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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Manfred Engel: Nathaniel Wallace. Scanning the Hypnoglyph: Sleep in Modernist and Postmodern Representation. Leiden and Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2016. Pp. 343 + xxvi. ISBN: 9789004316188.

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Nathaniel Wallace. Scanning the Hypnoglyph: Sleep in Modernist and Postmodern Representation. Leiden and Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2016. Pp. 343 + xxvi. ISBN: 9789004316188.

Current interest in the cultural history of the sleep may not be as big as in that of its sibling, the dream, but it is still astonishingly widespread. The most important publications in the field can be found on the website, where one can easily see that the dominant approach is a sociological or social-historical one. So most researchers are concerned with what might be called the ‘politics’ of sleep, i.e. social rules, practices and conventions which shape and control sleep.

Nathaniel Wallace is interested in the history of sleep in literature and the arts, with a special focus on the 20th and 21st centuries. Readers who may wonder what a ‘hypnoglyph’ is (just as I did) will search in vain for a concise definition. In the Preface we are told that it is “a postmodern quasi-genre […] that exploits the many enigmatic and evocative qualities of dormancy” and that it is “widespread in contemporary verbal and visual culture” (XII). Much later we learn that Robert Rauschenberg’s combine Bed of 1955 was “the first hypnoglyph” (118), although it shows the space of sleep – made up of Rauschenberg’s bed quilt, sheet and pillow attached to a vertical frame and partly painted over with oil colour – instead of the sleeper (to actually perceive this the reader will have to consult the internet as the black-and-white figure given in the book is – like many others – tiny and of a deplorable quality). And many pages later, we are told that a hypnoglyph is “a curious postmodern form entailing a highlighting of sleep, a combining of text and image,1 interruption or blocking of circadian rhythms, and especially a resistance ←201 | 202→to and/or of narratives” (248). And it is not before the Conclusion that we receive any information on the second half of the term (‘glyph’, derived from the Greek verb glýphein, i.e. carve, engrave), which, however, poses more questions than it answers: “The ‘glyph’ in the hypnoglyph signals a via negativa that can lead to unpleasant (or at times reassuring) self-knowledge or to a cultural critique or to nowhere at all” (305).

This anxiety of definition is, I am afraid, a basic principle of Wallace’s study which some readers may enjoy – and others deplore. I must confess that I belong to the latter group. I am perfectly willing to put up with any hardship in trying to understand a work of literature or art – but not when reading a piece of secondary literature from which I expect clear and elucidating comments rather than ‘glyphs’ needy of glossary.

For the time being we can content ourselves with assuming that a ‘hypnoglpyh’ is a literary text or work of art dealing with the subject of sleep in a postmodern way. But this only means a displacement of the problem, as Wallace is equally unwilling to provide us with a/his definition of Postmodernism and, for that matter, Modernism, although both terms are key-words in his subtitle. Of course, I could try again, as I did for the ‘hypnoglyph’, to put together the puzzle-pieces of definition/s which are scattered throughout the book and even attempt to organize them into a coherent whole. But, as I said, I am simply not willing to do this for a critical study. I will merely refer to one of the less expected (and less plausible) of the bits and pieces and pieces of information which have to serve as a substitute for a coherent definition: At one point in his study Wallace approvingly quotes Fredric Jameson’s ‘definition’ of Postmodernism as “ ‘late-phase capitalism’ ” (100). Does this mean that Modernism could be adequately defined as ‘high capitalism’ and, given the astonishing tenacity of capitalism – in spite of the even more astonishing expectation, shared by so many intellectuals, of its imminent decease – that ‘very late capitalism’ might be the appropriate definition for a post-postmodernist period?

Obviously, the search for concise definitions of the basic terms of Wallace’s study is not an appropriate approach. We will, however, be more successful when we look for the systematic foundations and the historical presuppositions of the study.

The systematic basis is sketched in chapter 1. Wallace firstly posits a connection between “sleep and narrative resistance” (11) which is almost too obvious to be discussed. In fact, sleep – dreamless sleep, in which ←202 | 203→Wallace is primarily interested – not only resists narration, it simply defies it. For dreamless sleep is a non-event, apparently devoid of all mental activities. One could, of course, describe the sleeper from the outside – which is sometimes, but rarely, done in literary text, and the normal case in painting. But one should also be aware that portraying a sleeper does not necessarily involve a thematizing of sleep – looking at a motionless and defenceless sleeper always includes a strong element of voyeurism, which may quite often be the dominant subject and interest. In longer narratives sleep will, quite often, be used as a key motif rather than as a subject – an important distinction which Wallace ignores completely. He is, however, quite right in observing that dreams can “provide a re-entry into narrative” (35), although in themselves (due to the fluidity of the dream world and its neglect of space and time) they also offer a strong resistance to narration.

