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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Brain Pickings

When a friendship is more than friendship, Martin Luther King, Jr. on justice and the ethic of love, the science of REM sleep and Maurice Sendak's antidote to insomnia, and more.NOTE: This message might be cut short by your email program.
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WelcomeHello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition – Marcus Aurelius on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning, Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice make us who we are, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation â€“ in 2016, I spent thousands of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.

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Rachel Carson’s Touching Farewell to Her Dearest Friend and Beloved

As if classifying platonic relationships weren’t complex enough a task — one that requires a taxonomy of friendship types â€” what happens when the platonic and the romantic begin to blur? In his exquisite love letter to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre spoke of “turning abruptly from friendship to love.” And yet what if friendship and love weren’t opposite points between which to pivot but loci that overlap in varying degrees? Under the Romantic ideal of love, we’ve come to expect that every great romance should also contain within itself, in addition to erotic passion, a robust friendship. But we hold with deep suspicion the opposite — a platonic friendship colored with the emotional hues of romantic love, never given physical form but always aglow with an intensity artificially dimmed by the label of plain friendship. Perhaps we need not label these kaleidoscopic emotional universes after all; perhaps resisting the urge to classify and contain is the only way to do justice to their iridescent richness of sentiment and feeling. 
A heartening testament to that possibility comes from the life of the pathbreaking marine biologist, conservationist, naturalist, and wonder-wielder Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), who has contributed more than any other person to awakening the modern environmental consciousness — her 1962 book Silent Spring, published eighteen months before her life was cut tragically short by cancer, led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and sparked the sustainability movement as we know it today. 
But beneath Carson’s blazing intellect and her protective affection for the natural world lay an interior world as rich and passionate, animated by the same intensity of intelligent love. 
In late 1952, just before Carson moved to Maine’s Southport Island with her mother, a local housewife named Dorothy Freeman wrote her a warm letter welcoming her to the close-knit island community. (Carson was already a famous author — her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had broken records by remaining on best-seller lists for eighteen months.) Their correspondence blossomed into a fast friendship aglow with anticipation of their first in-person meeting. 
On December 30, 1953, Carson visited the Freemans’ home and stayed for a night. â€œReality can so easily fall short of hopes and expectations, especially where they have been high,” she wrote to Freeman as soon as she returned home. â€œMy dear one, there is not a single thing about you that I would change if I could!” She enclosed a Keats verse — â€œA thing of beauty is a joy forever: / its loveliness increases; it will never / pass into nothingness; but still will keep / a bower quiet for us, and a sleep / full of sweet dreams.” â€” and added: â€œI am certain, my dearest, that it will be forever a joy, of increasing loveliness with the years, and that in the intervals when being separated, we cannot have all the happiness of Wednesday, there will be, in each of our hearts, a little oasis of peace and ‘sweet dreams’ where the other is.”
Rachel Carson at her microscope, 1951
Freeman was married and devoted to her family, but she soon took on a centrality in Carson’s life that was unparalleled. Although their relationship was mostly epistolary, it grew replete with such intense tenderness and was articulated in such romantic language that the label “friendship” fails to contain it — Carson addressed Freeman as “darling,” often “my very own darling.” The closing sentiment of a letter penned in February of 1954 — â€œDarling — always and always — I love you so dearly” â€” was typical of their mutual tenderness. In another letter planning their first visit since that initial meeting, Carson exhales: â€œBut, oh darling, I want to be with you so terribly that it hurts!”
Rachel Carson with Dorothy and Stanley Freeman, Southport Island
And yet their relationship was never a secret. Freeman shared their letters with her husband, to which Carson responded with sincere gladness:
How dear of him to say what he did. Perhaps this is the final little touch of the perfection in the whole episode… It means so very much to me to know that you have such an understanding, loving and wonderful husband… I wanthim to know what you mean to me.
