INTRO by Phil Cousineau: Legend has it that when the Beatles emerged from Abbey Road Studios, in London, after a marathon recording session for their first movie, drummer Ringo Starr turned to John Lennon and said, “It’s been a hard day…” — then looked around and noticing that it was still dark outside — added the word “night.” What Lennon heard was one continuous phrase — “hard day’s night,” which he later called another “Ringo-ism.” The phrase was as percussive as Starr’s drumming technique, perfectly capturing the rigors and tensions of working hard through the night. Paul McCartney later said that he and Lennon immediately knew they had the name of the title track and the movie itself. Lennon claimed that he turned the phrase into the first verse of the song: “It’s been a hard day’s night and I’ve been working like a dog…” and completed the song within twenty minutes. When their fans heard the title and lyrics they immediately understood its meaning, a tough but meaningful and productive night of work, even if you know you “should be sleeping like a log.”
For some, like the Beatles, night is a blessing, inspiring poems, movies, songs, inventions, political revolutions, love affairs. For others, like poet Dylan Thomas or essayist May Sarton, it’s a haunting, a source of fear or pain, a stretch of hours to be endured like a toothache. Night is no longer friend, but foe. The dark powers that once inspired now conspire. “Ain’t it just like the night,” moans the old blues singer, “to play tricks when you’re trying to be quiet?” Unquiet, we can’t work. Our dreams are transmogrified, rife with monsters and insecurities. Hope disintegrates into despair; faith corrodes into cynicism. What liberates one person suffocates another, a feeling that was mythologized many generations ago when it was believed that the oppressive feeling in our chest during a restless night of sleep was caused by something grim sitting on it. The grimoires of the time groaned with spells to fight off the monster variously called a nighthag, a cauchemar, “the fiend that tramples,” and a wild horse, a demented mare, which in turn sired our word nightmare, which is the nemesis of this sleepstrange part of the night journey.
Out of the sheer cussedness of insomniac nights come the melancholic, anguished words of those who find the darkness to be a torture chamber, the bed a rack, and sleep a canvas of Magritte phantoms.
The selections in Part III mark this still point of the night journey. Our nightwriters include the poets Abu ibn al-Hammarah, Zi Ye, Yang-ti, and Ovid, who aptly describe the paralysis of insomnia, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who describes his depression as “The Seems” as in “what seems to be & is not—men & faces & I do not [know] what.”
For lovers like Ovid, during sleepless nights “cruel love torments the breast.” The tumultuous-hearted James Joyce finds “a riot of emotions” as he sleeps next to his wife. These cameos about creative responses to sleep deprivation anticipate several writers in this part. “Night Rain,” by Izumi Shikibu, is a triumph of creative melancholy or healing wistfulness over the curse of insomnia, which was rampant in the imperial courts of Kyoto a thousand years ago.
In the early eighteenth century a certain Count Goldberg, the slumberless Russian ambassador to Germany, approached the greatest composer of the era with a curious commission. The count was stricken with insomnia, and he asked Johann Sebastian Bach to provide a musical cure for his sleeplessness. Bach’s Goldberg Variations were the melodic result. There’s no telling what kind of beauty might be wrestled from the beast of night.
If the insomnolent ambassador, or anyone else, had gone to Lewis Carroll, a century later, for a cure for their insomnia, they would have been given a set of math problems, “calculations,” from Carroll’s Bedside Book, which the fantasist regarded as remedies for the “harassing thoughts that are apt to invade a wholly-unoccupied mind.”
Finally, for those not convinced by the slumbersome Anthony Burgess that there is no cure for nocturnal horrors except not going to bed, there is movie therapy. The Cure for Insomnia is not the life story of Goldberg, the Russian ambassador, nor the name of a snake oil salesman’s brochure. Instead, it’s the title of the longest film on record, a strategically soporific eighty-seven-hour-long documentary.
Similarly, any crack lets light through, as Leonard Cohen sang, and that is how the light comes through. It is that light that provides the dark clarity of the night world, which has the uncanny capacity to heal us. Night heals in the way the soul is tempered, one degree, one battle at a time — the way consciousness is built, through steady struggles with forces older and greater than ourselves. What the contributors in this book have in common is that they have wrestled with what D.H. Lawrence called the “gruesomes,” savaging depression. Still, he was able to write in the “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through”: “What is the knocking at the door in the night? / It is somebody who wants to do us harm. / No, no, it is the three strange angels. / Admit them. Admit them.”
Say no more; some of us come from rusted nights.
“Take That Ride”
American writer, musician, and actor
I don’t want to die like Agee
In the back of some taxi on the run
So much time wasted, the feast of life
Just tasted then it’s gone
But the life that he was living and the
Gift that he was giving were all one
The bad comes with the good
The madness and love, it’s all or none
I don’t want to end up like Terry Malloy
In a cab carrying on about how it’s gone
How he could have been a contender
And people would remember what he’d done
But there’s fights that you don’t take
And there’s nights when you break and you run
Just do what you can do and answer to who
You have to when you’re done
But take that ride
’Cause we fly tomorrow
To the other side
If we make it through tonight
And truth or lie
Beg, steal, or borrow
It will follow
As the road goes out of sight
I don’t want to die like Hank Williams
In the back of some rented limousine
Drifting through the night
So far from the light that he had seen
But this road we’ve been riding
Looks a lot like the road that he was on
A lost and lonesome highway
That some still take to find their way home
“Borges and the Darkness Visible”
Canadian writer, translator, anthologist
In the light, we read the inventions of others; in the darkness, we invent our own stories. Many times, under my two trees, I have sat with friends and described books that were never written. We have stuffed libraries with tales we never felt compelled to set down on paper. “To imagine the plot of a novel is a happy task,” Borges once said. “To actually write is an exaggeration.” He enjoyed filling the spaces of the library he could not see with stories he never bothered to write, but for which he sometimes deigned to compose a preface, summary, or review. Even as a young man, he said, the knowledge of his impending blindness had encouraged him in the habit of imagining complex volumes that would never take printed form. Borges had inherited from his father the disease that gradually, implacably weakened his sight, and the doctor had forbidden him to read in dim light. One day, on a train journey, he became so engrossed by a detective novel that he carried on reading, page after page, in the fading dusk. Shortly before his destination, the train entered a tunnel. When it emerged, Borges could no longer see anything except a colored haze, the “darkness visible” that [John] Milton thought was Hell. In that darkness Borges lived for the rest of his life, remembering or imagining stories, rebuilding in his mind the National Library of Buenos Aires or his own restricted library at home. In the light of the first half of his life, he wrote and read silently; in the gloom of the second, he dictated and had others read to him.
July 19, 2016