Nature's Soft Nurse

A FAMOUS psychologist, finding himself confronted in the course of a lecture with the necessity of explaining sleep, had the happy idea of describing it as the natural state, from which only the higher forms of life ever emerge, and they but at intervals and with difficulty. Therefore it was wakefulness, he said, which demanded elucidation. And, his argument not being concerned with wakefulness, he passed on to other matters, with the air of having left everything settled behind him.

An ungracious herring, this, to drag across the trail; for who cares to discover the inner nature of being awake? We are of necessity awake, more or less, all the time we are thinking about it. Could we regard wakefulness with the eyes of sleep as we can regard sleep with the eyes of wakefulness, then no doubt we should see something romantic and strange. But, to a waking man, a waking man is generally no more remarkable than is a Hottentot to a Hottentot. Wakefulness, too, is such a useful, busy citizen that one hardly feels at liberty to trouble him with nonsensical and impertinent questions. But sleep, the idle and vagabond brother, owes some account of himself if only because of his vagrancy.

Let us not turn the beggar from the door. I hate overbusy and wide-awake people, like those clubmen in Trieste who inaugurated a vigilance contest and succeeded — some of them — in remaining bien éveillé for more than ninety hours. Was all this extra time needed to contain their good works? I have my doubts. It is but lost labor that ye haste to rise up early and go so late to take rest; for lo, He giveth His beloved sleep — and this in spite of the saying that five hours sufficeth a man, six a woman, and seven a fool.

’Je ferme les yeux pour mieux voir ton image au dedans de moi,’ says the gentle Nichaldi to Krishna.

Have you never, as you were sinking into slumber, felt like a sea-creature that had been dragged to land and kept panting there for an almost unendurable time, but was now at last released and permitted to swim back into its own cool and blessed element? Of course you have. And it is pleasant to think that our psychologist may have been right after all in claiming that this nightly period of repose reproduces the habitual status of more humble creatures. We are helped to understand; to fancy ourselves brothers — if not to the insensible rock, at least to the sensitive and sensible dog that lies at the foot of the bed.

Rover, let us say, has at his brightest and best about the same amount of consciousness, the same vagueness of comprehension, which is ours when locked in what used poetically to be termed the arms of Morpheus. Truly, a fine and comradely sort of theory, helping to bridge the regretted, speechless gulf between man and quadruped. But — look at Rover, will you?

Our wakefulness has roused him, and he comes toward us, extending his cold nose and licking the hand that lies outside the coverlet. According to the hypothesis, he is now asleep. Not from a dog’s standpoint, of course, for he has just come out of a sleep of his own. But asleep comparatively speaking. We can imagine —

But some stray scent too delicate for our nostrils comes creeping in at the window, or some sound which we cannot hear is trembling its way into the moonlit room. Rover’s head jerks to one side as if moved by a suddenly released spring. His nose quivers, his muscles grow taut, his coat bristles, a soft whimper stirs in his throat, and his whole being seems to vibrate with a restrained, tense, electric excitement. Asleep, is he? Yes —asleep like a dynamo. But asleep like us when we have closed the lids against the sandman?

Why, it seems rather as if we were never half so wide-awake as this kindly, tamed wolf who condescends so often to follow at our heels. When are our senses as acute, our nerves as ready, our muscles as quick? Is it possible that a torpid brain, clouded as with opiates, lies behind all these dynamic phenomena? No one can believe it for a moment while looking down into Rover’s eyes. Dumb he may be — though only to unfortunate scientists who never have had the luck to be loved by a dog. But sleepy? No more than is a steel trap.

Even if we get up and go with Rover to investigate this alarming sound, or odor, or ghost, or whatever it is, our theory of somnolent nature shall not fare much better. In the garden the flowers are mainly asleep, it is true; but this is their slumber hour, and we suddenly begin to remember how bright and aware they looked before bedtime. The pansies even now are open-eyed, and pansies are for thoughts — dreamy ones, perhaps, but not such sleepy ones as we might have fancied from the distance of the house. In this night-enchanted garden, which looks so drowsy, the spirit that reigns, if we stay to watch it, is one of intense alertness. And lurking everywhere is a readiness to enter at a moment’s notice upon a struggle for life or death.

No, there must be something wrong with the psychologist’s passing notion — which is to bo regretted. It promised so much, and was such an advance upon that old scientific wheeze that sleep is a ‘function of the brain,’ a sort of bile secreted by the — God save us — medulla oblongata.

But if sleep be not a retracing in inverse direction of the hard, evolutionary path up which we are said to have climbed from the anteater and the sloth, what then? If we do not relapse into the bosom of matter, to become the protoplasmic babe we were before the beginning of that none-too-agreeable experiment which bade us change, and survive or perish according to our proved fitness at every turn, what do we do?

‘I close mine eyes the better to see thine image within me,’ Nichaldi repeats. And one begins to feel that she may have meant something deeper than an idle compliment. But let us consult experience and not the books.

I am one of those sedentary persons whose bodies, unexercised, develop no ‘fatigue hypnotics.’ In other words, I am prone, as the saying is, to suffer from insomnia. The physicians whom one consults in such contingencies invariably draw long faces and prognosticate evil. One takes their suggestions along with their drugs, and slowly and surely becomes neurasthenic.

It does no good to count imaginary sheep, to go over the magic table of ninetimes-this-is-that, or to remember what Freud has said — that the primary cause of sleep is a general lack of interest in one’s environment. I tried the method with all possible variations, losing, I am certain, every atom of interest either in conjured-up rams or in the products of paradoxically barren multiplications. Sleep regarded me disapprovingly from a distance, or approached only to plunge me into a horrible gulf which was not sleep but a stupor, until I was sometimes minded to imitate Kipling’s hero who sat up in bed with cactus plants upon the pillow between himself and the possibility of nightmare.