For the remaining twelve years of Carson’s life, it was Freeman’s love and daily devotion that warded off the scientist’s aching loneliness and her struggles with depression, fomented her creative and intellectual imagination, and nourished her visionary spirit as she gave form to some of the most influential ideas of the twentieth century in her writing. In early February of 1954, she articulated Freeman’s centrality in her world in an immeasurably beautiful letter, found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library):
I don’t suppose anyone really knows how a creative writer works (he or she least of all, perhaps!) or what sort of nourishment his spirit must have. All I am certain of is this; that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person, and who also has the capacity and the depth of understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort, recognizing the heartache, the great weariness of mind and body, the occasional black despair it may involve — someone who cherishes me and what I am trying to create… The few who understood the creative problem were not people to whom I felt emotionally close; those who loved the non-writer part of me did not, by some strange paradox, understand the writer at all! And then, my dear one, you came into my life! … I knew when I first saw you that I wanted to see much more of you — I loved you before you left Southport — and very early in our correspondence last fall I began to sense that capacity to enter so fully into the intellectual and creative parts of my life as well as to be a dearly loved friend. And day by day all that I sensed in you has been fulfilled, but even more wonderfully than I could have dreamed…
I feel such a joyous surge of wonder every time I stop to think how in such a dark time and when I least expected it, something so lovely and richly satisfying came into my life.
This letter was intended as an answer to one penned a few days earlier, in which Freeman had contemplated their relationship and asked Carson in transcendent astonishment: â€œDon’t you ever marvel at yourself, finding yourself in such an overpowering emotional experience?” A week later, Carson revisited the question and offered an even more direct answer:
I have wondered since … whether I may have forgotten to make it clear that — besides all the intellectual satisfaction I perhaps dwelt on at great length — it truly is for me, as for you, “an overpowering emotional experience.” If I didn’t, I think I can now trust that your heart knows it. I was thinking today, with what depth of gratitude I hope you know, how wonderfully sustaining is the assurance of your constant, day-and-night devotion and concern. Without it, I truly don’t know what I would be doing now, when there are a good many otherwise dark days.
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of their relationship was its deep mutuality and the enormous generosity of spirit with which each beheld the other. With a grateful eye to the immensity of what Freeman is contributing to her life, Carson wonders what she is contributing to Freeman’s in turn:
Since one of the things about you that impressed me from the beginning was the lovely quality of your family life, I knew … that it was not lack of love. No one could be with you and Stan even a short time without realizing how devoted and congenial you are. And I wonder whether the very fact that you have experienced, and have yourself poured out, so much love, has not made you all the more receptive to the devotion offered by this newcomer in your life. You wrote so beautifully, weeks ago, of how one’s capacity to give love grows with the exercise of it, so perhaps the more love we have received, the more we are able to absorb and in that sense no one ever has enough. And I do know that the facts that we are, to an incredible degree “kindred spirits,” and that for many reasons we need all that we mean to each other, probably lie at the heart of our love. But the more I think about all we both have said, the more I feel that there is something that perhaps will always remain elusive and intangible — that the whole is something more than the sum of the various “reasons.” Henry Beston [one of Carson’s favorite authors and heroes, who had recently reviewed her book Under the Sea-Wind] says in the review I’m sending you today: “the sun — is always more than a gigantic mass of ions, it is a splendor and a mystery, a force and a divinity, it is life and the symbol of life.” Our analysis has been beautiful and comforting and satisfying, but probably it will never be quite complete — never encompass the whole “splendor and mystery.”
This “splendor and mystery” continued to unfold and expand between them, growing only richer with time. Two years later, Carson writes to Freeman:
My own darling,
For your birthday, this is to tell you — as if you didn’t know — how dearly and tenderly I love you. You have come to occupy a place in my life that no one else could fill, and it is strange now to contemplate all the empty years when you weren’t there. But perhaps we shouldn’t regret those years — perhaps instead we should just give ourselves over to wonder and gratitude that a friendship so satisfying and so full of joy and beauty could come to each of us in the middle years — when, perhaps, we needed it most!
[…]
Darling, do you know how wonderful it is to have you? I hope you do.
I love you.
Rachel
In the spring of 1960, just as she was finishing the draft of the two chapters in Silent Spring dealing with the carcinogenic effects of chemicals, Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer. By December, despite surgery, it had metastasized. She continued to work tirelessly on the book and other projects through increasingly debilitating illness. 
In September of 1963, shortly after her testimony before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee became instrumental in the first regulatory policies on pesticides, Carson wrote a stunning letter to Freeman. It contained a contemplation of her own mortality so profound, so poignant, so tenderhearted and transcendent that it could only be articulated to the person who knew her heart most intimately. She writes:
Dear One,
This is a postscript to our morning at Newagen, something I think I can write better than say. For me it was one of the loveliest of the summer’s hours, and all the details will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of the wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace, the distant views of Griffiths Head and Todd Point, today so clearly etched, though once half seen in swirling fog. But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.
But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.
For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.
That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.
