The Philosophy of Insomnia

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Philosophy of Insomnia

The Chronicle Review

Willis G. Regier

April 10, 2011


Hegel wrote in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right that the owl of Minerva flies only at night. It hoots at insomniacs. I know. I'm one.

Bruises, red eyes, and research remind me that insomnia breaks down body and soul. Noisy neighbors, crying kids, overwork, bad food, sickness, pain, allergies, and rude visitors drive sleep away. So do naked thoughts and the words they wear: insomnias of insult, dread, worry, remorse, faux pas, frustration, revenge, and raw anxiety. Philosophy, in its immense universals, omits nothing (not even nothing). Thus there have always been tired philosophers of insomnia.

Insomnia has intrigued thinkers since the ancients, an interest that continues today, especially in Europe. What light does philosophy's exploration of the dark of night shine on insomnia, particularly for that quintessential insomniac, the scholar?

Philosophy is no friend of sleep. In his Laws (circa 350 BC), Plato platonized, "When a man is asleep, he is no better than if he were dead; and he who loves life and wisdom will take no more sleep than is necessary for health." Clement of Alexandria echoed, "There is no use of a sleeping man, as there is not of a dead man. ... But whoever of us is most solicitous for living the true life, and for entertaining noble sentiments, will keep awake for as long time as possible."

"The need of sleep is not in the soul," he wrote, "for it is ceaselessly active." In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Nietzsche preached that the high goal of good Europeans "is wakefulness itself."

Aristotle said all animals sleep. In the 20th century, the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran added in On the Heights of Despair (first published in 1934): "Only humanity has insomnia." Emmanuel Levinas, author of the erotic and metaphysical Totality and Infinity (1961), imagined philosophy, all of it, to be a call to "infinite responsibility, to an untiring wakefulness, to a total insomnia." What scholar has not heard that call, sacrificing sleep, straining eyes, and risking health in pursuit of some bit of truth or transcendence?

The first thing you learn about insomnia is that it sees in the dark. The second is that it sees nothing. Nada, nichts, néant. The French philosopher Maurice Blanchot said in The Writing of the Disaster (1980), "In the night, insomnia is discussion, not the work of arguments bumping against other arguments, but the extreme shuddering of no thoughts, percussive stillness."

Ever since Sartre's 1949 novel, Troubled Sleep , assorted philosophies of insomnia have mostly spoken French. Paris became a refuge for philosophers like Levinas, fleeing Nazis or Soviets, or like Cioran, seeking fame. World War II and its aftermath gave French philosophy plenty to think about, and plenty to lose sleep over.

Philosophers of insomnia come in three alluring types: the dutiful, the austere, and the cynical, which, faithful to its traditions, often poses as an antiphilosophy. Plato was the paragon of the dutiful, who deprive and discipline the body to the brink of death, or to it, for the sake of truth. Anne Dufourmantelle assumes the burden in Blind Date: Sexe et philosophie (2003), saying that "philosophy was born with anxiety, with questioning, with insomnia. It takes upon itself the ills of the world, and thus it cannot sleep." This is executive philosophy, whose duty it is to convert worry into analysis.

Writing for the austere was Levinas, the philosopher-king of insomnia. Take a running start and try this passage from "God and Philosophy" (1975): "Insomnia, wakefulness or vigilance, far from being definable as the simple negation of the natural phenomenon of sleep, belongs to the categorial, antecedent to all anthropological attention and stupor." Or more plainly: "Insomnia is wakefulness, but a wakefulness without intentionality." Levinas saw insomnia as the site of insight. In "In Praise of Insomnia" (1976), he explained, "The entire opening of consciousness would already be a turning toward the something over which wakefulness watches. It is necessary, however, to think an opening that is prior to intentionality, a primordial opening that is an impossibility of hiding: one that is an assignation, and impossibility of hiding in oneself; this opening is an insomnia. " A conscientious philosopher could toss and turn over that for weeks.

Cioran, snickering like Diogenes, found Levinas's jargon unappealing but understood the notion. "Every problem, if we get to the bottom of it," he believed, "leads to bankruptcy and leaves the intellect exposed: no more questions and no more answers in a space without horizon."

