AN ESSAY IN THE SPIRIT OF HETEROBIOGRAPHY
Sleep. The word has a lovely ring to it, hasn’t it? It sounds plural, as much as book sounds singular. One sloop, two sleep. That’s how it should be. And sleep, you can see it coming, is always multiple. Not sure this jibe will be of use, but here we go, it isn’t the worst place to start. So, sloop. In the OED:
- sloop, n.1
- a. A small, one-masted, fore-and-aft rigged vessel, differing from a cutter in having a jib-stay and standing bowsprit.
- b. A relatively small ship-of-war, carrying guns on the upper deck only. Also in full. Also in full sloop-of-war.
- †2. A large open boat; a long-boat. Obs.
- sloop, n.2
- 1. A simple form of drag used in lumbering. Hence sloop v. trans., to draw on a sloop.
- A small anti-submarine warship used for convoy escort in the Second World War.
Both senses, ship and hook, sailing and lumbering, are easily plied to our present purpose. On the one hand, the longing for the wild freedom of the waves, the proud silhouette of sails and the thundering thrill of epic naval warfare. On the other, the heavy, sluggish logs painfully dragged on the muddy ground, stubborn as corpses.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not here for the lit fluff. I mean, I am. Am not! Totally am. Blah blah blah. Order! Let’s try and do it the right way. It’s only been half a page. Ok ok.
Only two things matter here: sleep, first and foremost, and war.
When I say sleep, I also include weaker forms, such as laze, depressive states or even low mood.
Regarding war, I leave to others the speculation about the real, big one to come. Mine shall be the old, stale war for literary existence, itself embedded in the larger conflict zone of the ‘good life’. For those of us who had the trivial misfortune of having had it rather easy, it might well be the only battle left. The possibility, however, that some parts of the present endeavour speak to readers with wider, more relevant interests, is not altogether excluded. All I can say is that it would be good, but cannot be promised nor hoped for.
Unlike Anne Carson (in an essay called ‘Every Exit is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep)’1), my intention is not to praise sleep. Sleep is a curse, a sign of weakness, a daily reminder that my life, hopes, etc., are in shambles, have been for a while now, and aren’t showing any sign of any forthcoming unshambling. I hate sleep and its unfettered dominion. Hopefully as much as the drunk hates the bottle or the junkie the needle. This essay might have been called ‘Sleep: A Dyslogy’, hadn’t I found something I prefer. At its root the desire either to fend off this dangerous disease, or maybe, let me be pessimistic here, to come to terms with it.
Since, despite my best intentions, I can’t resign myself to this bleak conclusion, I have forcefully enjoined my psyche’s secret services to come up with a plan. After a purge or two, that’s what they came up with: if sleep cannot be reasoned with, it must be weaponized.
So be it.
Heterobiography: a misintroduction
What is heterobiography? Biography, written by another. The opposite of autobiography, nitwit. Right. However, in this case, it is written by the same, isn’t it? Technically it is, I confess. Therefore, we have to loosen the knot of the commonsense definition a little, invoking Fernando Pessoa for help. Heterobiography could be to autobiography what heteronymy was to his name. A way of crafting oneself as another. A path, at long last, toward alienation. Writing about others is of course an edifying exercise, that all of us, in this sad not-quite-Wittgensteinian world, have to tackle at one point or another, despite the futility of it all. Writing about oneself, on the other hand, is the nasty little task that so few truly commit to. Become one’s own Lucian Freud or Jenny Saville. Such a lofty quest! Something well worth dozing for.
A word or two about the form at this stage could be judicious. Just like sleep, the whole bio- element is just a pain in the arse, you can’t begin to fathom. My shackles, I would say, but I suspect I am not alone in this. They might even call this autofiction, if they are snob. As if I could be mistaken for a Frog. Pah. Shivers of horror at the idea.
That was Charybdis. And there we have Nonfiction, rubbing its tentacles, ready to eat all my crew, a greedy Scylla that ate the entire English-speaking media! Nonfiction. Its grin crueller than all Cheshire cats in all the cat cafes of Tokyo combined! Especially in the press, a particularly dirty business to start with, it is obscenity and depravity combined. Starting an article or essay with witnesses, lives, quotes, real people, etc., is just as unseemly as extracts of ‘praise’ on book covers, in movie trailers, and the like.
The nonfictional, therefore, shall be neutralised, and biography, mine, we’ve established that, placed under the sign of the hetero instead of the auto. Neutral heterobiography, that will be it. Less of an I speaking and more of an it. Perhaps anticipating, if only precipitating, the advent of a mechanical Pessoa.
