An Introduction to Surrealism: The Big Aesthetic Ideas Presented in Three Videos

Before sur­re­al­ism became Mer­ri­am Web­ster’s word of the year in 2016 for its use­ful descrip­tion of real­i­ty, it applied to art that incor­po­rates the bizarre jux­ta­po­si­tions of dream log­ic. We know it from the films of David Lynch and paint­ings of Sal­vador Dalí. We may not, how­ev­er, know it from the poet­ry of Andre Bre­ton, “but the move­ment actu­al­ly began in lit­er­a­ture,” points out the Scot­tish Nation­al Gallery intro­duc­to­ry video above. Bre­ton, influ­enced by Freud and Rim­baud, railed against medi­oc­rity, pos­i­tivism, the ‘real­is­tic atti­tude,” and the “reign of log­ic” in his 1924 “Man­i­festo of Sur­re­al­ism.”

If this sounds some­what famil­iar, it’s because Sur­re­al­ism was “built on the ash­es of Dada.” The first group of artists who worked under the term Sur­re­al­ism includ­ed Tris­tan Tzara, who had penned the “Dada Man­i­festo” only six years ear­li­er. Where Tzara had claimed that “Dada means noth­ing,” Bre­ton declared Sur­re­al­ism in favor of dream states, sym­bol­ism, and “the mar­velous.”

He also defined the term—a word he took from the Sym­bol­ist poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire—“once and for all.”

SURREALISM, n. Psy­chic automa­tism in its pure state, by which one pro­pos­es to express — ver­bal­ly, by means of the writ­ten word, or in any oth­er man­ner — the actu­al func­tion­ing of thought. Dic­tat­ed by the thought, in the absence of any con­trol exer­cised by rea­son, exempt from any aes­thet­ic or moral con­cern.

The artists and writ­ers who coa­lesced around Bre­ton rep­re­sent­ed a hodge­podge of styles, from the pure abstrac­tion of Joan Miro to the hyper­re­al­ist fan­tasies of Dali and play­ful sym­bol­ist conun­drums of Magritte and art pranks of Mar­cel Duchamp.

As artists, theirs was fore­most an aes­thet­ic rad­i­cal­ism invest­ed in Freudi­an exam­i­na­tions of the psy­che through the imagery of the uncon­scious. “But when [the move­ment] emerged in Europe,” notes the PBS Art Assign­ment video above, “dur­ing the ten­u­ous, tur­bu­lent years fol­low­ing World War I and lead­ing up to World War II, Sur­re­al­ism posi­tioned itself not as an escape from life, but as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary force with­in it.”

Bre­ton joined the French Com­mu­nist Par­ty in 1927, was tossed out in 1933, and in 1934 deliv­ered a speech, which became a pam­phlet enti­tled “What is Sur­re­al­ism?” Here Bre­ton rede­fined Sur­re­al­ism as an anti-fas­cist posi­tion, “a liv­ing move­ment, that is to say a move­ment under­go­ing a con­stant process of becom­ing…. sur­re­al­ism has brought togeth­er and is still bring­ing togeth­er diverse tem­pera­ments indi­vid­u­al­ly obey­ing or resist­ing a vari­ety of bents.”

Here he alludes to pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal tur­moil in the Sur­re­al­ist ranks: “The fact that cer­tain of the first par­tic­i­pants in sur­re­al­ist activ­i­ty have thrown in the sponge and have been dis­card­ed has brought about the retir­ing from cir­cu­la­tion of some ways of think­ing.” The ref­er­ence is part­ly to Dali, whom Bre­ton expelled from the Sur­re­al­ist group that same year for “the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian fas­cism.”

As World War II began, many Sur­re­al­ists fled Europe for the Unit­ed States. Bre­ton trav­eled the Caribbean, set­tled in New York, and devel­oped a friend­ship with Mar­tini­can poet, writer, and states­man Aime Cesaire. He met Trot­sky, Fri­da Kahlo, and Diego Rivera in Mex­i­co, and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the bur­geon­ing Sur­re­al­ist move­ment in the U.S. and Latin Amer­i­ca.

The influ­ence of Bre­ton and his Sur­re­al­ist lit­er­ary peers on mid-cen­tu­ry fic­tion and poet­ry in the decol­o­niz­ing glob­al south was sig­nif­i­cant. Bre­ton “insist­ed art be cre­at­ed for rev­o­lu­tion not profit”—points out the video above, “Sur­re­al­ism: The Big Ideas.” Dali, on the oth­er hand,“wasn’t real­ly into all that.” The painter retreat­ed to the U.S. in 1940 with his wife Gala, spend­ing his time on both coasts and becom­ing a pop­u­lar sen­sa­tion. Amer­i­ca “offered Dali end­less oppor­tu­ni­ties for his tal­ents.”

