S is for Stendahl Syndrome

Did you hear about the guy who died in the Louvre? A Chinese man. A Europhile, if you will. Guy’s in his sixties, he’d been saving up money for forever so he could visit Europe, and finally he goes. He’s old, but he’s not that old, and he’s in good health besides. So he starts in England, spends a couple days in London, and then makes his way into France. He’s planning on doing the backpacker, just-graduated-college kind of thing, you know? But he never makes it. He gets to Paris, he goes to the Louvre, he sees the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Code of Hammurabi, all that good stuff. And then he dies. He’s so overwhelmed by the beauty of it all, by thousands of years of culture located all in one place, by some of the greatest artistic works ever conceived of and constructed by mankind that he passes away. Beautiful, right? Like, kind of grim, kind of macabre, but beautiful.

What they don’t tell you is that he died screaming. A custodian found him wandering around in one of the back rooms, the kind the public isn’t supposed to get to. In one of the few interviews the custodian ever did, he said the man was wandering around in a room no bigger than your average American living room, just muttering to himself in Chinese, his eyes locked on something a million miles away. The custodian called out, the man went silent and snapped his head towards the source of the noise. He was looking at the custodian, but he didn’t really see him. And then he started screaming.

Did you hear about the college girl who went to Jerusalem on a Birthright Israel trip and slit her throat in front of the Wailing Wall?

Or how about the man who climbed onto the roof of the Uffizi and threw himself headfirst into the courtyard between the two wings?

That’s what they don’t tell you. They’ll tell you about the devotion people have for these places, the reverence. They’ll tell you about the way a painting or a song or a location can make you lightheaded or weak in the knees. They’ll tell you, “Oh, you just have to see such and such! It’ll take your breath away.”

But they never tell you that sometimes you don’t get it back.


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