The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘Sleeping and Waking’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

On the essays shelf:

The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have only struggled with insomnia once in my life, during the summer of 2002. It was just a brief bout, but it was enough to make me dread it for all time. My sleep patterns are, in general, very regular, and I rely on it. I value it. I don’t need that much sleep. I normally get around 6 hours a night and that’s fine. I am a “morning person”, most definitely. I prefer to go to bed early so I can have hours in the morning to write and linger and take my time with things. But sleep is something that has always been there for me. In the summer of 2002, I did not sleep (literally) for five days. It was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life, and much of it is blotted out, thankfully. The insomnia ratcheted up my anxiety. I could feel it intensifying as the day came to its end, the question being: Will I get some sleep tonight?? And of course, as any insomniac will know, that anxiety is death to the sleep process. It becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of doom. Marilyn Monroe had insomnia, and her entire household staff would tiptoe around her bedroom, draped in heavy curtains, fearful that they would disturb her. Monroe never believed she could get to sleep on her own. She would call up one of her many friends, and many of them report that they would talk to her until she would fall asleep holding the phone. She had chronic insomnia, something which must be horrifying, and I sympathize. Five days of that nonsense and I was going out of my mind.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a harrowing description of his own insomnia in this 1934 essay. It is impossible to read without aching for the man. He starts the essay by describing something Ernest Hemingway had written on the topic, and thinking at the time that it was the last word in insomnia. But then Fitzgerald experienced it himself and realized that every insomniac is different, everyone has their own struggles, it manifests in different ways. He realized that he had something to say about it too.

And boy does he.

It’s a short essay, but brutal to read. Fitzgerald was not afraid to lay himself out there. This can’t have been easy to write. But it is a gift to have his words.

Here is a section I love. It’s difficult to get through, the pain is so stark. He starts off by describing how he will try to lull himself to sleep by telling himself stories from his own life. Perhaps not the best plan, Scott. But then, insomnia makes people nuts.

The Crack-Up, ‘Sleeping and Waking’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Once upon a time” (I tell myself) “they needed a quarterback at Princeton, and they had nobody and were in despair. The head coach noticed me kicking and passing on the side of the field, and he cried: ‘Who is that man—why haven’t we noticed him before?’ The under coach answered, ‘He hasn’t been out,’ and the response was: ‘Bring him to me.’”

“…we go to the day of the Yale game. I weigh only one hundred and thirty-five, so they save me until the third quarter, with the score—”

— But it’s no use—I have used that dream of a defeated dream to induce sleep for almost twenty years, but it has worn thin at last. I can no longer count on it—though even now on easier nights it has a certain lull…

The war dream then: the Japanese are everywhere victorious—my division is cut to rags and stands on the defensive in a part of Minnesota where I know every bit of the ground. The headquarters staff and the regimental battalion commanders who were in conference with them at the time have been killed by one shell. The command devolved upon Captain Fitzgerald. With superb presence…

— but enough; this also is worn thin with years of usage. The character who bears my name has become blurred. In the dead of the night I am only one of the dark millions riding forward in black buses toward the unknown.

Back again now to the rear porch, and conditioned by intense fatigue of mind and perverse alertness of the nervous system—like a broken-stringed bow upon a throbbing fiddle —I see the real horror develop over the roof-tops, and in the strident horns of night-owl taxis and the shrill monody of revelers’ arrival over the way. Horror and waste -

— Waste and horror—what I might have been and done that is lost, spent, gone, dissipated, unrecapturable. I could have acted thus, refrained from this, been bold where I was timid, cautious where I was rash.

I need not have hurt her like that.

Nor said this to him.

Nor broken myself trying to break what was unbreakable.

The horror has come now like a storm—what if this night prefigured the night after death—what if all thereafter was an eternal quivering on the edge of an abyss, with everything base and vicious in oneself urging one forward and the baseness and viciousness of the world just ahead. No choice, no road, no hope—only the endless repetition of the sordid and the semi-tragic. Or to stand forever, perhaps, on the threshold of life unable to pass it and return to it. I am a ghost now as the clock strikes four.

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2 Responses to The Books: The Crack-Up, ‘Sleeping and Waking’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  1. Doc Horton says:

    Starts Walter Mitty and ends in despair. What lives Scott and Zelda experienced.

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