Perchance to Sleep

Cabinet Magazine

A recent advertisement for Beautyrest™ mattresses announces that “Sleep Performance Is the New Performance,” and compares sleepers to swimmers, cyclists, and marathon runners: it’s all about technical perfection in pursuit of human excellence. I have to admit that, not being a sporty type, the idea of sleeping counting as physical exercise and even an athletic skill immediately appealed to me: will they soon make sleeping into an Olympic event, with subcategories for light dozing, power napping, and—the big attraction—deep slumber? At least one thing is like the Olympics: with the widespread use of psychopharmacological supplements, the contemporary sport of sleeping is one giant doping scandal. 

A telltale sign of our neoliberal times is the colonization of sleep by the imperatives of performance, innovation, and excellence. From a traditional economic standpoint, sleep is a waste of time (money never sleeps!), but this changes as soon as we think of bedtime not as an unfortunate loss but a precious investment in the productive waking future. Hence the class struggle in sleep: who will control the means of repose, what technologies will enhance the efficiency of our dormant hours, and which corporations will profit by selling them back to the burnt-out masses? The more life is ruled by the pressure to perform, the worse we sleep, the more sleep aids we need to maximize our rest, and the more our nightly dreams become dreams of an absolute and unattainable slumber. Addressing this contemporary malaise, perhaps a new Kafka will someday write Ein Schlafkünstler, about a maestro of somnolence, attracting crowds to witness his legendary sleep performances. The spectators are at first entranced by the sleep artist’s ability to snooze at will, without the help of trance-inducing pills or sonic headbands or light-adjusting goggles or other trendy gadgets, and even in the most adverse conditions. The crowd gathers around his bed—which is nothing to look at, just a simple, raggedy mat—and gazes at his preternaturally tranquil countenance, which has a calming, not to say soporific, effect on the audience. Those who do drift off invariably awaken before the artist himself, who easily outlasts them in feats of unconsciousness. Yet this seemingly miraculous talent was, for the artist, nothing special at all, since sleeping came effortlessly to him. “Believe me, if I could have found something worth waking up for, I’d be as conscious as anyone else.” The story has a sad ending: eventually the people grow weary of these drowsy spectacles—which besides had always evoked a certain anxiety, a distaste of the void—and stop coming to the shows. With his popularity waning, the sleep artist embarks on a last record-setting performance, a slumber to beat all slumbers, one from which he never awakens, or at least not yet—no one knows whether he has actually passed away or is still enacting the greatest sleep performance of his career, and no one really bothers to check. One day, the comatose artist and his frayed mat are unceremoniously whisked away, and his former resting place replaced by a gleaming new mattress store.

As Oblomov, the great sleep artist of Russian literature, knew, the poetry of the bed consists in its posing, each and ever morning, Hamlet’s existential question. “‘To be or not to be!’—Oblomov raised himself from his chair a little, but failing to find his slippers with his feet at once, sat down again.”[1] Not to be, then. It’s a detail that fouls up Oblomov’s plans; the misplaced footwear are the tiny but decisive obstacle to his awakening. The difference between non-being and being is summed up in the banal alternative of bed or slippers—or in this case, chair and slippers, Oblomov having managed to make it to his desk—which encapsulates the whole metaphysical drama. No mere inconvenience, the missing slippers take on an outsized weight by symbolizing the condition of “Oblomovitis,” an inertia that resists the forward thrust of life and refuses to yield to the pressure to perform. A counterpoint to Oblomov’s predicament is presented by Daniil Kharms in his slapstick sleep story, “An Incident Involving Petrakov.” One could imagine an aged Buster Keaton in the role, from around the time he played in Samuel Beckett’s Film.

So, once Petrakov wanted to go to sleep but, lying down, missed his bed. He hit the floor so hard he lay there unable to get up.

So Petrakov mustered his remaining strength and got on his hands and knees. But his strength abandoned him and he fell on his stomach again, and he just lies there.

Petrakov lay on the floor about five hours. At first he just lay there, but then he fell asleep.

Sleep refreshed Petrakov’s strength. He woke up invigorated, got up, walked around the room and cautiously lay down on the bed. “Well,” he thought, “now I’ll get some sleep.” But now he’s not feeling very sleepy. So Petrakov keeps turning in his bed and can’t fall asleep.

And that’s it, more or less.[2]

In Kharms’s case, the trouble is not getting out of bed but getting oneself into it. These mark two fundamental species of failure with respect to the bed, which we could call the Oblomov Maneuver (failing to exit: missing slippers) and the Petrakov Incident (failing to enter: hitting the floor). Petrakov’s bed is an analogue of human frustration, but in his fate there is also—and this is where the comedy lies—an unexpected satisfaction that finds its own way despite the all-too-human limitations. The incident Kharms describes involves a funny misfiring of desire: Petrakov doesn’t get the sleep he wants, but in the end he’s not tired anyway (which frustrates him even more). An idyllic bedtime is accidentally short-circuited by a hard nap on the ground. Kharms’s dismissive closing line, “That’s it, more or less,” belies the deeper meaning of the Petrakov Incident. Is this not the destiny of human desire reduced to the bare essentials: to fail to get what you want and then to no longer want it, due to an errant satisfaction found along the way? Against the allure of high performance mattresses, sometimes you just need to embrace the floor. Let the techno-sleepers have their hyper-efficient rest; for the rest of us, we’ll find our sleep where we can get it.

[1] Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov, trans. David Magarshack (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 175.

[2] Daniil Kharms, Today I Wrote Nothing, trans. Matvei Yankelevich (New York: Overlook, 2007), p. 56.

This piece is part of an ongoing partnership with Cabinet Magazine. Every month, the writing and editing team at Cabinet will produce articles surrounding our monthly Seminar Series, Homo Sapiens, I Hear You - a yearlong workshop based on reinterpreting and reimagining man's essential needs.

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Aaron Schuster is a philosopher and writer based in Amsterdam. His first book, The Trouble with Pleasure: Deleuze and Psychoanalysis, was published by MIT Press in 2016. He is currently working on a book on Kafka's philosopher dog, and another on the philosophy of tickling.