A friend asks me if I’ve OD’d on culture yet. Rather than give one answer, I’ll give a couple. The truth of the answer will vacillate between the possible responses in an unpredictable manner, inhabiting a quantum field of probability that collapses only into one definite choice when you do something as uncouth as observe:
1. No. I don’t think I can. I’m a little done with museums at the moment, but I want more world and more time. I want to stuff my eyes full of wonder, I don’t want to ever stop, I want to do as much as I can with what time I’m given. No, I haven’t OD’d on culture, and I feel sorry for the person that can.
2. No. But it happened to a friend of mine after the Modern Art Museum in Vienna. It happened like this:
“How is he?” I asked. Sergei just shook his head. Gary had that wild-eyed look, the psychotic grin that only comes from thinking that you’ve seen beyond the veil, toothy and lop-sided. The sort of grin that says you’re ready to try out some new, stupid ideas that were already stale fifty years ago.
“Not good. He’s OD’d on German conceptual art!”
“Goddamnit! Quick! We need 20 hours of Loony Toons, stat! Get me a beer, something Canadian and unpretentious. And for god’s sake someone give him some gum to chew.”
Sergei faithfully produced a stick of Juicy Fruit while Sally ran for the beer and the DVD. Gary continue to gape as I forced the gum into his mouth. “Why don’t I have a monocle?” He asked. “Everyone used to have a monocle…I’ve seen the most amazing things. I’ve smelled colors. Tasted sounds.”
“Sure you have, asshole,” I pushed his jaws together, grinding the gum between them. “Now *chew*, goddamn you.”
The gum started doing the job, absorbing the pretentiousness coming out of his mouth. It’s impossible to take yourself *too* seriously while chewing gum, which is why it’s such an important first treatment of cultural OD. I’ve seen some cases brought all the way back to normal just by getting the subject to blow bubbles (try discussing aesthetic dialectics with a bubble exploding onto your goatee) but he was still talking seriously about opening up an artists commune in Bend, Oregon, so we hit him full force with as much Daffy Duck as we could find. That brought him round. He shook himself.
“Whew. Thanks guys,” the wild look was fading from his eyes. “For a minute I wanted to take us all to a Luis Bunuel festival.”
That’s the thing about culture, and, in particular, Kultur. Too much of it, on your own and unsupervised, can cause you to retreate into yourself entirely.
3. Yes. Heroin will fry your synapses if you do it too much. It fries them because you’re synapses can take only so much pleasure at one time, and after a certain point you’re absorbing more stimulation than your brain knows what to do with, and it overloads. As with pleasure, so with beauty. We know this much beauty exists in the world. We know it and we force ourselves to forget, because to be fully awakened to the beauty of the world would be to walk around in a daze, stupid grins on our faces, muttering “Gosh” quietly every so often. I knew there was this much beauty in the world, but I deliberately made myself forget. But now, confronted full force, with it, unable to hide from it, it is overwhelming and my brain and body don’t know what do with themselves. It changes you, particularly when you can sit in the Belvedere Museum alone for three hours staring at Klimt with no one to tell you they’re hungry or tired, as you forget that you’re hungry and tired, forgetting everything but beauty, beauty overwhelming, until you’re lost mate, lost beyond the hope of redemption.
Having other people around is both good and bad. People are a normalizing influence on us. They keep us from going off the deepend. They help remind us that we’re full of shit (and we are all so very full of shit). But that same normalizing influence that keeps us from becoming too much of an asshole, too much enamored of the soud of our own voices, the sound of our own typing, this normalization also keeps us from becoming extraordinary.
I have no illusions of being extraordinary. But ODing on this much inspiration, this much beauty, without a safety valve, is also an exhilirating thing.
The security guard asks me why I am crying. Everyone else has left, the lights have been turned off, and I’m the last one left in the cathedral. For beauty, I explain. For beauty, and because I will never see this place again. I am weeping, literally weeping as they drag me out of St. Stephens, screaming for them to let me spend the night there.
