The Hour of the Wolf

On Tuesday night, while I was watching the episode of Ken Burns’ Country Music that featured Hank Williams, my friend Randolph sent a text message about people who are up at 3 am – “writers, painters, poets, over thinkers, silent seekers and creative people.” He wondered if I was among them.

The answer is not very often, at least since the end of my misspent youth, but we can all feel that dark, haunted hour viscerally in the music of Hank Williams. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, for instance, has the feel of a shabby little room, lit by a bare lightbulb, at 3:00 am, reeking of stale cigarette smoke, when the whisky is gone and the liquor stores won’t reopen for a few more hours:

“I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind the clouds
To hide its face and cry.”

Those times when I’m up and sleepless at 3:00 am I have always called “the hour of the wolf.” Google on the phrase and you mostly get reviews and analysis of Ingmar Bergman’s film of that name – not one of the best from his surrealist phase, IMO, but the trailer offers a good definition of Hour of the Wolf: “The hours between night and dawn. The hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fears, when ghost and demons are most powerful, the hour of the wolf is also the hour when most children are born.”

In searching on the phrase, I discovered an earlier Hour of the Wolf post on this site, uploaded in July, 2012. In it, I quoted another good definition from the 1996 “Hour of the Wolf” episode of Babylon 5:

“Have you ever heard of the hour of the wolf? … It’s the time between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning. You can’t sleep, and all you can see is the troubles and the problems and the ways that your life should’ve gone but didn’t. All you can hear is the sound of your own heart.”  – Michael J. Straczynski, writer, Babylonian Productions.

Any time I think of the Hour of the Wolf or 3:00 am, I think of Michael Ventura, a brilliant journalist, versed in Jungian and post-Jungian psychology, who co-wrote, with James Hillman, We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse.

I was fortunate enough to encounter Ventura over the course of a weekend when he was a visiting lecturer when I was studying psychology. My thoroughly worn copy of his book, Shadow Dancing in the USA contains a number of early essays from the series, “Letters at 3am” that he wrote over several decades, first for the LA Weekly, which he cofounded, and later for the Austin Chronicle.

Ventura is nothing short of a visionary. In 1986, when he published Shadow Dancing, a time that many recall as one of the “good old days” eras of this country, Ventura saw something darker, more tumultuous in the shadows. The title of the introduction to Shadow Dancing, It’s 3 a.m. Twenty-Four Hours a Day, refers to the malaise that everyone has come to feel clearly in the 33 years since the book was published:

“…what you are doing – standing in the dark, full of conflicting emotions – isn’t that what the whole world is doing now?

…the world’s clock is at about 3 a.m. of the new day, the new civilization. For the new day doesn’t start at midnight. The new day starts in darkness. Right now it’s 3 a.m. in whatever we will call that period of human history that comes after A.D.

When your clock reads 3 a.m. it’s a time of separateness, of loneliness, of restlessness. Nothing on television, nothing in the newspaper, nothing much anywhere that suggests that our restlessness, felt so privately, is part of something huge, something alive all over the world…”

I find that to be a very powerful thought – at 3 a.m., the Hour of the Wolf, it isn’t really that personal anymore…

2 thoughts on “The Hour of the Wolf

  1. What an interesting post. I’ve never heard that phrase (“The Hour of the wolf”) and I didn’t realize that so much happens between 3:00 & 4:00 a.m. Both death and birth, which is pretty profound, when you think of it. I’ve experienced the sleepless aspect of it — when I was teaching, I used it to find holes in my lesson plans before falling back asleep. Now, if it happens, I use it to find holes in my plot in a current book. It has always felt like a private and personal hour. I’m intrigued to think it might be a universal aspect of our era.

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    • I know my birth certificate says 3:04 am and my mother always said fevers peak at 4:00 pm and 4:00 am, which has been my experience. What fascinates me is that Ventura attributed this “3:00 am all the time” mode to our electronically connected world even though it was decades earlier than our current world where anyone can plug into social media induced angst at any time. The only other equally visionary work I can think of is Neal Stephenson’s “cyber-punk” fantasy novel, “Snow Crash,” from the early ‘90’s. I reviewed it here a few years back.

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