- The Poetics of Sleep: From Aristotle to Nancy by Simon Morgan Wortham
Two non-drowsy but soporific axioms have both inspired and induced Simon Morgan Wortham’s engaging look at that quite literally everyday yet still physiologically, psychically, and indeed philosophically enigmatic activity: sleep. The first is Bergson’s definition of dreaming as ‘The entire mental life minus the effort of concentration’ (p. vi) and the second is Jean-Luc Nancy’s understanding of the fall of sleep as ‘the conscious plunge of the consciousness into unconsciousness’ (p. 52). Here Morgan Wortham undoubtedly embarks on his own conscious plunge into the unconscious by tracing the manifold approaches to sleep across the philosophical text, from Aristotle to Nancy, as the subtitle suggests, in part by way of Heidegger, Hegel, Kant, and of course Freud who is himself brought into dialogue with Jacqueline Rose’s On Not Being Able to Sleep: Psychoanalysis and the Modern World (London: Chatto and Windus, 2003). French philosophy and critical theory are at the very forefront of the conversations Morgan Wortham facilitates. As his text drifts between Descartes, Blanchot, Derrida, Levinas, and Foucault, his prose actualizes the titular poetics, and indeed his introductory aim, whereby sleep lucidly moves among and between the many thinkers covered, and makes and unmakes the reader’s relationship to wellness, wakefulness, and the world; the soul, subjectivity, and sanity. Sleep thus emerges as a complex entanglement of thresholds that ventriloquize death and police sickness and health, most notably through the troubling figure of the somnambulist, and (con)fuses body and soul, both threatening and ensuring our psychical and corporeal integrity. Questions of embodiment further materialize across several chapters, but where we might expect the eyes to enjoy a uniquely privileged status as we close out the world before the fall of sleep, the mouth instead opens up onto this invitation, as well as the eponymous poetics, by opening onto the dislocated texture of the dream itself. Rather wonderfully on two occasions Morgan Wortham’s book undertakes rhetorical respites from the philosophical text and instead drifts off into textual reveries of Paul Celan’s ‘Edgar Jené and the Dream about the Dream’ (in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (London: Routledge, 1995)) and Beckett’s Cascando and Company where enunciator and enunciation become unclear and the experience of colour is synaesthetically vocalized. These intertextual reveries do, however, hint at one potential threshold that the book leaves underdetermined: that liminal space between sleep and dreaming. And yet this porosity further embraces the ambiguity of sleep, which Morgan Wortham affirmatively resolves with his final plunge into the unconscious by means of Nancy’s The Fall of Sleep where sleep is mapped as an ‘equal world’ (p. 131) in which ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘us’ effectively become impossible; a rhetorical world, according to Morgan Wortham, which (un)avowedly projects the work of many of the thinkers encountered throughout the tome (Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Derrida, Bergson). Unlike death, though, we can of course return from this equal world, a world that every reader has experienced and while Morgan Wortham’s book productively offers no concluding space for enabling us to sleep more easily, he does offer us a means of sleeping (and dreaming) in a more enlightened manner.