The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Why People Can’t Sleep

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here, based on notes taken by Martha Baird, is The Philosophy of Insomnia, the lecture Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall on December 19, 1946. Its subject, the inability to sleep, torments people today as it has for centuries. Around 1370, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote of himself:

I have gret wonder, be this lyghte,

How that I lyve, for day ne nyghte

I may nat slepe wel nygh noght.

That means: “I have great wonder, by this light, / How I live, for day or night / I cannot sleep nearly at all.” He says that, for lack of sleep, he is “a mased thing, / Alway in poynt to falle adoun” (“a dazed thing, / Always at the point of falling down”).* Chaucer made poetry of his trouble about sleep; he told of it musically; but he didn’t understand it.

Today, the psychologists don’t understand the cause of sleeplessness any better than Chaucer did—and their expression on the matter is certainly much less beautiful. The website of the Mayo Clinic tells us that “stressful life events...may lead to insomnia”; also, “anxieties...may disrupt your sleep.” Well, such relations were noted long before Chaucer’s time even—but why may they occur? And why may someone whose life is no more “stressful” than another’s find herself agonizingly awake at 4 AM again and again?

The answer is in the lecture published here. It’s also in the discussion of the subject in Eli Siegel’s Self and World. As a prelude, I’ll quote a passage from Self and World.

A Matter of Aesthetics

Aesthetic Realism shows that sleep, like every aspect of a person’s life, is a matter of aesthetics: that is, our fundamental need in everything we do is to make opposites one—notably, the opposites of our individual self and the multifarious, comprehensive outside world. And the huge disrupter of these opposites—the thing in us that interferes with our lives, though we think we’re enhancing ourselves through it—is our desire to have contempt for the world.

In chapter 11 of Self and World Mr. Siegel writes about a young woman, Ruth Darnton, who can’t sleep. He describes the cause: the ethics within her, her ethical unconscious, is objecting to a deeply though quietly contemptuous way of dealing with the outside world, including people. He gives these words to Ruth’s ethical unconscious, and has it speak to the contemptuous, narrow aspect of her self:

“You have made Ruth want to feel that her glory was in being able to see other people and other things as unimportant. You have made Ruth go to sleep as if sleep were a leaving of the whole world and everything from which she came, and everything with which she has to do....You, in your controlling Ruth, have made her feel that everything she met which could really make her freer, make her realize who she was—that this everything was an interference with freedom....You and I have to fight for Ruth. I don’t want her to sleep any more on the old terms. It’s wrong. She doesn’t want to listen to me entirely; and I suppose I’ll have to bother her. It’s too bad but Ruth can’t sink into a being who thinks that sleep is a time to put aside the very world on whose existence she depends; which represents her; and which is she.” [Pp. 336-7]

Tennyson’s “Lotos-Eaters”

A poem of Tennyson illustrates what Mr. Siegel has described: the bad purpose for which people can unknowingly use sleep—a purpose they themselves deeply object to. The poem is “The Lotos-Eaters,” of 1832. Though it isn’t about sleep in the ordinary sense, it represents the state of mind that millions of men and women had going to bed last night. It’s based on a short passage in book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus and his men come upon a land where people, through eating the lotos, get to be in a perpetual drowse, and this semi-sleep has a terrific attractiveness. Toward the end of the poem there is this:

We have had enough of action, and of motion we.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind,

In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined

On the hills like gods together, careless of mankind.

[Ll. 150, 153-5]

 People have felt, reclining on those hills and plains which are pillows, mattresses, and the lovely topography of bedding, that now at last they can be “careless of mankind,” not be bothered by people. As they dismiss humanity, they are superior to it: they are like aloof gods.

 Tennyson continues his description of the superiority and smugness that people can go after through somnolence. The speaker in the poem says that as we drowse we’re like gods who

smile in secret, looking over wasted lands,

Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands,

Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands.

[Ll. 159-161]

They smile with triumphant contempt because they can be so unaffected by humanity and what it meets.

 Sleep, Mr. Siegel explains, should be used to have the strength to see more meaning in people and things. And if we don’t use it that way, we may have difficulty with sleep.

I think Aesthetic Realism is beautiful on this big, tormenting subject—and its beauty is also its logic, its science.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Philosophy of Insomnia

By Eli Siegel

The thing that differentiates Aesthetic Realism from other ways of looking at the self and its troubles is that Aesthetic Realism is clearly and affirmatively philosophic. The deep problems of self are philosophic.

