The Cure for Insomnia - Beyond Attention on the Sel
Chess, Insomnia and other Paradoxes
I live and pursue an arts practice in the post-modern era and choose to participate in that era. Although I do not specifically want to write about post-modernism in this essay, I can at least state that there are certain assumptions within which I am writing. I must take up a language system in order to write and post-modernism has a well-known chess analogy about this
“To study chess properly one must therefore look at the simultaneous system of principles for making moves-the simultaneous system that lies behind every move at every point in the game. This system precedes any actual moves. Like language it must be internalised in its entirety, in terms of its structural coherence rather than its individual parts. Where the structure is common, the moves are not. Only when both players have internalised this structure does the game become meaningful.”
- Post-Modernism: The Twilight of The Real, Neville Wakefield, p73
Structure comes before content. Setting up a language system is my initial intention in the essay. I define the terms in which the writing has meaning … or at least various readings. Very dryly speaking, I have chosen to maintain structural coherence by writing the essay as a series of beginnings or ‘preambles’, which keep overtaking each other to the top of the page. The preambles become sections of the essay which communicate with each other and inform each other.
I have also read Interpretation and Overinterpretation by Umberto Eco and considered “the poetics of the open work”. In contemporary art, considerable autonomy is left to the individual reader to complete the work in the act of reading.
Finally I have observed in the writing of this that I relish especially my own thoughts around the paradoxical condition of insomnia as well as other paradoxes. This is an obviously self-conscious essay about not being self-conscious. It is an essay about being boring, a cure for insomnia indeed, and yet not so boring when it is read. This may further inform the reader in his or her act of completion, although whether or not our relation to each other is analogous to chess players is open to question.
2. The Essay
“There are days like that, one isn’t very inspired. (Pause.) Nothing you can do about it, just wait for it to come. (Pause.) No forcing, no forcing, it’s fatal. (Pause.) I’ve got on with it a little all the same (Pause.) Technique you know.”
- Hamm in Endgame, Samuel Beckett, P40 (talking about his chronicle)
“We might make or break ourselves by just shutting out the world and neatly ordering everything that we are doing and that is happening to us already.”
- A personal journal entry, 2004
Being an artist I, of course, wanted this essay to be a work of art. At first I envisaged it as principally a preamble only to itself. It would contain only itself, refer only to itself and put in context only itself. But then immediately I had a reason for broadening out my subject matter, I needed to refer to supporting texts that might set and affirm the language system by which my writing would be written. In terms of questioning meaning, I might plausibly be able to say the writing is about almost nothing, but at least the ‘nothing’ is in context.
I questioned why such an essay might be an attractive proposition to me. I am attracted to having only ideas when I need to have ideas. The work does not get ‘muddied’ by claiming to be about something. In this I am influenced by a play-write, about whom I will proceed to muddy my essay.
a. The influence of Beckett on the Essay
Samuel Beckett was an insomniac and I like to speculate that he wrote his plays as an alternative to sleeping. Near the end of his life he characterized his writing as "a stain upon the silence" and concluded that "there has been nothing else worthwhile". He invented a new kind of character in his drama.
“Physical, mental, and emotional cripples lurch along dark paths toward oblivion, fighting poorly, loving ineptly and misunderstanding almost completely”.
-The Unnameable Samuel Beckett, Daniel Lindley
They have motivations only in the very short term. All these unfortunate characters ever consider is whether or not to sit down, whether or not to stare into the distance, or to take time for another sigh or curse. They are moment-to-moment beings and moment to moment the narrative is propelled. Tiny motivations and passing thoughts do little more than pass the time of day. Ideas are revealed more in the structure than in the content of the plays, which we might describe as non-narrative narrative. Insomnia also feels like a ubiquitous state for the characters. Often sleep would seem a more interesting activity than what is actually happening on stage, yet we stay engaged.
As well as illuminating the primacy of sleep in human existence, Beckett takes us towards moment to moment consciousness as being ‘enough’, characters ‘are’ rather than ‘do’. It is a conception of theatre, of performance, in which stage directions become very important and in which space and the physical body are central to the action. It is not what you might describe as exhilarating. I take inspiration from Beckett in acclaiming the mundane, giving the everyday-ness of life a pedestal.
His plays are also physical which brings us onto the next broadening out in the essay.
b. Juggling between the Essay and the Physical Realm
My attraction to this kind of essay also leads directly to my attraction to this kind of dance practice. So now I see that by exploring the idea of an essay only about itself, I may illuminate a dance practice that is only about itself. It also works the other way around, by further broadening out in the writing to include my dance practice I am, in a circular way, informing my writing again.
