Dreams of Reason: Simon Morgan Wortham’s “The Poetics of Sleep”

August 27, 2013   •   By Marc Farrant

The Poetics of Sleep

Simon Morgan Wortham

“THE ENTIRE MENTAL LIFE minus the effort of concentration”: This is the notorious definition of dreaming as rendered by the 20th-century French philosopher Henri Bergson in his 1914 book Dreams. Dreams have always presented a challenge to the systematizing pretensions of philosophy, not to mention positive science. This challenge arises in the form of a number of questions that would seem to strike at the heart of systematicity itself: questions of consciousness and the unconscious, of the permeability of the border that separates them, and of the very arbitrary nature of categorization, definition and division; indeed, the very divisibility of life and reality (seen as concentration) over and against death and unreality.

In The Poetics of Sleep, Simon Morgan Wortham claims that it is not merely dreaming that is at stake in prompting these interrogative crises, but rather “the repeated relegation of sleep to the realm of physiological study.” He argues that sleep itself might constitute a limit for the philosophical imagination, and his vast, comprehensive, and wide-ranging study attempts to demonstrate this claim with reference to a range of philosophers (Aristotle and Nancy, but also Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Freud, Bergson, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Foucault) as well as a number of literary figures (including Paul Celan, Maurice Blanchot, and Samuel Beckett).

These sleep-deprived (and sleep-derived) questions are questions of borders and limits: where and when do we draw the distinction between wakefulness and sleep, reality and dream, literature and philosophy? What authority permits such distinctions? Any recuperative attempt to simplify these questions in the name of physiological science, or philosophy, would divorce them from this problematic location of the border, and would do irreparable and unjustifiable damage. It is precisely Morgan Wortham’s attentiveness to the question of the border between sleep and wakefulness, however, that signals an exemplary methodology that works with ease both within and without the tradition of philosophy, neither exhausting sleep as a philosophical theme nor as simply a position to espouse an attack on philosophical discourse.

The Poetics of Sleep opens with an account of the psychologist Ray Meddis’s The Sleep Instinct (1977), and his inflammatory hypothesis that “sleep serves no important function in modern man and that, in principle at least, man is capable of living happily without it.” Meddis argues that sleep evolved not as a means to gain rest after physical or mental exertion, but instead as a way to maximize the chance of survival “when animals really have nothing else to do.” Sleep keeps animals still, inconspicuous, and usually in a safe place. Thus, as a survival technique, sleeps seems redundant in modern man. That great mistress of the night, Margaret Thatcher — famous for needing, purportedly, only four hours of sleep — would seem to corroborate Meddis’s observation that “sleep expands and contracts in keeping with the available spare time” accessible to different species. (Thatcher isn’t alone; according to a popular online tabloid, “the Thatcher gene” — ABCC9, apparently — is also shared by Madonna.)

As Morgan Wortham notes, the dismissive assumptions that underpin Meddis’s theory of sleep — a theory that mirrors Plato’s hypothesis that prolonged slumber should be minimized for the sake of the maintenance of the state, and that when asleep “a man is useless, he may as well be dead” — have been replayed throughout the philosophical tradition as a sort of “classical fascism,” rallied against what is seen as the “fatuousness and unseemliness of prolonged slumber in ‘civilised’ man.” Indeed, the pervasiveness of this ideological preference or trope would seem just as evident in contemporary neoliberal policies, most notably the cult of “work” that coincides with the European obsession for austerity, as explored recently in Carl Cederstrom’s Dead Man Working (2012).

Morgan Wortham sets out to do far more than ridicule decades-old trends in sleep science: it is his contention that Western philosophy has also missed something important in the phenomenon of sleep. As Freud and many others have emphasized, the brain is as active, dynamic, and functional as ever during sleep. The only reason that the activity associated with the waking mind is set at a different level of priority over its dormant counterpart, Morgan Wortham argues, is because of the “particular conception of consciousness” we have inherited from philosophy. He delineates Aristotle’s contention that sleep arises as a condition of the organ of sense-perception, and points out that the historical reception of Aristotle’s thought has played an important role in the history of metaphysics by linking sense-perception to consciousness, since the inability to do so marks an absence of sense-perception itself (in plant life, for Aristotle).

