Sleep The Uncanny of Sleeping Bags: What I Learned on Tour With a Georgian Folk Ensemble
Corpse-like, sliding on polyester, with breath, heartbeat, insomnia.
I. Freud’s Uncanny and the Sounds of Polyester
The sleeping bag is a bed away from bed in a home away from home. It is an object as unheimlich* as it gets really, because it is enclosed on itself, and mirrors often enough the human form, the mummy to be exact—the ultimate uncanny personage. The mummy has so many familiar qualities that it cannot help but be foreign, unsettling—the mummy is the specter corporeal. It must maintain the likeness of the corpse, must preserve it like new, so that we believe it just might get up and walk again.
*In his seminal essay on unheimlich , which we translate as “the uncanny,” Freud explains that the uncanny always starts in the home, can only be so because it contains an element of familiarity. Freud discovers this through the examination of a dictionary listing of definitions of heimlich , which starts with “homely” or “belonging to home” but continues on to include “concealed” and “kept from sight.” And indeed, home is not only a familiar place, but one where we might hide, put our skeletons in all the closets. And so the uncanny, as the etymology itself suggests, is so not because it is foreign and strange, but because it is familiar. The uncanny carries in itself a doubling, a misrecognition that occurs when what is supposed to have remained hidden comes to light, is noticed.
According to the movies, the mummy comes alive and acquires an unmistakable gait, arms stretched out, feet dragging, its dry throat letting out an occasional, confused groan. The sound of the mummy as we’ve been led to think, has nothing at all in common with the sound of the sleeping bag, which may well bear its name. What the sleeping bag does do, is force one inevitably to concentrate on one’s own internal sounds: the breath, the noises arms and legs might make as they attempt to navigate their space. Within the incredible immobility of the sleeping bag, we find ourselves amplified but muffled, able to hear our breaths, but (depending on the bag anyway) not necessarily effectively communicate. The sound of sleep is uncanny because we cannot hear it, but those around us in the waking state do—here is an activity that is as much a part of life as anything could ever be, but the only way to imagine ourselves engaged in it is by observing others.
In the sleeping bag one is contained, concealed, suddenly ever more corpse-like and strictly horizontal, sliding back and forth on the polyester, with the sounds of breath, heartbeat, insomnia collapsed together. Perhaps, there are others around in their sleeping bags turning, letting out solitary snores, quiet moans, occasional coughs—the general nighttime symphony; suddenly there are no people, just their bodies.
II. The Slumbering Informants
In the Kiev Borispyl airport, after producing a variety of sausages, breads, and apples from their backpacks, they arrange themselves on the floor along the wall and fall asleep in a neat row, sans sleeping bags, but on top of various belongings, covered with colorful rain jackets. A few days prior to this airport sleepover, Suliko comes up to me and does an impression of Dzuku sleeping. “He really looks dead,” Suliko says, and repeats the impression, straightening his posture and throwing his head far back. And indeed, now covering himself with my bright red raincoat, Dzuku crosses his arms and assumes a distinctly coffin-ready pose. Luka and Nugzar start snoring. You’d think that being singers, perhaps they’d snore in harmony, but no such luck. Bezhan and I are the only ones awake, and we take turns half-whistling at the snorers, because my dad told me it works, but it doesn’t really, except for mere moments. The layover is long, Borispyl airport uninteresting, and observing the sleepers is as good a pastime as any.
For the past year, I’ve followed this ensemble of nine young folk singers from the Republic of Georgia . They are my informants, my family, my friends, and, for the intents and purposes of US Immigration, my employees when they come to the US for a month in the winter of 2017, on a tour of my making. Now they might be the ones who stand out, if not because of their obvious foreign-ness (after all, New York is diverse enough to hide any foreigner in its cold embrace), but because of the penchant for breaking out into polyphonic song with an occasional yodel.
As an ethnographer out doing dissertation research, I am supposed to observe, take notes, take part in the “deep hang.” How deep does the hang go? Does it involve watching my informants slumber? I’ve memorized the snores, the pitches at which they mumble.
As I have found out, doing ethnography is not only about trying to perpetuate one’s own liminality against all odds, but, also, about learning to be a body. I have to figure out how to string episodes from people’s lives together into a coherent narrative that actually conveys something worth thinking about, allows me to put all that theory I’ve sat through for several years of graduate school to good use. I am a body like a mummy, half-alive, half-drifting, with my arms outstretched, holding a voice recorder in one hand, a camera in the other. I am not a Georgian, but for my late grandmother, and this connection often seems to matter more than my qualifications.
I listen to these people sing. I record them sing. I listen to them talk about singing, argue about styles, variants of songs, tuning. These things are accessible, expected. Then I find myself in a room—an airport waiting area, a wooden country house in the mountains, a hotel in Italy—surrounded by them sleeping. The conversations that take place in the mornings, once we emerge from our rooms, are almost exclusively about who did what in their sleep. They film one another as they try to wake up the snorers. One of the guys is notorious for being able to fall asleep absolutely anywhere, no matter the noise level, sometimes while holding on to a cup of tea, sometimes while holding on to all the Germany tour money, on a train, which he ends up riding in circles, all the way to the airport and back, for several hours. People have accumulated a collection of photos of him asleep in various unusual settings. There are talks about making a slideshow. The lines between public and private get blurred entirely.
