Writer Teolinda Gersão, awarded the Grand Prize of the Portuguese Writers Association for Novella and Novel and twice winner of the P.E.N. Club Prize for Fiction, says she never “takes an important decision without having slept on it” and that “unfortunately there are many children getting just seven or less hours of sleep”. She talks about dreams as “pure literature”.
Literature is full of references to sleep, to sleep disorders, dreams… How do you interpret that fact?
Sleep and dreams are essential parts of life, to which we do not pay proper attention in general. But looking deeper, literature shows that in these situations we are not absent; on the contrary, consciousness continues to work. Many important things happen in sleep and in dreams. No wonder that literature should address them.
Proust devotes almost 30 pages to describing how the narrator has trouble sleeping… Literature is also interested in the so-called “different” situations, whether altered or even pathological. Its object is the human being, in all its states.
In Chekhov’s short story “Sleepy” the maid ends up killing the child in order to be able to sleep…
In Chekhov’s short story, a 13-year old maid serves a shoemaker and his wife, who are constantly overbearing her. She does all the housework and also takes care of the baby. If she is delayed or falls asleep, she is beaten and she is so tired that her only wish is to sleep. She does everything to stay up and rock the crying baby to sleep at night, while the parents snore in the next room. Sleep is so strong that, even inadvertently, she starts dreaming and hallucinating, divided between wanting to keep awake and the urgent need for sleep. She stays firm in spite of all, falling asleep from time to time, or in a half-sleep state, dreaming or hallucinating her own history, her parents’ miserable life, her father’s death for lack of medical care. She works continuously, all day long, until sleep deprivation takes her to the delirious state in which the baby appears to her as the enemy that prevents her from living, breathing, existing. Hallucinated, she smothers the baby in a kind of dream state, to finally be able to sleep. The story depicts an extreme situation, the abuse of a child to whom the abuse takes to an altered state of consciousness that makes her unable to take care of another child. Is the maid the one who commits the crime? Yes, but in a state of exhaustion that led to her to hallucination. The real culprit is the society that places her in a situation she cannot physically endure. Another conclusion in this story is that the need for sleep is imperative and causes our unconscious to fool us, to deceive us, in order to “give us permission” to fall asleep.
There are theories that argue that throughout evolution humans have adaptive advantages for sleeping, either because they were saving energy, or because they ran less risk of accidents…
I cannot speak of evolution in scientific terms, because I am not familiar with it, but I believe that these theories make sense. All animals sleep, but probably our sleep is longer, more complex and profound. In fact, I do not know.
Modern world makes many people sleep less and less. Are we dangerously challenging our biological clock?
I believe so. Starting with the children, who do not sleep enough, at least in large urban areas. Schools are far, transportation is difficult, the housework is heavy, parents’ lives too, and bedtime is increasingly later, while the time to get up remains the same. Seven hours of sleep, sometimes less, is customary for many children. Unfortunately…
At what time do you prefer to write?
In the morning, or at night, without looking at the clock and even bothering to tell time. Afternoons are less productive; I generally occupy them with routine tasks.
Do you ever wake up in the night or in the morning with an idea? Do you usually write it down?
I think that happens to all writers. I generally register the idea or dream immediately. If I don’t, because the desire to continue to sleep is very strong “assuring” me that I will not forget anything, when I finally wake up, most of the times I realise that I have forgotten it. But sometimes the idea or dream is so strong that I recall it when I wake up again, even without having registered at the time, as long as I have managed to fix a keyword that refers to it when wake up.
Have you ever counted sheep? Or does no one ever do that?
I have no idea if there are people who count sheep… I never did, and in general I have no trouble sleeping.
Do you recall some point in your life in which sleep has been a good adviser?
According to the popular saying, it is the pillow that always is a good adviser, not sleep. I never take an important decision without having slept on it one night or more, and I never send a text I wrote without having read it again in the next day or in the following days.
According to British legend, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are asleep somewhere in a cave and they will wake up in case Great Britain needs them in a moment of national emergency. Is it like the Portuguese myth, according to which King Sebastian will return on a misty day…
This theme recurs in various kinds of literature in different forms and versions. I think that deep down these legends give us what we have within us, stored in the unconscious, a sort of wisdom of which, in times of crisis, we will become aware and which will help us find a way out. But “salvation”, whether individually or collectively, never comes from outside, it is up to us to find it. This is the dangerous side of the legends and myths, when taken too literally. King Sebastian never came and will never come. No one will save us from anything, except ourselves.
Freud said that “dream is the faithful guardian of our mental health, our joy of life, since life is nothing but a continuous search of pleasure, contradicted by reality”… Freud is very pessimistic… The principle of reality does not necessarily oppose to the principle of pleasure, and reality can be a source of pleasure, partly because the reality of each one is built every day by oneself. Of course the pleasure of real life, however, is relative; it encounters obstacles and factors which we do not control. In dreams there are no such limits, there are no spatial or temporal boundaries, there is no good or bad, “everything” is possible. But that does not stop dreams from being nightmares as well… On the other hand, I think Freud is right to say that dreams are the guardian of our mental health (they can supply us with large amounts of energy) and of our joy of living. It seems to me, however, that it also applies to our daydreams, to projects, ideas, goals.
Do you recall any amusing story involving sleep or lack of it?
I remember one time being fast asleep, when suddenly the alarm went off. I was so tired that the last thing I wanted was to wake up. I knew I had to get up and do a lot of things, I fought to wake up but I was unable to, so I dreamed I would get up, dress and go do my things. Then I turned in my bed and thought, overjoyed: “Thankfully “she” is gone. Now “I” can continue to sleep”. It’s actually a situation similar to Chekhov’s maid… Fortunately, in my case, the alarm went off again 10 minutes later, otherwise I would have left the students without class!
Can you tell us about a particularly fanciful dream you have had?
It would be too long… To those who are interested in my dreams – or in what I write in a somewhat autobiographical but heterodox fashion, because I consider categories of “I” and “time” to be false in diary writing – I suggest you read Os Guarda-Chuvas Cintilantes and Águas Livres [both of them not translated fictional diaries]. You will find there real dreams and nightmares. As I wrote in this last book, dreams have always interested me from a very young age because they seemed pure literature. Long before having read Freud, Jung or any other author.