Far from it being the purpose of sleep to support and nourish life, the purpose of life is to sleepby David Flusfeder / February 29, 2008 / Leave a comment
I had trouble getting to sleep the other night. I’m usually the most complacent of sleepers. On this night, it started off well enough: I quickly drifted into that episode the scientists call hypnagogic sleep—the borderline between alertness and slumber, where images, shapes, words lift unbidden into the relaxing mind—before it all went wrong. Concerns of the day stamped back into my mind like a gang of thugs jeering their way into a yoga meditation retreat. Sleep became utterly unavailable. I disapprove of sleeping pills, because they reduce dreaming. So at moments such as these, I look for something so dull that I might be bored into sleep. I tried remembering the name of every child in my class in the first year of secondary school. Puzzling over whether it was really Nathan Hunt who sat next to Alfred Jesudasen, I achieved sleep, albeit fitfully. The last name I remember thinking about, one which did not belong to a member of Class 1Q, was that of Michael Corke.
The most poignant part of Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition “Sleeping and Dreaming” is the shadowy corner devoted to the disintegration and death of Michael Corke. Corke was a music teacher from Chicago who carried the rare gene for fatal familial insomnia. He died in 1993 at the age of 42, having not slept for six months. Corke’s horrifying decline is captured in home movie footage of the ancient-before-his-time conductor at the podium, and then in hospital, eyes empty and wandering, entirely unmoored from the world around him.
Even Gilgamesh, the first great epic hero, couldn’t manage to stay awake for six days and seven nights without succumbing to sleep. But when doctors pumped enough sedative into Michael Corke to send him into a coma, his brain activity still showed no signs of sleep. He died from a neurological degeneration of the thalamus, similar to BSE or scrapie.
Sleep itself used to be seen as a kind of death—Homer’s “twin brethren, Sleep and Death,” Chandler’s The Big Sleep, even the Christian “eternal rest.” Anyone with children has watched an infant fight terrified against going to sleep. There is a vestigial self-protective instinct at work, our vulnerability while asleep to attack from animals or other humans. And the loss of control as sleep encroaches can feel like a step towards death. But death is extinction, and sleep isn’t even oblivion.