Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Books
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.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

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