Researching Sleep:
Writing Lacunae

I remember when my mum first got sick, she woke up from spinal surgery in a fury. The doctors said this reaction was uncommon, probably a side effect from the steroids, but one they only tended to see in alcoholics. “Is your mum an alcoholic?” I didn’t think so at first, although she had always loved a petit rosé

When I later learnt to drive and adopted her car in the midst of her sickness, I found tiny bottles of optics, shots of wine, sequestered in the glove compartment, in the side panels, underneath the seats.

She’d been anaesthetised for hours. Was it really because of the drink that she’d passed through the veil?

She was a terror on the ward. She was surrounded by old women with broken hips and slipped disks. Her illness and the company she was forced to keep made her feel older beyond her years and she hated it. She screamed whenever she was awake. She accused the orderlies of raping her. She would show the world where they touched her, uncovering herself no matter who was present, revealing her vagina from under her gown, screaming into her vulva like a crime scene. No one believed her. There was something else in her eye. They were paranoid delusions, they said. I never knew whether to believe her or not. She didn’t want to be there, that much was clear. Who would? She felt unsafe. Was her fear exaggerated to the point of visions?

It was never clear, in the end, whether this fear was real or imagined. It changed shape. Tales of rape in the night shifted to daylight murder plots. She said so much but was never heard.

When she was moved to the psychiatric hospital, her fury did not subside. It was a calm space. The ill were quiet, ghostly, dragging their feet and constantly rolling cigarettes. The air around them itself felt medicated. They wandered the halls whilst she stayed in her room. You could always hear her. Or at least she made herself known whenever she was told that we had arrived. Our arrival prefigured our leaving and she did not want us to leave her there. It was often the case that we were forced to leave after barely saying more than “hello”. Indirectly, our concern, the duty we felt to visit, always caused undue disruptions.

She was discharged back home after a few weeks, not because she had improved but because her madness was an obstacle to the recovery of other patients. She was like a patient from a film, with no interest in her own recovery; the only one who had truly flown over the cuckoo’s nest. Her madness was a cliché that could not be tolerated. The ward was not a space of respite whilst she was in it. She was too unwell to be hospitalized.

I am reading Emma Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow, her fictionalized account of her own stay on a psychiatric ward in the early twentieth century. I keep being drawn in by her references to sleep, to sedation, set across from her intense desire to write, to express herself, to sing and be heard.

The nurses will not let her husband visit her.

You will have to learn to sleep before you can see him.

How could they expect her to sleep when she was going through all of it? They didn’t know. She had swung about the room from the ceiling and it was a swinging from the cross. There had been the burial. She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face. She was carried quietly out and put in the casket. Down, down she went in the rectangle that had been made for her. Down and the dirt fell in above. Down and the worms began to tremble in and out. Always she had kept telling of it, not one word of it must be forgotten. It must be recorded in sound and after that she could sleep.

She must recall everything.

Marthe Gail, the protagonist in The Shutter of Snow, is so disconcerting to me. Her fixations: always asking after her husband, incessantly; always the assumption that whoever is near her plans to kill her. I see my mother in Marthe Gail. I wonder if she saw the world, the ward, as poetically and disturbingly as Holmes did. I am left somewhat grateful that, unlike Gail, my mother did not see Jesus Christ in herself.

My nana called me. My cousin had told her I was unwell. I haven’t been to see her since I moved up to Newcastle. She’s only a short Metro ride away in Sunderland. But I hadn’t thought about her since I lost my head.

“I don’t go out anymore”, she said. My cousin had taken her out recently, however, to buy a new pair of slippers. But that was it now. The rest of her shoes were taken away and given to a local charity shop. “One less hassle when I finally pop off.”

Always so candid about her own death. She’s in her eighties now. Her hips are bad. So many of her friends are dead. She is stoic in the face of her dwindling years. But she is less candid about me. We skirt around how unwell I’ve been, or indeed how exactly it is that I have been unwell. I didn’t tell my cousin much, but gossip always travels fast in this family. Maybe my dad told her.

“Just as long as you’re still here”, she says tellingly before hanging up. There it is. A glimmer of candour.

She never liked my mum. “We tried to warn your da”, she always says when the topic of mum arises. “Just before he walked down the aisle, your granda said he could get out before it was too late.”

They always knew she was mad. Well, now so am I.

The crooks of my books all have tobacco in them. When I am gone, there’ll probably be enough for a cigarette. Have one on me.

Going outside makes me anxious but I weather it. I feel hyperalert beyond the threshold. It punctures the surface of lethargy, of the cloak I wear in daylight; an insomniac shawl, all numbness. I fear enemies round corners who would make me ill. I don’t know what they look like. Some I do know. I know fear.

