Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Great Nature's Second Course
One of the temptations of keeping such a long-term blog as this is to put a shape on life, to try and impose a narrative arc on a inherently rather aimless stream of obiter dicta. In general, everything pretty much carries on as it has, in a non-teleological way and without vast upheaval. Nevertheless, there has of late been a minor miracle, in the shape of a lovely complex molecule which puts me out like a light.
Yes, readers, I finally went to the GP about my galloping insomnia and constant nightmares, and was prescribed Zolpidem. I have subsequently had three nights of the most blissful, Lethean sleep I have had for about five years.
Getting wound-up is the killer, you see. There is of course helpful anxiety that spurs one on, but I have been labouring under the unhelpful kind that afflicts many young academics in the humanities, because there are no jobs. Specialized as miniature yellow treefrogs adapted to live in one type of tatty rainforest bromeliad, even as the chainsaws growl in the middle distance, academics at my stage of life often suffer from a characteristic, precarious Angst und Weltschmerz. In my case, it feels like somewhere inside there's a six-year old banging away at all the keys at the far right end of a piano keyboard all the time. I had got used to waking up for twenty minutes every hour and three quarters during the night, every night, with worry twanging and trembling through the air like an evil aeolian harp and loneliness stuck in my throat like a wishbone.
So you'll have noticed the general shift from postmodern drollery to lassitude and gloom that's hung over Cantos (and my life) of late. BUT (but), it turns out I wasn't, in fact, in a downward spiral into the greedy grave, hemmed in by the parched bricolage of academic life; I just hadn't achieved slow-wave sleep for a very, very long time. Readers, after three nights, I have risen again. Not only am I up, I am not falling asleep in my chair at 5pm like a gummy old spinster; I surge with Whitmanian vim and lissom elasticity; and best of all, I can concentrate.
* * *
The above are prolegomena to reflections upon sleep. I'm very prone (because of my disturbed rhythms) to enjoy a number of unusual effects associated with the whole experience, not all of them unpleasant. There are some tiresome tics associated with drifting off---I always need to pee after the light's been off for about fifteen minutes---and I occassionally suffer from a bizarre sleep disturbance called 'exploding head syndrome'. No, this is not a David Cronenburg visual effect, but something a little like the way that your feet sometimes kick sharply without warning as you drop off, usually accompanied by a falling sensation. What I get in addition (though, thank God, not often) is, as I drift into sleep, a sudden, pottery-shattering BOOM or crash that only I can hear, as loud as a bomb blast in the next room. Needless to say, I jerk upright, and often leap out of bed altogether, shaking and with my heart hammering.
As regular readers will know, my dreams are often so vivid and often so exhausting that they are indistinguishable from being awake---in particular they are frequently highly textual, with me speaking foreign languages, reading, or writing. I had an exquisite one about a week ago in which I was leafing through an imaginary, newly-published book called Shakespeare and the Horizon of Consciousness. (See, I can do self-referential meta-dreams.) The first chapter was called GLANCES and had a beautiful discussion of the semiotics of different expressions made with the eyes in the plays and in Early Modern culture more widely, ending with a delicate analysis of the implications of George Herbert's 'quick-ey'd Love'. Alas, that's all I can remember, and it's not actually a bad idea for a book. The devas are obviously sending me messages again.
I also remember being very surprised as an adolescent when I realised that not everyone experiences hypnagogic voices. This happens to me about once or twice a week, usually when I'm exhausted: as I drop off to sleep, one, then two, then up to six different voices---of different genders, nationalities, and ages, and entirely independent of my mind---start talking intelligibly over one another in my head. I've tried writing down what they say, but the state one needs to be in to hear the voices is spoiled if one comes out of it far enough to move a pen. If I maintain a kind of unfocused attention, I can hear them all at once, but if I try to isolate one strand it collapses into gibberish. You can recreate the effect at home simply by opening several interview videos on YouTube simultaneously. It's all a function, I suspect, of being a highly verbal person who spends all day considering language: interestingly, after I spend a few days speaking Welsh, the inner voices switch into that language.
Rather less often I get a visual equivalent which is a source of much frustration: I 'see' with the inner eye fully-formed canvasses passing in front of me for about half a second each, always sumptuously detailed. There are often over a hundred of them: pallid, mask-like faces scudding against a bone-blue background; gryphons, sulphurously yellow talons rearing and wings caparisoned in delicate beadwork; a woman turning with dark nipples and strands of wet hair by sour candlelight. This has made me a firm believer in the foaming fecundity of the deep mind, which is able to produce beautiful, polished art---clearly it is, I have seen them---just beneath the horizon of conscious grasping. I can't slow the slideshow down to 'fix' the images, but they are there.
Anyway, back to zolpidem. It is indescribably wonderful: I really had not realised how utterly ghastly I felt. I pop one tablet 15 minutes before sleep, and, here's the thing, I actually do go to sleep. No bells, no whistles, booms, or crashes; I don't pick up talk-radio through my fillings, or dream I've been transformed into a copy of the Iliad.* Though I still do in fact dream vividly, I am now remembering one a night rather than the six or seven that were normal before. (My Jungian analyst was faced with an embarrassment of riches. I used to bring more dreams in a week than some clients in a year.) And what's more I sleep for seven hours uninterrupted: it's like a blissful homeopathic dose of death.
*My weirdest ever dream, that.