Sunday, January 12, 2014

To Be Read In Bed

A slightly condensed version of this appeared in today's Sunday Guardian.

I spent most of last weekend in a horizontal position, something I can heartily recommend to anyone seeking a break from the city’s hustle and bustle. One’s needs become simple: a comfortable bed, some food and, of course, wi-fi access. My bed, however, pales in comparison to the one designed for Maharaja Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi IV of Bahawalpur in the 1880s. Built in Paris, it weighed more than a ton, including 290 kilograms of silver, and featured statues of buxom females at each corner. When the Maharaja stretched out, music began to play and the arms of the figures moved, creating a soothing breeze at the head of the bed and keeping flies away from the royal feet. History does not record whether this was conducive to sleep.

The story of the kingly bedstead is among the many recounted in The Art of Lying Down, a delightful little volume by Bernd Brunner, recently translated from German by Lori Lantz. Brunner defines himself as working at “the intersections of cultural history and the history of science” and has, in the past, written about subjects as diverse as the history of Christmas trees, aquariums and the moon. In his “guide to horizontal living”, Brunner makes a persuasive case that choosing to lie down can be “a calculated move to escape the ever-present pressure to be fast and efficient”. Such surrender to gravity is not an act of laziness but one of resistance: to turn one’s back on the modern world, one keeps the back in bed. It’s a move that doesn’t call for defensiveness; as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “If a healthy man lies in bed, let him do it without a rag of excuse; then he will get up a healthy man.” Tellingly, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt have also pointed out that the “three great acts of life” are “birth, coitus, and death,” all of which usually involve lying down.

Brunner then branches out into other aspects of his subject. He’s no votary of lying down in the great outdoors for prolonged periods, but Turkish hamams meet with his approval, as do divans. He also notes that the Greeks and Romans were known to eat and drink while lying down. This, of course, calls to mind traditional Indian habits of reclining during music and dance performances, as well as such representations of Ganesha, Vishnu and Buddha, among others, not to mention Mughal miniatures of lounging lords.

The Art of Lying Down also goes into details of how mattresses and recliners have evolved (Brunner waxes eloquent over the invention of the coiled spring) as well as the ways and poistions in which people have wooed sleep. Examples of the latter include the classic Spoon, the Tandem Cyclists, the Zipper and the extreme Bread and Spread, “in which one partner lies directly on top of the other (who somehow manages to avoid being crushed or suffocated)”.

Writers are among those who have long known the worth of lying down; it’s almost a professional perk. Mark Twain and Proust are perennial examples. Edith Wharton, according to Brunner, celebrated her eightieth birthday in bed with a candle-covered cake that caught on fire. (A nice anecdote, but one wonders at its veracity because Wharton died when she was 75.) As for Flaubert, it’s said of him that he “would have liked to travel, if he could, stretched out on a sofa and not stirring, watching cities, ruins, and landscapes pass before him like the screen of a panorama.”  And Truman Capote was characteristically unambiguous: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch.”

Lying down can also be a form of activism and Brunner mentions John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous 1969 bed-in to protest the Vietnam War. He could have also cast his eye on the numerous horizontal demonstrations over the years – there was one just two months ago, when thousands of cyclists lay across a London street to agitate against dangerous traffic conditions. A case of lying down to take a stand.

Clearly, the art of lying down doesn’t exist just for its own sake. Brunner affirms that “it is inextricably linked to other art forms: the art of doing nothing, of being content with little, of enjoyment and relaxation and, of course, the proverbial art of love”. He even suggests that “human culture can be viewed as a side effect of our ancestors’ efforts to get a good night’s sleep”. Such efforts continue; meanwhile, one takes solace from the epigraph by Groucho Marx: “A thing that can’t be done in bed isn’t worth doing at all”.

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