“Insomnia – A Cultural History” (Eluned Summers-Bremner)


  1. Sleeplessness in the Ancient World
  2. Love, Labour, Anxiety
  3. The Sleep of Reason
  4. The Night of Empire
  5. Cities That Never Sleep
  6. Wired


insomnia-capaWhat is insomnia? Medical practitioners describe it as the habitual inability to fall asleep or remain asleep when one wishes or needs to do so. As such, it would seem to be an individual complaint. And yet, sleep specialists also maintain that the contemporary world continually reproduces the conditions for insomnia. Many of us work longer hours than our parents did, leaving less time to switch off into leisure mode, and globalization has made our jobs increasingly re-configurable, giving rise to worry as well as to the presence of work in the home space. We are accustomed to communicating all the time, by technological means when others are unavailable, and have largely abandoned the resource of the free and available-for-musing moment in which sleep is likely to catch us. Bright lights make night into daytime, and 24-hour licensing laws make night a potentially endless, noisy party. It seems that the contemporary Western world’s tendency to erase all borders from which it cannot profit – indeed, it has profited from erasing and redrawing several of those – meets its match on the border between sleep and waking. We long for the restorative oblivion that sustains continuous work and enjoyment, and are at a loss when oblivion does not come.

Our understanding of sleep may be partly to blame for our world’s generation of an environment unfavourable to it, however. We tend to assume that night and sleep go together because of what they lack – light and activity – and that it is their natural task to subsidize the labours of the day. It was not always thus. In recent decades, scientists have reached greater understanding of the way in which our circadian (biological) clocks evolved gradually to enable us to adapt to changing physical and social environments. These clocks are the equivalent of hunger pains that tell us when to eat. They would have been particularly important in the ancient world when sleep was by no means an event to which individuals felt they were entitled, or, like hunting for food, one that was always easily achieved. To begin to grasp the history of insomnia, we moderns need to think of sleep in terms similar to those in which we think of going forth in battle and finding or subduing a food source. For our ancestors, sleep was, like these activities, something to be striven for, a quiet state that needed to be gained.

While we, like our ancestors, do battle in and with the dark hours, we also relentlessly calculate and recalculate their value, often cutting sleep time in favour of other obligations. And we tend to be surprised when sleep researchers reveal the variety and extent of the lives we are unknowingly living while we sleep. Our ancestors would not have been surprised by this. To them, sleep was an active part of life whose only distinction from waking activity was that it usually took place in darkness. The gods might visit a sleeper with prophetic dreams, or an enemy take advantage of a hasty slumber, but for early humans the rewards of oblivion were in active relation to everything else worth living for. We are far more likely to see sleep as the necessary evil required for a productive and happy life.

The chief difference between ourselves and our forebears with regard to insomnia is the devaluation of sleep that modernity has brought us. When sleep is described in the language of awakeness (as in the psychiatrist William Dement’s well-intended catchphrase ‘The brain never sleeps!’, intended to indicate that sleep is highly active), its darkest qualities – its enigma, dreamscapes and mortal connotations – become invisible, hidden by the light. Consequently, for us, although we do not always know it, insomnia means much more than loss of sleep. But what it means is hard to access, because, as well as undervaluing absence – and what is insomnia but the absence of the oblivion one longs for? – we have difficulty attributing agency to dark states. Nocturnal literacy, a term I have coined to describe awareness of the complex interactions of different kinds of darkness in their own right, is something globalized modernity does not value, so we lack a lexicon for nocturnal aptitude. And when Westerners do recognize dark activity, it is often in a limited and fearful – if ironically archaic – fashion. While darkness is increasingly crowded out by neon and by 24-hour work-and-play lives, it is still being invoked to cast opprobrium on others. The globalized West has a centuries-long history of deploying dark as a term of abuse.

