The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known--July 22, 2009
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:
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.
I have gret wonder, be this lyghte,
How that I lyve, for day ne nyghte
I may nat slepe wel nygh noght.
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....