Fred Rogers in the Doc “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Photo Courtesy of Focus Features
Art is more than mere distraction or frivolity. It should be a force in our lives, maybe even a force on our bodies.
Ever hear of Stendhal syndrome? It’s listed in a 2009 BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) study as hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome, and its symptoms include rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion, even hallucinations. Its cause is great art in overwhelming abundance.
The disorder is named after 19th century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, pen name Stendhal. He took ill after an 1817 tour of Florence, Italy, and a surfeit of artwork was blamed.
The BMJ study noted 106 incidents of hospitalizations from 1977 to 1986, all cited by a Florentine psychiatrist. In 2016, a tourist suffered an epileptic fit in front of Botticelli’s masterpiece of Venus rising from the ocean. Another recently fainted in front of Caravaggio’s Medusa.
Film director Dario Argento claimed to have fallen victim to it as a child. It inspired one of his later cinematic works.
The latest case listed happened in December 2018 when a tourist suffered a heart attack in front of the aforementioned Botticelli painting. Four visiting doctors treated him, including a turn with a defibrillator, before he was taken to the hospital.
An art critic for The Guardian, Jonathan Jones speculated the disorder is caused by the sheer concentration of art in the Tuscan city, a hub of the Renaissance. I guess lack of malady doesn’t say much for Paris’ Louvre or any of America’s more noted museums and galleries.
Then again, it’s hard to build a tourism campaign around the promise of affliction. “Visit Florence; you’ll love our hospitals!”
Some readers are undoubtedly rolling their eyes about now and ready to turn the page. I understand, but differ.
I’m envious. I want that feeling, to be amazed at the world. At age 55, I have more days behind me than in front of me. I need to open myself to marvelous wonder and if art is a path to that, then I’ll take as much as you can deliver.
I still believe in a quote I typed into this space 13 years ago. “Art should make you think and feel; it doesn’t have to match your couch,” artist Damali Ayo coined.
Sometimes we don’t have to go “full Stendhal” to be affected. Hospitalization isn’t necessary.
When I recently watched Morgan Neville’s documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” on the life and legacy of children’s TV show host Fred Rogers, I wanted to see if its lofty praise was worthwhile. I was unprepared.
I can be jaded and cynical about, well, too much. That film, however, was a piece of art that easily spread my ribs and exposed my heart for those few hours.
While my wife and I didn’t sob — OK, so we used a couple of Kleenex, but it was mainly her, I swear — reports of tear-filled theaters made sense. In world where too many pride themselves on their worse natures, it’s too uncommon to witness genuine kindness like that, so absent of pretense that it cuts to the core of our youngest, most innocent selves. Rogers reminds us of how we were initially taught the world could be.
It’s also curried in the earnest faces of the children he encounters. We see life at its freshest.
Witnessing Rogers’ deliberate and focused attention given to everyone he spoke with, his determination to live in the second, immediately brought to mind artist John Cage’s emphasis on going beyond just “hearing.” “Love is listening,” he said.
“Love is at the root of everything … love or the lack of it,” Rogers said.
Generations of Americans were deeply influenced just by someone operating on their best nature. That resonated in me.
Rogers didn’t have technical flair, business acumen or money. He merely sought common humanity and positively affected millions.
So simple. So integral. So overlooked. The documentary’s lack of presence in the recent Academy Awards was puzzling.
What I saw in Rogers wouldn’t leave my head. In the lonesome contemplation awaiting sleep, I wondered: Could I say the same? Have I aided the human condition? Have I made a positive difference? Have my actions basically serviced ego or enabled selfishness, either in others or me? Have I “comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable?”
The cascade of questions started before the current 40 days of decreed reflection and still hasn’t abated. Seems to me that meets the criteria of art that “makes you think and feel.”
Art’s power is there. We just have to see and listen.
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