Dali “intro­duced Sur­re­al­ism to the gen­er­al pub­lic, and made it fun!… Amer­i­ca loved it, and him. They made Dali a celebri­ty,” and he helped pop­u­lar­ize a Sur­re­al­ist aes­thet­ic in Hol­ly­wood film and Madi­son Avenue adver­tis­ing. But to real­ly under­stand the move­ment, we must not look only to its visu­al vocab­u­lary and its influ­ence on pop cul­ture, but also to the poet­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and pol­i­tics of its founder.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When The Sur­re­al­ists Expelled Sal­vador Dalí for “the Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian Fas­cism” (1934)

A Brief, Visu­al Intro­duc­tion to Sur­re­al­ism: A Primer by Doc­tor Who Star Peter Capal­di

Watch Dreams That Mon­ey Can Buy, a Sur­re­al­ist Film by Man Ray, Mar­cel Duchamp, Alexan­der Calder, Fer­nand Léger & Hans Richter

Read and Hear Tris­tan Tzara’s “Dada Man­i­festo,” the Avant-Garde Doc­u­ment Pub­lished 100 Years Ago (March 23, 1918)

When The Sur­re­al­ists Expelled Sal­vador Dalí for “the Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of Hit­ler­ian Fas­cism” (1934)

Sal­vador Dalí Goes to Hol­ly­wood & Cre­ates Wild Dream Sequences for Hitch­cock & Vin­cente Min­nel­li

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Why the University of Chicago Rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s Master’s Thesis (and How a Novel Got Him His Degree 27 Years Later)

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Com­mons

Kurt Von­negut has been gone a dozen years now, but in that time his stock in the world of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture has only risen. Just a few months ago we fea­tured the new­ly opened Kurt Von­negut Muse­um and Library here on Open Cul­ture, and we’ve also post­ed about every­thing from his writ­ing tips to his let­ters to his draw­ings. And we’ve fea­tured his con­cep­tion of “the shape of all sto­ries” as orig­i­nal­ly laid out in his mas­ter’s the­sis at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go, where between 1945 and 1947 he per­formed anthro­po­log­i­cal research into the Native Amer­i­can-inspired Ghost Dance reli­gious move­ment of the late 19th cen­tu­ry. “The fun­da­men­tal idea,” wrote Von­negut, “is that sto­ries have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a giv­en society’s sto­ries is at least as inter­est­ing as the shape of its pots or spear­heads.”

None of this flew with the anthro­pol­o­gy depart­ment. In an essay in his book Palm Sun­day Von­negut explains the unan­i­mous rejec­tion of his the­sis, “The Fluc­tu­a­tions Between Good and Evil in Sim­ple Tasks,” due to the fact that “it was so sim­ple and looked like too much fun. One must not be too play­ful.” Opt­ing not to have a sec­ond go before the com­mit­tee, the still-young Von­negut — with his har­row­ing expe­ri­ence in the Sec­ond World War only a cou­ple of years behind him — decid­ed to take a job as a pub­li­cist at Gen­er­al Elec­tric instead. In 1950, while still employed at GE, he would first pub­lish a piece of fic­tion: “Report on the Barn­house Effect” in Col­lier’s mag­a­zine. “Years lat­er,” says the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Chron­i­cle’s obit­u­ary for Von­negut, “the uni­ver­si­ty accept­ed Cat’s Cra­dle as Vonnegut’s the­sis, award­ing him an A.M. in 1971.”

“This was not an hon­orary degree but an earned one,” said Von­negut in a 1973 inter­view, “giv­en on the basis of what the fac­ul­ty com­mit­tee called the anthro­po­log­i­cal val­ue of my nov­els. I snapped it up most cheer­ful­ly and I con­tin­ue to have noth­ing but friend­ly feel­ings for the Uni­ver­si­ty.” Indeed, Von­negut called his time as a Phoenix “the most stim­u­lat­ing years of my life.” Gen­er­a­tions of read­ers have found in Von­negut’s work — not just Cat’s Cra­dle, the one that final­ly got him his aca­d­e­m­ic cre­den­tials, but oth­er nov­els like Moth­er NightBreak­fast of Cham­pi­ons, and of course Slaugh­ter­house-Five as well — some of the most stim­u­lat­ing writ­ing to come out of post­war Amer­i­ca. And yet Von­negut, as he writes in Palm Sun­day, con­tin­ued to regard his first mas­ter’s the­sis as “my pret­ti­est con­tri­bu­tion to my cul­ture.” The more suc­cess­ful the cre­ator, it can often seem, the more dear he holds his fail­ures.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

Kurt Vonnegut’s Term Paper Assign­ment from the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop Teach­es You to Read Fic­tion Like a Writer

Kurt Von­negut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Dis­gust with Civ­i­liza­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


How Yoga Changes the Brain and May Guard Against Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Pho­to by Abhisek Sar­da, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I tend to be some­what skep­ti­cal of sci­en­tif­ic research that focus­es sole­ly on what prac­tices like med­i­ta­tion do to the grey­ish-pink­ish-white stuff inside our skulls. Humans are too com­plex to be treat­ed like brains in vats. Holis­tic dis­ci­plines like med­i­ta­tion and yoga empha­size the union of mind and body, and neu­ro­sci­en­tists have shown how men­tal and emo­tion­al health is as tied to the func­tion­ing of our cir­cu­la­to­ry sys­tems and micro­bio­mes as it is to prop­er brain func­tion.