Where and when did this change in world view begin? And how did it become so commonplace? This book attempts to answer such questions, albeit in an exploratory manner rather than definitively. It does not consider insomnia primarily as a medical symptom, however, for going unintentionally without sleep has not always been seen as a problem, or primarily as an individual matter. And because we are largely in the debt of the European Enlightenment for today’s faith in medical advances, it is worth looking beyond the purview of such claims, for they are heir to the equation of light with reason and thus not automatically attuned to the interrelations of an unconscious, opaque state – sleep – with the environment in which we usually seek it: darkness. At least one scholar has gone so far as to claim that the European eighteenth century, the period of the Enlightenment, gave rise to modern insomnia, which is to say that the change from understanding sleep as an active state with its own requirements to understanding it as a passive state that simply occurs, and is not always to be desired even then, took place at this point in Western history.

Prior to that moment, and indeed later in some non-Western cultures, relations between dark operators such as sleep and night were not seen as non-existent, and the absence of sleep could indicate the presence of other important states of being. In medieval India, the love of the divine Krishna for the cowherd Radha was thought to produce sleeplessness when the lovers were separated – a cause of insomnia also prevalent in the literature and art of the medieval West – night additionally being the time in which those working the land heard the story told. In a world governed by unseen forces such as the annual cycle of the monsoon rains – which separated lovers away on business when the storms broke – and with the darkened sky giving way to nights pining for one’s absent lover, sleeplessness was less a disruption to life than an expression of the absences that gave it meaning. When medieval lovers in European contexts experienced insomnia while apart, it was also reliably interpreted as a sign of their love. Insomnia is the absence of the necessary oblivion that sleep is, while love is the exchange between two people of another absence: the absence of certainty about the future against which lovers assert their love, but which they also share with each other.

Even so, there is a history of regarding insomniacs as guilty or morally suspect that appears to accompany the increase in importance of the individual in society, bringing with it a sense of individual relations to time. Insomnia has always had a relation to time because our circadian body clocks are our built-in timers providing signals that we need to sleep. Wasting time first became sinful in the West in the fourteenth century, and in the newly mercantile economy that followed several different kinds of time were in contestable operation. Religious opposition to merchants was based on the fact that lending and borrowing money changed the value of time, to which only God, having created it, should grant meaning. The new mercantile time produced anxiety – usually about one’s fate in the afterlife, the end of time – and anxious awareness of time is a significant aspect of insomnia.

The Devil is one example of a sleepless being bent on evil, but the morally uncertain sleepless were also to be found, as capitalism gained pace, among the godly. Seventeenth-century Dutch Calvinists were vexed by the way in which proof of their happy status after the final sleep, the sleep of death, had to be evidenced by nonattachment to wealth, while the hard work and releasing of capital back into the economy that were equally signs of devoutness increasingly re-posed the problem. A cycle not unlike insomnia itself was set in train, where anxious thoughts about the final sleep’s outcome produced more anxious thoughts as care with wealth produced more money. This circular scenario is one of a number of ways in which the monetary economy, the workings of which are always partly invisible to us and which tends towards increase, seems to exacerbate insomnia in Western modernity. Certainly, idleness, a state that needs to be partly cultivated for good sleep habits to take hold, was much maligned as modernity wore on, particularly in America, where the Evangelical movement known as the Great Awakening produced an active alliance between godliness, business and busy-ness. The work of saving souls was often described in market terms, while nineteenth-century Puritans made even the day of rest into a time of tireless devotion.

However, while insomnia may be called forth by the reigning conditions of a given culture, it cannot be said to be entirely caused by cultural arrangements either. Insomnia’s doubling of a crucial absence – the absence of unconsciousness, of sleep – indicates where society loses its purchase on the individual, because it doubles the place where the individual loses purchase on his- or herself. As such, insomnia often highlights areas where societies are already making complex – and, often, contested – uses of absence they cannot fully control, as in the Protestant Reformation’s espousing of radically new versions of the afterlife – a state no living person has ever returned to speak of and thus an absence for those still living – or in the growing taste in England for the consumer products of coffee, tea and sugar (products linked, as we now know, with wakefulness) produced by unseen African and Caribbean slaves. In both scenarios, sleep was rendered difficult due to new mobilizations of desire, the material contradictions of which fell upon individuals.

