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America's war on sleep

It all goes back to Thomas Edison

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

 Fredericksburg, Virginia

Ask an American to name the author of the line ‘Sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care’, and he will promptly reply ‘Shakespeare’. It’s pure guesswork but we always credit the Bard with anything that sounds like a literary quotation, so he inadvertently gets it right. But if you recite the rest of the passage and ask what it means you will draw a blank. The American mind will not spark until it hears ‘Macbeth hath murdered sleep’, which sets off a cascading display of audience-identification fireworks, and visions of a new American production in which Macbeth is renamed Big Thane and cast as the hero of the play.

Americans are so afraid of sleep that we see nothing wrong in murdering it. Sleep takes time away from our pursuit of the American Dream of success and hence must be eliminated. We came to this conclusion through our worship of the most successful American who ever lived, the inventor Thomas Edison. We had always been pragmatic about working hard to get ahead, but the example Edison set moved us into the realm of mysticism. He owned a thousand patents! How did he do it, how did he find the time? There were only 24 hours in a day — when did he sleep?

As the moving pictures, phonographs, electricity and incandescent light bulbs poured one after another from his laboratory, the rumour arose that he was some sort of medical miracle who needed no sleep at all. Appreciating the publicity value, he let his assistants drop stories about his practice of catching 40 winks in his lab while stretched out on a table or a shelf, fully clothed and indifferent to ‘sore labour’s bath’. It caught the American imagination, and the catnap, Edison’s greatest invention, was born. It is with us still and is the root of our subconscious belief that getting enough sleep is inimical to success, if not a prediction of outright failure.


Our war on sleep is hard to miss. TV interviewers ask today’s hard-driving inventors like Bill Gates how long they sleep, as they asked Steve Jobs before he died young. When the guest leaves, the interviewers bat the question around with each other, boasting about ‘pulling all-nighters’ in college or claiming ‘I’m OK with five’, revelling in a festival of one-downsmanship about how few hours they can ‘get by on’. If the standard recommendation of eight hours a night gets mentioned, it is treated with genial contempt and the insistence that ‘everybody’s different’. The commercial break comes while somebody is in the midst of saying ‘I can’t sleep eight hours at a stretch.’ They won’t let it go. They are like sentries in an ancient army, assigned to stand watch and knowing they will be impaled if they doze off.

Genderwise, to use our favourite adverbial form, men stand to gain the most from the Macbething of America. Maybe women are being punished for inventing the sexual euphemism ‘sleep with’, but their biggest stumbling block on the road to Having It All is not education or ability but sleep. Sleep is a career move in the wrong direction because nothing must be allowed to interfere with feminism’s ironclad myth that a woman with young children is no sleepier than anybody else. She is really up against it if she has a new baby, the very symbol of sleep, who makes everyone think hypnotic thoughts of cradles rocking… rocking… rocking. The wisdom of the ages having been repealed, it is foolhardy to point out that new mothers used to solve this problem by napping while the baby napped (‘great Nature’s second course’) because you might be slapped with a discrimination lawsuit for saying that women need more sleep than men.

It would not be the first time we combined discrimination against women with discrimination against sleep. Used together in yesteryear’s popular entertainment, they meant ‘bad wife’, like the messy housekeeper who slept until noon portrayed by Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba, or two-timing hussy Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight, who also stayed in bed until noon. Somewhere along the way we dropped the wives and made ‘sleeping till noon’ a workplace execration against slobs and cheaters, as well as a pot of ashes to dump on our own heads when we need to do penance for knocking off work early and going to bed.

Discussing the Macbething of America is an iffy, sometimes perilous business. It’s like saying ‘rope’ in the hangman’s house. Never tell anybody, ‘You look sleepy.’ He will think you are after his job. Never tell anybody ‘Don’t lose any sleep over it’ because then he will know you are. Never say ‘Try to get some sleep’ because no matter how kindly and well-intentioned you try to sound, it will come across as threatening. Even the familiar adage counselling prudence will be taken the wrong way, so never say ‘Sleep on it.’ You will only end up like the father of the teenaged nymphomaniac who tried to arouse her latent fastidiousness by making her read The Princess and the Pea; all she got out of it was a greater interest in lots of mattresses.

It is not necessary to mention sleep per se to find yourself talking about it, so two related topics should be avoided. The easiest one to avoid is the interpretation of dreams. It had a brief popularity in the 1920s when Freud had his day in our sun, but it never caught on like the inferiority complex, which became so popular that our magazines abbreviated it as ‘IC’. The trouble with dreams is that they require sleep. Worse, dreams that make enough sense to interpret require deep REM sleep. Worst, there is the constant danger that the kind of people who enjoy interpreting things are unusually subtle and complex and thus prone to have a highly significant recurring dream, which means that they probably get deep REM sleep on a regular basis.

The other related topic is much harder to avoid because it is in the news every day. America is falling apart physically. Things collapse, explode, catch fire, cave in, fall down, collide, flood and derail with such regularity that it is tempting to blame it on foreign terrorism or domestic sabotage — but it is neither. We often don’t find out what caused it because newscasters quickly attribute it to ‘human error’, the prissy phrase they have coined to replace ‘Somebody was asleep at the switch.’

Florence King’s books include Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady and STET, Damnit!


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