Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: Tossing and Turning in ‘Insomnia’
Anyone who has ever struggled to rest throughout an entire night — which I imagine is all of us, at one time or another — will sympathize with Marina Benjamin, who plumbs the agony of her own sleeplessness in her new book, simply titled “Insomnia.” In it, Benjamin describes the different varieties of middle-of-the-night dislocation — nights when “the thickening, sense-dulling” darkness “hangs velvety as a pall,” or the “luminous moonlit nights, lurid nights, when everything feels heightened.” She recounts her own experiences and frustrations, but also calls on the works of a wide range of others to illuminate the subject, like the poet Rumi, the painter Magritte and the philosopher David Hume; as well as fictional characters, like Odysseus’s wife, Penelope (“his absence stirs her desire, but then her insomnia curdles that desire into despair,” Benjamin writes). Below, she discusses the particularly bad bout of insomnia that inspired her to write the book, the recurrent image of sleeping women in classical art and more.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
It grew out of experience. I’ve been an insomniac all my life. In childhood, it was much more a refusal to sleep, because I didn’t know where we went to — the usual kind of terror of night. Insomnia comes very much more from the outside now; it feels like an assault.
At the start of 2017, I was experiencing a particularly rough bout of it. It started intruding on and disrupting my sense of reality. I had various family problems detonating around me, blasting up from nowhere, it seemed. It felt that life had become very, very unwieldy, as though day and night had been turned upside down. Nonsense mingled with sense. I was exhausted, limping through the days.
I decided I wanted to write about it. Because I began writing from this distorted place, the first 5,000 words kind of gushed out; it was almost like automatic writing. Being in my mid-50s has felt unmoored, which is a very fruitful place to be, partly because it’s liminal — middle life is a transition moment, by definition, and so is insomnia: You’re precariously balanced between two worlds. I like the idea of being in that place and writing from that place, and to write a whole book in that strange way, with ambiguity and uncertainty, so we get dropped into my altered state.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I was struck by the recurrent image of sleeping women and vigilantly wakeful ones — like Penelope — in literature and art. I had never thought of the various meanings that might attach to slumbering women, or what it was they meant or symbolized. The sleeping women I looked at were in mainly two areas. One was paintings; there were lots of classical women depicted as sleeping. And Silas Weir Mitchell’s rest cure was another fruitful area, where women who were exhibiting anxiety were basically put to bed for days and forbidden to get up except for bodily functions. It drove the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman to the edge of madness. In my reading about that, these depictions of sleeping women seemed to embody the malaise of an entire society that was sated on the comforts of capitalism but alienated from its own wants; a kind of decadence, if you like, but in its worst manifestations.
Another surprise was how active premodern people were at night; how common it was for them to perform at night functions that we associate with the day: chatting with friends, getting haircuts (sometimes in bed). The luxury of privacy was very rare, and many people didn’t have bedrooms that were separate spaces that were private and individual. They might have a divan in the living room or often in their office.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
What changed was its scope. When the first 5,000 words spilled out, they came largely in the nature of personal complaint — a way of venting my own frustrations with not sleeping. Then I got interested in philosophical and psychological perspectives: why we contrast darkness to light; how we navigate thresholds; how, with insomnia, we need to reckon with our own inner darkness — you feel that very palpably when you’re awake at night starting at the ceiling, drowning in a well of uncertainty and longing.
The form of the book gave me certain freedoms that grew as the book progressed. The digressive associative style, designed to mimic the insomniac experience, allowed me to expand my inquiry so I could bring in bigger themes: capitalism, the use of stimulants and the experience of other insomniacs, so that it’s not just an interior, experiential inquiry.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
I visit a lot of galleries when I look for inspiration. If I had to pick a single artist who I find inspiring in this way, I’d pick Edward Hopper. It’s partly because he’s drawn to interior spaces, to rooms rather than landscapes. The people he paints are often alone, like the insomniac, lost in contemplation, looking out the window. Apart from the lushness of his work — the gorgeous palette of colors — there’s a real humanity there that I’m pulled to. But also a cheekiness — wanting to spy on people and learn their secrets.
And at the last retrospective of his work that I went to in London, I was surprised at the size of some of the canvases, as if he wanted to envelop you so you have an immersive experience, much like reading.
Persuade someone to read “Insomnia” in 50 words or less.
It elevates insomnia to see it as more than just a sleep disorder in need of a cure, or a state of lack. I felt that if we embraced insomnia — the joys and terrors of darkness — then we could celebrate what it means to live life fully and startlingly awake.
This interview has been condensed and edited.