[Unnamed Press; 2020]
There is, I’m told, a Mandarin term which roughly translates to English as “revenge bedtime procrastination,” the idea that people who feel a lack of agency in their workaday lives take back the night by refusing to join their fellow office drones in sleep. In a recent series of tweets, the Taiwanese journalist Daphne K. Lee compared the phenomenon to the spates of “revenge buying” and “revenge saving” recognized by the Chinese press in the aftermath of COVID-19 lockdowns. Having been confined to their homes as the virus raged across the world, middle class consumers were alternately hoarding their savings and spending lavishly, exerting their individual buying power after months of seeming helplessness. As a result, economic experts became uncertain of the outlook for China’s greater economy.
As weeks under quarantine turned to months, one of the dawning realizations for those of us across the Pacific was that life circa COVID was governed less by the disruption of routines than by their wholesale eradication. Clearly, the rigid schedules of work and play, sleep and wakefulness, meals and commutes had given our lives shape. But what seemed comparably unexamined, as commerce sputtered to a halt and unemployment shot to Great Depression levels, was that these arbitrary conventions had given our lives and collective life purpose — and that our reliance upon them for financial sustenance was as oppressive as the institutions undergirding them. Short of a national response, Americans have been shuttled back to work as infection rates spike, or else risk losing their incomes and employer-supplied health coverage.
For the writer and multimedia artist Stefany Anne Golberg, the fundamental routine of night and day was itself a form of oppression, with its disorienting interstitial spaces and the biologically-induced false hope of each fresh dawn. “I slept for a few hours and woke at noon,” she writes in My Morningless Mornings, a memoir-length meditation on her adolescent experiments with revenge daytime procrastination. “In this way, when I opened my eyes, I was immediately in the p.m. hours, the time most people think of as ‘day,’ the efficient, practical, useful hours.” Golberg’s nocturnalism is a solitary teen’s expression of agency, her time-warping vigils upsetting the linear continuity of an otherwise implacable universe.
Golberg’s morningless mornings are performative in their way, especially as her nuclear family shatters and drifts, leaving her alone for long stretches with her clinically unstable father. Watching old movies, infomercials, and creeping shadows, she is empowered to entertain her own thoughts and whims, cultivating an identity — “nighttime’s watcher” — denied her as a daughter and student. “The world was dead,” she writes, “and life, my life, was a rare and confusing accident that could only be met in solitude.” In this sense, her demonization of mornings can seem like a metaphorical scapegoat which focuses her yearnings for escape and transcendence. Yet even as a young woman, Golberg’s vigils are imbued with a sense of responsibility, tending to her father and mourning a lost childhood. In her eagerness to break from routine, she’s essentially indebted to it.
Withdrawn from the waking world, Golberg finds refuge in cultural esoterica. “Early a.m. television was a rest home for lost, rejected culture,” she writes. “I watched the actors’ facial gestures and learned bygone references. I learned the old songs and dances. I learned about longstanding resentments and wars.” This realm of buried, half-forgotten cultural artifacts becomes her obsession. More than a narrative memoir, My Morningless Mornings is a practical syllabus comprised of experiential essays linking states of being and themes of transition found across global art, history, and literature. Golberg recounts the lives of painters, the research of Jung and Jacques Cousteau, and the fiction of Jules Verne and Bram Stoker, synthesizing them with her own experience of consciousness.
When Golberg writes about wakefulness and consciousness, she’s usually considering proximity to death. “Waking is closer to death than sleep,” she writes in the second essay “3:00 AM.” “It’s when we wake in the morning and land in unknown territory, that we feel we might actually, for a moment, be dead. Arriving in the next day, we have to let the last day go truly, because it won’t ever come again.” But her wide-eyed earnestness keeps the prose from straying into the gratuitously macabre; she’s comfortable with mortality, sensitive to the passage of time, and rarely finds occasion for self-pity. Hers is the agnostic religion of academia, through which she asks big questions and seeks big answers. Her essays seek lost worlds, not for the purpose of restoring them, but because for Golberg the mere act of searching is an ideal in itself.
Even when ruminating upon dream diaries, werewolves, and vampires, Golberg’s erudition imbues her childlike wonder with a preacher’s certitude. She finds analogies across cultures and languages, weaving centuries-old philosophies into her personal examination of late-night gloom and early-morning revelation. There’s a selective nature to her surveys, some of which take the form of art and literary criticism. But the essays build upon successive themes, Golberg’s metaphors compounding and accreting into a more solid, ambitious exploration of identity. Who are we, these essays ask, and when are we most ourselves? “I suppose this was Jung’s point all along, that the dreamworld is not separate from the everyday world,” she considers, “that we enact our dreams in daily life as we enact our daily life in dreams, and that to divide these parts of ourselves — the sleeping self and the wide-awake self — makes us incomplete.” These analyses make approachable essays even for readers not steeped in the work of Japanese novelists and nineteenth-century painters.
In a memoir, though, these tangents can feel evasive. The escapism which Golberg successfully achieved in her own life is in evidence across My Morningless Mornings as she swings from art appreciation to twentieth-century psychology. She’s concerned with phenomena greater than herself, but the lack of cause-and-effect in her thin personal narratives leaves the reader grasping for inferences. What about her lovers, her hangups, her triumphs and disappointments? When Golberg does provide brief glimpses into her adult life — a suddenly mature narrator drinking coffee in a sunny kitchen, a tender monologue delivered in an enigmatic second-person — they make for tantalizing interludes between her scholastic analyses.
In her quest to reclaim time and alter reality, Golberg’s inquiry is centered less on a life than on a lifestyle, one that her readers almost certainly have in common. I passed a warm Saturday afternoon reading My Morningless Mornings outdoors, and found myself seeking the shelter of my apartment as the sun set. This was a logical, even elemental reaction to the earth’s ceaseless rotation — soon it would be time for dinner and whichever frivolous activities would occupy me for the night. I was driven as much by convention as by biology, and by the fact that soon it would be too dark to read.
As a young woman ruled by doubts and uncertainties, the project of Golberg’s life — and, eventually, her book — became ruling those same forces. It’s strange to read My Morningless Mornings at a time when we’re suddenly nostalgic for the simple, exhausting routines of daily life. “Dreams talk to us but they are confusing because we don’t understand the cryptic language of the dreamworld,” Golberg writes in “3:00 AM.” Dreams, like loneliness, are inherent to the human condition, but My Morningless Mornings offers solace in their suggestion of another unseen world.
Pete Tosiello‘s criticism, reportage, and interviews have appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, and The Paris Review among many others. He lives in New York City.