Stendhal Syndrome

On the Wikipedia page for “emotion” it lists 70 types of emotion.
Which is a lot. But I think that the average person could get through them all, pretty comfortably, in the first 18 years of their life. You might have to carry a couple over for a few years but, by the time you’re my age, it seems logical that you’ve pretty much done them all.

Reading down that list I think I could tell you a story about a time when I have felt each of these things (with the possible exception of zest because I do not own a lemon hat). Logic would therefore dictate that I’ve pretty much done emotion. It isn’t that there isn’t anything left to feel, not at all, but those feelings won’t be NEW.

Place your hand on the flat part of your chest, just under your collar bone. Under that spot, in the space behind your ribs is a mysterious chest cavity. I know that, anatomically speaking, that is called “the lungs” but that isn’t what I mean. You know how you feel nervous in your stomach? And sadness is somewhere around the sternum? That place in the centre of your chest is where all the really big, strange emotions go. The ones we can neither explain nor justify. The ones Wikipedia doesn’t have a name for.

I didn’t discover this cavity until I was 18 and I went overseas with my family. The feeling you get standing inside a great cathedral is completely inexplicable. It’s like there’s a bubble of light inside your ribs, the kind of light that would float if you could put it in water. Dense and yet impossibly light. It’s similar to the way you feel when you first step in front of a truly great artwork and suddenly realise you can’t breathe anymore.

It may surprise you to know that there actually IS a word for that. Stendhal Syndrome, to quote Wikipedia, “is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art.”

If you’ve never experienced it, Stendhal seems like a rather Victorian concept. What spring to mind are images of pretty ladies, swathed in lace, collapsing to the floor and needing to be revived with smelling salts. But I have had my breath taken away by an artwork. I have left a darkened room reeling, unsure of what time it is or how long I’ve been standing transfixed.
This isn’t an emotion that we can explain or justify. But it is so huge. Such a terrifying thing for a single person to be overtaken by.

I think the common thread between these emotions is a feeling of…not inadequacy. But it makes you feel tiny. And not in a Total Perspective Vortex kind of way (although contemplating the full vastness of the universe feels kind of the same). These things make you feel small because the emotions are so big. It’s like being plugged into the cosmos, gaining access somehow to things which are bigger than you are. You feel as though it is impossible for one person to contain feelings so huge. The weight of it all presses on the inside of your ribs and you feel as though the skin might rupture if you feel this way for much longer. But it doesn’t. Somehow it all fits inside you. Somehow.

It astounds me that I’m almost 21 years old and there are still emotions I haven’t experienced. There are still things that take my breath away. Still feelings I can’t explain. Still emotions that shouldn’t be able to fit inside me. Sometimes I still feel tiny.
That’s kind of amazing when you think about it.  

Further reading

December – home

I spent the first minutes of 2018 on the beach. I’ve never actually spent New Year