Saturday, May 15, 2010

Of Insomnia

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under the conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream."

- the first sentence in Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House"

I can't remember exactly when my "bouts" [am I fighting it?] of insomnia began. I've had recurring episodes or events and patterns of insomnia my entire life - at least, I remember it that way. I can remember staying awake for hours and hours when I was younger, listening to the sounds of the night outside my house while the rest of my family slept. In those days insomnia was a blessing rather than a burden or something to be avoided, as I loved the night and relished the thought of having those silent small hours completely to myself, even if I would only be in my bed reading, or sitting, staring out the window.

The night sounds are special sounds to me, and where I grew up they weren't the sounds of the city, or the sounds of mechanisms [enacting/reacting] and machinery. I grew up in a relatively small town [pop. 10,000] in south Texas, and parts of that town were still farmland, other parts were ranches, oil fields, vast vacant meadows, empty stretches of woodland and scrub trees, creeks, summer camp land, etc. I lived in a large new house on the very edge of town, but as I grew older the town I lived in was growing as well and it slowly swallowed up the neighborhood I lived in. Now, at this point, my old house is closer to the center of the town than it is to one of the outer perimeter neighborhoods. There was a stretch of woods [in that part of Texas a "forest" does not exist, and no one ever uses that term] right across from my house and I used to spend a lot of time wandering through those trees. If you traveled through them, a walk of about 15 minutes, over to the other side, you came out on prairie or ranch land that stretched on as far as you could see. There were fences and a few houses but for the most part it was completely empty, and that "emptiness", in my dreams, always made me fearful, even as it gave rise to all sorts of fantasies in my mind as to what could exist beyond it, or in the "middle" of it. When one is younger distances are so much more meaningful, awe-inspiring. I populated the land between my house and the Gulf of Mexico with all sorts of fantasy creations, the distance truly seemed endless, it might have been an entire world's breadth. Later, when I grew up and had a dependable car and could travel to Galveston Island and the Gulf in a half an hour or so, I forgot about all of those nights where I dreamed about traveling in strange places between my town and the ocean, and all of the things I saw there.

The world seemed to become smaller, and so much colder...

Not really. It sounds good, though, doesn't it? The truth is that car opened up to me whole new worlds of stretching Texas horizons, new vistas and distances. In Texas one craves emptiness because it is the natural order of things.

When I was growing up one of the most prevalent night sounds was the echoing of cars passing by my house on one of the main streets [I guess one could call it a highway] which ran in front of our small subdivision. Our house was about two hundred yards away from that road, but the sound of tires on cement [warm cement and asphalt that never cooled, having been baked all day in the Texas sun], that hissing, sibilant, moaning sound of cars passing in the night, always lured me into daydreaming [in the night] and I could listen to it for hours. I would lie in bed and just dream/wonder about all of those cars, where they were going, what people were inside them, what they were going towards, what people were doing at that time in the "morning", etc. All of it seemed slightly sinister to me, and more than a little mysterious...were they on their way to a rendezvous? What kinds of meeting? Why did people drive so fast at three in the morning in that little town? What were they headed towards, or running away from?

I wanted so much to go with them, anywhere...just to be able to travel, to move, to see new things, to meet new people, to experience something, anything...

Hot, black asphalt bleached in the egg-yellow glow of an arc-light overhead, humming and stirring among clouds of insects on a humid south Texas night.

And how many people, driving through that small town so early in the morning or late at night, never even thought of the others lying awake all around them, tossing and turning feverishly in their beds, staring into the darkness, thinking of those cars and what they represented...the freedom, the excitement, the ability to just leave, to run away, to go anywhere one wanted to and meet anyone else...to live life, to escape? I would stretch out my mind across the two hundred yards that separated me from the roaring highway and it created a field of energy through which those cars had to pass. Their sounds, hidden inside behind shaded glass and molded steel, filtered deep into my ears and imagination, my mind reached out and swept through them, feeling their dreams, their desires, their urgency, their desperation...

Later, when I was older, I would open up my window in the night and set a candle on the edge of the windowsill as a summons, because at that time, with my room on the second floor and my mind lost in fantasies of escape, of Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe, I could imagine that the little road that surrounded our subdivision was not a poor covering of tar and asphalt but a great gray beachhead, a sea wall, and beyond it I could hear the sounds of tires on the highway, which always reminded me of waves breaking on the shore...and I would look out that window through the fog of the early morning with the trees in the distance appearing out of the mist and moonlit air like the great masts of ships, swaying in the humid air, the night wind, and I would cast my mind out into that world searching, always searching...I would call to those whom I loved, supposedly, and ask them why they never came. No one ever appeared. And if they did, and I had to die in order to go with them - what did it matter? Who cared? I surely didn't. People would make generalizations, excuses, seek lessons, come to unsupported conclusions, smugly assure themselves of this or that. The world keeps on turning, grinding away. What did it matter if one more boy fell early?

One spent one's life in the flight from clichés, in the hope that this action of fleeing, a turning away from, a rejection and shuddering withdrawal from banality, would make one more original. Profound. Meaningful. Worthwhile to someone else. Who? The invisible, ever-present other I assume. One fled from small town suburban clichés right into the arms of even larger ones.

