Like most books, this one has incurred numerous debts. My gratitude goes to Marco Fantuzzi, Don Juedes, Kostas Kapparis, Nicholas Kauffman, Jim Marks, Sheila Murnaghan, Christopher Pelling, Alex Purves and the anonymous readers of I.B.Tauris, one of whom in particular was especially helpful. Audiences at Columbia University and at the University of California, Los Angeles, have provided ideal sounding boards for some of my thoughts. At I.B.Tauris, my editor – Alex Wright – has followed the book's production with patience and competence, while assistant editor Baillie Card has secured permissions for the images. One person, I am afraid, has lost sleep to keep up with the toiling of the author: Gareth Schmeling, whose wit and love never doze off. Thank you.


Scope and goals

In George Eliot's Silas Marner, the estranged and secret wife of the gentleman Godfrey Cass plunges into a drugged sleep by the roadside on New Year's Eve, holding their little child. She is making her way to her husband's mansion, planning to ruin him, but her addiction to opium gets the better of her determination. She sleeps unto death. The child leaves her mother's icy embrace and follows a beam of light, which takes her to a small house, where she lies down before the fireplace and falls into a deep slumber. She is still asleep when Silas, who lives in the house, returns from an errand and finds her wrapped in the glow and warmth of the firelight.

Two occurrences of sleep in close succession set in motion events that will change two lives and constitute the novel's two main developments. Godfrey will be able to marry Nancy, the woman he loves, and Silas will find bliss in his new existence with the god-sent child.

Many more fictional narratives exploit sleep for their movement at crucial junctures. Sleep can mark endings (including the ending of the story, as in Diderot's Jacques le fataliste) or beginnings (Dante slumbering and losing his way in the ‘dark forest’ from which his journey starts, and Alice dozing off and dreaming as she enters Wonderland). It can be invested with profound significance but can also represent an unmarked blank in the development of a plot. Two characteristics of sleep render it useful for multiple narrative goals: its unknown depth and its quality as a break from activity. Because it cannot be known while it happens, it is a state in which many things can happen: healing (Don Quixote recovering sanity after his first sound sleep at the end of Cervantes’ novel) or spiritual ascent (Dante dozing and dreaming before his climb to the Earthly Paradise;1 the legendary Cretan seer Epimenides awakening to perfect wisdom after a 57-year-long slumber), or the opposite, spiritual error (again, Dante at the beginning of the Inferno) or the eruption of a delusional imagination (Don Quixote attacking wineskins while he dreams that he is attacking a giant).2 On the other hand, its routine occurrence and its perception as a suspension of activity make it an expedient structuring tool, serving to break a story up into smaller units. Sleep can be a thematic equivalent to the white space that typographically separates segments of narrative.


Figure 0.1 Henry Fuseli, The Sleepwalking Lady Macbeth (1781–4), Paris, Louvre.

Sleeplessness is just as versatile. Literati will instantly think of Shakespeare's Macbeth (II 2), where insomnia and sleep disorders showcase guilt after murder (Figure 0.1), or Julius Caesar (II 1), where they bespeak anxiety before murder. Sleeplessness does not lend itself to breaking up a narrative as sleep does, because it is not a cessation of activity. On the contrary, wakeful figures are always hyperactive, and the reader stays anxiously awake with them. But at the same time, their restless condition is perhaps even more versatile and productive than sleep because it has a voice, as it were. Sleep talks only through dreams or when sleepers awaken and comment on their slumber. Sleeplessness talks while it happens, about itself, its causes, the thoughts and feelings that besiege its victims. As Menander puts it, ‘insomnia is the most loquacious thing’.3 This is one reason it has a high dramatic impact and a stage presence, which sleep can have only inasmuch as it looks ahead, to awakening.

