Between various forms of polyphasic sleep and my own methods and experimentation over the several years since my late teens, I’ve rarely slept more than a few hours a night since the early-mid ’90s, and some nights not at all. I began that pursuit in earnest, wanting to sleep as little as possible so as to make or get the most out of what time I had every day as I never seemed to have enough time to accomplish all I wanted. For years I even took pride in that I had so well succeeded.
Yet in the darker times of latter years I have found myself sometimes resentful, for there are nights—sometimes, there are days—when I’d like nothing so well as sleep! Yet somewhere along the way, it seems my willing wakefulness has been supplanted by an unwanted insomnia. I don’t know when this happened; not wanting to sleep, I never noticed I no longer could.
I gained much from those sleepless years. On average, I gained at least five hours in my every day above those available to people sleeping the more usual eight hour period. If that doesn’t seem like much, consider that it adds up to an extra 76 days a year. If you consider how long I’ve lived this way, I’ve essentially been awake for a little more than three and a half years more than others my age who have lived their lives with more normal habits of sleep.
I would like to think I’ve spent that time well. Those sleepless years produced efforts of art and writing, and innumerable hours of music, much of which was released to the public; and they freed up my days on many occasions, affording me the chance to spend that time with friends and loved ones, as I could deal with work and studies in those hours when others slept. But lately I’ve begun to wonder whether my agrypnia’s been an asset or an alienation. How far out of phase have I slipped from my peers?
In an interview with Jason Weiss, published in Writing at Risk, Cioran spoke of insomnia:
[N]ormally someone who goes to bed and sleeps all night almost begins a new life the next day. It’s not simply another day, it’s another life. And so, he can undertake things, he can manifest himself, he has a present, a future and so on. But for someone who doesn’t sleep, from the time of going to bed at night to waking up in the morning it’s all continuous, there’s no interruption. Which means there is no suppression of consciousness. It all revolves around that. So, instead of starting a new life, at eight in the morning you’re like you were at eight the evening before. The nightmare continues uninterrupted in a way, and in the morning, start what? Since there’s no difference from the night before that new life doesn’t exist. The whole day is a trial, it’s the continuity of the trial. While everyone rushes toward the future, you are on the outside. When that’s stretched out for months and years, it causes your sense of things, your conception of life, to be forcibly changed. You do not see what future to look toward because you don’t have any future.
And I really consider that the most terrible, most unsettling, in short, the principal experience of my life.
There’s also the fact that you are alone with yourself. In the middle of the night, everyone’s asleep, you are the only one who is awake. Right away, I’m not a part of humanity, I live in another world…
I don’t feel I agree with all he said there though I can see his point and identify with much of it. Yet is it true to say we insomniacs “don’t have any future”, or is it that we simply have less of one because we are already living into ours? If we were to tabulate our ages, our lives, by the time we spent actually living, the time we’ve spent awake rather than lost to sleep, then every sleepless night finds the insomniac gradually outpacing her chronological peers; and if enough such nights go by, she breaks away from the crowd altogether and finds herself days, months, even years “older” than those ostensibly her same age. It is perhaps this that accounts for that “other world” of Cioran; it is a place where time seems to flow at a different rate, for in any span of time insomnia’s chosen will have lived longer, experienced more, than those Hypnos helps.
