It’s a feeling I’ve known since childhood, though it’s come sporadically over the years: An extreme sleepiness without fatigue, a dream without sleep, a staggering drunk without the buzz, a codeine high without skin rash. My eyes won’t focus; I stumble. Usually it occurs in summertime or in the tropics or subtropics, but not every hot place does it and sometimes I can sink into it in some cool interior such as a public library.
Melville describes this feeling, which he attributes to languor, washing over everyone aboard the ship Dolly:
We abandoned the fore-peak altogether, and spreading an awning over the forecastle, slept, ate, and lounged under it the live-long day. Every one seemed to be under the influence of some narcotic. Even the officers aft, whose duty required them never to be seated while keeping a deck watch, vainly endeavoured to keep on their pins; and were obliged invariably to compromise the matter by leaning up against the bulwarks, and gazing abstractedly over the side. Reading was out of the question; take a book in your hand, and you were asleep in an instant.
In the army we called it Brain Fever. For two or three days we’d lie around like lotus eaters, missing meals, going unwashed, shirking our duties as dutifully as we could. The worst case I ever had was after I got off a Blackhawk somewhere near Río Coclé del Norte in the Republic of Panama, expecting to join my dive detachment but finding instead I’d beat them there. I spent a soporific week by myself in a 16 x 32’ tent belonging to a larger unit bivouacked high above the sea. It was hot and windy at night and hotter and more humid in the day, and I spent both days and nights sleeping or nearly asleep in that canvas tent, plagued by mosquitoes and weird dreams and pacing like a sleepwalker. In the middle of one of those nights a young PFC from the engineer battalion apparently walked off the cliff, fell several stories onto volcanic boulders, and was swept away by the breakers. When I was shaken awake roughly by soldiers with flashlights, they called me by his name, hoping upon hope he wasn’t sunk in that black sea. There were many rumors as to what happened, but I’ve wondered all these years if he died by languor.
It has occurred to me that languor is a sort of depression, though it feels nothing like the loss of the magic of adventure, when foreign mountains are suddenly just mountains and not like being in love. I used to get it when I visited my sister’s home, where I felt unusually safe, and it interfered with my visit.
I’ve also wondered if it might be useful, a protective mechanism that slows me down the way a bad summer cold will do when I’ve been working too hard, a way for the subconscious to get more time to work. The pace at which my novel is allowing itself to be written has slowed after the first burst of concentrated energy, and even though I fell asleep on the couch after dinner yesterday and have been picking my way through conversations like a dullard, I indulge the languor when I have the time or ability because it feels necessary. I also look for the thing that signals the end of it.
Last week in the midst of a languor misty enough to make my freshly-painted walls drip, I got an unexpected e-mail from an old army friend, who led me to another. I haven’t seen or spoken to Egg or Sammy since the early ‘80s. It seems odd to say that they have been my lifelong friends, since I only knew them one or two years a quarter of a century ago. But my memories of them are so plentiful and strong—confirmed now by speaking with them—that the people they were then have been with me since young adulthood, and something awful that Sammy did even showed up on page 95 of my first novel.
And so—just as I’m working on a new novel set in the Gulf of Mexico, now deep in oil, about a group of veterans looking for one of their own and pulling into a Florida city with blighted real estate—here, up from out of the languor, swim my old friends, one of whom was an engineer on a tug during the Exxon Valdez mess and knows all about spills and salvage, and the other who lives in that blighted city and has a girlfriend in the chief mortgage/title business there. Those are wonderful, odd coincidences—nay, a sign from the universe to snap out of it and work harder—but that’s not all.
We leave our suitcases in other people’s houses. They keep them for us, sometimes even after we’ve left word to throw them out. Much later, to our dreamlike amazement, the cases are brought to us, opened, and we get to measure ourselves against what we remember being. Some part of us has been saved when we thought it was lost, and we realize we’re carried around as we carry others. It’s reason enough to rouse ourselves and get moving.