Insomnia has various causes. Just as you can shiver because you are in a temperature of 25 degrees, or because you are going to get a certain letter, or for some reason you don’t know, so one can not sleep because the room is too cold, because one is afraid of something that may happen tomorrow, because one has eaten too much of a certain fish. Therefore, when I say insomnia is a philosophic battle, that doesn’t mean it can’t have to do with other things.

 There was a person who told me he was troubled by insomnia, among other things. Sometimes he got angry with people. Sometimes he felt he was the most persecuted and most intelligent person in the world. Insomnia was one manifestation of the dislocation he had made between what Aesthetic Realism calls Self and World. He’d been having insomnia for a long time. His family doctor told him it came from a recondite kidney ailment. A neurologist of the advanced Freudian school told him he couldn’t sleep because he had the death instinct. A psychoanalyst, somewhat less advanced, said he wanted to kill his mother.

  In my work, one way of looking at the self has been through sentences. A person has been given two words, standing for matters crucial in his mind, and been asked to write a sentence with them. I gave this man the words magnificent and bed. The sentence he wrote was: “I am magnificent in bed.”

  He unconsciously saw himself as most important in bed. He had trouble with his brothers, his father, his mother, the foreman where he worked. In bed, he said to hell with all of them. The tendency to be a king or queen or emperor or (more conservatively) a lonely duchess in bed, is tremendous. The loneliness of bed is used against the things seen and endured in the street. When you’re in bed, the world is yours. This person had seen bed as a place where he could get back at everyone who had ever annoyed him.

  He also had the habit of having to wash every time he touched something that had been touched by another. He was a person who thought of himself as humanitarian and politically left, but he was an unconscious snob. He felt other people were against him. At worst, he saw them as interfering vermin. He took his revenge in bed. There he could say, “Only I exist.” He could manage the persons he didn’t like.

The Ethical Self

Using bed from an early age as a means of diminishing and despising what wasn’t himself had annoyed the other, ethical part of self. This part insists that the self get its happiness and importance through being related to other things, not through having contempt for them and despising them. The man’s ethical unconscious said to him, “Don’t have these victories by shortcuts. Those things you try to manipulate also represent you.”

The conflict between the two parts of self is the cause of philosophic insomnia. Insomnia is an unhappy phase of the Self and World problem.

There are thousands and thousands of people in America who, going to bed tonight, are going through something like this: “I'm worried about Christmas, about what to do about presents. I’ve endured all kinds of things today. But now in my bed I'm going to be all alone. Hooray!” The unconscious doesn’t put it into those words—a person doesn’t say this. He doesn’t know, even, that he feels it. And this unconscious procedure isn’t just rehabilitation for bad things that have happened to the self; it’s the making of a separate world.

Let’s take yawning. Yawning is all right; but sometimes it’s a means of contempt. Sometimes a person starts to yawn when he begins to get very interested in something. Sleep can be used so too. When the self as a whole feels this is a false victory, there’s going to be a debate. The self is in a debate because it has learned no other way of being important. The debate can be insomnia.

People should feel in going to sleep that they’re just as much in relation to the world as at noon in Times Square.

Another person whom I spoke to, a woman, was constantly dreaming about sleeping in public. In these dreams the unconscious was saying, “Hester, what you’re doing is no way to be an individual: by forgetting everybody, and using sleep for that. You need to feel that while being in relation, you can still be an individual.”

A person may say that he just doesn’t want people to bother him, that’s all. But there is a deeper unconscious ethics: Other things deserve to be known by you. And anytime you have a chance to learn something and you don’t, you’re unfair. Something in you feels you’re unfair to what made you, and that you’re limiting yourself. This isn’t police ethics—it’s your own ethics.

Aesthetic Realism is not therapy. It’s a philosophy that, if seen, makes a person more efficient within and happier.

A Rhythm

Sleep is part of one of the great rhythms of the world. We have to feel we’re the same person sleeping and waking. Sleep is a phase of the great aesthetic thing we see in reality itself: it is part of the rhythm of one and many. A self is one at night; it is crowded and busy during the day, meeting ever so many things.

Another person told me that before going to sleep he had to think of a place like parts of Arizona, where there were just cactuses and no people about. During the day, he acted as if he liked people very much. He was jovial, practically a hail-fellow-well-met. I told him that sleep was no time to get rid of the things he'd acted as if he'd wanted to welcome in the daytime. In this person, the conflict showed itself in a very interesting way. He told me that he became nauseous every time he had to recline in a barber’s chair. The reason was that in this position, which was neither sitting up nor lying down but something in between, the two worlds he'd made for himself met symbolically. Since he couldn’t take their meeting, he became nauseous. When this was explained to him, the nausea stopped.

