Loving and Hating Sleep

Many famous writers have professed a low regard for sleep.

But Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s loyal companion, held sleep in high esteem.

Sleep is unimportant to some writers, but not to Sancho Panza

Sleep is unimportant to some writers, but not to Sancho PanzaA sister-in-law once asked me why I put so much stock in sleeping.

“Sleep’s a waste of time,” she said. “It’s like death. You just lie there completely oblivious to what’s going on. And the more you sleep, the more time passes, and the closer you are to dying. Then it’s all over. Kaput!

“I think one reason people can’t sleep is because they really don’t want to,” she said, locking her eyes on mine in case I might think I was not among the people she was talking about.

A Writerly Attitude

Many writers have professed a low regard for sleep.

Vladimir Nabokov, who admitted to being “a poor go-to-sleeper,” said, “No matter how great my weariness, the wrench of parting with consciousness is unspeakably repulsive to me. I loathe Somnus, that black-masked headsman binding me to the block.”

Emil Cioran considered his insomnia to be “the greatest experience” of his life. “When I was about 20 I stopped sleeping and I consider that the grandest tragedy that could occur … All that I have written much later has been worked out during those nights.”

Dorothy Parker, too, spent her nights writing poems and stories and sneered at friends who slept, “…stretched sodden through these, the fairest hours of the day, when man should be at his most productive.”

“Only dolts and drudges sleep,” says Angelo Santasilia, a character in an Isak Dinesan story. “Fishermen, peasants and artisans must have their hours of snoring at any cost … Those living dead will never know what happened, or what was said, while they themselves lay huddled and gaping.”

Don Quixote’s Companion Weighs In

But some fictional characters have sung sleep’s praises. Sleep, says Sancho Panza, is “the cloak that covers all man’s thoughts, the food that cures all hunger, the water that quenches all thirst, the fire that warms the cold, the cold that cools the heat; the common coin, in short, that can purchase all things, the balancing weight that levels the shepherd with the king and the simple with the wise.”

Joyce Carol Oates has written about the “secret pride of the insomniac who … knows himself set apart from others,” but when it comes to feelings about sleep, I identify with the dolts and the drudges. Sancho got it right.

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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