The Plant Asleep


 Michael Marder


One condescending way in which our cultures have related to plants is by considering the vegetal kingdom somnolent. Just think of German and Russian fairytales, where the forest is described as “dark and sleepy”; French philosopher Henri Bergson’s claim that plants have a “consciousness asleep”; or Lewis Carroll’s joke playing on the literal sense of “flowerbed”: “In most gardens, they make the beds too soft—so that the flowers are always asleep”… There is a grain of truth in such associations if we take into account the incredible dormancy of seeds that retain the possibility of germinating half a millennium after drying up, or if we recall the metabolic slowdown of trees in the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn and winter. But the properly philosophical question is: Why should not this or that vegetal process but the mode of plant existence as such be classified as sleepy? What prompts us to group sessile living beings together with a non-wakeful state of being?

It seems to me that our prejudices against sleep are intimately connected to those we harbor in relation to plants. An active subject, presumably fully awake and in control of itself, is necessarily insomniac because, before its “red” eyes, sleep appears to be nothing but torpor, an inferior form of consciousness, and one that is increasingly unnecessary, a sheer waste of productive time. Our ideal is that of a city that never sleeps, a hyper-caffeinated state of frantic activity with “zero downtime”. We omit from our demonized version of sleep not only its restorative effects for the body and mind alike but also the vibrancy of psychic life that unfolds in it, for instance, by way of dreams. As merchandise, from mugs to baby clothes, sold in various trendy coffee shops across the United States screams in white letters against a black background: “Sleep is for the weak!”

And that precisely is the association that ties it to plants in our insomniac heads. Plants, too, are deemed ontological “weaklings,” which is why, unable to oppose themselves to their surroundings, they can do no more than sleep. The subterranean layer of their vitality, unfolding in the dark moistness of the soil, stands for the unconscious sphere whence, as Freud pointed out, dreams condense from fragments of repressed or unfulfilled wishes. As though the aboveground portions of plants did not have a privileged relation to sunlight, their entire existence is reduced to only one element they inhabit—the earth. Even such “critical” theorists as Adorno and Horkheimer did not hesitate to treat the vegetal utopia of lotus-eaters in The Odyssey as an instance of irresponsibility, oblivion, and escape from reality, which, in its turn, requires hard toil in order to produce the shared possibility of happiness in history. Sleep (particularly, dreaming) connotes escapism from the hard realism of work, and so does the plant kingdom, represented, in the Gospel of Matthew, by the lilies of the field that “do not work, do not spin.”

Ironically, we turn to plant-derived stimulants, such as those found in coffee beans or tea leaves, to shake off sleep and to try to live up to our dreadful ideal of an ever-active subject. We dismiss out of hand the scientific evidence of APs, or Action Potentials, in plants, akin to the firing of neurons in the animal nervous system and more widespread than the oft-cited example of Venus flytrap would lead us to believe. We choose to ignore time-lapse photography of vegetal movements in the light that look very different from (and very much more “awake” than) those in the dark. But, above all, we find it exceptionally difficult to conceive of vivacity and energy that do not imply the incessant to-and-fro of dislocation or manipulation of the “outside” world. When all activity is supposed to be productive, sleeping and dreaming are taken as signs of stoppage or, at best, as useless play, interfering with the serious work of a subject who is conscious and self-aware through and through. Slumbering animals and humans share this presumed inoperativity with plants, as they succumb to the uncontrollable force of the unconscious, which dictates its own laws eluding the nets of simple, linear determinism.

Perhaps the most emblematic work of art in this respect is Goya’s etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” Although all the “monsters” in Goya’s work are figured as animals (notably, bats, birds, and lynxes), the same logic applies to plants: if our reason is not actively on guard, if its thin veneer does not vigilantly separate us from the non-human within and outside us, the dark forces of the unconscious will not lose any time in swallowing us up. The enchanted, sleepy forest is always ready to close around whoever dares venture into it; vegetal consciousness asleep may suddenly wake up and wreak havoc as in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids and in its 1962 film adaptation. The fear that consumes the human is, therefore, double: on the one hand, we are afraid that our reason would succumb to the sweet temptation of sleep, handing us over to the grip of the unconsciousness; on the other hand, we are terrorized by the possibility that vegetal existence would awake and assert its own indomitable subjectivity, construed as monstrous to the extent that it falls outside the reach of our mastery over the world.

To fall asleep is to reenter, without much preparation or protection, the vegetal dimension of our psychic lives, where our psyches (like the vitality of the plants themselves) are spread over the entire extension of our bodies, rather than concentrated in a single organ, such as the brain. From the vantage point of the subject of reason, sleep is, indeed, a fall, a tumble from the heights of our self-arrogated power to rule over ourselves and, by implication, over everything and everyone in our environs. It feels like a plunge into a bottomless pit—the abyss of life that is no longer individuated, no longer appropriate to us, no longer even recognizable as “ours.” In sleep, we hurry for our rendezvous with the vegetal. Unless another plant substance (contained, for instance, in a caffeinated beverage) delays this encounter by a few short hours.

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