On the oth­er hand, there’s no deny­ing the impor­tance of brain health, giv­en that it’s the one organ we may nev­er be able to replace. While we may have grown accus­tomed to, and maybe even weary of, see­ing mind­ful­ness under the scan­ner, the neu­ro­science of yoga hasn’t received near­ly as much press. This is chang­ing for sev­er­al rea­sons. Most promi­nent­ly, “yoga has par­tic­u­lar­ly gained trac­tion as a research area of inter­est in its promis­ing poten­tial of ther­a­py to com­bat the alarm­ing increase in age-relat­ed neu­ro­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases.”

So notes a sys­temic review of the cur­rent lit­er­a­ture on yoga and brain health pub­lished in the jour­nal Brain Plas­tic­i­ty this past Novem­ber. The authors sur­veyed 11 dif­fer­ent stud­ies, all of which pre­served the typ­i­cal Hatha yoga mix of pos­tures, med­i­ta­tion, and breath­ing exer­cis­es in their method­ol­o­gy. Each study also “used brain-imag­ing tech­niques such as MRI, func­tion­al MRI or sin­gle-pho­ton emis­sion com­put­er­ized tomog­ra­phy” to assess phys­i­cal brain changes, reports Sci­ence Dai­ly.

The sur­vey authors define yoga as “the most pop­u­lar form of com­ple­men­tary ther­a­py prac­ticed by more than 13 mil­lion adults,” as well as an ancient prac­tice that “dates back over 2000 years to ancient India.” Whether one does yoga in more spir­i­tu­al or more sec­u­lar con­texts, its “acute and inter­ven­tion effects on cog­ni­tion are evi­dent” across the entire range of stud­ies. The research con­firms much of what we might expect—yoga has a pos­i­tive effect on mood, demon­strat­ing “the poten­tial to improve anx­i­ety, depres­sion, stress and over­all men­tal health.”

The sur­vey also showed con­sis­tent find­ings we might not have expect­ed. Despite the typ­i­cal­ly slow pace of a Hatha yoga rou­tine, all the stud­ies found evi­dence that “yoga enhances many of the same brain struc­tures and func­tions that ben­e­fit from aer­o­bic exer­cise,” as Sci­ence Dai­ly points out. “From these 11 stud­ies, we iden­ti­fied some brain regions that con­sis­tent­ly come up, and they are sur­pris­ing­ly not very dif­fer­ent from what we see with exer­cise research,” says lead author Neha Gotha, kine­si­ol­o­gy and com­mu­ni­ty health pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois.

Gotha iden­ti­fies one of those ben­e­fits as an increase in the size of the hip­pocam­pus, the region of the brain that tends to shrink with age and “the struc­ture that is first affect­ed in demen­tia and Alzheimer’s dis­ease.” Oth­er regions affect­ed include the amyg­dala, which con­tributes to emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion, and the pre­frontal cor­tex, which is “essen­tial to plan­ning, deci­sion-mak­ing, mul­ti­task­ing, think­ing about your options and pick­ing the right option,” says study co-author Jes­si­ca Damoi­seaux, psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty.

“Yoga is not aer­o­bic in nature,” says Gotha, “so there must be oth­er mech­a­nisms lead­ing to these brain changes. So far we don’t have the evi­dence to iden­ti­fy what those mech­a­nisms are.”  The effects, how­ev­er, aren’t only sim­i­lar to those of more vig­or­ous exer­cise; in some cas­es, yoga seemed even more effec­tive. Nicole McDer­mott at Greatist explains that in one study Gotha con­duct­ed with 30 female col­leagues, “reac­tion times were short­er and accu­ra­cy was greater after the yoga ses­sion com­pared to 20 min­utes of a tread­mill.” Even more sur­pris­ing­ly, “jog­ging result­ed in near­ly the same cog­ni­tive per­for­mance as the base­line test­ing when the women didn’t exer­cise at all.”

These results should be seen as pro­vi­sion­al and pre­lim­i­nary. “We need more rig­or­ous and well-con­trolled inter­ven­tion stud­ies to con­firm these ini­tial find­ings,” Damoi­seaux cau­tions. But they may con­tribute to grow­ing evi­dence of the “mind-body con­nec­tion” yoga helps fos­ter. Bet­ter mood and low­ered stress tend to improve brain health over­all. Oth­er stud­ies sup­port these con­clu­sions, such as research show­ing how yoga prac­tice over time enlarges the somatosen­so­ry cor­tex, which con­tains a “men­tal map” of the body and pro­motes greater self-aware­ness.

