<< home

day by day: a blog

August 05, 2007

Sleep and Sleeplessness

iraqi_prisoner_torturer.png [illustration source] In this week's New Yorker the investigative journalist Jane Mayer has published an essay called "The Black Sites" which, on any number of counts, is an important, powerful and demoralizing piece of work. It is a recurrent habit of decadent cultures to focus attention on the corruption of their enemies abroad as a way of avoiding the more infinitely difficult and infinitely more useful task of confronting the corruption which threatens those cultures from within. In the case of contemporary America, Jane Mayer's essay strives to reverse that trend.

Mayer sets out to describe the torture regime operative inside the CIA's eponymous "black sites". These are the small, secret, terrifying places of confinement and violent interrogation, such as the "Dark Prison" and the "Salt Pit" in Afghanistan, and an unnamed edifice in Poland which was/is "a far more high-tech facility than the prisons in Afghanistan" and is even more effective than they are at breaking down the basic cognitive structures of a captive's mind. (In the last sentence, I initially wrote that the Polish prison was "'a far more high-tech facility...' but which is even more effective at breaking down...". However that "but" implied that modernity and human brutality to other humans are antithetical phenomena, whereas even the palest idiot now knows that that is no longer the case.)

Shadowy, largely occluded activities are carried out today in these infernal locations abroad, often by state-trained Americans whose work is sanctioned by the very top layer of our government and is enabled by the vast and methodologically sophisticated bureaucratic machine which this tiny group controls. As a recently naturalized citizen, I strongly oppose our practice of torture, but, as one of the many millions who have not protested nearly vehemently enough to stop this technocratic insanity, I also feel a degree of unwilling complicity with what is being done to "protect the homeland". A great moral cloud is spread over the entire United States at present.

These "dark" subjects and places generate in Jane Mayer's tautly-controlled language a proliferation of literal and metaphorical references to benightedness, shadows, darkness, blackness. For example, in describing the CIA's "dark sites", she writes about the "dark days" of the Cold War when the Agency learned that captives subjected to just a few hours "without light, odors, sound, or any fixed references of time and place" can be pitched into "very deep breakdowns". (These techniques were officially retired at some unspecified point in the last half-century, but they have now been called back into service, in the words of one historian, in a "perfected" format.) Mayer likewise writes about the "black outfits", the masks and "dark visors" of the American commandos and jailers who transport and interrogate "high-value" detainees. Those prisoners themselves are often blinkered behind "blacked-out goggles". Finally, to take one last instance of the recurrent language of darkness with which Mayer's essay is imbued, she cites an expert referring to the "line of darkness" which all torturers cross as they do their work: "You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you." (All italics in the preceding quotations are mine.)

Amongst the procedures being employed in the "dark sites" to coerce statements out of captives is sleep denial. Zealous secular investigators of the Early Modern period called it "tormentum insomniae, in the 1930s Stalin's NKVD referred to it as "the conveyor belt". Other terms for the technique have included "sweating", the "sweatbox" and "white nights". The 21st century Imperial bureaucrat, after advice from a cadre of lawyers, euphemistically labels it "sleep management". Mayer writes: "An American Bar Association report, published in 1930, which was cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, 'It has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired.'" Or, as a CIA officer familiar with the results of the technique tells her, "sleep deprivation works.... Stuff comes out."

I dislike the idea that the worth of any writer should be judged solely by their "relevance" to present realities, least of all Auden, who has been so remorselessly cited as an authority on such a vast variety of subjects that many people have forgotten that Auden was by cast of mind a poet not a preacher. In fact, the more removed a writer is, or can be made to seem, from the reader's contemporary habitus and ideology, the better it is for their work. But, at least temporarily, it is hard to read an essay such as Mayer's and not to come back to the supposedly untopical and unpopular genre of poetry without seeing at least some works in a different light. Literature rarely illuminates history, but quite often history illuminates literature. So, today, after reading Mayer's piece about "sleep management", sleep deprivation and other matters, I went back to my work on Auden, and noticed for the first time, as if by applying a kind of reverse logic, that Auden in the early 1930s was enormously, touchingly, a poet of sleep and dreams.

It is a somewhat unconventional take on Auden's work. Heraclitus said that "the waking have one Cosmos, but the sleeping turn aside, each into a world of his own." Critics tend to think of Auden, whether in his earlier "socialist" incarnation or in his later "Christian" persona as a poet of argument and rationality, of a consensus about what counts as truth, and of what goes with those qualities — the shared experience of the public world, the "one Cosmos" that the waking have in common. But, so metamorphic is Auden that for every assertion one makes about his work, another counter-assertion seems to rise up. The poet of "waking" is thus also the poet of that primal "turning aside" into the incommensurable, private world of sleep.

