Insomnia, the Thin Skin of Sleep

I’m not an insomniac; saying that I am would be for me a defeat, a sign of weakness, of giving over or giving in. At the same time—at any age other than the blessed period of innocent sleep, the kind cherub-cheeked guileless children who are still flawless and unmarked and able to embrace the cloud-round shape sleep can have—owning up to or even boasting about an inability to fall immediately into a deep and undisturbed eight hours speaks of careless, unmindful triviality. How can you sleep when … is the comment of the dark-circled and serious. Those who recognize and agree to do battle with—everything. At night.

Sleepless: A Memoir of Insomnia by noted French writer Marie Darrieussecq (Semiotext(e), 2023) is a lyrically written compendium. A boast, a plaint, a record and listing, an avid description of her own state of suspension and attendant anxiety and a generous inclusion of the sleeping grief and triumphs of myriad others. She looks to writers—colleagues—for comfort, and as a legitimizing endorsement. She’s not mad, just sleepless. She explains how or when it began. Her birth had been preceded by the birth, and death, of a brother she never knew, whose ghost haunted her life and her family home. She knew his misted presence so she couldn’t say she was untroubled by it, but she didn’t experience any physical manifestations of this family loss until the birth of her first child. Born premature, the baby came home after a month in an incubator, and now, responsible for him, knowing only that her acute and unflagging vigilance stood between him and the ghost of her brother, she was awake. She was a writer and she couldn’t write, she couldn’t sleep, but the words massed in her head, a block, a hill, an insurmountable escarpment whenever she found herself sliding into sleep.

Now insomnia has become a girdle or badge of honour and she lists her sleepless tossing, colleagues, writers all, desperate but productive. She says, “Insomnia and writing both thrive on the fantasy of the chosen.” Franz Kafka (who appears most often through the book and whom she identifies as the patron saint of insomnia), André Gide, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Dostoevsky, Borges, Marguerite Duras, Proust, Céline, Joan Didion, Leonard Cohen, who said, “The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world,” and early 20th-century French writer Violette Leduc, who wrote, bitterly, “A dead person left in a bedroom is more benevolent than a sleeping person.” Not with such wicked extreme, I understand the rush of resentment felt finding someone in your bed—off, gone, dead to the world in effect, leaving you alone, on your own, without company, no one on sentry duty, no one to chat with, to read a good paragraph to, no one to have a last crumby snack with. Alone. And that sleeping body is now separate, another, betraying the condition that is yours: the virtue and valour of insomnia. Sleeping slacker. I read the names, I read the writers Darrieussecq lists and I say, stepping to the fore and not even having to stifle a yawn, “Sign me up.” A coterie I’d be proud to align with. I’ll put the kettle on for camomile tea and we can sip in bed, together. Awake.

As an epigraph to a chapter in Sleepless, she quotes Andrei Tarkovsky from his diaries, Time Within Time, 1970–1986. He wrote, “Young plants grow at night. So do children and young animals.” Yes, I thought. That’s true. My children are some years apart but the same applied to both. Usually in February, maybe burdened by the lack of sunlight, the days short in our prairie winters, they would seem to wear down. This would have been elementary school. I would keep them home, happy for the company and not worried about serious ill health—just some malaise. They’d take up residence in their beds with books and crayons and sheets of coloured construction paper and glue, and small books with blank pages, oranges, cocoa, hours of being read to, our sharing language and pictures, listening to recorded stories on their wobbly record payers—animals on adventures, animal sounds, animals who spoke and delivered solid life lessons, and when they would emerge two or three days later they’d be noticeably taller, as though they had been watered.

That was bed, and bed was a refuge, but that’s not so for insomniacs where that place, which should be secure, is not. Is instead a source of anxiety, the fear of once again failing to achieve and be comforted by the soft blanket of sleep. From Kafka’s Diaries, 1910–1923, Marie Darrieussecq quotes his entry from October 2, 1911. “Sleepless night. The third in a row. I fall asleep soundly, but after an hour I wake up, as though I had my head in the wrong hole. I am completely awake, have the feeling that I have not slept at all or only under a thin skin, have before me the labour of falling asleep but feel myself rejected by sleep…. I sleep alongside myself, so to speak, while I myself must struggle with dreams.” A feeling of betrayal and faced, too, with the insecurity of being abandoned, rejected by sleep. Darrieussecq tells us a list can promise security, maybe the rocking monotony of repetition. For her, the lists are language and “reality adheres to language.” Lists are words and words are lines and here is familiar ground. Among the lists she gives us is an accounting of all the remedies she has tried. She is dutiful, serious. Herbal teas, acupuncture, cranial osteopathy, psychoanalysis, yoga nidra, meditation, fasting, hypnosis, the sensation without a name, a gravity blanket, A Morphic Relaxation and Sleep Aid Device, a Champs de Fleurs acupuncture mat, a polysomnography examination, the Alexander Technique, as well as metaphor and reading. An additional list is a pharmacopeia of sleeping pills, all engaged, some of them to good effect. Drugged.