No doubt we’ll see many more stud­ies on yoga and brain func­tion in the com­ing years. For the time being, the sci­ence strong­ly sug­gests that when we hit the yoga mat to lim­ber up and de-stress, we’re also help­ing to proof our brains against debil­i­tat­ing effects of aging like mem­o­ry loss and cog­ni­tive decline. Read Gotha and Damoi­seaux’s full sur­vey of the neu­ro­science of yoga here.

via Sci­ence Dai­ly

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Get Start­ed with Yoga: Free Yoga Lessons on YouTube

Son­ny Rollins Describes How 50 Years of Prac­tic­ing Yoga Made Him a Bet­ter Musi­cian

Yoga in an X‑Ray Machine

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

The Singer or the Song? Ken Stringfellow (Posies, R.E.M., Big Star) and Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #23 Discuss

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is PMP-The-Singer-Not-the-Song-with-Ken-Stringfellow-400-x-800.jpg

What’s your rela­tion­ship to music? Do you just embrace the pure sound, or do you care about who made that sound? One way of see­ing where you fall on this issue is whether you care more for sin­gles or to whole albums or careers by artists.

Ken Stringfel­low, who co-fronts The Posies and was a mem­ber of R.E.M. and Big Star, joins Mark Lin­sen­may­er, Eri­ca Spyres, and Bri­an Hirt to talk about what actu­al­ly grabs us about music, whether being a musi­cian your­self is a key fac­tor in whether you pay atten­tion to the con­text of a song, how music gets to your ears, singers vs. song­writ­ers, what we think about the notion of “genius,” and how this artist vs. song con­flict relates to how we take in oth­er media (e.g. favorite film direc­tors).

The ideas for this dis­cus­sion most­ly came from reflect­ing on our own expe­ri­ences and habits, but we did some warm-up research into:

Lis­ten to Mark inter­view Ken on Naked­ly Exam­ined Music, pre­sent­ing specif­i­cal­ly some of his solo, Posies, and Big Star songs. After that was record­ing, Ken sang some har­monies on a tune on Mark’s last album, Mark Lin­t’s Dry Folk.

Oth­er ref­er­ences: “Mid­night Con­fes­sions” by The Grass Roots, Lil Peep, Tom Wait­s’s most pop­u­lar album, Lou Reed is not a one-hit won­der, the scene in Slack­er with a fan get­ting Madon­na’s pubic hair, Damien Rice is still work­ing, the band Live reunit­ed, REM on Sesame Street (no, Ken is not on cam­era), Ken being “world music” by play­ing solo in for­eign coun­tries.

This episode includes bonus dis­cus­sion that you can only hear by sup­port­ing the pod­cast at This pod­cast is part of the Par­tial­ly Exam­ined Life pod­cast net­work.

Pret­ty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast is the first pod­cast curat­ed by Open Cul­ture. Browse all Pret­ty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

“The Philosophy of “Flow”: A Brief Introduction to Taoism

“In the West,” the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, “is main­ly known as a div­ina­tion man­u­al,” writes philoso­pher and nov­el­ist Will Buck­ing­ham, “part of the wild car­ni­val of spu­ri­ous notions that is New Age spir­i­tu­al­i­ty.” But just as one can use the Tarot as a means of read­ing the present, rather than pre­dict­ing future events, so too can the I Ching serve to remind us, again and again, of a prin­ci­ple we are too apt to for­get: the crit­i­cal impor­tance of non-action, or what is called wu wei in Chi­nese phi­los­o­phy.

Non-action is not pas­siv­i­ty, though it has been mis­char­ac­ter­ized as such by cul­tures that over­val­ue aggres­sion and self-asser­tion. It is a way of exer­cis­ing pow­er by attun­ing to the rhythms of its mys­te­ri­ous source. In the reli­gious and philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion that became known as Tao­ism, non-action achieves its most canon­i­cal expres­sion in the Tao Te Ching, the clas­sic text attrib­uted to sixth cen­tu­ry B.C.E. thinker Laozi, who may or may not have been a real his­tor­i­cal fig­ure.

The Tao Te Ching describes non-action as a para­dox in which dual­is­tic ten­sions like pas­siv­i­ty and aggres­sion resolve.

That which offers no resis­tance,
Over­comes the hard­est sub­stances.
That which offers no resis­tance
Can enter where there is no space.
Few in the world can com­pre­hend
The teach­ing with­out words, or
Under­stand the val­ue of non-action.

Wu wei is some­times trans­lat­ed as “effort­less action” or the “action of non-action,” phras­es that high­light its dynam­ic qual­i­ty. Arthur Waley used the phrase “action­less activ­i­ty” in his Eng­lish ver­sion of the Tao Te Ching. In the short video intro­duc­tion above, “philo­soph­i­cal enter­tain­er” Einzel­gänger explains “the prac­ti­cal sense” of wu wei in terms of that which ath­letes call “the zone,” a state of “action with­out striv­ing” in which bod­ies “move through space effort­less­ly.” But non-action is also an inner qual­i­ty, char­ac­ter­ized by its depth and still­ness as much as its strength.

