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A Vision or a Waking Dream : Insomniac Literature

Dernière mise à jour : 2 avr.

The God Hypnos (British Museum)

Insomnia and Identity: The Discursive Function of Sleepnessness in Modernist Literature

essay by Sarah Kingston

"John Keats closes the final stanza of his poem “Ode to a Nightingale” with two questions:

"Was it a vision, or a waking dream ?

Fled is that music : — do I wake or sleep ?"

His uncertainty about his state of consciousness is significant. This poem, about the liminal space between life and death, which he relates to the space between sleeping and waking, asserts that it is from this liminal space that poetry itself is produced. For Keats, a Romantic poet, this space allows for reverie, and reverie for contemplation and art.

Arguably, this drowsy state of reverie for the Romantics became insomnia for the Modernists. Where Keats finds himself being lulled to sleep, unsure of whether or not he has yet to reach unconsciousness, his modernist counterparts find themselves vigilantly awake, wondering if they will reach sleep at all. (...)

If one were to compile a list of modernist authors, and choose from this list at random, chances are quite good that the authors selected would be insomniacs. Among the insomniac Modernists, we can find names such as Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov, to name just a few of numerous examples.

Modernists are not the only authors to suffer insomnia, and other notable insomniacs from literary history range from Homer and William Shakespeare to Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens. In short, a connection appears to exist between insomnia and authorship, and it is the nature of this connection I seek to explore in this chapter, specifically as it relates to modernist literature.

In his 1865 text, entitled On Wakefulness, physician John Hammond proposes a possible explanation as to why authors are more prone to insomnia than others through making the connection among cultural refinement, propensity towards excessive thought, and insomnia:

“As nations advance in civilization and refinement, affections of the nervous system become more frequent, because progress in these directions is necessarily accompanied by an increase in the wear and tear of those organs through which perceptions are received and emotions excited”.

Hammond argues that despite increasing levels of material comfort and hygiene made possible by modernization, instances of insomnia become more, not less, prevalent specifically because of an increased stimulation of perceptive and emotional faculties. In other words, the less one has to guard against environmental dangers, the more one can devote time to thought, yet thought sometimes begets over-thought, which begets insomnia.

As Hammond asserts, “irregular or excessive cerebral action” leads to a heightened propensity towards sleeplessness. For Hammond, a combination of intelligence and sensitivity to perceptions of the world produce insomnia. Accordingly, he believes that

“the more active the mind the greater the necessity for sleep, just as with a steamer, the greater the number of revolutions its engine makes the more imperative is the demand for fuel.”

Bronze Head of Morpheus, Roman God of Dreams

(British Museum. 1-2 century AD)

Using mechanistic language, Hammond not only equates mental stimulation with insomnia, but asserts that those who are the most mentally stimulated, and therefore sleep less, should actually be sleeping more because their mental faculties are more in need of restoration. Hammond’s arguments derive from his theory that all bodily organs and tissues are in a constant state of decomposition when in use, only to be remedied through periods of rest and inactivity. In the case of the brain,

“Its substance is consumed by every thought, every action of the will, by every sound that is heard, by every object that is seen, by every substance that is touched, by every odor that is smelled, by every painful or pleasurable sensation, and so each instant of our lives witnesses the decay of some portion of its mass and the formation of new material to take its place”.

This “formation of new material” can only take place during the comparative rest of sleep, which allows restoration of the mental faculties because not all parts of the brain are at work.

Interestingly, from Hammond’s perspective, sleep and intellect are in a paradoxical relationship: while heightened intellect leads to propensity to poor sleep, poor sleep leads to a reduction of intellect. He cautions,

“Upon the intellectual powers the mischief of insomnia is still more serious. ... Many a noble spirit has been utterly prostrated by habitual loss of rest.”

Citing multiple case studies of literary authors as patients whose work suffers from their

inability to sleep, the treatment he consistently finds to be most effective for restoring

“normal” sleep patterns is a hiatus from intellectual activity. Literary authors appear to have similarly divergent views on the purpose and necessity of sleep, as expressed in their journals and other autobiographic writings.

