Marina Benjamin’s slim meditation on sleeplessness makes for interesting bedtime reading. Maybe I’m leaning into the wakefulness, but I think it’s more likely that the directions Benjamin spins off into are too interesting for me to sleep on. Instead of reading myself to sleep, the musings in Insomnia keep my mind ticking over long after I have turned off the lights.
At just over 150 pages, Benjamin’s latest memoir doesn’t take long to read, but I go back and forth through it, making mental notes of sleep experiments, of theories on sleeping, of ideas of why we chase sleep so hard, and why it is sometimes so elusive. Living with an insomniac gives me an interesting perspective; I take on the sleeping role of Benjamin’s husband, only ever referred to – somewhat enviously – as Zzz, while my partner finds the snippets I read to him disarmingly accurate.
The list of sources at the end of the book is vast, and promises to keep me awake for many nights to come. Art, philosophy and science jostle together, the fragments flowing in and out of each other. Things that seem unrelated on the surface become entwined with one another. In the art world, insomnia is romanticised. Sleepless nights are full of stars and lovers, and the state of sleeplessness is evocative of something ancient and grand. Poets find a place here, as do many painters. In his early work, Edward Burne-Jones depicted ladies draping themselves all over the place, suddenly overcome by a need to sleep, and Benjamin writes about his pre-Raphaelite paintings beautifully, looping back to them at the end of the book. (Serendipitously, Burne-Jones’ paintings are the subject of a new exhibition – his first since 1933 – at Tate Britain.)
The intensity of each snippet of the book is not to say that it isn’t also very funny. Benjamin’s CBT group and attempts at sleep-aids are portrayed as torturous; exercises devised by people who have never had trouble sleeping. (“That, or they are sadists,” says Benjamin). She misses Zzz recounting his dreams to her because she has earplugs in. She refuses meditation, “terrified of the blankness”. Her book muses on her marriage, the early days of bed-sharing with Zzz, and the ways that they comfort and accommodate each other both in waking and sleep. There are many, many comparisons between sleep and love: falling, potions, and the hours of research into the science of both.
Early in the book, Benjamin writes that insomnia is as much to do with longing as it is to do with sleeplessness. “To be without sleep is to want and be found wanting.” Insomnia does not reach a conclusion, there’s no cure. Benjamin is no more able to sleep at the end of the book than she was at the beginning. Instead, she asks what it is that her wakefulness wants of her, what it is that writers and artists and philosophers have been seeking to express, and how we can find rest in restlessness.