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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Cook Miller

On aesthetic hypersensitivity

(Jan van Kessel the Elder)

Is there a term for the aesthetic hypersensitivity that comes over you from time to time? Besides “aesthetic hypersensitivity”?

There is an adjacent cliche: the person who has just gone through a breakup or some other tragedy and so cries at commercials. I vividly remember being moved — deeply — while idly watching an infomercial during an especially low ebb. “The weight of the knife itself cuts the tomato,” the avuncular pitchman assured the viewer as the demo blade slowly slid through the tomato to the cutting board. His family gasped in awe. You could see their smiles ache. The model kitchen was all bright colors — yellows and reds. Somehow this summed everything up.

My sense is that this experience is now mostly keyed to depression or similar conditions and prompted by unworthy-feeling triggers like infomercials. It is typical of nowadays that we would allow ourselves to be bombarded with naked attempts at emotional manipulation and at the same time diagnose those who exhibit the emotions and the vulnerability these appeals are engineered to elicit as somehow at fault. That’s what makes coolness such a capitalist emotion, right? — invulnerability to the barrage of neediness coming from the TV, radio, Internet? Or is it rather the capacity to produce this neediness? The cool are in the ads, but never moved by them.

So that’s the first layer of association that emerges — commercial hypersensitivity occasioned by melancholy. But occasional aesthetic hypersensitivity seems rather exploited than defined by marketing.

I have found since becoming a parent that this has become a more general condition. There’s an openness to the aesthetic now — a capacity to find beauty and sublimity where I didn’t before — that feels similar to the experience of falling apart at infomercials but also more measured and subtler.

For instance, I have tuned out Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” my entire life. But just this week I realized that this is a brilliant song. The chorus — “Now I’m free / Free falling” — catches so much. He’s free — the bad boy has dumped the good girl and he’s ready for a new fling. But no, he’s free falling — sinking into a self-engineered hell of repetitive loneliness. The way the chorus suspends the first meaning while setting up the second — wow. I feel like this must have been obvious to everyone else in the world on a first listen. Never to me until now.

Exhibit B: the itsy bitsy spider. Who wrote this? It’s a perfect poem. Camus for babies.

The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout

Down came the rain and washed the spider out

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain

And the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again

Two details — the spider is drawn to climb up the spout — even though this is precisely where the rain cannot help but rush down again and again. But the spider has no choice. Its existence requires that it live at the mercy of the rain and by the grace of the sun. It’s like the myth of Sissyphus — only without the solipsism implicit in existentialism. The sun will warm you again, my little spider. You don’t have to warm yourself.

Second detail — the turn on the word “out.” The spider is washed out. The sun comes out. The first out kills. The second saves. The same word — the same experience — that seems like an ending looks, when turned, like a beginning.

Why these examples? I think “Free Falling” has caught my ear because I’m a dad now — and that’s a dad song. The dad song. A song so daddish that even dads probably don’t really like it. Definitely don’t need to hear it again. But maybe keep the radio on because who knows what might be on next. Nowadays I’m finding depths in the aesthetics of dadness. Dads of the world, assert your aesthetic subtlety!

(Besides, the song was featured in an amazing episode of Reservation Dogs. And my wife and I, for whatever reason, have decided that our baby’s primary adult persona is a Tom Petty-loving biker gal. That’s the voice she invokes. The voice chooses; you do not.)

And the nursery rhyme — well, I assume I will find many more such masterpieces in the coming years. There’s a book by Stephen Booth — the editor of Shakespeare’s Sonnets — about the ubiquity of nonsense in lasting poetry which uses nursery rhymes as examples throughout. One imagines he might have come up with this idea between diaper changes.

Perhaps I should consult the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and see if this feeling — aesthetic hypersensitivity attention syndrome triggered by the sea changes of life — has managed to inspire an entry or two….

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