ColumnHave you ever intentionally engaged in a mind-bending, dizzying, life-changing cultural experience? Have you self-induced what we call hyperkulture? Consider the idea that you can purposefully step outside your comfort zone to shift your perspectives—and that time traveling is not required to put yourself in swoon’s way.
A sudden, icy sweat. A spinning sensation. The immediate need for a chair. It took more than a few minutes to regroup—perhaps because that necessary chair was nowhere to be found—but I had some experience with this feeling. The race back from 1564 to 2013 seemed to take longer that it actually did, but that’s understandable: Time traveling has a way of knocking you off your rails.
The venue for said swoon was Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon—in the actual bedroom where it’s said the great Bard made his grand entrance. As a writer and fan of his work (how could that not be an understatement?), a lot had conspired that afternoon to leave me leaning against a wall, struggling to take in air. What was initially an earnest, if touristy, moment was transformed by a blood-to-the-brain rush of understanding that this now-visualized birth so many centuries ago was critical to not only my choice of profession but to my intellectual and emotional vocabulary—this screaming (of course!) infant would eventually teach me how to think and inform who I am. And not only me. All of us. It’s Shakespeare, for god’s sake, born here—right here—and destined to change the trajectory of our culture. Yes. For this writer… some air, please.
I know Shakespeare isn’t everyone’s life-altering cup of tea, but I’m sure many of you are familiar with the phenomenon I experienced that day in England. We all have had interactions with discrete articulations of our human culture—in the realms of art, literature, travel, food, history, technology and media (or, in my case here, that bedroom)—that overwhelm us. These are personal growth moments and, I think, by definition positive. They are instances where we’re touched deeply, beyond the intellect, so that our soul spins and we can distinctly feel our emotional anatomy change. And these moments even have a name (a few names actually). To varying degrees, these states of mind are sometimes referred to as Stendhal or Florence syndrome—or Hyperkulturemia.
According to one medical dictionary, the syndrome is defined as “a psychosomatic response—tachycardia, vertigo, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations—when the ‘victim’ is exposed to particularly beautiful, or large amounts of, art in a single place—e.g., Florence (Italy), which has a high concentration of classic works; the response can also occur when a person is overwhelmed by breathtaking natural beauty.”
For this discussion, I think we can safely broaden the causes beyond art and nature to include other cultural encounters (read: that bedroom). I also think we can leave the veracity of the notion that this is a cap S-Syndrome to specialists above my medical pay grade. But in any case, regarding the times in my life when I have experienced such a state, the French author Stendhal was spot on in 1826 when he wrote about it in “Rome, Naples and Florence” (from a 1959 translation.):
Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty, I could perceive its very essence close at hand; I could, as it were, feel the stuff of it beneath my fingertips. I had attained to that supreme degree of sensibility where the divine intentions of art merge with the impassioned sensuality of emotion. As I emerged from the porch of the Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart (the same symptom which, in Berlin, is referred to as an attack of the nerves); the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.
I don’t want to take lightly what some might call a severe mental-health event. (Hallucinations?) But I also want to be clear that these happenings are more than just “oh my!” moments—they are true swoons, in every sense of the word, save perhaps hitting the ground. (Thank you nearby chairs, walls, et al.)
Making It Happen Not long after returning to the U.S. late last year, as I looked back at my journey and Shakespeare reaction, something occurred to me. Up until then, this kind of thing had happened maybe once every few years since my late teens. Yet this trip had somehow produced five such episodes in just four months. Though I still consider these instances rare and unexpected, something was going on that triggered these experiences—or at least allowed them to take place.
Here’s some context: I had left California for extended travel overseas for the first time in years, making good on a promise to return to my globetrotting ways after Things 1 and 2 had left home for university. I made the trip with my girlfriend of eight years, Mihaela, and like my days traveling as a youth, had a fairly slipshod approach to time and money planning. We formulated the trip as we went, discovering along the way that my primary editorial client would be withholding payments in unpredictable, seemingly sadistic ways. Though punctuated by a few lovely moments of luxury, our journey—including time in Eastern and Western Europe—would feature some good ol’ down-and-out, cold-water-flat time, with me slamming away at my keyboard (she says I type like Jim Carrey answering prayers via email in “Bruce Almighty”) while she went out in search of cheap veggies to stew for dinner.
All of this is not to complain, by any means. The trip was glorious and brilliant and in almost constant high relief. But we for sure had left our relaxed Bay Area comfort zone and, back to our story’s syndrome of interest, this was a good thing. I firmly believe that being on our heels opened the door to the above-mentioned byproduct—and again, not once, but five times.
Aside from the Stratford-upon-Avon experience, it happened in Spain in the Plaza Mayor, where one evening I could not keep my hands from shaking when attempting to take a photograph. It happened in Florence while taking in Masaccio’s masterworks in Santa Maria del Carmine. And then twice in Paris (but of course)—once in the Pompidou in front of Joan Miró’s Bleu triptych and another time during the first of two visits to Atelier Brancusi. Then there was London, where I happened upon Jack Kerouac’s On the Road scroll temporarily on display at the British Library. I’ll spare the details of these events (each one a story), but suffice to say that I do not diminish my many experiences during these months by saying these five quite literally floored me, each in their own way changing the way I think.
For me, having done the math, there’s a great takeaway here. I think we can increase the chances of such life-changing cultural experiences—call it hyperkulture—occurring in our lives if we take risks. This is not to say that you need to go time traveling, or out on some financial edge or upend your life. Nor do you have to be in Florence—or Paris or London or even Kathmandu—to access those things that will push your personal envelope. But rather and more simply, if we purposefully and actively take ourselves outside our comfort zones, we’re more likely to have encounters that will shift our perspectives. It could be as easy as turning off your phone and getting lost in a museum. Or hiking into the forest with a tent but without a plan. However we wish to do it, to initiate personal change and growth, we can, in fact, put ourselves “in swoon’s way.”
Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.
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