Sleep has been elusive to me my whole adulthood. And, like a lot of things one has a precarious relationship to (say, a person, or money, or time), I tend to fixate on sleep, mystify it. I’ve slept with a phone under my pillow so apps can track and rate my slumber. I make daytime plans based on neurotic reverse calculations of the hours I can spend in bed. Of course, for the insomniac, time in bed is not time sleeping. As Marie Darrieussecq writes in her new book Sleepless, which is at once memoir and chronicle of the gravely awake throughout history, insomniacs “are desperate in search of sleep time, time that is always lost.”
And yet, the hours I do spend in subterranean darkness are among my most precious. Sleep is a state that, as writer Haytham El-Wardany contends in The Book of Sleep, is replete with luminous, electric, even radical activity. In this book that reads like a dream journal or meditation, El-Wardany describes the ways that this activity may be transgressive. Dozing in public, for instance, “on transport and in public squares, in lecture halls or at work, is a twofold rejection of the social contract because it takes place at the very heart of traditional sites of social interaction, transforming places of competition into ones of silence.”
The Book of Sleep and Sleepless appeared to me as twin books; I had the sense that El-Wardany and Darrieussecq were unknowingly speaking to each other, so I asked them to have a conversation. On a brisk autumn day, to prepare for our convening, I re-read both books back to back. Planted at my desk, as the sunlight steadily descended, the pool of condensation from my glass growing as its liquid slowly receded, I let Haytham and Marie’s words meld into each other’s. What initially seemed oppositional suddenly became intensely related. Sleep and insomnia, usually perceived as private, are transformed by the authors into collective affairs. And both authors describe states of deviation—of madness and fantasy and slippage from ordered, public life—that are akin to the act of writing itself.
How did your books begin?
I have always been interested in passive activities, like listening, for instance, or being bored, being indecisive. I had written a prior book called How to Disappear, which is mainly about a different notion of subjectivity that critiques activity. The other thread is that, at the time of writing The Book of Sleep in 2013, it was a historical moment of time in Egypt, where one epoch was coming to an end and another was starting. The military coup took place, and hundreds were killed by the violent dispersal of protestors at Rab’a Square. These events and others served as a turning point, allowing counter-revolutionary forces to seize control. And many people found themselves in the twilight moment when something comes to an end. A revolutionary process, maybe. And you could feel the horizon emerging—the beginning of a very heavy time, which we’re still living in today.
This twilight moment prompted me to take seriously this project of writing a book which deals with sleep, because I thought I needed something to work on, so as not to go mad, or become depressed. This time was very hard in Egypt. What about you Marie, how did you start writing about insomnia?
From 2017 to 2019, I wrote a monthly “insomniac column” for L’Obs magazine. The column just enabled me to realize that I needed to write a book, that I could write this column forever and not get through this world of insomnia.
Haytham, in your book I can feel that your writing is not only about something you want to say or express, but it also conveys the musicality of the words and the rhythm you have in your mind. There’s a rhythm to how we sleep or don't sleep. It's the rhythm of our very heart, our very pulse.
I had this spontaneous music in my mind. And it was a verse, like a poem. It was 10 syllables in French, “notre insomnie augmente à mesure qu’on déboise.” It means something like, "The more we cut the trees, the less we sleep," or, “Our insomnia increases at the same pace as we burn the forest.” I write about it in the last chapter of the book, about what we do to the planet, to the animals, and how that may cause a climatic, metaphysical, animal insomnia:
The book wakes me up. A bud comes to life. A branch moves. The night of growth. Poetry, like dreaming, speaks a wild truth. Sleep and insomnia, asymmetrical domains, open onto their own pathways. In the hypnagogic zone, we hear with our skin the way frogs do, with our lateral line like sharks, in our bellies like pregnant women. Vibrations guide us like they do spiders. We hear the trees. We move away from the straight line. We renounce our electrical stimulation, our frenetic consciousness, our branch-trimming common sense. "My burrow takes up too much of my thoughts," writes Kafka [in his last
I loved the presence of passive activities in your book. I am also interested in boredom and its relationship to sleep and insomnia. I can get very, very bored while lying awake in my bed, but in this void, creativity can arise. Almost like a ghost can appear. This nude, almost unbearable boredom becomes a sort of trance.
