A History of Sleep

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Although sleep is one of the few shared activities common to all humanity, it is also the most private. What we experience during our sleeping hours is untranslatable during the daylight.

The way we sleep depends upon time and place, especially latitude. The view depicting in movies of our prehistoric ancestors huddled together for warmth and safety from predators in the communal cave as soon as the sun set is probably not far from the mark as the same basic pattern can be found, in a more sophisticated fashion, in Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlements, where all members of the clan would sleep on a raised parapet above a sunken, blazing fire in the Great Hall of a powerful chieftain, who would nevertheless sleep amongst his subjects. In the fortified keeps and castles of the later medieval period in Ireland and Britain elements of social stratification can be seen as now the presiding figures that controlled life within the castle have their own separate bedchambers.

Great changes in societal patterns were occurring in the city states of what is now Italy. A benevolent climate where the amounts of daylight and night-time are more equally distributed throughout the year led to lives less overwhelmed by the struggle for mere survival and the flourishing of the first recognizable modern cities. From these states came merchant princes and an artisan middle class involved in completely new professions. At night the streets were lit and families lived more spaciously in single family dwellings. As lives were less arduous it was no longer necessary to retire as early or to rise at dawn. It is a curious fact that the two presiding genius of the Renaissance, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci slept for less than four hours a night.

From this point onwards Western society was bent upon colonizing the night. With electricity the conquest was completed. Whereas candlelight and oil lamps seemed to re-enforce the nature of the surrounding night, electricity completely dispels darkness, replacing it with an artificial daytime. Soon the traditional conceptions of diurnal night and day will have no meaning, instead we have a twenty-four hour neuter-time that neither begins or ends. Technical acumen has made possible the manufacture of machines, robots and computers, whose main selling point is that they never tire, never sleep and never stop.

Increasingly prevalent in the work-driven and success haunted West is the idea that sleep is an enemy, only enjoyed by the idle and unambitious. Go getters only unwillingly submit to a hopefully dreamless sleep when absolutely required to preserve sanity, and even then for the shortest period possible. Upon waking the inexplicable images that the helpless dreamer witnessed are dispelled by the light of the working day and dismissed as irrelevant.  Are we too far off a time when a sleep deprived scientist, every hour ridden by waking nightmares re-engineers and genetically alters an unborn child so that it will never sleep? And when that happens can we consider that person who, having never experienced nightly oblivion, that plunge into an endless ocean where unremitting self-consciousness is blissfully, if only temporarily relinquished, human at all?

The Ultimate Spectacle

guy-debord_hurlements-21 Guy Debord-Howling for De Sade 1952[/caption]

“Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?”  Raoul Vaneigem,The Revolution of Everyday Life 1967

“In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle 1967

In 1967 the French film-maker, writer and head theorist of the Situationist International (Moving ImagesThe Hacienda Must Be Built), Guy Debord published an influential book of Marxist critical theory, The Society of the Spectacle, consisting of 221 thesis. Within its elegantly written and rigorously argued pages Debord advanced the theory of the Spectacle. The Spectacle has degraded authentic life and replaced it with mere representation, a decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing. The Spectacle has supplanted relationships between people with relationships between commodities and we passively identify with the Spectacle. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,”  Debord notes,  “rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”  The Spectacle obliterates the past and annihilates the future so that we live in an never-ending present. In this affect-less neuter-time there has been a systematic degradation of knowledge and we are incapable of critical thought, unaware that we are living in a moment in history.

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History, announced that Western neo-liberalism was the final point in human evolution; it wasn’t going to get better than this and that we were living in a post-historical period: the Spectacle had won.

But of course the statement by the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem quoted above holds true, and after a period when the Spectacle lacked a certain zest and an inability to hold our complete and undivided attention, the world has really turned upside down again. The true is a moment of the false. And we watch and wait with bated breath, in a rapt trance, with a horrified fascination as to what comes next. Maybe this time it will be the Ultimate Spectacle?

A Heresy for the 21st Century: The Original Gnostics

An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge
An Image of Yaldabaoth, the Demiurge

Gnosticism arose in the 1st Century AD in the crossroads of the Roman Empire and the second most important city, after Rome itself; Alexandria. With a population of around half-a-million inhabitants, it was one of the biggest cities built before the Industrial Revolution. Home of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and the Great Library, the largest library of the ancient world, Alexandria was an important centre of Hellenistic culture, the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, as well as being home to the highest urban population of Jews in the Empire (and therefore the world).

Into this mix was added the emergence of a Jewish breakaway sect, the first Christians. Various other Jewish apocalyptic groups had also sprung up in the aftermath of the Fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Combine all the above with a dash of Persian Zurvanism and you have the ingredients for the syncretic religion of Gnosticism.

Although calling Gnosticism a religion is in itself problematic as a survey of the numerous sects and cults with their bewildering array of competing mythologies and theologies will quickly attest. However there are certain key concepts and figures that re-appear frequently in Gnosticism;

  • Gnosis (knowledge) could only be gained through direct, revelatory experience
  • God, being perfect, had no need to create and therefore did not fashion the world. God dwelt in the pleroma (a term borrowed from Plato), where in his overflowing richness he emanated aeons who in turn emanated (in male/female pairs) further aeons, each one a little further away from the pleroma, until we get to Sophia.
  • Sophia emanated, on her own, the Demiurge, also called Yaldabaoth, Samael (The Blind God), Satanel, etc. The Demiurge was monstrous (frequently portrayed as having the head of a lion and the body of a serpent) and so Sophia hid him away. The Demiurge was unaware of the existence of the God in the pleroma and his emanations including Sophia, and in his blind ignorance and arrogance created the material universe.
  • Matter is, in a certain sense, illusory and inherently evil.
  • To help him in his task of creation the Demiurge made the archons to rule the material universe.
  • God in the pleroma saw the flawed universe that the Demiurge had created and taking pity upon humanity, planted a divine spark inside us, to help us transcend the material world and reach towards the pleroma.
  • In Christian Gnosticism Jesus is sent by God in the pleroma (certainly not the Demiurge, who wants humanity to remain trapped in his creation) to help achieve gnosis
  • The identification of the God of the Old Testament with the Demiurge.
  • Making heroes out of the villains of the Old Testament (and later the New Testament, as per the Gospel of Judas). Hence Eve, with the aid of the serpent, takes the first step towards gnosis by disobeying the Demiurge and tasting the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is only a partial list, each teacher and sect expanded and refined the core concepts. Also the responses and ethical doctrines varied wildly; many Gnostic sects were notably ascetic, refraining from sexual intercourse (especially reproductive sex) and espousing vegetarianism, while other, more libertine Gnostics sects engaged in sexual sacramentalism and a belief in gnosis through sin (as sin against the Demiurge was actually a virtue).

The 2nd Century AD was the heyday for Gnosticism with many important teachers contributing to its spread beyond Alexandria. However its heterodoxy couldn’t compete against the increasingly organised, centralised and powerful Christian Church that declared it subversive inversion of canonical texts and its identification of Jehovah with an evil Demiurge, heretical. Gnosticism also faced opposition from the schools of Neo-Platonism who attacked the Gnostics wild invention of Byzantine genealogies of emanations, aeons and archons.

By the 4th Century AD it seemed like Gnosticism was little more than a footnote in the history of the Early Church. However it had only gone underground and would erupt later as Catharism, the subject of the next post.