In my dance practice, I have recently identified that there is only a small gap between doing something and not doing it. That gap is almost nothing; the dance is almost not made because it is inspired by so very little. The motivating idea can be very small indeed, not really an idea at all, it is like motivation by absence of ideas, which admittedly is an idea in itself. The motivation to make a dance work can simply be a tiny physicalization which generates material.
I do not have or want to have a belief in or reliance on inspiration as a reason for my arts practice. On the surface this may be a form of stress reduction, to make creativity, in itself, less important in life. I value the precursory moment to doing something as the actual doing of it, the mundane as the vessel able to contain inspiration. When requirements upon my creative mind are almost nothing, paradoxically my creative mind might thrive.
In my own dance practice I like to view this mundane vessel as the activity of juggling, or more specifically working on numbers juggling, five and then seven balls. This is what I get up to in the studio as a kind of a neutral gear, a state of being useful without being inspired. I like to talk about ‘the juggling condition’ rather than ‘the juggling trick’. I am not so much interested in the debate, within the circus world, around whether the placing of juggling in a theatre or dance framework is a good idea. There is also even a debate on whether or not juggling is an art form. I am fine for juggling to be without a consensual context or language system. I define these for myself.
Through juggling I can manoeuvre myself into a position to create dance work without the danger of wasting time, I am also choosing to say very little about anything in my work (almost nothing again). I am only making an unavoidable statement about the state that I have got myself into as a dancer who juggles or juggler who dances. It is also a viable view of dance that it might only be about itself in the way juggling is. Dance might learn from juggling and be about occupying yourself with a difficult task and keeping the body available to one or both of these activities.
So in reducing to the essentials, the key is to establish a daily practice which allocates (or locks in!) certain routines to the body, routines which may, like working on the 7-ball cascade, appear startlingly humdrum or mundane. By extension, looking again at this essay, there must be no pressure for it to be a work of art in itself. But because it is trying to say very little, it may be easier for it to be one. Samuel Beckett said “The less there is to say the better it is said.” In this way his plays are works of art speaking about very little and all the benefiting as a result.
c. The Influence of Zen on the Physical Practice and the Essay
Over years in my physical practice, dance and juggling, I have mounted a search for something that I will call a ‘model of practice’. This is experiential. It goes beyond the mere ‘language system’ of the written realm (although both yearn for structural coherence). If it works, it works. In this section I speculate that the model of practice might be inspired principally by only one book, a key text and a text about doing almost nothing for years on end! It is this book that completes and affirms the model of practice. That book is Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel.
Archery is another paradoxical activity. The main aim is to stop thinking about the arrow and the target, for the mind and the body to act as one and for the archer to stop paying attention to himself or herself. We must get beyond self-consciousness, we must ‘be’ rather than ‘do’ something. At first Herrigel bemoans the point of self -consciousness in himself when
“....Calculation which is miscalculation sets in. The whole business of archery, the aim is to re-find a child-likes state which is beyond thinking.”
He postulates that
“If one really wishes to be master of an art, technical knowledge is not enough. One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an artless art growing out of the Unconscious.”
We discover that Zen is only about daily life or daily application to an art which becomes a way of life. Zen is simply the everyday mind; it is not far-fetched. We do not want to be thinking about what we are doing while we are doing it. This is a state of habitual meditation. Even more mundanely, it is simply a state of habit, a state of perfect integration of mind and body rather than attention to the activity with a ‘calculating’ mind. There is a ‘one-ness’ about it. We touch the transcendent and we hit the target with our arrows as easily as we lift up the toothpaste tube in the morning. I think of the best jugglers as the ones who are most often in the habit of keeping balls in the air.
The habit is also no big deal; it is played down. Feelings of euphoria and despair also get in the way:
“You know already that you should not grieve over bad shots, learn now not to rejoice over the good ones. You must free yourself from the buffeting s of pleasure and pain.”
Or as I would say it, emotionally there is very little difference between doing it and not doing it. We must stay just on the doing-it side of not-doing-it and it will be better. In fact the just-on-the-doing-it side is all that there is. There is a sort of monotony or boredom involved here, a necessary flatness.
In summary, this essay is a preamble to itself. In being such, it is a work of research which I write by reading other people’s ideas about art, while trying to stay connected to my body and my experience of being a dance artist. It is an explanation of and a context for a physical practice. There are lessons from how I read and write for my dancing and lessons from how I dance for my reading and writing. The paradoxical dialogue is ongoing and open-ended with myself and with the reader.
3. Reason for the Essay
Advice for the Insomniac
The reason for this essay is only to maintain an ongoing-ness, to allow events to continue to take their course on the page and in the body. How do I write about this in the body?
