Friday, April 10, 2009

by Billy Collins

I used to sit in the cafe of existentialism,
lost in a blue cloud of cigarette smoke,
contemplating the suicide a tiny Frenchman
might commit by leaping from the rim of my brandyglass.

I used to hunger to be engaged
as I walked the long shaded boulevards,
eyeing women of all nationalities,
a difficult paperback riding in my raincoat pocket.

But these days I like my ontology in an armchair,
a rope hammock, or better still, a warm bath
in a cork-lined room --- disengaged, soaking
in the calm, restful waters of speculation.

Afternoons, when I leave the house
for the woods, I think of Aquinas at his desk,
fingers interlocked upon his stomach,
as he deduces another proof for God’s existence,

intricate as the branches of these bare November trees.
And as I kick through the leaves and snap
the windfallen twigs, I consider Leibniz on his couch
reaching the astonishing conclusion that monads,

those windowless units of matter, must have souls.
But when I finally reach the top of the hill
and sit down on the flat tonnage of this boulder,
I think of Spinoza, most rarefied of them all.

I look beyond the treetops and the distant ridges
and see him sitting in a beam of Dutch sunlight
slowly stirring his milky tea with a spoon.
Since dawn he has been at his bench grinding lenses,

but now he is leaving behind the saucer and table,
the smokey chimneys and tile roofs of Amsterdam,
even the earth itself, pale blue, aqueous,
cloud-enshrined, titled back on the stick of its axis.

He is rising into that high dome of thought
where loose pages of Shelley float on the air,
where all the formulas of calculus unravel,
tumbling in the radiance of a round Platonic sun—

that zone just below the one where angels accelerate
and the ampitheatrical rose of Dante unfolds.
And now I stand up on the ledge to salute you, Spinoza,
and when I whistle to the dog and start down the hill,

I can feel the thick glass of your eyes upon me
as I step from the rock to glacial rock, and on her
as she sniffs her way through the leaves,
her tail straight back, her body low to the ground.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Can I Enjoy a Good Night's Sleep?

I've been wondering recently whether it is possible to enjoy a good night's sleep, or to enjoy sleeping at all.

Here's the problem: It seems that in order to enjoy something, I have to be conscious while it is taking place. I enjoy a film only if I experience a film. I enjoy a good meal only if I experience a meal. If I do not consciously experience these events, it seems I can't enjoy them.

However, there is something unusual about enjoyment: I can enjoy things that haven't happened yet and things that already happened. The first we call anticipation and the second we call remembering (or reminiscing). So when I enjoy a good meal, I can enjoy three things: I can anticipate how the meal will be and my eating it (my mouth may even water as I imagine it), I can experience the meal in all its goodness, and I can remember enjoying the meal (I may even recreate the tastes and smells).

Turning to sleep, even if I can't experience (consciously) sleeping, I can still anticipate sleeping. (I'm not sure that I can remember sleeping, since in order to recall it, it seems that I would have to have been conscious the first time through). I don't think that when people say they enjoy sleeping, though, they mean the anticipation of sleeping. And I don't think they mean remembering sleeping. But it does still seem right somehow to say that I enjoy sleeping or I enjoy getting a good night's sleep, doesn't it?

Here's my suggestion as to what is going on. Another kind of appreciation that we have (a kind of appreciation I think can be classified as enjoyment) is appreciation of a thing as constitutive of a larger whole. I can enjoy a tragic death in a novel not because I enjoy tragic deaths but because I can enjoy how the tragedy fit into the novel as a whole - how it made that novel better. I can also enjoy a meal as a part of a well-lived life. I can appreciate having a body that needs food, and the wonderful ways that people work toward making that experience as enjoyable as possible. I can appreciate having the opportunity to eat for pleasure's sake as well as for need's sake. I can take enjoyment from the role that eating a good meal has in my life as a whole. And this is what I think we enjoy when we enjoy a good night's sleep. We enjoy the way we feel refreshed afterwards, we can appreciate those hazy moments at the edge of consciousness when we realize we can fall back asleep for another hour, and we can find joy in going to sleep after a full day well lived. So even if it's not possible to enjoy sleep as it is happening, I can still enjoy sleep in a way that goes beyond anticipation and remembering. I enjoy the role that getting a good night's sleep plays in my life as a whole.