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At the Borders of Sleep: On Liminal Literature

by Peter Schwenger
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2012
176 pp. Trade: $67.50; paper, $22.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7975-1; 978-0-8166-7976-8.

Reviewed by Will Luers
The Creative Media & Digital Culture Program
Washington State University Vancouver


At the Borders of Sleep: on Liminal Literature is not an explanation of the literary experience through the filter of sleep science. For, as Schwenger makes clear in this book, literature is written and read within “the ambiguities and paradoxes” of experience. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have certainly opened exciting new ways of thinking about the questions that have always concerned the humanities, but there is a real cultural danger that the language of science will replace the language of literature, art and philosophy on questions of the self, reality, desire, dream and illusion. One of the many interesting surprises of the book is the idea of literature occupying a threshold similar to the ones between various states of waking and sleeping, “liminal zones” where science, with its objective methodologies, cannot find solid ground.  To read Moby Dick, rather than the data summary of its major themes, is to encounter and be transformed by a complex reality the way Melville conceived it.

The “liminal” is a term first coined by anthropologist Mark Turner to describe tribal rituals of transition and transformation. In the context of literary studies, the word evokes the almost shamanic transformations that can happen when one picks up a book and starts reading. While scientific studies of falling sleep and waking are brought into the discussion, it is literature that provides the vehicle for understanding what happens just before and after sleep. Schwenger not only provides a compelling narrative for understanding what literature does, but also a strong defense for a certain type of literature that is aware of its own unique liminality. This is not a book about dreaming as a theme and topic in literature. Schwenger is more interested in a literary practice that lingers at the thresholds between the reader, the writer and the text.

Hypnagogia, insomnia, waking and sleepwalking are used as analogs for various forms of literary and lived experience. Reading, like falling asleep, is a dissolution of the self and an encounter with an unknown. Insomnia, a condition that many writers find themselves in, is an extension of consciousness into night, the workings of the subconscious and the “unwished-for proliferation of thoughts that keep one from relaxing into sleep.” Readers also forgo sleep to stay with a book. To turn the page, to stay awake at the edge of sleep, is to remain within a threshold before dissolution. Waking, like the closing of a book, is the reconstruction of the self and reality from a dissolution; the mind remembering itself and its place in the world. And finally, sleepwalking is explored as the state where the mind is never completely awake, as thoughts, dreams or the residue of a book are with us as we go about our lives. All of these liminal zones are rich terrain for literature.

Schwenger borrows the music term “obbligato”, the sometimes improvised musical line around a main theme, to reflect on the barely conscious mental wanderings of a reader trying to follow a text. While a text has built-in instructions for how it should be read and interpreted, a reader will, on occasion, drift away from these instructions to explore a memory, thought or distraction that may or may not be relevant to the narrative line. Writers who are aware of this “pleasure of the text” (Barthes) and the polyphony of narratives and images that a reader naturally brings to any reading, can foreground the reader’s obbligato by withholding meaning, severing causal links or overwhelming logic with associations and digressions. Hypnagogia, the state just before sleep when the eyes are closed and images appear without the control of a thinking self, produces a “disconcerting fecundity” that “…eludes translation into an intellectual-allegorical equivalent.” Poets and novelists, such as Proust, De Chirco, Ashbery, Joyce and Pessoa, attempt to produce similar hypnagogic effects on the reader with word and sentence sequences that may produce meaning on a local level, the fragment one is currently reading, but that do not build into a coherent narrative line. This shapelessness of a thought chain encourages an obbligato effect, where the reader brings into play flickers of associations that accumulate around the text’s own imagery; an “artificially induced hypnagogia that takes place with eyes wide open.”

My own obbligato effect while reading this book were thoughts around literature’s current liminal stage: the technological transformations of the codex into digital books, the single text into a vast web of texts and the radical transformations of reading as an activity. What happens to literature in a field of distraction and digressive thinking?  At the Borders of Sleep is a reminder that literature is so much more than the containers, genres and formulas of language construction; that it has always occupied the liminal zones “that we must necessarily inhabit" in our everyday lives.

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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