January 19, 2019

The Semiotics of Sleep and Sleeplessness

““If we insist on defining [insomnia] in terms of what it annuls, then how can we grasp the essence of what is lost when it shows itself?” asks Marina Benjamin at the beginning of Insomnia, her memoir of living with sleeplessness.

“Memoir” is how the book is described in its promotional material, but really it defies definition. It is short, at just 122 pages, not including the references, and each densely packed paragraph is so widely spaced from the next that it has the look of a volume of poetry. In fact, Benjamin’s lyrical style rebounds with such manic energy, and bounces so vigorously from idea to idea, that Insomnia does nearly read like a free-form poem. Some paragraphs clump together while others stand alone, seemingly unmoored from the book’s path, presented simply as asides.

Her prose is so rich with imagery and classical references that it can almost become a little exhausting to read at times. This is perhaps the intention: to transmit by direct experience the bouncing-off-the-walls madness of sleeplessness. It is a madness I know well: I am, like Benjamin, an insomniac. My own lifelong insomnia is so severe that without chemical intercession I would suffer weeks of sleeplessness at a time, days and nights unspooling along with my consciousness.”

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