Among the many sym­bols of wu wei is the action of water against stone—a grace­ful organ­ic move­ment that “over­comes the hard­est sub­stances” and “can enter where there is no space.” The image illus­trates what Einzel­gänger explains in con­tem­po­rary terms as a “phi­los­o­phy of flow.” We can­not grasp the Tao—the hid­den cre­ative ener­gy that ani­mates the universe—with dis­cur­sive for­mu­las and def­i­n­i­tions. But we can meet it through “still­ness of mind, curb­ing the sens­es, being hum­ble, and the ces­sa­tion of striv­ing, in order to open our­selves up to the work­ings of the uni­verse.”

The state of “flow,” or total absorp­tion in the present, has been pop­u­lar­ized by psy­chol­o­gists in recent years, who describe it as the secret to achiev­ing cre­ative ful­fill­ment. Non-action has its ana­logues in Sto­icis­m’s amor fati, Zen’s “back­ward step,” and Hen­ri Bergson’s élan vital. In the Tao te Ching, the Way appears as both a meta­phys­i­cal, if enig­mat­ic, phi­los­o­phy and a prac­ti­cal approach to life that tran­scends our indi­vid­ual goals. It is an impro­visato­ry prac­tice which, like rivers carv­ing out their beds, requires time and per­sis­tence to mas­ter.

In a sto­ry told by Taoist philoso­pher Zhuangzi, a renowned butch­er is asked to explain his seem­ing­ly effort­less skill at carv­ing up an ox. He replies it is the prod­uct of years of train­ing, dur­ing which he renounced the strug­gle to achieve, and came to rely on intu­ition rather than per­cep­tion or brute force. Embrac­ing non-action reveals to us the paths down which our tal­ents nat­u­ral­ly take us when we stop fight­ing with life. And it can show us how to han­dle what seem like insol­u­ble prob­lems by mov­ing through, over, and around them rather than crash­ing into them head on.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cre­ativ­i­ty, Not Mon­ey, is the Key to Hap­pi­ness: Dis­cov­er Psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s The­o­ry of “Flow”

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

Slavoj Žižek: What Full­fils You Cre­ative­ly Isn’t What Makes You Hap­py

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Discover the Stendhal Syndrome: The Condition Where People Faint, or Feel Totally Overwhelmed, in the Presence of Great Art

Clutch imag­i­nary pearls, rest the back of your hand on your fore­head, look wan and strick­en, begin to wilt, and most peo­ple will rec­og­nize the symp­toms of your sar­casm, aimed at some pejo­ra­tive­ly fem­i­nized qual­i­ties we’ve seen char­ac­ters embody in movies. The “lit­er­ary swoon” as Iaian Bam­forth writes at the British Jour­nal of Gen­er­al Prac­tice, dates back much fur­ther than film, to the ear­ly years of the mod­ern nov­el itself, and it was once a male domain.

“Some­where around the time of the French Rev­o­lu­tion (or per­haps a lit­tle before it) feel­ings were let loose on the world.” Ratio­nal­ism went out vogue and pas­sion was in—lots of it, though not all at once. It took some decades before the dis­cov­ery of emo­tion reached the cli­max of Roman­ti­cism and denoue­ment of Vic­to­ri­an sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty:

Back in 1761, read­ers had swooned when they encoun­tered the ‘true voice of feel­ing’ in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s nov­el La Nou­velle Héloïse; by the end of the decade, all of Europe was being sen­ti­men­tal in the man­ner made fash­ion­able a few years lat­er by Lau­rence Sterne in his A Sen­ti­men­tal Jour­ney. Then there was Goethe’s novel­la, The Sor­rows of Young Werther (1774), which made its author a celebri­ty.

It’s impos­si­ble to over­state how pop­u­lar Goethe’s book became among the aris­to­crat­ic young men of Europe. Napoleon “reput­ed­ly car­ried a copy of the nov­el with him on his mil­i­tary cam­paign.” Its swoon­ing hero, whom we might be tempt­ed to diag­nose with any num­ber of per­son­al­i­ty and mood dis­or­ders, devel­ops a dis­turb­ing and debil­i­tat­ing obses­sion with an engaged woman and final­ly com­mits sui­cide. The nov­el sup­pos­ed­ly inspired many copy­cats and “the media’s first moral pan­ic.”

If we can feel such exal­ta­tion, dis­qui­et, and fear when in the grip of roman­tic pas­sion, or when faced with nature’s implaca­ble behe­moths, as in Kan­t’s Sub­lime, so too may we be over­come by art. Napoleon­ic nov­el­ist Stend­hal sug­gest­ed as much in a dra­mat­ic account of such an expe­ri­ence. Stend­hal, the pen name of Marie-Hen­ri Beyle, was no inex­pe­ri­enced dream­er. He had trav­eled and fought exten­sive­ly with the Grand Army (includ­ing that fate­ful march through Rus­sia, and back) and had held sev­er­al gov­ern­ment offices abroad. His real­ist fic­tion didn’t always com­port with the more lyri­cal tenor of the times.

