2. Sleepless
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51 Sleepless two If the process of falling asleep reveals some of the more elusive processes of consciousness, the same can be said of not falling asleep. By this I do not of course mean being awake as such, but being awake when one ought to be asleep: insomnia. Insomnia is not, however, a simple matter of a switch being on when it ought to be off, as indicated by the oddly contradictory history of the word. Basically, it derives from the Latin in- (not) plus somnus (sleep). But the second-century dream interpreter Artemidorus of Daldis applied insomnia to a type of dream, a move that was followed by the fourth-century Macrobius in his commentary on the Somnium Scipionis. There, insomnia refers to dreams that have no divine or prophetic element but arise out of a sleeper’s worries. Nothing helpful or meaningful is to be gained from these dreams; all they do is disturb the dreamer (Michels 144). What we retain in English from this contradictory history, according to Eluned Summers-Bremmer, is “the sense of inconstancy, of wavering on a border—for us, between waking and sleep” (18). Yet if this sense of the liminal has been retained from insomnia’s history, The drop of ink belonging to the sublime night . . . —stéphane mallarmé 52 . . . Sleepless she goes on to say, something else has been lost: “For the ancients, insomnia are dark, desirous dreams within other dark states: sleep, night and death, the deepest. The imbrication of light with agency in the contemporary West makes it difficult to conceive and speak clearly of kinds of darkness that interact with each other in this way” (18). We shall begin with darkness, then, and not without good reason ; for the insomniac’s experience is first of all and fundamentally an experience of . . . night How can we speak of the night, how can we begin to think it? The sun sinks, taking with it the light; and this is the moment when, we say, night falls. A curious phrasing: day “breaks,” breaks open, a movement that expands outward, but night “falls,” falls over the edge of day like a curtain descending. At the same time, its movement is inward: not because it is following the dwindling spark of sun at the horizon, but because darkness is itself an interminable movement inward, the collapse of day’s dimensioned objects. For night is first of all an absence, absence of light, and light is what gives shape to the things of the world, structure, the clarity of their distances from each other and their relationships in space. And so night, Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues in Phenomenology of Perception, has consequences for both the things of the world and those who observe them: Night is not an object before me; it enwraps me and infiltrates through all my senses, stifling my recollections and almost destroying my personal identity. I am no longer withdrawn into my perceptual look-out from which I watch the outlines of objects moving by at a distance. Night has no outlines; . . . it is pure depth without foreground or background, without surfaces and without any distance separating it from me. All space for the reflecting mind is sustained by thinking which relates its parts to each other, but in this case the thinking starts from nowhere. (283) Two years later, in 1947, Levinas takes up this argument in Existence and Existents. Light is what allows the world to be ordered, he asserts; Sleepless . . . 53 it “makes possible . . . [an] enveloping of the exterior by the inward, which is the very structure of the cogito, and of sense” (41). So light provides a panoply of metaphors for the ordering activity of the mind, for thought itself: I see your point, it is clear, it is illuminating, brilliant even, you are a bright boy. Night takes all this illumination away along with the shapes of objects, the defined spaces in which both they and their observer are positioned. If the order of thought is now dissipated in a nocturnal “nowhere,” the same can be said of its origin, the place from which it starts: thinking cannot be said to “start” at all, simply because it is revealed as always already in progress. This is thought, of course, that cannot be said to be structured in Levinas’s sense, or indeed as sense. It is a restless, interminable movement of the mind that reveals itself to us in the night. It does not...


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