By Anjuli Kolb

Scientists in Toronto have begun to understand a sleep disorder in which the muscles of the body fail to paralyze themselves during REM sleep, causing the sleeper to act out her dreams in various degrees of embodiment. During her fieldwork in the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston contemplates the body called back to life, and Junot Diaz ferries us back to Haiti for the apocalypse. 


“What we call ‘sleep’ involves transitions between three different states….REM sleep is also characterized by temporary muscle paralysis. In some sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and parasomnias, like REM behavior disorder, the distinctions between these different states breaks down; characteristics of one state carry over or ‘invade’ the others. Sleep researchers believe that neurological "barriers" that separate the states don't function properly, though the cause of such occurrences is not entirely understood….[M]ost people, even when they are having vivid dreams in which they imagine they are active, their bodies are still. But, persons with RBD lack this muscle paralysis, which permits them to act out dramatic and/or violent dreams during the REM stage of sleep.”

—The National Sleep Foundation on the condition known as REM Behavior Disorder, undated.  


“Here in the shadow of the Empire State building, death and the graveyard are final. It is such a positive end that we use it as a measure of nothingness and eternity. We have the quick and the dead. But in Haiti there is the quick, the dead, and then there are Zombies. This is the way Zombies are spoken of: They are bodies without souls. The living dead. Once they were dead, and after that, they were called back to life again.

—Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, 1938.


“For six, seven months it was just a horrible Haitian disease—who fucking cared, right? A couple of hundred new infections each month in the camps around Port-au-Prince, pocket change, really, nowhere near what KRIMEA was doing to the Russian hinterlands. For a while it was nothing, nothing at all…and then some real eerie plep started happening. Doctors began reporting a curious change in the behavior of the infected patients: they wanted to be together, in close proximity, all the time.”

—Junot Diaz, “Monstro,” The New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012. 

Let Me Recite What History Teaches (LMRWHT) is a weekly column that flashes the gaslight, candlelight, torch, or starlight of the past on something that is happening now. The citational constellations work to recover what might be best about the “wide-eyed presentation of mere facts.” They are offered with astonishment and largely without comment. The title is taken from the last line of Stein’s poem “If I Told Him (A Completed Portrait of Picasso)."

Image: Felicia Felix-Mentor, photographed by Zora Neale Hurston