A Beautiful New Book Reveals The Dark Pleasures Of Insomnia

"The idea that you sleep in one stretch is a very modern invention"

"Reality had taken on the texture of a dream," Marina Benjamin told me, recently, recounting what it was like for her during a prolonged bout of sleeplessness, a period that inspired her new book, the elegant, provocative Insomnia, in which she explores not only her own restless nights but also the ways in which an adherence to a strict day-night binary has promoted a system of patriarchy and capitalism. Benjamin references mythical sleepless women like The Odyssey's Penelope and Scheherazade to illustrate the ways in which women have long used a wakeful vigilance to seize power in a world that would rather have their heroines lie in repose. In Benjamin's writing, it becomes clear that the mysteriousness of the night, its blurred boundaries, its endlessly subtle tonal variations, is a precious space, particularly for those of us who do not naturally fare well in the harsh light of the sun. Better, then, to stay in the gentle glow of the moon, beneath the hot, infinite sparks of the stars above, and set our own schedules, make up our own rules, in accordance with who we want to be, not who we're told we must become.

Below, I speak with Benjamin about her inspiration for Insomnia, how capitalism has ruined our sleeping schedules, and why Sleeping Beauty is a truly disturbing fairy tale.

Why was insomnia, as a phenomenon, something you wanted to explore?

It's something I've had on and off all my life, but it was affecting me really badly over the last few years. It was partly a mid-life thing, you know, a kind of depleting of estrogen and stuff, and just partly being in a very anxious time. I can't put a finger on specific things, but I was just feeling like my days were very unwieldy and upside-down and without form, and then the not-sleeping made the days seem even more upside-down. And, you know, [it was] rather like... looking through a fog; reality had taken on the texture of a dream. Sense and nonsense were somehow intermingled, and there was this constant swell of anxiety through everything.

And I thought that I wanted to write about this condition that I was experiencing, because it seemed to me that insomnia... to just talk about it as though it were merely not being able to sleep at night was to totally minimize it into something that it's so much more than.

It affects every aspect of your existence, your sense of yourself, your sense of reality, the way you communicate with people, your cognitive well-being, and I thought, How do you put that in narrative form? And it seemed like a really exciting challenge. I wanted to write a book that kind of really inhabited that unstable state of being and was really all about emotional difficulty, intellectual uncertainty, and ambiguity. And then I thought, Well, that'll make a really interesting narrative, and I just started writing, and it was just coming, you know, a book was sort of stirring, and I just thought, Right, I'll listen to this voice, and I'll go with it, and I'll see what I have.

It really had me contemplating how ingrained the day-night binary is for us, and how structured our days are around it. It's fascinating because we're supposed to feel innately diurnal, but then when you think about the way in which those waking boundaries have only been solidified under capitalism, to promote a certain type of labor...

And largely, with capitalism, it's weird getting most people onto the same page as it were, except this time it's getting most people onto the same clock, for maximum productivity, I guess. And people who aren't on the clock are generally on the margins of societies: the mothers of newborns, elderly people, babies, the unemployed...

... artists.

They're not on that clock, and they're in the minority. And the other thing to bear in mind as well, about the power of this corralling of people, is if society wants to punish those who don't play by the rules, one of the things they do is they stop people sleeping. It's a classic torture method. You can literally drive people insane through depriving them of sleep.

The whole idea of day and night and the idea that you sleep in one stretch is a very modern invention. It coincided with the workday, with capitalism's demands, really, of our availability. But, if you look back to premodern times, you see that people actually slept often in little chunks of sleep, where they could lay their heads on journeys while they were traveling on long, bumpy coach rides. Or often, there was the first-sleep and the second-sleep; that was very much something that was written about in the Renaissance period and the Enlightenment period. People would go to sleep, of course, because there was only candlelight, so they'd go to sleep with dark, and they'd wake up with dawn. They busied themselves for a little bit, and then they might go to sleep again. So, this idea that we should kind of all somehow fit in with a single eight-hour stretch that takes place in the dark is a very bizarre, modern invention. But we don't notice its oddity, because everyone does it.

Photo by Luiz Hara

Well, everyone does it, but it doesn't seem like they're doing it well, anymore. I think the rise of the gig economy and the loss of anything resembling a nine-to-five job, and the implicit mandate to always be working and always be hustling, has also led to both a lack of sleep as well as a renewed interest in sleep. In New York, on the subway, every other ad is for, like, a mattress or bed linens or for CBD oil as a sleep aid. What do you think is going on in the world that's amplified this conversation about sleep and then also sleeplessness?

We have a culture of wakefulness, of eternal vigilance; we must always be available to our phones, to our social media, we must always be on. And if you're switched on, of course, you can't switch off, and it is the mind's relentless hold on the body, I think that stops us sleeping. Really the mind has to let go of the body so that the body can fall away, can fall into sleep, and sleep is a kind of letting go, a kind of gravitational surrender to the unconscious. So our culture, our work culture, and our social lives mitigate against this letting go and, consequently, if you can't, as I said in the book, get any sleep, you fall in love with it, so we fantasize about soft mattresses and memory foam, and we relish the idea of sleep. We just want nothing better than to curl up into a little ball. It is the last refuge of the workaholic, it's the only place you're unavailable.

It's just a wonder to me that we've got these two poles of our culture whereby we long for rest but we don't get it. We cherish sleep, but we cherish wakefulness more.

