Frisson. A ladybird walks over the back of your hand. A chickadee feeds straight from your palm. A deer brushes by close enough for you to feel its breath on your skin. You’re filled with a rush of joy (if you are a ladybird, finch, deer loving kind of person, that is) and something akin to love, and the whole thing tickles slightly, and you want to laugh from the unexpected wonder of it but you know that if you do, the moment be spoiled, so you hold your breath and watch in fearful anticipation and hope that it lasts. Someone is running a feather over your heart and you don’t know whether to smile because it feels good or squirm because it is distinctly unsettling.
Frisson. That’s how I think of it anyway. That feeling you get from a piece of music that thrills you, from a poem that resonates perfectly, from a work of art that leaves you speechless.
Recently, I read a couple of articles on exactly this subject and it got me thinking about the physical and emotional responses that we have to art in its various forms. Andrew Scull’s article in the Times Literary Supplement gently mocked the idea of the enlightened connoisseur being overwhelmed by the sublime, their extreme sensitivity a measure of their delicacy of taste, of their elevated cultural discernment. A sensitivity not dissimilar to religious exaltation and taken to an extreme in Stendhal’s Syndrome.
But my measure of frisson is on a less dramatic scale. I’m not talking about fainting attacks in front of Florentine frescos or falling to your knees before a breathtaking view of an unfamiliar dramatic landscape as experienced by 18th century enlightened tourists on their grand tours (landscapes, incidentally, unappreciated by the vulgar and loutish peasants who are too busy actually having to work the land to contemplate the scenery). I’m talking about those small moments of everyday ecstasy. The intro to Space Oddity. The tension of unsaid words in William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. The dénouement to Kate Tempest’s On Clapton Pond at Dawn. The sight of Caravaggio’s sulky Saint John The Baptist in the Wilderness across a dimly lit room at an art exhibition.
Mitchell Colver’s article in The Conversation discusses the theory that the goosebump reaction in your skin in these circumstances (what he calls ‘skin orgasms’, believe it or not) may be caused by a rewiring of the normal physiological response to cold, but it seems to me equally likely that it could be an atypical manifestation of the flight or fight response. A reaction to a mini spike of adrenaline. What I was surprised to learn was, at least as far as music is concerned, only a certain proportion of the population is susceptible to these ‘aesthetic chills’ (as I prefer to call them in polite company). And presumably, among this reactive population, not everyone responds in the same way to the same prompts. There appears to be a natural susceptibility especially among personality types high in ‘openness to experience’ traits, but I imagine other factors include something fundamental in the music (or film, or poem, or whatever) and personal taste. Colver asserts the importance of the unexpected in driving this response and, counter-intuitively, that the response is driven by cognitive rather than emotional components (to do with making mental predictions about where the music is going to go, for example). And while I am not questioning the research, neither of these are particularly easy relate to. For me, anticipation and expectation of a work I’m already partly familiar with seems to heighten my senses, and my response feels completely primitive and unthinking.
In fact, if asked, I would have said this anticipation played the biggest role in generating frisson. Certainly for me, the ritual of wiping dust from glossy black vinyl (so much more pleasurable than CDs or electronic files), the faint crackle of the needle over scratches and the rush of those first notes is enough to set me off. Sensations intensified if someone is with you. Listen to this bit. And this bit. And wait…there, do you hear?
It isn’t just music though. When I went to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery last week, I was very aware that the excitement of seeing Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ would be enough to give me flutterings as soon as I spotted it. And it didn’t disappoint. Two other Caravaggio’s earlier in the exhibition—Boy Peeling a Fruit and Boy Bitten by a Lizard—didn’t quite have the same effect. I was happy to see them, to think about them, discuss them, but I wasn’t particularly moved by them. I’d seen both before and neither are my favourite of his work.
The Taking of Christ, by contrast, I had never seen. The painting makes an appearance in my novel The Backstreets of Purgatory, and so I had studied it from pictures in books and on the internet, and given lots of thought to its meaning and symbolism: the power of the shadows and the strength of the light; the visual contradiction that the brightest thing in the painting is the glowing black armour of Christ’s captor; Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the onlooker desperate to catch a glimpse of the action, his motivation not entirely decent; Judas lost as he kisses Christ, their faces close but not touching; a serene, detached Christ washed by the light of God; and the extraordinary and complex use of light both physically (in the way Caravaggio must have used several sources to light the tableau as it is portrayed) and representationally (the painted Caravaggio’s dull lamp versus the external light of God). Of course, I wouldn’t have understood any of this without help. For that I needed the scholarly wisdom of Andrew Graham-Dixon‘s biography of the painter. But having studied the work in advance, I stepped into the second room at the exhibition with enormous anticipation and the painting more than lived up to my expectations.
I first got into Caravaggio’s art when I started going on holiday to Italy. A bit late to the party, it was only after I had begun to appreciate his paintings that I learnt the story of his turbulent and violent life. I’ve often asked myself what it was I saw in his paintings at that time. Was I attracted to them because they were different from everything else? Because they were recognisably his? Because it made me feel like I was learning something (that I was, perhaps, cultured after all) when I could spot a Caravaggio at twenty paces?
Strangely, the paintings of his that I prefer are deeply religious and I am not a religious person, so it certainly wasn’t the subject matter per se that attracted me. Nor was it the iconography or the scandalous realism because, to be quite honest, I didn’t appreciate the fuss. The Virgin with bare feet? What’s the big deal? Dirt under Christ’s fingernails? So what. Although I have to admit that even to my untrained eyes, the rump of the horse in The Conversion of St Paul looks somehow vaguely obscene.
Caravaggio isn’t the only artist exhibited in Beyond Caravaggio. The others are artists influenced by him, directly or indirectly. And they are not all simply pale (or rather shadowy) imitations the Master. The duality of perpetrator and dupe in Bartomolomeo Manfredi’s The Fortune Teller; the risen Christ showing his wounds to us Doubting Thomases in Giovanni Antonio Galli’s Christ Displaying his Wounds; the excruciating shame of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Susannah in her attempt to conceal her modesty against the leering old men in Susannah and the Elders; and the wrinkled skin of Jusepe de Ribera’s Saint Onuphrius were magnificent new discoveries for me.
But it was when I saw Caravaggio’s Saint John The Baptist in the Wilderness my understanding of my instinctive attraction for his work crystallised. For me, this is the stand-out work of the exhibition. It hangs in a room with other paintings but it easily surpasses them. Outshines them all, almost literally. Because despite the sombre backdrop, the low level lighting and the sullen mood of the protagonist, light seems to radiate from it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I wanted to reach out, touch the canvas, comfort the boy, and it was not the religious significance at all that touched me but the pain and loneliness of that beautiful, brooding adolescent. Why did he leave such an impression? I have no idea. Perhaps I had replaced him in my mind with a troubled nephew or saw him as the personification of Finn, my haunted and misunderstood lead character. I can’t say for sure. But I can tell you that the picture moved me deeply.
And whether we are talking art, music or writing, it is this emotion that feels like the key. The ability to represent it. The ability to (re)produce it in an audience. That for me is the sign of a master at work.
One question I’m frequently asked is why I write. Apart from the compulsion which gets worse by the day, all I ever wanted to do with my writing was move someone in the way that I have been moved by some of the books that I’ve read. Or music I’ve listened to. Or paintings I’ve seen.
In the end, frisson seems too frivolous a term for it.
The first edition of The Backstreets of Purgatory is available to pre-order at unbound.com
The panoramic view of Florence was taken by Ghost of Kuji (Flickr) and reproduced under a Creative Commons licence. Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness was reproduced from a public domain Google Cultural Institute image on Wikimedia.