Rachel
In another letter written three months before her death but delivered posthumously, Carson revisits the subject of her mortality from the perspective of her relationship with Freeman, the great gift of her life:
Darling [Dorothy],
[…]
When I think back to the many farewells that have marked the decade (almost) of our friendship, I realize they have almost been inarticulate. I remember chiefly the great welling up of thoughts that somehow didn’t get put into words — the silences heavy with things unsaid. But then, we knew or hoped, there was always another chance — and always the letters to fill the gaps.
With a lucid and almost shockingly serene awareness of her imminent mortality, Carson adds:
I have had a rich life, full of rewards and satisfactions that come to few and if it must end now, I can feel that I have achieved most of what I wished to do. That wouldn’t have been true two years ago, when I first realized my time was short, and I am so grateful to have had this extra time.
My regrets, darling, are for your sadness, for leaving Roger [the eleven-year-old orphan son of Carson’s niece, for whom she was caring], when I so wanted to see him through manhood, for dear Jeffie [Carson’s cat] whose life is linked to mine.
[…]
But enough of that. What I want to write of is the joy and fun and gladness we have shared — for these are the things I want you to remember — I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.
Rachel
In her final letter, written as Freedman was en route to a deathbed visit but only delivered two weeks after Carson’s death, she writes:
My darling, 
You are starting on your way to me in the morning, but I have such a strange feeling that I may not be here when you come — so this is just an extra little note of farewell, should that happen. There have been many pains (heart) in the past few days, and I’m weary in every bone. And tonight there is something strange about my vision, which may mean nothing. But of course I thought, what if I can’t write — can’t see to write — tomorrow? So, a word before I turn out the light.
[…]
Darling — if the heart does take me off suddenly, just know how much easier it would be for me that way. But I do grieve to leave my dear ones. As for me, however, it is quite all right. Not long ago I sat late in my study and played Beethoven, and achieved a feeling of real peace and even happiness.
Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.
Rachel
Always, Rachel is an achingly transcendent read in its entirety. Complement this particularly poignant portion with Oliver Sacks on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, then revisit Carson on why it is more important to feel than to know.

An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’

Although Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929–April 4, 1968) used Christian social ethics and the New Testament concept of “love” heavily in his writings and speeches, he was as influenced by Eastern spiritual traditions, Gandhi’s political writings, Buddhism’s notion of the interconnectedness of all beings, and Ancient Greek philosophy. His enduring ethos, at its core, is nonreligious — rather, it champions a set of moral, spiritual, and civic responsibilities that fortify our humanity, individually and collectively.
Nowhere does he transmute spiritual ideas from various traditions into secular principles more masterfully than in his extraordinary 1958 essay “An Experiment in Love,” in which he examines the six essential principles of his philosophy of nonviolence, debunks popular misconceptions about it, and considers how these basic tenets can be used in guiding any successful movement of nonviolent resistance. Penned five years before his famous Letter from Birmingham City Jail and exactly a decade before his assassination, the essay was eventually included in the indispensable A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. (public library) — required reading for every human being with a clicking mind and a ticking heart.
In the first of the six basic philosophies, Dr. King addresses the tendency to mistake nonviolence for passivity, pointing out that it is a form not of cowardice but of courage:
It must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight… The way of nonviolent resistance … is ultimately the way of the strong man. It is not a method of stagnant passivity… For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and his emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong. The method is passive physically but strongly active spiritually. It is not passive non-resistance to evil, it is active nonviolent resistance to evil.
He turns to the second tenet of nonviolence:
Nonviolence … does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that these are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.
Illustration by Olivier Tallec from ‘Waterloo and Trafalgar.’ Click image for more.
In considering the third characteristic of nonviolence, Dr. King appeals to the conscientious recognition that those who perpetrate violence are often victims themselves:
The attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is the evil that the nonviolent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by the evil. If he is opposing racial injustice, the nonviolent resister has the vision to see that the basic tension is not between the races… The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness…. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.
Out of this recognition flows the fourth tenet:
Nonviolent resistance [requires] a willingness to accept suffering without retaliation, to accept blows from the opponent without striking back… The nonviolent resister is willing to accept violence if necessary, but never to inflict it. He does not seek to dodge jail. If going to jail is necessary, he enters it “as a bridegroom enters the bride’s chamber.”
That, in fact, is precisely how Dr. King himself entered jail five years later. To those skeptical of the value of turning the other cheek, he offers:
Unearned suffering is redemptive. Suffering, the nonviolent resister realizes, has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.