I sit outside the Cumberland and wait for some friends. People pass by in a river of faces. I worry what other bodies, other monstrosities, might be carried by the current.

I’m almost two weeks into my present insomnia. Nothing helps. I get to sleep but only sleep for a few hours at a time. I woke up this morning and have never felt so heavy. My body felt like rusted steel, impossibly. My mind thick, waterlogged.

I can still write through it, thank fuck, although reading takes a bit more effort. When I do write, I find it is harder to connect up the images. An already fragmentary writing feels even more fragmentary.

I think about that film, The Machinist, with a skeletal Christian Bale. I haven’t seen it in many years but remember its atmosphere, the constant sliding between dream and waking, the mechanical working-through of life, body all joints and stiff movement, affectless, numb.

I am caught on that phrasing: “dream and waking”. How do those verbs function? Are they both verbs? I could have said, “between dreaming and being awake”, but then awake-ness is set across from dreaming, made into a stable state of being rather than a process unto itself. It is a word that can’t be written, feels wrong, without some sort of qualifier. Could I be between “dream and awake”? The syntax feels jagged. “Awake” feels so final, complete. One word mirrors the other, five letters each, but functioning differently regardless. Right now “awake” doesn’t feel stable, as dream lures me back at intervals.

“Dream and waking”, as if “dream” is at once a place, a process, an environ that is passed through; as if “waking” is also a process in itself, never completed. I never stop waking up, until the slide back to dream begins again. A problem of grammar lived and felt.

I decide to read some Derrida, feeling newly receptive to the problems he explores. I’ve been reading a lot of Judith Butler as well, feeling suddenly the gap in my knowledge, or rather the ambient knowledge of their texts only ever gathered second-hand.

I remember when I first read volume one of Marx’s Capital, the slog of reading its first hundred or so pages, the feeling of being bored by it, not so much because the text was uninteresting but because I realised how much I already knew, how a Marxian framework had already been inscribed on my knowledge of the world, how commonplace this once world-changing prose had become.

I feel the same way now in reading Gender Trouble, newly aware of the ways that Butler has been a shadow over so much I have already read. But what a striking feeling of influence, to feel that ambient knowledge already about a book that is no older than I am. But then also how much is lost, how specific the text can feel, how loose its ambient application outside of itself.

The popular understanding of Butler’s “gender performativity” is often acknowledged as lacking what she explores in her text. Gender is not performative in the sense it is an identity adopted and acted out, like a character. Her sense of performativity is a little more nuanced.

For Butler, performativity is instead an instability. “Gender ought not to be construed as a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts follow”, she writes; “rather, gender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts.”

Gender as the stylization of the body becomes a kind of gendered and embodied grammatology; a body-language learned but ever shifting, malleable, capable of rupture in poetic acts of expression; the translation of a body into a predetermined “social temporality“, mimicking only but never actualizing an apparent truth, like thought rendered in speech turned to text, articulated but often limited by the constraints of a common sense, the truth of one’s self reduced to a trace, fading, barely visible.

Butler wrote a new preface for Derrida’s Of Grammatology, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its first translation into English by Spivak, in which she wrestles with the apposite difficulty of translating a text so concerned with the elusivity of language. “If the problem of writing, the central problem of Of Grammatology, depends on a generative collapse of the mimetic ideal mandating that writing reiterates the sounds of speech, and if translation engages this same problem — the generative collapse of mimesis — then we should perhaps check the inevitable lamentation over the loss of the French in the English, precisely as we learn why it might be wise to question the lure of translation as a faithful sonic reincarnation.”

Butler’s own work on gendered mimesis echoes throughout. How to translate Derrida into her own works? Perhaps she has already done this, implicitly, walking through the ruin of deconstruction and finding gender there unravelled. So much else too, of course. Life in general, lived and dreamed.

Language, for both Butler and Derrida, is made to be broken, is always its own ruin. So too is the body that speaks and writes and gestures towards the stuttering utterances of the unconscious mind.

The other night I went to bingo with a friend. We spent a lot of the preamble, up until the quick-fire games, drinking cheap drinks and talking about our sleep. We talked about Jung, about our nightmares, about the surrealism of recurring dreams, the doubt that arises from dreamed mimesis — am I dreaming this dream again? or has one dream made such an impression on me that I only feel its echo, a kind of unconscious déjà vu, not the strange sense of an already seen but an already dreamt?

She shows me a dream map from Reddit, documenting the most common dreams in each country of the world. In the United Kingdom, we most often dream about our teeth falling out. Predictably so, perhaps, since our bad teeth are a stereotype of my waking selves as well.

In neighbouring Niger and Nigeria, the latter dreams most of sex, the former of death.

The persistent nightmares of the mentally ill are a sorry affliction. No matter how we may feel during the day, coping and managing with our fractured synapses, the unconscious is always there to remind us, to score further the anxieties that linger beneath the waking day, as if there is only truth in dream, but a truth no one can fully grasp.

I show her my dream diary, @matt_mjlc — years of tweets summarising the night’s unconscious encounters. They lack detail, given the character limit, and I am struck by how few of them I remember long after they were written down.

There are considerable gaps between the dreams of late. It is rare, at the moment, that I remember my dreams vividly enough to translate them on waking.

The problem of translation feels ever present. Shifting from one language to another is explicit, but how to translate affect into words? How to translate dream narrative into waking plot? “The Question”, adapted from Butler: “How does the translation intervene in [consciousness], even transform the relationship, the missteps and anachronisms, which seem always to be happening between [dream] and [waking]? What is lost, what lives on, and how does that living on happen?”

What is the relationship between dream and waking existence? Why does the mind proceed in such a jumble? Why does it not mimic waking experience more lucidly? Perhaps it does. Perhaps this world is nothing more than fleeting signs and symbols, effects and affects, that we piece together on the fly, with space-time nothing more than an illusion, a ruin, a problem of translation.

I remember talking to my ex’s dad about imaging our dreams. I was reading Heidegger’s Being & Time at the time.

In various sci-fi films, we see examples of mental imaging, where a machine learns to code the brain’s processing into images imagined. One film I saw once, which I appropriately cannot remember the title of, shows dogs, hands, mothers, an American dream rendered in a matrix-like stream of code given sly form and shifting shape. He says this is impossible, at least for now. It is a process of digital translation we have not yet figured out. He likens it to the recoding of film footage. We can record the raw data, but how to turn it into an MP4? We do not yet have the capacity for that yet. Perhaps we never will.

Digital imaging is first made possible, we might argue, through our understanding of the chemical and material processes of photography. Not a coding of data, as such, but an understanding of a chemical reaction: light rendered on paper as if by magic. It is photography, rather than sight itself, that is translated into the digital realm, as negatives are recorded in a new format.

Neural imaging seems distinctly non-visual. Pattern recognition does not give rise to mimetic representations of the images of thought. What are mental images anyway? We translate thought into visual metaphors, but is this really how the mind’s eye sees? Does the brain not translate itself into metaphor in this way on our behalf? I met someone a few months ago who does not think this way, whose mind’s eye is blind, who does not think in images. It is not a prerequisite to thought. I wonder, how much is lost in the visualisation process? What is retained? The mind gestures towards habitual sight, but putting this habit to one side, can we describe otherwise how the brain “sees”?

Out in the garden, I sit at my laptop and type. I leave my notebooks to rest for a while, thinking faster, some days, than I can write by hand.

As the battery dwindles, so do I. The screen dims, entering battery-saving mode. I carry it back to my room to recharge and take the opportunity to do so myself.

These days, I nap when my laptop does.

Marthe Gail, the protagonist in The Shutter of Snow, is not allowed to write, like so many women who were hospitalised at that time. She is hospitalised following a psychotic break after the birth of her child, through which she herself feels reborn, reincarnated as Christ.

The novel is described as an example of “magic realism”, but what is captured most beautifully is the line erased between dream and waking by madness.

She smuggles a pencil and scrap of paper into her room, desperate to write, to tell her husband where she is — she presumes he doesn’t know, but surely he must. Her words don’t so much come from within as from without. Dreaming is external, hallucinatory. It is not the translation of some interior landscape, at least as far as she is concerned, but an attempt to mimic the strangeness of the world she now exists in. She does not sleep. She must record, pinning the world to the page like an etymologist turned entomologist.

The words unfolded and came out on the paper. They slid up and floated and came down and stood in a line. She was making them, she was saying things with a pencil on a small piece of yellow paper. It was a letter to her father and there were the words, the words that she was capturing out of the red lights and pinning under her pencil like squirming moths. The moths had yellow tails and pulled desperately away from the pencil.

A Freudian slip… In writing out the final sentence, it is mothers who have yellow tails and pull desperately away from the pencil. I correct it, but the error is telling.

In many countries, dreams of pregnancy are the most common.

I used to analogously describe the publication of my first book like a pregnancy. It was an analogy that always felt presumptuous, stereotypical, perhaps even a little sexist. I’m not sure. But the feeling was striking, the metaphor resonant. The book felt like a child, birthed through a protracted labour, then set loose on the world to live a life of its own, wholly separate from my own, despite the fact I felt like so much of my life was contained within it.

