Diary

Jenny Diski

If you set aside the incomparable cruelty and stupidity of human beings, surely our most persistent and irrational activity is to sleep. Why would we ever allow ourselves to drop off if sleeping was entirely optional? Sleep is such a dangerous place to go to from consciousness: who in their right mind would give up awareness, deprive themselves of control of their senses, volunteer for paralysis, and risk all the terrible things (and worse) that could happen to a person when they’re not looking? As chief scientist in charge of making the world a better place, once I’d found a way of making men give birth, or at least lactate, I’d devote myself to abolishing the need for sleep. Apart from the dangers of letting your guard down, there’s the matter of time. Instead of trying to extend the life of human bodies beyond their cellular feasibility, the men and women in lab coats could be studying ways to retrieve all the time we spend asleep. A third of our lives, they say – and that probably doesn’t take the afternoon nap into account. Even if we died aged what is these days a rather youthful 70, finding a way to stay awake would increase our functional life to the equivalent of 93. And if we happened to live to 93 then we’d effectively be . . . oh, even older. Plus the nap time. Sleep, we’re told, is essential, repairing the wear and tear on body and mind, but sex was once solely for the purpose of propagating the species and we pretty much found a workaround for that biological constraint.

Obviating the need to sleep would also take care of the second most absurd thing we do: wake up. You can buy an alarm clock advertised in one of those catalogues of marvellous necessities like LED digital-musical-weather-station-photo-frames and electronic nail-polish driers. The alarm clock is on all-terrain wheels. If you don’t immediately turn it off, it rolls off your bedside table and cruises around the bedroom beeping and flashing until there’s nothing for it but to get out of bed and chase it. Or there’s the airborne alarm clock which takes off from its base and flies around the room making a noise like an infuriated mosquito. Such extreme measures – which must contravene several health and safety regulations – suggest that waking up is not as popular as you might think coming round from unconsciousness would be.

At any rate, that’s how I’d look at the subject if it weren’t for the fact that sleeping, for all its inherent dangers and waste, is and always has been my activity of choice. Inexpert though I am in all other fields, I am a connoisseur of sleep. Actually, my speciality is not sleep itself, but the hinterland of sleep, the point of entry to unconsciousness. One of my earliest memories of sensual pleasure (though there must have been earlier, watery ones) is of lying on my stomach in bed, the bedtime story told, lights out (not the hall, leave the door open, no, more than that), the eiderdown heavy and over my head, my face in the pillow, adjusted so that I had just enough air to breathe. I recall how acutely aware I was of being perfectly physically comfortable, as heimlich as I ever had been or ever would be, and no small part of the comfort was the delicious prospect of falling slowly into sleep. Drifting off. Moving off, away, out of mindfulness. Leaving behind. Relaxing into hypnagogia (a condition I may always have known about and desired, if not been able to name), anticipating the blurring of consciousness. It must have been a familiar routine, because I was so filled with confident pleasure of what was to come. Daydreaming a story (princes, princesses, cruel guardians, rescues), trying to hold onto the narrative as the thread of it kept drifting away, or I did, out of reach into a storyless place, a gentle fog. The great delight was in deferring sleep, hovering on the edge, pulling myself back to the same point in the story and trying to move it along, but always dropping off, hanging by the story-thread, the fingertips losing their grip but managing to haul back to the tale on the waking side of the world. The trick was to sustain my stay in the no man’s land for as long as possible, knowing all the while that I would inevitably, sooner or later, lose my grip on consciousness.

So I remember it, and so it still is, at its best, the border territory of sleep. It is most readily reachable during a daytime nap, though the result is that ‘naps’ can take hours. The whole point is to extend the unsleeping moment, and to drop into a state where all logic and reason disappears, while I nevertheless retain an essential degree of awareness of the strangeness I’ve achieved. Euclidian geometry disappears and irregular objects and abstractions with a dimensional existence appear to inhabit and shape the reality of this space. Chairs, cups, laptops, gardens, or impossible, indescribable forms, floating and structural, replace the basic rectangles and polyhedrons of the regular world, and aside from their architectural purpose, their meaning, and they surely have a meaning, is unguessable, though just occasionally sideways, shimmering in some corner, if corners existed, there is a glimpse of something that would turn it all into sense if it didn’t immediately flit away. Thought itself becomes mad geometry, another building block of this alien strip of universe, familiar because I’ve been there so many times before, but always as weird and ungraspable as air and water.