The fifth basic philosophy turns the fourth inward and arrives at the most central point of the essay — the noblest use of what we call “love”:
Nonviolent resistance … avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Let’s Be Enemies’ by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.
Here, Dr. King turns to Ancient Greek philosophy, pointing out that the love he speaks of is not the sentimental or affectionate kind — “it would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense,” he readily acknowledges — but love in the sense of understanding and redemptive goodwill. The Greeks called this agape â€” a love distinctly different from the eros, reserved for our lovers, or philia, with which we love our friends and family. Dr. King explains:
Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object… Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,” which discovers the neighbor in every man it meets. Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friends and enemy; it is directed toward both. If one loves an individual merely on account of his friendliness, he loves him for the sake of the benefits to be gained from the friendship, rather than for the friend’s own sake. Consequently, the best way to assure oneself that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.
This notion is nearly identical to one of Buddhism’s four brahmaviharas, or divine attitudes — the concept of Metta, often translated as lovingkindness or benevolence. The parallel speaks not only to Dr. King’s extraordinarily diverse intellectual toolkit of influences and inspirations — a high form of combinatorial creativitynecessary for any meaningful contribution to humanity’s common record â€” but also to the core commonalities between the world’s major spiritual and philosophical traditions.
In a sentiment that Margaret Mead and James Baldwin would echo twelve years later in their spectacular conversation on race â€” â€œIn any oppressive situation both groups suffer, the oppressors and the oppressed,”Mead observed, asserting that the oppressors suffer morally with the recognition of what they’re committing, which Baldwin noted is “a worse kind of suffering” — Dr. King adds:
Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person — his need for belonging to the best in the human family… Since the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred, he needs the love of the Negro. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities, and fears.
Illustration by Alice and Martin Provensen for a vintage children’s-book adaptation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Click image for more.
At the heart of agape, he argues, is the notion of forgiveness — something Mead and Baldwin also explored with great intellectual elegance. Dr. King writes:
Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action… Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… It is a willingness to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven to restore community…. If I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love.
With this, he turns to the sixth and final principle of nonviolence as a force of justice, undergirded by the nonreligious form of spirituality that Dani Shapiro elegantly termed â€œan animating presence” and Alan Lightman described as the transcendence of “this strange and shimmering world.” Dr. King writes:
Nonviolent resistance … is base don the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power of infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.
A Testament of Hope is an absolutely essential read in its totality. Complement it with Dr. King on the two types of law, Albert Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on racial justice, and Tolstoy and Gandhi’s equally forgotten but immensely timely correspondence on why we hurt each other.

Sleep Demons: Bill Hayes on REM, the Poetics of Yawns, and Maurice Sendak’s Antidote to Insomnia

We spend — or are biologically supposed to spend — a third of our lives in sleep, yet it remains a state we neither fully understand nor can bend to our will. A central cog in the machinery of our complex internal clocks, it regulates our negative emotions and affects our every waking moment“Something nameless / Hums us into sleep,” the poet Mark Strand wrote in his sublime ode to dreams“Withdraws, and leaves us in / A place that seems / Always vaguely familiar.” But what if the hum never comes, if the place in which night ought to leave us is a terra incognita at best unfamiliar, at worst entirely unreachable? 
That’s what writer and photographer Bill Hayesexplores in his magnificent 2001 book Sleep Demons: An Insomniac’s Memoir (public library) — part reflection on his own lifelong turmoil in the nocturne, part sweeping inquiry into the sometimes converging, sometimes colliding worlds of sleep research, psychology, medicine, mythology, aging, and mental health. (It is hardly any wonder, though perhaps a most delightful miracle, that Hayes’s writing — philosophical, rigorously researched, immensely poetic — became a channel of love for the late, great Oliver Sacks; it was through writing that he met Hayes, who became the Billy in his memoir and the love of his life.)
Bill Hayes (Photograph: Katy Raddatz)
Hayes writes:
I grew up in a family where the question “How’d you sleep?” was a topic of genuine reflection at the breakfast table. My five sisters and I each rated the last night’s particular qualities — when we fell asleep, how often we woke, what we dreamed, if we dreamed. My father’s response influenced the family’s mood for the day: if “lousy,” the rest of us felt lousy, too. If there’s such a thing as an insomnia gene, Dad passed it on to me, along with green eyes and Irish melancholy.
