By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
The mystery of sleep has been contemplated by William Shakespeare, as well as popular singers like Little Willie John and the Everly Brothers.
Opera composer Giacomo Puccini wrote “Nessun Dorma,” the aria from Turandot that was made famous across the world by Luciano Pavarotti. Nessun dorma means “none shall sleep.” Until the major crisis in the opera is resolved it is ordered that no one can go to sleep.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines sleeping this way: “A condition of body and mind which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended.”
Paradoxically, you see, sleep is such an indispensable part of our health and well-being, we aren’t really there when it happens. It is something that requires a loss of consciousness, except for dreams, which is why even though we are doing nothing, except maybe tossing or turning a little bit, it occupies such a large place in our lives.
Sleep aids in the form of drugs, nostrums, beds, pillows, and accoutrements account for billions of dollars in the economy. A good night’s sleep is a prize desperately sought by those whom it evades. We have sleep numbers, sleep potions, CPAP masks, bed wedges, mouth guards, bump belts, neck pillows and more, lots more.
Who knew that something most of us achieve without effort as children, has become such a challenge for adults? Everything from daylight saving time to the 24 hour news cycle to social media and elevated levels of stress in most areas of daily life get the blame for our struggle for eight hours of regular rest.
Were we all noble innocents in our youth, when falling asleep seemed as natural as rolling over on the sofa and closing our eyes? As a child one extended family member could snooze away for hours completely upside down in an overstuffed chair and once fell asleep on the commode. Grandfather, whose work had him awake at 4 a.m. would come home in the early afternoon and lie down for a 40 minute nap every day. He could immediately go to sleep and snore contentedly and come awake at just the right time without benefit of an alarm clock, and he was rested enough to go right out and work on the farm.
Yet, there were portents of the deeper complexity associated with the act of sleeping. For some reason the family had several beds and couches. Apparently, they needed them all, because every morning at about 3 a.m. the great sleep migration took place. Bleary-eyed members of the clan would pass one another in the halls of the house mumbling unintelligibly as they passed carrying their pillow while they headed for a different place to doze than where they began the night. Oddly, no-one ever sought to question or explain this unusual habit. Clearly, though, it was motivated by a quest for a better night’s rest, a mission that consumes millions of us as we age.
Sleep, it proves, is not that simple to invite nor to inhabit. In the examples at the top of the page, Shakespeare in the rest of hamlet’s soliloquy likens it to death, a state of total unawareness that sleep presages.
Little Willie John sees it as blissfully restorative, a means of reinvigorating the body for another day. The Everly Brothers, however, seem to define sleep almost as a trap we can fall into. For them and Little Susie it happens naturally and involuntarily while they are enjoying the intimacy of a date at the drive-in. It overtakes them in a way that seems to almost excuse their obvious indiscretion.
Puccini is something else. He introduces the manipulation of wakefulness as a weapon. It is used by the Princess, a person of power. Nessun dorma. No-one sleeps. She is using sleep deprivation to force compliance to her commands.
It turns out that sleep isn’t as ordinary and routine a part of daily existence as it might seem when we generally refer to it.
People who fall asleep at the wheel wish they had insomnia, and those who have insomnia might be willing to submit to the mallet on the noggin solution employed by the Three Stooges.
Or you could try reading this column and see what happens.
“To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub . . .”
– William Shakespeare
“Sleep, sleep, sleep
How we love to sleep
At the close of day
When the joys of the day fade away and the memories sweet
Of the day repeat
In our dreams they creep
While we sleep, sleep, sleep”
– Little Willie John
Wake up, little Susie, wake up
Wake up, little Susie, wake up
We’ve both been sound asleep, wake up, little Susie, and weep
The movie’s over, it’s four o’clock, and we’re in trouble deep
Wake up little Susie
– The Everly Brothers
Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, oh Principessa
Nella tua fredda stanza
Guardi le stelle che tremano
D’amore e di speranza
– Giacomo Puccini