Tuesday, December 20, 2016

12/20: Ander Monson, That Tingling Feeling

What mood are you in right now, and how has reading aided or abetted your atmosphere? 
—Mary Cappello

Mary Cappello, Mary Ruefle, Lia Purpura, and Kathleen Peirce: I hereby name four writers who have recently put me in a pleasurable and very specific mood that, with any luck, will be familiar to you.

Perhaps what I mean is not a mood but a receptive mode of being. It reminds me of Sunday afternoons in a Michigan winter spent in front of a wide plate glass window. Through it I could watch snow falling and could feel its effects indirectly through the pane. From time to time an intermittent sun would break through without warning, and I would be warmed, and the day would change. It was a feeling of being beyond demand. There was nothing for me to do. There was nothing I could even imagine doing, it being Sunday in Michigan winter in a farmhouse in the country. I was not pulled toward my brother in the other room, nor toward my mother. It didn’t occur to me to go out into the snow, since to go out in it would be to leave my tracks in it. So I just sat and felt an acute sense of—what? not immobility but movementlessness. Betweenness, almost, though, not paralysis: beyond the pull of anything. Like there should be something drawing me but there was not. Nothing except the sunlight and the snow and the window and the day.

In my adult life, of course, it’s rare that I find my way to this sensation. That’s in part by circumstance: these days it’s hard to lose the twitch to check the phone or the sense of guilt, of everything I could or should be doing. Just to name a few: answer departmental emails, write eight recommendation letters for graduate programs, jobs, and fellowships, finish laying out a chapbook for my small press, respond to overdue queries on manuscripts, muster some semblance of a presence on social media, send notes on student work, reread a novel to prepare for class tomorrow, read submissions for the journal I edit, design a website for another project I’m involved in, work on a big article for a national magazine with an upcoming deadline, and, uh, work on some book projects, and I can already feel myself suffocating under it. But suffocation is not the movementlessness I am after.

Reading can silence these demands for a time. One of its great pleasures isn’t just in silence, or in reception, but of feeling altered, not just my mood but my awareness, of having my brain chemistry tinkered with a bit, and being won over by another’s precise attention. Obviously this is a good feeling. I’m not talking about escapist reading (which I also enjoy: hello, Forgotten Realms) but about a kind of derailment that I don’t pursue, exactly, but am increasingly open to. Hungry for. It’s like the hypnagogic or hypnopompic states between sleep and waking, except without the distraction of exhaustion (sleep another thing I know I could be doing, and thinking that, on that goes to the stack).

So I pursue writers whose work is beguiling in a particular way: writers whose sentences, perhaps, or ideas offer up some kind of frequency that speaks powerfully to me. These are writers—mostly though maybe not exclusively women, I’m not sure entirely why—that have something similar to an effect that has only recently been given a name: ASMR.

Conveniently, Mary Cappello’s recent book Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack) glosses the phenomenon of ASMR in service of a kind of mood-attention she’s trying to chart:
in the twenty-first century, groups have sprung up that call themselves whispering communities who don’t exactly gather but sit alone before their computers in order to watch or listen to videos in which a young woman crinkles the pages of a book across a very long period of time or taps her fingers on a tabletop while whispering banalities into the screen with the intention of creating an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response a.k.a. an “unnamed feeling”) in her audience—a deeply relaxing tingling sensation that also presumes to elevate one’s mood.
I’m not sure how down you are with this term. I admit it sounds a little kooky. I’d be skeptical too if I hadn’t been experiencing it on and off since childhood. The effect was only identified explicitly and named in 2011, and only in the last year or two have psychological studies begun to approach or measure it, or at least establish it as a legit phenomenon.

ASMR is a pleasant tingling in the brain—it can manifest as a lowness, a lightness, or almost an out-of-body experience, depending whom you talk to. Certain voices, usually women’s, spoken quietly and closely, can produce this on an unknown portion of the population. 

I’m curious to what extent readers (or readers of the essay) are particularly susceptible to this state.

I got really into researching ASMR a couple years ago, when it was still thought of as a dubious phenomenon. Though you could watch videos on youtube—often with millions of hits—of women speaking softly into microphones while folding paper, most people seemed to doubt its existence. There was a predictable backlash/trolling from men (perhaps some well-meaning) who read the experience as sexual. 

It’s not sexual, or not exactly—for me anyhow—but it sure feels intimate. The videos are always first-person POV, someone apparently performing for or speaking to you. The viewer must be close enough to hear a whisper. That closeness is important. I can see how one might experience this as sexual, particularly with the fact that the most popular ASMR videos are narrated by attractive young women. 