Pho­to of the Basil­i­ca of San­ta Croce by Diana Ringo, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

But he was also of the gen­er­a­tion of young men who read Werther while tour­ing Europe, con­tem­plat­ing the vari­eties of emo­tion. He had held a sim­i­lar­ly unre­quit­ed obses­sion for an unavail­able woman, and once wrote that “in Italy… peo­ple are still dri­ven to despair by love.” Dur­ing a vis­it to the Basil­i­ca of San­ta Croce in 1817, he “found a monk to let him into the chapel,” writes Bam­forth, “where he could sit on a gen­u­flect­ing stool, tilt his head back and take in the prospect of Volterrano’s fres­co of the Sibyls with­out inter­rup­tion.” As Stend­hal described the scene:

I was already in a kind of ecsta­sy by the idea of being in Flo­rence, and the prox­im­i­ty of the great men whose tombs I had just seen. Absorbed in con­tem­plat­ing sub­lime beau­ty, I saw it close-up—I touched it, so to speak. I had reached that point of emo­tion where the heav­en­ly sen­sa­tions of the fine arts meet pas­sion­ate feel­ing. As I emerged from San­ta Croce, I had pal­pi­ta­tions (what they call an attack of the nerves in Berlin); the life went out of me, and I walked in fear of falling.

With the record­ing of this expe­ri­ence, Stend­hal “brought the lit­er­ary swoon into tourism,” Bam­forth remarks. Such pas­sages became far more com­mon­place in trav­el­ogues, not least those involv­ing the city of Flo­rence. So many cas­es sim­i­lar to Stend­hal’s have been report­ed in the city that the con­di­tion acquired the name Stend­hal syn­drome in the late sev­en­ties from Dr. Gra­ziel­la Magheri­ni, chief of psy­chi­a­try at the San­ta Maria Nuo­va Hos­pi­tal. It presents as an acute state of exhil­a­rat­ed anx­i­ety that caus­es peo­ple to feel faint, or to col­lapse, in the pres­ence of art.

Magheri­ni and her assis­tants com­piled stud­ies of 107 dif­fer­ent cas­es in 1989. Since then, San­ta Maria Nuo­va has con­tin­ued to treat tourists for the syn­drome with some reg­u­lar­i­ty. “Dr. Magheri­ni insists,” writes The New York Times, that “cer­tain men and women are sus­cep­ti­ble to swoon­ing in the pres­ence of great art, espe­cial­ly when far from home.” Stend­hal didn’t invent the phe­nom­e­non, of course. And it need not be sole­ly caused by suf­fer­ers’ love of the 15th cen­tu­ry.

The stress­es of trav­el can some­times be enough to make any­one faint, though fur­ther research may rule out oth­er fac­tors. The effect, how­ev­er, does not seem to occur with near­ly as much fre­quen­cy in oth­er major cities with oth­er major cul­tur­al trea­sures. “It is sure­ly the sheer con­cen­tra­tion of great art in Flo­rence that caus­es such issues,” claims Jonathan Jones at The Guardian. Try­ing to take it all in while nav­i­gat­ing unfa­mil­iar streets and crowds.… “More cyn­i­cal­ly, some might say the long queues do add a lay­er of stress on the heart.”

There’s also no dis­count­ing the effect of expec­ta­tion. “It is among reli­gious trav­el­ers that Stendhal’s syn­drome seems to have found its most florid expres­sion,” notes Bam­forth. Stend­hal admit­ted that his “ecsta­sy” began with an aware­ness of his “prox­im­i­ty of the great men whose tombs I had just seen.” With­out his pri­or edu­ca­tion, the effect might have dis­ap­peared entire­ly. The sto­ry of the Renais­sance, in his time and ours, has impressed upon us such a rev­er­ence for its artists, states­men, and engi­neers, that sen­si­tive vis­i­tors may feel they can hard­ly stand in the actu­al pres­ence of Flo­rence’s abun­dant trea­sures.

Per­haps Stend­hal syn­drome should be regard­ed as akin to a spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ence. A study of reli­gious trav­el­ers to Jerusalem found that “oth­er­wise nor­mal patients tend­ed to have ‘an ide­al­is­tic sub­con­scious image of Jerusalem’” before they suc­cumbed to Stend­hal syn­drome. Carl Jung described his own such feel­ings about Pom­peii and Rome, which he could nev­er bring him­self to vis­it because he lived in such awe of its his­tor­i­cal aura. Those primed to have symp­toms tend also to have a sen­ti­men­tal nature, a word that once meant great depth of feel­ing rather than a cal­low or mawk­ish nature.

We might all expect great art to over­whelm us, but Stend­hal syn­drome is rare and rar­i­fied. The expe­ri­ence of many more trav­el­ers accords with Mark Twain’s 1869 The Inno­cents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, a fic­tion­al­ized mem­oir “lam­poon­ing the grandiose trav­el accounts of his con­tem­po­raries,” notes Bam­forth. It became “one of the best-sell­ing trav­el books ever” and gave its author’s name to what one researcher calls Mark Twain Malaise, “a cyn­i­cal mood which over­comes trav­el­ers and leaves them total­ly unim­pressed with any­thing UNESCO has on its uni­ver­sal her­itage list.” Sen­ti­men­tal­ists might wish these weary tourists would stay home and let them swoon in peace.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Your Brain on Art: The Emerg­ing Sci­ence of Neu­roaes­thet­ics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