Back to sleep now. Where were we? Ah, yes. Sleep the archenemy. Sleep the thick bonds keeping me firmly on the ground (read: bed). Sleep the blue pill Morpheus shoves down my throat every night2.
I am a child of the Fight Club generation, and even though I have never been in love with my flat or furniture I am nevertheless guilty of waiting, still, after all these years, for my Tyler Durden to take my hand, acid-burn it and drag me out of existential shittiness/inferiority.
Sleep, in that regard, is that nagging reminder that something isn’t going as planned. And that reminder has been of a strikingly disgusting nature. To my robotic aspirations it could be said to feel it a bit like that turd that more often than not refuses to go down the accursed Great British toilet, sometimes even after three consecutive flushings.
It is an implacable enemy. Like genocide or pandemics, it can only be kept at bay, for a while, with the grim certainty of its return, no doubt where you least expect it. Its embrace is sweet as the cold blizzard of December, each day, sometimes more than once, I can feel like the little match girl lulled away by its seductive whisper. How can it be resisted? Everything else is pushing and resisting, stagnation or botched attempt. It sings the relieving song of daily defeat, a most welcome little death, since neither giving up nor winning are any longer in the realm of the achievable.
But sleep is also the other thing, like all self-respecting φάρμακα3. Not only the relief, but, in some way, also the burden itself. The body feeling old before it should. The mind feeling heavy for no reason, and that weight materialising into leaden limbs and back. Thats where it’s getting even more romantic: sleep, when bored of playing the role of the lotus-feeder, sprawls all over me, improvising itself the heavy wings of Charlie’s albatross. And I, not even ill-disposed, take this opportunity to conjure myself as flatteringly as I can, namely: too big to fly.
The gradual increase of sleep over the past three to four years hasn’t gone unnoticed. It seems to follow a curve not too dissimilar from an increase in debt. An existential one, however, for now at least. You can sleep, ok, but that means you’ll have to be more productive afterward. Agreed. How can you not agree? But of course when the times comes to be that man at last, the Motherfucking Demiurge of Thy Time… Oh boy, back to bed. In short, the heavier the burden, the more inescapable the naps, the less productive the being.
Needless to say, the situation now is a life as sleepy as it is austere4. There is loose empirical evidence showing that the reverse is true: they sleep less because they do a lot, even if their doing is ineffectual, even if doing means working long hours or going out to the pub every night.
The sense of ease, at least at a ‘bodily’ level, has never been as high, and yet the degree of internal dissatisfaction has skyrocketed, unsurprisingly, as the overall configuration drifted further and further away from the craved one, namely the combination of ‘hardness’ (hard work, hard will, hard cock,…) and jouissance (exultation, joy, triumph,…). There appears an obvious way out: that’s what has been lurking below this whole affair. The difform, limp desire to undermine said combination. To overthrow it. To bring its ruthless reign to an end.
Such righteousness. Not that I ‘desired’ anything of the sort in any conventional sense of the term. Certainly not. In fact, I still burn for it. Oh yes, intensely, obscurely, filthily. Hotter, and more soaked, I am and remain, than the underwater bastards along the Ring of Fire in the Pacific.
Listful Interlude: Some Rather Neutral Schedule Data
Sleep patterns as observed in recent years:
- Night: never before 1 am, but rarely after 3 am (except if a new TV series has just been released, then usually the boundary is pushed to about 6, and exceptionally 7 or 8, if it happens to be True Detective).
- Morning: emerging before 11 am synonymous with pain, primarily in the head, but also sometimes in the chest. After 12 to 1230 pm guilt finally kicks in and decrees the day unavoidable.
- Afternoon: usually around 1 to 3 pm, sometimes but less often later, 3 to 6 pm. If some form of stress forced rise at 10 am or earlier. If loneliness, stagnation, or any bad news, singled out or in sets (seven possibilities, taking ‘bad news’ as one discrete element for the sake of simplicity), have to be dealt with in doses above the bearable.
- N.B.: early to late evening, 6 pm to 1 am seems to be the time of the day most often spared by the sleep disease.
Sleep vs work:
- Sleep instead of (or before) sitting at desk. (Even if a cup of scalding Asian tea is included.)
- Sleep instead of (or before going to) coffee shop.
- Sleep instead of (or before going to) library. (Rarer version of previous one.)
- Sleep instead of (or before slowly dealing with) admin tasks, such as CV writing and applications, cleaning room, buying food, etc.
- Sleep instead of (or before slowly dealing with) working. (Same as previous one, when still employed.)