The effect comes in part from the precision and the intimacy of the language (these are hallmarks of the essay, you may notice), which leads to a gradual opening. It starts familiar—we're being cared for—but escalates into a pleasant derangement. I know, I could be describing anything. Well, I’m thinking here reading Mary Ruefle. The best Ruefle essays (or call them poems if you prefer) create a kind of pleasantly unhinged effect that tends to escalate as we go. They start straightforward, as in this short essay, from a series of essays describing colored sadnesses, quoted in its entirety:
Orange sadness is the sadness of anxiety and worry, it is the sadness of an orange balloon drifting over snow-capped mountains, the sadness of wild goats, the sadness of counting, as when one worries that another shipment of thoughts is about to enter the house, that a soufflé or a Cessna will fall on the one day set aside to be unsad, it is the orange haze of a fox in the distance, it speaks the strange antlered language of phantoms and dead batteries, it is the sadness of all things left overnight in the oven and forgotten in the morning, and as such orange sadness becomes lost among us altogether, like its motive.
You can see the movement, and by the time we get to wild goats you’ve probably stopped bothering weighing the plausibility of the thoughts—if you’re wise, anyhow, and don’t mind being led to the odd and the revelatory, and that promised land is your payoff.

Often with Ruefle we begin with something physical and clear, sometimes mundane (a little golf pencil, a book or a manuscript, keys, colors, a Christmas tree, a scarf, a milkshake) and sometimes not. Take, for instance, the title essay in her most recent book, My Private Property, which begins: 
It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads. Men, women and children walk on streets, they cross fields and enter forests, they run along the edges of oceans, but none of them, to the best of my knowledge, are thinking about shrunken heads. I am thinking about shrunken heads, but keep the thought to myself, that is, inside my head, for if the subject is raised at all, it is met with horror, on account of the violence involved in the necessary removal of the head before you can shrink it. But as an art and a conception, the tribes of the Amazon displayed a genius that deserves our awe; miniaturizing and preserving a human head is a glory and wonder on the scale of the great Pyramids.
Oh hey, that's a grotesque image on which to begin, sure. But its first subject is sadness (“It is sad, is it not”), not grotesquery, and that sadness is presented to us in a question. which has a beguiling quality to it. We are immediately asked to answer “sure, I suppose?” and in so doing we’re enlisted as part of a conspiratorial we in this fancy, and off we go on our fantasy quest. Once we've accepted the shocking idea of thinking about shrunken heads, we’re back into the mundane: “Men, women and children walk on streets, they cross fields and enter forests, they run along the edges of oceans.” Later we return to “thinking about shrunken heads, but [I] keep the thought to myself, that is, inside my head” which has a cheerful and pleasing pun to it that works almost like a rhyme. And we take off from there, and for some 15 pages our head is in, ha ha, her hands.

If you're like me, you're drawn in by the strangely charming and even caring quality of the voice. She wants to show us something, we understand, and so she does, and by the time we've reached the end of the show it feels inevitable (but of course it is not: that’s the effect of the magic): 
Sometimes I think there is no place left for me to go but back to the Congo Museum, that horrific monument of smashed lies and beautiful things, and stand face to face before a face I can barely remember but do, and pray to that shriveled thing that when I die, as I must, let someone preserve me as I was then, that first day, ignorant, innocent, at my most beautiful, and overcome by another. It occurs to me I wanted to die that day. Why else would I have skipped school and wandered off alone and found a friend among the dead? One who thrilled me to life? Oh my pantheon of shrunken heads, struck like new-laid eggs in a carton, comfort me when my rivers are high, comfort me when my waters are gone, for I can almost hear you breathing.
Well. We seem to find ourselves addressing an egg carton full of shrunken heads, and not only addressing but asking them for succor.

Ruefle’s trick here is something greater than ASMR, in which at most we’re being prepared by a series of quiet instructions and preparations. But the place both take me to is similar: I resonate this way and feel that pleasantness of being inhabited by another, of being taken care of.


Maybe my favorite book I’ve read this year is John Higgs’ The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds. It’s about the band responsible for massive early-90s singles like “3am Eternal” and “Justified and Ancient,” which—very oddly—features “the first lady of country” Tammy Wynette on vocals, singing entirely bizarre lyrics (“they’re justified and they’re ancient, and they drive an ice cream van”) roughly inspired by Robert Anton Wilson’s deranged and hilarious Illuminatus! trilogy. If you’ve never seen the videos for these songs it’s worth a go. If you have already, I'd go ahead and treat yourself again. Among other things, at the height of their fame, The KLF metaphorically burned every bridge possible with the music industry (including firing a machine gun and spraying sheep’s blood over a confused audience after an unrecognizable death metal rendition of their biggest hit). They proceeded to burn the million pounds they had earned to that point after nailing to a board on a remote island, then they deleted all their records from distribution, and (musically anyhow) they disappeared. 

