Sleep as Resistance

Hejinian, Whitman, and the politics of sleep.

Sleep is invisible and inconsistent. Aping death, sleep in fact prevents it; at the very least, sleep deprivation leads to premature demise (and before that, failures in mood, metabolism, cognitive function). All animals sleep, and it makes sense for none of them, evolutionarily, since it leaves the sleeper defenseless to predation. Sleep is common, public, a vulnerability we all share—even as sleep also brackets the sleeper in the most impenetrable of privacies. Nothing, everyone knows, is harder to communicate than one’s dream.

And then there’s time. Sleep seems to remove us from the general tyranny of the advancing clock. When you wake, 20 minutes could have passed as easily as three hours. But sleep defines time, dividing day and night. Humans discover circadian rhythm through the urge to sleep. That urge is, of course, cyclic, endless: always more sleep to be had. But sleep measures forward progress by consolidating our sense of the past. (Steven W. Lockley and Russell G. Foster lay out the evidence for this and other facts in their briskly informative Sleep: A Very Short Introduction.) In sleep, our brains decide what to keep and discard. Without sleep, we would dissolve into overloaded confusion.

And yet sleep itself is the most confusing thing we experience. What’s coherent about a dream? Why do we want them? Do we want them? Our pursuit of sleep is languidly compulsive, obscurely rewarding, the desired phenomenon shimmering as it does between object and (inactive) activity.

Sleep is strange—“[s]tranger than habit and than obsession,” Lyn Hejinian writes in The Book of a Thousand Eyes.

She could be talking about poetry. It’s an old connection, of course, older than the Romantics—who seem prescient, in the light of contemporary science, when they propose the jump-cuts of dreaming as a model not just for poetry but also for knowing, full stop. (“He awoke and found it truth,” Keats writes, comparing the imagination to “Adam’s dream.”) In The Book of a Thousand Eyes, published in 2012, Hejinian reconsiders. She wants to figure out what sleep can do for the chance of cognition. She also wants to test what sleep means for the promise of politics.

Knowing is political, after all. It’s political, for example, if you are a female poet, looking at the models for knowledge in Western culture and realizing that most rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the example of Faust—egoistic, sacrificial, male. Where was the alternative, Hejinian wondered as far back as 1994, in an essay called “La Faustienne.” There, she settled on Scheherazade as countermyth. Scheherazade (queen of Persian legend, storyteller of the “thousand and one nights”) is empathetic, remedial, female. Condemned to death by her husband and ruler because of her sex, she saves herself and reforms her government by delaying that sentence—by deferring, night after night after night, the conclusion of ravishing fictions.

Scheherazade’s creativity, therefore, seizes on the timing and togetherness of slumber. This is not Faust’s celebration of the fleeting present. Scheherazade stakes her survival on the returning past and future—a day-and-night pattern of “concentricities and spirals,” as Hejinian describes it. This keeps her alive. This remakes her world. Scheherazade resolves the “conflict between social responsibility and personal impulse,” Hejinian argues. While “Scheherazade tells her tales in bed … their milieu is public.” A thousand and one nights of a private gamble become a thousand and one nights of a political gain.

The Book of a Thousand Eyes tests that finding. Begun at about the same time as “La Faustienne,” now published in complete form, the volume turns over and over the themes of night, sleep, and justice. It tells tales and dreams that are indistinguishable, but it imagines both types of art as critique. “Doesn’t each dream catch a previous day of the world in an act of criticism?” Hejinian asks. It takes slumber as activism: “Sentences in bed are not describers, they are instigators.” The Book is presented, its dedication page tells us, “in homage to Scheherazade.”

Why should such an offering come now, more than a thousand-odd years on from Scheherazade’s tales, and two centuries after Keats’s theories, when sleep could seem at best an evasion or irrelevance?

