Photo credit: Gretchen Connell
When you think about history, you probably picture scenes of people doing things while they’re awake: fighting wars, staging protests, electing presidents, making scientific discoveries, inventing machines, writing novels, traveling to the moon, and so on. But what if we considered our past from the point of view of the sleeping bodies that perversely demand that all this activity stop so that they can lie there like slabs of meat for a third of human history? Call it a history of oblivion, or obliviousness. Its heroes and heroines would not be the bold, energetic, willful, creative waking people who have built the noisy, high-tech, high-stress, unjust, globally connected world we live in, but the exhausted souls who struggle to find rest in it.
That was the goal I set for myself six years ago when I began working on Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World
. I’m an English professor, and I’ve long been interested in stories of people who have been cast to the social margins. I’ve written about freak shows, insane asylums, rebel slaves, people with disabilities, and failed prophets: all outsiders looking in, whose perspective can help us interpret our society in ways that an insider’s cannot. But you don’t have to be an eccentric, persecuted, or ostracized person to experience being an outcast. It happens naturally — if you’re lucky — every night, as you are transformed from whatever respectable identity you’ve forged for yourself into a lump of breathing, sweating, insensate, unthinking, twitching, snoring flesh. When you wake up, you have no idea what happened: you’ve been an outsider even to yourself. I wanted to reclaim that stubborn lumpishness as a central part of who we are and the world we’ve made over time.
As I began my research on the history of sleep, I had two fascinating experiences. The first was an opportunity to team-teach a course on sleep with a neurologist at Emory, David Rye. David is an expert on several sleep-related disorders: restless leg syndrome, a truly terrifying condition in which sleepers experience burning or jolting sensations that cause them to thrash out violently in the night; and hypersomnia, which causes sufferers to sleep up to 16 or 18 hours a day, with little relief from fatigue. David brought to the classroom deep knowledge of the workings of the sleeping brain: its patterns of neural activity, its pathways for sleep- and wakefulness-inducing chemicals, its transformations through the various stages of sleeping. His perspective gave thrilling evidence that, far from being a passive state, sleep was as full of activity as waking was. I brought... well, books. I scrambled to collect everything I could on the history and culture of sleep, and I was fortunate to find the work of a handful of historians, philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists who were analyzing sleep’s social and cultural dimensions, as well as novelists and poets who could bear witness to what sleep meant in their lives. I was fascinated to find records of tremendous variation in how and when different groups sleep: some naked, some clothed; some singly, some in large groups; some through the night, some in segments; some longer in winter, some on an unvarying routine; some behind closed doors, some out in the open.
Perhaps what we take as normal or correct sleep is simply a set of conventions that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking is natural.
As we were planning this course, I also happened to be teaching an American literature survey in which I assigned Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece, Walden
. I’d read the book about a half-dozen times before, but I was astonished to find that in all my years of reading and teaching it, I had completely missed a major concern that was lying right on the surface of the text, in virtually every chapter — something that seemed not only to open a window onto Thoreau’s time and place, but to provide a fascinating perspective on my own. From the first pages onward, he left a record of how social change was disturbing the patterns of sleeping and waking experienced by his countrymen, the famous “mass of men who lead lives of quiet desperation.” He portrayed his contemporaries as permanently unawake, nearly zombified in their subservience to technology and the unnatural rhythms it induces. They were addicted to stimulating substances and entertainments, wired awake by the frantic pace of commerce and high-speed communications, jolted out of bed by the sound of onrushing trains and the clatter of factories, and generally thrown off balance by unyielding schedules of work and travel. And yet they were expected to sleep regularly, efficiently, and normally. No wonder, he wrote, that he had “never yet met a man who was quite awake.” As an antidote, Thoreau sought to calibrate his own body rhythms to those of the natural world — and in this sense, Walden
seemed like the heroic efforts of one man to get a good night’s sleep. Thoreau’s book seemed vibrantly contemporary when I read it in this light. There’s even a passage that anticipates that archetypal scene of 21st-century sleep disruption, the hand reaching compulsively for an electronic device in the middle of the night: “Hardly a man takes half-hour’s nap after dinner,” he wrote “but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.”
As my project unfolded, I tried to fill in the history of what had happened to sleep from Thoreau’s time to ours, how we got stuck with a set of rules that don’t work well for many people, and the mess those rules have created. Amidst the astonishing variety of sleeping practices around the world and throughout history, the way our society tells us to sleep — eight hours in one straight shot through the night, in a sealed and quiet chamber, on a soft surface shared by at most two consenting adults, children apart from parents — began to seem quite strange indeed. Not only did these rules have little or nothing to do with the biological requirement for sleep, but none of them seem to have been widely followed anywhere in the world before the 19th-century West. No wonder, perhaps, that so many in our society complain about sleep troubles. Perhaps what we take as normal or correct sleep is simply a set of conventions that we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking is natural.
Everywhere I looked, I found clues that sleep has become a zone of struggle and worry, which undercuts its function of providing rest and restoration. Contemporary newspapers and websites are filled with stories about new aspects of sleep to worry about: the deadly dangers of putting your child to bed in the wrong position, the harmful effects of the blue light emitted by computer screens late at night, and the risks to cognition, memory, and public safety induced by sleep loss. In the pages of history and literature, I saw that regulating and controlling sleep was an important part of our society’s power structures, from the ways families are organized to the relations of workers to their bosses. Slave-holders worried about what slaves might get up to while the masters slept, and the slaves themselves were punished horribly for oversleeping; factory owners demanded regular patterns of waking and sleeping that accorded little with established practices more in tune with the rising and falling of the sun; missionaries and colonialists justified rule over “savage” tribes in part by pointing to their “unnatural” or animalistic sleeping habits; harried businessmen purchased pills and gadgets to optimize their sleep, while the world’s poor scrambled to find scraps of leftover sleep in whatever rough conditions they could find them; and utopian dreamers bent on remaking the world often started by changing the way people put themselves to bed at night. Everywhere I looked, I saw signs of struggle over sleep: people trying to wrestle their own sleep, or the sleep of others, into control, with money and power often at stake. The battle that every parent undergoes at night to get a little one on a proper sleep schedule is a microcosm for a broader set of regulations by which some enforce the rules of sleep, and others are meant to obey. That pattern seemed as much a driver of human history as the struggle to control, say, oil or water.
Readers often ask if I’ve found a better way to sleep, or a more natural way. My short answer is that the question itself is part of the problem. There are all sorts of books that can tell you what the best way to sleep is, and because they tend to conflict with each other, they only add to the noise and confusion surrounding contemporary sleep. Instead, I think we ought to embrace the diversity of human sleep and work toward loosening the rules that govern it for those who have the fewest choices. What I’ve found is that sleep is astonishingly rich in variety: there have been countless ways to sleep in human history, none more unsatisfactory to a greater number of people than our own. For all our struggles to bend sleep into shape, to make it conform to the rules we’ve established for it, we’ve deprived ourselves and others of many of the pleasures to be afforded by this basic, freely available resource. So I’d say that if we’re not happy with the way we sleep, and we want to give sleep a brighter future, we might start by looking to other times and other places to see that ours is not the only, necessary, or best way. As our waking politics grow more brash and confrontational, maybe our politics of sleep can be more generous and humble.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a professor of English at Emory University. The author of The Showman and the Slave
and Theaters of Madness
, and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, he lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Wild Nights
is his most recent book.