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Historical Note
Eur Neurol 2014;71:296–298
DOI: 10.1159/000357562

Received: June 25, 2013
Accepted: November 24, 2013
Published online: March 13, 2014

Proust, Neurology and Stendhal’s
Hélio A.G. Teive a Renato P. Munhoz a Francisco Cardoso b

Neurology Service, Internal Medicine Department, Hospital de Clínicas, Federal University of
Paraná, Curitiba, and b Neurology Sector, Internal Medicine Department, Hospital das Clínicas,
Federal University of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Marcel Proust is one of the most important French writers of
the 20th century. His relationship with medicine and with neurology is possibly linked to the fact that his asthma was considered to be a psychosomatic disease classified as neurasthenia. Stendhal’s syndrome is a rare psychiatric syndrome characterized by anxiety and affective and thought disturbances
when a person is exposed to a work of art. Here, the authors
describe neurological aspects of Proust’s work, particularly the
occurrence of Stendhal’s syndrome and syncope when he as
well as one of the characters of In Search of Lost Time see Vermeer’s View of Delft during a visit to a museum.
© 2014 S. Karger AG, Basel

Marcel Proust (1871–1922) is considered to be the
most important French writer of the 20th century and
one of the greatest writers of all time. As an asthma sufferer, his relationship with medicine and neurology is
well known [1, 2]. In Proust’s time, asthma was considered to be a psychosomatic disease classified as neurasthenia. Proust had contact with various famous neurologists, and the influence of neurology is apparent in his
best-known work, In Search of Lost Time, particularly in
the relationship between memory and emotion [1–3].
© 2014 S. Karger AG, Basel

Stendhal’s syndrome is considered to be a rare psychiatric
syndrome characterized by transient anxiety and affective
and thought disturbances when a person is exposed to a
work of art [4]. The aim of this article is to describe the
neurological aspects of Proust’s work, particularly the occurrence of Stendhal’s syndrome and syncope when one
of the characters of In Search of Lost Time sees Vermeer’s
View of Delft during a visit to a museum.

Biographical Note

Proust (fig. 1) was born on July 10, 1871, in the city of
Auteuil, France, and died on November 19, 1922, in Paris
[1]. His father, Adrien Proust, was a renowned epidemiologist, and his mother, Jeanne Weil, belonged to an important Jewish family. His maternal family included a famous philosopher, Henri Bergson [1, 2, 5]. In Search of Lost
Time was written between 1909 and 1922. A novel with
strong autobiographical elements, it comprises seven volumes (Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Prisoner, The Fugitive and Time Regained) and totals 3,500 pages [1, 2, 5].

Proust, Medicine and Neurology

Proust suffered from asthma from the age of 9, and his
symptoms worsened during his adolescence and after the
age of 23 [1, 3, 6]. He tried various treatments with the
Dr. Helio A.G. Teive
Rua General Carneiro 1103/102, Centro
Curitiba, PR 80060-150 (Brazil)
E-Mail hagteive @

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Key Words
Marcel Proust · Stendhal’s syndrome · Memory · Syncope

Fig. 1. Marcel Proust (1871–1922) on his deathbed by Man Ray
(Getty Museum, with permission).

way. This perhaps reflects the troubled relationship he
had with his father. Professor Cottard, for example, a
character partly inspired by Adrien Proust [8], is a man
of astute clinical manners but ‘this mysterious gift does
not imply any superiority in the other departments of the
intellect, and being a person of the utmost vulgarity’ [9].
Memory is one of the most recurring themes in his work.
In fact, the process of recovering a previously lost remembrance, the core subject of In Search of Lost Time, was first
experienced by the adult narrator when he was sent back
to his childhood while drinking tea and eating a madeleine cake in the famous scene of Swann’s Way [8].