I slept very little in my last years of High School. I slept even less in my years of college. And now, at this point, as I age almost as an afterthought, age not meaning much anymore, I sleep very, very little, sometimes not at all. I am caught, inexorably, irredeemably, in that web which keeps the insomniac immured within dull gray days and listless, blank stares. Empty nights, one after another, surrounded by white sterile walls and silence. Too tired to sleep. Paralyzed. Too tired to read, to dream, to fantasize, too tired to move. Too tired to turn over in bed when one position becomes uncomfortable, too tired to get up and seek something to do: anything, everything, whatever. "Get out of bed!" all the Puritan advisors in the self-help books say. "Going without sleep won't kill you, but not solving your problems will!" Do they think all insomniacs are rendered sleepless by unfinished business, untidy sums in the checkbook? Are all insomniacs solvers of world problems, ruminating in the still hours over peace at large? Do we dream of religion, of mass movements, of God in His Heaven, of His Son on His Cross? Are we troubled by sin, by shame, by guilt, by bad memories, bad faith? Lies told, lies unfinished and still breathing?

For sleep, deep, peaceful, guiltless, sound sleep, "healthy" sleep...that is the gift and reward of the righteous. The innocent. The ignorant. The deranged. The retarded. The imbeciles. The Holy.

The self-righteous, correct? The self-satisfied, the ones who look in the mirror in the morning and smile. The ones who see their life as a road, a straight line, an arrow, a goal. God is in His Heaven and all is right with the World.

What about those of us who can not sleep...seemingly for no reason at all? What about those of us who can not sleep because we do dream, and not in the pale washed-out colors of the self-righteous? What about those of us who can not sleep because we should be sleeping during the day while we the world is getting and spending? What about those of us who do not sleep because the night is the only time there is silence in the world?

What about those of us who long for sleep, who wait for it like an abandoned child waiting and wishing for an absent parent, and who wait in vain? The ones who can feel Sleep trembling above their heads like a pendant black cloud of rolling, chilled ink, swirling and gleaming in the light, surrounded by fumes and seething vapors, that Goddess, a death-dealing Ghost, and who pray to that vision in vain? For Sleep doesn't come. If only it would, even if it was just to choke or suffocate...

There is a certain point of sleeplessness when one's mind detaches from one's personality or Will, and one watches it leave with the merest shrug, a tiny glance askance, a slight spitting movement with one's lips. Twelve years of high mathematics? Gone, shrugged aside like an unwelcome visitor, sloughed off so the lust of the Reptile Brain can pine for the desserts of pure experience: sake itself on time...bitter, marching, remorseless time. The Reptile Brain wants to see white walls descending, quaking, shivering. It wants to stare at a computer screen and listen to Sibelius [how sweet and pure the strings in the first movement of the second Tempest suite sound when they are played at 4 AM!] and every now and then clasp its hands together and pray to an impotent idol for a dream that was forgotten by civilization one hundred years ago. What dream? Any dream, any sound that may bring sleep and forgetfulness...

Progress!

Fifteen years of philosophy and literature, the pursuit of the world's authors in a Rabelaisian spirit, all invited to the feast? Gone, disappearing in the night like a coin under a handkerchief, flying up a black Tuxedo sleeve, vanishing behind a wide smile. Eaten by the sleepless. The personality is one of the first functions to go, actually, as it's relatively useless. The selfish genes don't need that piece of fluff to reproduce, to feed themselves and procreate. All one needs is a Will and a Way, and if the Will is ground beneath the heel of endless time, days after unnumbered days, all the better. Sun rises, sun sets. One fluid motion. I become a spinal cord, a stomach, a bladder.

A sack with a face.

Even for the supposedly sleepless there are brief periods of respite, though. I dive into those periods of darkness - of sweet, cold, silent nothingness - like a drowning man coming up for air. I would barter away almost anything in my life for those times. I often do...as I give up everything that is supposedly meaningful for me [everything that I am "working" towards - vanity!] in order to purchase those hours of emptiness. Inside I carry that Texas horizon of cold winds roaring down the plains, echoing, seething starlight over the rustle of broken branches and the whispering of the woods. Where is the key?

That man in an invisible Patagonia who never slept, who only sat down in his kitchen after walking out of the Old Man and the Sea and read newspapers, cleanly pressed, his hands smelling of dusty ink and fishhooks, was stark raving mad. Or rather: he transcended madness in that he saw it for the sham that it really is. Calmly walking past it, he picked up his fishing pole, his net, his toolbox, and set to work. "So I'm insane," he said, "what now?" "What of it?" When he felt like lying down for a little while out came the flat, crisp newspapers, and sleep retreated beneath the weight of World Events. I would not want to be that man for all the money in the world - for all the beautiful women in the world, for anything and everything. A life without an extinction of consciousness, without rest from the drudgery of existing would be too much for me to bear. Can you imagine? Never sleeping, for eighty years? The extent of that torture would surely make even the hardiest devil go pale and cross himself.

Or maybe He's behind it?

There is the point at which one goes mad, barks at the moon, adopts a conservative political philosophy, raves, attacks one's neighbors, and then - when nothing comes of it - settles down and lives one's life. For even the insane have to live, they have to eat, they have to find things to do. Supposing one "goes" insane [such medieval concepts] and lets loose the reins by which one manages to exist peacefully with one's neighbors - what then? Even the insane have to occupy themselves somehow. The notion that the insane are somehow compensated for their insanity by having endless things to think about insanely is a great myth. The insane are just are bored as you or I am...they just hide it better.

I've always thought it was unfair that only the insane know that insanity is a myth. Why don't they share their wisdom? Perhaps we don't speak the same language anymore?

And now I'm going to try to go to sleep. I still believe in redemption, you see.

U. Amtey
22 October 2003
4:05 EST