Shakespeare called sleep the “chief nourisher in life’s feast.” For whatever reason, artists throughout the ages have not been invited to the dinner party. In his fascinating article “On the Edge of an Abyss,” journalist Greg Johnson asserts that insomnia has tormented artists more than promiscuity or severe alcoholism:
“Even more than paranoia, envy, or rampant egotism, a vulnerability to insomnia might well be the trait most commonly shared by serious writers throughout literary history, regardless of their personal temperament, aesthetic program, or country of origin. In fact, this painful and usually chronic malady has plagued writers so frequently, and with such intensity of anguish, that the insomniac state and its attendant longings might justifiably be considered metaphorical of the writer’s rarefied inner world. If insomnia is the very image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes, then it is not surprising that sleep— especially “dark, dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion!”— becomes the corresponding image of his most profound and unattainable desires.”
Like Johnson, many have supposed that there is something about the artist’s particular psychological makeup that predisposes him to insomnia. William Wordsworth. The Bronte sisters. Kafka. All complained of this nightmarish inability to rest. Throughout her life, confessional poet Sylvia Plath also suffered bouts of excruciating sleeplessness, requiring a sedative most nights to get to bed. Plath’s poem “Insomniac” pays tribute to the bedtime affliction that so often tormented her and, I would contend, offers us rare insight into the connection between the artist’s mind and the inability to rest:
The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole —
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.
Over and over the old, granular movie
Exposes embarrassments–the mizzling days
Of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams,
Parental faces on tall stalks, alternately stern and tearful,
A garden of buggy rose that made him cry.
His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.
Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars.
He is immune to pills: red, purple, blue —
How they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!
Those sugary planets whose influence won for him
A life baptized in no-life for a while,
And the sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby.
Now the pills are worn-out and silly, like classical gods.
Their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good.
His head is a little interior of grey mirrors.
Each gesture flees immediately down an alley
Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance
Drains like water out the hole at the far end.
He lives without privacy in a lidless room,
The bald slots of his eyes stiffened wide-open
On the incessant heat-lightning flicker of situations.
Nightlong, in the granite yard, invisible cats
Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.
Already he can feel daylight, his white disease,
Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.
The city is a map of cheerful twitters now,
And everywhere people, eyes mica-silver and blank,
Are riding to work in rows, as if recently brainwashed.
The speaker, a stand-in for Plath herself, first describes the sky as a “sort of carbon paper/Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars/Letting in the light” (Plath 1-3). This image of the night sky as carbon paper-a type of paper used for making copies-suggests the world he observes while bogged down in thought is a mere duplicate, an inferior copy of the real one. Interestingly, the light peeping out from behind the sky is depicted as “bonewhite”- a telling image that implies the speaker’s restlessness is so unbearable that he longs for the ultimate relief, the slumber of death. Despite the extent of his suffering, our speaker finds no solace in the surrounding world: while the “eyes” of the stars watch him blankly, the moon appears sadistic as it wears a “rictus,” an ugly, twisted expression usually denoting disgust or wry amusement (Plath 5). This idea is extended a few lines later when Plath refers to his insomnia as a “desert pillow” and his sleeplessness as a “stretching of fine, irritating sand” (Plath 6-7). Here, the bare, desolate imagery of the desert- a region universally understood as a barren symbol without vegetation or water-hints at the hopelessness of his condition; up all night, the speaker feels alone and desperate, as if he were deserted. Certainly, Plath intended for this secondary meaning of “desert” to resonate as the speaker feels that his midnight restlessness is both unfair and inescapable.
But why is the speaker plagued by this wakefulness? what is the source of his insomnia? The second stanza attempts to explain the origins of his condition:
“Over and over the old, granular movie
Exposes embarrassments-the mizzling days
Of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams,
Parental faces of tall stalks, alternatively stern and tearful,
A garden of buggy roses that made him cry.
His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.
Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars” (Plath 8-14).
