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Posts tagged ‘Shakespeare’

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


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

Books for prisoners

Books to prisoners

It is a special kind of ignorance that classes reading as a privilege that should be banned. Reading is not a privilege, nor is it a right. It is an act of consciousness. The symbols and the medium need not be letters and paper. Human beings read everything that they look at. Books, newspapers, pictures, faces, eyes, actions, landscapes, patterns of behaviour, groups of individuals, subliminal messages, reading is the act of sensing and interpreting.

Man is by nature a social animal”, says Aristotle, and reading is how we converse with the world, even in silence. Reading is not a drawbridge to be retracted nor can its object be erased. A text, once read, lives on in the mind far longer than the act of reading it. Books are the captured voices of others and they can lead us anywhere we need or wish to go. Why then deprive prisoners of guidance? That is not an act of punishment, nor even of vengeance. To guide the misguided must be one purpose of a justice system.

To those prisoners who are allowed to read, or who seek a book to accompany them in prison as they pass time: two of the best companions you could ask for are a collected works of Shakespeare and a copy of the King James Bible. Both are untempting and intimidating books to many readers on the outside but they are the richest and most rewarding books when read with time. Read them slowly, read them for pleasure. If it is all that is available to you, then you are rich: “Why, nature needs not what thou, gorgeous, wear’st, / Which scarcely keeps thee warm. But for true need – / You heavens, give me that patience, patience I need.” (here).

I can’t imagine how I would react to imprisonment. Not well. Bryan Keenan’s amazing An Evil Cradling dispelled my teenage idea that being kidnapped might be an interesting path to self-discovery. It is tempting, however, to think of the books that could be read, particularly by someone starting reading in earnest for the first time, in prison.

Perhaps one should start with stoic literature. BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy is a book I read at least once a year as a free person. It contains among my favourite lines of literature: “If you seek the help of the surgeon, you must first expose the wound” and I think I would revisit it as often as I could if I were in prison.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius might also offer solace and a model for survival: “If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you should be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happy.” Or Fox’s Book of Martyrs, on surviving and internalising persecution: “Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.” He stood unmoved in the flames, crying out, ‘Jesus, I believe’; and these were the last words he was heard to utter.”

Or perhaps there is more comfort to be had in the literature of imprisonment, exile or disaster providing a kind of commonality of experience. Kafka’s The Trial or Voltaire’s Candide might be my first ports of call (“I am the best man in the world, and yet I have already killed three men, and of these three, two were priests.”). I might attempt Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipeligo, though I have never managed yet, or branch out into the literature of metaphorical imprisonment, Zóla’s L’Oeuvre, in which a young artist is imprisoned by his artistic ambition, Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray or more literally, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Perhaps instead, the literature of escapism would be more enticing, giving life to J M G Le Clézio’s contention that literature is the true travel and opening up worlds real and unreal for the reader to escape into.

Either way, once read, a book can never be taken from you. So a lesson for all of us from the deprivation of literature from prisons is to read as much and as widely as we can, while we can. And for those suffering a ban on reading, perhaps they can take solace in the words of Benjamin Disraeli: “When I want to read a good book, I write one.”

The Editors

The comfort of King Lear

King LearKing Lear – William Shakespeare

Shakespeare in Modern Culture – Marjorie Garber

The name King Lear echoes for me with the tinny sounds of GCSE and A-level criticism. The blindness of Lear, the blindness of Gloucester, the insights of the Fool, Cordelia as the Fool, Kent as the Fool, the reader as the Fool, and of course dare I suggest it, the Fool as the Fool. For me, the playing fields of Shakespeare are marked and marred indelibly by the muddy boots of education. I long to come to Lear afresh, to read with innocence and the insight that comes only with the solo exploration of the virgin text. I envy anyone who has not read Lear, or does not remember reading it, their opportunity to read it in ignorance.

When I re-read the play for this review, I was mostly standing up. To read a play is a literally theatrical experience and I found myself occasionaly jousting with the book, or with a spare hand, allowing my feet to beat out the rythms of Shakespeare’s poetry and prose as I paced the house speaking the parts in my head or outloud; now Gloucester, now Regan, now Edmund, now Lear; constantly taking on and throwing off disguises, taking on and throwing off personae, reaching into and out of banks of memory and experience, in some places adding to them, in some places drawing from them – filling my head with words, trying them on my tongue, testing, exchanging and delighting in examining them so that by the end, more clearly than any other, I had this phrase of Regan’s ringing in my ears: “‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself.”

My first re-reading of the play was safely secured for a review. So I moved to read some criticism, and in doing so to expand the experiences I had gained by reading the play again. I turned to American critic, Marjorie Garber and her book of essays: Shakespeare in Modern Culture – chosen, mostly, for its proximity to my desk.

