March 29, 2018
“Hangover cure”—like military intelligence—is an oxymoron. If hangovers could be cured, they wouldn’t exist. Maybe one day it will happen, and some penicillin of the brain will sweep away these days of paroxysm. I’m told the Russians have a drug that renders the user impervious to the effects of alcohol. But if its morning-after cousin is released, who knows what the effects would be? Western economies would probably overheat in a week, unleashing all stripes of new disaster on the world. Better for the hangover to remain, if only as a brake on our Frankish vigor.
The best literary hangover is in The Bonfire of the Vanities, when Peter Fallow describes a “yolk as heavy as mercury, and it rolled like mercury, and it was pressing down on his right temple.” Only a fool prone to extreme hubris would set out to “cure” such a condition of nature. Instead, you must accept—from the very first moments of waking—that your hangover will be with you all day, until thoroughly drunk, asleep, or dead. You have no choice but to dance with it across the hours, like the lover you never entirely trust. Like her, the dictum is not to win but to know your enemy. Consider early on what reserves of viciousness she will bring to bear, what lawyers’ writs she will be issuing by 3 p.m. Most of all, classify her. Is she primarily cranial, corporeal, or psychological?
Of the three genera, the cranial hangover is the least threatening. A headache at least allows you freedom of action (aside from sports, perhaps; but you shouldn’t be doing those in the first place). It is moreover also most receptive to the key palliative of alcohol. Two white-wine spritzers with lunch can dissolve the condition into a state of positive joy, leaving your soul open to all kinds of elevation.
The corporeal hangover is a different matter. Its power rests on not immediately declaring its colors. You wake up with a mild feeling of lassitude. You cast off the woolliness and set about the day. A gradual realization dawns that basic tasks are taking too long. Personal effects are carried between rooms, then back again, then lost. You step into your car and stare at the Medusa-like thicket of controls: How does the damn thing work again? Soon this new autodidactism is seeping into everything, and you realize you are learning life from scratch. Staring at the coffee-shop menu for the fifth minute, reality finally bears her awful bosom. By then it is far too late. For the rest of the day, you drift like a ghost ship; speaking in half-formed sentences, beyond the help even of booze.
And yet, throughout all the above, your psyche has remained intact. Not so under the exquisite tortures of a psychological hangover. When Dickens wrote “sharper teeth than teeth of mice have gnawed at me,” I am sure it was to this that he referred. Under the thorns of a mental hangover, you are not only relearning how to do things, you are learning a new version of yourself. Needless to say, it is the very worst version. Yours is an empty husk of an existence. Everything you have ever done is wrong. In the words of Talleyrand, your life is worse than a failure; it is a mistake. You have torn everyone who reached out to you. God help the beast in me, you think, knowing that He won’t.
No amount of physical interventions will help. They will only make you feel your impotence more. Your only chance is to take a mental gun to a mental gunfight and tell yourself that what is happening has no objective value. Our great shared culture provides abundant reminders that you are not alone. Among the best of these is the word onrust. From the Dutch for “unrest,” it communicates a vague, creeping shame at the previous 12 hours. The first appearance of onrust in my young life was as a teenager at the Cannes Film Festival. The evening was advanced. There was a man in an embroidered paisley suit. Being a precocious little shit, I burst forth with “Darling, love the suit!” Having less irony in his old frame than I had gathered in my 18 years, he planted me with a large indigenous kiss. “Well, Bunky,” I thought as I cowered from the air stewardesses the next day, “you really walked into that one.”