The language around those two dynamics is so powerful, and also so morally tinged; wakefulness is associated with things like lucidity and clarity and other qualities we're taught to strive for, and yet, for me, during all my personal periods of intense insomnia, there was nothing necessarily bad about it, nor could it even be reduced to one thing at all. There were aspects that were lovely and some that were terrifying, but mostly, it was just such an interesting distortion of perception of power, in a way that felt really feminine, because it sort of erased my ideas of what it means to be powerful in a traditional way. Like, you can accomplish things outside the bounds of traditional structures. And I think this kind of nocturnal power is referenced in your book when you recount the stories of both Penelope and of Scheherazade. They're iconic mythological women, and part of their importance is in their femininity, and they're incredibly powerful, but they're not powerful in the way that we're used to being told about...

They're both insomniac, and they both exert that power by night. We see their survival skills by night, the unraveling of the cloth [by Penelope], and with Scheherazade, it's the filling of the emptiness with the yarn-spinning, the storytelling. And I think for me, why I chose those figures, is because we think of those women as living on a knife's edge, you know... Scheherazade's life was in imminent danger, if she didn't find a solution in her sleepless nights to the predicament that she found herself in, she would be killed. And with Penelope, [she was] constantly under assault from people who wanted to take power from her, and she constantly needed to keep the flame of hope alive for the return of her husband, who represents the return of victory and normality and patriarchal kind of assurance, I suppose. Except we, the readers of The Odyssey, know better, because we know he's been cheating on her, but she doesn't know that.

But then I think it interested me, this whole idea, of the anxious woman as a strange kind of heroine. Because it struck me, there aren't very many outlets that aren't pathologized for women to experience or express the release of anxiety, and that it gets turned in on itself, and I think it's one of the main causes of insomnia.

And that's why this anxiety that women feel about their lives, about perhaps their speaking of their ambitions, but society doesn't give them the room they want, and so the anxieties tend to build and you have these, I think, very harrowing experiences at night, your disappointments kind of gnawing at you and your hopes and longings kind of eating at you.

It struck me as a really interesting thing to write about, and I hadn't really seen it expressed before in prose anywhere, and so I felt really clearly drawn to these ideas. And actually, at the other pole, I was also drawn to the idea of the slumbering woman, because that's the opposite of the anxious woman, and what did that represent? Well, oddly enough, it didn't represent beauty and repose and perfect restfulness. It actually represented merely the drugging of anxiety, the obliterating of anxiety, again by patriarchal cultures—so by doctors or by painters or by any man who thought that one way to silence a woman or to not acknowledge her anxiety was to literally put her to bed.

And that's why I wrote about the rest cure and I wrote about this image of Sleeping Beauty and the spell it casts on our own minds, which fools us to think what we're appreciating here is the idea of beauty in repose. Whereas actually, it's not.

There is just something so uniquely disturbing about the fetishization of Sleeping Beauty, who is forced into sleep once she hits sexual maturity by this patriarchal society and by the women working within it, as a measure of protection that serves to keep her asleep and ignorant.

And she becomes a repository of things that are unreal, you know, the idea that to be feminine, to be pure is superior and it's women supporting that—the spinners who keep the shuttle going or whatever, or the whole court that's also in a sympathetic sleep, all fallen under the same enchantment. I was very interested in this idea of kind of puncturing holes in this myth about Sleeping Beauty because I felt it was a fairy tale that was doing more harm than good. And, why not embrace ugly? I have this whole riff in the book about how life without ugly is every bit as vapid as enchanted sleep. We need ugly in our lives or we don't see good.

Were there any directions that you went while writing this that you hadn't expected, or that wound up surprising you?There were, actually. The bit about the aggrandizing feelings that you get in insomnia. The first place I went to with this was [Awakenings], Oliver Sack's book about these people that were woken from their sleeping sickness, who had these kind of feelings of incredible grandeur—delusions of grandeur—when they were woken, and I started thinking about how some of those feelings of grandeur were things I recognized in insomnia. You have almost a deluded sense of your own agency and power, and I try to convey that in the book by introducing a cosmic element. It's almost like you feel you are in tune with the universe somehow, communing with the heavens. I know it sounds nuts, but there was this element of cosmicity to the book that I wanted to kind of get in. You know, this idea that somehow when you're sort of spiritually naked in the middle of the night awake, and you're stripped of any kinds of trappings of cultural expectation, or even social expectations, because no one tells you what to do when you're awake in the middle of the night and you are a force unto yourself. You've got this idea that you can commune with the heavens, so this cosmicity element, this kind of wanting some relationship with the heavenly or the cosmic, was something that I noticed was happening and then I kind of exploited it.

So, it wasn't something that I'd planned, it wasn't a dimension that I particularly planned to put in the book, but once I saw that it was emerging, I thought, Yes, this feels right! I'm going to play this up. And so I threaded it back through in various places, including my mother telling me that she'd slept under the stars as a child—nothing between her and the heavens—on the roof of her house, so nothing between her and the sky. I really like that idea. And then the poetic resonance is with Rumi, talking about touching the loving nowhere at night, and that really spoke to me.

A lot of sleep science I found very surprising, in that we know a lot about how to describe what the brain is doing, but we have no idea why it's doing what it's doing. But I guess that's pretty much true of most brain science, it's very hit-or-miss embryonic kind of art. There's a whole language of waves and Greek letters.. and we have lovely language for talking about nights and sleep, but we don't really know much about how it all works.

Insomnia is available for purchase here.

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