The crux arises when two competing readings of Aristotle become entangled: one, which would seem to suggest that sleep is a physiological response to the needs of the body; and another that suggests that sleep is a condition of sense-perception, which is itself a “sign of the soul moving through the body.” Thus, sleep is at once a movement or enactment of the organ of sense-perception, and a seizure of that very organ. “Thus, by way of a certain […] reading,” Morgan Wortham writes:

“[S]ense-perception” would be imagined as having the ability to appropriate the “other” of itself; an “other” which the very process or necessity of philosophical thought suggests may nevertheless be a dangerous supplement.

Indeed, as Morgan Wortham argues, the “idea that bodily movement of any kind may be associated with the persistence of ‘sense’ continues to haunt the […] popular imagination.” Our interests in dreams, then (as delusions or distortions of the perceptual mind), can be unequivocally derived from their position in “relation to waking sense.”

Kant, too, is associated with a certain implicit metaphysical preference for wakefulness over slumber, life over sleep. The figure of the somnambulist is disturbing for Kant as that which disturbs the assertion that sleep is in support of life, whereby the role of dreams prevents this sleep from becoming total, i.e. death. Similarly, for Hegel the “utter abandonment of the ‘soul’ to itself militates against being-for-self.” Through the sacrificial uncoupling of the objective and sensible relation to the actual world, the self risks “not only its reason but its unity and cohesiveness as such.” Philosophers, Morgan Wortham reveals, have often imagined sleep as if it were itself a recurring and troublesome dream, the very opacity of which seems to offer a range of possibilities. These include seeing sleep as a physiological condition (and therefore marginal to philosophy); seeing it at the core of the expression of the self; or seeing it as an instrument and effect of sense-perception and even consciousness itself. Thus, “across these examples, a strange legacy is bequeathed to thought,” he writes:

[W]hereby, in the very attempt to rationalise sleep in terms of its functional […] relationship to both bodily and waking life, a certain supplement is unleashed — call it somnambulance, or some other name — which […] cannot be excluded, contained or sidelined.

Morgan Wortham’s analyses of Bergson and, especially, Freud, are vastly rewarding, moving ever closer to the limits of sleep and its supplemental relationship to waking life. For Bergson, dreaming results from a specific interaction of sensation and memory, distinct from the unconscious, that during sleep is allowed free reign as a “form of perception that is unrestricted by the probabilistic interpretation of reality which typifies wakefulness.” Thus, the dream is neither a derivative form of consciousness, as was the commonly held scientific belief of the 19th century, nor a separate form of perception (governed, for instance, by the unconscious). Hence, dreams are “the entire mental life minus the effort of concentration.”

For Freud, on the other hand, dreams are univocally associated with the unconscious. However, as Morgan Wortham argues, the relationship between sleep — which Freud sees as predominantly physiological  — and dreams, and of both to the notion of the “day,” allows sleep to occupy a radically double-facing position in the Freudian text. For Freud, unresolved psychic tensions from the waking day are commonplace in our nightly dreams, yet they do not provide the basis for a primary explanation of dreaming itself. These leftovers, or residues of our daily life, remain secondary, although, as he admits in The Interpretation of Dreams, they might provide the material support for the dream. Contra Bergson, dreams for Freud are not to be understood as day-facing, in the simple sense that they accompany the process of awakening. Rather, the dream is intricately connected to both day and night as the product of long-held wishes that persist in the unconscious realm of sleep, but are forged during infantile waking life. So, for Freud, sleep serves the conscious wish to sleep and the workings of the unconscious at the same time, inducing the onset of repressed material through an unavoidable relaxation of energy.

For Morgan Wortham, the consequent difficulty in knowing in what or in whose interests one sleeps is at the forefront of severing the association of sleep with a purely physiological condition. In Freud’s 1914 essay “On Narcissism,” this condition of sleep is construed as a potentially malevolent force within psychic life. There, Freud tells us that the condition of sleep resembles illness to the extent that it involves a “narcissistic withdrawal of the position of the libido onto the subject’s own self.” This Hegelian move (withdrawal into the self) that Freud articulates reveals a complex narcissism that becomes shared by both the ego and libido. During sleep, a primitive narcissism is offered to the ego, while the libido can hope to indulge in the “hallucinatory satisfaction of wishes.”

However, the waters are muddied when Freud also asserts that, in Morgan Wortham’s summary, “dreams are also formed as a response to that which threatens pure indulgence in this same narcissism” (i.e., the residues of waking life). These outside disturbances acquire significance, for Freud, because they, too, are invested with a libidinal interest. Thus, Morgan Wortham argues, “the dream sees narcissism defending itself against what are basically its own interests. For Freud, in fact, this may be what a dream is.” Narcissism itself is then configured as potentially auto-immune, the condition of which is visible in Freud’s own text as sleep is depicted akin to Derrida’s pharmakon: as both illness and health, poison and cure.