- Sleep instead of (while) adding a line or two to the Fitzcarraldo prize essay.
Sleep vs exercise:
- Sleep instead of (or before going out for) a jog.
- Sleep instead of (or as soon as considering the possibility of) starting something else, from swimming to martial arts, not excluding fitness, dance classes, etc. etc.
Sleep vs thought:
- Sleep instead of thinking about work (and the grim prospects of life waste it entails).
- Sleep instead of thinking about money (and the ever so dull ways of earning it).
- Sleep instead of thinking about the future (dark, failed, boring).
- Sleep instead of thinking about the past (nostalgia or disappointment, depending).
- Sleep instead of thinking about literature (excrutiation, crude hate).
- Sleep instead of thinking about music (unrequited love turned into bitterness).
- Sleep instead of thinking about girls (desire, disempowerment, anxiety).
- Sleep instead of thinking about fame (the one true cancer).
- No sign of sleep when checking the news (international, mostly political and economic).
Without action, and without work, nothing happens. Nothing but defeat, misery, oblivion. Or so the mantra goes. How could sleep, negative and passive state par excellence, could be the way forward? The way anyward, in fact, at this stage. Well, let it be clear, it isn’t. I don’t think there is a solution to this. I haven’t found anything solid yet, and am not expecting to find one any time soon.
The problem is set in a way that is quite similar to imprisonment: when in the cell, fucked for life, or waiting on death row, is it possible to argue, Boethius-style, that these four damp walls, with a rat squeak or two from time to time, are victory, triumph, overcoming? It doesn’t seem to be. Not to me at least, not now. Not unless a decent dose of mental twisting verging on madness (or Christianity)5.
And that might well be the root of the paradox: if any way were to be found, there would indeed be triumph, etc., which would instantly be sublimated into the imperial miasmas of worldly success.
That is, I suppose, where weaponization kicks in. A hunger strike, maybe? That did not get them very far. They are not even mentioned in schools yet, I am told. How is that even their fault? At least they had the merit of standing up to the ironiest cunt this island has produced in about four hundred years! True, true. This is completely off topic! Isn’t. Totes is! Ok, ok, let’s leave it at that.
I’ve tried the self-bashing, mortifying road, that’s not the way. Sure, there is some energy to it. You can feel the whip in your hand, you do something with it. But too little comes of of it. We need something directed outward. And, if possible, not entirely destructive. A just war, they call it, I think. Goodness, that doesn’t sound good. Nope. It. Does. Not. Let’s think about this some more.
During conscious time, dreams of action have the upper hand, dictate the rules, etc. In this sense, wakefulness is full of dreams, perhaps full of those dreams that have been expelled out of morphetic lands. (We will come back to that.) The dream of getting up rid of depression, for instance. The dream of working all day. Oh, yes. 9 am to 9 pm at least. Then go out. Sleep four hours a night, like Napoleon or Balzac. Yes! Yes! The dream of having exciting projects. That as well. Projectlessness is one of the few things I don’t wish my worst enemies to experience. At least not publicly. Almost forgot: the dream of wanting to learn more (instead of just learning out of habit, sometimes out of boredom).
While all that is going on, sleep stays in power. Sometimes it appears as the result of a failure to make efforts. It used to be possible. To set myself to it. With enthusiasm. But now only easy things remain in reach, and difficulty, which requires effort, seems forever banished. Hence the following working equation (ideally read with knell-like gloom): all your efforts shall be in vain. That is, as soon as you try and go that way, sleep will be there, your own personal Cerberus, barking at your face with ever renewed rage. And you will turn back. You shall not pass. You will need to sleep straight away as soon as there will be even the slight sign of tiredness. For the tech-savvy: imagine a device needing charging as soon as it reaches 90-95% battery.
Therefore, what shall be possible is only what does not require from you any struggle, any push. You may read, but only a few pages. The more difficult the book, the shorter the session. Often it will be reduced to a few lines at most. You shall try your hand at writing and, apart from prizes, which might be Dr. Frankenstein’s miraculous current for the sewn limbs of your mind, you won’t succeed in going further than than a line or two. More often than not without any syntax at all.
Morpheus Blacked Out
All this talk of sleep… Where are the dreams? Dreams, that’s the weapon we need, isn’t it? The transformational force, the healing engine at the core of us all, etc. Working for us even (especially) when we don’t want it to. The truth of what is happening during the day, what is lurking below the surface. All that old rubbish.
