Amis is one of my favorite comic prose writers. This is from Everyday Drinking, a book I wholeheartedly recommend, even for the specious and questionable breed of degenerates known as “non-drinkers.” Abbreviations: “P.H.” means “Physical Hangover.” “M.H.” means “Metaphysical Hangover.” – M
THE METAPHYSICAL HANGOVER
1. Deal thoroughly with your P.H.
2. When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk. If this works, if you can convince yourself, you need do no more, as provided in the markedly philosophical
G.P. 9: He who truly believes he has a hangover has no hangover.
3. If necessary, then, embark on either the M.H. Literature Course or the M.H. Music Course or both in succession (not simultaneously). Going off and gazing at some painting, building or bit of statuary might do you good too, but most people, I think, will find such things unimmediate for this— perhaps any—purpose. The structure of both Courses, HANGOVER READING and HANGOVER LISTENING, rests on the principle that you must feel worse emotionally before you start to feel better. A good cry is the initial aim.
Begin with verse, if you have any taste for it. Any really gloomy stuff that you admire will do. My own choice would tend to include the final scene of Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines 606 to the end, with what is probably the most poignant moment in all our literature coming at lines 624–6. The trouble here, though, is that today of all days you do not want to be reminded of how inferior you are to the man next door, let alone to a chap like Milton. Safer to pick somebody less horribly great. I would plump for the poems of A. E. Housman and/or R. S. Thomas, not that they are in the least interchangeable. Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum is good, too, if a little long for the purpose.
Switch to prose with the same principles of selection. I suggest Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is not gloomy exactly, but its picture of life in a Russian labour camp will do you the important service of suggesting that there are plenty of people about who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have, and who put up with it, if not cheerfully, at any rate in no mood of self-pity.
Turn now to stuff that suggests there may be some point to living after all. Battle poems come in rather well here: Macaulay’s Horatius, for instance. Or, should you feel that this selection is getting a bit British (for the Roman virtues Macaulay celebrates have very much that sort of flavour), try Chesterton’s Lepanto. The naval victory in 1571 of the forces of the Papal League over the Turks and their allies was accomplished without the assistance of a single Anglo-Saxon (or Protestant). Try not to mind the way Chesterton makes some play with the fact that this was a victory of Christians over Moslems.
By this time you could well be finding it conceivable that you might smile again some day. However, defer funny stuff for the moment. Try a good thriller or action story, which will start to wean you from self-observation and the darker emotions: Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler, Gavin Lyall, Dick Francis, Geoffrey Household, C. S. Forester (perhaps the most useful of the lot). Turn to comedy only after that; but it must be white—i.e. not black—comedy: P. G. Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Captain Marryat, Anthony Powell (not Evelyn Waugh), Peter De Vries (not The Blood of the Lamb, which, though very funny, has its real place in the tearful category, and a distinguished one). I am not suggesting that these writers are comparable in other ways than that they make unwillingness to laugh seem a little pompous and absurd.
Here, the trap is to set your sights too high. On the argument tentatively advanced against unduly great literature, give a wide berth to anyone like Mozart. Go for someone who is merely a towering genius. Tchaikovsky would be my best buy in this department, and his Sixth Symphony (the Pathétique) my individual selection. After various false consolations have been set aside, its last movement really does what the composer intended and, in an amazingly non-dreary way, evokes total despair: sonic M.H. if ever I heard it.
Alternatively, or next, try Tchaikovsky’s successor, Sibelius. The Swan of Tuonela comes to mind, often recommended though it curiously is (or was in my youth) as a seduction background-piece. (Scope for a little article there.) Better still for our purpose, I think, is the same composer’s incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas and Mélisande: not to be confused with Debussy’s opera of that name. The last section of the Sibelius, in particular, carries the ever-so-slightly phoney and overdone pathos that is exactly what you want in your present state.
If you can stand vocal music, I strongly recommend Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody—not an alto sax, you peasant, but a contralto voice, with men’s choir and full orchestra. By what must be pure chance, the words sung, from a—between you and me, rather crappy—poem of Goethe’s, Harzreise im Winter, sound like an only slightly metaphorical account of a hangover. They begin, “Aber abseits wer ist’s?”—all right, I am only copying it off the record-sleeve; they begin, “But who is that (standing) apart? His path is lost in the undergrowth,” and end with an appeal to God to “open the clouded vista over the thousand springs beside the thirsty one in the desert.” That last phrase gets a lot in. You can restore some of your fallen dignity by telling yourself that you too are a Duerstender in der Wueste. This is a piece that would fetch tears from a stone, especially a half-stoned stone, and nobody without a record of it in his possession should dare to say that he likes music. The Kathleen Ferrier version is still unequalled after twenty years.
Turn now to something lively and extrovert, but be careful. Quite a lot of stuff that appears to be so at first inspection has a nasty habit of sneaking in odd blows to the emotional solar plexus; ballet music (except Tchaikovsky) and overtures to light operas and such are safer—Suppé, if you have no objection to being reminded of school sports days here and there, is fine. Or better, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, which would make a zombie dance.
Jazz is not much good for your M.H., and pop will probably worsen your P.H. But if you really feel that life could not possibly be gloomier, try any slow Miles Davis track. It will suggest to you that, however gloomy life may be, it cannot possibly be as gloomy as Davis makes it out to be. There is also the likely bonus to be gained from hearing some bystander refer to Davis as Miles instead of Davis. The surge of adrenalin at this piece of trendy pseudo-familiarity will buck up your system, and striking the offender to the ground will restore your belief in your own masculinity, rugged force, etc.
Warning: Make quite sure that Davis’s sometime partner, John Coltrane, is not “playing” his saxophone on any track you choose. He will suggest to you, in the strongest terms, that life is exactly what you are at present taking it to be: cheap, futile and meaningless.