I am a subscriber to Robert Genn’s Twice Weekly Letter, and this one really said something to me. The Stendhal Effect is described as “the condition of being dangerously overwhelmed by beauty in either art or nature.” I thought it was just me having heart palpitations in a great quilt store. I can walk out of a gallery energized by the amazing glass – or paintings – or woodwork – or fiber. A great quilt show leaves me breathless. A Monet exhibit has my heart rate decrease to a pleasant sense of peace. A visit to the Getty Museum leaves me so excited and overwhelmed I can calm down till way past my bedtime. And yes, great quilt stores give me heart palpitations.
So it turns out there is an actual, identified condition, called the Stendhal Syndrome. It was “first described in 1979 by the Italian psychiatrist, Gaziella Magherini, after studying more than 100 cases among visitors to the Uffizi in Florence. A concentration of particularly beautiful art can cause rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations.” What angers me is that with the decline of the arts in the schools, more and more students will never experience this. What I also find interesting is a related condition that strikes me at historical landmarks. I first realized it when I walked the Gettysburg Battlefield in the summer of 1974. I was overwhelmed with the place – I looked around, listened to the wind, and imagined all the soldiers fighting those three days. This happens whenever I visit something of historical significance. Standing in Fanueil Hall in Boston where Adams and other early leaders of the American Revolution stood kept me transfixed for nearly half an hour. Antietam – imaging the streams running red and soldiers staring as I walked. Sitting in a small room on the third floor of the American History Museum of the Smithsonian, watching three hours of newsreels from World War II because I couldn’t tear myself away. Watching the oil seep to the surface while standing on the Pearl Harbor Memorial, and wiping away tears, standing on the rocks by Lindbergh’s grave on Maui, and standing on the great Wall of China, staring off toward Mongolia.
Nature will also always do this to me. Looking up at a redwood until my neck gives out, the Grand Canyon, Point Loma, Fisherman’s Wharf, the mountains of Guilin, the Oregon Coast – there are so many places where I can just stand and stare and cry, it is just so beautiful. So art, nature, or that historical moment can overwhelm me so. I wish that for so many more people.