What one could call, for the sake of convenience, this "sleep phase" in his writing begins right at the end of the previous decade, in December 1929, with Auden's praise (in an unpublished poem) of the "Associative plant-like growth of thought | In the luxuriant torpor of a noon-day doze." It then continues throughout the key early years of his career in the first part of the 1930s. "Dear Sleep", he wrote at the end of Canto One of the long poem "In the year of my youth when yoyos came in" (1932-33), addressing the personification of the sleep as "the secretary of that strange club | Where each is a member upon one condition, | That he forget his own importance." And there he begged "Sleep": "May my name from your register never be struck off." Then, in the same poem, within a dream-vision which Auden's speaker is having while he is asleep, he and a companion, Sampson,... fall asleep.

Elsewhere in the 1930s, Auden writes about how a "dream met me in middle night", within which he awakes — "I came | Round from the morphia" — in Ode I (1931) of The Orators and in the "Envoi" (1931) to Ode IV of the same work, about how, after "the boys are in bed: | Drowsing I droop like a dying flower, | But I'm going to sleep, not going to be dead." Part Two of "A Happy New Year" (1932) is staged in the somnolent, lights-out atmosphere of a dormitory wing in the same prep-school, while Part One involves Auden in recounting a waking-vision. And in April 1933 Auden wrote about falling "asleep in a deck-chair" and then having yet another visionary dream.

These sleep motifs could easily be traced on deeper into the "low, dishonest decade". Indeed, it is hard to think of a poet who has "done" sleep better than Auden. In his later career, some of his greatest passages are about losing or gaining consciousness. Think of his description of the sensations in the dying Yeats's head in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" (1939), of the imagining of what Freud saw on his deathbed in "In Memory of Sigmund Freud" (1939) and of the descriptions of waking in "Prime" (1949) and "First Things First" (1956) or of falling asleep in "Nones" (1950) and "Compline" (1954).

Here is part of "Compline":

  Nothing is with me now but a sound,
    A heart's rhythm, a sense of stars
  Leisurely walking around, and both
    Talk a language of motion
  I can measure but not read: maybe
    My heart is confessing her part
  In what happened to us from noon till three,
    That constellations indeed
  Sing of some hilarity beyond
    All liking and happening,
  But, knowing I neither know what they know
    Nor what I ought to know, scorning
  All vain fornications of fancy,
    Now let me, blessing them both
  For the sweetness of their cassations,
    Accept our separations.

  A stride from now will take me into dream,
    Leave me, without a status,
  Among its unwashed tribes of wishes
    Who have no dances and no jokes
  But a magic cult to propitiate
    What happens from noon till three,
  Odd rites which they hide from me — should I chance,
    Say, on youths in an oak-wood
  Insulting a white deer, bribes nor threats
    Will get them to blab — and then,
  Past untruth is one step to nothing,
    For the end, for me as for cities,
  Is total absence: what comes to be
    Must go back into non-being
  For the sake of the equity, the rhythm
    Past measure or comprehending.

  (Auden, Collected Poetry, ed. Edward Mendelson, rev. edn. (New York, 1991), pp. 640-41)

We learn how much to value something (or someone) not just conceptually but experientially by realizing how deeply we would suffer without it (or them). Without rest and sleep both the human mind and body tarnish and then rot with extraordinary rapidity. Jane Mayer quotes Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has written about the KGB's research into methods of inflicting great pain. The KGB found that "making a victim stand for eighteen to twenty-four hours can produce 'excruciating pain, as ankles double in size, skin becomes tense and intensely painful, blisters erupt oozing watery serum, heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions deepen.'"

Auden famously wrote that "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." That is the ending of "First Things First". But it now looks as if "water" is only one element of Auden's point. The poem, a highly physiological one I can see for the first time, begins with the transition out of another of life's necessities, sleep. It starts: "Woken, I lay in the arms of my own warmth and listened | To a storm enjoying its storminess in the winter dark". Dormancy is a wordless state, so the poem can only hint at its double truth: "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water [or sleep]." Auden's poem suggests that sleep, like water, is more crucial to life than love is, and that poetry relies far more on the former than the latter. This supposed poet of cerebrality and ludic wit turns out, on closer inspection (and thanks also to the indirect stimulus of Jane Mayer's essay), to be profoundly occupied by the sacred juncture of sleep, dream, and the first moments of waking.

If that much is true, while "enhanced interrogation techniques" are the norm who anywhere should be proud of having slept soundly?

Posted by njenkins at August 5, 2007 03:15 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins