To Sleep, Perchance to Dream…

“Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing,
Beloved from pole to pole!”
Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner

When I was in kindergarten, I concocted an elaborate and entirely sincere plan to run away from home so that I could avoid entering first grade. One day, a first grade teacher named Mrs. Hunt strode into my kindergarten class and announced, with all the malicious savagery she could muster from the shriveled remainder of her heart, that we had better enjoy kindergarten while we could. “Once you get to first grade, play time is over. There’s no more snack time, and no more naps – we work!” Oh, what cruelty we inflict upon children! Our first year in school is a savage trick. We are offered up a wholly illusory vision of life: here is a world of play and dreams – but it will not be yours. Perhaps the fact that I am writing this with a better grasp of English than a kindergarten education would have instilled is sufficient proof that I did not drop out of school at age 5, but the loss of naptime was one which I would never get over.

Years ago, I was a cog in the stage machinery of the gig economy, and made a fair amount of money painting houses. One of these was a twelve-hour overnight job painting a few rooms in the palace of a local TV news colossus, who would be moving in the following morning. By the time that 6AM rolled around, I was literally falling asleep as I painted, but somehow managed to finish the work. When he was paying me at 8 that morning, this Jupiter of local TV infotainment asked me how I felt, and when I responded that I was in all likelihood going to take a nap when I returned home, he informed me with Olympian certainty, “I don’t believe in naps.”

This is a common enough attitude, yet still surprising and difficult to explain. Did such a busy and ostensibly productive person as Winston Churchill not take naps every day? (Perhaps those were necessitated less by his labors and more by his drinking.) It would be easy enough to attribute hostility to napping and other casual adventures in somnolence to some vague and all-explaining specter like the Protestant ethic, but the association of sleep and moral character can be traced back to antiquity. Homer, of course, is a right-minded and reasonable poet, and so regularly describes sleep as sweet. But Homer is also content to describe other patently enjoyable activities like sex and eating as sources of delight and not signs of moral corruption. As with so much in more remote antiquity, we find ourselves in a sensuous world uncomplicated by the ethical guilt of enjoying oneself.

Yet, later in antiquity, the assault upon sleep served as a standard rhetorical trope in moralizing invectives. In the 5th century, Democritus finds something morally unpalatable in sleeping during the day:

Sleeping in the day is a sign of trouble in the body or else anxiety, laziness, or ignorance of the soul.

ἡμερήσιοι ὕπνοι σώματος ὄχλησιν ἢ ψυχῆς ἀδημοσύνην ἢ ἀργίην ἢ ἀπαιδευσίην σημαίνουσι. [(B212) Stob. 3.6.27]

Typically, the moral assault on sleep is paired with an assault on the pleasures of the table, as in Sallust’s memorable opening to his Bellum Catilinae:

Many people, given entirely to their stomachs and to sleep, have passed through life uneducated and uncultivated, as strangers…

multi mortales, dediti ventri atque somno, indocti incultique vitam sicuti peregrinantes transiere

Centuries later, the Historia Augusta formalizes this censure of somnolence into a part of the stereotype of the bad emperor. All of the weak, cruel, or ineffectual emperors can be identified in that narrative by a passion for one or all of the following: sex, food & drink, or sleep. Gordian I is lightly reproved for a kind of constitutional indolence:

He was a man of excessive sleep, such that he would even sleep without shame in the dining room if perchance he had invited some friends that night. He seemed to do this from nature, not through drunkenness or excessive living.

Somni plurimi, ita ut in tricliniis, si forte apud amicos ederet, etiam sine pudore dormiret. Quod videbatur facere per naturam, non per ebrietatem atque luxuriem.

The description of Gordian might put one in mind of Joe the fat boy in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers:

Fastened up behind the barouche was a hamper of spacious dimensions—one of those hampers which always awakens in a contemplative mind associations connected with cold fowls, tongues, and bottles of wine—and on the box sat a fat and red-faced boy, in a state of somnolency, whom no speculative observer could have regarded for an instant without setting down as the official dispenser of the contents of the before-mentioned hamper, when the proper time for their consumption should arrive.

Mr. Pickwick had bestowed a hasty glance on these interesting objects, when he was again greeted by his faithful disciple.

‘Pickwick—Pickwick,’ said Mr. Tupman; ‘come up here. Make haste.’

‘Come along, Sir. Pray, come up,’ said the stout gentleman. ‘Joe!—damn that boy, he’s gone to sleep again.

Though much is made of Joe’s corpulence (the phrase fat boy is used 123 times in the book, compared to the 51 times that ‘Joe’ is employed), the boy’s somnolence is his defining and memorable characteristic throughout the book, and in Dicken’s characteristically caricaturist treatment, we have in Joe something which is more a combination of unsavory comic attributes than a believable person. Yet behind the ostensibly humorous intention is a grimly moralizing tone directed against both gluttony and rest – a moralizing tone which is hardly confined to the 19th century.

As with much of intellectual history, it would be impossible to identify with certainty the origin of the crusade against daytime sleep, though it is clear enough that it was a wide-spread rhetorical trope among the writers (i.e. the elites) of antiquity. Stemming as it does from those privileged with the leisure to write, it is but another instance of the hypocrisy which characterizes most apparently philosophical moralizing in Greco-Roman antiquity. Just as a Cicero or a Seneca could afford to scorn money as only the rich can, so too those with the requisite leisure to write books could readily enough heap scorn upon that most innocent of pleasures, the nap.

Livy tells us that centuries earlier, Menenius Agrippa in no way disguised the fact that the ruling elite of Rome were idle consumers. In the parable of the stomach and the limbs, Agrippa noted that the apparently gluttonous and all-consuming stomach was actually the most important organ in allowing all of the other parts of the body to perform their functions correctly. That is, someone had to be the idle consumer of all lest the social fabric be torn apart. At least Agrippa could hardly be accused of hypocrisy! The dietary paradox of modern American life is that one needs to be reasonably wealthy in order to consume fewer calories. So too, one requires a substantial amount of wealth just to rest briefly before trudging back down the hill to push the rock up it anew. This brings to mind the exchange between Lawrence and Peter in that veritable bible for life in late-stage capitalist society, Office Space:

Lawrence: Well what about you now? what would you do [if you had a million dollars]?

Peter Gibbons: Besides two chicks at the same time?

Lawrence: Well yeah.

Peter Gibbons: Nothing.

Lawrence: Nothing, huh?

Peter Gibbons: I’d relax, I would sit on my ass all day, I would do nothing.

Lawrence: Well you don’t need a million dollars to do nothing, man. Just take a look at my cousin, he’s broke, don’t do shit.

We may laugh at the apparent rhetorical truth in the claim that you can be broke and not do shit, but in practice, being broke means being locked to the yoke of wage servitude simply to eke out subsistence – you really might need a million dollars just to do nothing. How many of us are ever afforded the simple pleasure of a nap anymore, uncomplicated by a sense of shame or guilt?

Joel once told me that he found that the chief danger in working from home lay in the Siren song of the nap. The Siren song – tempting the industrious sailor over the choppy waves of modern life with the prospect of ruin upon the sofa’s shoals. It is Sunday, and my ears are not stopped with wax; I yield to that seduction knowing that far greater people than I have succumbed to the temptation before, and I protect from the Democritean hatred of Mrs. Hunt my unsullied realm of dreams.

John O’Brien Inman, Napping

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