Dreams, and by that I mean, let us be very clear, the thing you do in bed when you’re not there, can be the reservoir of inspiration and truth for those who have, as Carson says of Socrates, ‘faith in [their] own poetic inspiration’. That might be the brilliant reason why in the present case no voice is to be heard in the bower of Morpheus. The garden is mute, the songs of nightingales have been replaced, good riddance, with the creaks of cranes and the rolling rumble of the London Underground cars.
For a time I was tempted to take the absence of dreams as a symptom. I am no longer. Now I am resolute in making it a choice: a paradoxical stand for Freud against Jung, even if both of them were heavy dream addicts.
Why on earth would I choose such a thing? Well, first of all, dreams are the easy path, with only a few exceptions. I am much more into black sleep, that’s the real thing that is to be dealt with. Black as Death, 1346-53 AD. The kind of Black Jerome Bosch was fond of. Black as an oil spill, to be modern. In French they call them black tides, way more suggestive. To put it even more bluntly: ditch-black. Yeah, I said ditch. The uncrafted/rough furrow of collective memory where we leave the soaked dead kids and the blissful dictators. All snug together. Like a family, I can hear them say. Like a family, yeah, that could be it.
Darling, you are being grim again. Am I? A tiny bit, yes. Oh, yes, sorry, it comes to me, you know, and before I realise it I’m knee-deep in it… It’s all right, it’s all right, just don’t forget to be a good boy, and keep trying and steering your course, just how your teachers told you to, ok? Of course, of course, I’m right at it!
Sleep, associated with death since the earliest ages, as a specific form of the negative, in this case applied to conscious organic life. One can distinguish three stages of the negative: 1) the absolute negative, death itself; then two forms of partial negativity, 2) a. dreamless sleep, for one, and the weaker form, 2) b. inhabited sleep, the one Freud and Jung contended with.
Why is it the second possibility is ours? Don’t ask, or, rather, you tell me. That’s how it is for now. The real question is, what the purgatory am I going to do with that?
It could all be reduced to the sheer mechanicity of it. Sleep, and it’s power, especially for the midn, but without any image, any representation, any meaning. Pure blackness that acts as a solvent. As a mute. The reset button.
In a sense, we are not, despite appearances to the contrary, in a enquiry about death. The question, like in Spinoza and a few others, is always life. And what life does through sleep, especially this deep, blind, black one. What is this blow life deals unto itself, as it were, shutting itself down over and over again?
Let us not fail here to see the Hegelephant in the (bed)room: this really is the question of negativity, and its alleged power. Žižek against Badiou, if you will. The hypothesis being, not only is there something after the reset, but something which is not the same as if things has carried on uninterrupted. By restarting, seemingly from the ground up, something has shifted, even if most of the time imperceptibly.
Which is also what the combination fears above all: being poked. Ever so slightly.
By Sleep’s Finger of Mess Distraction.
Short Writs (on Literature)
John Keats, ‘To Sleep’. Isn’t it striking that the Romantic figure whose style feels most trenchant and precise is the one who yearns for relief and “a bower quiet for us”? Maybe there is a conjecture to be thrown there. The yearning resulting from an inner poetic intensity, in a near-physiological way, as thirst follows exertion.
Proust’s bed and the “big black woman”. Almost as much time spent in bed of late as him yet he was fifty and sickly. And rich. No sign of a woman for now, especially no big black one. Sometimes spiders of different sizes daydreamt instead. Creeping into the bed, the biggest ones peeping through the window. Mothers, of course, mothers.
It’s quite sad Spiderman is already taken. That would have been a literary alias of choice. Maybe I should try my luck with stick insects…
Finnegans Wake, the all too often unassailed kingdom of sleep. A bad dream, for sure, but unquestionably, despite the insignificant growl of a few contemporary obscurantists, the best bad dream of the century. It is also by far the heaviest book—spiritually speaking—I was given to open. Once again, hypnotic vessel and cumbersome load combined.
As wakeful narration recedes, from the middle of Joyce’s trajectory onward6, something happens to time and stories. Brute concatenation. Plots fray, lists prevail. Huge lists, encompassing and mashing all history. What mind, what eye, could read thy lists? Without flinching, that is. Or, perhaps, what depth of sleep is required? To be granted untortured access… I leave aside a fondness for Lapsang tea. Goes without saying.
It has been said that Joyce’s last book is the most antifascist of all. A fair assessment (in my humble opinion). The big fascist things inside, straight and robust, they need to have been felled, that’s for sure, before anything can even begin to happen.
Believe me I know. I’ve tried for years, harking more than once to the alluring strokes of Pietro da Verona’s axe. And still now. Still now. (Have I slept enough?) It seems all but in its infancy.