Another recent book, this one in prose, suggests an answer. Published last year, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep begins with the effect of digital culture on our sense of time. A world that is always “on”—the irony of “sleep” mode is that it avoids turning off a device—entices or requires humans to be the same. Gradually, we comply: we get less and less rest every night, we rise to check phones or tablets in the wee hours, we pretend work is leisure as we run the hamster wheel of social-media clicks. For Crary, a professor of art history, the life of digital timelessness manifests the most basic and inexorable drive of capitalism, which would shrink whatever is not producing or consuming. Sleep occupies that vanishing margin. Sleep does not want to be productive. “Sleep,” Crary writes, “poses the idea of a human need and interval of time that cannot be colonized and harnessed to a massive engine of profitability.”

Crary’s book therefore looks back seriously to a premodern vision of the quotidian, based on repetitive cycles of rest and rising—those spirals that Scheherazade wove into art. But this is not reactionary. Crary wants to reset our clocks, not turn them back. His most valuable insight is that the sheer fact of sleep can be a deliberate choice—a political choice. It could be a mode of resistance.

That resistance, moreover, resuscitates sociality. “As the most private, most vulnerable state common to all,” Crary explains, “sleep is crucially dependent on society in order to be sustained.” Sleep, he emphasizes, is “one of the few remaining experiences where … we abandon ourselves to the care of others.” The ineradicable need for sleep can be our nagging reminder of community. “Sleep can stand for the durability of the social,” Crary writes.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Crary deplores any description of dreams that takes them to be individual and incommunicable, sealing us off from each other. He wants a dream that can “exceed the isolating and privatizing confines of the self.”

 “I wander all night in my vision,” writes Walt Whitman at the opening of his great, strange poem “The Sleepers,” “Stepping with light feet … / Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers.” The democracy of this poem lies in the speaker’s vulnerable but aggrandized vision: “lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory,” he nonetheless takes charge of describing a sleepy collective. In sleep, all are similar:

The great already known and the great any time after to-day,
The stammerer, the sick, the perfect-form’d, the homely,
The criminal that stood in the box, the judge that sat and sentenced him, the fluent lawyers, the jury, the audience,
The laugher and weeper, the dancer, the midnight widow, the red squaw,
The consumptive, the erysipalite, the idiot, he that is wrong’d…

“I swear they are averaged now,” Whitman writes; “—one is no better than the other, / The night and sleep have liken’d them and restored them.”

Restoration and likeness interanimate. “Why should I be afraid to trust myself to you?” Whitman asks the night in the final section. But such trust is not final. There is always another day, another night. Whitman ends with this resignation: “I will duly pass the day O my mother,” he writes to the darkness, “and duly return to you.”

Hejinian does not mention Whitman—or Crary. Crary does not mention Whitman—or Hejinian. But their dreams of poetic, political dreaming lap at each other’s edges. In Hejinian’s Book, as much as in 24/7 or “The Sleepers,” slumber is the basis of shared citizenship: we are “dream natives,” Hejinian writes. Slumber is also a measure of political health: “The authorities are sacrificing everyone. / In such a situation sleep is impossible.” Sleep, Hejinian reminds us, might reform this authoritarian sacrifice, through something like the education that is the thousand and one nights: its ruler, “once vile, murderous, bewildered, a slave to resentment”—with its Faustian “tendency to explain everything”—becomes “benevolent, wise, confident, and suffused with a sense of well-being.”

But how do we get there if we lack a guide like Scheherazade—or, for that matter, Whitman? There is no easy indoctrination, Hejinian’s Book of a Thousand Eyes finds, into the ameliorative polity of sleepers, into the common dreaming that Crary seeks. Instead, her poetry navigates the scrambled, individual dreaming that Crary rues. The book struggles to make sense, page by page, of its own messy unconsciousness, trying to connect those contents to extra-individual forces. Thus we have stories, various but archetypal: “Folktales, by definition, exist in many versions.” We have fables, illogically didactic: “Moral one: We are never the worse for our dreams…. Moral three: True justice is never abstract….” We have elliptical fragments, as abrupt as the last thought before waking: “The measures of the night require no space, the … / The registers …” We have ruminations, as insistent and unanswerable as insomniac cogitation: “is it time? / is this going to be enough? / is the work well-done and done?”

