing people to act totally irrationally. Personality is inverted until each person becomes “the opposite of all that he had been.” Like voices from a Samuel Beckett play, the perpetually awake prattle on and on expressing every core emotion that flits through their head and mixing memories of the past with the present so that time is condensed down to one unfathomable point in reality. This babbling is nonsensical but also lyrical and highlights surprisingly bizarre connections underlying the force of people’s most base motivations.

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In one section a couple named Adam and Jorie who have been experiencing sleep deprivation for almost a week continuously lose and find their infant baby. The gripping horror of what must be happening in reality to the child as the couple stagger confusedly through their days is intense. Although, the hallucinatory nature of the narrative as it follows the couple’s interaction with the child keeps you guessing if the child was lost some time ago or if it is even real. When following a character who has stopped sleeping the author changes the style of writing to reflect their increasingly fragmented psychological state. This had a bewitching effect on me as if I was losing grasp of reality too and made the story feel intensely real.

“Black Moon” makes you think about what importance your dream life has with your conscious life. But it doesn't linger ponderously on these questions – merely summons them up in the natural course of the story as the characters struggle to connect with each other and find a solution to the epidemic. This reminded me quite a lot of Jose Saramago novel “Blindness” about a sudden unexplained epidemic where the majority of the population goes blind (seeing white instead of black) and only the central character maintains her vision. These frameworks strip the construct of society down to its elements so that it must be rebuilt upon principles of cooperation or be torn apart by selfishness. It makes for a chilling, unsettling but altogether absorbing read.

See a playlist of songs about sleeping and insomnia that the author created here: http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2014/03/book_notes_kenn_1.html

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKenneth Calhoun