August 1, 2014
How to paint happy little trees or turn happy little pages
by Wah-Ming Chang
In 2011, the writer and performance artist Madhu Kaza visited strangers around New York City to read them to sleep during their bedtimes. The project, called Here Is Where We Meet, titled after John Berger’s collection of wonders, explores
social conventions, rituals of domestic and daily life, relations between strangers, hosts and guests, and boundaries of public and intimate space . . . [and is] particularly concerned with the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep (including the drift from the world of stories to the world of dreams), a re-engagement of voice in our experience of texts, and the possibility of trust.
I participated in this project, eagerly anticipating being read to, in the way my sister read to her son when he was a toddler, and the way my mother never could read to me when I was young. The anticipation was great and I thought it would be impossible to fall asleep; but the weight of the day was greater, and I drifted easily along the wave of Kaza’s words. I had her read a story by Mario Benedetti; he does not matter to me the way other writers do, which was a good reason to pick him, because then I could concentrate more on the unfamiliarity of the experience rather than on the familiarity of the story. In a way, it was easiest to understand Kaza’s project at the moment she read me his story: I had invited her to witness an act of oblivion.
This post isn’t about sleep, but there are aspects about sleep that I want to address. For example, I am a very good sleeper. That is, I fall asleep easily. Never mind the years of sleep resolutions involving proper bedtimes: if my brain needs to shut down, it will. The stimulation of the day—most of it to do with digesting sentences, fragments of sentences, rearranging these fragments, scheduling their publication—brings about a full exhaustion. Sometimes I don’t reach the bed in time.
For the past six months, though, because of a mild bout of insomnia, I’ve developed an interesting new habit, one that in some ways echoes Kaza’s project: every night after I turn out the light, I play the audiobook of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, and before Chris Kelvin boards the station, I fall right to sleep. This is the version translated by Bill Johnston. The narrator is voiced by the actor Alessandro Juliani, who always seems to whisper the name Harey even when he’s not whispering. When he switches to her voice and calls out the narrator’s name, it’s also in a horrified whisper. His whispers are normal to me now. What had surprised and captivated during the first, second, and third listenings now produces calm. The experience, while addicting, has become mundane, ordinary, mere noise: Juliani’s voice is familiar, the scenes always sequence themselves properly, and Harey must always die.
There is a phenomenon called autonomous sensory meridian response, or A.S.M.R. This is an almost scientific way of describing the tingling you get up and down your spine, neck, or scalp whenever you see or hear something soothing. You experience deep pleasure from this physical sensation, from the meditative quality of the thing you’re witnessing. It can help you fall asleep.
“Almost scientific” because A.S.M.R. isn’t a real science. But it’s gained popularity as an explanation for zoning out from specific triggers. For some, the trigger is Bob Ross’s voice. For others, it’s watching somebody concentrate on writing out a text by hand. For others still, it’s clicking through YouTube videos to listen to hours of mundane things being whispered, presents from New Zealand being methodically unwrapped, pages turned, blood-red nails tapping a plastic surface, role-playing role-played.
I am not a Harry Mathews reader, but once upon a time I believed I was. His narrator in The Journalist keeps a diary by categorizing each thought and action, each articulation and gesture, each dollar spent, each word unsent. By the middle of the novel, the categories have been subdivided into further categories, and then further still by the end. Why would anybody do this to themselves? I don’t know. Why would anybody write about somebody doing this to themselves? I also can’t say. But there is a distinct fascination in watching a character catalog himself so thoroughly and obsessively. Perhaps it is akin to watching somebody organize a library. But the act of experiencing somebody else’s obsession on a loop—organizing marbles in a bowl, brushing tin foil against hair—is also a sort of horror show.
Those who experience A.S.M.R. commonly use the words “anxiety” and “order” when talking about their condition. They have a lot of the former, and are soothed by the implementation of the latter.
My own recommendations for this implementation are not as intimate as watching towels being folded but can be as effective. The about-nothingness of a book or a film can, given the concentration on everyday detail, hypnotize you into a sublime stupor. There is Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds and its parks, or Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman and its meatloaf-making extravaganza, or Wang Bing’s Tie Xi Qu (West of the Tracks) and its snow-filled rails, or Herta Müller’s Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen and its found art. And then there is the typewriter and the film projector. Rather, there is the sound of their potential sounds. And let’s not forget the cleaning of the paint brush.
Wah-Ming Chang was the managing editor of Melville House.