The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

The Story of the Bed

Dr. Michael Greaney


Le lit, c’est l’homme.
           -- Guy de Maupassant

There is a ruefully self-deprecating character in Guy de Maupassant’s short story ‘Le Lit’ (1882) who fondly dreams of possessing the necessary skill to tell ‘the story of a bed’. It is, you have to admit, a curious ambition. Why would anyone want to tell stories about, or on behalf of, divans and mattresses and pillows? Since when did furniture merit any serious share of narrative representation? The truth, as a moment’s reflection may reveal, is that furniture has often acquired symbolic significance in literature and culture. The cultural history of the mirror or the looking glass is probably worth a PhD thesis or two. Doors and windows open up all sorts of liminal possibilities. And if we think of the role of the Round Table in Arthurian legend, or the throne coveted by the villainous hero of Shakespeare’s Richard III, or the magical wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales then we might even begin to persuade ourselves, half-seriously, that furniture studies could be the next big thing in cultural criticism. Some forms of furniture carry us or support us; others serve to store and display our possessions. But beyond its immediate practical functions, furniture -- especially such symbolically charged items as Arthur’s table or C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe -- also carries, stores and proclaims our meanings and values. What kinds of meaning do we ask beds to carry?

Beds witness human life at its most and least eventful. On the one hand, the bed is the stage on which the major creaturely dramas of human existence -- ‘Birth, copulation and death’, as T.S. Eliot brutally summarizes it -- are acted out. On the other hand, the bed also bears mute and uncomplaining witness to our bodily lives at their most tediously uneventful. We clock up thousands of hours of sleep during our lifetimes, but somehow this period of time does not count towards the story of our lives. There is something nondescript and narrative-resistant about the hours that we spend in the oblivion of sleep. For this reason, the bed of sleep is a curiously self-effacing entity, one that has always been massively upstaged in the cultural imagination by its more lurid and exciting cousins, the hospital bed, the marital-bed, the sick-bed and the death-bed. Indeed, it would seem strange even to speak of ‘sleep-beds’, presumably because the bed of sleep, unlike the beds of birth, copulation and death, is an entity without a story, the site of a sheer non-event. Anyone who has tried to watch more than a few seconds of Andy Warhol’s home movie Sleep (1963), which comprises some five hours of black-and-white footage of Warhol’s boyfriend John Giorno sleeping in a New York apartment, will know this only too well.

The beds that have stirred the literary imagination are altogether less comfortable than the one in which John Giorno slept. Probably no beds in world literature are more horrifically uncomfortable than those belonging to Procrustes, one of the most memorable psychopaths of Greek mythology. Procrustes was always happy to offer travellers a bed for the night, and was abnormally eager that the sleeping bodies of his house guests should precisely match the dimensions of the beds to which they were assigned. Like a deranged DIY expert who believed in adjustable people rather than adjustable furniture, Procrustes -- whose name literally translates as ‘the stretcher’ -- customized his guests to fit their beds: short sleepers were stretched and flattened out with a hammer, whilst tall ones had their extra inches lopped off. The story of Procrustes, in which the bed is imagined as a lethally dangerous place of enclosure and entrapment, ripples with the sense of fear and paranoia that is so often evoked by beds in literary narrative.

But has the literary imagination ever found anything to say about comfortable beds? A celebrated line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is instructive in this regard. When eyebrows are raised at his prolonged absence from Rome, Antony famously remarks that ‘“The beds i’the east are soft”’. One way of reading these words is as a veiled confession that Antony has ‘gone soft’ -- that the disciplined soldier has become a tender lover in the arms of Cleopatra. If ‘the bed is the man’, as Maupassant puts it, then the soft beds of the east tell us all we need to know about the potential ‘softness’ of Antony in this play. It is of course a curious paradox that the eastern beds that confirm Antony’s virile heterosexuality are the very same beds that call into question his heroic manliness. Nor are the messages emitted by these beds exclusively concerned with gender. As Garrett A. Sullivan Jr. has remarked, there is a whole ‘geography of sleep’ implied in Antony’s words, one that revolves around an opposition between the tough martial culture of Rome and the sumptuous beds of Alexandria, the scene of sexual languor and decadent inaction. In what we can now recognize as a classic ‘Orientalist’ gesture, the east is envisioned as a soft and yielding bed whose embrace dangerously emasculates Shakespeare’s Roman hero. Luxuriously comfortable as they may seem, the eastern beds of Antony and Cleopatra are every bit as dangerous in their own way as the beds in the Procrustean torture chamber.

The bed, as it has been imagined by writers, is always a double bed, a twofold entity. It is an object that answers to our desire for periodic withdrawal from the demands and obligations of social space; but it also embodies our fear that the non-social or anti-social space of sleep might turn out to be a death-trap rather than an escape hatch or a bower of bliss. And the contradictory fears and desires that beds excite in us are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. Beds function as a permanent reminder of our fallen or falling nature, our inescapable nightly reorientation from vertical self-consciousness to horizontal oblivion. To consider the story of the bed is to confront the extraordinary fact that in the oblivion of sleep we are periodically absent from the story of our own lives. How we do we deal with that absence? What stories and props do we use to plug the gaps in our discontinuous life experience? The bed is one such prop, and its stories, as we shall discover in the articles that follow, are never less than richly unsettling.

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