The art of sleep

In the last few years, a hormone which carries the name  melatonin has become very popular among people who have trouble summoning sleep. When first launched, it was meant as a cure for jet-lag.  Today, it is also being advertised as an antidote to old age.

Melatonin is produced naturally by our pineal gland during the night.  It is secreted into the urine as darkness falls, which accounts for its name (as in melancholy: black bile causing gloominess; or Melanesia: island of darkskinned people).  It is melatonin which regulates the cycles of our sleep.

Some of the melatonin that is sold over the counter is taken from animal sources. The bulk of it is synthesized in the laboratory.  How this is done  is a well-guarded secret among drug companies. Frequent flyers and airline cabin attendants have known about this drug for quite sometime now.  Hardly anyone else noticed it until, by a felicitous  extrapolation of its sleep-inducing powers, some medical researchers started claiming age-reversing capabilities for it too.  It didn’t take long before Americans began hailing it as a miracle drug.

Today, other doctors are cautioning against its many still unknown long-term effects when taken regularly as a means to counteract the ravages of time upon the body.  Fatal nerve disorder has been mentioned as a possible side-effect. But the most common objection is that it may be just another one of those expensive but useless drugs in the market.

But it is not so much about melatonin as about the virtue of unsummoned sleep that I want to write.  “No small art is it to sleep,” wrote the German philosopher Nietzsche, who prescribed a formula for making friends with sleep, “the lord of the virtues.”  I do not think he would have put in a good word for melatonin.

Sleep dislikes being summoned, he said.  He recommended instead a regimen of 4 sets of daily exercises.

“Ten times a day must you overcome yourself: that causes wholesome weariness, and is poppy to the soul.  Ten times must you reconcile again  with yourself; for overcoming is bitterness, and badly sleep the unreconciled.  Ten truths must you find during the day; otherwise will you seek truth during the night, and your soul will have been hungry.  Ten times must you laugh during the day, and be cheerful; otherwise your stomach, the father of affliction, will disturb you in the night.”

The whole point, for Nietzsche, was to keep awake in order to sleep well.  But not just to stay awake, but to exhaust oneself  in the pursuit of discipline and perfection.

Firstly, by overcoming one’s limits and weaknesses at least 10 times a day. To identify one’s weaknesses and strengths, and then to fit these into an artistic plan, under the command of a singular distinctive style, so that everyone of our qualities “appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.”  I can think of nothing more difficult and more exhausting.

But secondly, by quickly reconciling with oneself after a bout of  relentless self-criticism.  Ten times, Nietzsche said, we must forgive and like ourselves, for there is no joy in going to bed hating oneself.

Thirdly, by seeking 10 truths in the course of the day—truths about ourselves, about others, about the world we live in, and about the meaning and purpose of life itself.  Ten truths to guide us as we strive to take sole and full responsibility for our individual destiny.  Again, hardly an easy task especially for those who would rather live securely under the auspices of tradition.

And finally, 10 occasions for laughter and cheerfulnes—saying  yes to life: the hallmark of Nietzsche’s distinctive gay science.

“When night comes, I take good care not to summon sleep… But I think of what I have done and thought during the day.  Thus ruminating, patient as a cow, I ask myself: What were your ten overcomings?  And what were the ten reconciliations, and the ten truths, and the ten laughters with which my heart enjoyed itself?

Thus pondering, and cradled by forty thoughts, it overtakes me all at once— sleep, the unsummoned, the lord of the virtues…Verily, on soft soles does it come to me, the dearest of thieves, and steals from me my thoughts….”

I turn to Nietzsche when I cannot sleep.  Such prose never fails to mesmerize me even as my own thoughts drift from one unsuccessful overcoming to another.  Every day I use up my full quota of ten reconciliations, aware that if I so much as begin to detest myself even slightly for repeated failures to overcome my shortcomings, I shall not have enough passion to discover even one truth or enough cheerfulness to ignite even one laughter.

“For one thing is needful:” our philosopher reminds us, “that a human being should attain satisfaction with himself, whether it be by means of this or that poetry and art; only then is a human being at all tolerable to behold.  Whoever is dissatisfied with himself is continually ready for revenge, and we others will be his victims, if only by having to endure his ugly sight.  For the sight of what is ugly makes one bad and gloomy.”

And so passes the night for me. Without any help from melatonin, I instead allow myself to be seduced by this crazy philosopher’s memorable line: “Blessed are those drowsy ones: for they shall soon nod to sleep.”  Good night.


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