Sleepwalkers of Modernity

In Society, Stress in literature by Camilla

We are moving at a still faster pace, which to most people means less free-time and less sleep. Just a generation ago the average American slept 8 hours every night, today it’s 6,5 hours. Even longer ago sleeping 10 hours wasn’t uncommon, today it’s utopia. Our sleeping patterns seems, indeed, very interconnected with the way we arrange ourselves as humans in society. If we work long hours, we sleep fewer.

Symptoms such as insomnia or sleeping difficulties are often related to stress. It is common that people suffering from stress, or on the verge of a stress related break-down have troubles sleeping. Coinciding, we are trying to make sleep less necessary. That at least, is the point of matter to Jonathan Crary in his work 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2014). As a society we’re striving towards what he calls a 24/7 system: A society that is always open for business, always producing, selling, buying:

    “An illuminated 24/7 world without shadows is the final capitalist mirage of post-history, of an exorcism of the otherness that is the motor of historical change. 24/7 is a time of indifference, against which the fragility of human life is increasingly inadequate and within which sleep has no necessity or inevitability. In relation to labor, it renders plausible, even normal, the idea of working without pause, without limits. It is aligned with what is inanimate, inert, or unageing”

Sleepless in Literature

Insomnia or lack of sleep is not a rare theme in art and literature. Take Gabriel García Márquez classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude where the villagers of Macondo never sleeps. Marcel in In Seach of Lost Times (1913-27) by Marcel Proust suffers from chronic sleeping difficulties, and Danish poets such as Klaus Rifbjerg, Henrik Hertz and Thorkild Bjørnvig have all written poems on insomnia. Just to mention a few.

The former professor in Danish Literature at University of Copenhagen, Erik A. Nielsen, has written a book on the subject, Søvnløshed. Modernisme i digtning, maleri og musik (1982, eng.: Insomnia. Modernism in Poetry, Painting and Music), claiming that what characterizes modernism actually is that we are always in a state of alertness, an eternal sleeplessness.

A state of constant alertness does not only make us unable of sleeping, it also stresses us, and therefore the motive of sleep or lack thereof is something interesting when talking about stress in literature. It seems that there is a connection between insomnia showing up in literature and society, or should I say, the real world. Insomnia is seldom just a nice poetic function in literature (even though that is also the case from time to time): It is a symptom.

In recent times, it is my opinion that insomnia and/or stress in literature is directly connected to the society we’re (re-)organizing where more and more things are open all the time – and where we ourselves, therefore, need to be available a greater part of the day than a couple of generations ago.

We’re no longer, necessarily, living in accordance with the rotation of the Earth and constantly pushing the limits. Maybe someday, we will learn to overcome sleep once and for all, but right now it is an destabilizing factor.