"Stendhal" by Olof Johan Södermark (1790-1848) Wikimedia Commons

“Stendhal” by Olof Johan Södermark (1790-1848) Wikimedia Commons

Stendhal Syndrome. From Wikipedia: “Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal’s syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world.

The story is that the 19th century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle (pseudonym Stendhal) on his first visit to Florence, Italy, was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the city’s art works that he thought his life was meaningless in comparison. So, he checked himself into an insane asylum.

A friend once told me about this as he explained why he proposed to his wife in Florence.

Wikipedia says staff members at Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital are accustomed to dealing with tourists suffering from the phenomena, and are ready with antidepressants.

In my work, often I’m honored to be standing right next to a man when he first sees his beautiful bride appear in their wedding ceremony, usually on the arm of her father. Sometimes, I’ll hear his sudden intake of breath, see his jaw drop and start to tremble; his eyes moisten and a tear streak down his cheek. Yes, maybe his courtship was a long one. Maybe there was a heartbreaking setback. Some men don’t think they’re worthy. Yes, fierceness, grace, tenderness and patience beyond what he thought he was capable might be required to meet hers in equal measure. Maybe he thinks he’s the luckiest man in the world?

I’ve never been to Florence, and have only experienced it through art books. But I consider myself fortunate to have had some mystical experiences with art, and I continue to hope that I am vulnerable in this way.

For Stendhal, he wrote, it was while seeing Giotto’s frescos at the Basilica of Santa Croce for the first time when he went into “sort of an ecstasy…absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… [where] I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul.”

I think of Yeats’ Song of Wandering Angus, and that mysterious woman the narrator meets and loses. I think of that unattainable woman I fell for in college, and the heartsickness that ensued. I think of the norms of our dominant society that might pour ice water of scorn, prescribe a drug or admit a person as a patient for this “malady,” instead of encouraging the “sufferer” to sing, write poetry or ride a galloping horse toward the village of his beloved, even if she’s not there.

Commit yourself to the asylum? No! Wander with friends in a delirium of grief, love and desire, singing pining love songs to the moon! Okay, and also to her – your beloved with the human face. And to that you whom you think you aren’t.

Yes, there is this phenomenon of separation. Once, after an evening of playing music together, my friend asked me how I was. We had been two horses clippity-cloppying together, nosing near a light and laughter-splashed brook. A rabbit flushed, startling us wild. Gallanting toward a golden singing mountain with feathered and furry cousins many, we spent our last laziness in a hymn of grasses.

He asked me how I felt, and I admitted that still I was lonely. He nodded, saying, “That’s why I sometimes stay up all night playing.”

I’m thrilled I can be vulnerable to my lover’s beauty. Like how a rabbit can startle, I can turn and suddenly see her; her smile, her laughter, her poise, her clear heart – and, yes, her curves; and I’m sundered. I can be vulnerable to that line of willows dancing in the wind. And the Danish fiddler and accordionist, and how the fiddler wryly lags the beat for his regal commentary, the two voices twining and blending into a third splendid thing, and then their harmonies brought together like a whip cracking, only we’re the ones being cracked and killed! Killed! Will I ever play that well? I don’t care. I’ve heard that sound and I’m in love with it. And, like Angus, “I will find out where she has gone…” – even if it takes forever.

Yes, and then I forget.

©2015 Cristopher Anderson, All Rights Reserved

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