The Stendhal Syndrome; or, A Week in Paradise

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They only want you to come if you’re well, putting obstacles in the way if you’re not. A COVID-19 test within 72 hours, for one thing, usually at your expense because why would you be taking one other than traveling to Hawaii unless you were sick. The paperwork verifying the test results takes time and effort as well, and you must report your itinerary (flight numbers and address of stay), your purpose for coming, your occupation, and more. Daunting and time consuming. The flights are long and not particularly comfortable. No one serves meals these days, concerned perhaps that you might get the virus having tested negative, thereby arriving and spreading. With no time between connections to purchase airport food, you will beg “Please, may I have more pretzels, more Biscoffs?” Landing, walking down stairs instead of through a corridor, still hungry, you wait in line with 1043 people (not accurate but not an exaggeration either) in order to provide verification that you are yourself and that the self is well. Emerge into a warm sunny day, rent a car, learn that everyone says mahalo for thank you, and drive away.

Another part of your country, yes, but within minutes of a beauty explosion, you wonder, “Why don’t I live here?” Flowers bloom everywhere—bougainvillea, plumeria, plumbago, hibiscus, impatiens—are the ones that grow in pots in your kitchen and whose names you know, waiting for spring, but in Hawaii some are 20 feet tall and a riot of colors. The non-flowering plants like pothos and elephant ears know no frost will get them, and the ivy clambers up the trees, the tubers bust out in happy groups where someone arranged them.

And that’s just the flora. The fauna also seem content. You see the sparrows and house finches, the doves and cattle egrets just like at home, but there are the protected nenes and the bright-red-headed crested cardinals. Snorkeling, you’re likely to see the reef triggerfish, with its elegant design that seems, well, designed. Its Hawaiian name is quite famous: humuhumunukunukuapuaa, which translates as “triggerfish with a snout like a pig.” Poetry all its own, for a state fish. A gray Manx cat lives among the flora at the condo, coming out to greet you, though he also hisses. His eyes are beautifully golden, and a woman bending down to talk to him drops her bottle of A-1 sauce, shattering it and smelling up the place. Clandestine food trays hide in the shadows.

The blues of the sea—so many shades from deep navy to lightest turquoise, depending on the light and the air. The greens of the plants stand heightened by the stark black of the volcanic rocks. The pale purple of the taro fried pie from McDonald’s.

The two best places take care in a car: the road to Hana (waterfalls, beaches, lava flows, mountains and valleys) and the climb to the dormant volcano Haleakalā—Hawaiian for “house of the sun (hairpin turns ascending to 10,023 feet, more valleys, the red terrain of Mars above the treeline, life above the clouds with lights so magnificent at sunset a child calls it Heaven).

And then you’ll have to come home. It’s too expensive to stay, not just the gas prices or the food prices or the rent prices but the lack of ways to earn the money for such things. Your chores will call you back. The elation continues.

The French writer Stendhal wrote of this ecstasy after in Florence, and as they often do, the psychologists call the effect the Stendhal syndrome. It’s not an official DSM-V condition, but apparently medical personnel routinely treat visitors to Michelangelo’s David for palpitations. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience at the birth of beauty. You carry it with you, that beauty, and whether or not it’s real or mathematical or Keat’s truth, you know you’ve received a great gift. You’re thankful you were well enough to come.


The Stendhal Syndrome:

Real or not, not in any

DSM, so named after

The writer (pseudonymous)

Who described his arrival at the tombs

Of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galilei

(Firenze, Basilica di Santa Croce).

His response—staggering, palpitations—

“Celestial sensations”:

The ramp up to Thorvaldsen’s Christus,

Summer 1995, first viewing, I, too,

Staggered and felt to weep

For more reasons than one.

At da Vinci’s Amboise tomb,

Stendhal had no sway.

Yes, awe at the genius, but the body-now-bones

Lay feet away from my feet.

Above my shoulder as I sit here,

A copy recalls but does not replicate

Those summer feelings, first viewing,

With a translucence through human-God

Fingers, cuticles even,

The artist thought to etch.



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