November 2012

Elizabeth Bachner

features

A World in Which it is Impossible to Sleep

"How to sleep in the world without a lullaby, without a lolling refrain, without the capacity for forgetting, without unconsciousness itself... How to sleep in a world hypnotized by the vision of its own absence of a vision of the world... How to sleep, distraught soul, soul without soul, soul that floats lifeless over the field of battle or muck whose inanity an operating-room lamp garishly exposes?"

I'm a New York insomniac, but here in the Nepal Himalayas I sleep peacefully, from 7:30 pm to 4:30 am. I don't dream, or maybe I dream a little. I watch the dawn alone every morning, and I don't miss anyone, and I think it's all the singing, screaming birds that make me feel so peaceful, or it's the huge mountains, or it's the low sound of conch horns and drumming from the monastery in the valley, or it's that this is what mornings are like, or it's that this is what my body is like, designed to be peaceful, designed for breathing and for sleeping and for waking up.

I'm reading Jean-Luc Nancy's The Fall of Sleep, the lightest, skinniest paperback I could find around my apartment. Last night I had to come down from the mountains and into the tourist valley so I could get a permit to take me higher into the mountains, and so last night I had insomnia again. Someone wrote me that he finds it hard to believe I'm actually here -- that he pictures me, eternally waiting for my plane at Kennedy airport, and then when it doesn't come just giving up and going home. It was scary to read that, like he knows some secret about me. In the mountains I felt like I was here, I was sure I was here, but now in the valley it's like I never really made it. Three days before I got his e-mail, I wrote a section of my novel where the protagonist plans a trip and then never goes, she just stays in her dusty apartment "like a ghost." I'm in the valley for two days before I leave most of my things in a guesthouse storage room and go into the mountains alone again. Another friend writes me, Maybe you should be the first Westerner to climb Machhapuchare, thus overcoming your fear of heights and fame, but the reason no one summits Machhapuchhare isn't fear or weakness, it's that the mountain belongs to Shiva, the destroyer god, or not the destroyer god but the transformer god, depending on how you want to look at it. He creates, destroys, preserves, conceals, and reveals things -- he does it all. With Shiva, many layers of reality exist all at the same time. You can tell this is true even if you're not religious and don't believe in any gods, you can tell by looking at his mountain.

I finished all of my books, magazines, and newspapers on the plane. I'm scrambling around looking for a copy of Graham Greene's The Comedians. I think Graham Greene is the right thing to read when you travel anywhere, but I can't find any Graham Greene books as New York Public Library ebooks or in the rickety expatriate bookstores lining the strip by the lake. I give up and sit in a restaurant with wicker chairs and low-volume technofunk, upset to be back in the tourist valley, and I read part of Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene's Adventures in Haiti on my phone, and then I order a rum punch and the waiter tells me it's happy hour and he brings me two flutes of rum punch at the same time, each garnished with a slice of what looks like unpeeled green plantain, and a man walks by with a surprisingly large monkey on his shoulder, and there are three different Westerners in here who look exactly like Richard Gere. I read my library copy of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 on my phone, and -- even though I usually agree with my friend J. about Murakami ("Sure, I read Murakami. All of his books are kind of the same. It's nice. They're nice."), suddenly I love this book with a wild passion -- it's that tourist/expatriate thing, like that time in Serbia I suddenly thought U2 was great music, or that time in Kleipeda, Lithuania when we ordered a Swedish-style "Mexican pizza" and it made us cry it was so good, it was better than pizza. I start to feel happy about the valley, and happy about everything, and I wonder if the rum punch is a magical drink that will make me love everything I only tolerated before, which is such a rummy, stupid thought -- there's never been any question that rum punch makes you love the things you don't love. The Murakami doesn't turn out that way, though -- I still like it the next morning, after my restless night in the valley.

I'm thinking about a section in the beginning, just before Aomame gets out of a cab in a traffic jam and walks, in her miniskirt and high heels, to a secret staircase that will take her to the subway. The cab driver warns her that doing something like that -- something unusual, not-normal, outside of the ordinary -- might change the way she looks at reality, might make her see familiar things in some new way. "There is always, as I said, only one reality," he repeats slowly, as if underlining a line in a book, and Aomame says, Of course.

"He was right. A physical object could only be in one place at one time. Einstein proved that. Reality was utterly coolheaded and utterly lonely."

Up in the mountains I wasn't lonely, I've never been less lonely, and I wasn't real -- I was so far away from my reality, far from being stuck at Kennedy airport and waiting for a never-arriving plane, far from sitting, like Aomame, in a city traffic jam, ready to get out of the car on the dangerous roadside and take off my high heels to descend the metal steps to some other place. Up there, I didn't feel like reading, and now in the valley I have to read and write, I'm frantic about it, I can't remember any other way to exist, to make something happen, to believe something has happened. I reread that email ("I can't believe you got there, by the way. For some reason I feel like you're still in JFK sitting there waiting for your plane, and when you get back you're just giving up going. But I suppose you are really there.").

In every tourist/expatriate bookshop, there's a dusty, well-used copy of Linda Goodman's Love Signs. The V.S. Naipul books (always new, plastic-wrapped and unread) are expensive. You can buy incense and Ayurvedic soap. At the imitation-North Face backpack shop, I meet a cute teenage boy who's gotten a rare Nepali visa to come work in New York -- some retail job, some uncle. I tell him he's going to love it, and I mean it, he'll love it. He tells me about the places in Nepal where tourists don't go, and strangely, of the Nepali friends I've made here, even the ones off the tourist trail like Y., the friend I made in the Dubai airport on the way to Kathmandu, who owns a New York deli-style sandwich franchise in Florida, this boy is the first person to think I might want to be away from other tourists. It's like a snaking tourist river, it would be strange to separate one drop of water from the other drops of water.

