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The Literature of Dreaming: Part 2 (The Science of Sleep)

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I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?
― Ernest Hemingway

On Thursday 22nd October, Lavinia Greenlaw chaired a discussion between Jonathan Coe, Deborah Levy and Dr Russell Foster on all matters surrounding sleep at an event co-hosted by the Royal Society of Literature & Royal Society. Foster, a neuroscientist, opened by reminding the audience that 36% of our lifespan is spent sleeping. He described sleep as “the single most important behaviour we experience”, as well as giving a historical portrayal of its significance by citing Thomas Dekker, who thought that sleep was “the golden chain that holds health and our body together”.

Lady Macbeth refers to sleep constantly, using it to her advantage initially by making the sleeping state the moment to take the lives standing in her way, until it gets the better of her by abandoning her for good. She is deprived of rest, and yet clamours “To bed! to bed!” Shakespeare knew it was not something to be trifled with, and perhaps it wasn’t, until Thomas Edison came along. He thought sleep a criminal waste of time, and in inventing the light bulb he curtailed our natural sleep in a way candles and gas lamps didn’t and couldn’t.

Research continues to consolidate the link between mental illness and sleep disruption: illustrated by Foster’s graphs of hormone levels released whilst sleeping in the brains of schizophrenics. Sleep and mental illness have shared origins of overlapping neural pathways, as well as the more obvious factor that one is clearly able to influence the other. We need sleep to be able to use our brains as we would wish. The body at rest allows the brain to repair itself, sort information and perform memory consolidation, which is why we can sleep ‘on’ something and wake up with the solution.

Sleep deprivation actually puts the brain in an altered state, where you cannot tell how dampened a level it is working at. The part of the brain that controls impulse is asleep, which is why every idea seems outstanding when you are tired enough. Jonathan Coe said this was partly why he always felt sorry for Thatcher attempting to function on four hours a night. None of the three speakers put any faith in the concept of the brilliant idea at 3am. Rather than trust it for genuine inspiration, Coe recalled the story of a Hollywood producer who, agonized by ideas in the night dissipating on waking, put a pad by his bedside at his wife’s suggestion. The first morning he awoke to find he had written “boy meets girl” overnight.

Deborah Levy’s statement that “dreams tell us the things we don’t want to know but know anyway” clearly signposted that the scientific part of the evening was essentially over. She read Kerouac’s “rhapsodic manifesto” against sleep, containing his assertion that “the only ones” for him were “the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”. His rule of no yawners allowed does reveal the short jump between sleep avoidance and a fear of death. Just as brothers Hypnos and Thanatos lived cheek by jowl, some of us fear sleep in the event we should never wake again; Poe described sleep as “those little slices of death — how I loathe them”. Children require talismanic blankets and soft toys as part of their bedtime rituals in order to feel happy about going to sleep, but is this because of a painful (to them) separation from the waking world? Their fear of sleep could be more closely related to the threat of nightmare, depending on your personal views of the liminal state. Children are instructed to have sweet dreams, but more often see what truly lurks under the bed, or in the recesses of their minds.

Just as we have no control over the content of what we encounter within as we sleep, there is the area of considering what happens around us while we are unconscious. Jonathan Coe read from The House of Sleep, written 19 years ago about visiting a sleep clinic. Coe sleep walked frequently (nearly climbing out of a first floor window at one point) and decided not to visit a clinic, as he was frightened by the idea of being watched over while caught in the powerlessness of sleep. A parallel he drew with being in love. This powerlessness was summed up by a passage where characters Sarah and Gregory (an aspiring sleep clinician) have just had rather disappointing (for her) sex. The post-coital sleepiness and nostalgia were her favourite parts of the whole process. He tells her in one such period that his favourite part of her body is her eyelids, from watching her sleep. This is the first hint of his fondness for standing over sleepers. He likes to look down, fully in control, watching the helpless (a brilliant segue from sweet intimacy to sinister humour in the space of a few paragraphs). Sarah wakes from a nightmare where a creature has seized her by the eyes by its tongue, to find she cannot open her eyes as Gregory is holding her lids down with his fingers. He expressed a desire to see life flickering behind the lids.

If dream reveals the parts of the subconscious we would rather not tackle, daydream presented to Freud the ideal case scenario where we can make the little directions we desire to reality, much like the habit of thinking of a great response to an argument rather after the fact.

In the same way, we tend to think most truly in the quiet period immediately before sleep, moments described by Ondaatje in the English Patient “when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils. The day seems to have no order until these times, which are like a ledger for her, her body full of stories and situations.”

Full of possibility, in other words. Levy’s hypothesis was that only psychotics are truly certain. There is value in being separated from our certainties, as a state of floating helps ideas, and allows us to encounter endeavour. Our super conscious state – where we are at our most controlled and articulate – lies in direct opposition to a sleeping or semi-conscious state where you encounter what you can’t articulate, and you lack the imperatives to control it. As science has no definition for the unconscious, literature revels in bridging the gap. Coe’s apt response to Levy was that a novel or a poem is not a daydream, as there is control there. A controlled daydream then.

Science and literature agree that sleep is a transitional state. Raymond Carver captured it perfectly when he talked of crossing an invisible line to “a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation.”

The Editors

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