- Stealing Sleep:Expanding the Conversation on the Literary Politics of Sleep and Insomnia
Sleep, and lack thereof, is an enormous everyday quandary, practice, and preoccupation. The World Health Organization now classifies sleep loss as an epidemic throughout the industrialized world (Walker 4), a problem that has been linked to various elements of modernity—electric lights, electronic screens, and 24/7 connectivity—with roots reaching back to the dawn of industrialization and clock-driven work shifts (Reiss 15, Lockley and Foster 2). Sleep often tends to be studied through the lens of the sciences and sold as a product through consumer technologies, and the fact that sleep is a universal human need can foster the all-too-easy belief that sleep practices are merely biological or otherwise apolitical. However, even if our sleep-tracking gadgets might imply that our nightly slumber is purely a matter of individual choice and personal responsibility, sleep is a site of politics, culture, and power. As Jonathan Crary observes, "sleep of course has a dense history, as does anything presumed to be natural" (11).
Sleep, then, presents a vital opportunity for intervention from the humanities, as the study of literature and other cultural texts can illuminate the politics and aesthetics of sleep across many contexts. An emerging field sometimes known as critical sleep studies examines the intricate and contested roles that sleep plays within cultural experiences, forms of [End Page 67] representation, and social practices of all kinds. These studies challenge us to re-examine the often silent assumptions about how we sleep, how we conceive of sleep, and how we might confront the larger cultural forces through which our inequitable encounters with sleep take shape.
The fields of critical sleep studies and literary studies have only just begun to cross paths, and developing the interactions between these approaches promises to bring about startling insights. Sleep—as a figure, an act, a metaphor, a bodily need, a desire, a frustration, a form of currency and power—operates as a profound and often invisible force within our cultural worlds and individual lives, yet only a few studies have examined how, why, and to what ends sleep functions in diverse literary texts. The field of Canadian literature in particular has yet to engage with the representation of sleep in Canadian and Indigenous texts in any sustained way. By working toward this kind of engagement, I hope to deepen the existing critical approaches to sleep in literature and show that we have much to gain by applying the methods of critical sleep studies to diverse contemporary texts. More specifically, I would like to argue that representations of sleep in Canadian and Indigenous literature can challenge, reconstruct, affirm, or otherwise bring to critical awareness the cultural functioning of sleep and its associated configurations of power and thought.
In this article I have chosen two texts for consideration: Benjamin Hertwig's poetry volume Slow War and Cherie Dimaline's novel The Marrow Thieves, both published in 2017. I argue that Slow War can be read as a text that challenges dominant representations of sleep in war, in particular by rejecting the notion that the peaceful figurative "sleep" of dead soldiers deserves its place of cultural honour as the definitive representation of sleep in war (a vision embodied in particular by "In Flanders Fields"). By presenting an insistent focus on the actual disruption of sleep for living soldiers and ex-soldiers, Slow War reclaims sleep from the figurative realm and brings it back to the literal. Through challenging the dominant vision of sleep in war it also challenges the cultural vision of war as a whole.
The Marrow Thieves represents colonization as a conflict between two different cultural models of sleep and dreams. Rather than facing the guilt that is the source of their insomnia, the settler population pursues sleep and dreams through the use of monstrous technology and violent theft. Ultimately, the survival of Indigenous sleep signifies the survival of Indigenous world views, so a story that seems to be about the settlers' theft of dreams turns out largely to be about the positive work of strengthening the traditional Indigenous languages and forms of cultural knowledge that...