issue 05: good night
Headrest of Khentika (ca. 2323–2150 BC). Travertine (Egyptian alabaster). 19.1 × 17.9 x 8.2 cm. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape opens with the protagonist, Ann, talking to her therapist.
“Garbage. I started thinking about what happens to all the garbage. I mean, where do we put all of it, we have to run out of places to put it eventually, don't we? … I try not to do anything that will produce garbage, so obviously we're talking about eating and basic stuff like that. Did you know that the average person produces three pounds of garbage a day? ... Don't you think that's a lot of garbage? I'd really like to know where it's all going to go.”1
As the story goes on, it becomes evident that Ann’s obsession with garbage is an emotional shield against more difficult and intimate feelings about her husband, her sister, and her life. Constantly seeking distraction and delaying confrontation, the overwhelming and uncontrollable disposal of garbage is merely a diversion from these pressing personal struggles. This approach worked for Ann in 1989. But does it work today?
Less than two years after China—one of the primary destinations for plastic scrap from around the world—restricted waste imports in 2017, other southeast Asian countries became a battlefield of garbage. “Sick of the West’s Trash,”2 these countries began returning thousands of tonnes of plastic waste to its countries of origin.
For decades, Asian countries have been the dumping ground for garbage from other countries. The Asian countries then become responsible for importing, sorting, processing, and shipping recycled materials for the West. Now, with neither Asian recyclers nor a proper domestic recycling system in place, an estimated 111 million tonnes worth of plastic waste will be “displaced”3 by 2030, filling up land and patching up the ocean without actually decomposing, in doing so threatening the already fragile global ecosystem.
“…we have to run out of places to put it eventually, don’t we?”4
No longer a purely theoretical problem, garbage has become a bitter consequence of a collective procrastination that no amount of psychological analysis can divert. Awakened by a rising awareness of a future in crisis, it is increasingly frightening to live with these compulsions. One could ask the therapist, what’s the point of relationships? To think a plastic straw will last longer than us..., or many other such questions.
ii. What keeps you up at night?
Troubled sleepers often find themselves preoccupied by stray thoughts—if not the whereabouts of garbage, then the less-than-perfect feedback from the morning presentation, that drink that should have been skipped last night, the words that would have been better left unsaid… These personal sparks likely have a more complex connection with the individual’s sociopolitical identity than is perceptible on the surface. Are we destined to be restless?
Through many (many) of his movie characters, Woody Allen repeats the same question: what does it mean to exist? Alvy Singer—the protagonist of Annie Hall (1977)—for instance, recalls his mother sending him to a psychiatrist when he was a little boy. When the psychiatrist asks the reason for his depression, little Alvy answers,
“The universe is expanding. …the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything!”
“([Alvy’s mother,] shouting) What is that your business? (she turns back to the doctor) He stopped doing his homework.”5
The thought of a human falling into a depression at the mysteries of the world, or even the end of the world, is laughable.6 With the little knowledge we hold, it all appears to be groundless worrying.7 Alvy’s doctor, too, believes that these concerns are pointless. He tells Alvy that the universe “won’t be expanding for billions of years,” and “we’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here.”8
In the digital age, there are so many happy diversions to alleviate the tensions of the future, perfectly tailored for each individual, if you can afford to forget. Don’t stay up late worrying about who will sort through your garbage; instead, dream of migrating to Mars.
iii. Is comfort overrated?
The narrative of a carefree life is wrapped in ideas of comfort: the perfect mattress, the light and pillowy dessert, the fluffiest pancake—cloud-like textures everywhere… So much ergonomic design promises to serve the human body, to make it as comfortable as possible. And yet, the hours sitting at that comfortable office chair stretch longer, and the neck resting on the ever-so-feather-light pillow grows stiffer.
How can comfort, with all its calls towards the softest touch, be a trap? Are we short of one perfectly fluffed pillow to fall asleep, or is the path to comfort something else entirely?
Ancient men didn’t seek “comfort” to fall asleep. They would lay down on any surface they could, with arms and branches for pillows if need be. Long before the modern-day pillow settled on its style—a fabric case with soft infill—sleep was found with headrests.
Early Egyptian headrests were usually carved out of stone. Centuries later, other African headrests would bear a similar form, but often with the addition of a handle of leather twine, metal, or wood, to make it more portable.9 A headrest is most often a type of structural barrier that stands between the body and the ground. The elevation is believed to protect the sleeper from bugs and snakes at night.10 The base, smaller and rounded in certain regional iterations, prevents the possibility of a deep sleep. It is “a symbol of vigilance,”11 purposefully designed to avoid being wholly comfortable.
In Japan, a special takamakura (literally meaning “tall pillow”) was utilised by geisha from the 18th century on.12 A common type of takamakura would have a lacquered wooden base that doubled as an incense diffuser, with a buckwheat-filled cylindrical sack tied on top. Barely more comfortable than a solid wooden block, takamakura are designed to preserve the tidiness of the nihongami (traditional Japanese hairstyles) worn by geisha, which can take hours to finish and are only restyled weekly. Deep in darkness,13 the silhouette of her neck, painstakingly still on a takamakura, was illuminated by candlelight.