I lay awake as a young boy, my mind racing like the spell-check function on a computer, scanning all data, lighting on images, moments, fragments of conversation, impossible to turn off. As a sleeping aid, I would try to recall my entire life — a straight narrative from first to last incident — thereby imposing order on the inventory of desire and memory.
For two years of Hayes’s childhood, his particular flavor of nocturnal torment was sleepwalking — all unconscious desire, no conscious memory. He would crawl out of bed, wander into the family living room as if looking for something, but not respond to his mother’s voice. He paints a poetic, if sorrowful, portrait of the sleepless mind trapped in a restless body:
If the insomniac is a shadow of his daylight self, existing nightlong on nothing but the fumes of consciousness, then the somnambulist is like an animal whose back leg drags a steel trap — the mind is fleeing and the body is inextricably attached.
Where did I want to go? Out of that house, I imagine. Away from the person I saw myself becoming. Toward a dreamed-up boy, with a new story, a different version of myself.
Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming
In this lacuna between body and mind, Hayes locates the most elusive essence of sleep:
Sleeping pills can force the body into unconsciousness, it’s true. I’ve slept many times on those delicious, light-blue pillows. But the body is never really tricked. The difference between drugged and natural sleep eventually reveals itself, like the difference between an affair and true romance. It shows up in your eyes. Sleep acts, in this regard, more like an emotion than a bodily function. As with desire, it resists pursuit. Sleep must come find you.
And the compass by which sleep finds us appears to be magnetized by our biology and the fundamental nature of reality itself. With an eye to the legacy of pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, who kept himself awake in a cave for fifty days in the 1920s at the outset of a career that would revolutionize our understanding of the non-wakeful consciousness, Hayes argues that sleep unlatches its own singular cosmogony:
Our entire lives are shaped by circadian rhythms, gravitational forces, and seasonal cycles (day and night, ebb and flow, growth and decay), all of which, in my view, may be echoed in grander schemes throughout the cosmos. None of which can truly be resisted, only tested and studied, in Kleitman’s cave as in Plato’s. Daylight to darkness, the body mimics the behavior of the earth itself. Perhaps this is why vexing sleep questions (Why do humans dream? Why do we wake up?) sound like great metaphysical questions about the meaning of life; excerpts from a timeless dialogue on truth and illusion, awareness and unconsciousness.
Perhaps it was the inevitable metaphysical nature of these questions that led Nietzsche to believe that dreams are an evolutionary time machine for the human mind, Dostoyevsky to discover the meaning of life in a dream, Margaret Mead to find in one the perfect existential metaphor, and Neil Gaiman to dream his way to a philosophical parable of identity
Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree
But dreams, for the insomniac, are a taunting promised land. â€œIt can be a comfort sometimes to know that there is a world which is purely one’s own — the experience in that world, of travel, danger, happiness, is shared with no one else,” Graham Greene wrote in his dream diary. How discomfiting, then, to be chronically exiled from that word — the mere apparitions and almosts of sleep must suffice the sleepless. Hayes offers a lyrical taste of one such almost:
On some nights, a good long yawn is as close as I come to a good night’s sleep, so I savor each of its four to seven seconds… In the heart of a yawn is a moment of suspension — not unlike the pause immediately before orgasm — when it feels as if the outside sound is muffled. It’s a moment you’d like to go on and on, but trying to freeze a yawn is like trying to seek haven in a hiccup.
Integral to the dream state is REM sleep, which plays a key role in depression â€” the stage of sleep characterized by rapid eye movement, discovered semi-accidentally in 1953 by a University of Chicago student named Eugene Aserinsky, whose faculty advisor was the same Nathaniel Kleitman who had pioneered sleep research three decades earlier. In a study observing the sleep patterns of newborn babies, Aserinsky detected a stage of unusual rapid eye movements corresponding to active brain waves, lasting about twenty minutes. The discovery was announced in a modest journal article on September 4, 1953. Hayes writes:
Although it attracted little attention at the time, the REM sleep discovery was historic for two reasons. It proved that sleep was not a single, unvarying state, as had been thought. It also suggested that dreaming did not occur by chance, but at regular intervals.
Healthy adults have sleep cycles of about ninety minutes, each cycle propelling the sleeper along a circuit of five stages — a few minutes spent between sleep and wakefulness, about twenty-five minutes of light sleep, a brief period of heavy sleep, thirty to forty minutes of the night’s heaviest sleep, during which the sleeper is practically insensible, concluding with a period of abrupt body movement, often accompanied by a slight awakening, which leads to the fifth and final stage: REM. The cycle repeats throughout the night, until the hour of awakening, a good night’s sleep requiring five such cycles, each ending in REM.