I'm reading Jean-Luc Nancy again in my guest house hammock.

"It is not a matter of insomnia, which is a wandering from sleep itself, its transformation into a wakefulness deprived of day... On the contrary, it is a matter of the world in which it is impossible to sleep... It is possible that the world today is that way: without sleeping or waking. Sleeping standing up, waking while dozing. Sleepwalking and somnolent. World deprived of rhythm, world that has deprived itself of rhythm, that has stripped away from itself the possibility of seeing its days and its nights correspond to the system of nature or history."

I'm thinking about insomnia and books, how books give us a system and a story, a system like nature, a story like history -- or like nature would be if there was only one coolheaded, lonely reality, like history would be if things were as they seem. I'm scrambling around to find the right book to take up into the mountains, when probably up there I won't need any books, I'll be hotheaded, peaceful, not lonely, listening to Shiva's lullaby where it's quiet (other than birdsong and roosters) enough to hear it. I'm terrified of heights and all I want is to be in mountains. Books give us a system and a story, or they take away our systems and our stories.  They conceal and reveal. In the mountains the only time I got sad was when I realized that my protagonist never gets there, and now I'm sadder for her still -- as a physical object, I can't be in two places at the same time, but since she's not a physical object, she could be everywhere, if she wanted to.

In the novel my protagonist is writing, her protagonist goes on adventures around the world. The friend she has fallen in love with loves her back. Even then it might not have a happy ending. But it might.

It's afternoon, and I haven't bought any books to take into the mountains with me. At my $8/night guesthouse in the tourist city, there are a few abandoned paperbacks in Nordic languages and German, and a thick, beaten-up copy of Vernon God Little. I'm sober, and this section of the Murakami book is seeming less profound and more like a kind of Japanese Still Life with Woodpecker, all whimsical philosophy and attempts to write sex from a female perspective (the woman a sassy, bisexual assassin who touches her own breasts a lot.) A lean, blond Italian trekker who looks like he's probably won some kind of Olympic medal in something tells me that up where I'm going, "it has kicked me up in my ass, shit."

I'm crabby again, I know I won't sleep much tonight, I'm out of things to read other than my Nepali phrasebook. I wish I could read Nepali, all beautiful like curls of smoke. I start thinking New York thoughts, trapped-in-JFK thoughts, like, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I'm thinking about that bad travel saying, Wherever you go, there you are, and it's not really all that true, I wasn't anywhere up in the mountains. I was soundly asleep, lulled by a lullaby, transformed again and again -- like I was meant to be -- by nature and by history.

Jean-Luc Nancy says, we don't go into sleep with our eyes closed. When our eyes close, "sleep has already won the sleeper." Nancy says, we have to put ourselves to sleep [s'etre endormi], but "this reflexive verb leads to an illusion. No one puts himself to sleep, sleep comes from elsewhere. It falls onto us, it makes us fall into it," and I think about the way we say it in my language, "to go to sleep," like sleep is a country you visit, you make yourself get there, you take the fixed, material object of yourself -- this being, soul-ed or soulless, who can only be one place at a time in nature or in history, and you bring her to that country. Not that sleep is really a place, any more than a book is a place.

Traveling, except the kind of travel where you don't want to read or write, causes book-cravings, worse book cravings, even, than staying home or being stuck. I meet a woman from Brooklyn who rented a "pod," a small, bathroomless room with a bed and videos, for her 17-hour layover at the Delhi airport. A book can be a pod like that, a tiny, portable place to go. But also sometimes you crave books that bring you back to the place you left.

I'm sleepless and bookless tonight. I tossed around, and saw shadows outside my curtained window. I am writing but not-writing, reading but not-reading, here but maybe I didn't make it, maybe I gave up. Or maybe if I write that I am in Nepal, then here I am in Nepal (even if, really. I'm in Kennedy airport) -- maybe if I find, and read, my book-craving book, Graham Greene's The Comedians, then I'll be in Haiti (even if, really, I'm in Nepal) -- maybe if I keep rereading Jean-Luc Nancy's The Fall of Sleep, I'll still be awake now even though I'm actually dreaming. I'll think I'm writing, even though I'm looking at the stars in the last black moments before the mountain sunrise and birdsong. I don't understand why my protagonist can't do anything and everything she wants -- she's fake, right? Can't she travel the world, and climb Shiva's mountain all the way to the summit, can't I make her, can't I put her somewhere, the way the French put themselves reflexively to sleep, the way Americans go to sleep?  Can't I make her do things using language, because she's somehow only language?

And this is the thing that scares me, now that I'm awake in the valley at night listening to howling dogs -- that someone else mistook me for her even though nobody knows about her yet, that maybe creation is impossible because of the way it's also always destruction, also always concealment, also always a revelation of what already existed, always just transformation really, always the terrifying proof of multiple realities, always the equally terrifying proof that there is only one reality. I can't make her do anything.

In the final, two-page chapter of The Fall of Sleep, Nancy gives his own translation of a passage from Baudelaire's Le Gouffre (The Chasm):  "I am afraid of sleep as one fears a huge hole/Full of vague horror, leading no one knows where; I see only infinity from every window,/and my spirit, ever haunted with vertigo,/a numb feeling yearning for nothingness."

How to sleep in a world without a lullaby?  But there is a lullaby.