- Insomnia: A Cultural History
Insomnia, the inability to sleep, is for Eluned Summers-Bremner the “embodiment of a double negative, the absence of unconsciousness” (p. 70). Summers-Bremner’s cultural history of insomnia begins by referencing the world’s oldest literary work, the Gilgamesh epic: Gilgamesh becomes mortal by “mak[ing] a transition from [constant] wakefulness to sleeplessness to knowledge” (p. 21). As in other ancient tales, sleeplessness and sleep play on the fault line between mortality and immortality. Others in the ancient world knew sleeplessness because of hunger, worry, and lovesickness or—in the case of the Chinese king Wu—because he could not sleep as long as he had not “secured heaven’s support” (p. 32).
Inhabitants of medieval Europe seem not to have been worried when they woke up in the middle of the night, a worry that exacerbates insomnia for many today. At the time, interrupted nocturnal sleep was obviously a common experience; the culprits behind insomnia included bedbugs and fear of arson, robbery, and political conspiracy. Yet scariest of all were the Devil and his minions (p. 38): “The Devil himself was seen as an insomniac, and required a corresponding vigilance on the part of Christians” (p. 52). The suffering Mary became a model for devotees who made their beds as uncomfortable as possible to reduce sleep (p. 39).
In the fourteenth century, public clocks and bells triggered a “heightened timeawareness of insomnia,” and in Shakespeare’s plays, insomnia is often a condition that befalls an unsettled mind. Early modern Europe saw the gradual emergence of the mercantile economy, which led to new forms and notions of insomnia. Wasting one’s time became a serious sin (p. 53), and time was increasingly counted and calculated. There were new contradictions: sleeplessness arose from anxiety, and that anxiety came from putting faith in material things. Dutch Calvinists, for instance, demanded moderation in both sleep and consumption (p. 64). English preachers of the seventeenth century made “sleep into the equivalent of moral disorder,” and sleeping in was morally condemned (pp. 75–78).
Summers-Bremner presents many interesting literary references to insomnia, but the associations she makes between historical developments and insomnia seem at times adventurous. We are often left to guess more than understand the exact nature of these connections, as when she links insomnia to the slave trade (“the Dark Continent”). The connections between insomnia and modernity are even more metaphorical, and I felt increasingly lost—occasionally falling asleep— trying to make sense of passages like: “As the present moment vanishes perpetually into the future of goals, outcomes and profits, its present materiality is rendered null or masked—darkened, in the restrictive sense—twice: once in its function [End Page 385] as a product of the past, and a second time in its own production of the future, where it is replaced by ‘progress’ or forward movement. This doubled darkness of modernity gives it an affinity with insomnia” (p. 99).
The discussion gains credence when Summers-Bremner deals with literature, city nightlife, and the National Sleep Foundation, but even here she gets lost in details. Although she reviews a large variety of sources and tries to cover everything from the earliest sources of our civilization to the present day across Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia, the central aim remains unclear. At times the arguments are more associative than supported by evidence; connections between history and insomnia are merely metaphorical and seem forced. The book would have profited from some limitation in scope and from a few sleepless nights and wakeful days spent pondering the issues and elaborating the main arguments more explicitly.