Journaling “Stendhalism”

After having just spent two weeks in Italy, I thought, “Stendhalism” would be an appropriate blogging topic. The inherent beauty lingering around every Italian corner was almost too much for one person or for one journey. Part of me wanted to visit in slow motion so that it could all be soaked in slowly, but there was really also much to see.

We began our sojourn in Lucca, then went to Siena, Florence and ended in Rome. The actual word “Stendhalism” was termed in Florence and created by one of my favorite authors, 19th century writer, Stendhal (pseudonym of Henri-Marie Beyle). In 1817 while visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce where the tomb of the artist Michelangelo is located, he felt this overwhelming sense of beauty.

This condition is also called the “Wow Effect.” Some say “Stendhalism” is a psychosomatic syndrome that can cause fainting when someone is in awe of unbearable beauty. In some persons, the result can be rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when exposed to art. This usually happens when the art is particularly “beautiful” or there is a large amount of art is in one place.

The term “Stendhalism” may also be used to describe a similar reaction when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world. There are many natural spots in the world which can create a similar effect, such as driving through Big Sur, the Grand Canyon and other American landmarks.

In a recent conversation with a colleague, I learned of a variation of “Stendhalism” which can happen in the city of Jerusalem in Israel. In this case it is appropriately called the “Jerusalem Syndrome,” whereby the body’s “overwhelm” response is in reaction to the sense of awe in the presence of spiritual or religious significance.  Apparently, the local police in Jerusalem are very aware of the syndrome and know how to deal with the many daily cases encountered by the thousands of Christian, Jewish and Muslim pilgrims who visit this destination—the Holy Land to all.

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What do you think of this syndrome? Is there a place that you have visited in the past which brings out this syndrome in you. How have you dealt with it? Does creativity such as writing or taking photos help?

2 thoughts on “Journaling “Stendhalism”

  1. Pat

    Diana, thanks for shining a light on the term for those extraordinary moments of awe experienced in beautiful, spiritual places. I love to think back on those moments, but I can never recreate or recall my sensory memories after I have such an experience. I’m always at a lost to find a way to describe it and photos fall flat. What I do come away wtih is a spectacular feeling of well being and a lovely imprint of the scene in my mind.

    Maybe I get a sense of of those past moments during the next encounter of “Stendhalism.” For me, part of the lure of traveling is the promise of another such encounter. Thanks for a lovely subject to reflect on and the term.

  2. Scott London

    I’d never heard of the term “Stendhalism” before. Very useful. I’ve certainly experienced the phenomenon. In fact, I remember having it in Florence one evening as I took the golden evening light on one of the piazzas.

    Beauty is unbearable, Camus wrote in one of his journals, because it offers us the glimpse of an eternity we wish we could stretch out over the whole of time.

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