On Dozing

What does it mean to doze? It is remarkable that a seemingly harmless question can lead to such genuine confusion. While we may all know how to use the word doze, we don’t seem able to really answer the question of what the concept of actually is. We just end up falling into the same philosophical situation that St. Augustin found himself in when he asked what time is. While one may hope that sleep research can offer some answers, this is really only avoiding the philosophical nature of the question. A sleep researcher can provide one possible explanation for dozing – if they’re a scientist, they can only give a purely scientific explanation, thus ignoring other possible explanations, whether philosophical or psychological. They’re equally likely to dismiss esoteric ideas, which claim that creative energies can be released while dozing. Any particular explanation is preceded by the question of what the concept is. As soon as normality begins to be replaced by the philosophical, a feeling of insecurity ensues – a sure sign that the question you’re dealing with is fairly fundamental. We don’t, under normal circumstances anyway, have any difficultly understanding the remark “I dozed for a bit“. It’s only when someone asks “What do you mean exactly by dozed?” that we become completely unsure of ourselves. (When it comes down to it, we end up asking the sleep researcher again anyway, so that we can reassure ourselves with their explanation). In all likelihood, the verb to doze refers to a particular state that someone is in when they are nearly asleep. An obvious strategy is thus to define such a state by differentiating between it and other similar states – starting with sleeping and then moving on to dreaming or semi-consciousness. Following this strategy, someone dozing is, to a certain degree, more aware than someone asleep. If you, however, compare someone dozing with someone who’s dreaming, the difference is that their mind is completely empty – when the person regains consciousness, they won’t remember anything. At the same time, the fact that someone dozing is still capable of returning to a state of consciousness separates them from someone who is half-asleep, who is no longer really capable of thought. Dozing could thus be defined as being half-asleep for a temporary period of time. It is a brief, reoccurring state during which we are without thoughts but still awake. However, if we claim that someone dozing is without thought, a provocative counter question can be posed: do animals have thoughts if they aren’t dozing for once? We wouldn’t actually say that someone who has acted without thinking had actually been dozing. Someone who is dozing doesn’t think and doesn’t do anything – you could say that they’re just brazenly idle. On the other hand, sleeping is an acceptable form of idleness because it serves to replenish our energies. The concept of dozing seems to be less connected with a description that with a judgement, and a negative one at that. When we use the word doze to describe a state, we normally disvalue it, whether or not we are really able to describe it. At the same time, sentences such as “unlike other classic writers, who were far stricter, Proust didn’t have anything against dozing or only being half-awake” can be found in newspapers. In this example, the standard critical usage of doze gains a positive dimension. Someone dozing can thus be surprised by deep and far-reaching discoveries precisely because they are not beholden to systematic and focussed thought. The meaning of the word in the strictest sense does not, however, support this more pleasant interpretation. When the adjective dösig (dozy) came into use in Standard German at the beginning of the 19th Century (the verb dösen came into use a little bit later), it was a part of a less complimentary word field that contained words such as dumb, vacant, foolish, ignorant, stupid, dazed and confused. Another, more neutral word field containing words such as drowsy, bemused and unthinking has always provided a counterpart to this though. Dusel (befuddlement), which is related to dösig, but was already use in Standard German by the 16th Century, means on the one hand dizziness, being half-asleep or thoughtlessness and, on the other, unearned happiness. This final, positive dimension to the word probably only arose in the 19th Century. If, therefore, to be in state of befuddlement is not necessarily something bad, and if dozing can lead to deep insights, then it seems surprising that doziness is something best avoided. The Brothers Grimm used words such as daze, foolishness, stupidity, casualness, lack of wit and cheerfulness to order paraphrase the word for its entry in their dictionary. It’s one thing to say that someone is dozy because you think of them as stupid, but quite another to say that someone looks dozy because you think they’re just sitting there vacantly. In the second example, we are actually able to see that someone is dozing. There is obviously a particular facial expression ,combined with a typical posture, that leads to use the word dozing. Someone who is dozing is physically motionless, except maybe for some sort of repetitive movement that accompanies the state, like a foot bobbing up and down. They are also mentally idle, which can be seen in their facial expression. Someone who stares at the same place without moving a muscle has a different expression than someone staring vacantly in front on them on a hot day in a sleepy village in Brittany. At the same time, it is still exceptionally difficult to specify which exactly characterises a dozy facial expression. This is astounding when you consider how certain we are when we recognise somebody dozing, despite how little we actually know about it.

Gernot Grube

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