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The Vast Conspiracy to Create Insomniacs

Insomnia is exactly what the movers and shakers of our society want for us.

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The Literary View

Writers, past and present, have been no strangers to insomnia. An incomplete, ad hoc list of confessed insomniacs includes Charles Dickens, the Bront' sisters, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, Lewis Carroll, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, and Philip Larkin. Other possible sufferers were Sappho, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dostoevsky—all of whom wrote about insomnia as if they knew it all too personally. As you'd expect, insomnia is often paired with guilt, fear, and despair. In the Divine Comedy, adulterous lovers in the second circle of hell are kept perpetually awake by a "hellish hurricane, which never rests, drives on the spirits with its violence: wheeling and pounding, it harasses them. . . . Now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them. There is no hope that ever comforts them, no hope for rest and none for lesser pain." (Lying awake at 4:00 a.m. listening to the winter wind howling and rattling the windows provides a reasonable facsimile.)

Probably Shakespeare was the master of characterizing insomnia as the wages of sin and guilt. Think of Macbeth's cry to himself after he's murdered Duncan: "Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! Macbeth hath murdered sleep'—the innocent sleep. Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care." Or Iago, about Othello, whom he deceives into becoming jealous of the innocent Desdemona and murdering her: "Not poppy nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou own'dst yesterday." Or Queen Margaret, who curses serial killer Richard III: "No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, Unless it be while some tormenting dream Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils."

But in more modern times, a tradition has emerged linking insomnia, like madness and melancholy, not so much with guilt as with Faustian powers of creativity and imagination, and perhaps even the promise of immortality, not granted to dull slugabeds catching their nightly eight and a half hours. "There is a nocturnal personality, a nocturnal spirit, distinct from that of daylight and available only in solitude: hence the secret pride of the insomniac who, for all his anguish, for all his very real discomfort, knows himself set apart from others," writes Joyce Carol Oates in her preface to Nightwalks: A Bedside Companion. "Unable to sleep, one suddenly grasps the profound meaning of being awake: a revelation that shades subtly into horror, or into instruction," continues Oates, who's herself both an insomniac and a master of literary horror fiction.Franz Kafka seems to have taken both "instruction" and "horror" from insomnia: his sleeplessness, waking dreams, and the turbulence of his imagination all erupted together in the creation of his surreal and nightmarish fictions. "I believe this sleeplessness comes only because I write," he explained in his diary. "[I feel] especially toward evening and even more in the morning, the approaching, the imminent possibility of great moments which would tear me open, which could make me capable of anything, and in the general uproar that is within me [I] find no rest. . . . My being does not have sufficient strength or the capacity to hold the present mixture, during the day the visible world helps me, during the night it cuts me to pieces unhindered." Insomnia for him, too, was a no-man's-land, both enchanted and damned, the source of visions that, in their power, nearly destroyed him.

In some literary works, the insomniac sets him- or herself proudly above the natural laws mandating sleep, but pays for this arrogance in a horror of madness, damnation, or death. At the end of Isak Dinesen's short story Night Walk, a guilt-ridden insomniac encounters an ugly redheaded man, who sits at a table and counts a pile of silver coins over and over. Repeating "with extreme arrogance" and "deep scorn, "I never sleep. Only dolts and drudges sleep,'" the coin-counter reveals himself to be none other than Judas Iscariot, who hasn't slept since the night he betrayed Jesus. Now, he's doomed to spend eternity alone with his demonic pride, his 30 pieces of silver, and his insomnia.

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