The Living Dead of the Night

The Living Dead of the Night

Being a collection of notes on the art and science of sleeplessness, with a helpful sidebar on the commercial attractions of the night.

In the 1980s sociologist Murray Melbin wrote a book called Night as Frontier, in which he examines the ways in which electric, artificial light has opened up the night for exploration and exploitation. The original pioneers were primarily outcasts who pushed their biological clocks further and further into the night in response to the increasingly crowded and regimented daylight world. Corporations, production, and convenience followed right behind them, and in very short order they managed to keep even the smallest towns up and running around the clock. Today a young boy sitting out on the stoop after midnight in America is likely to hear not peace and quiet and the distant surf of traffic, but a greater, even less specific racket, a droning metallic hum, the now universal industrial cicada.

At some point, then, coinciding oddly enough with the mass arrival of fast food and a new shopping mall, sleeplessness lost much of its romantic appeal, and the night ceased to provide me with anything approximating serenity. I had lost my proprietary claim on the night. I began to attempt sleep, and was crushingly unsuccessful. There were still too many things I needed the night for--the library books stacked around my bed on the floor, the records, all the things still waiting to be processed, sorted out, abandoned or pursued. A biological clock--once it has been monkeyed with--is a very difficult thing to reset.

I've swallowed things on orders, all sorts of things, hopeful for a chemical vacation, but almost none of it has worked. Halcyon, Klonopin, Ambien, Xanax, Melatonin, Passion Flower, Valerian. You run your finger down the laundry list of possible side effects--many of them truly terrifying--and you roll the dice. Ambien kept me up all night jerking violently, teeth chattering. Halcyon gave me two hours of violent nightmares and then left me flat on my back and wide awake, doing everything in my power to ignore the stiff aluminum balloon that was straining against the top of my skull. Melatonin gave me eye-crossing headaches.

As disappointments go, my experience with sleeping pills, my search for the "peerless soporific," has been right up there on the top of the list. I've tried also the reeking teas and all the usual rituals of health and relaxation, the exercise, meditation, and idiot white-noise tapes with their racketing combination of "brainwave frequencies," ambient music, and droning subliminals. My head wouldn't fall for any of that stuff, and I'll be the first to admit that the effort was largely half-assed. The first requirement of any effective sleep program is a cooperative subject, and it now appears that I am a hopelessly uncooperative subject.

"A great deal depends on the patient," says Dr. Mortimer Malemak in Lydia Dotto's Losing Sleep. "A lot of people don't cooperate. These are people who like to be up at night; they do all the important things in their life at night." Every week or so now I swallow 0.5 milligrams of Klonopin and settle for six hours of relief from the usual stupor. The rest of the time I've learned to cope with what Jorge Luis Borges called the "atrocious lucidity" of sleeplessness, and to make the most of the opportunity that is every wakeful night.

The odd mentation and hallucinations of sleeplessness provide perhaps the one pure opportunity we may ever have of being simultaneously analyst and analysand. And insomnia is not without its occasional spectacular rewards; I often realize that a disproportionate number of my most treasured and visual memories are night memories.

One summer night I was sitting in the darkness of an apartment overlooking the intersection of Lyndale Avenue and Lake Street. It was a sweltering night, after 3, and I was watching two men who were leaning against a parked car on Lake Street, having what seemed to be a very heated and, I thought at the time, theatrical argument. It was a very quiet time of the night; nothing else was moving anywhere, and the two voices carried up to me as clearly as if they were coming from my television set. I watched, eavesdropping, absolutely fascinated.

The two men had their backs to me, and I watched as one of the men reached through the open window of the car and removed from the back seat a tennis racket, with which he proceeded to flail at the other man, who ducked and covered his head with his hands. The one guy was swinging the tennis racket with what appeared to be all his might. The racket broke in the middle and the man continued to swing it, shouting out now, very clearly, very emphatically, "I!... Will!... Not!... Let!... You!... Dee!... Stroy!... My!... Play!"

I watched then as the man with the broken racket stalked away down Lake Street toward Uptown, broken tennis racket still in hand. The other man took a moment to compose himself on the sidewalk and then got in his car and drove away.

Symbolically, night is always the bad guy, the province of nightmare, bogeyman, secret, and sin. Night's bad reputation is, of course, timeless and universal. On a map of the unconscious, night occupies as much space as Asia, and represents equal parts Antarctica, Transylvania, and Tangiers. "In a real dark night of the soul," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "it is always three o'clock in the morning." Sleep researchers call the hours between 3 and 6 a.m. the "Forbidden Zone," and people who are up at that time of the night fall largely into one of three camps: those who are trying desperately to fall asleep, those who are trying to stay awake, and those who are trying to be awake.

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