Lear, she contends, has been a century resurgent in fame against Shakespeare’s other great tragedy Hamlet. Lear’s star has risen on the back of a century of ‘ground zero’ events she says from the end of the Second World War to now: bookended (at her publication) by Hiroshima and 911. We are drawn to its ultimate bleakness, she writes, as opposed to the Victorian obsession with Lear’s redemptive ending. Paul Scofield’s extraordinary portrayal of the bleakest and brashest of Lears in Peter Brooke’s 1953 film adaptation captures this depressive critical zeitgeist at its lowest ebb. If you haven’t seen it, you really should.

Garber’s book is an inspired topic for literary criticism. It interprets the intrepretations of Shakespeare throughout the last century. Each new reader takes the code, the DNA, that is the bare text of the play and establishes their own hermeneutic, applying the bare text of the play to their own circumstances and inflecting it with the hopes, fears and colours of their times.

And once you have decided to, you can apply Lear to sociological phenomena quite easily in this way. Really the trick is taking the play and believing it is your own – exercising the reader’s proprietorial rights over it. For example:

Lear is a play about the financial and ecological crises that we are experiencing as extreme weather conditions and adverse fiscal conditions which have been operating to chip, smash and destroy our security, our happiness and our economic stability in the West for over a century. Edmund, the bastard, is regularly cast as the entrepreneurial rebel, shaking off the bounds of his illegitimacy to vault the vaunted, ‘legitimate’, position of his brother Edgar by the fabrication of a conspiratorial letter against their father, Gloucester. Edmund embodies the Thatcherite/Blairite rise of leveraged social mobility and prosperity, rising on a tide of engineered debt products, built on a century or more marked most strikingly by the meteoric rise of the limited liability company  – or in the words of Lear’s Fool:

Fool: Give me an egg and I’ll give thee two crowns.

Lear: What two crowns shall they be?

Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i’ the middle and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg. When thou clovest thy crown i’ the middle and gav’st away both parts, thou borest thine ass on thy back o’er the dirt: thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown when thou gavest the golden one away.

Lear is the pioneer, the early shareholder: leveraging, building, dividing his kingdom to maximise the pleasure of his retirement. Goneril and Regan are the ambitious, selfish, ill-bred offspring of a great tycoon brought low by his love of himself and his love of flattery and his blindness to the modesty of truth.

You see? It is relatively straight-forward. So Garber’s chief achievement was helping me let go of the academic King Lear. I can fabricate enough readings of it to satisfy my personal curiosity, to fill a great many quiet evenings – just by picking it up and reading it and thinking about it. It is a good parlour game, more informative than a Scrabble board or a Monopoly set, and with Lear all you have to do is read it for yourself, and to try to understand it in the broadest possible context and – as if by magic – it unlocks a world of pleasure and insight and entertainment.

What I learned by re-reading King Lear (and this play was written for me after all) is that if I were marooned on a desert island I could find an allegory for every hardship I would be likely to encounter contained within its pages. That, for me, is extraordinarily comforting.

The Editors

2. Writing and the Future

Good writing does not belong to a time. I remember explaining my relationship with my father as a teenager through the books I was studying and reading.  At GCSE we studied The Death of a Salesman, and King Lear, both were replete with themes that seemed particularly close to my experience, that seemed to speak to my understanding of the world, of the family, of respect and its place in our relationships. Those stories could not have been written about people and places more distant from my own upbringing in late twentieth century, home counties England. Yet I developed a reading of those books that fitted my own life experiences, that spoke to my own views of the world. Had you sat Arthur Miller and my sixteen year old self down and asked us to talk about The Death of a Salesman you would have heard us discussing two different books. I had a developed my own hermeneutic of that book: or more precisely I had read the play and taken from it what I wanted and left a great deal of the rest.  I have not read it since and I have never seen it performed.

Milan Kundera describes the distance between the author and his readers, opened up by the blandness, the coldness of the printed word in his wonderful book of essays, Testaments Betrayed“When a famous professor of medicine asked to meet me because he admired Farewell Waltz, I was most flattered. According to him my novel was prophetic; in my character Skreta, a doctor who treats apparently sterile women at a spa by injecting them secretly with his own sperm with a special syringe, I have hit on the great issue of the future. […] he looks me in the eye again: much as he admires my work, he does have one criticism: I did not manage to express powerfully enough the moral beauty of the gift of semen. I defend myself: this is a comic novel! […] I am baffled and suddenly I realise: there is nothing harder to explain than humour.”

Lear is different. I find with great authors like Shakespeare and Dickens, if you are to read them at all, relationships with them change a great deal over time.  Where I once loved Oliver Twist as a child, A Tale of Two Cities has surpassed all Dickens for me in early adulthood. Still, Lear is a most extraordinary tale of family.  The opening scene of King Lear, as written or performed, is among the most haunting pieces of writing I have ever read or seen acted: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

Certainly, the aim of Miller and Shakespeare was not to write for my sixteen year old self’s personal development, to explain the world to me in any way that they could imagine or even I. Yet, that is how I read them.  That is the reason that books make it from the past and into the future. In fact it is how books write the future, if they do at all: they go on being written each time someone reads them. They exist in the past and in the future because they are meaningful to both, more than mere political comment, more than historical artefact.  Books can bind us to an understanding of ourselves, old ones as much as future ones.

The Editors