It is not going to be enough. It is never going to be done. About a year before The Book of a Thousand Eyes, Bernadette Mayer published Ethics of Sleep, another late-in-time insistence on the political value of slumber. In this book, sleep’s very intransigence is the sum total of its good—the fact that it cannot be made logical. “Why do I want you to be a certain way, sleep,” Mayer asks; to abandon that desire seems to be the aim of the book. Its long records of sleep-given thoughts advocate for a world in which people “give up their jobs / to dream.”

Crary would endorse that type of world. But for Hejinian, the anti-capitalist choice of dreaming over working is not enough. Indeed, to be satisfied with such a choice seems the very danger of a political-poetical account of sleep: quietism, a belief that the free illogic of unconsciousness is enough to combat a destructive logic of capitalism—weak surrealism, making claims for subversion. Hejinian wants more. “The affinities with which one disperses in dreams and which enable one to be everyone in them shouldn’t be confused with waking kindness,” she notes. She worries about the distinction. In Keats’s words, she wants to wake and find it truth. In Whitman’s, she wants to be able to trust.

Thus the most powerful example in The Book of a Thousand Eyes is its sheer accumulation, the insistence of page after page, night after night. Star-divided sections record sleep that refuses to be satisfied. “Promises exist inside of time,” Hejinian writes, and “time is unwavering in its usefulness.” She reminds us: “Our sleep has no conclusion … / Sleep is as abundant as the world is incomplete.”

Years ago now, I was finishing a book. It was about daily time and poetry—about the repetition of quotidian time and its use in poetry. I was under contract and without sleep. For several nights, pages fanned around me, I extended my insomnia by rehearsing the manuscript’s inadequacies. Somehow, I thought, Hejinian should be in there. Wasn’t she obsessed with repetition? Didn’t she chronicle the daily? I had read this lyric, and I knew it was part of a larger work (what would become The Book of a Thousand Eyes). Should I wait for that work? And then there was a larger and more nagging worry—a conceptual one. I wanted to imagine the idea of daily time as a third term in the division of personal and political, a way to bridge one’s private life and one’s common responsibility. But what, exactly, did that link mean? If daily rounds brought us together, what did they help us do?

I had no answer. And I solved none of these problems. But eventually, I put the pages away and got some sleep.

Originally Published: March 25th, 2014

Siobhan Phillips's poems and essays have appeared in Boston Review, Harvard Review, Southwest Review, and other journals. She is the author of The Poetics of the Everyday: Creative Repetition in Modern American Verse (Columbia University Press, 2010).

  1. March 26, 2014
     Brian Estabrook

    Absolutely stunning essay.

  2. March 26, 2014

    Thanks! That was a wonderful article. I had first read about the Crary book in a very different type of article: so it was interesting to see it in a different context altogether. The concept of second sleep, or segmented sleep that Burkeman links to is also interesting.

    Your article puts me in mind of two other things: Margaret Atwood's Variations on the word "Sleep," for obvious reasons. And Ursula Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest, which centers around a race that has a polyphasic sleep pattern and which can dream lucidly and at will. I would think that sleep is explored broadly in sf&f, but can't think of other stories at the moment.

    Random comment: I saw Hejinian's photo on wiki and was immediately reminded of Le Guin, just based on appearance alone. I thought of Le Guin's book only later.

    And yes, they are all women.

  3. March 31, 2014
     elizabeth salper

    Thank you Siobhan ~ I am daydreaming after reading this essay. So rich and thought-provoking, stimulating, and beautiful. I wonder if I will be able to catch any shut-eye tonight...