Do you want to see the kingdom of god? I mean really. Because it’s not a joke. This isn’t a gag or me trying to be cute. The kingdom of heaven is here, on earth, I’ve seen it. And when you do see it you will experience joy and sorrow and pain and ecstasy because the reality is you cannot stay in the kingdom of god forever, you are granted only a limited time there, and the knowledge of that is terrible.
The kingdom of god, my friends. The kingodom of heaven. It’s real. I’m an atheist and I’ll concede this point. How is this possible?
There are moments of pure artistic perfection. Moments that arrive as the culmination of years, decades of preparation, combined with a perfection of location and perfection of material, a confluence of human labor and passion and sheer love of beauty that dawns, finally, in one perfect moment in which that divinity that resides within us shines out so blindingly it blots out everything else and there is only love, beauty and perfection.
St. Stephen’s Basilica was completed in 1905. The inscription along the entablature, below the pediment reads “Ego sum via veritas et vita,” “I am the way of truth and life” (I think). It’s central dome is surrounded by a circular railing with statues perched on top. At the front, two symmetrical clock towers that flank the entrance. Within the church, at the altar, a statue of St. Stephen, lit with an eerie, celestial light. In a city overflowing with beauty, a city in which you want to photograph every other building, St. Stephen’s Basilica is the most beautiful thing. The Hagia Sophia is more majestic, more powerful, more central. She is a soaring beauty, layered with millenia of meaning, the accretions of several cultures, multi-significant, a history of humanity captured in the layers upon layers of evidence left on her. But for all that, she is still a ruined beauty, raped by conquest, her crosses washed out and torn down, damaged by neglect, earthquakes and war, her mosaics fading, her banisters graffitoed.
St. Stephen’s was built only one hundred years ago. She is still in her full glory, her gold not yet plundered, her artworks not yet stolen. She is what she was meant to be, untouched by the ravages of time. Perhaps Sophia looked like her once.
Supplementing the visual beauty of her architecture, her statuary, her paintings, her lighting, is her acoustics. I’ve heard the acoustics of the Byzantine cistern underneath Istanbul and thought them perfect. But they are perfect in a creepy, cthonic way, the pools of water softening sound to murderously quiet levels: the acoustics of the cistern befit a graveyard, with its doric columns standing on medusa heads, its darkness, the kind of place Percy Bysshe Shelley might deflower a child bride.
Stephen’s acoustics soar. They take the human voice and raise it, amplify it, enoble it, and reflect it back to the singer in a wave of sound somehow more lovely and more beautiful than before. The human voice is made perfect in this venue, augmented in a way I can’t understand but which overwhelms me utterly.
Behind and above the seating area is an organ of incredible size.
And Gyula Pfeiffer sits down at the keyboard.
And he begins to play. And the violinst accompanies him on Handel’s Xerxes. And it is beautiful. Painfully, soul crushingly, exhiliratingly beautiful, and you understand everything, the entire scope of human experience, everything is contained within the sound reverberating in this most perfect of all places.
But it’s not until the soprano starts singing Handel’s “Rejoice” that I start crying.
Do you want the kingdom of god? Do you want to know beauty, know truth, touch the divine, experience perfection? Come to this place. Come now, to Budapest, and listen to the organ of St. Stephen’s Basilica and experience what I have experienced but know also that you will likely never come back here, just as I will never come back here. You will experience this perfect beauty once, only once, and it will then be only an echo in your memory and you must be content with that forever. It breaks my heart. It breaks my heart and I am stil weeping as I write this. I’ve heard the human voice perfected through the confluence of place, performer, and song. This is a terrible burden to bear. It is the way and the truth and the life. Come here, but you will either never leave, or you will experience the bitterness of being cast out of heaven itself.
When Odysseus heard the sirens sing, his mariners had to tie him to the mast to keep him from immediately abandoning them for the beauty of their song. Odysseus knew how the beauty of a song could trap a man, as completely as any cage. How can I leave this place? How can I possibly? I leave for Vienna tomorrow, and I can’t bear the thought of not hearing the organ of St. Stephen play again.