Marina Benjamin’s memoir Insomnia is a love story. It is a tale of exquisite longing, profound loneliness, and utter suffering. The object of Benjamin’s yearning: sleep.
In sensitive, incantatory prose, Benjamin recounts her lifelong experience with sleeplessness, a cruel effect of the mind’s inability to let the body go. Insomnia is a heartless condition, she tells us, an unsparing affliction in which our consciousness hangs “suspended in uncertainty.” When a full night’s sleep is unavailable or impossible, we don’t quite feel like ourselves. We’re far from a state of rest we know and trust. But in the throes of insomnia, we’re also so unfailingly present that we cannot escape ourselves. We lie awake watching our own minds. And yet, as Benjamin discovers, an intense, otherworldly beauty exists when we keep sleep away.
Sleep seems like a stretch of velvet to which Benjamin is unable to submit. During insomnia’s endless span, she peers into the glow of her computer or into the watery eyes of her dog as they sit together on the couch. Her thoughts wander. She becomes an intrepid researcher and cataloguer of a “taxonomy of darkness,” creating a system that classifies our understanding of all those shadowy areas of life that exist beyond consciousness. Night can be, in her words, “luminous” and “moonlit,” “viscid and inky,” “lurid, where everything feels heightened,” or hover somewhere between pure darkness and light, which Benjamin calls “porous around the edges.”
Her attunement to these subtle shades of darkness transforms Insomnia from an elegy for her restlessness to a meditation on how to discern the amorphous, blue-black chaos we each carry within ourselves. Can insomnia prove somehow useful for understanding a deeper sort of loss or absence of light inherent in being human? As we wander through the house of her mind, Benjamin’s sentences creep toward an understanding of how a life spent peering into darkness might also offer new ways of seeing. Nocturnal wakefulness, we discover, is a state of consciousness worth protecting.
For those fortunate enough never to know the agony of insomnia, Benjamin’s writing mimics the feeling of what she calls a “turbocharged” mind, careening through its thoughts, fighting to temper itself. For Benjamin, “it is as if all the lights in my head had been lit at once, the whole engine coming to life, messages flying, dendrites flowering, synapses whipping snaps of electricity across my brain; and my brain itself, like some phosphorescent free-floating jellyfish of the deep, is luminescent, awake, alive.” It’s a haunting description. I’m even embarrassed to profess an odd jealousy for this state of being. This vision of a mind streaming through itself, terrifying as it is, is also ethereal and entirely enchanting. Insomnia reads like a brief fugue, a reverie we realize we might have been missing each night. Conjuring a spell over those dark hours that threaten to overtake her, Benjamin’s writing, like Scheherazade’s fables, manipulates and even dispels time. One finishes her book as if emerging, ironically, out of a dream: we cannot say how long it lasted, only that the sensation will, we hope, stay with us for a while.
As Benjamin drifts along, she alights on memories of her relationship with her partner Zzz—named for his undisturbed sleep—and introduces us to renowned sleepers, gods of sleep, and the sleepless from literature. Her mind streams from the individual torment of watching Zzz sleep next to her to the mystery of Penelope’s tireless weaving to the historical horrors of European greed for and addiction to stimulants like sugar and coffee. As these passages proceed, Benjamin’s prose grows frayed and ecstatic, bordering on hallucinatory. She breezes through Gertrude Stein, Charles Simic, Henry David Thoreau, and Jean-Luc Nancy, all of whom wrote about the blurred line between consciousness and the unconscious mind, within the space of a few pages. The effect is a collage of thinkers, of allusions, of attempts at consolation. Her text assumes the shape of the dreams she will never meet in her own repose.
I found myself wondering how it was possible for Benjamin to endure such palpable suffering. After all, she decides not to seek out a treatment or cure for her insomnia. But a fundamental paradox provides something of a tonic. “What if waking life is incapable of adequately attuning us to the needs of our unconscious minds?” Benjamin writes. By reframing sleeplessness as an active search not for repose but for the beauty of our neuroses, which lend us “our particular angles, edges, and quirks,” Benjamin finds a path through the problem that our consciousnesses cannot illuminate the entirety of our inner lives—that being awake doesn’t necessarily awaken us to what we might see of ourselves or the world we live within. Benjamin accepts what her own consciousness cannot give her, and submits to what her mind can’t control. In effect, her sleeplessness becomes a sort of willed wakefulness, a commitment to stay vigilant to those shadowy facets of the self and the world just out of focus. Her lying awake yields awakenings about how “looking at [Zzz]—looking for him—was like looking into the abyss.” She describes a nightmare she has (it appears sleep does visit her from time to time), but rather than the action of the dream, we get the effect it leaves on her: “I am endlessly diverted and distracted, trapped in a mirrored hall.”
