Dry November: Day 5

November 05, 2018

 Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours.

Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other. The first night in Auschwitz we slept in beds which were constructed in tiers. On each tier (measuring about six-and-a-half to eight feet) slept nine men, directly on the boards. Two blankets were shared by each nine men. We could, of course, lie only on our sides, crowded and huddled against each other, which had some advantages because of the bitter cold. Though it was forbidden to take shoes up to the bunks, some people did use them secretly as pillows in spite of the fact that they were caked with mud. Otherwise one’s head had to rest on the crook of an almost dislocated arm. And yet sleep came and brought oblivion and relief from pain for a few hours.

Later in Man’s Search for Meaning he concludes:

The fear of sleeplessness is, in the majority of cases, due to the patient’s ignorance of the fact that the organism provides itself by itself with the minimum amount of sleep really needed.

As a result he advises insomniacs to set out to stay up all night. This of course never works, but it relieves the anxiety about being unable to fall asleep. I’ve tried this logic: “Since I know I won’t sleep tonight, I’ll try to finish this book.” Inevitably I fall asleep faster than if I lie there worrying about sleeplessness. I also find that having the attitude he recommends, which is to assume that the body knows better than the mind, removes some of the secondary suffering caused by anxiety that one will be tired, which exists beyond the mere physical fact that one is tired.

Yesterday, then, I didn’t leave the house until 4pm, having slept around 7am. After six hours of The Clock, and sleeping into the day, I had bizarre fever dreams. They were stranger than morphine visions and nearly as rapid. Dreams are said to be a time for the brain to make sense of the day’s experiences; what it does after staying up all night to watch a thousand cuts of unrelated film, therefore, is quite interesting. The dreams themselves changed rapidly, and the scenes were totally unfamiliar. There was no sense, as one often has, of being in a place or situation that is familiar but different, or with people one knows in an unlikely circumstance. This was more like being in another person’s dreams, or rather other peoples’ dreams, shifting not just the content of the dream but one’s own identity every minute or so. I cannot recall any situation precisely, but I remember that the scenes were intense, melodramatic, that I was fully inhabiting other lives.

It was emerging from this muddled state that I met with someone whose acquaintance I’d made in exceptionally inebriated circumstances, but our intuitions proved better than our intelligence (impaired as it was at the time) because we got along very well. After an obligatory hour of The Clock we had dinner, where the conversation was scintillating, and I hope that our intoxicated introduction will give way to friendship. In other words, another instance of alcohol’s frustratingly positive binding qualities, and the conflicts and temptations these present. Were it a siren song that led invariably to ruin, it would be easier to resist. As it is, however ill-advised the first meeting may be, it can lead one to meet genuinely good people. But perhaps I’m once again ascribing to alcohol some of the benefits of socialising itself.

We went to a Mexican restaurant, oddly out of place in the Southbank’s stark concrete brutality, next to the BFI. He had a Pacifico Clara, which I ordered for him, because it seems to me slightly superior to the other Mexican lagers, and because it reminds me of my friends who surreptitiously drank it in high school, at Newport Beach parties, and of my father, who drank it at home. The brightness of the word clara and of its yellow label also contrasts with the darkness of the bottle in a way that I find compelling. I was not tempted, but I did have to explain why I was not drinking. He rightly guessed that I might be writing about it, though of course this idea came after the decision to go dry, as a way of shoring up support. I explained my motives, and also my sense that most rationalisations are post-hoc justifications for what the body, having already succumbed to temptation before the mind is aware that it has, is about to do. Despite the fact that we had met in the presence of copious alcohol in a houseparty, he understood.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.