By Claire Thomson
Whatever your relationship to sleep, Marie Darrieussecq’s Sleeplesswill force you to re-examine it in uncomfortable detail.
How much sleep are you getting? Your phone might be able to tell you. Your watch might be able to tell you how deeply you slumbered, how many times you woke without realising. The last thing you remember before sleep might be glancing at the clock and anxiously calculating how many hours you have before work demands you. Your lack of it might torture you through sleepless hours and hazy days, the only thing you can think of.
Darrieussecq can’t sleep. She hasn’t been able to, not properly or deeply, since she had her first child, over twenty years ago. Sleepless is a memoir of her own tortuous sleeplessness, a cultural history of insomnia and an incisive look at the conditions that bring sleep to some more easily than others. After all, “The world is divided into those who can sleep and those who can’t.” And these divisions are political ones.
Sleepless is interested in the morals and values attached to sleep today. The assumption goes that the 24-hour day is divided into a triptych: eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest. This phrase, credited to mill owner Robert Owen, is still the mantra by which so many of us hope to arrange our lives. But what parent, what carer and what person subsisting on several precarious incomes lives their lives by this structure?
We assume things about those who cannot sleep, think suspiciously that there must be some kind of darkness or guilt keeping them awake. That they sleep well, actually, is the retort of the accused to their doubters. Questions about how one sleeps at night are often loaded, an implication that one’s wrongs ought to be keeping them awake. Deep sleep is thought to be the sleep of the good.
Yet, there is a perceived romance to insomnia. Our cultural imagination is populated with ideas of sleepless writers, painters and musicians, inspired by the midnight oil. Darrieussecq quotes Leonard Cohen: “The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world.” The sense of satisfaction when you can report to sleeping lovers or family members everything you achieved while they were sleeping. A number of pages read, a bathroom deep cleaned, words typed.
There is a machismo and a competitiveness attached to those who do not sleep, too. Thatcher bragged she only needed four hours a night. As Darrieussecq writes: “When Trump tweeted at three in the morning, he presented the image of himself as awake, alert. The strong man, with machine-like energy, is active while we’re asleep.” The good capitalist, the strong leader, has outgrown the need for sleep. They’re always on. “Sleep then becomes a structural attention deficit, a systemic anomaly in humans.”
Capitalism steals our rest. Darrieussecq writes “The liberal economy burns up its human resources the way it does coal or oil. Work structures produce more and more burnout, workers are ‘consumed’.” Influencers tell us we all have the same 24 hours a day to optimise ourselves and our lives. 24 hours in which we can buy prepared lunches because, as Jia Tolentino writes in ‘Always Be Optimizing’, “I need to eat vegetables very quickly because I’ve been working till one a.m. all week and don’t have time to make dinner because I have to work till one a.m. again.”
And as our economy takes rest from us, it monetises it. Best-selling books tell us we are kept awake by longer working hours, endless content and blue light. Meanwhile, in America alone, the ‘sleep aid’ industry is worth $65 billion dollars. The Calm app allows you to listen to Cillian Murphy narrating a ‘magical trip across the sweeping landscapes of Ireland’ for 30 minutes. You can also listen to Harry Styles’ narrate ‘Dream With Me’. In a promotional blog, Styles says that “Rest and recovery is as important as doing the work. Finding a balance has been endlessly beneficial to both my physical and mental health. It’s changed my life.” The app is £39.99 a year or £399 for life.
There are those who cannot identify what keeps them awake. There is no looming deadline, no phone addiction, no unpaid bill. They simply cannot sleep. Darrieussecq portrays this experience with a chilling detail. Insomnia in its truest clinical sense cannot be escaped. “Insomnia never leaves you, it is there during the day, it clings to you.” Its isolation follows. Darrieusscq’s friends suggest remedies, diets, herbs, sleeping positions. Some take offence at her inability to sleep in their restful country home. But insomnia always follows.
Medication, manufactured by large corporations, may provide temporary respite for the condition, but it is not without its dangers. Medication is also often withheld by sceptical doctors and accessing it depends on a degree of privilege: “It means having a doctor, going through the ritual of seducing the doctor, and sometimes the pharmacist; it means having connections, conniving in some way.”
Crucially, prescribed sleeping pills are beyond the means of those who cannot sleep because social structures withhold their basic needs. Some can’t sleep because their bed is overcrowded, because their house is cold, because they are forced to sleep on the streets or in a refugee camp.
Darrieussecq details the sleeplessness of genocide survivors and of girls kept awake for fear of torturers. Sleepless is acutely aware of the inequalities of the varieties of insomnia it explores, and of the difficulty of comparing these categories.
Darrieussecq resists an artificial hierarchy of sleeplessness but reminds us that “The possibility of sleep, rest, depends on owning something, or at least having something at your disposal.” While the world might be divided into those who sleep and those who cannot, Darrieussecq invites us to consider the forces pushing us into either category.
 From: The Favourite Game (pub. Blue Door, 2009)
About our contributor
Claire Thomson is a writer based in Glasgow. She works in the violence against women and girls sector and holds degrees in English Literature and Art History. She has published fiction and non-fiction in titles including Lunate Journal, Review31 and BlueHouse Journal.
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