Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Aesthetics of Sleep

In a recent issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known there is a description of something that concerns many people. The issue is titled "Why People Can't Sleep," and it contains notes of a 1946 lecture Eli Siegel gave on the subject. At this time, as more and more people are having trouble sleeping, what is said in this lecture, and in the commentary by Ellen Reiss, can make for deeper thought and understanding of this important and confusing subject. Here are the introductory paragraphs of this issue, and a link to the rest of it.

The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known--July 22, 2009
Issue #1749
Why People Can't Sleep
Here, based on notes taken by Martha Baird, is The Philosophy of Insomnia, the lecture Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall on December 19, 1946. Its subject, the inability to sleep, torments people today as it has for centuries. Around 1370, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of himself:

I have gret wonder, be this lyghte,
How that I lyve, for day ne nyghte
I may nat slepe wel nygh noght.

That means: “I have great wonder, by this light, / How I live, for day or night / I cannot sleep nearly at all.” He says that, for lack of sleep, he is “a mased thing, / Alway in poynt to falle adoun” (“a dazed thing, / Always at the point of falling down”). *Chaucer made poetry of his trouble about sleep; he told of it musically; but he didn't understand it.

Today, the psychologists don't understand the cause of sleeplessness any better than Chaucer did—and their expression on the matter is certainly much less beautiful. The website of the Mayo Clinic tells us that “stressful life events...may lead to insomnia”; also, “anxieties...may disrupt your sleep.” Well, such relations were noted long before Chaucer's time even—but why may they occur? And why may someone whose life is no more “stressful” than another's find herself agonizingly awake at 4 AM again and again?

The answer is in the lecture published here. It's also in the discussion of the subject in Eli Siegel's Self and World. As a prelude, I'll quote a passage from Self and World....

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