‘Then here again are two lovers, flesh pressed to flesh … their bed heaves as with the swell of the sea, whispers and sways, as if it were itself alive and joyful because it was seeing the consummation of the rapturous mystery of love.’
from Le Lit, by Guy de Maupassant
The bed is a place of many things. Of love and motherhood, of rest and illness, of tranquility and turmoil. You know people who write and study here, who watch films, who don a suit and go to work on their laptops here, who meditate, who read books or listen to music, who argue and make peace here. Some count the number of sleeps until escape or joy or adventure, and some resist the count when the only escape is sleep.
When your son acquired chicken pox at four months old, he was so jarred with discomfort that you brought him into your bed and laid him on your body, chest to chest, skin to skin. He slept and woke sporadically at the itch and the sore, and you placed your hand on his back or stroked the soft down of his hair until he slept again. You didn’t sleep that night, but you knew that this state of wakeful bliss was what it meant to be a mother.
A bed of carved ebony was found in the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tut-Ankh-Amen, in Thebes. The legs of the bed were shaped like a cat’s, and the foot-panel was overlaid with gold and garlanded with petals, fruits, papyrus and sedge.
There was a time when you lived nomadically, the bed of each surrogate home the anchor of your nocturnal life. There was the hard mattress and cool sheets of your friend’s spare room, where your restless nights were filled with longing and confusion after your relationship ended. There was the sofa-bed at your daughter’s house, so nubbed with raw springs that you had to unroll memory foam onto its surface, transforming it into a soft and yielding burrow, a respite from the turmoil of your emotions.
Frida Kahlo began her artistic career by painting the surgical corset that encased her bed-bound body while she recovered from a horrific accident. It is said that Winston Churchill dictated much of his six volumes of The Second World War from his bed. Other bed-nestling writers include Voltair, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain and John Milton. Composers of opera have also been reluctant to leave their beds, including Paisiello, Rossini, Donizetti and Puccini. Rossini once dropped a new aria on the floor, but instead of leaving the warmth of his bed to retrieve it, he stayed where he was and wrote another.
Maupassant’s sea-swell lovers ‘mingle in this divine kiss—this kiss which opens the gate to heaven on earth, this kiss which sings of human delights, promising all…’. You have recently come to know this mingling, absorbed in the moment of not knowing the end or beginning of yourself, your lover or the bed itself, all one thing and fully part of the world within and without the warm hold of time and place.
In Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting The Bed, you see a couple burrowed deep under the covers with just their heads showing, nested into shimmering white pillows. They seem to be thick with sleep, hair mussed, but their eyes are open and they hold each other in a steady gaze, taking in the features of the face that shapes the mood of each day and night. You imagine them to be a long-married couple, but then you discover they are prostitutes, this the most famous painting in Lautrec’s series depicting the inhabitants of a Parisian brothel in the late nineteenth century. You are reminded again that you can never truly know a couple’s reality, even when viewing them at their most vulnerable and intimate.
You once had to choose between two people, what seemed like an intractable decision that felt jagged in the vessels of your mind and heart. One night you went to bed and lay staring at the ceiling, preparing to ask a question in the hope that your dreams or the simple nocturnal passing of time would provide the answer, knowing that truths lay in the hours spent in the shadow of the earth. You raised the words in your mind and let the question mark hang, let yourself open up to sleep, but instead you felt a swift rush of imagination and there you were, standing with another, the two of you as solid and definitive as the pillow beneath your head. The question was answered. You understand now that the soft warm of the bed, the familiar scent of yourself and the enveloping darkness had all loosened the coils of your mind to present the future that had always been there, as surprising as it was inevitable.
(Maupassant quotes & historic information sourced from The Philosophy of the Bed, by Mary Eden & Richard Carrington)