Vladimir Nabokov, for example, expresses resentment towards the need for sleep, seeing it as wasted, unproductive time. He values his insomnia as a necessary component to his literary productivity because of the time it affords him to work.

Nabokov, true to form, holds nothing back in his own devaluation of sleep. In his autobiographical work, Speak, Memory, Nabokov discusses his sleep habits and views on the practice of sleep:

"Sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals. It is a mental torture I find debasing. The strain and drain of composition often force me, alas, to swallow a strong pill that gives me an hour or two of frightful nightmares or even to accept the comic relief of a midday snooze, the way a senile rake might totter to the nearest euthanasium; but I simply cannot get used to the nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, and genius. No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me."

Vladimir Nabokov writing in a notebook on the bed

(Photo by Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection)

Nabokov, not one to soften his statements for the sake of amicability, has some sardonic words for sleep and its constituents, depicting sleep as a conformist ritual of the avoidance of consciousness and agency. While many texts, both literary and medical, present sleep in pleasant light, as a respite from the worries and cares of the day, Nabokov argues that sleep is quite the opposite. It is not only a window to viewing possible drug-induced horrors, but also a form of “torture.”

Nabokov is not the first to equate sleep with a temporary loss of the self, which he views as a “betrayal of reason, humanity, and genius,” but he is relatively unique in the virulence of his repulsion to this mental hiatus. (...)

Though many writers have confessed to similarly troubled sleep, not all writers share Nabokov’s outright disdain for it. Many writers view sleep as necessary, presenting a view more akin to that of Hammond, who argues that more mental labor requires a greater amount of sleep.

Kafka, for instance, wrote specifically to “shut his eyes”, according to statements made in his journal, indicating his pressing desire to sleep despite it not coming easily to him. Sleep appears to be something Kafka actively sought, and his writing was the means through which he could release his thoughts enough to find rest.

Much as the writing instructor will often encourage his or her students to “write to discover what you think,” Kafka needed writing to process thought, the expression of which allowed a temporary escape.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, like Kafka and Nabokov a notorious insomniac, describes sleep in much more seemingly pleasant terms than Nabokov does, writing in an essay about sleep,

“Sleep — real sleep, the dear, cherished one, the lullaby. So deep and warm the bed and the pillow enfolding me, letting me sink into peace, nothingness.”


Fitzgerald emphasizes the idea of sleep as an escape from the world, one which he desires. But, his language also indicates an infantilizing of the sleeper by referring to sleep as a “lullaby.”

The bed becomes like the womb, welcoming him back to its enclosure, to a state of stasis and inertia, such as the one Sigmund Freud describes in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” For Freud, humans vacillate between life-affirming drives and life-denying drives. Freud argues that “the goal of all life is death” and as such, life

“must aspire to an old state, a primordial state from which it once departed.”

(Beyond 78)

Fitzgerald’s description of the comfort, security, and encompassing enclosure of his bed evokes a sense of his desire to return to this “primordial state” of “nothingness.” Sleep is an escape for Fitzgerald, an escape from life into temporary death, so it would seem."

John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse-sleep and his half-brother death (1874)


One of the first insights with regard to insomnia and the creation of texts comes with the relationship between the environmental conditions related to insomnia and the function of these conditions for the author. To return to the passage from Nabokov’s autobiography cited earlier, it is clear, given his hatred of having to sleep at all, that Nabokov sees productive value in his insomnia, and often spent “a sleepless night of verse-making”.

Dreaded by him as a child, his insomnia later became useful to his career, so that his friends

began “commending his nocturnal labors”. Part of the reason Nabokov and writers like Fitzgerald and Kafka were able to use their insomnia productively comes with the physical conditions insomnia affords, a combination of idleness and isolation.

