Active Sleeping

December 20, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Did you sleep well?
Uh, I made a few mistakes.
                     – Steven Wright

We were schmoozing in the hall, my colleagues Sangeeta Parashar, Yong Wang, and I. Sangeeta mentioned a recent CNN Travel blog post about Indianisms, phrases peculiar to India and the Indian diaspora, like “Do the needful.” The author found most of these objectionable – “discuss about” rather than “discuss” or “please revert” instead of “please reply.”

“And ‘sleep is coming’,” said Sangeeta. “We say that to mean ‘I’m going to sleep,” as though sleep is some external force that descends upon the person. “I must go to bed. Sleep is coming.”

Yong said that the Chinese version was similar. Sleep is something that happens to you. “Sleep falls upon me,” or even “Sleep attacks me.”

Two things came immediately to mind: the Steven Wright* joke, but also Robin Williams. No, not the comedian. The sociologist whose take on American culture begins
1. American culture is organized around the attempt at active mastery rather than passive acceptance.  (American Society, 1950)
Our preference for thinking in terms of active mastery extends even to sleep.  It’s something we do, not something we passively accept when it comes, and we can do it well or badly (or with just a few mistakes). From my days as a parent of a toddler, I remember other parents who were training their kids to sleep as they would later train them to use the toilet or kick a soccer ball.  Active mastery.

Of course, sleep as an active verb extends far beyond American culture. The French tell their children “fais dodo” just as they tell them “fais pipi” (preferably not sur le gazon or while they font dodo).  And Western thought  too shares the conception of sleep as an external thing performing actions on individuals. Sleep “knits up the ravelled sleeve of care” (unless Macbeth murders it, which he doth).  Golden slumbers can fill our eyes. We may call for sleep to come and wrap us in its arms. 

I’m not suggesting that these different ways of talking about sleep epitomize huge differences between the Western and non-Western worldviews or the balance between individual agency and context. The Language Loggers (here, for example) have made me cautious about such generalizations.  Still, I cannot completely discount and ignore the differences in imagery.

And so to bed.

*For those not familiar with Wright, you can find him on YouTube. At a time when most new comedians were doing “observational” comedy, Wright harked back to the old-style of one-liners told in the first person only with a far different perspective and delivery (“I went to a restaurant that serves 'breakfast at any time'. So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance”) – Henny Youngman, only absurd and on heavy downers.

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