Friday, July 9, 2010

In praise of the siesta

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

After journalist and friend Zuenir Ventura dared, in a major newspaper in Rio (29/05), to extol the benefits of the siesta as something that is good for your health, and moreover, a biological necessity that makes people more intelligent, I have been inspired to praise the siesta. It's an old goal I have nurtured for years, during which I even did research on the matter. I intend to justify being an inveterate siesta taker. So inveterate that I even make some lectures conditional on the possibility of taking a short nap after lunch, even if only in an armchair or chair.

In Freiburg (Germany), they took my wish so seriously that they set up a camp bed in a room so I could take the blessed nap. But I didn't take it, because some Germans had the bad taste to organize a meeting over lunch with a group that even wanted to talk about metaphysical questions. The result was that they spoiled the meal -- either one ended up not eating or, worse, there was no time to lie down for the indispensable little nap.

Personally I'm always recalcitrant about going to bed. I don't like sleeping and delay bedtime as long as I can. But few things are better, among the pleasant satisfactions that the Creator gave the 'debased' sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, than a good nap. It doesn't need to be long. Just about 20 minutes. With the exception of Saturdays and Sundays, when, like a good person of Italian descent, I drink two glasses of wine. Not so much for the wine, but because it favors a deeper and more prolonged nap. Thus I sleep "like a log", "a pierna suelta" as they say in Spanish, well translated by our people in Minas Gerais as “durmo de pé espalhado”.

The origin of the nap is mysterious, but by its intrinsic goodness it must be linked to the process of anthropogenesis, that is, it must have existed since human beings appeared. If even animals take naps, why wouldn't humans -- the more complex brothers and sisters of animals -- do so?

Some believe that it was officially introduced in the West by the monks and friars. There is a delicious Spanish saying that: "si quieres matar a un fraile, quítale la siesta y dale de comer tarde" ["If you want to kill a monk, take away his nap and feed him late"]. In Spain, the siesta is so sacred that most business is closed during those hours. In the monasteries, I could see that some friars even put on pajamas to take a nap, especially after having a few glasses of wine followed by an excellent cognac.

It is said that Newton and Churchill had their best ideas after the siesta. Victor Hugo spoke of the siesta when referring to the lion in a poem entitled "La méridienne du lion" ["The lion's nap"]. Baudelaire in "La belle Dorothée" tells wisely why she napped: "une sieste qui est une espèce de mort savoureuse où le dormeur, à demi éveillé, goûte les voluptés de son anéantissement." ["The siesta is a delicious sort of death in which the sleeper, half-awake, tastes the pleasure of his annihilation"] Rene Louis, in his Mémoires d'un Siesteur ("Memoirs of a Siesta Taker") said it well: "The siesta allows me to observe sleeping; it's the moment when time stands still and is silent." F. Audouard, beautifully says in his Pensées: "In Provence, one wakes twice: in the morning and after the siesta."

Here is what is good about the siesta for me: it gives us a second night and two dawnings of the sun. The siesta allows us to have, on the same day, a second day. When waking from a siesta, everything starts again with renewed vigor as if the day has begun anew.

If they take my nap away, the body takes revenge, especially if I'm listening to a talk: I doze, I blink, and not infrequently I nod off. I can not imagine a whole day of mental activity, paying attention to so many things and having to put who knows how many ideas in order, without a refreshing nap.

The siesta is a wise invention of life. It rests the mind, makes one forget the disappointments and gives us the rare virtual experience of dying sweetly (sleep is a beautiful metaphor for death) and rising again.

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