09 May 2011

"We had it before, but then it was going to end"

It's been up for a month by the time I'm finally writing this, but Willis G. Regier has a great article in the Chronicle, “The Philosophy of Insomnia,” a small compendium of notable writings on sleeplessness. A lot there for the eternal reading list, and a lot that resonates.

I don't have problems sleeping much, anymore -- most days I bike enough miles that my body takes over soon after I hop into bed -- but I have at various intervals since childhood, so that now whenever I have the least bit of trouble falling asleep I can pretty quickly work myself into a panic that I will never sleep again. Especially when my days have been full of responsibilities, insomnia has seemed so tragically unfair – I have worked all day to earn this bit of sleep and it is being stolen away from me while I look on with helpless, weary eyes. In my mind I am already living through the miserable, bleary, sun-struck hours to follow, head dull, aching. Perhaps some demented bird will start to sing, and the streetlight will take on the tint of a slow, infernal dawn. I could cry in these moments. You work so hard to make the mind hospitable to sleep that you catch yourself staying awake to welcome it in.

From Levinas: "Insomnia is wakefulness, but a wakefulness without intentionality."

When I was in high school I tried to turn my perpetual sleeplessness to productive ends. I thought I could break up my sleep into little blocks – rest a few hours, then rise, in the cool stillness of the sleeping house, and think, and read, and write. Then maybe another few hours before I had to go to school. This never worked. Frequently, I couldn't fall asleep to begin with, and then, once I finally did, the 3 a.m. alarm clock was not welcome. So I'd get four or five hours before lurching out of bed in the clammy pre-dawn, wracked with anxiety beneath a foreboding sky, off to complete the monumental task of not falling asleep too noticeably during class.

From Maurice Blanchot: "In the night, insomnia is discussion, not the work of arguments bumping against other arguments, but the extreme shuddering of no thoughts, percussive stillness."

Insomnia is the perfect setting for the fear of death. As a child of five or six I would lay on my bed on summer evenings – the light not yet gone from the neighborhood, the shuddering heartbeat of basketballs on the driveway next door, and the mourning doves cooing achingly for my imminent demise – close my eyes, and feel myself shrink, a tiny speck of a barely-living thing, a shriveling spider on a vast desert plain, insignificant atop the pale shroud-sheets.

Before this, even, I worried that if I slept I'd just forget to breathe.

(I wonder how I learned about death. No one I knew died at all until I was already long disabused of Santa Claus, I think -- I didn't even have a goldfish to instruct me. I suppose it's just around. I was maybe four when I became certain, from TV, that I was about to die of AIDS any day.)

The other day at band practice I was talking about how when my last job got so overwhelming I began to get white hairs and Joseph asked if it made me think about my mortality. I said I am always thinking about my mortality. This is absolutely true, especially at night - the all-dissolving fear which can never be got through. Death is certainly intolerable, and I can find only scorn or pity for anyone who tries to argue otherwise, depending on their mode of attack. Says Philip Larkin, perfectly (“The Old Fools”):

At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else.”

With no one to see. This is perhaps the hardest part. It is why fame matters in a sense. But it isn't the only hard part – there's also that “million-petalled flower.”

Says Cioran, who, among these affably gloomy souls Regier has introduced me to, sails to the top of my reading list with this: “"We begin to live authentically only where philosophy ends, at its wreck, when we have understood its terrible nullity, when we have understood that it was futile to resort to it, that it is no help."

I cannot imagine being consoled from this (and, if I am honest and impolite, equate such consolation with delusion) – cannot even imagine wanting to be consoled, which is perhaps the test of truest conviction. There is a sense in which I am rigorously certain about only two things: I exist, and am going to die.

At night, unsleeping, the mind comes up against a coldness that is yet comfortable in its solidity and familiarity, like returning to some long-shuttered ancestral home of stone. Its “percussive stillness” echoes with only one's own footsteps, only one's own words that come back huge and empty.

One has always known that this is the place of return -- can only hope it is where one will be buried, should one have the good fortune of remaining undeceived. 


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  3. Consolation/delusion made me think of this story I like:

    A student and his hobbled old teacher were walking through a garden and the student stops and says, "I've been thinking about the question you asked."

    "Good," says the teacher.

    "And I'm finally ready to say, I'm not afraid of death any more. I've come to peace with it."

    "Good." The teacher says, squinting at him, "that's excellent."

    But before a grin could spread across the student's face, the teacher lifts his walking stick and whacks the student across the face with it. The old man lunges for the kid's throat, and dropping him into a flower bed begins strangling him.

    Flailing about and turning blue, the student claws at the teacher's face and finally pushes the old man off long enough to get away.

    Both of them lay there in the flowers, gasping for breath, and the teacher asks, "Still at peace with it?"

  4. I like the weird, evocative detail of the flowers especially.