I was interested in what you called, Marie, this cessation, or this turning absent, or—
Exactly. Interruption, which makes a new beginning possible.
Our books are really like twin books. The insomniac suffers from a lack of interruption. We don’t want to die, we want to sleep. There are so many overdose accidents, but they’re not suicide attempts. They are sleep attempts that fail into death. The book is full of them, from Michael Jackson to Prince. But yes, you sleepers can have this interruption, this nothingness, which is necessary to our balance.
Absolutely. This interruption has two sides. On one side, it brings an ending. On the other, it summons a new beginning. As I finished Sleepless, it became clearer to me that insomnia is not only the deprivation of sleep, but also the deprivation of awakening, of the renewed possibility in waking up—
To have one wake-up a day.
When I am rejected from the terrain of sleep, I feel very alone. But what I loved about your book is that you transform this experience and make it collective. The book is full of references and quotations, and you position the shared experiences of so many different writers alongside one another.
It struck me, Haytham, how you wrote about sleep time as a digression of historical time. History is made by the awake. But this history is not made by the awakeness that Marie writes about either. So insomnia is also a digression of reality as we know it.
There was this kid, this American kid, who was shown sleeping through Trump’s speech, and he was seen as a hero on social media. His sleeping was seen as a form of resistance.
Haytham, I love that you treat dreams like reality. Because they are. In my own book, I say that we forget dreams as we forget the stars in the sky. And capitalism makes the night too light for us to see the stars. We don’t see stars in Paris or in New York. And we forget about wild animals. We forget dreams, wild animals, and stars.
I would add the dreams of those who died, or who are not with us. These are places that do not exist anymore. In my book I wanted to evoke the reappearance of what has gone, or in Freudian terms, that persistence of the repressed. Something keeps emerging to remind us that we have a problem. And it was beautiful how you connected the reappearance of wild animals with burning, of everything burning, the whole planet burning.
Yes. I don’t want to be too pessimistic because I also hope my book is funny, and there is a comedy of repetition in the failure to sleep. But we do kill our children’s connections to dreams and animals with phones and social media. They don’t get bored anymore. Anyway, this leads to too much sleep or too much lack of sleep, which are two sides of the same problem.
In depression, there is both: taking refuge in sleep or taking refuge, in a way, in insomnia. But I was struck by the beginning of your book and your idea of “good sleepers.” Good sleepers, as you say, live in hope. Hope and certainty, as they are sure that the world will endure without them. They can go on to sleep. In my mind, this craziness or megalomania or whatever tells me, “If you sleep something terrible is going to happen. To your kids, to everything.” But of course I sleep sometimes, or otherwise I would be dead. And when I wake up—surprise!—the world is still the same mess.
Haytham, I love the passages you have about sleeping in the public sphere, where you are imagining: what if people slept in public together? How would that transform places of high agitation and alertness into places of trust and silence?
Your books are both memoirs, yours especially, Marie, of your own personal chronicles of not sleeping. But it is, like Haytham’s, a very social book, full of the voices of other insomniacs. Could you both elaborate on looking at these activities through a social lens?
First, we are writers, so we make it public. It’s our job. My book is a memoir indeed, of my day to day (or night to night) routine life. One anecdote: in France, people have a strong reaction when I say I don’t share the same bed as my husband. I can say that I drink, that I take too many sleeping pills, but not sharing the same bed as my husband, that’s the ultimate taboo. Yet I cannot share his bed. He’s an insomniac also. The worst you can do to an insomniac is to wake him up. Don’t do that, or you’ll get a divorce. So I sleep in my little office, in this little bed there.
While I wanted to share my very common, day-to-day life in the book, I also wanted to talk about Proust, Marguerite Duras, and Kafka, who are everywhere in its pages. Insomnia is very private, very down-to-earth, or down-to-bed, but it is also really quite universal. I think half of the population doesn’t sleep properly. And all the more since COVID.