Samuel Beckett & Belacqua7. Laze made literature.
The most striking, and strikingly modern, feature of Dante’s Purgatory is that it is said to get easier as you go along. That is, the slope is steeper at the start, and, since it’s a round hill, becomes gentler and gentler as you approach Earthly Paradise. It is so clear and prophetic an allegory it is surprising Anthony Robbins never quoted that passage.
Belacqua is the guy who can’t cope. He is not in Hell, sure, and he seems pretty fucking determined to stay where he is. No question of stumbling down even haf a circle back. Yet no way he can make it even just an inch further up. It could have been a fairly good reason to feel miffed. And if there’s one postwar author who is, that’s uncle Sammy. Then somehow transmutation occurs. Not an inch further up? All right, I’ll make do. Lain forever till death do me part? Sure thing, sure thing. And he found his lode. Started digging. Metaphorically speaking of course. Unless one’s little finger slowly caressing the rock counts.
It isn’t difficult to see how that’s what the Trilogy (and from it onward) is all about. Faffing about in the shade. Fondling the same big rock ever more precisely. Ever more lazily.
Pierre Guyotat, perhaps the writer closest to Joyce in the world today, and, in that sense, certainly also the one who has the best shot at his glory (ironic, isn’t it, in an age that scorns the very shadow of France), has arguably more to do with trance and nightmare rather than ‘conscious’ narratives. The tongue is out of joint, but, just like in Denmark, next-to-nothing happens.
The writer in House of Cards confesses to the First Lady of the United States that he sleeps all the time. From the outset he seems lazy, even if more perceptive than the average, in comparison to the serious, more central characters. Even if this is could be slightly surprising for a popcultural representation, It is hard to envisage a more mediocre writer figure. Fascinated and finally sold to power, exsuding blatancy and cliché, Tom Yates is the Platonic idea of the lame, superficial scribbler. A self-reflection of the script writers, for sure. The epitome of what the English-speaking world (but it certainly would be the case for most empowered worlds) feeds the world with. It is disgusting, and probably a part of the disease, to have even mentioned him here. Same thing for Tyler Durden at the very start. As for The Matrix, barely admissible, at best.
A Stand against Hypnosophy
Sleep hasn’t, and won’t, come out unscathed. Nor shall the bedroom I-s jaded enough to have let themselves get stranded here. No rest for the sleepy. No mercy for the slothful. And, more importantly, no ‘hypnosophy’, whatever that might mean.
It is true I have been tempted to give to sleep a rather ingratiating ontological status. Such thoughts one doesn’t drag oneself into. But that was only one chapter. Then comes the loathsome blackout. Fortunately. Ergo, every time I shall need to start astale. Sounds good, sounds good.
Who knows. Against dysthymic order something might emerge closer to a structured8 euthymia. Structure is really the wrong word. And maybe just thymia. Yes, no eu-, no dys-, no nothing. Thymia. Neutral, fierce, faceless. A truly impartial impetus.
This essay, and the poet who wrote it, are meant to feature in one of the ‘Short Writs’ appearing later in this text. As no satisfactory version has been reached at the time of the deadline, it will only be included, if ever, in the finished book. ↩
It doesn’t seem to work at all. I do wake up in my bed every morning, but I am far, so far, if you only knew, from believing whatever I want to believe. ↩
Can you feel Derrida’s hand patting you on the back? I sure can. It feels nice. You should try it sometimes. ↩
Yes, I am making overly unsubtle links with European economics, I’m sorry, I have been trying to keep to a minimum, but they keep popping up every now and again. ↩
I remember a book by Antoine Volodine, Le post-exotisme en dix leçons, leçon onze, set in a carceral environment, that tackles this very problem, with a conclusion not too dissimilar from Ellis Boyd Redding (Morgan Freeman) in The Shawshank Redemption, or even Beckett’s unnamable narrator: at some point, after decades sometimes, the dark nooks and crannies of the prison become what you love and need, become life, real life, and the outside, for so long the object of hope and desire, a mere den for spectres and enemies. ↩
Only the first half of Ulysses really deals with ‘the day’. As soon as alcohol kicks in, in the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter, curious Conscience is retreating. In ‘Circe’ we are more than halfway in the hallucinatory netherworld of ‘nighttown’. ↩
Like Joyce, a drinker of Lapsang Souchong. See Murphy. ↩
Chaosmotic would be the world, hadn’t I remained, until now, and despite my sincerest efforts, only rather collaterally Deleuzean. ↩