Then I began to discover that I rather enjoyed lying open-eyed, so long as I did not worry about it. Stretched out at ease between the blankets, sometimes beneath the stars or on a sleeping-porch, but more often in a common city bedroom, I made the acquaintance of Night. And so, as the poor learn the value of money, I learned the value of sleep, and something of its nature, perhaps—by dint of doing without it.

Galsworthy, in a chapter in The Inn of Tranquillity, says that ‘what is grievous, dompting, grim about our lives is that we are shut up within ourselves.’ There is the secret. It is to self, not to environment, that, wakeful, we are enchained. Day makes too much of us. Day is small. We move, consciously conspicuous, as in a spotlight, beyond which the whole universe seems like a shadowy theatre with pit and galleries filled with admiring spectators. At night we may, if we will, escape beyond the footlights and ‘be stolen away from ourselves.’ This is what was the trouble with our sheep-counting and our mental arithmetic. They kept alive the fanciful importance of our workaday pursuits.

Yet it was not Galsworthy, but a very different writer, Marie Corelli, who first taught me how to steep my senses in forgetfulness. No doubt I was in a crude, undeveloped stage when I read her Romance of Two Worlds (I think it was), and came upon her description of God as a luminous circle of light or fire — a circle of enormous circumference, self-suspended in the midst of space; rather cold, as I remember it, from its sheer intensity; a blinding white thing, like a revolving wheel so truly balanced that it seems not to stir.

Somehow the picture took hold of my imagination, and I fell to contemplating this glorious ring upon going to bed. There, in the presence of that blazing marvel, what mattered it if I did lose a few head of mutton? What mattered it whether I slept or continued to be a victim to insomnia? What mattered it even whether I lived or died?

Within the last fifty years a change has come over the minds of men. Thus our famous psychologist can imagine no ‘natural state’ except that from which the higher forms of life have struggled up. We think of ourselves as atolls, even though it be atolls of the sun — rocky, wave-swept surfaces built from the depths of the ooze, proudly resting upon the dead bodies of less fortunate ancestors. The one touch of nature which makes the whole world kin is now the memory of a common degradation.

Yet, as I have said, until about fifty years ago almost everybody believed it quite possible that we were less like atolls than like peoples who have migrated from far, delectable mountains. Isis found the broken body of Osiris scattered along the valley — but it had once been whole upon the heavenly hills. All the ancients spoke continually of a lost paradise, of a Golden Age that had gone before. It needed the nineteenth century to make it quite certain that the only possible Eden lies ahead, a sort of socialistic residence-park, where every citizen shall have his automobile and his radio. Insistent as we are upon the law of causation, we have made believe to believe in an evolution unaccompanied by any devolution; in an uncreated creation which lifts itself from height to height by pulling lustily at its bootstraps.

Astronomers never tire of describing the far-flung star-dust as it collects, revolves, grows warm, forms nuclei, a sun, planets, and all the inhabitants thereof. But this is only half even of the nebular hypothesis. The other half implies a bursting sun, the scattering of the dust. That sense of home-going which is so often ours as we drift off into slumber — could Nichaldi have meant as much as that?

‘I close mine eyes the better to see thine image within me!’

Growth, then, were a remembering, a groping back; sleep a little death; and, as Brunhild was driven from Valhalla into a sleep, so might her sons and daughters in sleep dream it back again.

But let us not send our souls into the invisible too far — not yet. Back to the comfortable sleepy hollow. Remember, though, that Nature’s soft nurse is no anæsthetist, ready to dull our pains merely because they become intolerable; and that Macbeth hath murdered sleep from the moment he begins to demand her as a refuge from the troubles he has created for himself. Peace is better found this side of the gulf— for of what use is sleep to him who carries into the Land of Nod the burdens of the day? Will not his mind continue to buy and to sell, to plot, to gain and to suffer loss?

The best preparation has something ritualistic about it — something akin to the burning of a grain or two of olibanum in a jeweled thurible. Breathe this blessed anodyne gently. Think of the innumerable reasons for felicity that you have, as you yield your weight to the support of the spring-mattress, the hemlock boughs, the hammock, or whatever it is that you have chosen, or been driven to choose, as your couch. You no longer need to move, to keep up appearances, to find reasons and excuses. No world stands by, ready to call you to account. Gradually the necessities of life relax their grip. Gravity, checked, gives over trying to trip you to a fall. Thought, left free, begins to roam. It is the hour of magic, of telepathy, of what we fondly call the subconscious.

And as you approach the required state of indifference you discover that it is no boredom, but a species of liberation, of reconciliation, of harmony with some mysterious essence of law not yet included in the newer orthodoxy, in which you float as a midge in the ether. You are released from the tyrannous ego which is the torturing ‘wheel of things.’

There comes, I find, a sense of kinship, beginning with kinship with the darkness and the night. Then we, myself and I, float out upon the universe, real brothers of the rock at last, but in an altogether new sense of the word. The trees, the animals, Rover and all the others, go with us, as well as the whole world of minerals with their curious powers of crystal choice. We blend with something which is not ourselves and yet which we are. We have no care as to whither we go or what is done to us. The hostility of the universe has been disarmed by this, our unconditional surrender; and with a feeling of bliss indescribable, because so remote from the plane of words, we reach Nirvana and beyond. The soft nurse that is Nature’s as well as ours has taken us into its care.