literature of sleep, dreams, and fatigue

As Langston Hughes asked in 1951, “What happens to a dream deferred?” This class will weigh the stakes of using sleep and dreams to structure our lives as both an embodied practice and a guiding metaphor. Whether well-rested or exhausted, we often use dreams and nightmares to make sense of our experiences and imagine our lives. Sleep is sometimes a euphemism for death (“the big sleep”) and sometimes for sex (“sleeping together”). We “lose sleep” over our mistakes, sometimes to horrific results like in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Conversely, dreaming implies hope – specifically, unrealistic expectations. Phrases like “dream big” or “dream on” are leveled with sarcasm, while dreams and daydreams often function in direct opposition to our success and can quickly come to resemble nightmares. Rather than just unpleasant or failed dreams, nightmares are experienced as horror that, at the very least, can ruin a good night’s sleep. Likewise, the night is characterized as a time when people terrorize under the cloak of darkness, particularly to sexual and violent ends. Sleep and sleeplessness also connote vulnerability. The moon, feminized throughout cultural history from Artemis to Sailor Moon, has been blamed for madness in characters like Othello and Jane Eyre’s Mrs. Rochester, and it famously functions to usher in the apocalypse in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

Like food and shelter, sleep is also a physical necessity. Insomnia is notoriously excruciating and sometimes life-threatening, and sleep deprivation has been weaponized as military torture. Nonetheless, we are often encouraged to forgo sleep in pursuit of our dreams. Our relation to sleep is often tied to our work ethic in a way that masquerades as unrelated to race, gender, or class. Exhaustion signifies hard work, whether pulling an all-nighter to finish a project, staying awake as a caretaker, or working the graveyard shift. Forgoing sleep implies increased productivity, even though poor sleep has a negative effect on cognition. Late capitalism’s gig economy celebrates sleeplessness as evidence of a side hustle, yet one is encouraged to get eight hours of sleep should they want to perform labor optimally. Still, rest depends on access to a safe space to sleep. “Sleeping in,” however, is a luxury limited to the leisurely, in contrast to daydreams, which are characterized as lazy — especially when they interfere with work.

Students will write three expository essays surrounding the theme of sleep, dreams, and fatigue, with the option to add a creative component to their final project. Readings will include excerpts from Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Peter Schwenger’s At the Borders of Sleep, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Simon Morgan Wortham’s The Poetics of Sleep: From Aristotle to Nancy, a course anthology of short stories, poetry, and lyrics, and an attendance of Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel.

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