“We tire of distraction or concentration. we sleep and are glad to sleep”


From “Choruses from the Rock”, T S Eliot:

In our rhythm of earthly life we tire of light.
We are glad when the day ends, when the play ends;
and ecstasy is too much pain.

We are children quickly tired:
children who are up in the night and fall asleep as the rocket is fired;
and the day is long for work or play.

We tire of distraction or concentration, we sleep and are glad to sleep,
Controlled by the rhythm of blood and the day and the night and the seasons.

And we must extinguish the candle, put out the light and relight it;
Forever must quench, forever relight the flame

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From “Sleep”, Haruki Murakami

It’ been a while since I blogged about the literature of sleep which was formerly a recurrent theme here. So here is the opening of a Haruki Murakami story call simply “Sleep”:

This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep.

I’m not talking about insomnia. I know what insomnia is. I had something like it in college―something like it because I’m not sure that what I had then was exactly the same as what people refer to as insomnia. I suppose a doctor could have told me. But I didn’t see a doctor. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Not that I had any reason to think so. Call it woman’s intuition―I just felt they couldn’t help me. So I didn’t see a doctor, and I didn’t say anything to my parents or friends, because I knew that that was exactly what they would tell me to do.

Back then, my “something like insomnia” went on for a month. I never really got to sleep that entire time. I’d go to bed at night and say to myself, “All right now, time for some sleep.” That was all it took to wake me up. It was instantaneous – like a conditioned reflex. The harder I worked at sleeping, the wider awake I became. I tried alcohol, I tried sleeping pills, but they had absolutely no effect.

Finally, as the sky began to grow light in the morning, I’d feel that I might be drifting off. But this wasn’t sleep. My fingertips were just barely brushing against the outermost edge of sleep. And all the while my mind was wide-awake. I would feel a hint of drowsiness, but my mind was there, in its own room, on the other side of a transparent wall, watching me. My physical self was drifting through the feeble morning light, and all the while I could feel my mind staring, breathing, close beside it. I was both a body on the verge of sleep and a mind determined to stay awake.

This incomplete drowsiness would continue on and off all day. My head was always foggy. I couldn’t get an accurate fix on the things around me―their distance or mass or tenure. The drowsiness would overtake me at regular, wavelike intervals: on the subway, in the classroom, at the dinner table. My mind would slip away from my body. The world would sway soundlessly. I would drop things. My pencil or my purse or my fork would clatter to the floor. All I wanted was to throw myself down and sleep. But I couldn’t. The wakefulness was always there beside me. I could feel its chilling shadow. It was the shadow of myself. Weird, I would think as the drowsiness overtook me, I’m in my own shadow. I would walk and eat and talk to people inside my drowsiness. And the strangest thing was that no one noticed. I lost fifteen pounds that month, and no one noticed. No one in my family, not one of my friends or classmates realized that I was going through life asleep.

It was literally true: I was going through life asleep. My body had no more feeling than a drowned corpse. My very existence, my life in the world, seemed like a hallucination. A strong wind would make me think my body was about to be blown to the end of the earth, to some land I had never seen or heard of, where my mind and body would separate forever. “Hold tight,” I would tell myself, but there was nothing for me to hold on to.

And then, when night came, the intense wakefulness would return. I was powerless to resist it. I was locked in its core by an enormous force. All I could do was stay awake until morning, eyes wide open in the dark. I couldn’t even think. As I lay there, listening to the clock tick off the seconds, I did nothing but stare at the darkness as it slowly deepened and slowly diminished.

And then one day it ended, without warning, without any external cause. I started to lose consciousness at the breakfast table. I stood up without saying anything. I may have knocked something off the table. I think someone spoke to me. But I can’t be sure. I staggered to my room, crawled into bed in my clothes, and fell fast asleep. I stayed that way for twenty-seven hours. My mother became alarmed and tried to shake me out of it. She actually slapped my cheek. But I went on sleeping for twenty-seven hours without a break. And when I finally did awaken, I was my old self again. Probably.

I have no idea why I became an insomniac then nor why the condition suddenly cured itself. It was like a thick, black cloud brought from somewhere by the wind, a cloud crammed full of ominous things I have no knowledge of. No one knows where such a thing comes from or where it goes. I can only be sure that it did descend on me for a time, and then departed.

