Thursday, August 18, 2022

Benjamin Parris's "Vital Strife"

Benjamin Parris is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Vital Strife: Sleep, Insomnia, and the Early Modern Ethics of Care, and reported the following:
Page 99 features some of the central claims animating my book’s third chapter, which discusses the status of sovereign sleep in William Shakespeare’s tragedies of Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. In all three of these plays, Shakespeare imagines the sleep of the king as a moment of psychic and physiological vulnerability, when the majestic aura of the King’s Two Bodies retreats into a cocoon of slumbering life. Both King Hamlet and King Duncan fall victim to a kind of pestilent nocturnal influence associated with the death-like condition of sleep, while King Lear suffers from a corrosive form of monarchical insomnia that induces a cosmological rage modeled on Seneca’s depiction of the tragic hero, Hercules. In all three of these plays, Shakespeare suggests that sovereign sleep and insomnia are inevitable conditions that not only impinge upon the sovereign’s ability to maintain vigilance and constant care for the kingdom, but also alter the metaphysical bond between body natural and body politic that defines the mystical union of the King’s Two Bodies.

The Page 99 Test seems to work fairly well as a means of getting at some of my book’s core argumentative claims. Vital Strife shows that despite the Renaissance humanist and political-theological suspicion of sleep and related states of careless inattention, early modern writers value sleep’s transformative and restorative powers over mind and body. In doing so, the writers whose works I discuss reveal their indebtedness to cosmological principles associated with ancient Stoic thought and in particular the Stoic literary hero of Seneca’s tragedy, Hercules Furens. These writers envision sleep as a necessary therapy and form of restorative care for the self that attunes the soul to the cosmic motions of life, rebalancing mind and body alike. In this way, the works of literature and philosophy at the heart of my book investigate a uniquely early modern, biopolitical paradox involving the concept of care in relation to self and others: to sleep is the care for the bodily life that sustains waking attention, but only insofar as sleep abandons the forms of wakefulness that promote ethical and spiritual care. The page 99 test reveals how Shakespeare’s tragic drama uses sleep and insomnia in a similar way to reveal the contradictory demands of sovereign care.
Learn more about Vital Strife at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue