Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Terribly Strange Beds: Conrad, Sleep, and Modernism

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Terribly Strange Beds: Conrad, Sleep, and Modernism

Article excerpt

IN ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL, E. M. Forster puzzles briefly over the fact that people in books do not seem to spend nearly as much time sleeping as their real-life counterparts. Homo sapiens is a creature "a third of whose time is spent in darkness" (1970: 61), but his literary cousin, Homo fictus, seems to inhabit a near permanent daylight of waking consciousness. Forster's point is not that fictional men and women are denied their fair share of sleep, but rather that their sleep does not get anything like its fair share of representation. Novelists are not in the habit of granting us access to the bedsides of their sleeping heroes and heroines: the sleep of Homo fictus is something that most narrators are happy to glide over or to drop into the gaps between chapters. Nor do these sleep-shaped gaps in novelistic narrative seem to invite or reward readerly speculation. A critic wishing to know more about the sleeping habits of, say, Mr Darcy - What is his bedtime? Does he sleep on his side or his back? Does he snore? - would be taking the character-as-realperson fallacy to absurd extremes. The sleep of Austen's hero is one of those bodily activities, like breathing or blinking, that is simply too routine to merit novelistic representation. It is unmentionable not for reasons of decency or propriety, but because sleep is subject to a different kind of literary taboo, one that that draws a veil over the spectacle of sheer uneventfulness.

As Nathaniel Wallace observes, there is a "fundamental antagonism between sleep and narrative" (2001: 234): sleep goes without saying because there is nothing to say about it, no narrative possibilities to be eked from the spectacle of a silent, supine, unresponsive body. To be slightly more accurate, however, we should say that, in literature, sleep goes without saying until it goes wrong. The everyday sleeper may well be persona non grata in literary narrative, but excessive sleepers - such as Irving's Rip van Winkle or Goncharov's Oblomov - are eminently storyworthy, and so too are insomniacs, sleepwalkers, and comparable victims of disturbed and unnatural slumber. Shakespeare's Macbeth, a play whose insomniac protagonist and sleepwalking heroine effectively "murder" sleep into representability, vividly and violendy exemplifies literature's disturbing relationship with the storyless inertia of sleep.

Like Shakespeare - or at least the Shakespeare of Macbeth - Conrad is a writer in whom the antagonism between sleep and narrative appears to be exceptionally strong. Unrest is so central to his imagination - in the tumultuous seascapes of Typhoon and The Nigger of the 'Narcissus"; in the revolutionary political violence of Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and Under Western Eyes; in the traumatic memories that haunt Marlow and other chronically uneasy narrators - that if Conrad's editors happened to need a "literary" subdde for his collected works then they could do worse than adopt the resonandy prescient tide of his first collection of short stories: Tales of Unrest.

Conrad's affinity for unrest originates not simply in impatience with lousy narradve raw material - who would want to read Tales of Rest or Tales of Sleep? - but also in temperamental hostility to the spectacle of gratuitous inactivity. Self-indulgent repose and solipsistic dreaminess are routinely vilified in Conrad's writings. In such figures as Kaspar Almayer, Donkin, James Wait, Adolf Verloc, and the "deck chair sailors" of Lord Jim, his fiction assembles and arraigns a rogues' gallery of idle fantasists, work-shy agitators, hypochondriac malingerers, and career sluggards united by their aversion to the exacting, hard-edged demands of genuine physical labour. If "sleep" is a shorthand for much of what Conrad despises, however, it is also a significant resource for his imagination. Although Conrad writes against sleep in the name of an ethic of communal labour and steadfast vigilance, he does so with recourse to a discourse of sleep, a symbolic language of somnolence and repose that permeates a remarkably wide range of his stories, novels, and nonfictional writings. …

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