The Writer as Insomniac
Mis à jour : mars 29
Edvard Munch - Self-portrait. The night wanderer, 1924
(© Luisa Ricciarini/Leemage. Munch-Museum/Paris)
"D.H. Lawrence might have been speaking for the majority of his fellow authors when he wrote, in his poem “Sleep & Waking,” that
"Nothing in the world is lovelier than sleep,
Dark, dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion !”
Even more than paranoia, envy, or rampant egotism, a vulnerability to insomnia might well be the trait most commonly shared by serious writers throughout literary history, regardless of their personal temperament, aesthetic program, or country of origin. In fact, this painful and usually chronic malady has plagued writers so frequently, and with such intensity of anguish, that the insomniac state and its attendant longings might justifiably be considered metaphorical of the writer’s rarefied inner world.
If insomnia is the very image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes, then it is not surprising that sleep — especially “dark, dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion !” — becomes the corresponding image of his most profound and unattainable desires.
Few writers have lived entirely free of insomnia, and it has struck not only those tormented, “neurotic” artists for whom the inability to sleep might seem only one symptom of a more general emotional malaise. Although Franz Kafka suffered greatly from insomnia, so had Charles Dickens before him; Sylvia Plath endured sleepless nights, but so did William Wordsworth and Walt Whitman.
Occasionally hailed as a blessing, an ailment which provides quiet time for productive work in addition to a welcome respite from the hurly-burly of the daytime world, it is more often cursed as a hellish torment, a state of being in which the darker side of a writer’s consciousness — all his personal demons of loneliness and self-doubt — completely overwhelms him, leaving him spent and demoralized for the next morning’s work.
Surveying the vast literature of insomnia, one encounters a cranky, red-eyed company of wakeful writers, complaining to one another, hoping and praying for sleep, and at times writing eloquently about their suffering as a kind of literary compensation or revenge.
Guilt, grief, an obsession with personal problems — these also find frequent and striking expression. Surely the most famous insomniac passage in literature is Macbeth’s haunting farewell to “innocent sleep,” which evokes the nightmarish reality of Macbeth’s guilt so effectively that Lady Macbeth’s daylight pragmatism — so powerful earlier in the play — loses its authority and relevance from that moment forward.
Among the finest stanzas in Tennyson’s epic of grief, In Memoriam, are these lines in which the speaker conveys a blank, despairing awareness of his own continuing life after the death of Arthur Hallam, and bluntly questions the meaning of his existence:
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.
He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.
Being a disease of consciousness — or more precisely, of self-consciousness — insomnia perhaps inevitably plagues a disproportionately high number of writers. For insomnia, like other features of a writer’s life, is a species of madness: a state in which the customary evasions of daylight consciousness give way to the demonic specters of self-doubt and self-loathing.
Often the inability to sleep arises not from a guilty conscience but from a conviction — perverse but unrelenting — of the utter inadequacy, falsity, and pointlessness of one’s energetic and desperately earnest daytime pursuits. For writers, already plagued by the elusive and slippery nature of language, such doubts are magnified a thousand-fold, and thus an ordinary night is transformed into the dark chamber where his worst anxieties and most lacerating humiliations are endlessly rehearsed.
The paradox of the writer’s temperament — his masochistic love of punishment and his rather elitist self-regard, his sense of a rarefied destiny — finds its purest expression in sleepless solitude. For the insomniac state might also be considered a metaphor for isolation, that fearsome but exhilarating element in which the writer lives.
As our greatest poet of loneliness, Emily Dickinson, often observed, such solitude represents both freedom and captivity, the most intense form of living and yet, at the same time, a virtual death-in-life. Though Dickinson spent most of her life inside her bedroom, often meditating upon reality as viewed from her bed itself, she knew that
“Of Consciousness, her awful Mate
The Soul cannot be rid.”
A number of Dickinson’s poems suggest an important reason for the writer’s addiction to sleepless nights. Whether viewing herself as a nobody or as an empress, this poet finds in sleeplessness a form of control over her surrounding reality. (...) We know that as a young woman Dickinson sought her father’s permission to stay up very late, in order to work at her poems; and that a preference for nocturnal writing persisted throughout her life. "I would not stop for night,” one poem claims proudly.
Dickinson biographer Richard B. Sewall has even suggested that the poem beginning, “A Spider sewed at Night / Without a Light / Upon an Arc of White,” is a portrait of the poet at work, and that it might explain why, in some of Dickinson’s manuscripts, lines of poetry run right off the page. The detail suggests a certain desperation, a stubborn refusal to relinquish consciousness, that seems implicit in many writers’ remarks about their inability to sleep.
Is it possible that insomniac writers, however they may complain of their affliction, are actually fearful of sleep, no more willing than Dickinson to relinquish the controlling and organizing power of consciousness ? Is their insomnia, in short, a self-willed ailment, an unconscious struggle against the forces of darkness and chaos ?
The writer, after all, battles these forces daily, by means of language and his own wit; it is certainly conceivable that writers, more than most people, should resist their nightly plunge into the undulating netherworld that Dickinson found so “abhorrent.” Scientific research into the causes of insomnia would seem to support such a conclusion. According to a recent study by Dr. Henry Kellerman of New York’s Postgraduate Center for Mental Health, the insomniac may fit the typical image of an anxious, vulnerable person, but is also likely to possess a “rigid and hidden agenda,” one that keeps the insomniac “isolated and separate,” nourishing “a highly critical attitude toward the world.”
The insomniac’s inability to control that world, according to Dr. Kellerman, gives rise to what he calls “the main emotion of insomnia,” which is
“the insomniac’s underlying anger at the imperfections in the world.”
Thus it would appear that the motive for sleeplessness is one with the motive for metaphor: the artist’s desire to create an alternate, more desirable reality, a “hidden agenda” which keeps the writer stubbornly and angrily wakeful despite his ostensible longing for an ordinary night’s sleep.
In a 1971 interview, Joyce Carol Oates remarked:
“I have terrible nights of insomnia, when my mind is galloping along and I feel a strange eerie nervousness, absolutely inexplicable. What a nuisance! Or, maybe it isn’t a nuisance ? An ideal insomnia allows for a lot of reading. When the house is dark and quiet and the entire world turned off for the night, it’s a marvelous feeling to be there, alone, with a book, or a blank piece of paper . . . . Such moments of solitude redeem all the rushing hours, the daylight confusion of people and duties.”
More recently, she has written of
“The secret pride of the insomniac who, for all his anguish, for all his very real discomfort, knows himself set apart from all others. . . . Unable to sleep, one suddenly grasps the profound meaning of being awake: a revelation that shades subtly into horror, or into instruction.”