And then finally and inevitably, sleep. A nothing: existing only in anticipation or recollection. Dreams are remembered afterwards as narrative or vague left-over feelings, but are not experienced by me, because in sleep there is no me. The dreamer sometimes mistakes itself for me, or I do for it, but really sleep is a state of coma, death, of involuntary spasms or paralysis that I can only know about if someone (including me) tells me about it later. Unconsciousness itself is desired, but only in anticipation or retrospect. Obviously, by definition. Sleep, while it is happening, is nothing to the sleeper. To an observer all kinds of things are happening to the sleeper while she sleeps. Watch the cat, twitching paws and whiskers, purring, gruffling. Watch sleeping people smile, or mutter, fidget, laugh and shriek. So the observer knows about it, watching you; you do not. Later, you can remember or feel, but the only actual experience of sleep is not-knowing. And not knowing thrills me – retrospectively or in anticipation, of course. That one has the capacity to be not here while being nowhere else. To be in the grip of unconsciousness, and consciously to lose consciousness to that grip. My first experiment with drugs was sniffing ether to make myself unconscious, then waking after what seemed an eternity of absence to discover that while I had been nowhere, just a moment or two had passed. Even the absence was mysterious to me, since when I came round, there were whole sagas of remembered dreams, as if I had experienced them, yet I knew nothing of them at the time. It was a great adventure in time travel and disappearance. But then the dreams turned very bad. Now and then I can treasure that second or two after the anaesthetist has pressed the plunger – count backwards from 10 – 10, 9, 9, 8, 7, 9 . . . 9 . . . 9 . . . Hanging onto the narrative for as long as I possibly can. The same brief encounter with being and not-being. But then there’s post-operative pain as a rule, though usually also the morphine to wake up to: a state of hypnopompia provided by the NHS.

Hypnopompia is the compensation at the other end of sleep. The brutality of waking, if you don’t have to catch a flying alarm clock, is soothed by the equal and opposite blurring of consciousness. Coming to, coming round. Slowly. Holding onto sleep, then hovering in hypnoland for as long as you can. Jung almost redeems himself from creepy spiritus munditude with the story in which he asks his new patient, a pathologically anxious, blocked writer, to describe his day in detail. ‘Well, I wake, get up and . . .’ ‘Stop,’ Jung says. ‘That’s where you’re going wrong.’ Not likely to be true, but perfectly correct. The hinterland between sleeping and waking is what compensates for having to start and get through the day, blocked writer, besieged schoolteacher or sullen secretary as I’ve been in my time. If you must have an alarm clock, don’t get a flying one, but set it to wake you early enough to give you all the drifting time you need. Between getting extra sleep or drifting, drift wins.

But because, in my view, sleep itself has nothing to do with me, it constitutes something of a danger. Apart from practical hazards, such as being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger or bludgeoned to death by a serial killer who is too insanely cunning even for the lab rats on CSI, there are more nebulous and sinister perils attested to in fairy tale and anthropology. I have never slept in a plane or on a train, nor, since I was a child, slept anywhere in public. It’s not for lack of trying, but I guess that I can’t allow myself to be so vulnerable to the gaze of others. On the other hand, the only pleasure to be got out of a long, sequestered, wakeful journey that everyone else is dreaming away, is to wander up and down the aisles in the deep of night and look at others sleeping. Of course, as children we sleep like babies, in all kinds of public circumstances, but then small children don’t make the distinction between self and other that prevents them from chatting to themselves in a room full of people and make-believing in full view of friends and strangers. I keep all that sort of thing strictly private – it’s the way of the adult – or try to, and although I do occasionally find myself talking to myself or the bottled water in supermarkets, I never fall asleep in public. It’s always extraordinary to patrol a planeful or trainful of people, trusting as newborns, sprawling in search of minimum discomfort, slack-jawed, legs apart, hair awry, skirts and trouser legs crumpled and careless, snorting and snoring in full view of a crowd of strangers. I suppose the assumption is that the strangers, too, are asleep, and a condition of mutually-assured unconsciousness obtains. But there is always me, at least, peering at the touching and terrifying vulnerability of the publicly unconscious. Vulnerable, not to sabre-toothed tigers but to being watched. I do not want anyone looking at me when I’m not looking at them. Like Yogi Bear, throwing a towel over his head when the warden comes along, if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. Do I worry about my spirit being stolen, like the Aborigines who are supposed to fear that a photograph will do just that? I think I just don’t like being looked at when I can’t turn and say: ‘What?’ Or perhaps that’s the same thing. ‘Are you looking at me? Are you looking at me?’