Unfortunately, that’s not to say that all—or even most—of that extended experience is for the good. On those rarer occasions when we are not getting even our few hours of fitful sleep, when we can’t sleep at all, that experience is of hell and hallucination. Even in the good times there are problems. As Cioran notes, “you are alone with yourself”, and Nietzsche and Larkin alike have often told us how terrible it is to be alone with oneself. For while the solitude of insomnia may set us apart from other people, our minds readily people the night with other things. Thus, Larkin, saying “sitting by a lamp more often brings / not peace, but other things. / Beyond the light stand failure and remorse” (“Vers de Société”), and other thoughts such as those in his “Aubade”. Or as Cioran himself remarked elsewhere (Pe Culmile Disperării),
Precum în extaz se realizeazǎ purificarea de toate elementele individuale şi contingente, rǎmînînd numai lumina şi întunericul, ca elemente capitale şi esenţiale, tot asemenea, în nopţile cu insomnii, din tot ce are lumea aceasta multiplu şi divers, nu mai rǎmîne decît un motiv obsedant sau un element intim, cînd nu este prezenţa evidentǎ a unei persoane. Cîtǎ vrajǎ ciudatǎ este în acele melodii care izvorǎsc din tine în nopţile fǎrǎ somn, care se dezvoltǎ asemenea unui flux, pentru a se stinge într-un reflux care nu este un simbol de pǎrǎsire, ci seamǎnǎ uşurinţei unui pas înapoi din nu ştiu care dans! Ritmul şi evoluţia sinuoasǎ a unei melodii interioare pun atunci stǎpînire pe tine şi te cuprind într-o încîntare ce nu poate fi extaticǎ, fiindcǎ este prea mult regret în aceastǎ tǎlǎzuire melodicǎ. Regret, dupǎ ce? Greu de spus, cǎci insomniile sînt atît de complicate, încît e imposibil sǎ-ţi dai seama ce-ai pierdut. Poate fiindcǎ pierderea e infinitǎ… Obsesiile se individualizeazǎ numai în insomnii, deoarece numai în ele se poate realiza prizonieratul într-o formǎ de gîndire sau de simţire. În insomnii, prezenţa unui gînd sau a unui sentiment este organicǎ, este constitutivǎ, şi se impune cu exclusivitate şi imperialism. Tot ce apare în ele se realizeazǎ melodic, într-o formǎ de ondulaţie misterioasǎ. Fiinţa iubitǎ se purificǎ într-o imaterialitate, întocmai cum s-ar risipi într-o melodie. Şi atunci nu poţi şti absolut deloc dacǎ iubirea ta e vis sau realitate. Caracterul impalpabil ce-l împrumutǎ realitǎţii aceastǎ convertire în melodic a tot ceea ce se petrece în insomnii provoacǎ în sufletul omului o nelinişte şi o tulburare, care nu sînt atît de intense pentru a duce la o anxietate universalǎ, ci pǎstreazǎ toate elementele unei nelinişti şi tulburǎri de esenţǎ muzicalǎ. Moartea însǎşi, fǎrǎ sǎ înceteze a fi hidoasǎ, se manifestǎ într-o universalitate de noapte, a cǎrei impalpabilǎ transparenţǎ, deşi e fructul iluziei, nu este mai puţin muzicalǎ. Dar tristeţea acestei nopţi universale este întocmai ca tristeţea muzicii orientale, în care predominǎ mai mult misterul morţii decît al iubirii.
Just as an ecstasy purifies you of all inessentials, so these insomniac nights kill off all the many and varied elements of the world, leaving you prey to your private obsessions. What strange magic’s in those songs that rise in sleepless nights! The pace and progress of a sinuous inner melody that entwines and enchants us, that would enrapture us but for the note of regret that keeps it shy of ecstasy. What kind of regret? It’s hard to say, as insomnia is so complicated, it’s impossible to begin to grasp just what you’ve lost. Perhaps because the loss is infinite… Obsessions are individualized only in insomnia because, to one trapped in such a prison of thought or feeling, only they are real. In insomnia, the presence of a single thought or feeling is everything, is the only thing. And it all coalesces into song, emerges as a mysteriously undulating melody. On such nights even a lover herself would be sublimated into immateriality, just as a song fades into the air. At such times you can no longer know if the lover was a dream or your reality. That impalpable character lent to reality transforms into a song everything that happens during insomniac nights, drawing into the soul of man worry and turmoil, not so intense as to lead to a more general anxiety attack, but enough to render up the elements into a fretful and turbulent music. Even death itself, though still hideous, appears in such universal nights an impalpable transparency, and though its fruit then is illusory, it’s no less musical. Yet the sadness of this universal night is like the sadness of Oriental music, in which the mystery of death is much more dominant than that of love.
Perhaps I’m merely overthinking all of this.
Or perhaps it’s just because this is yet another 5am night and I would most definitely rather be sleeping.
I am tired of tears and laughter,A.C. Swinburne, “The Garden of Proserpine”, ll. 9–16 (1866)
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep.