The book consists of a series of short paragraphs, some of which connect up to one another while others riff suggestively on new themes, teasing out the manifold implications of the author’s insomnia. Benjamin’s technique has a nocturnal cast, her night thoughts following their own strange logic, bleeding into one another. “Dreams are collage-like,” Benjamin writes, explaining her decision to adopt this particular style. “The way we grasp things is collage-like: the mind gathering in material from the outermost reaches of the senses and fusing it together into definite shapes. And writing, too, is a kind of collage.” This method allows her to range freely through her nighttime meditations, which include musings about books and paintings, as well as a portrait of life with her husband — who, due to his enviable ability to fall instantly asleep, is referred to throughout as Zzz.
As Benjamin depicts the experience, the insomniac exists in a liminal state, poised between sleep and waking, light and darkness. She vividly evokes this neither-here-nor-there situation, with its heightened sensitivity to ambient light and sounds. “At 4:15 a.m.,” she writes,
birds chirrup, foxes scream, and sometimes, when the rotating schedule for landing and takeoff from Heathrow Airport collides with my sleeplessness, planes rumble overhead. The quality of the dark is not as pure at this hour as it is earlier. It is porous around the edges. In my bed, I flap and thrash like a grouper caught in the net.
As maddening as this state can be, especially when the sufferer senses the onset of morning, dooming her to forced wakefulness, it is also one full of possibilities. Early on in Insomnia, Benjamin describes a vexing situation in which a courier had been unable to locate her to deliver a book. Now, stuck with insomnia, she composes a mental letter to the company, even though she had never before thought to contact them. Why only now, Benjamin wonders, when it is far too late, has she thought to write such a letter? “It occurred to me only later,” she writes, “that perhaps an additional question ought to be posed — one more pressing than why the book never arrived. The question is this: What if waking life is incapable of adequately attuning us to the needs of our unconscious minds?”
The undelivered book may be a relatively trivial affair, but the insight Benjamin offers has larger implications. Late in Insomnia, she tells of waking up in the middle of the night from a bad dream that “seeped out of [her] head and into the bedroom like a noxious gas, contaminating everything.” Under the spell of this nightmare, everything around her takes on a menacing aspect, including her husband. She is suddenly thrust into crisis:
It is at moments like these, when I sense the void migrate from the perimeter of my existence and begin to pervade its center, that I start to question what I am about. Why am I in this house, this bed, this marriage? Why, when I look back over a string of formative selves, all those era-defined embodiments of me pulling in different directions, do I find myself on this path and not on any other? […] At moments such as these, everything that is closest to my heart, that generates the impression of gravity in my world, gets rudely pitched across the universe.
After staring down the void so directly, she finds it impossible to sleep and has no other recourse than to tiptoe down to the basement and pass the rest of the night in the company of her dog.
The liminal states Benjamin evokes can be terrifying, a bold reckoning with nothingness, but they can also be productive. Toward the end of the book, she discusses her problems with the concept of mindfulness, which she compares to the process of tidying up a house. “It is focused and satisfying in concentrated spurts, but it lacks a direction of travel,” she writes. “It seeks to keep things as they are. It leaves the world unchanged.” By contrast, what she calls “mind wandering,” troubling as it can be, is also often invigorating and transgressive. It is the very province of the essayist, whose job it is to map those wayward thoughts on the page. “Mind wandering free-associates and innovates,” she writes. “It overreaches wildly and pulls you along, eager in its wake. […] [I]t roams: respecting no boundaries, it transgresses.”
This, then, is the crux of the book: how can the free association inherent in insomnia be put to positive use? If we can learn to be sensible to these liminal states in which thought refuses to follow a linear path, Benjamin suggests, then we can free ourselves from entrenched ways of thinking and open up new possibilities. As she puts it, “perhaps this [mind wandering] is something the conscious mind can take from insomnia.” Extending the metaphor, she looks to her family, noting the ways they have embraced figurative border crossings in their own lives: her husband Zzz, with his newfound zeal for international activism, and her daughter, with her embrace of a fluid gender identity. In the end, Benjamin concludes that, while she still yearns for sleep, it is important that she stay attuned to the insomniac state. “I don’t want to slip unknowingly from being into nothing,” she writes, “but to be party to the drift and transgression, and alive to the excitement and danger that it entails. It is a knife-edge business […] and it demands that I embrace uncertainty.”
In this way, Insomnia follows the same pattern as Benjamin’s previous memoir, The Middlepause: On Turning Fifty (2016). Although that book follows a more conventional structure, it also ranges freely, mixing personal experience with analyses of literature and social trends, as the author attempts to work out her feelings about menopause. For Benjamin, the onset of this condition was sudden, the result of a hysterectomy in her late 40s, and she finds herself, in the aftermath of the surgery, as much at sea as she is in her chronic sleeplessness. Wandering the streets, she feels abruptly defeminized, ignored by passersby, a ghostly gender-neutral presence. The effect is deeply unsettling, until she suddenly realizes that it gives her a certain power: rather than being the looked-at, she can now become the looker.
Like her treatment of insomnia, Benjamin ultimately posits menopause — at least in its early stages — as a liminal state. Shortly after her hysterectomy, Benjamin’s father died, the twin griefs bringing on a state of creative paralysis, leaving her unable to write for over a year. Looking back, she realizes that she was in a transitional phase, one that could — and for her, ultimately did — open up fresh avenues of thinking and living. “In moving through a liminal phase,” she writes, “the mind untethers itself from what it knows in order to drift and float towards new modes of being. The mind is in transit.” Finally realizing that she can’t go on as she has been, but also that her condition allows her a certain freedom, she resolves to shake up her life, seizing more control over her time and shedding some financial stability in order to force herself back into writing. “I felt emboldened,” she concludes. “If my persona was being dismantled come what may […] then I would embrace instability.”
Both The Middlepause and Insomnia are richly considered works that depict a wise and curious mind coming at two troubling states from a variety of perspectives. At times, perhaps, Benjamin ranges a bit too freely, as when, in Insomnia, she constructs an elaborate metaphorical system linking light and darkness with the slave trade, willful historical ignorance, and the sleep-depriving properties of coffee and sugar. But this sort of wandering speculation is precisely what Benjamin finds so productive in sleeplessness, and such straying is always preferable to a refusal to transgress. In her willingness to embrace the same sort of liminality in her work that she champions in the menopausal state and the insomniac condition, Benjamin boldly points the way toward new and productive ways of living.
Andrew Schenker is a writer based in New York.