Monday, March 10, 2014

Stendhal's Ghost

I'm not sure when I first found out about Stendhal, or heard the name Stendhal, but I remember the first time I recognized Stendhal as such, it was when I was a teenager in Italy, en route from Pisa to Florence, and I read for the first time about Stendhal Syndrome, the condition-- named for the writer upon his visit to Florence-- in which the sufferer is so overwhelmed by the beauty of his or her surroundings that he or she becomes physically ill.

As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart (that same symptom which, in Berlin, is referred to as an attack of the nerves); the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.

But it wasn't until I was 21 that I read Le Rouge et le Noir, a novel that read much more like a soap opera than I would have expected. And for the next few months, I became haunted by references to Stendhal, and references to his protagonist, Julien Sorel. In books, in magazines, I found the names again and again. Or to the concurrence of the red and the black-- which in the novel, were supposed to symbolize the split between the liberal trends spearheaded by the nascent bourgeoisie and the conservative theocratic elements in France during the gloomy, reactionary days of the Bourbon Restoration. Or a bottle of chartreuse at a posh bar reminded me of Stendhal's other major work, La Chartreuse du Parme. References birthed other references. All led back to Stendhal.

"Stendhal's ghost is following me," I said to no one in particular.

In our lives we are haunted by names, objects, allusions. We hear old songs again and again, see a certain beat up Saab all over town, learn the names of architectural features or obscure household items. And then they're everywhere.

It turns out that there is a name for this-- the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, named for the terror organization founded by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof that briefly terrorized West Germany in the 1970s and later made famous by an Oscar-nominated film. Someone-- no one seems quite sure who-- heard of them, and saw them everywhere.

One could argue that this is an epiphenomenon of the archival nature of the contemporary world. Social media, news aggregator sites, links upon links, and viral videos all form a deluge of raw information, and it seems ever more likely that we are susceptible to the phenomenon.

But we've always lived in information-saturated environments. The only difference is that now this environment is something we can explicitly categorize as information. Before we interpreted the world in terms of Google Maps and Twitter, we interpreted it in terms of northward flying geese, the whorl of a sunflower, the slow movement of Cepheus across the night sky.

Did our remote ancestors experience this? Did they suddenly notice the way a certain kind of quartz veins its way through the rock? Did they find that an orchid only grew on the shady side of a tree?