I am trying here to figure out what happens in my body and my mind when I click on Today’s Crossword and see this:

I remember, when it happened, that I gasped lightly, a noised breath-intake, and then I held it. What was that about? Gasping seems to be a reflex of feeding the body oxygen in preparation for a willed temporary paralysis. Like with fear reflexes, turning a corner and coming upon someone who might harm you, or who you really don’t want to know you’re there. You gasp, and you still yourself. In most environments motion catches the eye more than color. Paralysis is a way to hide. Even the rhythms of breathing are too much to risk.

But in arousal or excitement? Do I need to explain it, for those who don’t do crosswords? Every puzzle is beautiful if you love symmetry (I’m ambivalent on the issue), but behold the 6 answers that span the width of the puzzle, all of them 16-letters long, and all fitting together to produce so many new vertical words! Notice also the nooked-out arrangement in the middle, how access to those squares is protected from inroads made vertically from other vectors! It’s not impossible, but the challenge of it is made bare before you’ve even entered a single letter.

What I’m saying is that there’s a promise broadcast instantly by the image of this puzzle, a promise or an invitation, maybe. The puzzle is posing and showing off, and asking me to come in and play around with it a while, knowing it knows how much I’m going to enjoy it.

Compare that image to this one:

Again, I gasped. (Never mind where I found it.)[**] I imagine also my eyelids retracted, or flared, whatever the physiological reaction is called, as though to let in more of the image’s sense data the way we flare our nostrils to gather more of a smell. And I know that in beholding these men in their hot springs, their shapes and arrangement, I felt a very similar promise or invitation as I did with the crossword.

Was it the same promise, is what I’m trying to figure out.

Let’s get back to gasping in fear and excitement. From what little I know I think “arousal” is a term biologists or ethologists give to the physiological process of the brain feeding hormones rapidly to the body once it’s arrested from a relaxed or dormant state. Whatever does the arresting—a fearful object, an erotic object, sunlight after sleep—doesn’t change the process.

Arousal, then, can be pleasant or unpleasant, given one’s needs or desires at the time, or given (some theorists say) whether you identify as an extravert or introvert.

The gasping, then, is functional, instinctive, and thus I’m less interested in it (call it a fault), though I do still find it interesting that I had the same bodily reaction to first encountering both images. But the shared feeling of invitation or promise is interesting, because the outcomes they point to seem so different.

I imagine I’m not the only person who has kept mind and body separate for most of their lives, and more specifically who has seen intellectual and sexual pursuits as operating in separate spheres. There’s nothing dumber than a hardon, is what I’m saying. But this question of shared promise is blurring lines I’ve probably spent too much time maintaining.

The puzzle makes me want to solve it, and the photo makes me want to touch the men inside it. So those actions—thinking quietly in solitude and filling in letters, being a body amid other bodies—seem very disconnected from one another. What accounts for my equal reaction is something regarding arousal I hadn’t considered before.

It’s like arousal is about the sudden stirring of potential, and because desires are manifold, I can feel as equal a pull toward an amazing crossword as I can an erotic body. What pulls me is promise, potential, newness. Novelty? It seems like this wants to be a post about novelty, and being aroused by hot new (brainy, erotic) things.[††] Except that both of these images still stir the imagination. It’s been long enough that I would happily solve that crossword again. Maybe I don’t gasp anymore, but the arousal is still there.

And the crossword isn’t new, exactly, any more than every crossword is. It presents me not with a novel experience, but another challenging one, which I can tell from the shape of it will be rife with one of the pleasures I go to crosswords seeking out: watching words and phrases materialize and fit unexpectedly together.

Which is not at all far from the pleasure of writing.

I’ll wrap up on the realization I now just got that I feel a similar arousal when a new idea (like the one I just ended the section on) comes to me. That solving crosswords is like writing the way paint-by-numbers is like painting makes a lot of new exciting sense for regarding why I enjoy doing them at the end of a day of writing and reading.

But that’s a post for another time. What’s arousing about a new idea isn’t its newness so much as what I might do with the thing, and so I’m back again to these images’ promise and invitation. If arousal is the state of waking from dormancy or relaxation, I am probably aroused by arousal. I might always find it pleasant. Guy Hocquenghem calls love “the desire to desire and be desired,” so I’ll need to think some more about what to call this. Other than a risky habit.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. And any criticisms (ad hominem, postcolonial, feminist, etc.) that may come my way for posting such an image I’ve already worked through and accepted, discovering that, in these matters, while I can come away unashamed, there’s no coming away unscathed.
  2. I’ve seen the studies that aim to show how pornography (and in a world of “food porn” or “house porn” let’s admit this is a post about varied pornographies) instills or increases one’s demand for newness and novelty, and I’ve seen the studies that show skepticism of those studies’ findings.