A lack of comfort, the Italian artist and designer Bruno Munari posited, is a result of the persistent invention of new forms. Bourgeoisie tastes demand a “never-before-seen original piece” so that “the true function of a chair, for example, comfort, goes to hell.”14
Should comfort be compromised for the perfection of a geisha’s hair? Or should aesthetics, so hierarchically estranged, yield to the fundamental longing for comfort? In his radical photo essay “Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair,” Bruno, playing an exhausted man coming home from work, sat in, climbed up, lay down on, and leaned over a lounge chair while reading, writing, resting, dozing off… In doing so, he asked if a vulgar, cheap, ordinary piece of furniture can be perfectly comfortable “in the right place.”15 Regardless of artistic forms or perfected designs, his seeking defies the rhetorics around comfort that are so ready to forfeit the necessitude of aesthetic pleasure in modernity, and reclaims comfort as an instinctive experience that cannot be measured universally.
Is that it? That the sensation of comfort does not come from the object at all, but rather hides in the “right place” of the psyche of the person experiencing it? How can a chair be as comfortable for the body as for the mind? Is a pillow an object of therapy before it is an object of comfort?16
iv. A pillow of a yellow beam
Comfort has come to surpass the original function of a pillow by turning the pillow into a vessel for a sense of security. Pillow Fight Day17 is now a worldwide event of safe aggression celebrated among strangers, while pillow talk offers the chance for the most intimate and secretive conversations. All is cozy and relaxing until those sudden middle-of-the-night awakenings,18 pulling us back from hallucinations to consciousness. Sleeplessness cannot be switched off.
In both the past and the present, sleep is framed as time-consuming and to be sacrificed whenever possible for the benefit of the so-called progress of civilisation. A hard pillow reduced the “comfort” of sleep in exchange for a constant state of alertness; contemporary ultra-soft pillows offer the practicality of a deeper, quality sleep only in exchange for a higher productivity. Performance is always prioritised, though the implication of sleep on mental and physical well-being is stressed as increasingly important.
The Chinese character “枕” (pillow, pronounced zhěn)19 emphasises the action of rest. The radical on the left of the character, “木”, or wood, is the material of making; “冘,” on the right, indicates a state of slackness (not asleep).20 In this character, sleep is just a different kind of awake.
It is assumed that ancient Chinese pillows, built tall with firm materials, inherited their cuboid form from the stacks of books common to the desks of early intellectuals, artists, and polymaths, upon which they would rest their heads rather than walk away from their studies for the night.21 The squareness also reflects the foundation of the earth,22 on which alchemy, fengshui, astrology, philosophy, traditional Chinese medicine, and many other disciplines were established and interrelated, instructing scholars to be rigorous.
Under the philosophy of Confucianism, the value of education, morality, and scholarship is highly praised, quickly politicised, and extensively adopted by early legalists. Plenty of proverbs and idioms that are associated with the temperament of a pillow are still frequently used today. For instance, “圆木警枕” (pronounced yuán mù jǐng zhěn)—use a piece of round wood as a pillow so that it wakes the sleeper—speaks in praise of a hard-working, diligent lifestyle.23 Similarly, “一枕黄粱” (yī zhěn huáng liáng)24—fell asleep poor but wound up only dreaming of living a high life—and “绣花枕头”(xiù huā zhěn tóu)25—embroidered pillows, or style over substance—both detest indolence.
v. Make a pillow of one’s spear waiting for daybreak26
A range of ceramic pillows that emerged from when ceramic art peaked in the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties have survived through time. The tiger pillow symbolises power and force,27 while the lotus-shaped pillow entails wisdom and discipline. One peculiar artefact that bears the form of a baby is presumed to have been given by parents to newlyweds with blessings of fertility.
Filial piety is particularly emphasised in Confucian Orthodoxy, which has influenced China and southeast Asian countries for centuries since the Han dynasty. A man who is obedient and respectful to his parents is also taught to be prudent, diligent, modest, and benevolent in society, to form a harmonious social order in Confucious doctrine. As an example, “扇枕温衾”(shān zhěn wēn qīn) told the story of a son who fanned the pillow and warmed the quilt to ensure his father would sleep comfortably.
A pillow coated with a parent’s wishes is perhaps even more likely to cause insomnia than a pillow made out of spears. Nevertheless, neither a piece of porcelain nor a metaphorical weapon can compete with modern-day standards of comfort. It may seem like the form of a soft pillow works like a sponge, quietly absorbing all the debris of the day. “Just sleep on it,” as if all is solved during sleep.
Gradually, a pillow as a daily reminder has become a pillow as a daily eraser. But do feelings as common as anxiety or as stubborn as garbage really go away? Will the recurring thoughts not soaked up by a pillow be sent to China for processing? A pillow as a vessel of private thoughts has been overthrown, leaving the question of what can best sustain our being to grow vague and cloudy, just like our dreams.
4 Soderbergh, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.”
6 The Yiddish proverb “Der mentsh trakht un got lakht” (דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט) translates to “Man plans and God laughs.”