The sound of night – from R Murray Schafer’s “Soundscapes”

“In the special darkness of the northern winter, where life was centered in small pools of candlelight, beyond which shadows draped and flickered mysteriously, the mind explored the dark side of nature. The underworld creatures of northern mythology are always nocturnal. By candlelight the powers of sight are sharply reduced; the ear is supersensitized and the air stands poised to beat with the subtle vibrations of a strange tale or of ethereal music. …

Romanticism begins at twilight—and ends with electricity. By the era of electricity, the last romanticists had folded their wings. Music dismissed the nocturne and the Nachtstuck, and from the Impressionist salons of 1870 onward, painting emerged into twenty-four-hour daylight.

We will not expect to find striking confessions concerning the sounds of candles or torches among the ancients any more than we find elaborate descriptions among moderns of the 50- or 60-cycle hum; for although both sounds are inescapably there, they are keynotes; and, as I am taking repeated trouble to explain, keynotes are rarely listened to consciously by those who live among them, for they are the ground over which the figure of signals becomes conspicuous.

Keynote sounds are, however, noticed when they change, and when they disappear altogether, they may even be remembered with affection. Thus I recall the vivid impression made on me when I first went to Vienna in 1956 and heard the whispering gas lights on the suburban streets; or, on another occasion, the huge hiss of the Coleman lamps in the unelectrified bazaars of the Middle East—which, in the late evening, quite overpowered the bubbling of the waterpipes. Similarly, in a reverse manner, when the heroine in Doctor Zhivago first arrived in Moscow after having spent her childhood in the Urals, she was “deafened by the gaudy window displays and glaring lights, as if they too emitted sounds of their own, like the bells and the wheels.” In the country, night had been accompanied by “the faint crackling of the wax candles” (Turgenev’s phrase), and she was immediately struck by the change.

Another example: in his diary of 1919, amidst painterly thoughts, Paul Klee paused to listen when, in his Schwabing apartment, “the asthmatic gas lamp was replaced by a glaring, hissing and spitting carbide lamp.””

“Mental health apps offer a head start on recovery” – Irish Times, 18/01/18

Over at my more medically focused blog A Medical Education, I have a link to a recent Irish Times story on apps in mental health in which my various pontifications feature….

A Medical Education

Here is a piece by Sylvia Thompson on a recent First Fortnight panel discussion I took part in on apps in mental health.

Dr Séamus Mac Suibhne, psychiatrist and member of the Health Service Executive research technology team says that while the task of vetting all apps for their clinical usefulness is virtually impossible, it would be helpful if the Cochrane Collaboration [a global independent network of researchers] had a specific e-health element so it could partner with internet companies to give a meaningful rubber stamp to specific mental health apps.

“There is potential for the use of mental health apps to engage people with diagnosed conditions – particularly younger patients who might stop going to their outpatients appointments,” says Dr Mac Suibhne. However, he cautions their use as a replacement to therapy. “A lot of apps claim to use a psychotherapeutic approach but psychotherapy is about a human encounter…

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Versions of Alcman’s “Sleep”

At First Known When Lost, Stephen Pentz collects some versions of fragmentary lines by the Spartan lyric poem Alcman. This fragment was used by Edgar Allan Poe for the epigraph of his story Silence: A Fable.

Here are the selections from First Known When Lost:

The mountain-summits sleep, glens, cliffs and caves,
Are silent — all the black earth’s reptile brood —
The bees — the wild beasts of the mountain wood;
In depths beneath the dark red ocean’s waves
Its monsters rest, whilst wrapt in bower and spray
Each bird is hush’d that stretch’d its pinions to the day.

Alcman (translated by Thomas Campbell), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995). The poem was originally published in 1821 in The New Monthly Magazine.

Night

The far peaks sleep, the great ravines,
The foot-hills, and the streams.
Asleep are trees, and hivèd bees,
The mountain beasts, and all that dark earth teems,
The glooming seas, the monsters in their deeps:
And every bird, its wide wings folded, sleeps.

Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938). Wade-Gery added the title “Night” to the fragment.

The mountain-tops are asleep, and the mountain-gorges,
Ravine and promontory:
Green leaves, every kind of creeping things
On the breast of the dark earth, sleep:
Creatures wild in the forest, wandering bees,
Great sea-monsters under the purple sea’s
Dark bosom, birds of the air with all their wings
Folded, all sleep.

Alcman (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge University Press 1907).

Vesper

Now sleep the mountain-summits, sleep the glens,
The peaks, the torrent-beds; all things that creep
On the dark earth lie resting in their dens;
Quiet are the mountain-creatures, quiet the bees,
The monsters hidden in the purple seas;
And birds, the swift of wing,
Sit slumbering.

Alcman (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951). Lucas added the title “Vesper.”

