Fragments from The Book of Sleep, by Haytham El-Wardany (trans. Robin Moger), Part Two.
A Shared Absence
There is no phenomenology of sleep, Jean Luc Nancy wrote in The Fall of Sleep, and that is because sleep offers only disappearance and absence. Sleep is not a phenomenon to be described and analysed but an absence which answers to no analysis of any kind. In this absence, the self returns to itself, and to attain this goal it must fall. The fall into sleep—in Nancy’s view the necessary condition for sleep to occur—causes the self to lose control and drop deep into itself. The further it falls and the deeper it sinks, the closer it comes to itself. Its journey of descent continues and return is only accomplished when it ceases to be aware of any distinction between what is it and what is not. Here the self has reached a ground in which there is no differentiation, where all things are mixed with all things, where the self finds itself equally in everything which lies outside it and in everything which lies within it. It is here, exactly here, when the self has been freed of everything that makes it distinct and has erased the line between outer and inner, that it has returned to itself. And it is here, too, that the dead rise. In the indiscriminate, unselfed darkness that Nancy describes, far from the bright light of representation, our dead can at last appear, now we and they are brought together by our shared absence. Only sleepers can be in the presence of the dead, for they have returned to themselves, that is, to the undifferentiated mass that precedes the self’s formation. In the absence called sleep, those who have lost their selves encounter those who have returned to them.
Only sleepers can be in the presence of the dead, for they have returned to themselves, that is, to the undifferentiated mass that precedes the self’s formation.
The Hanging Garden
Who could have anticipated that the city which blooms in sleep would be the garden in which we sleepers stand like trees between earth and heaven? Floor tiles crack apart to reveal green shoots. Windows shatter and give out branches. Asphalt subsides and over it flows water. Buildings break down into dens and dives. Walls shift and streets change. The city itself has cast off obedience to its masters, has entered another time, has surrendered to another power. And unlike the scurrying city of the visible, here all things happen slowly. In the hanging garden of sleep the sun’s rays fall slowly on the leaves, slowly the roots worm through the soil, the flowers open slowly. Continual transformations so slow they are hidden from the naked eye. The city of sleep, at once devoid of people and seething with life: the many people who each night silently surrender to the same sleeping, though thousands of miles might lie between them, become a garden inhabited by plants and insects and birds. Inhabited, too, by the souls of the dead. They flee the din of the cities of the day and are drawn to the garden’s stillness where death finds its place amid the unseen changes with which the garden hums. The dead walk freely about. They drift through the flowers, diffuse through trees’ branches, pass through their trunks. We hear their whispers and they hear ours. We touch them and they touch us. We mix with them and they with us. And so we stay till day dawns and the tiles heal and the trees sink into the ground and the buildings rise and the walls return to their places and the roads smooth out and over them flow cars. People return and the dead flee.
In the hanging garden of sleep the sun’s rays fall slowly on the leaves, slowly the roots worm through the soil, the flowers open slowly. Continual transformations so slow they are hidden from the naked eye.
Unconsciousness is sleep’s corruption, occurring when sleep has failed to extricate itself both from the binaries of its environment and from the function assigned it, to become no more a brief dousing of consciousness. Industrial capitalism reduced sleep to a function, its task to grant a measure of relief to the collapsing consciousness. It regulated it as a shift, eight hours long, followed by the shift at the factory. But high capitalism, which no longer produced anything at all, came to regard sleep as a black hole. Sleep was a short swoon, a begrudged break in the flow of uninterrupted communication, and as such had to be quickly shaken off and a rapid return made to a state of contact. As the attention economy replaces the production economy, consciousness becomes neurotic, turning endlessly about itself and fired by a promise forever unhonoured. How can such a consciousness sleep? It is constantly afraid that it might miss something, that the promise will be honoured while it is absent. All it can do is remain alert until it drops into unconsciousness. Capitalism’s night grows shorter and shorter until it almost disappears altogether, and in it sleep is one long coma dispensed in small doses.
Haytham El-Wardany is an Egyptian writer of short stories and non-narrative prose. His most recent publications include The Book of Sleep (2017) and How to Disappear (2014), which was published in translation by Kayfa ta/Mophradat/Sternberg Press.
Robin Moger is a translator of Arabic prose and poetry. He has translated several novels from the Arabic including Nael Eltoukhy’s Women of Karantina (AUC Press, 2014), Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles (7Stories Press, 2014), Mohammed Rabie’s Otared (Hoopoe Press, 2016) and Ma’n Abu Taleb’s All The Battles (Hoopoe Press, 2017).