7 In the Taoist text Liezi (alternatively spelt Lieh-tzu), a fable depicts a man so bothered by his fear of the sky falling that he gave up the desire for food and sleep (列子·天瑞, “杞国有人忧天地崩坠, 身亡所寄, 废寝食者”). This idiom, worded as 杞人忧天 (qǐ rén yōu tiān) is still frequently used today in reference to worrying minds.
8 Allen and Brickman, “Annie Hall.”
9 For example: Turkana or Potok peoples, Headrest (19th–20th century). Wood, leather twine. 32.1 x 15.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Karimoja peoples, Headrest (19th–20th century). Wood, copper, pigment. 22.8 x 33.7 x 10.5 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Pokot peoples, Headrest (19th–20th century). Wood, metal. 15.6 x 13 x 7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
10 Egyptian headrests “were often decorated with protective symbols,” and miniature headrest amulets, exclusively for funerary practices, were powerful symbols of “resurrection and rebirth for the ancient Egyptians.” “Headrest amulet (664–332 BC),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed 22 November 2021.
11 “Men's headrests ... generally feature a smaller base that makes them somewhat unstable to sleep on, while the rectangular bases of women's headrests are usually more stable. Scholars suggest that this instability is purposeful as it prevents the user from falling into a deep sleep while guarding the herds at night. It is in this sense that the headrest itself has become a symbol of vigilance among Somali nomads.” “Somali peoples, Headrest (19th–20th century),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed 22 November 2021.
12 “From the very beginning of their history, geisha were always a profession entirely separate from courtesans as they were conceived of in Japan. They originated in eighteenth-century Japan, both inside and outside the pleasure quarters, and were defined as ‘entertainers’ or ‘artistes’: the word gei-sha literally means ‘arts person.’”; Lesley Downer, “The City Geisha and Their Role in Modern Japan: Anomaly or Artistes?” in The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, ed. Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 223.
13 “...a woman of the past did indeed exist only from the collar up and the sleeves out; the rest of her remained hidden in darkness. … Most of her life was spent in the twilight of a single house, her body shrouded day and night in gloom, her face the only sign of her existence.” Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows (Sedgwick: Leete's Island Books, 1977), trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker, 28.
15 Munari, “Seeking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair.”
17 International Pillow Fight Day, organised by Newmindspace, "an interactive public art group based in New York and Toronto," takes place on the first Saturday of April each year. The founders, Kevin Bracken and Lori Kufner, “spearheaded the efforts of a loose network of organizers around the world.” Steven McElroy, “A New York City Pillow Fight,” The New York Times, 1 April 2010.
18 “We are more restless at night than most of us realize. The average person turns over or significantly changes position between thirty and forty times in the course of a night. We also wake up far more than you might think. Arousals and brief awakenings in the night can add up to thirty minutes without being noticed.” Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (New York: Doubleday Books, 2021), 264.
19 Pillow in Chinese, “枕” (zhěn), is usually used as the verb “to rest on,” or as “枕头” (zhěn tóu, a more modernised version): “the object to rest one’s head on.”
20 Translated from “卧所荐首者。从木、冘声。” in the Chinese dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (《说文解字》) from the Han dynasty.
21 From the text “虚左致贤, 设坐来宾。筵床对儿, 盛养已陈。肴仁饭义, 枕典席文。,” by literary historian Li You, of the Han dynasty ( 汉·李尤, 《床儿铭》).
22 Sky is round and earth is square (天圆地方, pronounced tiān yuán dì fāng): a basic concept in ancient Chinese philosophy, geography, and architecture.
23 Translated from “以圆木为警枕, 小睡则枕转而觉, 乃起读书。” by writer, historian, and poet Fan Zuyu, of the Song dynasty (宋·范祖禹, 《司马温公布衾铭记》).
24 This idiom refers to the tale The World Inside a Pillow, by Shen Jiji, Tang dynasty (唐·李泌, 《枕中记》 ). In it, the poor scholar Lu met a Taoist priest Lv at an inn. The inn owner started to cook yellow millet while Lu fell asleep on a pillow Lv handed to him. Lu dreamt of his whole life ahead of him—of being powerful, successful, prosperous, and happy. When Lu finally awoke, the yellow millet wasn’t even cooked.
25 This idiom originated in a satire novel by Peng Yang’ou, Qing dynasty (清·彭养鸥, 《黑籍冤魂》, 第六回, “顶冠束带，居然官宦人家, 谁敢说他是个绣花枕头, 外面绣得五色灿烂, 里面却包着一包稻草 。”).
26 A literal interpretation of the Chinese proverb 枕戈待旦 (zhěn gē dài dàn), meaning maintain combat readiness (《晋书·刘琨传》, “吾枕戈待旦; 志枭逆虏; 常恐祖生先吾著鞭。”).
27 "Tigers were thought to exorcise evil, based on their association with the Daoist celestial Master Zhang, who lived during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 C.E.). Images of Master Zhang riding his tiger were popular in Chinese folklore and were thought to protect a home from evil spirits and drive away demons of illness." "Cizhou Ware Pillow in the Form of a Tiger (1182)," Brooklyn Museum, accessed 22 November 2021.