08 July 2012

Sebald syndrome

Vertigo by W. G. Sebald, translated by Michael Hulse (Vintage Books, 2011)

"Beyle, or Love is a Madness Most Discreet", the first section of Max Sebald's Vertigo, is a portrait of the French novelist Stendhal (1783-1842), based on his diaries and autobiographical works. It tells of his wartime experiences as a soldier under Napoleon, the destruction and death he had witnessed during that time, and the numerous love affairs he fell into and suffered from. The portrait also makes references to the inadequacy of his memory to record events. Yet memory is all Stendhal had and often he had to remember scenes and events from the vantage of different times under different psychological states. He is not usually satisfied by what his memory unearths for him. The discrepancy between what he imagines and what he remembers causes him "various difficulties", including vertigo.

Now, however, he gazed upon the plain, noted the few stark trees, and saw, scattered over a vast area, the bones of perhaps 16,000 men and 4,000 horses that had lost their lives there, already bleached and shining with dew. The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place occasioned in him a vertiginous sense of confusion such as he had never previously experienced.

In this Beyle section Sebald introduces motifs and themes that were to recur later in the succeeding three chapters. The most prominent of which include the slippery acts of remembering and feelings of dizziness, themes that also haunt his other novels.

The section also makes mention of Stendhal's suffering from syphilis and other physiological conditions: "... his sleeplessness, his giddiness, the roaring in his ears, his palpitating pulse, and the shaking that was at times so bad that he could not use a knife and fork". His heart is gradually failing.

There is in medical science what is called "Stendhal syndrome".

Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal's syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. The term can also be used to describe a similar reaction to a surfeit of choice in other circumstances, e.g. when confronted with immense beauty in the natural world. (Wikipedia)

This sickness is named after the writer as it was something he described as having experienced from his visit to Florence. Dizzy spells. These have been experienced as well by the protagonists in the rest of the novel's sections as they constantly travel and visit museums.

The "Sebald syndrome", however, seems to be a more general disease, a literary one. It's a singular affliction attacking a reader through free associative images, through stretches of lucid, lyrical passages. Schwindel. Gefühle.


  1. I'd not heard of Stendhal syndrome, but what an excellent and handy diagnosis for a common experience. That it exists as a medical term at all I find immensely gratifying.

  2. Scott, I'm with you on this syndrome. It's a fascinating condition.

  3. I've heard of the Stendhal syndrome but had forgotten about it.
    I like the Sebald syndrom. I'm quite fond of the word Schwindel btw. as it has a double meaning - dizziness and con or cheating.

  4. Caroline, that double meaning is particularly relevant in the context of the book. Possibly related to the swindle of history in On the Natural History of Destruction.