Two cheers for sleep

We were yawning away the other day - you know how it is after a really pleasant lunch - when a headline in the Wall Street Journal caught our fluttering eye: ''Naps in the Office Awaken Supporters.''

What the writer referred to as ''the merits of midday snoozing'' were endorsed by such distinguished sluggards as Mayor Ed Koch of New York City, Malcolm Forbes, the publisher of Forbes magazine, and Armand Hammer, the fabled chairman of Occidental Petroleum.

Mr. Hammer, a student as well as a practicing devotee of 40 winks, listed notable nappers of history, including Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, and Thomas Edison.

We take this willingness of famous sleepyheads to lie down and be counted as a good sign for society as a whole. Evidently sleep is no longer the un-American activity it was once thought to be. The snorers - in moderation - are now to be numbered among the success-story heroes. (And heroines, for Eleanor Roosevelt, it seems, also nodded.)

Eventually the Wall Street Journal became a little embarrassed at the unorthodoxy of its position. After all, what would Horatio Alger have said? The sleep ethic is not yet ready to replace the work ethic, and so the final editorial endorsement of the nap came out thus: Sleep is efficient.m A supporting case was cited of the 19th-century chemist Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz, who took a nap while puzzling over the structure of the atoms in benzene and more or less dreamed up the correct answer.

We could see why a Wall Street Journal reader might have to feel that sleep, well, pays. But we were glad to stumble across an article in the New York Times the same week, putting in a good word for sleep with no such provisos. Indeed the men and women quoted by the Times took a hobbyist's pleasure in knitting up the old raveled sleeve - day or night.

To appreciate sleep, it is important to understand what sleep is not. Sleep is not oblivion. The sleeping we are talking about is a kind of folk art.

As one slides into and out of sleep, the imagination is freed as it seldom is when one is fully awake. The ego gets out of the way. You are in touch with a truer self - your childhood self or the self you want to be and keep forgetting about when you're awake.

''Awake to what?'' we may well ask, so charming and serene is this selfhood of sleep as contrasted to the frantic little hustler one can become with one's eyes wide open.

In dreams, said William Butler Yeats, begin responsibilities, and he must have meant just those dreams that begin on the borderline of consciousness when idealism is more awake than ever and only some tired, discouraged nay-sayer within seems to have fallen asleep.

No wonder a serious sleeper treats his act as an act of life. No wonder he pays attention to his costume and stage set, selecting his pajamas as carefully as his business suits and aspiring to just the right firmness of pillow and just the appropriate pattern of sheet.

Sleep is not an enslaving necessity - it is not even, strictly speaking, a necessity. One of the foremost scholars of sleep, Wilse Webb of the University of Florida, says, ''You can do almost anything you want to without sleep.'' After 48 sleepless hours, a subject's skill at solving problems and performing tasks remains virtually unimpaired. And after a lifetime of study, Professor Webb shakes his sleepy head and confesses, ''Why there has to be sleep at all, I just don't know.''

Sleep, it would appear, is a choice of sorts.

Sleep is hardly an end in itself. But it forms a part of the color and mystery and dense texture of daily existence; and, without it for a comparison, we would never know how much of our waking life is also a dream.

Two cheers for sleep.

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