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28 November 2018

Investigating insomnia: on living with sleeplessness

Marina Benjamin explores the semiotics of sleep and its absence.  

By Nicky Woolf

“If we insist on defining [insomnia] in terms of what it annuls, then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself?” asks Marina Benjamin at the beginning of Insomnia, her memoir of living with sleeplessness.

“Memoir” is how the book is described in its promotional material, but really it defies definition. It is short, at just 122 pages, not including the references, and each densely packed paragraph is so widely spaced from the next that it has the look of a volume of poetry. In fact, Benjamin’s lyrical style rebounds with such manic energy, and bounces so vigorously from idea to idea, that Insomnia does nearly read like a free-form poem. Some paragraphs clump together while others stand alone, seemingly unmoored from the book’s path, presented simply as asides.

Her prose is so rich with imagery and classical references that it can almost become a little exhausting to read at times. This is perhaps the intention: to transmit by direct experience the bouncing-off-the-walls madness of sleeplessness. It is a madness I know well: I am, like Benjamin, an insomniac. My own lifelong insomnia is so severe that without chemical intercession I would suffer weeks of sleeplessness at a time, days and nights unspooling along with my consciousness.

I have what is medically known as “primary” insomnia. Many other ailments can have sleeplessness as a symptom – from depression to sciatica to cancer. According to a landmark 2007 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 30 per cent of people at any given time report experiencing symptoms of insomnia. But when it is primary, it is a disease in and of itself. Medical science knows little more than that about its causes. Sometimes it just is.

Benjamin does not go into much detail about the science of sleep and its absence, and nor does she dawdle among the medical facts and speculations inherent to her condition. In fact, Insomnia is almost the opposite: a book about the semiotics of sleep and its absence, rather than the reality of insomnia itself.

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It is clear that Benjamin set out not to investigate or even comprehensively describe insomnia, but to make art about it. The prose dances trippingly through brief sections in which she describes the medical realities of her own condition in order to linger lovingly among the classics, to the point where one feels one has spent more time with Odysseus and Penelope, Rumi and Robinson Crusoe, Oedipus and Athena, Nabokov and Gilgamesh, than with Marina Benjamin.

A section where she ranks the various chemicals she has tried for sleep, with varying success, caught my attention, as I recently attempted the same exercise for an essay I wrote about my insomnia. The herbal treatment skullcap, which she describes as her favourite, is new to me, but we share a fondness for benzodiazepines and an antipathy to Zopiclone.

This section, though, is given barely a page, while we dally with the Norwegian landscape painter Nikolai Astrup, whose “crepuscular palette succeeds in rendering the familiar strange”, for almost twice as long. “Crepuscular” is a delicious word, but it adds to the sense that the book is a little overwrought; its writerly gemstones seem almost over-polished, especially in a setting so loose and avant-garde.

Near the end, Benjamin writes that “the key to unlocking the artistic mind” resides in “a willingness to look at the world at a tilt”. Further, she adds, “this skew, this tilt, is what collage teaches us too. Collages are scattergun, random, associative. But they are also curated, controlled and generative… they remind us that the how of everyday seeing is just as important as the what.”

That pretty much describes Insomnia: it’s a collage of free-associated literary concepts and beautiful lapidary phrases, pasted together by a mind in the grip of the kind of delirium that only chronic sleeplessness can bring. One does not so much read it in a linear sense as dip in to absorb it piece by piece. Like the consciousness of the insomniac, it feels unmoored from temporal reality.

If Benjamin’s insomniac mind is a well-crafted collage of glossy magazine clippings, mine is an angry mess of ripped and torn scraps. Somehow her insomnia manifests itself as poetry, and mine manifests itself as pain. It’s difficult not to feel a twinge of jealousy. 

Nicky Woolf is editor of New Statesman America


Marina Benjamin
Scribe, 144pp, £9.9

This article appears in the 28 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexit fantasy died