Lines are also drawings. Artist Louise Bourgeois suffered bouts of insomnia for most of her long productive life and these periods of insomnia were similarly productive. Here, in this lifelong production, are repetitions, endless repetitions commensurate with the condition that was the wracking goad. Almost always in red ink, sometimes blue, and ballpoint pen, which would glide along the sheets without catching, on small sheets for ease of handling while seated. I’m looking at one, which is a mix of red and blue and maybe graphite, too. Even circles, a firm hand or compass or an outline drawn around the base of a small glass. Overlapping circles, causing, where they overlap in a doubled ring, to appear a kind of distortion in a glass, a wobble. I think of eyelids and watering eyes and lids that don’t close thoroughly, can’t close entirely, and I think of Kafka’s sense of sleeping alongside himself. The weakening exhaustion of not being fully, deeply asleep. A malady doubled, this split of wakefulness. You can watch him as you read his diary entries and truly feel a sympathetic anxiety for his inability just to sleep.

In sympathy, which, in her case, is also empathy, Darrieussecq writes about the endless condition of migrants—to be always on the move, to never be home on the small ship that is a safe bed of your own. “Nonpersons. And when you are a nonperson, your nonsleep—nonsleeping is all there is.” We are engaged in drafting and implementing, enforcing bills of rights, basic human entitlements. So basic: safety, something to eat, clean water, a place to rest in confidence. She writes, “Not to be dislodged, at least from one’s own sleep.” Sleep carries endless associations and meanings. Elie Wiesel in his memoir Night wrote about the death marches, “to sleep meant to die.” This is not insomnia. Insomnia is explicit or inherent in the individual, but it can, too, be drastic. Louise Bourgeois’s coils and spirals, a lifetime of 4:00 a.m. desperation. Too much spleen, a melancholy disposition, but Darrieussecq, referring to an attempt to cure her insomnia through engaging a shiatsu masseur, learned that “four in the morning is the hour of the liver.” The wisdom to be taken from this: resignation or a change of diet?

Marie Darrieussecq begins Sleepless in the present, her sleepless present, asking in her prologue, “What wild beast has devoured my sleep?,” but it isn’t until the book nears its end that we see the clear lines she has drawn. She concludes with animals, calling our attention to their being, making them present, reminding us how it is and that we fail to acknowledge them at our peril. She begins this memoir, which does look back at the accretions of a life’s living, with the source or perhaps evident cause of her insomnia, and she tells us that her extreme attentiveness, which meant unending vigilance, which meant two soft skin lids could never meet and kiss in sustained and tranquil rest, was because of the birth of her first child and two more. Now no longer required to be watchful without cease—the children safely grown—her insomnia continues. Here she picks up the line to her first mention of wild beasts, animals, all creatures. If we don’t see and recognize and maintain a habitable world for them, we will be alone. Cognizant of the destruction, mindless wanton destruction we have caused, we must know the animals have left us and let us bereft. Sleepless and without the ability to dream. We are emptying the world of all of them, and finally us. We have failed to take note of the world we have made and are leaving for the children, ours, hers. She is sleepless under the ashen grey burden of grief.

She includes in her book Primo Levi, who did somehow survive Auschwitz and then wrote and wrote. But here she is giving us an anecdote, a weighty anecdote about paying attention, and about suffering—all beings’ suffering. This is from Levi’s book of essays, Other People’s Trades. He wrote about coming upon a laboratory (he was trained as a chemist) for experiments on sleep deprivation. A squirrel was moving on a treadmill from which there was no exit. The laboratory was otherwise empty. The squirrel was clearly exhausted, Levi switched off the motor, the treadmill stopped, and “the squirrel,” he wrote, “fell asleep on the spot.” The study was interrupted and he holds himself perhaps responsible for less knowledge about sleep and insomnia. Darrieussecq asks, if we don’t recognize animals, see them as other beings, “Doesn’t it stop us from sleeping, to act as if they didn’t exist?” Think of the slaughters in North America, this once abundant continent. We have emptied it. Birdsong doesn’t wake me anymore. Darrieussecq asks, “What will we miss when the last orangutan is dead?” Their essential, unique presence, their specific mannerisms, skills, knowledge. Think of their eyes and what it is they see.

She writes, and she is so very right, “What we will also miss is their invitation: to ask ourselves who they are; and so to ask ourselves who we are. This movement toward them extends us, creates space within us, creates dreaming. Their presence elevates us. Their disappearance diminished us.”

We know what is happening; we know what we are allowing to happen. As she engaged lists in her memoir, she offers another one. You can identify it by how it begins: the dodo, the baiji dolphin of the Yangtze River, soon the North Atlantic right whale; the Saharan cheetah, the Californian red wolf, the woolly spider monkey from southeastern Brazil. The list goes on. Marie Darrieussecq writes, “And so the bestiary in our books is shrinking, the soundtrack of our nights is fading.”

Insomnia doesn’t seem like a disorder. Can we sleep? ❚