Cioran was the outspoken cynic of the philosophy of insomnia, chiefly I suppose because he was an insomniac, morose, disillusioned, and weary. When he was about 20, Cioran had a life-changing experience: "I stopped sleeping and I consider that the grandest tragedy that could occur. At all hours I walked the streets like some kind of phantom. All that I have written much later has been worked out during those nights."

Levinas's insomnia was a chaste metaphor for disembodied, disinterested thought. Cioran's insomnia dragged along the body, that suffering beast hard driven by the mind. Levinas exalted insomnia as a clear scene, bare consciousness aware of bare being, a state of mind ideal for selfless philosophic reflection. Cioran put insomnia's selfishness front and center. "You will suffer from everything, and to excess: the winds will seem gales; every touch a dagger; smiles, slaps; trifles, cataclysms. Waking may come to an end, but its light survives within you; one does not see in the dark with impunity, one does not gather its lessons without danger; there are eyes which can no longer learn anything from the sun, and souls afflicted by nights from which they will never recover," he wrote. The insomniac is bound to think about insomnia, and about what it does to thinking. In the wink of an eye, insomnia slips from thought to obsession, from earnest doubt to pitiless masochism and misanthropy. Insomnia has moments of extraordinary lucidity, but it also has traps and delusions of grandeur. "The tyrant lies awake—that is what defines him," Cioran told us.

Insomnia incubates megalomania. The mighty caliph Harun al-Rashid walked through One Thousand and One Nights as an insomniac. Nero was insomniac. Hitler was insomniac. Cioran understood the connection: "You enter into a conflict with the whole world, with sleeping humanity. You no longer feel like one person among others, because others live unconsciously. One develops a demented pride. One tells oneself, 'My destiny is different, I know the experience of the uninterrupted vigil.' Only pride, the pride of a catastrophe, gives you courage then. One cultivates the extraordinarily flattering feeling of no longer being part of ordinary humanity."

No philosophy would last a night without its contradictions. Insomnia has these: It tears your body down and inflates your ego. It magnifies and belittles. Insomnia flatters, and so does philosophy.

That sense of superiority is not Cioran's alone, but a symptom of all insomnias. Insomnia's intellectual pride has been supported by medical experts (the drug industry thrives on insomnia), who flatter the sleepless. At the turn of the last century, Sir James Sawyer supposed that insomnia mainly afflicted "high mental endowments" (also "neurotic temperaments," but never mind). Dr. Foster Watson, a neurologist and early British educational psychologist, believed insomnia was confined to "brain workers," rarely in his experience troubling the "labouring classes." Recent research on sleep disorders among working people has blown the supposition of superiority to smithereens, but insomniacs cling to it. Insomniacs' Web sites cover themselves in the glory of insomniacs like Churchill, Edison, Kafka, and Newton.

Nowadays insomnia is everybody's business, a common denominator. It is a symptom of depression, melancholy if you like, as common as colds. It leads to irritability, irrationality, and irascibility.

Sleepless duty, pure thought, or bitter truth? Several decades ago, the philosopher Clément Rosset wrote, "Of all the questions known to philosophy, that posed by Cioran is without doubt the most grave and most serious: Is an alliance between lucidity and joy possible?" A philosophy in love with truth confronts cruel facts: Lies abound, innocents suffer, everyone dies, and the universe doesn't care. There are thoughts that won't be denied, thoughts that won't let you sleep. Cioran wrote, "To keep the mind vigilant, there is only coffee, disease, insomnia, or the obsession of death!"

Chased by regrets, Cioran strove to put philosophy behind him, like a growing shadow. In his Short History of Decay (1949), he inserted an "Invocation to Insomnia," which personifies and praises it. "Insomnia, you ... in a single night grant more knowledge than days spent in repose, and, to reddened eyelids, reveal yourself a more important event than the nameless diseases or the disasters of time! ... I appealed to philosophy, but there is no idea which comforts in the dark, no system which resists those vigils. The analyses of insomnia undo all certainties."

Cioran concluded, "We begin to live authentically only where philosophy ends, at its wreck, when we have understood its terrible nullity, when we have understood that it was futile to resort to it, that it is no help." Helplessly he vanished into Alzheimer's and died in 1995.

Willis G. Regier is director of the University of Illinois Press.