Though many imagine night time as a peaceful reprieve from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Plath envisions night as interminable hours of unbearable solitude. Rather than spend his nights in quiet contemplation, the speaker preoccupies himself with replaying the same painful memories “over and over” (Plath 8). If insomnia is, as Greg Johnson argues, the byproduct of an overactive mind, “Insomniac” seems to warn against such over-thinking as it is just the speaker’s introspective tendency to turn inward and obsessively sit alone with his thoughts that hinders him from attaining any sort of tranquility. The fact that Plath refers to this ceaseless replaying of cognition and memory as an “old, garnular movie” reveals the story of his life is nothing more than a film: compelling and life-like but ultimately false. This almost Buddhist-like reading of reality is further supported a few lines later when Plath claims memories “jostle” each other for face time like “obsolete film stars” (Plath 14). Meaning to push, elbow or bump someone, typically in a crowd, “jostle” portrays the speaker’s mind as a tumult of thoughts where differing versions of reality compete for dominance. If memory is nothing more than a “film star,” the speaker’s recollection of events is simply a dramatizing of reality-not reality itself. Though writers try to make sense of the world through the construction of stories, Plath suggests that imposing similar rules of resolution and climax onto our own lives is ultimately futile. No matter how many nights the speaker stays up “replaying” his days of childhood trying to extract an overarching meaning, the images of his life are always fading and granular- they’re never intelligible. In this way, Plath proves frenzied thinking lies at the root of insomnia, which might elucidate the malady’s prominence among our greatest artists.
Plath continues to portray the artist’s “unblinking consciousness” as the source of the speaker’s nighttime suffering when she notes that his “forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks” (Plath 13). Figuratively, the rocks represent the heaviness of the speaker’s thoughts. Like a sack of rocks, which is heavy and burdensome to transport, his fitful debating and analyzing weigh him down and keep him from slumber. The fact that his unremitting thoughts disfigure his face and make his forehead “bumpy” suggests a restless mind can wreck your well-being and devastate your sanity. Though in the rational, scientifically-oriented West we tend to glorify reason and judgement, in “Insomniac” such traditional indicators of intelligence manifest as pathologies and overall deteriorate the speaker’s health. For artists like Wordsworth and Plath, then, “voracious scrutiny” of the world was not a gift, but a curse- causing manic, hysterical thoughts to scurry across the consciousness until it was impossible to fall asleep.
The speaker isn’t offered even momentary relief from this voracious scrutiny, we learn, because he has become “immune to pills” (Plath 15). So despairing is his condition that no pill seems to work, neither “red” nor “purple” nor “blue” (Plath 15). Rather than alleviate his symptoms and soothe his troubled mind, ironically the sleeping pills only serve to underscore his frustration: “How,” the speaker bitterly exclaims, “they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!” (Plath 16).
In the next line, Plath depicts sleeping pills as “sugary planets,” delectable sweets the speaker longs for (Plath 17). Her choice of the word “planets” is particularly telling: like a faraway planet millions of light years away, sleep-that unfathomably ordinary yet precious thing-seems, for the speaker, unbearably remote. When he can persuade sleep, that enticing but elusive lover, to stay the night, it transports him to another universe, another life, one “baptized in no-life for a while” (Plath 18). And here Plath poses a lovely paradox: by equating sleep with holy water, she implies the quiet death of sleep is essential for life. Our nightly rendezvous with slumber is purifying like water- it renews and rejuvenates us. Here, the religious allusion to baptism seems noteworthy: if baptism is the religious rite of immersing someone in water, symbolizing purification or regeneration and admission to the Christian Church, the fact that Plath compares sleep to a baptism suggests sleep is restorative. Furthermore, because baptism is often performed on young children and accompanied by name-giving, sleep represents a rebirth-a cleansing of the day and a chance to be reinvented and start over.
Plath reinforces this image of sleep as rebirth in the next line when she likens awakening from a good night’s rest to the “sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby” (Plath 19). Like baptisms, babies call to mind purity and freshness, which indicates the mind can be reborn when it’s been able to renew and clarify itself. Yet rather than submerge itself in the forgetful waters of sleep and wake up to find itself revived, the insomniac mind stays up, grouchy and restless, not reborn but dead to the new day.
The astounding power of the artist to carefully observe and render the world is just what leads to this figurative death. Stress. Worry. Anxiety. All result from a sharp, keen mind and represent the driving forces of insomnia. Plath captures this idea perfectly when she calls the insomniac’s head a “little interior of grey mirrors” (Plath 22). Recalling the earlier image of the sky as blue-black carbon paper, this portrait of the mind as a “mirror” reveals thought is an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to recreate the world. After all, mirrors only reflect reality-they aren’t reality itself. The figure of mirror also brings to mind a fun house, an erie place where the normal laws of the universe are suspended and once ordinary impressions appear distorted. Grey-that dreadfully bland color-creates a mood of tedium and listlessness, which proves the speaker feels like a prisoner when trapped in his mind and deprived of the external.
In the end, “Insomniac” is not just about one person’s inability to sleep-it’s about the terrible power of the intellect to cut us off from existence. For Plath, the artist’s mind is both a prison and a fun house: like a prison, the mind’s persistent thinking confines us to the four walls of our skull and, like a fun house, its depictions of our lives are often inaccurate.