On Sleep

Nancy Kress’s science fiction novella Beggars in Spain begins from a simple premise: what if we could genetically engineer people who do not need to sleep? It’s a tantalizing prospect—what would we do with an extra seven, or eight, or nine hours every day? One might fantasize about more time to read, to spend with friends and family, to meditate, or to travel. But in Kress’s story, the Sleepless spend their nights in study and work. As a result, they become overachievers in almost every educational and professional arena. Hours of figure skating practice, stock trading, studying the law, designing software, or running experiments in laboratories lead the Sleepless to outperform Sleepers again and again. Sleep, in the story, comes to seem like a waste of time, time that could be better spent in productive labor. As Roger Camden, business oligarch and father of one of the first Sleepless children, puts it, “Doctor, do you know how much more I could have accomplished if I hadn’t had to sleep all my life?”

Beggars in Spain is compelling because we already tend to see sleep in these economic terms. Time is now a commodity, an object to be regimented, traded, and disciplined, as any wage worker who’s ever been lectured on “time theft” knows. It’s a legacy of the modernist period, an era that saw the introduction of Standard Time, train schedules, and Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” of factory workers. Indeed, one master narrative of modernist literature, perhaps most famously told by Stephen Kern in The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918, is that it reacted against the new enforcement of public, standardized, mechanized clock time by dwelling instead on private, subjective, experiential time—what the French philosopher Henri Bergson called durée.

Yet however compelling Bergson, Proust, and Joyce may have been in their defenses of private time, Taylor seems to have won. It now seems normal to think of time in terms of work, productivity, and trade. Sleep, in this system, comes to seem like a luxury, a bit of time stolen from work. How decadent to go eight hours without checking one’s work email! How could one possibly go to bed at a reasonable hour when there is still so much paperwork to do?

I’ve always felt a bit sheepish about how much I sleep, especially when the subject comes up around other academics. For many grad students and professors, not sleeping is a competitive sport. The unspoken assumption is that we must fill our hours with grading, research, and email, that long bouts of uninterrupted sleep must be sacrificed to the deity in charge of dissertations, jobs, and tenure. One time, in a conversation with colleagues about our relative levels of sleep deprivation, I happened to mention that I sleep “a lot.” “How much?” someone asked. “About nine hours most nights.” “Oh,” she responded. “Wow.” It was not in a tone of admiration.

(Truthfully, I sleep even more than that—ten hours a night every chance I get, and naps on weekends.)

Students play the sleep deprivation game too. They tell me they were up til 4am last night coding, or that they slept only four of the past thirty-six hours, in between classes and fraternity functions. It’s a badge of honor for them. Sometimes they fall asleep in class and have to be nudged awake by their neighbors. When we read Beggars in Spain, I asked how many of them would like to be Sleepless. More than half the hands went up.

From this point of view, Beggars in Spain seems utopian. Sure, the Sleepless face discrimination from the Sleepers, who resent their “unfair” advantages. But this social unrest seems like a mere pit stop on the way to a better, smarter, higher-achieving human race. Unfettered by one of the most basic biological needs of the human body, the human mind soars to new heights in Kress’s futuristic vision.

There’s a flip side, though, to this widespread cultural sense that sleep is wasted time: a growing recognition that our sleep habits are unhealthy and even counterproductive. “41 million American workers don’t get enough sleep,” announces a CBS headline. “Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic,” warns the CDC. Sleep-deprived teens are “walking zombies,” declares the Washington Post, and studies show that delaying the start times for high school classes results in better academic performance. When a 21-year-old intern in the financial industry died suddenly last year, media outlets were quick to speculate that exhaustion and a culture of long working hours may have contributed to his death.

Karen Russell’s new novella Sleep Donation funnels these anxieties into a dystopian tale of a future in which a plague of insomnia sweeps over the globe. Gaunt, yellow-eyed insomniacs await sleep transfusions from healthy donors, coordinated by the nonprofit Slumber Corps. Russell models sleep donation after blood donation, and when an anonymous Donor Y contaminates the world’s sleep supply with an infectious nightmare, it’s easy to draw parallels with the spread of HIV through blood transfusions in the early 1980s.

Sleep Donation is not only an allegory for AIDS, though. It’s also a story about the commodification of sleep and sleeplessness. While protagonist and Slumber Corps employee Trish Edgewater organizes sleep drives, other shadowy figures sell donated sleep on the black market. Meanwhile, Night Worlds—shantytowns where insomniacs congregate—begin to dot the American landscape, full of entrepreneurs looking to exploit the sleepless for profit. Bartender-pharmacists sell mysterious concoctions with empty promises that they will induce sleep; attendants sell space on sleep mats in the Poppy Fields for $45 a pop. When a woman in one of the makeshift tent-bars appears to fall asleep after imbibing a medicinal cocktail, Trish is skeptical: “If you were a cynic,” she thinks, “you might assume this woman was a plant; her stunt-recovery, if that’s what we’re watching, seems to be very good for business. Medicines miracle around the bar, everyone buying everyone rounds.”

No one knows exactly what has caused the insomnia crisis, but speculation is rampant. As Trish reports,

[P]undits promise, with weird relish, that we are seeing ‘the end of sleep as we know it.’ TV has become a glum Hall of Prophets… According to these professional Cassandras, sleep has been chased off the globe by our twenty-four-hour news cycle, our polluted skies and crops and waterways, the bald eyeballs of our glowing devices. We Americans are sitting in an electric chair that we engineered. What becomes of our circadian rhythms, the “old, glad harmonies” that leapt through us like the vascular thrust of water through leaves of grass? Bummer news, Walt: that song’s done…. These TV scientists predict “a global desertification of dreams.” Soon, they promise, the disruption will afflict all of us. Sleep will go extinct. And eventually, unless we can find some way to synthesize it, so will we.

Trish professes herself “mistrustful of these warblers,” who spread fear to get ratings. Yet there is something compelling about their doomsaying, some kernel of truth that we can recognize in our own culture. Sleeplessness is a disease of a postmodern, capitalist, unsustainable American society.

It’s no coincidence that Russell uses the vocabulary of ecological crisis to describe the insomniac epidemic—“desertification,” “extinction,” “pollution.” It’s not quite a metaphor either. Instead, it’s an indictment of a culture that can think only within the logic of capitalism, that can see value only in terms of money, that can’t seem to take a stand to protect things that are unprofitable. When Trish finds herself promising the parents of Baby A, a universal sleep donor, that the Slumber Corps “will never overdraw your daughter,” she reflects,

I make this promise at a moment when people are plunging their straws into any available centimeter of shale and water, every crude oil and uranium and mineral well on earth, with an indiscriminate and borderless appetite. Fresh air, the sight of trees—these are birthrights and pleasures that we seem bent on extinguishing.

Sleep, like clean air and green vistas, is a casualty of a world that abstracts them into tradable commodities without regard for their intrinsic value. Sleep Donation’s appeal to nature may seem suspect, and its nostalgia for a time when Walt Whitman reigned supreme and people lived in harmony with their “circadian rhythms” is clearly tinged with irony; after all, it is voiced by the sensationalistic talking heads on TV, not by Trish herself. Russell surely knows that when Whitman was writing Leaves of Grass, the Industrial Revolution was already booming, fueled by slave labor in the American South. Commodification is nothing new in the world.

Still, Sleep Donation is a haunting critique of the postindustrial mindset that reduces sleep, and everything else, to blocks of money value that ought to be filled with work. Academics are so good at applying a Marxist critique to everything except our own work habits and labor practices. But I’m not going to feel guilty about how much I sleep anymore. Time spent off the treadmill of production and consumption is anything but a waste.

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