Hayes highlights one particularly curious aspect of REM:
While adults wade through several stages before reaching REM, infants plunge right into it. Their neurological circuitry is not yet properly wired, and they’re better able to process information while dreaming than while awake. Babies have just two sleep stages, split evenly: REM sleep and “Quiet Sleep,” a stage in which they hardly seem to move or breathe.
As he often does throughout his writing, Hayes waltzes from the scientific to the poetic:
I was born dreaming. Deep in REM sleep, I was taken from the womb, my closed eyes furiously scanning for images that could never be retrieved, redreamed, or remembered. In this regard, I was identical to every baby. With a slap to the ass, it was over. Birth jolted me from a state of sublime unconsciousness to which I’ve spent the rest of my life struggling to return.
Illustration by Tom Seidmann-Freud from a philosophical 1922 children’s book about dreaming
He captures the texture of that struggle:
A new night with the same old problem: I leave our bed and creep into my office. Pulling the blinds up, I move a chair to the window, then rest my bare feet on the sill, watching for movement down below. Not a soul is out nor a sound made. All appears peaceful at three in the morning. 
Sensitivity to pain is said to be highest at this hour. If you’re awake, distractions fall away, I suppose, leaving nerves inflamed, wounds throbbing. Amazingly, dreaming offers a genuine escape from physical pain, a fact that comforted me in the past and will again, I’m sure, as [my partner] and I grow older. Even people with chronic, severe pain during the day are numb to it in REM — this is the most persuasive argument that dreaming represents a separate biological state, one that can be explosively visual yet is free of physical suffering.
It sounds like heaven. And in a way, it is. Dreaming led early humans to conceive of a spirit that leaves the body during sleep and travels to fantastic places, which in turn inspired notions of a soul and an afterlife. As it was then, heaven is still widely envisioned as an eternal good dream. Hell’s both a nightmare and, as Dante imagined the Inferno, a never-ending state of sleeplessness.
[…]
It’s coming up on four o’clock, the very worst time to get a phone call — death occurs most frequently from 4 to 6 A.M. It’s as if the old, injured, or ill body, sustained by sunlight, runs out of juice just before dawn. The circadian clock unplugs itself. Lungs collapse. The heart stops. But it’s also when most people are sound asleep, so if you were to cry out for help, others would be less likely to hear you. Babies are most liable to die from sudden infant death syndrome right about now.
Given that humans, statistically, tend to die when we tend to be born — at night — do we also die, I wonder, as we are born — dreaming? Maybe the white light seen by people who die but “come back” is like the leader film in home movies — the bright, clear frames before the familiar pictures begin. Life ends in a final, glorious REM surge.
If so, I hope it’s a damn good dream when I go, one of those extremely rare ones in which all five senses are employed at once: a dream of swimming, say, at the beach on Kauai — a faint taste of briny water, scent of fresh air, waves crashing.
Art by Maurice Sendak from Where the Wild Things Are
At four-thirty on his sleepless San Francisco night, Hayes decides to call his fellow insomniac friend Maurice on the East Coast — that’s Wild Things imagineer Maurice Sendak, of course, whose stunning drawing of Hayes, reminiscent of his rare and sensual illustrations for Melville’s Pierre, graces the cover of the book. Hayes shares Sendak’s strategy for combating insomnia:
When Maurice last visited, he gave me a good piece of advice, though he didn’t realize it at the time. “You know what I do when I can’t sleep?” he explained. “I sit up in bed, push the curtains back, and pull up the window shade.” Maurice, who’d had a run of serious illnesses, including a major heart attack, said he used to feel frightened and anxious when he couldn’t sleep, but now appreciates an aspect of it. “The night air makes me feel safe. Real.” He inhaled slowly, as though savoring a whiff he’d brought with him. “I’m not afraid to die. The one thing I will miss most, though, is air at night — life coming through the window.”
Sleep Demons is a stunning read in its entirety, itself the kind of book that enters the psyche like life coming through an open window. Complement it with the science of what actually happens while you sleep, this visual analysis of great writers’ sleep habits against their literary productivity, and young Maurice Sendak’s picture-book debut — a dream-driven philosophical story about love, loneliness, and knowing what you really want.