What is sleep like, when it sleeps?

November 29, 2017

In recent times, growing attention has been devoted to sleep. Countless medical studies have shown sleep’s importance in reinvigorating one’s memory, metabolism, circulation, cell regeneration, and so on. Others, from antiquity through romanticism to contemporary psychedelia, have emphasised the importance of sleep in terms of the space it provides for dreaming – and possibly, to accessing prophetic knowledge. Others again, have recently reclaimed sleep’s role as the last bastion of resistance against capitalism’s relentless colonization of our lives. Despite their differences, most approaches to sleep (both traditional and contemporary), focus on sleep’s functions. Sleep is good and important, because it ‘does’ or allows one to ‘do’ something – regenerating oneself, dreaming, performing political resistance, and so on. But what about sleep in itself? What is sleep like, when it sleeps?


A sleeping entity continues to exist and continues to be alive. Yet at the same time it is not quite ‘alive’, in the same way as it is when it is awake. What has changed is the quality of its activity. A sleeping entity traverses less space, or possibly even stays still, while camouflaging with the darkness to escape the grip of time. A sleeping entity doesn’t flow through time/space: it orbits around it. This is particularly evident in the earliest stages of sleep, or in the lightest ones, when one is not dreaming nor is s/he involved in the peak of his/her own internal regeneration. In those moments, the sleeper is closer to mere existence (that is, mere life), then they ever are. A sleeper is an open frontier: a paradoxical threshold which is at once a limit and a place of passage. As such, its position is conveniently horizontal, that is under the heels of all other states of existence. A sleeper is one’s own open frontier: the repressed forces of one’s inner biology, memory, the unconscious and so on, find room to roam freely and to pass to and fro over it. Meanwhile, the sleeper rests in their new condition as a two-dimensional form: the sleeper becomes a silhouette, literally, they become their own shadow.


We shouldn’t be too hasty, though. Defining the sleeper – particularly at his/her most inactive – as a floor onto which other activities will eventually pass, would be yet another example of reducing sleep to its functions. What is a piece of asphalt, or a cobblestone, in itself, regardless of its function as part of a road? The briefest metaphorical formula to express what a creature is, in the least productive state of sleep, is that it is akin to pure fire. Springing from the combustion of matter, fire is an entity at a nigh-immaterial state. Whenever objects get in contact with it, fire reveals itself in its transformative dimension: it changes, consumes or destroys whatever touches it. Yet, considered in itself, by itself, fire is a prodigy of stillness in motion. It doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t do anything. If it emanates light and heat, it is only by necessity. It doesn’t want anything, and as it sparks out unexpectedly, it can also equally silently flicker out. Ungraspable, indescribable, yet a receptacle of every metaphor and symbol, undisturbed fire resembles the most unproductive state of sleep. Pure fire aims at nothing, desires nothing (not even its own survival – it has no conatus), but keeps burning like a dormant monster. As soon as something approaches it – like a memory approaches sleep, and is turned into a dream – fire rears its powerful head and returns to activity; but until then, it is pure aesthetic spectacle, the manifest aspect of what is usually hidden at the deepest level of our world.


Such was the Stoic understanding of fire – possibly following Heraclitus’ influence – as a divine and cosmogonic principle. According to Stoic cosmogony, fire is the first manifestation of the divine substance (pneuma, literally ‘air’ or ‘breath’) in its world-making capacity. Considered in terms of its worldly presence, pneuma manifests itself as divine fire (pyr technicon, ‘artisan-fire’), capable of setting the ‘stuff of the world’ in motion, of breaking the absolute unity of existence in the myriad differentiations that make up the world. Such is sleep at its most unproductive: host to all potentialities (even to the phantasmagorical world-creation of dreaming!), it simply stands there as life’s closest visible manifestation to its most ineffable (divine?) dimension. “By the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on the seventh day He rested from all His work.”(1) Why should we think that God ever woke up from His unproductive slumber? Indeed, a person that sleeps lightly, without dreaming, without engaging excessively in cell-reconstruction or whatever else, is the closest earthly manifestation of the ‘hidden God’ of our time. S/he is pure fire, in the Stoic sense of a divine artisan motionlessly looking at their tools, lined against the walls of their workshop.


But that stage of sleep is also an open frontier. The wall onto which the tools of the divine artisan rest, is an open wall. “The clear sky has leant against the wall. / It’s like a prayer to the emptiness. / And the emptiness turns its face to us / and whispers / ‘I am not empty, I am open.’”(2) It is open, yet of an openness that invites trespass from one’s gaze – not from one’s hands or feet. The frontier is open for contemplation. Likening unproductive sleep to fire as well as to contemplation, means positioning it very closely to that particular stage of meditation that the Indian tradition (both Hindu and Buddhist) deems among the highest achievements of a waking person. A sleeper in that particular state, is not far removed from the state of ardor (Sanskrit, tapas)(3) that characterises mystics and saints in the tradition deriving from Vedic literature – and equally, from Buddhist and Sufi literature. Ardor is the state which a meditating person can access, when their meditation is perfectly done. It is a state akin to that of pure fire – as close as possible to an earthly theosis ('resemblance of God'). On the seventh day God fell asleep, and in the beginning He was not dreaming.


There is a Buddhist story, humorous as usual, about a saint who thought deeply about the karmic rewards of his perfect meditation and flawless lifestyle. The doctrine taught him that a well-conducted life would lead him to liberation, yet at the same time it taught him that attachment to results and achievements was the safest road to perdition. How to reconcile those two aspects? He knew that boasting about one’s achievements was the wrong thing to do, yet he equally knew that doing the right thing with the greedy attitude of one who wishes to win the karmic lottery, was even worse. Thus, he decided that whenever he did something good, he would boast about it. Granted, by doing so he would lose any karmic reward to his actions – but that was exactly the point. Paradoxical, minimal attachment to gains. Sleep at its most unproductive resembles the wisdom of this Buddhist saint. It is pure contemplation that endlessly forgets its object. Stillness that renounces to the perfect immobility of a geometrical figure: failing perfection, all the most perfect for it. Sleep, at its most unproductive, doesn’t resemble death, nor salvation: it is already the salvation of a ‘good death’. If we were to seek the most heroic station of our living experience, that which most deserves a poem to celebrate its closeness to the divine, we would find it there. Fame should kiss the forehead of one who has just fallen asleep – yet it doesn’t, and that is the stage which we most often forget and least celebrate: a testament to its paradoxical perfection.



(1) Genesis 2:2


(2) Tomas Transtromer, Vermeer, in New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton, Hexham: Bloodaxe Books, 2017, p. 158.


(3) see Roberto Calasso, Ardor, London/New York: Penguin, 2015.

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