It finally dawned on me that the way to write about maintaining a physical practice is by means of an analogy between inspiration for the artist and sleep for the sleeper. The usual advice from the therapist for someone who is having trouble sleeping is to keep doing stuff until sleep comes of its own accord. “Do not go to bed until you feel sleepy. If you cannot sleep, get up and make a cup of tea, read a book. Don’t lie in bed tossing and turning. Your body will take sleep when it needs it.”
This advice implies the mind and the body are run on separate agendas, separate expectations. It is as if the body is seen to have a mind of its own, which is at odds with the desire or the will to sleep located in the rational or calculating mind. However, crucially the source of the good thing, the desired quality, is firmly placed in the body rather than in the rational mind. The rational mind then ‘pretends’ it is not interested in what the body gets up to, even if there is a great desire to be well rested before the next day.
It is this kind of trickery, paying less attention to a problem in order to solve it, which I like. Rather than forcing myself to sleep, I make the sleeping less important until the body is no longer pressurised into coming up with the goods. I like to run a parallel between the advice for the insomniac and my approach to making dance work. It is a parallel between the definition of sleep, a desired property of the individual located in the body, and a definition of artistic inspiration in a physical practice, which is also located forthrightly in the body.
There is great benefit for me in constructing a conceptualisation of an arts practice, which eliminates expectations about how I will be feeling when I am practising my art. Every time I start making art it is like saying “This is as good as it is going to get”. The arts practice becomes the activity to get on with while waiting to receive inspiration rather than the search for inspiration, searching like the tossing and turning insomniac.
It is juggling that gets over the pretence that I am not interested in whether I am inspired or not as a dance maker. The juggling is like the activity of the insomniac who finds something to do while unable to sleep. If I go to the studio to make choreography, it can be very difficult not to arrive with needs and expectations about being inspired. Juggling is training in co-ordination and a body conditioning at the same time. It is a state for the ‘dancer’ of being useful while not needing to be inspired. I can remain useful in any circumstance.
It is a curious analogy between being asleep and being inspired, and between avoiding lying awake and juggling. I see it like an arts practice involving various forms of ‘abdication’. There is the abdicating from the active mind that needs to keep making choreographic decisions. There is the abdicating from the need to look for inspiration from within on demand. In the same way the sleeper is abdicating from the need to be awake.
To lie awake at night noticing you are not sleeping is a glorious example of non-productive self-consciousness, that quality that my model of practice is so keen to get beyond.
Juggling Paradoxically Picked Cherries
In this essay, I have attempted to do something (or nothing) rigorous with the written word. I am mirroring the approach of not searching for inspiration and it is always my most recent thought I am writing about (Perhaps this is to state the obvious). I have followed the line of what is revealed in my work, and not sought out ideas. I have observed my ideas leapfrogging each other to the top of the page, a continual returning to the beginning and altering of the title, always re-appraising what I have written and recycling ideas in a different order. I have an image of an open-ended essay, never finished (or started) but completed by the reader.
As I have stated in my introduction this essay is written in the post-modern era, an era which permits me to cherry-pick ideas from my experience and from written history, philosophy, dance, theatre and psychoanalysis. I can bring these ideas together into this work of art’s language system. I have even noticed that within the confines of this system, Zen has brought mind and body together, and my aversion to insomnia has separated them again! This is all part of the post-modern chess game, which relishes the unearthing of paradoxes.
In a post-modernism language system, if a work of art is not speaking about anything it is at least always speaking about its own condition. So the performer who dances and juggles is, at the very least, dancing and juggling. Similarly Yvonne Rainer in 1965 formulated a strategy for demystifying dance and making it objective. It was described as a strategy of denial:
“No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to glamour and transcendence of the stage image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp not to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved."
* Terpsichore in Sneakers Post-Modern Dance, Sally Banes, p41
What she was left with of course was the dancer in the space. Her dance was neither drama, nor revelry in costume, lighting and image. In short it was almost nothing. It was something that could only be fully realised in the imagination of the spectator. It was, like Beckett and theatre, a reduction of dance to the essentials.
In my own dance practice, I have observed that it is just a fact that I pass through inspirations which I cannot hold onto. They come and go like clouds in the sky. I accept this and hope I have found a way for there to be no pressure to be inspired, only to stay engaged and, I guess, resist the urge to sleep. In this way I want to get beyond thinking and calculation, beyond craft and technique, beyond attention to myself and self-consciousness.
This model is personal. I do not want a separation between life and art. I advocate process over product. My theme is the integration of body and mind and the merging of art into life. This made it inevitable that I would bring questions around sleep into a discussion around a model of practice for a performance practice. I may continue to bask happily in paradoxes!