Paris syndrome, Stendhal and the deconstruction of travel

I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back home the same day. Philip Larkin, English poet

I love Paris in the springtime.

I love Paris in the fall.

I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles,

I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles. I Love Paris, Cole Porter


These sentiments of Cole Porter would seem to be a truth universally acknowledged. However, the French capital can actually make some people very ill.; Paris syndrome is the name given to a transient psychological disorder that afflicts tourists when they discover that the City of Light fails to live up to their expectations. The Japanese, and in particular Japanese women, are the most affected, with between twelve and twenty cases a year reported. We need to put this number into some kind of context. Millions of Japanese travel abroad every year and Paris is one of their most popular destinations.

Professor Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist working in France, is credited as the first person to diagnose the condition in 1986. The Japanese embassy in Paris is said to have a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from the syndrome. The vulnerability of the Japanese may be linked to the popularity of Paris in Japanese culture, notably the idealized image o f Paris prevalent in advertising. They become disillusioned when they discover that Parisians don’t put on Louis Vuitton to go to the boulangerie, or that the French are far more overweight than the Japanese population. Apart from this romanticised image of Paris, factors such as culture shock, the language barrier and sheer physical exhaustion may also contribute. According to Wikipedia symptoms include acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealisation, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, etc.

Youcef Mahmoudia, a physician with the hospital Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, argues that Paris Syndrome has nothing to do with any disillusion experienced by tourists. His theory is that the excitement resulting from visiting Paris causes the heart to accelerate, causing giddiness and shortness of breath, which results in hallucinations that are similar to the Stendhal syndrome described by Italian psychologist Graziella Magherini in her book La sindrome di Stendhal.

In 1817, Marie-Henri Beyle, AKA the famous French writer Stendhal visited Florence and soon found himself completely overwhelmed by the city’s heady mix of history and art. When he visited Santa Croce he was overcome with emotion:

“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”

Whatever the reality of Paris Syndrome, and I am somewhat sceptical, writing about the gap between the expectations and reality of travel is not new. It comes up in A Rebours (Against the Grain), a 1884 novel by Joris-Karl Huysman. His central character, the aristocratic Jean des Esseintes, is a misanthrope who lives alone in a large house on the outskirts of Paris. He prefers not to venture beyond the confines of his house because he doesn’t want to have to put up with the ugliness and stupidity of others.

Des Esseintes had only ever felt drawn to two countries:Holland and England. He had already visited the former. Having seen the wonderful Dutch artworks at the Louvre, he travelled there with high expectations. But the trip was a disaster.  He was disillusioned by the reality of what he saw inHolland– he had been deceived by the art of the great Dutch masters:

“They had simply served as a springing board for his dreams. He had rushed forward on a false track and had wandered into capricious visions, unable to discover in the land itself, anything of that real and magical country which he had hoped to behold, seeing nothing at all, on the plots of ground strewn with barrels, of the dances of petticoated and stockinged peasants crying for very joy, stamping their feet out of sheer happiness and laughing loudly. Decidedly nothing of all this was visible.

Despite this setback, Des Esseintes is going to repeat his mistake. One day having read a volume of Dickens, he suddenly gets the urge to travel to London. He books a seat on the next available train. With some time to kill before the departure of the London train, he pops into Galignani’s English Bookshop on the Rue de Rivoli where he picks up a guidebook. He then goes to a wine bar frequented mainly by English patrons. The atmosphere is straight out of Dickens. Feeling a bit peckish, he then enters an English tavern on the Rue d’Amsterdam, near the Gare Saint Lazare. Des Esseintes sits at a table and orders some oxtail soup, a smoked haddock, a helping of roast beef and potatoes, a couple of pints of ale and a piece of Stilton. The time of the London train is approaching. He should be feeling excited, but he begins to feel a sense of overpowering listlessness:

He told himself: “Come now, let us get up, we must take ourselves off.” Immediate objections thwarted his orders. What is the use of moving, when one can travel on a chair so magnificently? Was he not even now in London, whose aromas and atmosphere and inhabitants, whose food and utensils surrounded him? For what could he hope, if not new disillusionments, as had happened to him in Holland?