Who leaves when you fall asleep? They do, of course. So how can they look at you when they’re no longer there? Otherwise it would be you who is not there and everyone else is where they always were, getting on with what they were always doing. That would suggest, on the constant pairing of sleep with death (‘Death be not proud . . . ’), that when you die the world carries on without you, and that is clearly ridiculous. It is said that when Franco was dying, his ministers (lying, I hope) said: ‘Generalissimo, all Madrid is standing outside the palace to say goodbye to you.’ ‘Why?’ the Generalissimo said. ‘Where are they going?’ This is the first time I have identified with a Fascist dictator, but he was, in this single instance, completely correct in his understanding.

All of which may be the reason the phrase ‘fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow’ is as strange to me as cuneiform. The drifting ritual, and the early training (which is why the light in the hall is on, and the door open, wider) of listening for catastrophe in the night, means that I have always taken an age to get to sleep. Sometimes this tips over into insomnia. Not a chance of drifting. Just the mind growing increasingly frantic with thoughts lining up round the block to get their moment in the sun of night-time fretfulness. This is more like my Methedrine phase. I enjoyed hyperconsciousness then (until, as with the ether, the thoughts turned bad). These days I’m much more on the side of oblivion. It goes in phases, and if I had a scientific interest in it, I’d be fascinated by the transformation of the world in the early hours to the place of uncertainty and woe that it actually is. The veil of coping shreds as the hours go by and all the disasters and horrid failures that can undoubtedly occur, and indeed are crowded, stage left, simply waiting for their moment, make themselves known to you. People have always asked which is the reality, sleep or wakefulness, but no one ever dares suggest that the horrors of half-past three in the morning are indeed as likely to happen as not, and are at least as possible as they are impossible.

Reality cannot stand too much wakefulness. My longest period of sleeplessness (aside from the Methedrine binges) occurred for no reason I could figure, but, years ago, for two days and nights and some more, I simply could not get to sleep. I did the required tossing and turning rather than getting up and doing something useful all through one night and set myself to sleep the following day – it was a weekend – but nothing happened. All day nothing happened, and in the evening I lay in bed more mad with wondering about the cause and the fear that sleep had deserted me for ever, than with sleeplessness itself, and turned on the television just in time for the start of Fantastic Voyage. In that wonderful movie, Donald Pleasence and Raquel Welch among others are miniaturised in an attempt to save the life of a crucial Cold War US scientist with a blood clot on the brain. They are injected in a tiny submarine into his bloodstream and do battle with the monstrous currents of the circulatory system. They negotiate the waving cilia forest of the lungs and the sucking whirlpools of osmotic action. They do battle with an army of white blood cells charging at the foreign body inserted into their scientist host, and overcome the fearful turbulence of the heart valves to get into the aorta and finally into the electrical storm of the brain. And all along, one of them is a Russian plant, sent to subvert the mission and prevent the sub’s missiles breaking up the life-threatening clot in the frontal lobe of the enemy genius.

It is a thrilling film at any time, but after 36 hours of sleeplessness it took on the quality of oracular truth. I felt the tiny sub’s embattled passage through my every interior part. I became Donald Pleasence determined to fulfil his evil mission (for who else could it have been but him?), and Raquel, pneumatic in her scientific white overalls but dismissing her irrelevant though mighty breasts and luscious hips and lips, serious and brilliant neurologist that she was, focused on surviving in order to save the scientist and the beleaguered world. And what was more, there was a time constraint. The miracle miniaturising procedure would last only 60 minutes before they and their vessel would begin to grow and present a threat to their patient even worse than the clot in his brain. A race against time and wickedness, and I sat bolt upright in bed, living out every dangerous second of the passing hours. I must have fallen asleep eventually, later that night or day or whenever it was, because I haven’t been awake ever since, but I do live with a sense that part of me is still weirdly wide awake, unable even to blink my eyes, while Donald Pleasence and Raquel Welch fight it out, riding the tides of my pumping blood, as the clock ticks.