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The Dangers of Being Beautiful and Asleep

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What happens at night?

When we sleep at night, how are we sure that the world remained just like it was right before we closed our eyes?  The pillows may still be there. The picture frame may still be hanging on the wall. And the glass of water on the night stand still half-full. But what if  something or someone came in the night while we were sleeping. What if they touched us, did things to our bodies so that even though the world around us remained the same, our bodies did not?

Maurice Blanchot, a French Philosopher of very strange and bewitching ideas, wants us to believe that sleep does not make us vulnerable. He claims that the time of sleep is not a time of weakness. It’s easy to believe him when he says that sleep is an act of faith that your head has made with your pillow and your body with your bed that they will bear your lifeless body and give it a sense of place so that you do not wander aimlessly and become lost. But an act of faith is not a contract, so there really are no guarantees.

So why do we trust in sleep to shield our bodies from indecent use? Have we not heard of the girls in Yasunari Kawabata’s short story, House of the Sleeping Beauties? It’s a simple story written in the most deliciously minimalist prose. It is about an old man and his visits to a very unusual brothel. Typically, brothels are places where passion is bought and sold. In this brothel, they sell the absence of passion. Impotent old men pay money to spend the night with girls put to deep, deep sleep. Assured that the girls won’t wake up, these old men do just about anything to their bodies. Imagine that. The only restriction is that they cannot have sexual intercourse with the girls. A redundant rule in a place frequented by impotent old men.

What would Blanchot say to Kawabata’s sleeping beauties? These girls that never rise from their sleep intact. Sleep is supposed to put us in place, give us rest. The darkness and our beds are supposed to unite and encase us as a coffin does the corpse. But these girls are neither dead nor protected in sleep. They are “living dolls.” Blanchot says that sleep is not a moment of weakness. In sleep, I do not roam aimlessly. I stop and mark out a place for myself. Blanchot is right. These girls do not roam. But in fixing themselves and their world in sleep, they leave their bodies exposed to roaming withered hand.

Blanchot makes fun of people who are surprised at finding everything still there when they wake up in the morning. When these girls wake up, the room is still draped in crimson. It’s just that their bodies are no longer the same. And from sleep which, as Blanchot assures us, fixes us to the world, these girls sometimes slip into death. Sometimes they just never wake up. Other times they’re strangled by a sick old man. The distance between a living doll and corpse is not that much after all.

We hate the sleepwalker because he is a faithless automaton. He he has no sense of place and keeps no faith withsleep. But these girls are not sleepwalkers. They are “living dolls” or “living toys” made “so as not to shame an old man no longer a man.”

What happens at night? Generally we sleep. But what happens when we sleep?

 

Image: Sleeping Accomodations For Two by Kusakabe Kimbei via

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Ainehi Edoro is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches African literature. She received her doctorate at Duke University. She is the founder and editor of Brittle Paper and series editor of Ohio University Press’s Modern African Writer’s imprint.

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