This week, the Cut is exploring a scientific theory that suggests we have infinite emotions, so long as we can name them — and so we did, asking writers to identify new ways to feel.
Nocturnal Admissions: The insidious feelings of self-recrimination that take over your brain during states of middle-of-the-night semi-consciousness, when normal psychological defenses against despair are disabled.
It’s three-something in the morning again. I’ve just stirred awake, but one program associated with consciousness has failed to load: a kind of psychic antivirus protection without which I’m vulnerable to pernicious, even sadistic, doubts. These cerebral insurgents, normally kept at bay with caffeine and a healthy sense of proportion, have breached the cranial walls and are burning bonfires in the plazas and boulevards. They strut around these precursors to cognitive vandalism like European movie villains — 90 percent menacing, 10 percent balletic and preposterous. But they speak my language; they know just what to say to hurt me.
Stuff like, You know your novel? It sucks. Or: You’re probably going to die young. What they say carries a strange weight, the force of irrefutable prophecy. Nobody who knows you really likes you. If they do, it’s only because you’ve fooled them; they’ll catch on. You’re washed up. Maybe you had talent once, but you frittered away. Too much drinking and smoking. First it comes for your brain, then for your body. That headache you had the other day? Minor stroke. You never even learned Latin. You’ve publicly referred to Ulysses as your favorite book, but how much of it do you understand, really? Probably less than Pete Buttigieg, and he’s running for president. (He’s basically your age.) You’ll be lucky if they let you adjunct once your novel comes out. If it does well, people will just hate you more. Probably they’re plotting your downfall right now. If you went on Twitter, you’d know, but — oh, right — you’re too scared. Why did you sign up for this? You could have just been a lawyer. Or an arborist. Trees calm you. But no, you had to perorate in public. Jesus. Can you even justify the dubious views you’ve attached yourself to? Ready, go! Defend them. You can’t? Classic. Your mind’s a sieve. You only said “perorate” to prove you’re not stupid, right? Now you sound stupid and pretentious. Do you even listen to yourself? Can you hear how narcissistic and self-centered your worries are? No wonder you’re unhappy. No wonder people don’t like you. All you think about is yourself!
Night terrors take place in sleep; the insomniac’s churning anxiety prevents sleep, and the dark night of the soul is a form of spiritual crisis. Nocturnal admissions are distinct. They come after the system has been shut down, but before everything is back online — like when the electric fences aren’t working at Jurassic Park. There are monsters inside the security perimeter, and because these agents of destruction are, in fact, part of you, what at first seems an admission in the sense of letting in may really be an admission in the sense of acknowledging the truth. And that’s the scariest part: the suggestion that it’s waking life that’s the lie, sheltering you from the truth of what you only admit at night.