Life is short and Art's attention span is none too good, either.
Thanks to Louis Inturrisi in the New York Times, I now know the scientific name for a widespread malaise, one which we've all had at some time or other: to wit, Stendahl's Syndrome. It describes the condition of being so overwhelmed by great art that you have to take a breather. Listen to Stendahl, himself, on the matter (on the occasion of his visit to Florence): "Everything spoke so vividly to my soul … I had palpitations of the heart … Life was drained from me … I walked with the fear of falling."
Inturrisi then goes on to coin his own term for the somewhat different phenomenon of being decidedly underwhelmed at great art: The Mark Twain Malaise. Apparently, the Sage of Hannibal, Missouri, upon seeing Leonardo's Last Supper for the first time, couldn't help noticing how superior the copies he had seen in America were to the original.
I know a little bit about this one, myself. I was raised in Venice. The real one. In California. We had a Grand Canal, too, (before the City Council filled it in to make Grand Blvd., but, still…). And our high school football team was called The Gondoliers. Need I say more? As a whippersnapper I also had an opportunity to see the magnificent stained-glass copy of The Last Supper on display at Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Los Angeles. It is bigger and brighter than the original. It is also breakable and surrounded by lots of dead people, which, I should think, counts for something.
After giving great
thought to Our Reaction to Great
Art, I think we need another
'malaise' or 'syndrome' —or at least
a dull pain. I am not sure what to
call it. I need a term not to
describe people who are overwhelmed
or even underwhelmed, but those with
no whelm at all, not the least bit
of whelm anywhere on their person or
in their carry-on baggage. The
closest thing I can come up with
from personal experience is "The
Suez What? - Syndrome."
Once, while pontificating (the ecumenically-minded among you may choose to think of this as 'lutherizing' or 'buddhing off') in front of my class of music history students, I commented that Verdi's Aida was premiered at the opening of the Suez Canal.* A voice from the back of the class says, "the Suez what?" The Suez What?! I have an articulate, well-mannered, otherwise normal young man in my class who has never heard of (!) the Suez Canal. I don't mean he doesn't know when it was built or the name of the person who built it, or other quiz-show puzzlers. This lad has never heard of the thing, itself! Now even if all you do in your life —and I agree that maybe there is little reason to do anything else— is watch Saturday morning cartoons on the tube, sooner or later Mickey and Donald are going to go through the Suez Canal, right? I recall that episode.
That classroom encounter made me feel as if I had wandered into one of many recent books, columns and faculty meetings about how members of the younger generation don't know anything: how they can't find the Pacific Ocean on a map of the world; how they think that Charles Darwin invented gravity; how they don't know which German city the 'frankfurter' sausage is named for; or how they are unable to identify the character in IBM's recent advertising campaign as an allusion to Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, because, quite simply, they have never heard of Charlie Chaplin. Or, as another student of mine said when asked to pin down, roughly, when the Second World War took place: "How should I know? That was before I was born." Most stories like this come to the depressing conclusion that there is an ever- shrinking base of common cultural knowledge.
My story, however, has an up-ending. The same young man —Mr. Suez What?— upon hearing Wagner's "Funeral March" from The Twilight of the Gods for the first time, said: "What a genius you have to be to reach down into the dark side of peoples' souls and grab them like that" A kid who had never heard of the Suez Canal said that. So, although I agree that the Suez What?-Syndrome should be taken seriously, the good news is that it's curable.
*[update, many years later] No, it wasn't.