Fall of sleep

Sometimes, when I feel myself falling asleep, I think, “I’m falling,” and with this thought I startle myself awake. Although I long to fall asleep, lying there waiting for my mind and body to become unobtrusive, elsewhere, nowhere, I lie there in wait, watchful, fearful that I might actually fall. From this near-sleep experience I learned that to fall asleep is to fall through the bed into nowhere. So the bed is not as firm and reliable as it looks. It is a thin hide spun over a hole in the ground — or it is a thin hide spun over a hole, an absence, without the ground that surrounds holes in the ground. The bed is a trap.

When Alice falls into the rabbit hole, down, down, down, she notices, as her eyes get used to the dark, that the sides of the hole are filled with cupboards and book-shelves; as she passes, she takes down a jar labelled ORANGE MARMALADE, but finding the jar disappointingly empty, and not daring to drop it for fear of killing someone, she puts it back on another shelf lower down. It is as if she fell asleep with a book in her hands, and instead of letting it go, she carefully puts it back. Although in the story she then falls deeper into her dream, in reality she would, I think, be awake again. In the fall of sleep, you cannot take any objects with you, and there is no time to put them back in their place.

Fear of falling asleep turns into fear of lying awake, just as fear of diving into the swimming pool turns into fear of standing up there, not daring to, not being able to. Except that in bed, there is no school class watching and waiting for me to leap; my shame is private, and would remain so if I didn’t now confess it to you. Also, to leap would be to leap out of bed, to get up. Instead of leaping, what is required is letting go, of anything I’m holding, of my worries and tension, of myself. Letting go is not an action; it is the cessation of all action. That is why it is impossible to do. Whatever I do, I am not letting go.

When I lie there awake in the dark, listening to the noise outside my window, the swelling and waning of traffic that I hate, my eyelids are closed but my eyes are open behind my eyelids. (This feeling is as uncanny as its exact opposite: the sight of someone who dreams with eyes open.) I can see the dark. Everything is exactly as if I were dreamlessly asleep, except that I’m not; I’m aware of being aware of nothing, like one who is buried alive. As the street noise bears down on me it seems to be coming from above. Here, under the asphalt, no-one will ever hear me.

Somehow I have never found it difficult to sleep in company. Even in youth hostels, surrounded by strangers, some snorring, some listening to music, one suckling, another moaning, I felt far away from home but my thoughts stayed grounded. It was as if my thoughts were constrained by the limits of my bunk bed. They had to stay with me, stay in one place. There was only one thing to do: fall asleep.

This experience has convinced me that people were not meant to sleep alone; they were meant to sleep in packs like dogs or hyenas, all in one bed, one on top of another with limbs entangled. People used to sleep that way and maybe in some parts of the world they still do. Up until a few centuries ago, whole families slept in the same bed or on straw on the ground. The world gets more boring all the time, Rudy Kousbroek sighs, in an essay from which I learned this information. More boring and more lonely.

Now we sleep like kings, and like kings we do not sleep, we guard our kingdoms, not allowing ourselves to cross the border — because everyone knows what happens to kings when they’re asleep.

© 2009–2024, Martijn Wallage