Greek authors were fully aware of the narrative and dramatic potential of both states. Plato's Symposium ends with its participants dozing off one by one in the house of their host, while Socrates outdoes them all in wakefulness and leaves at dawn to start another day, at the end of which ‘he went home to rest’. Homeric epic repeatedly exploits sleep as an ending, of days, episodes and books. A wakeful mastermind, Zeus, sets the core action of the Iliad in motion, while Odysseus returns home enwrapped in a magic slumber, which begins a new set of adventures for him and the second half of the Odyssey for the audience. The tragic Clytemnestra is possessed by an unsleeping murderous force, then by unsleeping anguish, as is Orestes. Unhappy lovers fill the stage or the page with their restless torments. Sleep and wakefulness play a prominent role in the characterization of individualized personages as well as of types (‘the responsible ruler’, ‘the suffering lover’, ‘the innocent child’). They also help to define the ways in which characters relate to the narratives in which they are found (passive, ‘slumbering’, or active, ‘wakeful’) and reveal their levels of awareness about their own actions and those of other characters. Furthermore, both states are sites of divine intervention.

This study is a close investigation of these and other roles of sleep and sleeplessness in the Iliad, the Odyssey, tragedy and comedy, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica and the Greek novels. I have privileged extended narratives and drama over shorter texts, such as lyric or epigrammatic poetry, because their greater length makes for a richer palette of uses and meanings of sleep. To be sure, more condensed works also feature sleeping characters and abnormally wakeful ones. For instance, Hellenistic epigrams are filled with sleep-deprived lovers and slumbering beauties. But those poems’ concentration allows only one image to be shown or one brief episode to be recounted, and this limits the presence of sleep and wakefulness to snapshots. By contrast, in more extended narratives and in drama the two states participate in the construction of entire segments of the plot. Though narrative and dramatic works exhibit different patterns, as dictated by their respective genres, in the deployment of sleep and its disturbances, they make a sustained use of both conditions as formal devices as well as motifs. One of my chief concerns throughout this investigation is to appreciate not only the thematic significance of sleep and sleeplessness but also their roles in the formal organization of a fictional work.

This study's focus on fictional literature has proportionally limited its treatment of nonfictional texts and nonliterary contexts. Readers will not find comprehensive discussions of Heraclitus’ famously cryptic pronouncements on sleep and wakefulness, of Aristotle's treatises on sleeping and dreaming, of sleep and its pathologies in the Hippocratic writings, or of its role in religious practices, for instance ritual incubation or ecstatic frenzy. Some of the questions asked in scientific and philosophical inquiry (such as, what causes sleep? what makes it pleasant?) do find echoes and correspondences in fictional literature, but systematic treatments of those areas would take us too far afield. Moreover, sleep in nonfictional literature, especially in philosophical and medical writings, has been the object of a considerable number of studies.4

Since no literary text exists in a vacuum, however, I have taken cultural-historical detours whenever they might shed light on occurrences of sleep or sleeplessness in the works under consideration. For instance, the fact that the Homeric gods are said to rest on a regular basis and occasionally even to suffer from insomnia, just like their human subjects, begs a question of a more theological nature: were not the two conditions perceived to undermine divinity?5 Likewise, the recurrent epic motif of night-time attacks calls for contextualization within military ethics and practices in archaic and classical Greece.6 And again, Penelope's appreciation for the dark, dreamless sleep that carries her through the slaughter of the suitors resonates with well-seated and widespread beliefs in the bliss of a sleep without visions.7 And a novelist's choice to have a wise man's life end with a serene death in slumber can also be better understood in light of the ever-increasing keenness in Greco-Roman philosophy and culture at large to domesticate death by merging it with sleep.8

As might be expected of a book on sleep, dreaming makes regular appearances in the chapters that follow. On those occasions, though, my main goal is not to review ancient theories of dreaming or to interpret dreams per se, but to investigate their roles in defining a character's way of sleeping, their relationship to sleep and its troubles in the construction of a plot, as well as their effects on the sleeper. Dreams can agree, enter into conflict or otherwise interfere with wakeful thinking when a character is in a dire predicament or in the grip of a difficult decision: so for instance Penelope's vision of her sister in Odyssey 4 dispels the anguish that keeps her long awake and is in continuity with her slumber, which stops her anxious thoughts; or, on the contrary, a novelistic heroine's dream of her husband instructing her to raise their child is in line with her nightlong thinking, which was reaching the same decision.9 Dreams can also determine the nature and the experience of sleep. In those episodes the narrative focuses as much on sleep as on the vision it carries, by putting emphasis on how the character about to dream dozes off, how the vision awakens her or how it shapes the quality of her sleep. A dream-filled slumber is often a marked happening. It can come after prolonged sleeplessness and be eerie, god-induced.