The consequences of this Derridean interpretation of Freud are explored through a reading of Jacqueline Rose’s essay “On Not Being Able to Sleep: Rereading The Interpretation of Dreams.” Rose observes how Freud implies an underlying affinity between sleep or dreaming and madness. As Freud writes, alluding to Kant, “The lunatic is the one who dreams while awake.” However, Rose asserts that, when sleep itself is the focus of psychoanalytic study, it not only becomes a limit for psychoanalytic thought, but is also a fear for psychoanalysis itself. Rose argues that sleep “is entirely beyond that which can be willed,” and reads Freud’s injunction that one must sleep for the sake of the inner life as more of a “plea than a scientific proposition.” Morgan Wortham delineates an intriguing duality between “want” and “fear” that is involved in the seeming contradiction of the conscious pursuit of unconsciousness. Therefore, the transition into sleep can never be entirely programmed or predicted, despite its willed state, and inasmuch remains as threatening as a fear of the dark (as Rose states, “we never know what will happen –– or where exactly we are going –– when we go to sleep”). Indeed, this paradoxical relation to sleep and the mental life of sleep is encapsulated in the rather archaic German phrase “es träumte mir”: literally, “it dreamt me,” or “I have been dreamt” (rather than the conventional English equivalent, “I dreamed”). This Janus-faced relation to sleep also applies to psychoanalysis itself, as that which (in Freud’s terms) builds out “into the dark,” purportedly in order to awake the subject into reason through the paradoxical procedure of recalling and replaying childhood horrors, so that, as Rose argues, the subject “cannot be sure, whether it is itself awake.”

The Poetics of Sleep opens by suggesting that neurological or physiological science is heir to a certain philosophical heritage that, paradoxically, regards physiology itself as something that can be set to one side in the understanding of the formation of consciousness. In this tradition, “matter” (the body, the outside, materiality) can be distinguished clearly from rational waking mind. From this perspective, Morgan Wortham’s work opens the possibility of a certain non-anthropocentrism at the heart of sleep (but also potentially consciousness and “life” itself). Although these implications are not necessarily pursued in the volume, they might be said to arise in the very notion of poetics that makes up part of its title, which arguably addresses the seemingly unconscious question of the title itself, namely: why not The Politics of Sleep?

Morgan Wortham is certainly not proposing any form of aesthetic practice in his use of the term, but is rather hinting towards the possibility that something like the supplemental relation that sleep embodies might lie at the heart of aesthetic invention, inspiration, and creation. This is configured around the term “poièsis” (which literally means “making” or “production”), and is set in distinction to “praxis” (“doing” or “action”). Thus poesis, as a form of making, happens “beyond and below the level of the will.” Much as Derek Attridge, in The Singularity of Literature, defines artistic “invention” as that which encapsulates the duality of both active creation and “the event of coming upon” — since for something to be entirely new there can be no recipe for its coming about, and therefore it cannot be solely willed — poièsis, for Morgan Wortham, signals an excess “of thinking or reflection, never reducible to a tangible object.”

The implications and entanglements of sleep and poièsis are masterfully elaborated through the literary chapters that constitute the latter half of the book. This is evident in the discussion of Blanchot and Celan in reference to singularity, and the condition of literature as both totally unique yet fundamentally repeatable (as language): “to say that the poetic text in its singular repeatability […] crosses from one time (and […] one place) to another, is to suggest that such a traversal of borders is imperative for acts of poetry to take place.” Although Morgan Wortham’s position does not formulate an alternative or new understanding of sleep itself in either a neurological or philosophical sense, The Poetics of Sleep undoubtedly opens the possibilities of the future study of sleep as it appears thematically and formally in the texts of literature, philosophy and science. Such a study might incorporate an analysis of the language or ideology of sleep in a more explicitly political manner (including the history and politics of sleep deprivation), a framework that exceeds Morgan Wortham’s more subtle deconstructive approach. Nevertheless, whatever interest you find satisfied by The Poetics of Sleep, I promise you won’t be reaching for the No Doz.


Marc Farrant is a PhD Candidate at the London Graduate School and a Contributing Editor at Review 31.