In slippery, exhilarating, and erudite prose, The Eyelid revels in the camaraderie of free thinking that can only happen on the lam, aiming to rescue a species that can no longer dream.
We couldn’t wait to ask S.D. Chrostowska a few questions about her new dystopian novel.
Q. What drew you to write this story?
A. Resistance to the warped values dominant in our society: the need to cut down on sleep to get ahead and stay ahead, the wish to be “on” 24/7, without downtime if possible, so as not to miss out. Also, the realization that, in a mere matter of decades, our relationship to the material world has fundamentally changed. Humanity pictures itself no longer the rational master of nature, but its nightmare. Humankind is a bad dream. And finally, it was the state of emergency in France and the “political warming” of Western societies. The verities of yesterday no longer comfort and the new conflicts don’t map onto classical ideologies. Many of us are groping in the dark. A fading horizon and social instability favour dreaming dangerously. I’ve come to the conclusion that dreamers, most of whom are neither closet revolutionaries nor terrorists, are our only hope.
Q. How is ‘daydreaming directly subversive’?
A. In daydreams, we often claim what reality denies us. We are happier, loved, rich, and famous. No matter how much we can buy to make ourselves happy, our need for happiness, expressed in daydreaming, is not satisfied. The imagination is basically creative. Felicity and optimism have become obligations because we are given the tools to fulfill them: consumer goods, media, pills. Our reveries are to some extent captive to this well-oiled system of gratification and self-fulfillment. They thrive on it. But they also subvert this order by their transgressive nature, their lawlessness, taking what in reality is not ours. Daydreams are not completely bound by the rules of existing society. They slip through its cracks. And if they are not, then they are the imagination’s placeholders for emancipation, mental spaces when we alter reality and can rehearse the good life, the promise of which the market has largely betrayed. The dreaming that interests me is social: dreaming of a better world for all, not just oneself. Social reverie is the imaginative “imperience” of collective freedom to the real experience of oppression.
Q. What would a state have to gain from eliminating sleep?
A. Lack of sleep dulls our mind, not just our reflexes. As we let down our guard, we become more available to production and consumption, and politically more docile. Work that is repetitive, mechanical is not too affected. Our choices as consumers are increasingly made for us by the internet anyway. Deprived of sleep, we not only become irritable, we also lose our ability to think and act rationally and critically. More complex mental operations suffer. Coffee and other stimulants might save the day for a while. Without them to compensate for sleep loss, waking life quickly becomes a confusing mess barely held together by routine and habits. Going through the motions, we resemble the autopilot machines we imagine taking over menial work for us so as to liberate our attention for being better consumers, well informed, more up to date, and trendier. The market and thus the state, which is not ideologically neutral, gain by having most brains run at less than their peak capacity while keeping us maximally occupied.
Until the economy makes inroads into our dreams, sleep remains a restorative withdrawal from the ceaseless solicitation which, for better or for worse, is an integral part of a global economic order that at the end of the day benefits very few. Asleep and dreaming, the affluent and the destitute might resemble each other. Their sleepless nights, however, could hardly be more different. A gulf separates the everyday worries keeping them awake at night. If sleep unites us, insomnia divides us.
In dream states we are free and suffer no lasting consequences. Human consciousness itself appears to be a kind of dream, an emergent property of the nervous system. Only let’s not fetishize dreams if it means closing our eyes to the miseries of reality. Dreaming is not a solipsistic refuge. But we must sleep on the problems with society before we can find solutions to them. And, to fix things, we need to be awake.
To read more of The Eyelid, get your copy here!
S.D. Chrostowska is Professor of Humanities and Social & Political Thought at York University, Toronto. She is the author of Literature on Trial: The Emergence of Critical Discourse in Germany, Poland, and Russia, 1700–1800 (2012); Permission: A Novel (2013); and Matches: A Light Book (2015, 2nd enlarged ed. 2019), and co-editor of Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives (2017). Learn more about S.D. Chrostowska.