It’s a great book not just for its music-bio game (which is strong) or the sheer strangeness of its subject (which is worth the price of admission) but for the argument Higgs is making about what magic (or perhaps just magical thinking, the belief that you can affect things in ways you cannot) can mean in what most of us experience as a thoroughly unmagical world: the Costco, the postage stamps, the traffic, the tweets. And more interestingly, Higgs starts to assert some very strange (and yet compelling, in their way) arguments about the relationship between language and art and the world:
Magic is art—or the Art, if you prefer. Writing a book or painting a picture is like pulling a rabbit out of a hat—you are producing something out of nothing. A thing now exists in the world that was not there before. Viewed in this context, the history of magic suddenly starts to make a lot more sense. A grimoire was a grammar. A spell is to spell. In the beginning was the Word. 
As everyone from magicians like [graphic novelist Alan (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, etc.)] Moore to the most rational scientist will tell you, magic is only in the mind. But the mind is also the realm of art—it's the role of art to explore and illuminate and express this very territory.
Though we're never sure that KLF exactly believes that the magic of a brilliantly weird pop song can change anything, we watch them push forward against all rational belief, and somehow eventually it kind of does. 

Now, Higgs’ prose doesn’t take me over in the way that Ruefle’s or Purpura’s pretty much always does, or like Cappello’s can, but his ideas bring me there, to the uncanny, where one’s sense of what’s possible is expanded for a moment. It's like being touched by something.

There’s something totally compelling about the commitment by the two members of the KLF to their art, if that’s what you want to call it. They believe, it would appear, in ridiculous things, and the force of their belief threatens to convert us, at least for the duration of the song. I suppose that’s why another’s belief can be so compelling, why I find myself momentarily swayed by the zealots with their pamphlets and their smart outfits and nice haircuts: it’s in the force of their apparent care for us and for, say, our eternal souls that, though I myself do not believe, can be convinced, at least for a little while. 

This is the tingling, transporting feeling I seek, after which the world we are in appears to be slightly adjusted, maybe a degree or two, from the one we were in before.

I’d like to interrogate that feeling too: is it a compliment I’m giving? Oh, I mean it so, but considering that ASMR has been found to be triggered by whispering, repetitive sound, personal attention, and clinical role play, I should admit there’s something creepy about the comparison. ASMR is a response to affect and performance, not to content. The right sort of voice at the right volume with the right enunciation can do it regardless of the content of the speech. And that it’s usually female voices suggests it has a component learned from years of being mothered. Or perhaps it’s that we find the close ministrations of women skew less creepily.

It seems to me ASMR-related because I experience the kind of writing I am talking about as a form of personal attention. Good writing is not just the result of intense attention (though it is usually that) but the performance of that attention—by the writer, certainly, and because when we read we are possessed by the writer, thusly by the reader. But it’s also a more direct intimacy. Robert Pinsky tells us that the medium of the poem is the body of the reader. The medium of the weird freaking KLF video is me when I watch it—and now with luck it’s you. Will Wright, designer of influential games SimCity, The Sims, and Spore, talks about it this way: 
In the game industry it’s important to realize—and it’s not immediately obvious—that you’re programming two different processors. There’s the computer in front of you with its processor that you’re programming in some symbolic computer language, but the other processor that’s even more difficult to program and that the game really is happening in is the player’s mind, the player’s imagination. For me, games are about half psychology and half technology.
We are being played to—no, in fact, it is we who are being played. The bell that is a cup until it is struck is us. We give ourselves willingly over to others’ hands, as we do in major and minor ways every day. The dental tech who presents the tiny topiary tableau of drill bits as I wait for my numbness to begin:

The brake shop manager who allows me my bogus sense of mastery as he shows me some part awry in the undercarriage via a rhetoric that suggests that we both understand about the workings of cars. The masseuse with her hands working on my body. The stylist at my hair salon washing my hair in the brown ceramic sink. Even the dermatologist with her oddly flirtatious demeanor as I sit there hardly covered by the insufficient paper smock as she checks freckles off her catalog of my skin’s flaws.

The experiences they offer are not fully about my pleasure, of course, but the contours of the interactions suggest they know that this is important. The thoughtful writer considers the reader’s pleasure as she crafts a sentence. Perhaps she believes it is her own. And perhaps it is. In the moment of reading something really good I am not sure whose pleasure it is. I am not sure who I really am or even that I really am, not anymore. 


