by Maria Popova
“Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space… a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath.”
“Something nameless hums us into sleep,” wrote the poet Mark Strand in his sublime ode to dreams, “withdraws, and leaves us in a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” But where, exactly, is this part-real place of our nocturnal escape? Where do we go when we go to sleep, and what exactly happens there? Generations of scientists have labored to illuminate our complex internal clocks, how sleep regulates our negative emotions and affects our every waking moment, but in the end it is the poets who seem to capture the slippery otherworldliness of sleep with the firmest grip.
Nearly two centuries ago, and long before he rose to literary celebrity with his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) shone a radiant beam of beauty and insight on the nocturnal consciousness.
Hawthorne owes much of his fame to the trailblazing journalist, activist, and matron saint of Transcendentalism Margaret Fuller, credited with discovering Hawthorne and advocating his work into the limelight with her poetic praise. “No one of all our imaginative writers has indicated a genius at once so fine and so rich,” Fuller wrote of the practically unknown Hawthorne in 1840. She then was one of America’s most trusted tastemakers in culture — the first and at that time only woman writing for the prestigious New York Herald, where she composed some of the finest art and literary criticism of the New World. A few years earlier, had read and loved his short story collection Twice-Told Tales (public library | free ebook), recording in her diary the impression that the book was written by “somebody in Salem,” whom she assumed to be a woman.
One of the pieces that had so enchanted Fuller was Hawthorne’s 1835 story “The Haunted Mind,” in a portion of which he contemplates the relationship between our nocturnal conscience and our waking self with uncommon poetry of understanding. Describing the surreality of being suddenly awakened from a deep dream at two in the morning, Hawthorne writes:
What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to recollect yourself, after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing your eyes so suddenly … you find yourself, for a single instant, wide awake in that realm of illusions, whither sleep has been the passport, and behold its ghostly inhabitants and wondrous scenery, with a perception of their strangeness, such as you never attain while the dream is undisturbed.
If you could choose an hour of wakefulness out of the whole night, it would be this.
In that hour, he argues, we come to inhabit a world that exists partway between sleep and wakefulness, a neverland outside time itself — we are snatched from the Borgesian river of time and cast onto its strange banks. Hawthorne writes:
Since your sober bedtime, at eleven, you have had rest enough to take off the pressure of yesterday’s fatigue; while before you, till the sun comes from “far Cathay” to brighten your window, there is almost the space of a summer night; one hour to be spent in thought, with the mind’s eye half shut, and two in pleasant dreams, and two in that strangest of enjoyments, the forgetfulness alike of joy and woe. The moment of rising belongs to another period of time, and appears so distant, that the plunge out of a warm bed into the frosty air cannot yet be anticipated with dismay. Yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space, where the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment lingers, and becomes truly the present; a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath.
But the pleasant trance that seems to lift us out of time drags behind it a lurking awareness of time as the pulse-beat of existence — timelessness, sweet at first, bitters into nonexistence. Hawthorne writes:
You sink down and muffle your head in the clothes… You speculate on the luxury of wearing out a whole existence in bed, like an oyster in its shell, content with the sluggish ecstasy of inaction, and drowsily conscious of nothing but delicious warmth, such as you now feel again. Ah! that idea has brought a hideous one in its train. You think how the dead are lying in their cold shrouds and narrow coffins, through the drear winter of the grave, and cannot persuade your fancy that they neither shrink nor shiver, when the snow is drifting over their little hillocks, and the bitter blast howls against the door of the tomb. That gloomy thought will collect a gloomy multitude, and throw its complexion over your wakeful hour.
In the depths of every heart, there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, and revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide. But sometimes, and oftenest at midnight, those dark receptacles are flung wide open. In an hour like this, when the mind has a passive sensibility, but no active strength; when the imagination is a mirror, imparting vividness to all ideas, without the power of selecting or controlling them; then pray that your griefs may slumber, and the brotherhood of remorse not break their chain.
In this hour of unconscious contemplation, Hawthorne argues, we confront our regrets, our shames, our disappointments, our lost loves, which return in our dreams in various guises. In that other world of the nocturne, we also taste the sweetness of our hopes attained and slake our deepest hunger for transcendence — we stand in landscapes of “a pervading gladsomeness and beauty,” we find ourselves standing “beneath the glimmering shadow of old trees” or “in the sunny rain of a summer shower” or underneath “the brightest of all rainbows.” And yet the clock that measures this haunted hour is one that brings “the knell of a temporary death” — in sleep, Hawthorne suggests, we foretaste our inevitable slip into eternal nonexistence:
With an involuntary start, you seize hold on consciousness, and prove yourself but half awake, by running a doubtful parallel between human life and the hour which has now elapsed. In both you emerge from mystery, pass through a vicissitude that you can but imperfectly control, and are borne onward to another mystery… Your spirit has departed, and strays like a free citizen, among the people of a shadowy world, beholding strange sights, yet without wonder or dismay. So calm, perhaps, will be the final change; so undisturbed, as if among familiar things, the entrance of the soul to its Eternal home!
Complement this particular fragment of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales with a contemporary counterpart at least as lyrical and insightful — Bill Hayes’s poetic inquiry into sleep and its maddening absence — then revisit the science of what actually happens while we sleep and why we dream nightmares.