Proust and Stendhal’s Syndrome

Proust, Neurology and Stendhal’s

Stendhal’s syndrome, first described by the Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini in 1989, was named after the
famous French writer Marie-Henri Beyle, also known as
Stendhal [4, 10]. Stendhal described in detail his visit on
January 22, 1817, to the Franciscan church of Santa Croce
in Florence, where various artists and thinkers, such as Michelangelo, Dante and Galilei, are buried. In his description he mentions a state of intense emotion, melancholy
and great pleasure, culminating in ecstasy accompanied by
tachycardia, malaise, weakness and imminent syncope.
The original description of Stendhal [11] reads as follows:
J’étais arrivé à ce point d’émotion où se rencontrent les sensations célestes données par les Beaux Arts et les sentiments passionnés. En sortant de Santa Croce, j’avais un battement de coeur, la
vie était épuisée chez moi, je marchais avec la crainte de tomber.1

While working at Santa Maria Nuova Hospital, Magherini investigated various visitors of Florence who had
developed symptoms similar to those experienced by the
French writer, coining the term Stendhal’s syndrome. In
every case the condition had had a sudden onset, lasting
from 2 to 8 days, and was characterized by thought disturbances in 66%, affective disorders in 29% and anxiety
disorders with panic attacks in 5% of individuals. The
most common symptoms included feelings of alienation,
delirium of persecution, sweating, weakness, tachycardia,
chest pains, confusion and anxiety. Less frequently, victims of the condition may become agitated or even attempt to destroy local works of art. Interestingly, this syndrome seems to be more characteristic of European visi1 

I had reached that point of emotion that meets the heavenly sensations
given by the Fine Arts and passionate feelings. Leaving Santa Croce, I had a
heartbeat, life was out of me, I walked with the fear of falling. (Translation
by the authors.)

Eur Neurol 2014;71:296–298
DOI: 10.1159/000357562


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most famous doctors of that period, including a disciple
of Professor Charcot, Édouard Brissaud, who published
the book The Hygiene of Asthmatics in 1896 with a preface
by Proust’s father. Proust also abused hypnotic drugs,
such as barbiturates (Trional and Veronal) and stimulants (such as caffeine), and experienced various episodes
of intoxication together with disturbances of consciousness and general complaints such as memory dysfunction, slurred speech, dizziness and falls [1, 5, 6]. In addition to Brissaud, Proust consulted other famous neurologists, including Joseph Babinski and Paul Sollier. His
complaints included a morbid fear of having a stroke, the
disease that had killed his parents and his beloved maternal grandmother. In 1903, his father had a brain hemorrhage, resulting in aphasia and coma, and in 1905, his
mother had a uremia crisis followed by a stroke, leading
to hemiplegia and aphasia [1, 5, 6]. Complaining of language and memory disorders and fearing becoming aphasic, Proust consulted Babinski, who, after asking him to
repeat ‘constantinopolitain’ and ‘artilleur de l’artillerie’,
diagnosed that his complaints were caused by hypnotic
drug abuse [1, 6]. Proust was hospitalized from December
1905 to January 1906 in Dr. Sollier’s clinic, which specialized in chronic intoxications. On his discharge, he declared, ‘By the way, I came back here more ill than when
I left’ [1, 5, 6]. Sollier took him for a hysterical man. Of
note, this doctor’s theory of involuntary memory is regarded as an important source of inspiration for Proust’s
approach to memory in In Search of Lost Time [7]. In this
masterpiece, there are various references to medicine,
particularly in the area of neurology. Proust narrates visits to medical experts and professors, with descriptions
that are at times humorous: ‘Medicine is a compendium
of all sequential and contradictory errors of doctors’ [1,
6]. Doctors are usually depicted in a rather derogatory