He had but sufficient time to race to the station. An overwhelming aversion for the trip, an imperious need of remaining tranquil, seized him with a more and more obvious and stubborn strength. Pensively, he let the minutes pass, thus cutting off all retreat, and he said to himself, “Now it would be necessary to rush to the gate and crowd into the baggage room! What ennui! What a bore that would be!” Then he repeated to himself once more, “I’m fine, I have experienced and seen all I wished to experience and see. I have been filled with English life since my departure. I would be mad indeed to go and, by an awkward trip, lose those imperishable sensations. How stupid of me to have sought to disown my old ideas, to have doubted the efficacy of the docile phantasmagories of my brain, like a very fool to have thought of the necessity, of the curiosity, of the interest of an excursion!”

“Well!” he exclaimed, consulting his watch, “it is now time to return home.”

So des Esseintes pays the bill, leaves the tavern and takes the first train back to his house.  He will never leave home again.

In Paradise News David Lodge uses a holiday in Hawaii to ponder the meaning of tourism. Lodge creates another of those pompous academics that he likes to satirise. His name is Roger Sheldrake, a professor of anthropology at South-West London Poly, who has forsaken the traditional anthropological fare of an African village or a Pacific island to study instead the travel industry. Sheldrake is travelling to Hawaii as part of his anthropological research, with a grant from the British Association of Travel Agents. He is a man on a mission:

“I’m doing to tourism what Marx did to capitalism, what Freud did to family life. Deconstructing it

While on one level Lodge is sending up Sheldrake, on another level I think he is using him as a mouthpiece for some interesting reflections on modern life. There are two kinds of holiday. One is as a kind of secular pilgrimage, with the souvenirs as relics and the guidebooks devotional aids. Lodge is mocking those sightseeing tours where coach potatoes are shunted around all the essential sights of a city museums, churches, cathedrals, castles etc. They have very little appreciation of where they happen to be. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium. The second variety is the holiday destination as paradise on earth. The classic example is the beach holiday in the Caribbean or of course, on Hawaii. Tourists are looking for an illusory paradise. Few of the millions of tourists who visit the islands every year will ever find the deserted paradisiacal beaches they see in the brochures.

And Sheldrake argues that this tourism is wearing out the planet:

The footpaths in the Lake District have become trenches. The frescos in the Sistine Chapel are being damaged by the breath and body-heat of spectators. A hundred and eight people enter Notre Dame every minute: their feet are eroding the floor and the buses that bring them there are rotting the stonework with exhaust fumes

He believes that the only way to stop this planetary curse, short of draconian legislation, is to convince the public that they aren’t actually enjoying themselves when they go on holiday, but are engaging in a superstitious ritual.  For Sheldrake it can’t be a coincidence that tourism arose just as religion was in decline. Tourism has become the new opium of the people.

I can identify with Stendhal and des Esseintes. I have a really beautiful image of Florence in my head. The Medici, Brunelleschi, Savonarola, and Botticelli – how could the reality ever live up to that? And what about all the hassle that comes with tourism? Some airports now have recombobulation areas, where you recover from all the indignities –having to de-shoe etc – that airport security heaps on you. Delays, strikes, overcrowded landmarks and tour operators going bust – it’s all too much

I suppose this contrarian take on travel is a kind of defence mechanism on my part. Travel has become a luxury for us. It all comes down to cost. With a family of four, any trip can be prohibitively expensive. I haven’t checked it out but I imagine a week in Florence could easily come to over €2,000 for the four of us. That’s a lot of money. I’ve travelled to France,Belgium,Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland Thailand and the USA among others. I can’t really complain. Of course there are many countries and even whole continents which I haven’t been to – Italy, Russia, India, China, South America or Australia immediately come to mind. It’s a bit of a shame because now I’m sure I would appreciate everything a lot more than I used to. Now I will have to make do with my e-book and my imagination. I’ve been to Florence in my mind and it was wonderful. You can’t take that away from me.


3 Responses to Paris syndrome, Stendhal and the deconstruction of travel

  1. Very nicely put, Martin. But can it really be true that you make no reference whatsoever to “The Art of Travel” by Alain de Botton? Tsk tsk! – Heen

  2. molivam42 says:

    The Art of Travel was one of the sources for this article. Reading this book put me on to Joris-Karl Huysman’s Against the Grain, which I was then able to download from Gutenberg. I’m a big De Botton fan, and can also recommend his book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

  3. Alberto says:

    And the emotion of recognising a work of art you’ve only seen in a cold sheet of paper?

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