The Sleepers: Kind Assassin Back to Conversations & Essays
essay by John Guare
Elizabeth Heyert's photographs caught me off-guard. I kept looking at them and looking at them. And then I remembered a vivid event that must have happened in the second grade. We read a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, an American, popular in the 19th century and still assigned in the 1940s. The poem was the first time I ever read something that troubled me. It was called "No Boy Knows When He Goes To Sleep" and I'll be damned if I can find a copy of it anywhere.
It troubled me because I had never before thought of the act of falling asleep as an event. Getting ready for sleep was one of the big events of the day—teeth brushing, prayers, a story, a kiss, lights out. And then it was morning. Waking up was the next big event. How did you sleep? Fine. Yet this doggerel poem made this seven year old aware of the mystery of the big event that took up one third of everyone's day. I was determined to be the one boy who would know the precise moment when he went to sleep. I would lie in bed, hear my parents in another room, a radio perhaps, feel sleepy. Here it comes. I will know the moment. Now. Now—But then it would be morning. And I had missed that boundary again.
We once went through the Holland tunnel and my father told me to look for the place on the tiled walls that marked the demarcation between New York and New Jersey. I held my breath till we had passed. I wanted to feel the change and told myself I did. I followed the dates when spring would become summer. Yes, I could feel it. I liked those eerie days when daylight savings time started or ended. You could see visible proof of the day's light being connected to time. I could feel it when it was my birthday. But one third of my life was out of my control. You mean no boy ever knows when he goes to sleep is a fact? The fact of sleep was the first time I experienced a universal thought. And I didn't like it.
Time went on. Sleep became a more troubling event. I was a sleepwalker. At the beach one summer, my parents would tie me into bed so I wouldn't get up during the night and fall down the steep stairs. They would relate these adventures to me. Once while asleep, I woke my parents up to thank them for taking care of me but now it was time to leave and would they help me pack? They got out of bed and got a suitcase and packed a few things. I took the suitcase, thanked them and got back into bed. They told me this event the next morning with great glee. I had no memory of it. I hated that. There was a comic strip called Dick's Adventures in Dreamland. A boy my age would fall asleep and be transported to ancient Egypt or the American Revolution. Then he'd wake up and fall back asleep again for the next adventure. Did that happen to me? Where was I in those eight hours? My father took me to a Bing Crosby movie called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court written by the man who wrote Tom Sawyer, which I guess I liked. I didn't know you couldn't like things. In that movie, Bing got knocked out and traveled back to another time, but at least it came from a conk on the head and not sleep. Where did I go when I slept? We started going to stage musicals. There were always dream ballets. The heroine would fall asleep and immediately everyone would start dancing. Did that happen to me? I was missing the most important part of my life. If I could know that moment when I crossed over
I found Calderon de la Barca's Life is a Dream, perhaps the only perfect play ever written, in which the hero can't tell if he's awake or dreaming. At the end of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the stage manager remarks that "the strain [of living]'s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest." I even remember that Andy Warhol film Sleep in which the camera hypnotically recorded a man sleeping for hours. I had my analysis in the 70s; days when I brought in dreams were successful days. Sleep tells me the truth—if I could decipher those dreams. Sleep is the place where truth is born. "To sleep: perchance to dream." "Let me sleep on it." Delmore Schwartz wrote a story "In Dreams Begin Responsibility." Richard Wilbur: "The kind Assassin Sleep will draw a bead / And blow your brains out."
So why can't we know that moment of assassination that can happen in a bed or at a theater or talking to someone or reading right now or on a journey, hopefully not while being the driver? I hate that James Whitcomb Riley is right.
Elizabeth Heyert shows what an alien state sleep is. Why do these people look as if they are engaged in some profoundly arduous, weird and heroic task? Why is it so mysterious when it's where we were last night and tonight and tomorrow night—until the Big Sleep. You watch these pictures with great care. Sir James Frazer says in the Golden Bough "It is a common rule with primitive people not to waken a sleeper because his soul is away and might not have time to get back."
These photos make me think of the Etruscans who left all these pots behind illustrated with drawings of themselves laughing, joyous—and then they vanished—probably through intermarriage with the Romans, but maybe not. Maybe they did just vanish and these photos take us backstage to the Etruscans sleeping, recuperating from their joy. Are they planning their escape, their disappearance? Or have their souls gone somewhere else?
These haunting photographs record one of the most basic functions of life. But isn't that mystery its essential truth? Tonight try to mark that moment when we slide off to that miraculous state so beautifully recorded here by Heyert. See if you can be the first to witness that moment of divine passage when we—when we—when we—