Color version available online

tors since Italians, North Americans and Asians do not
usually develop it. Those living alone and having a classical or religious educational background have a greater
proclivity to suffer from Stendhal’s syndrome [4, 9].
Nicholson et al. [4] suggest that Stendhal’s syndrome is
caused by cultural overload leading to an anomalous autonomic reaction. This condition bears some similarity to
Jerusalem syndrome, another psychiatric condition triggered by a visit to this city. However, there are marked
differences between it and Stendhal’s syndrome since in
this particular syndrome, the phenomenology is quite
stereotyped with all subjects developing psychotic episodes characterized by an identification with religious
characters. It is estimated that at least 100 visitors to Jerusalem develop this syndrome every year [12].
In The Prisoner, Proust described the sudden death of
the writer Bergotte, a character modeled on Anatole France
[7], who suffered from uremia and had a fatal stroke after
seeing the painting View of Delft by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer; this painting was on loan from a museum
in The Hague and had been displayed in Paris [8] (fig. 2).
It was, writes Proust, ‘a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall [...]
so well painted that it was [...] like some priceless specimen
of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself. [...]
At last he came to the Vermeer [...]. His dizziness increased.
[...] He sank down on to a circular settee. [...] A fresh attack
struck him down [...]. He was dead’ [8]. It was, in fact,
Proust, and not Anatole France, who was a great admirer
of Vermeer, considering the View of Delft the most beautiful painting in the world. There is historical evidence that
when he visited an exhibition of Dutch paintings at the Jeu
de Paume Museum in Paris in 1921 and saw the View of
Delft, he experienced malaise, dizziness, tachycardia and a
sudden transient loss of consciousness [7].

Fig. 2. View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer (© Royal Picture Gallery
Mauritshuis, The Hague).

In conclusion, undeniably the quest to retrieve lost
memories is the most important driving force of In Search
of Lost Time. However, the notion that esthetics is the tool
most often used by Proust to achieve this goal has been
less frequently emphasized. Nevertheless, this is clearly
stated by the narrator, Proust’s alter ego, in several passages in his masterpiece. The role of visual appreciation
in the Proustian universe is described in detail by the famous photographer Brassaï [13]. It comes as no surprise,
thus, that Stendhal’s syndrome afflicted Proust himself
and that the author beautifully transposed this experience
to Bergotte at his death scene.



4 Nicholson TRJ, Pariante C, McLoughlin D:
Stendhal syndrome: a case of cultural overload.
BMJ Case Rep 2009;2009:bcr06.2008.0317.
5 Bogousslavsky J: Marcel Proust’s lifelong tour
of the Parisian neurological intelligentsia:
from Brissaud and Dejerine to Sollier and
Babinski. Eur Neurol 2007;57:129–136.
6 Miranda M: The role of disease and medicine
in the life and work of Marcel Proust. Rev
Méd Chile 2009;137:433–437.
7 Bogousslavsky J, Walusinski O: Paul Sollier:
the first clinical neuropsychologist. Front
Neurol Neurosci 2011;29:105–114.
8 Painter GD: Marcel Proust: A Biography.
New York, Random House, 1989.

Eur Neurol 2014;71:296–298
DOI: 10.1159/000357562

9 Proust M: In Search of Lost Time. The Complete Masterpiece (transl. by Moncrieff S,
Kilmartin T, Mayor A). New York, Chatto &
Windus Random House, 1981–1993.
10 Magherini G: El síndrome de Stendhal. Madrid, Espasa Calpe, 1990.
11 Stendhal: Rome, Naples et Florence. Paris,
Éditions Delaunay, 1826, vol 2, p 102.
12 Bar-El Y, Durst R, Katz G, Zislin J, Strauss Z,
Knobler HY: Jerusalem syndrome. Br J Psychiatry 2000;176:86–90.
13 Brassaï: Proust in the Power of Photography
(transl. by Howard R). Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Teive /Munhoz /Cardoso



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1 Bogousslavsky J: Marcel Proust’s diseases and
doctors: the neurological story of a life; in Bogousslavsky J, Hennerici MG (eds): Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists. Part 2.
Front Neurol Neurosci. Basel, Karger, 2007,
vol 22, pp 89–104.
2 Lehrer J: Marcel Proust. O método da
memória; in Lehrer J (ed): Proust foi um neurocientista. Como a arte antecipa a ciência.
Rio de Janeiro, Editora Best Seller, 2009, pp
3 Sharma OP: Marcel Proust (1871–1922): reassessment of his asthma and other maladies.
Eur Respir J 2000;15:958–960.

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