Stendhal’s Playlist

I’ve grown overwhelmed by too much media. Something has to give.

StendhaliPod.jpgUntil a couple of months ago, I’d never heard of Stendhal syndrome. It’s the term for being physically overwhelmed — to the point of dizziness, confusion, or even fainting — when in the presence of an abundance of great art. It’s named after the author who described his own experience on a visit to Florence, Italy. Via wikipedia:

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.

And that was in the early 1800s, before Florence had satellite dishes. You have to wonder how it would’ve affected his delicate French constitution if he’d been able to see 100 beautiful things before he even left the hotel.

Now granted, what I don’t know about art could (and does) fill several large volumes. But I didn’t have a similar reaction to Florence or to the Uffizi gallery. That was the manageable city: the perfect amazing-masterwork-to-my-attention-span ratio. But then, it’s hard to be overwhelmed when you’re living in a constant state of media glut. I was carrying around two solid days’ worth of entertainment in my backpack, and I still chose to spend almost all of my travel time just staring out a window. The novelty now is being able to not have to look at anything.

In the two weeks after I first heard of Stendhal syndrome, I saw it mentioned again five times in four completely different contexts. Which makes me suspect it’s become an epidemic.

And it’s become so common that it’s hard to appreciate what a recent phenomenon it is. On the extra features of the DVD for Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (which I finally watched after 18 months in my Netflix queue), there’s an interview with George Lucas in which he reminisces about his first time seeing The Seven Samurai. He says he’d heard of Kurosawa’s work, but had never seen it, because it hadn’t yet received wide exposure in the US. He talks about the difficulty of securing a print of the movie and finding a screening. The whole concept seemed completely foreign: we’re supposed to believe that a film student in Los Angeles had trouble finding a way to see one of the most famous movies by Japan’s most well-known director?

Then I remember: not only can I believe it, I’ve experienced it first hand. And I’m not all that old (I keep insisting). I can still remember digging through the stacks of discs at a local laserdisc-rental place and thinking that I’d uncovered a gold mine. I can remember the first time I went into a Blockbuster video and believing that what they promised was impossible: you mean there are five hundred movies here, and I can take any of them home to watch, right now? I can remember when the TV broadcast of a movie like Star Wars was a big deal, even though I’d already seen it six times in the theater, because the idea of actually owning a copy was out of the question.

In 2009, the obstacles to seeing something are usually tied to bullshit trivialities like region encoding or finding a copy in HD or getting the best price: usually the question is “can I pay for it and watch it legally or not?” It’s weird to remember there was a time when the question was, “can I watch it at all?” Now, the biggest obstacle to seeing something is simply hearing about it in the first place.

And that can be overwhelming. A few years ago I described my TiVo fatigue — that feeling of dread that came from getting home from work to find another to-do list of stuff you had to watch before it disappeared forever. It took me a while to discover the Zen of TiVo, the understanding that you don’t have to keep up with everything it tries to show you, and that it’s presenting you with a list of opportunities, not responsibilities.

But TiVo Zen is just amateur class, merely the first step towards True 21st-Century Yuppie Enlightenment. Judicious TiVo use isn’t a big deal because Sturgeon’s Law remains in effect, and 90% of everything is still crap. On my own TiVo, I had somehow managed to violate Sturgeon’s Law and get a 99:1 crap-to-quality ratio, so realizing that I could safely go without watching that rerun of “Ghost Hunters” wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking philosophical breakthrough.

The real problem comes when you realize that even with Sturgeon’s Law in place, the proliferation of media means that “everything” is bigger now than it’s ever been, and even 10% of that is still an awful lot. When Bruce Springsteen sang about “57 Channels and Nothin’s On,” it was what in the early 90s passed for incisive pop-culture social commentary. Now the case is that there’s about 257 channels and there’s actually quite a bit on, much of it really good.

Which leads to the second, more difficult and more painful concept to accept: even after filtering out the junk and the guilty pleasures, there is more good stuff out there than I’ll be able to experience in my lifetime.

It’s a tough sell. I’d always thought that even I don’t accomplish anything else, then at least by the time I die I’ll have achieved complete cultural literacy. It seemed doable: I don’t understand or enjoy opera, ballet, or most abstract visual art, so I don’t have to worry about those. And I was encouraged by previous attempts at cultural literacy, in which I learned there are a lot of universally-regarded great works that simply aren’t all that great. So I could be watching cartoons or Sci Fi channel movies or The Matrix and reassure myself that we’re still cool, there’s still plenty of time.

But then stuff like “The Sopranos” comes along and throws a wrench in the works. I figured that anything with that much universal acclaim couldn’t be all that good, and I wasn’t that interested in the concept, so I didn’t bother watching it until the series was over. And I discovered that no, it really is every bit as good as people made it out to be, and now I was nine years behind on getting caught up. So I had to add it to the towering mountain of movies, books, TV shows, videogames, and “other” that has come Very Highly Recommended. And I keep seeing more recommendations.

Obviously, my quality filter just isn’t going to cut it anymore. It’s not enough not to watch “American Idol” or the last two Terminator movies. Even just choosing among stuff worth watching, it’s still too much. I needed to make a sacrifice. Something that I just wouldn’t watch.

So I chose “The Wire”. It’s been recommended countless times, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read a single opinion of the show that said it was anything other than outstanding. And I don’t doubt that it’s outstanding, or that I wouldn’t enjoy it if I watched it. But if you’re going to come to terms that there are good things you’ll never see, the first step is having one good thing that you’ll never see. And then be able to accept that that’s okay.

I’m not gonna lie; it’s been tough. The show’s almost always mentioned whenever anyone rattles off a list of great television, and my first impulse is always to go “seen it, seen it, seen it… damn!” But after the first big step, it gets easier. The 400 Blows? Eh, are they blowing up bridges? If not, not interested. “Deadwood?” No spaceships, not interested. Catch-22? I’m very interested in reading it because I’ve heard it’s great, but that would violate my rule about not reading things that are great, which means I must not be that interested in it, which puts me in a kind of paradoxical situation that can’t be succinctly described.

And the best part of all about the rule: once you’ve said that it’s interest, not quality, that’s determining what you watch, it leaves plenty of time for guilty pleasures. After all, great works don’t seem so great unless you vary the rhythm up with some junk here and there, right? So I can use the time I’m not spending reading The Odyssey by instead reading DC Showcase Presents the Legion of Super-Heroes Volume 3 and watching keyboard cat videos. Play me off!