For Nabokov, this time was used actively writing, at least sometimes. For Fitzgerald, it was used for contemplation. During bouts of insomnia, which he refers to as “a period of silence,” Fitzgerald “was forced into a measure that no one ever adopts voluntarily: I was impelled to think. God, it was difficult! The moving about of great secret trunks.”

(“Crack-Up” 78)

The “silence” for Fitzgerald gives spatial element to his thoughts, which he can envision as concrete objects within his mind. His imagery here is paradoxical, as it both renders thought as something predating his awareness of it, a thing in his mind that only awaits his “discovery” in a sense, a discovery that insomnia makes possible. Yet, at the same time, his ability to discover these thoughts is limited, as they are locked up in “secret trunks,” that though moveable, still remain closed. Fitzgerald continues, commenting that he “had done very little thinking” and that, the more he thinks, the more he realizes that

“there was not an ‘I’ anymore — not a basis on which I could organize my self respect. . . . It was strange to have no self.”

(“Crack-Up” 79)

Fitzgerald in 1937 (Carl van Vechten)

By maintaining the secrecy of these “trunks” of thought, which seem to exist simultaneously within and independent of his own mind, Fitzgerald effectively upends Descartes’ cogito: arguing instead, “I think; therefore, I am not.”

Insomnia is the point at which he is both able to “lose” his subjectivity, but remain conscious of this loss. This experience of loss of the self in the transference (“moving about”) of one’s thoughts reflects the liminality of authorship, in which the author transfers thought to the page so that these thoughts can exist external to, yet intrinsically connected with, the author’s self.

Insomnia creates an ideal circumstance for thought because it is often experienced in a state of isolation united with idleness, as one lies in bed awaiting sleep, which Bronfen suggests “offers a psychic state and stage for an encounter with one’s most intimate desires and anxieties”, or rather forces an individual to confront the existence of thought itself and the relationship between thought and awareness of existence.

Virginia Woolf also discusses the way in which one’s perspective changes both as a result of illness and time spent in bed :

"Illness invests certain faces with divinity, sets us to wait, hour after hour, with pricked ears for the creaking of a stair, and wreathes the face of the absent (plain enough in health, Heaven knows) with a new significance, while the mind concocts a thousand legends and romances about them for which it has neither time nor taste in health."

For Woolf, illness changes our relationship to ourselves, and therefore others, represented in this passage metonymically as “faces.” Significantly, it gives the ill person the ability to authorize these “faces,” endowing them from his or her unique perspective with a different significance, generated by the ill individual rather than the person the face signifies. Through illness, we do not just contemplate others, but actually create them in an image we determine, an act of authorship.

While insomnia and illness are far from synonymous, some of the significant features of illness to which Woolf points (isolation, time spent in physical inactivity, prolonged periods of waiting) are characteristics of insomnia as well. Woolf further notes the way the world changes from the view of the supine, arguing that

“the sky is discovered to be something so different from this everyday view that it really is a little shocking”

Virginia Woolf sitting in an armchair at Monk's House

The combination of these two conditions of isolation and idleness facilitates and encourages thought, but more importantly the transference of thought, even if that thought is not necessarily desirable but inevitable, as Fitzgerald, Bronfen, and Woolf observe.

Of these combined conditions of idleness and isolation and their resulting influence on perception, Walter Benjamin writes:

"Among the conditions of idleness, particular importance attaches to solitude. It is solitude, in fact, that first emancipates — virtually — individual experience from every event, however trivial or impoverished: it offers to the individual experience, on the high road of empathy, any passerby whatsoever as its substitute. Empathy is only possible to the solitary; solitude, therefore, is a precondition of authentic idleness."

Solitude allows the solitary individual to differentiate between perception and “objective” experience. In doing so, the individual can cease to view experience through only one lens, but rather creates a multiplicity of possibilities of reflection from various subjective viewpoints.

In other words, being able to reflect on experience from without, not as participant, but as observer, is necessary in the production of empathy, the ability to imagine experience from a different perspective."

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