I Do Not Go Gently Into the Night

By any measure, the tiny slice of ocean on which I spend

July and August is a corner of paradise. It’s my aural environment, my sensurround: I listen day and night to its restless,

constantly changing song, from even-tempered purr to the angry thrashing of a

storm. And when I say day and night, I mean night. Hammacher Schlemmer sells

gadgets that lull people to sleep with the ocean’s roar, while here I am, 200

feet away from the real thing, wide awake.

It seems I’m not the

only one with insomnia this summer. A friend in East Hampton tells me that she and her gal pals have been

talking of nothing else, pooling their resources and drug expertise as they

battle the heebie-jeebies of what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “dark

night of the soul.”

The first line of defense is the non-medical solutions:

reading, deep breathing, hot milk, reruns of Law & Order . Then the pharmacopoeia: Ambien, Valium, Excedrin

P.M., Tylenol P.M., Benadryl, Xanax, Halcion, Klonopin. It’s not just the meds,

but calibrating how and when you take them: a relaxant at 9 p.m. or, at 11 p.m.,

a white (10 mg) Ambien or two Excedrins; at 2

a.m., a pink (5 mg) Ambien; at 4 a.m.,

half a pink Ambien.

The trouble is that the anxiety about sleeping becomes the

anxiety that prevents sleep. You awaken at 3 or 4

a.m. and try to stay in the slumberous state. You tell yourself,

“O.K., stay relaxed-who cares if you don’t go back to sleep? You’ll sleep

tomorrow night.” Only you won’t, and you don’t, fool anybody, least of all your

body’s serotonin-production system. Women, according to my Internet research

and an informal sampling of friends, are more prone to insomnia than men. Why? Hormones, anxiety over new and old desires and expectations, a

greater incidence of depression and a greater sensitivity than men, in good and

bad ways. After all, it was the Princess

and the Pea, not the Prince.

The one consolation is that we’re in pretty good company,

and comfort-however modest-can be gleaned from passages in literary works that

make you weep with sympathy and recognition. An awful lot of great male writers

have had trouble sleeping, perhaps because, as artists, they had more

female-like sensibilities. Fitzgerald, in an alcoholic decline after his

dazzling early years, wrote in “Sleeping and Waking” (one of the essays

collected in The Crack-Up ) of his

first bout of insomnia. After a battle royal with a mosquito, he suffered

restless nights and employed various remedies: Luminol, fantasizing (about

filling in for the injured quarterback and winning Princeton

the game; about similar heroic feats performed on the battlefield; about Minnesota).

But when these wore thin, what he encountered was a blurry sense of self in the

dead of night: “Horror and waste-waste and horror-what I might have been and

done that is lost, spent, gone, dissipated, unrecapturable.”

And as memories of all the cruelties and missteps and humiliations surge

forward, he wonders if this is what after-death might be, a vision of Hell as

insomnia everlasting.

Fitzgerald and Hemingway-neither one of whom seemed to be an

active Christian-nevertheless used a religious vocabulary without

self-consciousness when writing about insomnia, indicating that they lived in a

world of much stronger beliefs than ours. When they talked about the soul, it

was their own. In Hemingway’s short story on insomnia, “Now I Lay Me” (cited by

Fitzgerald as a classic on the subject), the narrator-a recently wounded

officer-is lying on a bunk somewhere in Italy and listening to the silkworms

feeding, all night, on mulberry leaves. “I myself did not want to sleep,” he

says, “because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I

ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my

soul would go out of my body.” He goes on to enumerate his mental

preoccupations, especially fishing-a precise location, bends in the river,

number of worms. And then, when the fishing fantasy runs dry, he prays for

everyone he knows.

Cyril Connolly, in The

Unquiet Grave , writes, “I wake up in anxiety; like a fog it overlays all my

action, and my days are muffled with anguish.” Later: “Sometimes at night I get

a feeling of claustrophobia; of being smothered by my own personality, of

choking through being in the world …. ” In his “pincer

movement” against “Angst, Melancholia and Memory’s ever-festering wound,” he

tries various sleeping pills at night and Benzedrine and vitamin B by day. But

he finds that Benzedrine gives him “a kind of gluttonous mental anger through

which the sadness persists-O how sad-but very much farther off.” And when he

takes vitamin B, Metatone and other tonics, he finds he changes personality

into someone coarser and more robust, “a toned-up film version, an escape from

the serious ego, and soon I return to my true diffident and dyspeptic self.

Confidence does not become me.”

Fitzgerald describes the bliss of finally dropping off as a

deep, warm lullaby, a flight into dreams of golden girls: “my spirit soars in

the moment of its oblivion …. ” But, alas, my own

experience is not like that-no triumph, no awareness of relief. More like

Hemingway’s: “And I am sure many times too that I slept without knowing it-but

I never slept knowing it.”

It may be that the writer’s life is peculiarly prone to

uneasy-lying heads. V.S. Pritchett talks about the “depression and sense of

nothingness that comes when a piece of work is done. The satisfaction is in the

act itself; when it is over there is relief, but the satisfaction is gone.

After fifty years I still find this to be so and that

with every new piece of writing I have to make that terrifying break with my

real life and learn to write again, from the beginning.”

We are all Lady Macbeths: Doubts trouble our sleep, and

unlike her lord and husband, we can’t translate “the very firstlings of [the]

heart” into action. Macbeth doesn’t understand why the doctor can’t cure his

sleepwalking wife: “Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, / Raze out the written troubles of the brain / And

with some sweet oblivious antidote / Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous

stuff / Which weighs upon the heart?”

For those of us who

dream of the ultimate sleeping pill, the doctor’s reply is not reassuring:

“Therein the patient / Must minister to himself.”