And because insomnia is the kind of state in which causes may mask themselves – for waking life does not automatically attune us to the requirements of unconsciousness – it continues to take on larger social meanings, even while awareness of them, in a world increasingly privileging the individual, may decrease. Insomnia’s increase in the eighteenth-century West, for instance, was not only due to an overt devaluation of sleep but also to the complex meanings of darkness being generated in the period, meanings which, importantly, gained part of their power from the fact that they were not immediately accessible to consciousness. The traffic in slaves produced the first large-scale venture capitalists, who were obsessed with the future value of their investments. Slaving business was often done in England’s eighteenth-century coffee houses, which, as well as keeping people up at night with coffee, fostered gossip and political debate, assisted by the newspapers they made available to patrons. Debt, and the coffee and financial speculation that followed, brought excitement, peril and systemic rush not only to newspaper-reading individuals in London coffee houses, but to the larger system of global trade. Borrowing and lending and the drug foods of sugar and coffee appeared to drive the newly interconnected economy, at an increasingly hectic pace, into the future, along with the hopes of those who had invested in it. Yet, like insomnia, the slave trade was an actively dark state – dark because unseen, often distant from the site of investment and dealing – as well as a lack: the inability to see how to run an economy without it.

Of course, insomnia can also result from the simple pursuit of pleasure. The oldest human hero, Gilgamesh, who experiences significant insomnia, first goes without sleep because he has so much energy for work and celebration. By the nineteenth century, European cities were making the most of gaslight’s ability to showcase the night itself as a zone of spectacle, shadows and wonder. Even today, in countries like India where lighting is not always reliably centralized, city trading and leisure-related activities may continue long into the night. And yet, when we consider insomnia as the absence of sleep in the face of sleep’s being intentionally sought, we meet an impasse in historical or, at least, historicist explanations. Insomnia gives the lie to the idea that each historical period contains all its own meanings – ‘[Boredom] is both cause and effect of modernity’ – because it is not only made by the world it then reproduces, but also hovers at the unacknowledged production point of that claim. To wake from sleep is to be found in the world and to have been remade by it, and to experience insomnia is to be kept from seeing, most often by means of excessive thoughts, how the productions of consciousness forestall the arrival of an unconscious state. An impasse to consciousness is significantly functional in insomnia, which teaches that entry into sleep is both materially necessary and ungraspable as such.

Shall we call insomnia, then, the insistence of our material relation to the world at its most basic? The need for sleep is a human universal, which means that it is embodied singularly by each human being, but also unconsciously, for our own way of being in the world is something we ourselves can never see. The often sleepless poet Charles Simic conveys the mockery that insomnia makes of arguments for positivist production and the peculiarly theatrical way in which it displays our singularity in ‘The Congress of the Insomniacs’, where a hotel ballroom ‘with mirrors on every side’ yields to an unseen speaker:

There’s a stage, a lecturn,
An usher with a flashlight.
Someone will address this gathering yet
From his bed of nails.

The single ‘[s]omeone’ opens the floor to all insomnia’s sufferers, however, the ‘bed of nails’ the only condition of belonging. Pierced flesh is the entry point of sharing in a strange temporality: that of ‘yet’, where insomnia’s end is the one thing that cannot be counted on while being the one thing for which each member of the sleepless community must continue to hope. Lying on a ‘bed of nails’ is a continuing experience of pain, perhaps a figure for the continuity of nocturnal suffering in history. But it is also an apt figure for each person’s location within that history, which, like pain, cannot be taken on by another and is thus a mark of isolation, as is insomnia today. Even so, at the point at which the nails pierce flesh, the sleepless sufferer is bound to others who also inhabit a singularly unreckonable time, the time of waiting. A strange suffering, insomnia, marking one’s exception from the human community by emphasizing a need all human beings share. In today’s world of mass-produced enjoyments and enhancements, we could do worse than consider insomnia’s history, not only because of what our world cannot know of us, alone and sleepless in the night-time, but because of what we might not know about ourselves.

SUMMERS-BREMNER, Eluned. Insomnia: A Cultural History. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.


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