I found another version on the Poetry Foundation site
:

A Version of Alcman’s (fl. 630 BCE) “Sleep” poem . . .
BY JOHN KINSELLA
Dormant are pinnacles and streams of the mountains,
Chasms and bluffs and crawlers fed by the dark earth;
Dormant are wild animals and that tribe of bees
And monsters out of the sea’s dark syntax;
Dormant are clans of birds with wings that envelop.

The Campbell translation seems to be the dominant one on the internet, but there is this whose provenance I am trying to track down:

Slumbering are the mountains, crest and chasm,
Ravine and precipice,
And every creeping thing on the earth’s dark breast,
Beasts in their forest lairs and the tribes of the bees,
And monsters within the depths of the purple seas:
Slumbering too are the birds
Their swift wings laid to rest.

(UPDATE – it is a translation by R C Trevelyan from The Bride of Dionysus, A Music Drama, And Other Poems

If you followed the link to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Silence” you would note that the epigraph is worded slightly differently to any of these versions (well, only the Campbell could possible have been used by Poe)

The mountain pinnacles slumber; valleys, crags and caves are silent

I cannot trace the rest of this translation, perhaps Poe’s own?

Alcman (sometimes transliterated as Alkman) is known only from fragments – this page collects these fragments. These particular lines come from Apollonius’ Homeric Lexicon:

Apollonius Homeric Lexicon :
Some writers give the name of beast to lions, leopards, wolves, and all similar animals, that of creeping-thing generically to the various kinds of snakes, that of monster to cetaceans such as whales; which is the distinction made by Alcman in the lines:

Alseep lie mountain-top and mountain-gully, shoulder also and ravine; the creeping-things that come from the dark earth, the beasts whose lying is upon the hillside, the generation of the bees, the monsters in the depths of the purple brine, all lie asleep, and with them, the tribes of the winged birds.

Finally, a few years ago the poet Sherod Santos published his own translations of Ancient Greek Lyric poetry, evidently a rather loose one from the poet of view of the text. This attracted the opprobium of the critic Gary WIlis and a defence by Rosanna Warren. From Warren’s defence:

Occasionally, Santos’s delight in the poems, coupled with his lack of feel for Greek, can lead to inflated phrasing. It is an effect of generosity, of ebullience, and it overruns the economy essential to Greek lyric beauty. Yet in most of these cases Santos has not betrayed the originals so much as amplified them in his imagination. So in Alcman’s fragment about the sleeping creatures of the night, Santos expands the landscape to include “the low scrub thickets and the riverine glades” and several other features absent from the original, and concludes in a lush line of summation (“all are asleep in the depthless conjuring of that sound”), whereas Alcman ended simply with the long-winged birds. Why begrudge the modern poet his riff? It has its own beauty, and Alcman’s birds survive.

Warren goes on to write:

It is not as if Sappho & Co. had fared so very well in the classicizing centuries. Each era imposes its own poetic conventions and inventions upon the classics. Sappho’s first appearance in English, in 1652 in John Hall’s version of her famous “Phainetai moi” (“He seems to me equal to the gods”), traded in all the clinical specificities of the Greek for sausage links of clichés (“sweet languors to my ravish’d heart”) far worse than Santos’s occasional indulgences. And if one traces the history of that poem in English, one finds betrayal after betrayal.

Santos is not a classicist. He does not know Greek. But his poems plucked from the Greek Anthology have more vitality, strength, and delicacy than a good number of so-called original works that cram the pages of our magazines these days. Why not be grateful?

“it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane -after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams”

Lately I’ve been rereading psychology books, and have felt singularly defrauded. All of them discuss the mechanisms of dreams or the subjects of dreams, but they do not mention, as I had hoped, that which is so astonishing, so strange – the fact of dreaming.

Thus, in a psychology book I admire greatly, The Mind of Man, Gustav Spiller states that dreams correspond to the lowest plane of mental activity – I would maintain that, at least for me, this is an error – and he speaks of the incoherence, the disconnectedness, of the fables of dreams. I would like to recall Paul Groussac and his fine essay, “Among Dreams,” in The Intellectual Voyage. Groussac writes that it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane – after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams.

The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams. And it is possible that the memory of dreams does not correspond exactly to the dreams themselves. A great writer of the eighteenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, believed that our memory of dreams is more impoverished than the splendour of reality. Others, in turn, believe that we improve our dreams. If we thin of the dream as a work of fiction – and I think it is – it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.

  • Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares”, from Seven Nights

 

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