The frisson

There’s this feeling you get, and I am sure you have had it before, where you experience a brief intense reaction, a feeling of excitement, something resembling chills. This usually happens when you are watching a movie or reading a good book or you get to a good part in a song. It’s a physical reaction. There’s a French word for this emotion – frisson. It doesn’t happen often, but that’s what makes it awesome.*

 *I know we tend to over-use the word awesome, but in this case I think it’s appropriate, given that this emotion literally inspires awe.

I am not sure when I first heard this word, but I think it was after reading a blog post from the late Roger Ebert. This was back in 2010. I’ve always loved Ebert’s writing, but he describes the emotion a little differently than I interpret it. Ebert thinks of a frisson as a quick dopamine hit, like how you  might feel when someone texts you or you get a re-tweet, something that could happen several times each day. It’s a sudden, fleeting moment. I interpret a frisson as something that is rarer, maybe a once-per-month phenomenon. I think this interpretation is closer to the Wikipedia entry*, which states that a frisson is a cold chill, an emotionally triggered response when one is deeply affected by things such as music or speech or recollection.

*I may have already ranted about this in a previous aside, but I’ll do it again because it’s important. Wikipedia is an amazing resource. For millennia, humans stored their shared history through cave drawings, oral traditions, papyrus scrolls, books, encyclopedias, and for thousands of years all of this information was spread across continents, across cultures, and there was no centralized location, not until the first libraries were made. And even then, it would take hours to find what you were looking for. There was no quick way to jump around from subject to subject. And then Wikipedia came along, and now we have the whole of human intellect in one location, and that is not something to be taken for granted.

And what really annoys me is how much our schools downgrade its importance. I’ve had teachers tell me that Wikipedia reflects the worst of our species (seriously, a teacher said that), that it’s an open platform for lies and inaccuracies and lack of due diligence. I would argue precisely the opposite – Wikipedia reflects the BEST of our species. It’s not written by one person or organization, it’s written by all of us. It’s one of the great collaborative efforts in the history of mankind. And, sure, there are inaccuracies, but on the whole it’s pretty darn amazing. I’ve spent many hours perusing through Wikipedia’s archives trying to learn about different subjects, all available within seconds, and I’m always amazed how efficiently and effectively it collects information.

I was thinking about this last weekend as I was watching the Oscars, because movies – the good one’s – are a perfect gateway to the frisson. They’re engineered to make you laugh and cry and hit you right in the feels. It’s usually during the first few moments after a movie ends, or during a major plot twist, where you might feel this sensation, and it’s the reason we still go to the theater and pay for overpriced tickets.

I think back to some of these movies over the years. Field of Dreams, well, yes, that certainly inspired a frisson. Star Wars. Inception. Gravity. All eight Harry Potters.

Anyway, there’s a danger in this, because instead of seeking substance, sometimes we seek the frisson, in any way we can get it, which is why people cling to their phones and their screens and their daily distractions. I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to this. Because, while a frisson is a wonderful feeling, it can be inauthentic.

Ebert writes:

I wonder about something. With the invention of channel surfing, and then web surfing, have we all become rewired? Has the national attention span dropped? Is that why kids like shallow action pictures and why episodic television is losing to reality shows? And why sports, which offer a frisson every few seconds, are more popular than ever? Is that why slogans are replacing reasoning in our political arena? Is an addiction to video games the ultimate expression of this erosion of our attention span?

And this leads me to another thought, a thought that Joe Posnanski wrote about a few weeks ago, about our modern attempts to eliminate every single moment from our lives that is not obviously captivating and compelling and thrilling. People need a distraction when they stand in line, or when they are in traffic, or just when they are waiting for something.

People keep doing books and movies about vampires or monsters or zombies, but the thing that scares us more than anything is boredom. That’s the ghoul constantly on our tail.

And this leads me to another thought, something that David Foster Wallace wrote in his excellent commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005, which is that life has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness, awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time. It’s about learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It’s about accepting the quiet, daily, trivial moments of our lives.

But, instead, we seem to be constantly searching for the frisson, something to give us a quick dopamine hit, a distraction, anything to keep us from boredom. We want to skip over the quiet moments. But maybe these moments are where the real beauty lies.

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