31 March 2012

Hyperkulturemia and Duende

Defined as "a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to a large amount of beauty in one place," and also known as "Stendhal's Syndrome" and "Florence Syndrome," a naturopath friend told me that "hyperkulturemia" translates directly to mean "too much culture in the blood." In some writings, symptoms are extended to include depression and disenchantment that can come from returning home to an ugly place after experiencing the beauty of a place like Florence (Italy, not Oregon!)

I first experienced this when I was 17. I had partied all night with a bunch of older punks who worked at the same restaurant as me. Around 4am we decided to pile into somebody's Pontiac Firebird and drive from Long Beach out to Joshua Tree, about 3 hours away. We arrived as the sun was rising, and when we pulled into the jumbo rocks campground, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and strangeness of the giant stone formations. I kept saying "the rocks look fake!" And my friend Kirk kept saying, "No Heather, the rocks at Disneyland look real." It was a profound moment for me.

Several years later I took myself on a museum tour of Europe.  And although this "syndrome" is aptly called Florence Syndrome, my Italian experience of it was in Rome, when I first saw the Sistine Chapel. I had gotten up at dawn to get in line at the Vatican. I was about the 40th person into the museum, a massive labyrinth about 9 miles long (if you go into every salon.) I took the shortcuts and ran (as fast as the guards would let me) to the very end: The Capella Sistina.

When I stepped inside there were only three or four other people, each of us wandering alone, staring at the ceiling. I felt like I would throw up. I was dizzy and out of breath from running, but this was more than that. This was not just Michelangelo's masterpiece. It was, to my 24-year-old mind, the foundation of all great works. At that moment the Sistine Chapel represented, to me, the pure conversion of one's life into art. I stood there for what must have been over an hour, just breathing and looking. I cried the whole time. I felt silly at first but then I saw that everybody else in there was crying too.

Later, after circling back through the museum, I came through the Chapel again. By now the crowd was so dense that you could lift both your feet from the floor and basically crowd-surf through the Chapel. It was an insane, sweaty mob. You couldn't really look up at the ceiling or at the walls because of the chaos. Nobody was crying. They were just yelling and pushing and trying to get out so they could go for a walk and get a gelato.

A few years later, I found myself immersed in a community of people who were obsessed with Flamenco. We danced, we sang, we studied, we traveled, all in search of an elusive thing called "duende." Directly translated, it means "little elf," but to Flamencos around the world, el duende is the ultimate accomplishment--not just to experience it, but to provoke the experience of it in others.

I started researching the term and that was the first time I came across the term "hyperkulturemia." The two conditions are different: hyperkulturemia is painful and uncomfortable for the person, and duende is blissful, delightful. But they are brought on my similar circumstances, similar experiences.

Here is an amazing Flamenco video that seems to display something that might be agreed upon as duende:

When I was living in Granada I tried always to look for the duende. Well, I didn't look for it, exactly. I knew better than that. Lets say I tried to place myself in the position so the the duende could find me, if it so chose. It didn't really happen, only little glimpses here and there. But after I came back to Oregon, the next summer when I went back to full time farming for a while, came the duende on the day my marigolds began to bloom. Bliss. Overwhelming bliss from so much beauty in one place. Gardening. I knew that. :-)

Lately I have been paying closer attention to the idea that perhaps hyperkulturemia is to blame for my stage fright. Actually, I need to clarify something here: I wouldn't really call what I have "stage fright." I am a little nervous about singing in front of people, but not more than could be considered normal. It is singing WITH people that freaks me out, as does playing music with them. My heart beats really fast, I get dizzy, have crazy thoughts, nausea...the same symptoms as Florence Syndrome! And indeed, when I am in the midst of some crazy midnight jam session with the Underscore Orkestra and all of their friends, I am often too overwhelmed by the beauty of the music to keep a beat. It is not that I cannot keep up technically, it is that I cannot handle it, emotionally.

It is all very interesting, to me, and especially the fact that not everyone is prone to feeling such profound emotion over great art or natural beauty. As artists, we tend to surround ourselves with passionate, eccentric people, and it is easy to forget that so many people in the world are numb from their crown chakra to the ground, staring into televisions and computers, and never feeling overwhelmed by anything but the rent.

Here are some links to some interesting articles on the topic:

Stendal Syndrome in Wikipedia

A very Interesting Article on hyperkulturemia

Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini studied Florence Syndrome for several years and wrote a book on the topic.

Another excellent article on the topic.

This article is about the connection between beauty and insanity

Duende in Wikipedia

More on Duende

Federico Garcia Lorca was from Granada and wrote extensively about duende.

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