Kathleen Peirce isn’t probably known to you already. I first encountered her work by chance, while in the library at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, a genuinely strange place nestled in a landscape of total humidity and prehistoric plants. There I found The Ardors, an unearthly collection of poems. Sure, she’s not an essayist, but her lines tend to liberate me from the work of full-on consciousness in the same way I have described.

In her blurb for The Ardors, I see the poet Jean Valentine almost nails this ASMR effect (italics mine): "Startling in their mystery, these poems are entirely original: abstract and passionate, sensual and otherworldly, trance-like and exciting. They are told through a 'we,' perhaps all of us human beings, remembering; yet strangely, too, each of us experiencing everything alone. The Ardors is a book that takes us beyond ourselves, beyond our workaday bodies and souls."

Right on, Jean. You’ve picked up on their trancelike quality as well as that sensation of being gathered: of shared, yet isolated experience. Few blurbs (the word itself conveys the industry’s distaste for such blubber and yet its reliance on it) are as incisive. 

So I’ll quote one of Peirce’s poems in its entirety:

In the way the orange canary’s phrase protruded
in the quiet of the room, there was the passing of
a sunflower seed across a gap between two cardinals
outside, and the final color of the grass achieved
the rosiest of its browns. In the way a solitary thought
keeps hid a chamber, lit only by reflections
on its inner walls of jade and gold, we could feel
absence as a bird’s indifference to the color
of a leaf, being the most lucid thing among a field of leaves,
or a hawk’s indifference to the passage of a labial cloud
above its back, or a breast-cloud, or a mouth. Do you hear
how morning feels? There is singing where you are?
And maybe another because fuck it, it’s the internet and it’s advent; you’ve read this far:

When we dreamed of rooms
we knew that entering can cause a place to be,
as when a pearl is a worm’s dream,
accrued by a layering of substances outside itself
of which it is the cause. So it was with our
dream-rooms, which we always felt we had
discovered more than made.
In our dream-rooms, our mothers were young again,
while the fur on the magnolia pods remained the same
as in our wakeful lives, and water did, wearing water’s face.
Hallways, doorways. We were helpless going in,
unable to die there, and when we woke
we knew we had been shaped, not loved
as pearls are loved; we were not removed.
There it is, that tingling feeling, that separation from desire that I’m after. It’s in the prosody, of course, in part, the loose iambic, that helps to spell me, but these poems both seem like remnants of an unhinged consciousness—not a totally untethered one, since there is some call to sense and scene and situation, but one that doesn’t resolve in something as easy to ingest and pass and forget about as a plot. It’s partly the first-person plural that extends an invitation to participate in the poem if we are as light as we are beginning to feel. And it's partly the deranging that happens when we swing from the simple ("When we dreamed of rooms") to the lovely and complicated ("we knew that entering can cause a place to be") that holds us in its snare for a second, before we move on to another odd complication, and then I am again beguiled, even writing about it, and that tingling feeling comes.

I’m editing this paragraph next to the artificial Christmas tree in my living room. The only sound’s the slight hum of the lights and the wind outside. This moment too feels discovered more than made.

There’s a mystery that bedazzles, as if the world is filled with lights reading this poem, though their source may be a bit obscure. The poem shows lots of little recurrences (the doubling of the rooms, the pearls, the dream-rooms, the water, the terminating couplet which indeed pairs well with the first line and a little glass of wine at this time of night, the doubling-up of “loved”) and of course the turns and inversions of where we believed we were being carried. It suggests its own folding, that it could fold one instance on another and be so enclosed and carried off, and it is of course within my memory and maybe yours.

And—oh!—I was going to tell you all about Lia Purpura too and how well she can bedazzle but I’d bet she’s on your radar already, if you've been following Essay Daily and our Advent Calendars, and I trust you’ll go to find her work yourself and let it operate you, as you should. 

And since this space is one we use to try to reduce the gaps between us—writers, readers, there’s often not a whole lot of difference, is there?—perhaps you too can feel some little kinship here, a little magic, some connection to the larger mind—I mean world—I mean word.


Ander Monson is one of the curators of this space and coeditor of How We Speak to One Another: an Essay Daily Reader, forthcoming in March 2017, which you really ought to check out if you like these essays here on this Essay Daily thing.


  1. Really love this, Ander. Have you seen the YouTube videos of a young woman rubbing her face in different types of bread? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Y0AUBfBmic

    1. Huh, I do not know what to make of this breadfacing, as apparently it is now being called.