It was a process of separation that I found traumatic. It was a kind of empty nest syndrome. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it was only a shadow of that more profound of processes. But I could not think how else to translate the feelings into something more commonly appreciated and understood. Perhaps this oft-repeated metaphor was a mistake, a “faux amis” uncovered through a false translation. I don’t use that metaphor anymore.

Anne Carson on Aristotle and error:

In his discussion of metaphor in the Rhetoric
Aristotle says there are 3 kinds of words.
Strange, ordinary and metaphorical.

“Strange words simply puzzle us;
ordinary words convey what we know already;
it is from metaphor that we can get hold of something new and fresh”
(Rhetoric, 1410b10-13).
In what does the freshness of metaphor consist?
Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself

in the act of making a mistake.
He pictures the mind moving along a plane surface
of ordinary language
when suddenly
that surface breaks or complicates.
Unexpectedness emerges.

Butler quoting Derrida’s article, “What Is a ‘Relevant’ Translation?”:

“…translation in the strict, traditional, and dominant sense of the term encounters an insurmountable limit — and the beginning of its end, the figure of its ruin.” Then he adds in parentheses that seem to bear an inverse relation to the claim they contain, “(but perhaps a translation is devoted to ruin; ruin is perhaps its vocation and a destiny that it accepts from the very outset)”…

Carson on the unexpectedness of metaphor and the strange:

At first it looks odd, contradictory or wrong.
Then it makes sense.
And at this moment, according to Aristotle,
the minds turns to itself and says:
“How true, and yet I mistook it!”
From the true mistakes of metaphor a lesson can be learned.

Not only that things are other than they seem,
and so we mistake them,
but that such mistakenness is valuable.
Hold onto it, Aristotle says,
there is much to be seen and felt here.
Metaphors teach the mind

to enjoy error
and to learn
from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case.

“If ruin is there from the word go, then so, too, is mourning, prior to any nameable loss, which is surely why Derrida confirms that translation is a work of mourning, more of a task than a given.” Translation is always an act of remembrance, from which “there is nothing outside the trace”. This means, Butler continues, “we start to refer to what something is, or we start to explain what the original text is prior to any translation, any derivation, when we write not only as if the origin were thinkable without the derivation, but also as if the past could appear without being occulted or eclipsed by the very means by which it signifies.”

Translation, even writing itself, is the Search for Lost Time. Is it any wonder Proust begins his recherche — not just a “Search” in French, but always also a “research” — with a scene of falling asleep whilst reading?

For a long time, I went to bed early. Sometimes, my candle scarcely out, my eyes would close so quickly that I did not have time to say to myself: ‘I’m falling asleep.’ And, half an hour later, the thought that it was time to try to sleep would wake me; I wanted to put down the book I thought I still had in my hands and blow out my light; I had not ceased while sleeping to form reflections on what I had just read, but these reflections had taken a rather peculiar turn; it seemed to me that I myself was what the book was talking about…

I’m not drinking. Not really. Of course, I still drink sometimes. I am sleeping all the time and cannot quench my thirst. I drink a beer just to drink something different. But it tastes different too. The last pint I had caught my tongue off guard. Every first couple of sips leaves a lingering rot, as if I could taste a hint of putrification, as if I could taste the beer’s beginnings, an echo of the process of fermentation, the ferment of euphoria. But I don’t drink enough to get drunk. Always the depression that follows at the moment. The effects of alcohol are now all too predictable, simplified. I taste the brew and brood.

…we expect that where there is a trace, there is something prior to it that has left it — the trace of a life, a book, a thought. But if the trace is the means through which what is prior is marked, then it is at once lost and found in the course of that marking. In this sense, the trace is the origin of the origin. But when we make a claim like that, we distinguish between the origin of a sequence, understood as a cause or primary movement, and what originates that very way of thinking about origins, its condition of possibility…

Writing is always acausal. It is, “Derrida argues… invariably retroactive.” Where does writing come from? What is its origin? Experience? What is experience? When is writing not still the translation of experience? The present remains elusive but always full of possibility. “Whatever origin we find is constituted and erased by that retroactive form of positing.”

Whats back of that door? Its the Day Room, when you get better you can go there. What do they do there? They sew in the afternoon. O do you suppose they would let me sew? Let you said Mrs. Welsh, theyll make you.

Anne Carson in a poem to Emily Dickinson:

Save every bit of thread.
One of them may be
the way out of here.

In The Shutter of Snow, Marthe eats threads in the asylum.

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