Chapter sequence and technicalities

The first chapter is devoted to unearthing the multiple narrative implications of the danger and lack of sleep in times of war as are mapped out in the Iliad. Sleep's scarcity plays into the very manner in which the epic (almost) begins, with a scene of nocturnal worry resulting in the abrupt awakening of a warrior, and ends, with hurried activity but no rest, with the sun rising day after day but not setting. The substitution of war with travel and domestic life in the Odyssey, the subject of the second chapter, turns sleep into a more routine happening, which regulates the rhythm of the day's activity for the characters and of the narrative for the poet. The two epics also exhibit different patterns in the gods’ rapport to the sleep of humans: aloof in the Iliad, intrusive in the Odyssey.

Drama, discussed in Chapter 3, builds on both Homeric epics for its renderings of sleep and sleeplessness: Heracles in Trachiniae returns home unconscious, like Odysseus, but to die rather than live, and other characters stay up all night in excruciating deliberation, like Agamemnon, or beset with sorrowful longing, like Penelope. Tragic plays also engage in dialogue with one another in the staging of sleep and sleeplessness both thematically and formally. And comedy distorts the tragic and epic treatments of the two states that had become stereotypical, such as lonely vigils. While I attempt to bring out these and other shared threads, I discuss each play separately, even if this approach inevitably results in a less condensed narrative than would a more overarching treatment. The reason for my choice is that a main goal of this study is to appreciate the functions of sleep and sleeplessness in the composition of individual works, and this can only be achieved by analysing the plays serially.10

Apollonius of Rhodes, the subject of Chapter 4, foregrounds the formal aspects of Homer's use of sleep by playing with it in the contexts of beginnings and endings of narrative units and in the pacing of the Argo's journey, which is broken up by sleep much more rarely than are travel or other activities in the Odyssey. Though Apollonius’ main interlocutor is Homer, his sleepless Medea conjures up figures of insomniacs closer in time to the author, such as those found in New Comedy, and her central role bears witness to the growing fascination in contemporary literature and culture with sleeplessness as a symptom of love.

Sleep-deprived lovers make repeated and dramatic appearances also in the Greek novels, which are discussed in the final chapter. As with drama, I treat each novel separately, and in this case not only to bring out the functions of sleep and wakefulness in the construction of each of them but also to emphasize their idiosyncrasies. The varied modes of presence of the two states in the novels are one more piece of evidence bearing out their individuality: even the few we have are not written according to one script. We shall see that these texts also demonstrate a strong awareness of, and creative engagement with, treatments of sleep in past and contemporary literature, and occasionally also in philosophy and the visual arts. But ultimately, as the chapter will attempt to show, Homer remains their main source of inspiration for the novelistic episodes of sleep and its disturbances.

The abbreviations for ancient authors and titles generally follow the Oxford Classical Dictionary (an exception is the Palatine Anthology, abbreviated AP, according to common practice). I have also produced customized abbreviations for two commentaries often quoted in this study, one on the Iliad and one on the Odyssey. In the interest of space, I only cite the original Greek in cases where it is necessary for the development of points of argument. All quotations are translated or closely paraphrased, with an eye to the Greekless reader. With the non-specialist in mind, I have also given more background context for less known texts (especially the novels), and I have kept technical discussion and language to a minimum, in the hope of making the writing more forgiving and palatable. Ancient authors found many clever ways of goading their audiences and readers awake and keeping them riveted to a performance or a narrative the charm of which, they hoped, would be irresistible enough to drive off sleep even in the wee hours. While this book does not aspire to be sleep chasing, I do hope that it will rouse the readers’ interest in the creative ways in which Greek literature has exploited two familiar facts of life for fictional purposes.



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