Eye of the beholder 


Many people might think this has been a dramatic TV season. It's true that world-class athleticism and campaigns for someone to run the country are dramatic, but really, anybody can make a mountain out of a mountain.

What I really miss are high-drama, made-for-TV movies based on a disorder, syndrome or complex recently discovered by pop psychologists and which, until then, was just thought to be obstinance on the sufferer's part. These shows usually caused the starring teen-age girl to go from adorable and perky to haunted and shivering and almost always had her uttering lines like, "I don't know what's happening to me," "I thought you'd hate me," and "I want to go home now," through snot and tears. You would watch while the victim's ignorant parents, spouses or schoolmates tortured them, meanly insisting that they just "get over it." You, of course, had been enlightened by People magazine that it was not really their fault and so could feel compassion and, of course, delicious self-righteousness.

And while you knew you didn't really want to be the one throwing up into jars or changing personalities like channels, the sick did get the attention and best lines. Who doesn't dream of being begged for forgiveness by one's idiot contemporaries, who finally look at you with tears in their guilt-steeped eyes and say, "I'm sorry, I just didn't understand," while you cough fragilely? If you could have one without actually being sick, a syndrome, complex or disorder would rock.

Frame of mind

Remarkably, there is one out there that has been untouched by television. It's called Stendhal syndrome, and while it's a legitimate case of lunacy, it passes, like a storm, so you might be able to catch it without experiencing anything more than a good buzz. It also involves high art, which will make your suffering even more beatific.

In an intriguing and funny story in the New York Times Magazine, writer Patricia Marx recently characterized Stendhal syndrome as "a sense of panic and dislocation triggered by a painting or sculpture." It was named after the French author who, on a visit to Florence in 1817, became so overwhelmed by that city's beauty that he broke down. Those of us who dozed and doodled through art history were only looking at slides. In front of the real thing, Stendhal described having palpitations, dizziness and exhaustion.

And it wasn't just him. Marx says 107 cases of Stendhal syndrome were logged at the Florentine hospital between 1978 and 1986. There is even a sufferer's profile: small-towner, first trip to Europe, young-to-youngish. Travel nerves can be tough, but they don't usually include raving, seizures, "uncontrollable sexual excitement," fainting and, in extreme cases, the "amnesia, paranoia and guilt feelings" that chosen people experience in this concentrated environment of high art.

Marx traipsed all over Florence visiting museums and trying to acquire Stendhal syndrome because, she wrote, "I wanted to be deep, too," and who wouldn't? Deep people have the same qualities as the sick ones: People listen to them, they get a lot of attention, and they are taken seriously. With Stendhal you can be sick and deep at the same time, a dramatic double-header usually reserved for saints.

Treasure hunt

It may be easy to succumb to deep sickness in Florence, where the art is as dense as a good torte. But how to come by Stendhal syndrome so close to Kmart? Author Bill Bryson points out that in a great many American cities, "beauty has become something that you drive to." Becoming emotionally unhinged at the sight of the Krispy Kreme sign might be common, but it's not because of the visual.

That, however, seems to be the only way to acquire Stendhal syndrome in a place where business is dominated by the suffix Depot, Barn or World; you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by whatever overwhelms you. Not counting men, I can think of several moments when I was nearly overcome by the mere sight of something: large checks in my name, the perfect silver hoop earrings, 1960s toys priced by people who don't know their value, the guava cheesecake at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, a Woody Allen movie in which he lists the things that make life worth living -- something very similar to this.

Presumably you have your own list, and for a little extra melodrama, hyperventilate the next time you encounter one of your items. Perhaps then you can faint, be deep and experience having visited Florence without paying for a plane ticket. Why should Italy get to hog all the extravagance?

And if having to cheat makes you feel bad, Patricia Marx, with Florence at her doorstep, got most excited over finding a cheap raincoat she really needed. Who knows? As Woody himself would say, the heart has its reasons.

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