Everything we do with our bodies has a meaning. This person had two lives, as most people do, and that is a dangerous business. He didn’t like people, but he acted as if he did. It doesn’t make sense deeply. If you’re going to like people in the daytime, why not at night? In the barber’s chair, the impact of the two selves made for a fight he had to meet. In the barber’s chair, he became aware that the two selves had to become part of the same self. He couldn’t meet it, and there was nausea.

Lying down, if it’s part of thinking a thought through, is all right. Most often it isn’t, though. Persons usually don’t lie down in order to be able to meet things better; they lie down to dismiss things. There was a girl in college who had to lie down for fifteen minutes every day. She would even leave something she was interested in, or a group of people, in order to do this. It wasn’t because she was tired, but because she wanted a vacation from people. Sleep can be used for contempt without one’s knowing it.

Thinking about a problem doesn’t make one sleepless. What does is the desire to say, “Why should I have to worry about this? I’ve a self in myself which is perfect.”

If we see the outside world as humiliating to ourselves, we'll try to get rid of it. If we get rid of it in sleep, we’re welcoming insomnia.

Insomnia is sometimes had by persons who also have what is called hypersomnia, a desire to sleep too much. A person once said to me that when he went to work in the morning he told himself it was so he would be able to go to bed later. After a while, he became afraid of sleep. Deeply, he feared that in sleep he'd do away with all reality. A person can’t sleep who feels he doesn’t deserve to sleep.

A Philosophic Matter

The unconscious is a philosophic matter. Sleep can be a means of splitting the individual in its entity or self sense and its related or sociological or universal sense. That is what happens when sleep becomes difficult. A self is everything the rest of the world isn’t. There is a self, and there are other things. This is the fundamental problem.

What Makes Us Important?

To understand insomnia, the whole meaning of what makes the self important has to be looked at. There are two ways the self can become important: 1) by minimizing what it meets; 2) by welcoming it.

The fight between these goes on in a terrible way in sleep. One would think it would be in abeyance. It is not. There are persons who groan in their sleep, who gnash their teeth, who wake up suddenly with a feeling of doom. In sleep the choice is being made: Do you want to become an individual by being alone and rejecting and annihilating what isn’t you? Or even in sleep do you want to be an individual because you’re related to other things?

The need to be an individual by being related is going to be with us the rest of our lives. If a person has veered towards feeling the self is individual because of all it can put aside, there will be—there is—trouble. First of all, to do that, to be an individual by putting aside, you have to be two people. Only recently a boy told me that when he went to bed he “put on another skin.” That seems cute, but it meant that in bed he was a different person. It’s not unusual in the slightest. Most children do it. Some of the other undesirable things that happen to children during sleep are night sweating, the feeling of falling, screaming. The reason is that even at this age they’ve come to feel the world is in opposition to them.

If sleep is one of the big aspects of self and world, unity and diversity, sameness and difference—if it is a philosophic matter using the respiratory system, a bed, and so on, to show itself with—insomnia can only be understood by knowing what sleep means to the self.

The Central Question

The most important question for a person is: How do you see what is not you? Do you see it as a friend? Do you want to manage it? Do you want to destroy it? If a person is afraid to ask, “Do I wish to respect the outside or do I wish to despise it?” he won’t stop having insomnia.

 Then the question is: Why, when we spurn the universe, does something in us—the ethical unconscious—protest? Why is there such a thing? It’s because we are, no matter how lonely we may feel, in relation to everything. And when we’re in relation to something, that thing is of us. The deepest unconscious represents the oneness of the self as individual and the self as in relation. If the self accepts a shortcut, trouble, including insomnia, will result. How can we consent to hurt ourselves and have all of the self like it?

At the moment, people are agitated about sleeping pills. They’ve become a sort of semi-drug among many people. The sleeping problem is getting to be fiercer and fiercer.

Why can’t a human being sleep? It’s a very deep question. The answer is: he hasn’t accepted all of himself. It’s a situation consisting of Self versus World instead of Self and World. Knowing the world is very necessary, because if we’re going to be in relation to it, our desire to know it can never stop.    

* The Book of the Duchess, lines 1-3. 12-13