The Art of the Nap

I had on gray wool trousers, a blue shirt, and a four-in-hand knit tie, which I didn’t bother to loosen. My hands were folded together on my chest in the corpse-in-the-casket position, and I hadn’t turned back the bedspread. It was three-thirty on a cold and gray February afternoon. My next appointment was at five o’clock, and there was nothing, at that moment, that I was eager to read. Into the arms of Morpheus I slipped, and for the next half hour I slept, I won’t say like a baby, or like a log, but like what I now prefer to think myself–a man who has mastered, in all its delicate intricacy, the art of the nap.

I did not move, I did not stir. I woke, as planned, without a wrinkle in my shirt, trousers, or cheek, not a hair out of place. A most impressive, if I do say so myself–and at that moment I did say so to myself–performance. Really quite brilliant. The term control freak is almost never used approvingly, I know, but I felt myself at that moment a control freak entirely happy in his work–that is to say, in perfect control. I carefully slipped off the bed and walked into the bathroom, where I gazed at my clear eyes in the large mirror. Another fine nap successfully brought off.

I don’t ordinarily nap on a bed or on my back. As a napmaster, I fear too much comfort and the consequent difficulty of pulling myself out of the pleasures of a too-deep sleep to go back into the world. I also wish to avoid rumpledness, the toll that a nap on one’s back on a couch often takes. Most of my napping therefore is done sitting up, on a couch, shoes off, with my feet resting on a low footstool. Having one’s feet up is important.

Most of my naps–and I usually get, on the average, three or four a week–take place late in the afternoon, around five or five-thirty, with the television news playing softly in the background. As the reports of earthquakes, plagues, arson, pillaging, and general corruption hum on, I snooze away, a perfect symbol of the indifference of man in the modern age. These naps last from twenty to thirty-five minutes. (“A nap after dinner was silver,” says old Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace, “before dinner golden.”) Should the telephone ring while I am mid-nap, I answer it in an especially clear and wide-awake voice that I don’t usually bother evoking when I am in fact wide awake. Some of these naps leave me a touch groggy, though this soon enough disappears. Usually, they all do the job, which is to help get me through the evening.

I not long ago asked a friend, an Englishman, if he naps. “Whenever possible,” he replied. Prone or sitting up? “Prone.” On a bed or couch? “Bed.” Trousers on or off? “Generally off.” And for how long? “That depends,” he said, “on when the cats choose to depart.” Joseph Conrad wrote that his task was “by the power of the written word . . . to make you see.” The picture of my friend with his cats napping atop him is almost too easily seen.

I nap well on airplanes, trains, buses, and cars, and with a special proficiency at concerts and lectures. I am, when pressed, able to nap standing up. In certain select company, I wish I could nap while being spoken to. I have not yet learned to nap while I myself am speaking, though I have felt the urge to do so. I had a friend named Walter B. Scott who, in his late 60s, used to nap at parties of 10 or 12 people that he and his wife gave. One would look over and there Walter would be, chin on his chest, lights out, nicely zonked; he might as well have hung a Gone Fishing sign on his chest. Then, half an hour or so later, without remarking upon his recent departure, he would smoothly pick up the current of the talk, not missing a stroke, and get finely back into the flow. I saw him do this perhaps four or five times, always with immense admiration.

Certain jobs seem to carry (unspoken) napping privileges. Writing in 1931, H.L. Mencken noted that one of the tests of a good cop was the talent of “stealing three naps a night in a garage without getting caught by the roundsman.” Surely, movie projectionists get to nap to their hearts’ content. Cab and limousine drivers must nap. Napping on the job can scarcely be unknown to psychoanalysts and other workers in the head trades. (“Uh huh,” mumbles the dozing psychiatrist in the caption of a cartoon that shows the feet of a patient who has just jumped out the window.) The only job in which I ardently longed to nap was guard duty in army motor pools on cold nights in Missouri, Texas, and Arkansas. Ah, to have slipped into the back of a deuce-and-a-half (as the big trucks in the army were called) and ZZZ’d out for a quick half hour! But fear, that first goad to conscience, won out and, difficult though it was, I stayed awake.

At a job I held one summer in college at a phonograph needle factory, one of the maintenance men, a dwarfish man of Italian ancestry, regularly slipped up to the fourth floor for a 40-minute shot of sleep. One steamy summer day in Washington, at a meeting of the National Council of the National Endowment for the Arts, I noted an entire half table of council members, heads nodding, necks jerking, eyelids drooping, effectively sedated by a slide show on city planning. I envied them, and doubtless should have joined them but for the fact that I had myself only recently awoken from a delightfully soporific lecture on the meaning of the avant-garde. I have always slept reasonably well during lectures and never better than when a lecturer is foolhardy enough to darken the room for slides.

I have described my prowess at napping, or the art of napping in action. What I have not gone into is the secret behind the attainment of this prowess. In no small part, it has to do with wanting a time-out–with wanting out of life, not deeply, not permanently, but at least for a while. The English writer A. Alvarez, in a book titled Night, allows that he has become addicted to sleep–that he finds it no less than, in his own word, “sensual.” He remarks that in his adolescence and his 20s he chiefly thought about sex; once he married and that department of his life was in order, in his 30s “the obsession with sex was replaced by an obsession with food”; and now, in his 60s, this has been “usurped by a new obsession: sleep.”

My own youthful naps were owing to happy excess. My current napping, I regret to report, is all too much part of the machinery beginning to break down. Not that I long for a nap each afternoon; if I am out in the world, I do not think about napping. My condition certainly does not yet begin to approximate that of the eponymous hero of Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov: “Lying down was not for Oblomov a necessity, as it is for a sick man or for a man who is sleepy; or a matter of chance, as it is for a man who is tired; or a pleasure, as it is for a lazy man; it was his normal condition.” Still, if an opportunity for a nap presents itself, I find I take it.

Excerpted with permission from The American Scholar (Summer 1995). Subscriptions: $25.00/yr. (4 issues) from 1811 Q St. NW, Washington, DC 20009. Back issues: $6.95 from same address.

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