A Vision or a Waking Dream: Insomniac Literature

Dernière mise à jour : 11 janv. 2021

The God Hypnos (British Museum)

Insomnia and Identity: The Discursive Function of Sleepnessness in Modernist Literature

by Sarah Kingston

John Keats closes the final stanza of his poem “Ode to a Nightingale” with two questions:

"Was it a vision, or a waking dream ?
Fled is that music : — do I wake or sleep ?"

His uncertainty about his state of consciousness is significant. This poem, about the liminal space between life and death, which he relates to the space between sleeping and waking, asserts that it is from this liminal space that poetry itself is produced. For Keats, a Romantic poet, this space allows for reverie, and reverie for contemplation and art.

Arguably, this drowsy state of reverie for the Romantics became insomnia for the Modernists. Where Keats finds himself being lulled to sleep, unsure of whether or not he has yet to reach unconsciousness, his modernist counterparts find themselves vigilantly awake, wondering if they will reach sleep at all.


If one were to compile a list of modernist authors, and choose from this list at random, chances are quite good that the authors selected would be insomniacs. Among the insomniac Modernists, we can find names such as Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov, to name just a few of numerous examples.

Modernists are not the only authors to suffer insomnia, and other notable insomniacs from literary history range from Homer and William Shakespeare to Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Charles Dickens.

In short, a connection appears to exist between insomnia and authorship, and it is the nature of this connection I seek to explore in this chapter, specifically as it relates to modernist literature.

In his 1865 text, entitled On Wakefulness, physician John Hammond proposes a possible explanation as to why authors are more prone to insomnia than others through making the connection among cultural refinement, propensity towards excessive thought, and insomnia:

“As nations advance in civilization and refinement, affections of the nervous system become more frequent, because progress in these directions is necessarily accompanied by an increase in the wear and tear of those organs through which perceptions are received and emotions excited”.

Hammond argues that despite increasing levels of material comfort and hygiene made possible by modernization, instances of insomnia become more, not less, prevalent specifically because of an increased stimulation of perceptive and emotional faculties.

In other words, the less one has to guard against environmental dangers, the more one can devote time to thought, yet thought sometimes begets over-thought, which begets insomnia.

As Hammond asserts, “irregular or excessive cerebral action” leads to a heightened propensity towards sleeplessness. For Hammond, a combination of intelligence and sensitivity to perceptions of the world produce insomnia. Accordingly, he believes that

“the more active the mind the greater the necessity for sleep, just as with a steamer, the greater the number of revolutions its engine makes the more imperative is the demand for fuel.”

Bronze Head of Morpheus, Roman God of Dreams

(British Museum. 1-2 century AD)

Using mechanistic language, Hammond not only equates mental stimulation with insomnia, but asserts that those who are the most mentally stimulated, and therefore sleep less, should actually be sleeping more because their mental faculties are more in need of restoration.