But Benjamin remains vague about deeper facets of her psyche that might be revealed in her “heightened, near-euphoric states of sleeplessness.” There’s no doubt that Benjamin can draw through-lines through literature, art, and history in order to illuminate insomnia’s relentlessness across time: she alights on histories of colonialism driven by a greed for stimulants, “generators of mass insomnia”; she understands that “in the Epic of Gilgamesh, insomnia stands in for ambition; and Gilgamesh’s ambition is boundless… it respects no borders.” But these don’t seem to be the revelations that lie hidden within herself, the “frayed thread-ends of one’s own existence” that lie at the edge of consciousness. Benjamin may have intimated insomnia’s longue durée through her survey of art and letters, but those insights don’t seem premised on her sleepless state. Rather, the neuroses and ruptures I’m after seem to remain couched somewhere in Benjamin’s psyche, obscured even from herself.
Nevertheless, with keen brilliance, Insomnia punctures the myth of sleep as an undisturbed state. Is sleep a gift from Hypnos, the Greek god born of Night and Darkness (hypnos being the Greek cognate of the Latin somnus)? Or is sleep a chilling reminder of how close we are to death when we rest (Thanatos being the brother of Hypnos)? The tale of Sleeping Beauty conditions us to believe that we are perfect, even desirable, when we sleep. What if, instead, sleep is a state we render beautiful, simply because we (or our minds) cannot see ourselves doing it? The myth we live with “is every bit as vapid as enchanted sleep,” for “bodies are not impeccable in repose,” as Benjamin notes, bringing reality to bear on fantasy. A camera over our bed as we sleep would show us “rolling and unrolling, flipping, grunting, coughing, jerking, kicking, snoring, snorting, masturbating, and dreaming.”
Flip to any page of Insomnia. Slip into the current of Benjamin’s wandering thoughts. Stay with her through the night. The memoir, structured like a lengthy, meandering essay, is full of pleasing detours. Benjamin tells us in one aside that images of women deep in sleep, as well as kept wide awake, permeate the West’s cultural imagination, portrayals that subtly (or not so subtly) enslave women. We can trace a line from the storybook spells romantic love puts women under—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—to the control of women’s bodies and health—women during the Romantic period “diagnosed as hysterics, depressives, and neurasthenics” were forcibly drugged to sleep. Heroines like Penelope and Scheherazade stay awake to resist men who threaten to end their lives and freedom. And yet, both women harness their inability to sleep to create a space for hope. While Penelope unweaves her tapestry in secret each night, both to endure her husband Odysseus’ absence and to delay her marriage to one of her suitors, Scheherazade spins for a murderous king a series of a thousand tales, each with a nightly cliffhanger, in order to prevent her own death at dawn. Both heroines offer the promise of narrative and craft, alive with potential, in the face of a slew of other female characters and historical figures who appear numbed in their own stories.
Despite the energy of this female community, insomnia isolates us. Benjamin circles the “lonely land of ‘I,’” where her “island self floats alone in a sea of night.” Instead of slipping into solipsism, though, she puts water to boil for tea and offers to readers the joy of conversation. After all, she writes, “insomniacs make for a strange kind of collective,” for they “cannot commune with one another.” Insomniacs compose an archipelago of restlessness the world over. We readers join Benjamin in a conversation, whispered under the covers as everyone else in our house lies fast asleep, whispering so as not to wake the sun.
Rather than abandon the sleepless, or let them endure without remedy, Insomnia gives to us so that we may give to one another. Our nocturnal vigil may lend some comfort back to Benjamin, as well as support to those among us whom sleep doesn’t visit, those among us who have too many questions. We stay by Benjamin’s side to attend to our own mysteries, our own glimmering darkness.