Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia
Soporific shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Melville.
By Maria Popova
Given that it serves as the brain’s built-in therapy mechanism regulating our negative moods, given that it acts as the brain’s janitor sweeping away toxins responsible for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, sleep may be the closest thing we have a superpower — so much so that its importance is encoded into the 13 most important things I’ve learned about life. The clearest evidence of that importance comes from the extreme disruption of our functioning when sleep is taken away — the way we we grow unmoored from our own minds, adrift an arm’s reach from reality, unable to follow the ordinary threads that link one thought to the next, that fetch the right word, the needed memory.
Insomnia, then, is a particularly unforgiving and parasitic malfunction of consciousness that feeds on its host, feeds on our very sense of being. Of the many proposed but ultimately unprovable remedies for insomnia, from the folkloric to the clinical, by far the loveliest I’ve ever encountered comes from Patti Smith in Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable and uncommonly poetic masterpiece at the borderline of dream and reality.
In the disorienting midst of the 2016 election news cycle, when “an insidious insomnia” slowly begins to claim her nights, Smith resorts to an old mental game by which she tricks herself to sleep — a kind of shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Herman Melville and reminiscent of a Zen parable. She writes:
I imagine myself a sailor in the time of the great whaling ships on a lengthy voyage. We are in the center of a violent storm and the captain’s inexperienced son catches his foot in a length of rope and is pulled overboard. Unflinching, the sailor leaps into the storm-tossed seas after him. The men throw down massive lengths of rope and the lad is brought to deck in the arms of the sailor and carried below.
The sailor is summoned to the quarterdeck and led to the captain’s inner sanctum. Wet and shivering, he eyes his surroundings with wonder. The captain, in a rare show of emotion, embraces him. You saved my son’s life, he says. Tell me how I can best serve you. The sailor, embarrassed, asks for a full measure of rum for each of the men. Done, says the captain, but what of you? After some hesitation the sailor answers, I have slept on galley floors, bunks and hammocks since a lad, it has been a long time since I have slept in a proper bed.
The captain, moved by the sailor’s humility, offers his own bed, then retires to the room of his son. The sailor stands before the captain’s empty bed. It has down pillows and a light coverlet. There is a massive leather trunk at its foot. He crosses himself, blows out the candles and succumbs to a rare and wholly enveloping sleep.
This is the game I sometimes play when sleep is elusive, one that evolved from reading Melville, that takes me from the mat on the bathroom floor to my own bed, affording grateful slumber.
Couple this tiny fragment of the wholly resplendent Year of the Monkey with Maurice Sendak’s antidote to insomnia, then revisit Smith on creativity, time, loss, and transformation, and her tribute to William Blake.
Published November 6, 2019