The arguments about sleeping styles are not at all dissimilar to the arguments about singing styles. The arrangement of singers on stage, decisions about who will sing what are reminiscent of the decisions regarding who will sleep where, and who will share a bed with whom when sharing is unavoidable. The ensemble is a body awake and asleep. It is a level of intimacy I could not have expected, but here I am. As a tour manager, I am no longer doing ethnography—this experience is not a part of my dissertation research—though taking off the ethnographer hat has become nearly impossible. As a tour manager (or a band manager even), I have to take care of the performers, make sure their sleeping arrangements for these thirty-two days of winter in the US Northeast are sufficiently comfortable.
Organizing a tour, I realize, is all about sleeping bags, my favorite uncanny object. The image of me running around New York city with boxes or bags full of sleeping bags and sleeping pads is, by all means, rather funny, given the general tight quarters in which all New Yorkers find themselves. The situation is also hard for the ensemble to imagine. I end up falling asleep, several nights in a row, on top of all the sleeping bags, not quite making it to my bed, while clutching various containers of food (somehow it is almost always hummus). I have learned to think about my own sleep in the same way I think of theirs, now, and report the same way they do. Somehow the sleep stories are of as much importance as the waking stories, and I have learned to be a body, it seems, in my own home as well. Surrounded by empty sleeping bags, I seem to have inherited their uncanny powers, for the sleeping bag is equally uncanny empty as it is full. When it lacks an inhabitant, it resembles the human form anyway, and is puffy enough for the imagination to play its tricks on the mind. Sitting in a room with nine empty sleeping bags, all unpacked, I try to decide who will have which one, and the ghosts arrive, crawl in, give me their opinions.
III. Méconnaissance in the Bathroom Mirror
In the midst of all the chaos, I fall into what will turn out to be a somewhat ill-fated, and semi-covert friends-with-benefits kind of affair. Though the common term is “sleeping together,” we, of course, don’t actually sleep together, and bathrooms, public and otherwise, serve as the primary locus of our collusions. A part of me finds it degrading, and a part of me is too carried away by the adventure of it all to care. I will come to realize, later, that I had taken my efforts to become a body too far, allowed myself to be reduced to a body, by another.
The sleeping bag is a cocoon that produces no butterfly. After these brief, sneaky encounters, always almost silent, I crawl into the sleeping bag and feel both broken and whole: I am so aware of my own body that as I wrap my arms around my chest, my waist, move my extremities to warm up, there is a sense of complete self-containment. At the same time, after a moment of intimacy, the alone-ness of the sleeping bag occupant is made all the more apparent. The mummy, as we may recall from all the movies, is always alone, often seeking a lost lover—either one buried separately or one from a completely different, contemporary world that is reminiscent of a past flame, thus suggesting another layer of uncanny doubling. Separated from my temporary “lover,” contained in my sleeping bag, I cannot help but make the analogy.
As we find ourselves, repeatedly, in front of bathroom mirrors*, I try not to look. I am afraid, I think, of fully recognizing myself because not seeing myself in the act allows me to remain a body on my own terms, a body that watches others, that watches myself from a corner, watches both of us perhaps, from afar, takes notes. If I see myself, really see myself in that mirror, though, suddenly I am a body being used by another, one who feels nothing for me but lust, one who sees me as a body and, in the end, little else. This is more or less par for the course for this kind of affair—I am hardly a victim of anything but my own volition. Nevertheless, the relationship gets thoroughly dismembered, the final hack being, predictably, my replacement not with another body, but a person.
*Coincidentally, in Freud’s essay, there is a moment he describes, of sitting in a train when a jolt swings open the door of “the washing cabinet,” located between two adjacent compartments. An old man enters, and Freud, immediately disliking his appearance, gets up to “set him right” and send him back to the other compartment, only to realize, to his dismay, that the old man is nothing but his own reflection in the bathroom mirror, now revealed by the open door.
As the tour winds down and the exhaustion of being in charge of a group of people every day, with respect to every single detail, finally catches up with me, I enter a new stage of what it means to be a body. Like an automaton, I get up on stage every night and sing my one song with the group, act bubbly and charming, make announcements, deal with the merchandise, count the money. This is my job now, and my ethnographer self watches all of this, calmly, takes notes, takes stock of the changes in dynamic, of the notes sung, the words repeated. I love every single member of this group more than is advisable for any one heart, and as I make room for all of them, it grows more and more fractured, this heart, loses its ability to pump the blood I need for myself. Sleep becomes less and less possible, but when it does happen, I cannot wake without being shaken out of my sleeping bag because in my sleep I am a body together with itself. I cannot, after all, watch myself sleep the same way I’ve grown able to have a part of my mind watch my body in its wakened state, removed and unaffected.
The ensemble is packing their sleeping bags and leaving New York, leaving America. I am supposed to go back to Georgia with them, but miss the flight: Returning the rental car takes too long. When I get back to where we’ve been staying, a sleeping bag, one that evidently didn’t fit, is spread out on a chair. I have half a mind to crawl into it, get the memories out of this soft sarcophagus, but I stuff it away instead. I look in the bathroom mirror, a long good look, and slowly the part of me that’s been watching, fades into the rest of me.