I was very touched by scenes of sit-ins in public squares during the time of the protest in Egypt. People were occupying public spaces by sleeping in them. I found something so powerful in this form of protest, which was based on sleep rather than marching or chanting. It was a moment where the privateness of sleep became public, social, even political.
That moment in 2011 was peculiar. Things were changing very quickly. What was wild about all of this was that many people who were typically antagonistic towards each other could sleep together, in one place, peacefully. So women and men, religious and secular people, young and old, were sleeping next to one another. The moment was holding all these contradictions and mobilizing them in the form of revolution. In 2012, it became clear that the revolutionary moment could no longer mediate between the different social powers. The protest places were no longer safe for women. There was violence against those who criticized Islamists or security agencies.
I like how you painted an experience of the insomniac as a person who is not alone, but surrounded by many books, references, anecdotes, and pictures. The sleeper is also connected to the social realm, which has to include those who are not present. Any active community is a community of the living and the dead. So there are always those who are not there, those who are ill or cannot join.
My insomnia makes me a person who has un esprit d’escalier, what we call in French a staircase spirit. It’s very hard for me to follow the thread of plans and ideas that lead into one another. So frequently, I lose my ideas. When you were talking, I was receiving many, many ideas, then I lost them.
But I wanted to bring up that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. It’s used in Guantanamo, Saudi Arabia, China, in many countries. The Amnesty International Report of Torture puts it on level three. A very high level. When you are deprived of sleep as torture, it breaks your brain. It cuts you from the forest, and you fall like a branch.
Insomnia is not a calm realm. Your mind is not organized. I found a writing form that matched this. So [Sleepless] is like a spiral, a vortex, a cut of many ideas together, whereas the shape of your book, Haytham, resembles waves coming and going. With both books, the form is the content. We both managed to find a structure that expresses sleep and insomnia.
That’s such a good point, and reading your books I felt that as well: the choppiness of insomnia versus the waves of sleep. Is that how the process of writing went? What states were you in when you wrote?
The form chose itself. I slowly came to this form of fragments. There is a repetition also in fragments, not that each is a new idea. Sometimes it’s a similar idea, from another lake.
I would put it the same, that the form chose itself. I wrote it in rushes.
Writing has something insomniatic about it. There is something which occupies you, that you are grappling with. It keeps you awakened, keeps you thinking. You also may lose control of what you are writing, just as the insomniac loses control of time.
Kafka, the master of sleeplessness, has diaries that share some common points with your book. He treats dreams with the same seriousness, love, and affection.
I like bringing us back to the hypnagogic space, which is related to the liminality of literature and writing. Literature is not outside of reality, but it occupies the void wherein reality can reflect upon itself and change.
I could not have said it better. There is no need to be an insomniac to be a good writer, or a good artist. But when I am in this very exhausting state of being awake while I would like to sleep, I stand up in front of my bookshelves, in front of all this global consciousness. When you’re obsessed with something, you can take a book at random, and find it written about in there. When you’re obsessed with love, it’s everywhere. When you’re obsessed with insomnia, it’s everywhere, too.
I’ve got plenty to read during my unending insomnia. Every book I open talks about insomnia. Gide! Pavese! Plath! Sontag! Kafka! Dostoevsky! Darwish! Murakami! Césaire! Borges! U Tam’si! And so many other champions of fatigue. On every continent, that’s all literature talks about. As if writing were not-sleeping. As if literature were an anagram of lie in torture, literal tear, little terror
I know what you’re describing, because I have insomnia too, but it comes in waves. It’s genetic. My mom also can’t sleep. She lays awake at night, fretting about things that happened twenty years ago. When sleep is there, we’re in a happy relationship. And when it disappears, I yearn for it.
You’re right to speak about it like a relationship because I feel I have a romance with sleep. And sleep doesn’t text me anymore. Sleep doesn’t phone me. You know what I mean?
You’re in a toxic relationship.
And I love him desperately.
Yes. I felt this in both books. That they are both about immense desire.
It's true. ♦
Subscribe to Broadcast