The Stendhal Syndrome

I am familiar with the great French author Stendhal’s novels–The Red and the Black, and The Charterhouse of Parma–having read them some years ago, but until I read an article in the online magazine The Point I’d never hear about Stendhal Syndrome. The Stendhal syndrome is a psychic disorder that causes dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when someone is exposed to art.

French author Stendhal

French author Stendhal

Besides being a novelist, Stendhal was on of the first modern travel writers. In his book about his travels to Italy, Rome, Naples and Florence (1817), Stendhal recounts his ecstatic emotions before greats works of art. Ecstasy was quickly replaced by a nervous attack accompanied by dizziness and light-headiness–Stendhal syndrome.

In his article in The Point, author Kristofer Lenz, describes other cases, including very serious ones. Some sufferers have complete psychotic breakdowns. One sufferer lost the ability to speak and only regained it after months of therapy. According to the authorities Lenz quotes, works of art can become symbolic containers of emotion. In unhealthy people, works of art can become traps that disrupt healthy emotional processes. Apparently, works of the Renaissance are especially potent in this regard.

Lenz recounts his Stendhal syndrome-like episode before the works of Bernini in Rome, which led him to research the subject and write about it. Stendhal syndrome is controversial and Lenz discusses its history and its detractors, which I found less engaging. The article as a whole is very interesting and well written, and certainly worth reading.

Personally, I have never experienced Stendhal syndrome.  I’ve been moved in ways I can’t begin to describe before great works of art, but I’ve never experienced any of the unpleasantness associated with the syndrome.

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