Wallace’s second point is a strangely essentialist one. Based on cognitive studies and, perhaps inevitably, Freud and Lacan, he posits a double way in which sleep affects the cognition of the young child and, consequently, modes of sleep depiction: (1) “primary narcissism” (25) as a feeling of “all-embracing inclusivity” (306), and (2) “separation anxiety” as a feeling of “vulnerability” resulting in “a desire for either independence or renewed dependence” (306). As a literary critic, I have absolutely no competence to make authoritative statements about sleep, and as a cultural historian, I consider all propositions about sleep as objects of my research and not as a meta-theory on which this could be based. But one can easily concede that these two feelings are indeed important elements of the sleep discourse (or discourses), together with, as Wallace rightly notes, associations with “sin, death, dreams, […] sexuality” (306).

Wallace’s concept of a history of sleep, at least so far as I can reconstruct it, starts in the Early Modern period. The era before remains only vaguely contoured. Though a hypnophobic tendency seems to have dominated in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (15), there were also strong countertendencies. In the Early Modern Period, however, hypnophobia became universal. Firstly, because with the rise of capitalism sleep was considered as a sorry, or even sinful, waste of time which was to be minimized. Secondly, because of Descartes’s denegation of dreamless sleep, which he deemed impossible as the soul or mind could never sleep completely. This is perfectly true for rationalistic thinkers of the Enlightenment; empiricists and, even more, sensualists, however, by no ←203 | 204→means shared this conviction. And many Romantic writings on sleep and dream postulated that the oscillation between sleep and wakefulness – with the dream as a median and mediating third state in-between – was the natural way in which the soul took part in the polaric rhythm of the universe. But as Romanticism remains a blind spot in Wallace’s study,2 this extremely important threshold in the cultural history of sleep is never discussed. The next main phase in Wallace’s history of sleep is Modernism, “in which sleep-states, typically, are serenely aestheticized” (XV), in most cases mainly because sleep is “an irrepressible conveyor of dreams” (90); here Proust is Wallace’s principal and almost only example.

The main part of Wallace’s study is divided into four chapters, each centred on a key aspect: “vertical slumber” (meaning quite often simply that the sleeper is shown in an extreme high-shot and therefore in a vertical position) which is interpreted “as an expression of the constraints placed on the modern and postmodern subjects” (145); the ‘narcissistic’ type of the depiction of sleep; the – alternative – second type which stresses the vulnerability of the self. The last chapter is devoted to “gender inflections” in the depiction of “gay, lesbian, or androgynous” sleepers (238). This chapter is the weakest in the book, not only because the examples are not very convincing – it may be my fault, but often I am unable to detect the gender ambiguities which Wallace describes – but mainly because the author tends to lose sight of his main subject, sleep, in his gender discussions.

In these four chapters Wallace analyzes – to name only the main examples – poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur, narratives by Anne Sexton, Marguerite Duras and the Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, works of visual art by Vincent Desiderio, Anselm Kiefer, Fran Gardner and Marc Tansey, and Andy Warhol’s film Sleep. The discussion of these examples is always illuminating, sometimes even based on first-hand information acquired in interviews with the artists themselves. As is to be expected, there is a heavy accent on intertextuality and interpictoriality, although Wallace is well aware of the fact that “perceived similarities between works of literature are legion and often misleading” (229). And, as is to be expected from a study on Postmodernism which is itself firmly based on postmodern values, there ←204 | 205→is a strong resistance to interpretive closure (which, as one should always be aware, rests primarily on the interpreter’s decision not to ‘close’ and not on qualities inherent in a text or work of art).

To sum up: I have to confess that I sincerely doubt that there is anything like the hypnoglyph as a distinct genre; in fact, I am not even sure if the subject of sleep is more prominent in Postmodernism than in earlier periods. Wallace’s list of examples from literature and the visual arts is certainly impressive, but their number remains limited and their origin is mainly restricted to the USA, France, and (solely with Anselm Kiefer) to Germany. Yet the book contains a wealth of information on the sleep discourse and an impressive number of examples from texts and paintings depicting different aspects of sleep and expressing different attitudes to it. So anybody interested in the cultural history of sleep will profit from its perusal. And I am perfectly ready to admit that much of my criticism may be due to the fact that I simply am not the ideal (postmodern) reader for whom this study was written.


Manfred Engel

Saarland University, Saarbrücken (Germany)

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1 As there is no text in Rauschenberg’s Bed (nor in the other hypnoglyphs discussed) I suppose that ‘text’ must be a reference to (implied) ‘discourses’ – but still keep wondering where the ‘image’ in literary hypnoglyphs can be found – perhaps in a reference to paintings?

2 There are only passing references to Shelley, Keats, and Victor Hugo; German Romanticism is completely ignored.