1.8 Mil­lion Free Works of Art from World-Class Muse­ums: A Meta List of Great Art Avail­able Online

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Puts 400,000 High-Res Images Online & Makes Them Free to Use

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Seven Videos Explain How Edward Hopper’s Paintings Expressed American Loneliness and Alienation

Though born in the late 19th cen­tu­ry and par­tial­ly shaped by a few sojourns to Europe, Edward Hop­per was an artist fun­da­men­tal­ly of ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. He took life in that time and place as his sub­ject, but he also once said that “an artist paints to reveal him­self through what he sees in his sub­ject,” mean­ing that he in some sense embod­ied ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Roy­al Acad­e­my of the Arts Artis­tic Direc­tor Tim Mar­low quotes that line in the 60-sec­ond intro­duc­tion to Hop­per above, then points to a com­mon thread in the painter’s “enig­mat­ic works”: a “pro­found con­tem­pla­tion of the world around us” that turns each of his paint­ings into one cap­tured “moment of still­ness in a fran­tic world.”

Much of Hop­per’s work came out of the Great Depres­sion, “a peri­od of great uncer­tain­ty and anx­i­ety, but also a time of deep nation­al self-imag­i­na­tion about the very idea of Amer­i­can-ness.” To look at the fig­ures who inhab­it Hop­per’s thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can set­tings — a gas sta­tion, a hotel room, inside a train car, an all-night din­er — self-reflec­tion would seem to be their main pas­time.

“A woman sits alone drink­ing a cup of cof­fee,” says the School of Life’s head of Art and Archi­tec­ture Han­na Rox­burgh of Hop­per’s 1927 Automat in the video above. “She seems slight­ly self-con­scious and a lit­tle afraid. Per­haps she’s not used to sit­ting alone in a pub­lic space. Some­thing seems to have gone wrong. The view is invit­ed to invent sto­ries for her of betray­al or loss.”

Lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion, even despair: these words tend to come up in dis­cus­sion of the moods of Hop­per’s char­ac­ters, as well as of his paint­ings them­selves. In the in-depth explo­ration above, Col­in Wing­field focus­es on a sin­gle emo­tion expressed in Hop­per’s work: alien­ation. A prod­uct of the “machine age” in late 19th- and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, Hop­per expressed an uneasy view of the ways in which accel­er­at­ing indus­tri­al­iza­tion and automa­tion were alter­ing the lives lived around him into unrec­og­niz­abil­i­ty. This view would turn out to have an enor­mous cul­tur­al res­o­nance, as detailed in Edward Hop­per and the Blank Can­vas, the hour­long doc­u­men­tary below.

Touch­ing on the Hop­per influ­ences seen in the work of direc­tors like Alfred Hitch­cock and Ter­rence Mal­ick as well as tele­vi­sion shows like Mad Men and The Simp­sons, Edward Hop­per and the Blank Can­vas also brings in cul­tur­al fig­ures like the Ger­man film­mak­er Wim Wen­ders, an avowed Hop­per enthu­si­ast with much to say about the painter’s vision in Amer­i­ca. More cre­ators from the world of cin­e­ma appear in the video below to offer their per­son­al per­spec­tives on Hop­per’s con­sid­er­able influ­ence on their art form — an art form that had con­sid­er­able influ­ence on Hop­per, an avid movie­go­er since he first watched a motion pic­ture in Paris in 1909.

No sin­gle paint­ing of Hop­per’s has had as much influ­ence on film as 1942’s Nighthawks, by far the painter’s best-known work. How exact­ly he achieved his own cin­e­mat­ic effects in a still image, such as the “sto­ry­board­ing” tech­nique with which he devel­oped its com­po­si­tion, is a sub­ject we’ve fea­tured before here on Open Cul­ture. In the video essay Nighthawks: Look Through the Win­dow,” Evan Puschak — bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer — seeks out the sources of the paint­ing’s endur­ing pow­er, from its “clean, smooth, and almost too real” aes­thet­ic to its rig­or­ous com­po­si­tion to its host of visu­al ele­ments meant to both com­pel and unset­tle the view­er.

Hop­per explains his way of work­ing in his own words in the short video from the Walk­er Art Cen­ter below. “It’s a long process of ges­ta­tion in the mind and a ris­ing emo­tion,” he says, fol­lowed by “draw­ings, quite often many draw­ings”: “var­i­ous small sketch­es, sketch­es of the thing that i wish to do, also sketch­es of details in the pic­ture.” As for the themes of “lone­li­ness, iso­la­tion, mod­ern man and his man-made envi­ron­ment” so often ascribed to the final prod­ucts, “those are the words of crit­ics. It may be true and it may not be true. It’s how the view­er looks at the pic­tures, what he sees in them.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Edward Hop­per “Sto­ry­board­ed” His Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks

Edward Hopper’s Icon­ic Paint­ing Nighthawks Explained in a 7‑Minute Video Intro­duc­tion

9‑Year-Old Edward Hop­per Draws a Pic­ture on the Back of His 3rd Grade Report Card

