Friday, November 25, 2016

`The Gentle Tyrant'

Life has taught me to be a voluptuary of sleep. When young, we resent its intrusion into the busy-ness of life. Energy and ambition exceed accomplishment, and we blame sleep (and other people, obligations and bad luck) as the thief of our dreams. Today, I woo sleep and gratefully embrace it. Who hasn’t tried to remain conscious while consciousness slips away? Who hasn’t wished to say, at the critical moment, “Now I am sleeping,” a logical impossibility not unlike Macduff’s son saying, “He has kill’d me, mother.” On this date, Nov. 25, in 1758, Dr. Johnson writes in The Idler #32:

“The most diligent inquirer is not able long to keep his eyes open; the most eager disputant will begin about midnight to desert his argument; and, once in four-and-twenty hours, the gay and the gloomy, the witty and the dull, the clamorous and the silent, the busy and the idle, are all overpowered by the gentle tyrant, and all lie down in the equality of sleep.”

 I’ve always had a horror of insomnia and only infrequently suffered its torments. That’s a clue to the rewards of sleep: It’s a respite, a time to forgo vigilance and anxiety, a refuge of irresponsibility: turn off the machine. But if you can’t, here is Dana Gioia in “Insomnia” (Daily Horoscope, 1986; 99 Poems: New and Selected, 2016): “The terrible clarity this moment brings, / the useless insight, the unbroken dark.” Perhaps sleeplessness is a better analog than sleep of what we fear death will be. Johnson ponders another virtue possessed by sleep:

“Others are afraid to be alone, and amuse themselves by a perpetual succession of companions: but the difference is not great; in solitude we have our dreams to ourselves, and in company we agree to dream in concert. The end sought in both is forgetfulness of ourselves.”

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