Nocturnal Existence

Given its centrality and necessity to our lives, it seems remarkable that philosophers have to a great extent ignored the phenomenon of sleep, At least one of the reasons I have suffered periodically from bouts of insomnia is that sleep seems so downright mystifying, even alarming.

There’s a chapter in Aristotle’s Parva Naturalia on sleep, Galen also writes of sleep but more in context of dreaming. Thereafter, as far as I can tell, our nocturnal existence is left to the poets and psychologists. An exception is French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy who wrote the fascinating The Fall of Sleep, which amused me for a few sleepless hours last night.

Below is an excerpt from Charlotte Mandell’s translation of The Fall of Sleep by Jean-Luc Nancy (also read by Mandell in the film also below).

I now belong only to myself, having fallen into myself and mingled with that night where everything becomes indistinct to me but more than anything myself. I mean: everything becomes more than anything myself, everything is reabsorbed into me without allowing me to distinguish me from anything. But I also mean: more than anything, I myself become indistinct. I no longer properly distinguish myself from the world or from others, from my own body or from my mind, either. For I can no longer hold anything as an object, as a perception or a thought, without this very thing making itself felt as being at the same time myself and something other than myself. A simultaneity of what is one’s own and not one’s own occurs as this distinction falls away.

There is simultaneity only in the realm of sleep. It is the great present, the co-presence of all compossibilities, even incompatible ones. Removed from the bustle of time, from the obsessions of past and future, of arising and passing away, I coincide with the world. I am reduced to my own indistinctness, which, however, still experiences itself as an “I” that goes along with its visions without, however, distinguishing itself from them.

6 thoughts on “Nocturnal Existence

  1. It may be true that “Western” philosophers have largely ignored the phenomenon of sleep — I have only a syncretic sense of W. philosophy, so I’m not sure — but it’s not the case among “Eastern” philosophers. Sleep is very big in Indian philosophy (especially Vedanta), for example.

    But I’m commenting here mainly as a reminder — because I know you know this — that “philosophy” is not a term that applies solely to the output of European and American thinkers.

  2. If the phenomena of sleep and insomnia are largely neglected by canonical Anglophone philosophers, this is simply not true when we look to the Continental tradition and to phenomenology in particular. Most notable here would be Emmanuel Levinas’ illuminating treatment of insomnia in *Existence and Existents*. Also Merleau-Ponty’s *Phenomenology of Perception*, which contains lengthy discussions of sleep and sleeplessness.

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