10 Paint­ings by Edward Hop­per, the Most Cin­e­mat­ic Amer­i­can Painter of All, Turned into Ani­mat­ed GIFs

How Famous Paint­ings Inspired Cin­e­mat­ic Shots in the Films of Taran­ti­no, Gilliam, Hitch­cock & More: A Big Super­cut

60-Sec­ond Intro­duc­tions to 12 Ground­break­ing Artists: Matisse, Dalí, Duchamp, Hop­per, Pol­lock, Rothko & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Jimi Hendrix Hosts a Jam Session Where Jim Morrison Sings Drunkenly; Jimi Records the Moment for Posterity (1968)

Two psych rock super­stars at the height of their fame, both noto­ri­ous for epic drug and alco­hol con­sump­tion, and nei­ther par­tic­u­lar­ly suit­ed to the other’s sen­si­bil­i­ty, Jim Mor­ri­son and Jim­my Hen­drix might have been an odd­ly con­so­nant musi­cal pair­ing, or not. Mor­ri­son, the ego­ma­ni­ac, looked inward, min­ing his dark fan­tasies for mate­r­i­al. Hen­drix, the intro­vert, ven­tured into the reach­es of out­er space in his expan­sive imag­i­na­tion.

What might come of a musi­cal meet­ing? We know only what tran­spired one night at Man­hat­tan’s Scene Club in 1968, and let’s just say it didn’t go par­tic­u­lar­ly well. It seems unfair to lob crit­i­cism at a boot­legged, one-off, impro­vised per­for­mance. But that hasn’t stopped crit­ics from doing so. The record­ing has appeared under sev­er­al names, includ­ing Sky High, Bleed­ing Heart, Morrison/Hendrix/Winter (under the assump­tion John­ny Win­ter played on it), and as the very res­o­nant­ly titled Woke up this morn­ing and found myself dead.

Even­tu­al­ly, some anony­mous dis­trib­uter set­tled on Morrison’s Lament, “an apt title,” Ron Kretsch writes at Dan­ger­ous Minds, “if by ‘lament’ one means ‘drunk­en, form­less dis­charge of inane pro­fan­i­ties.” Mor­ri­son, it seems, invit­ed him­self onstage, and Hen­drix, who made the tape him­self, seems not to mind the intru­sion. At one point, you can hear him tell the Doors’ singer to “use the record­ing mic.” Some bootlegs cred­it Mor­ri­son for the har­mon­i­ca play­ing, while oth­ers cred­it Lester Cham­bers.

Hen­drix starts with his go-to blues jam, “Red House.” He’s backed—depending on which lin­er notes you read—by either Band of Gyp­sys’ drum­mer Bud­dy Miles or McCoy’s drum­mer Randy Zehringer. Rick Der­ringer may have played rhythm gui­tar. John­ny Win­ter report­ed­ly denied hav­ing been there, but the Scene Club was owned by his man­ag­er, Steve Paul. “Jimi was a fre­quent vis­i­tor here,” writes Hen­drix biog­ra­ph­er Tony Brown in the notes for a 1980 copy of the ses­sion. “He loved he atmos­phere and also loved to jam and as he always had a tape machine on hand, that night was cap­tured for­ev­er.”

That’s a very mixed bless­ing. “Some of the tracks kin­da kick ass,” writes Kretsch, includ­ing the effort­less­ly bril­liant “Red House” Hen­drix and band play in the first six min­utes or so at the top. Then Mor­ri­son steps onstage and begins to howl—sounding like a ran­dom ine­bri­at­ed audi­ence mem­ber who’s lost all inhi­bi­tion, instead of the eeri­ly cool singer of “Rid­ers on the Storm.” Maybe there’s good rea­son to hear Mor­ri­son bel­low­ing “save me, woman!” as a seri­ous cry for help.

But there’s lit­tle rea­son to take this per­for­mance seri­ous­ly. If that still leaves you wondering—what might have result­ed from a sober, well-rehearsed ses­sion between these two?—you’ll have to make-do with the mashup above, which con­vinc­ing­ly com­bines Morrison’s “Rid­ers on the Storm” vocals with Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” play­ing. Lis­ten at least until the solo at around 1:20 to hear Ray Man­zarek’s organ trick­le in. Now that would have been a great col­lab­o­ra­tion. If you every come across any boot­legged Man­zarek and Hen­drix jams, send them our way.…

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jimi Hen­drix Arrives in Lon­don in 1966, Asks to Get Onstage with Cream, and Blows Eric Clap­ton Away: “You Nev­er Told Me He Was That F‑ing Good”

Hear the Last Time the Jimi Hen­drix Expe­ri­ence Ever Played Togeth­er: The Riotous Den­ver Pop Fes­ti­val of 1969

The Doors’ Ray Man­zarek Walks You Through the Writ­ing of the Band’s Icon­ic Song, “Rid­ers on the Storm”

Jimi Hen­drix Plays the Bea­t­les: “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Day Trip­per,” and “Tomor­row Nev­er Knows”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness.

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