Sunday, March 8, 2015

Stendhal, 59, done in by the medicines that he took for syphilis

Stendhal, author of the much acclaimed novels The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) and The Charterhouse of Parma, collapsed and died on a street in Paris, the victim of side effects from his syphilis medicine.

Born Marie-Henri Beyle on January 23, 1783, in Grenoble, he served in Napoleon’s army and was a government official before turning to writing under the pen name Stendhal—a nom de plume taken from the German town of Stendal in tribute to the writer Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was born there. The first syllable of the name Stendhal is usually pronounced in the German fashion, to rhyme with “end.” 

Educated by Jesuit priests, whom he hated, he grew to despise the Catholic Church, which he chided in The Red and the Black for hypocrisy and materialism. A foe of organized religion, Stendhal said, “All religions are founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness of the few.” 

Known as a dandified man-about-town in Parisian literary circles, Stendhal gave his name to an unusual medical condition that he described in an account of his first visit to Florence: “As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.” The condition was named the “Stendhal Syndrome” in 1979 by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed similar psychosomatic symptoms—racing heart, nausea, panic, dizziness, paranoia—in numerous first-time visitors to Florence who were overwhelmed by the city’s profusion of cultural riches. (A similar affliction has been identified as “Jerusalem Syndrome.”)

In 1830 Stendhal was named to a minor diplomatic post as French consul in the Papal States, and he spent most of the rest of his life in Italy, largely forgotten as a writer.

Womanizing was one of Stendhal’s chief pastimes, and as often happened in pre-antibiotic days, a severe attack of syphilis was the result. Stendhal attempted to treat his symptoms with potassium and quicksilver, popular over-the-counter remedies. Unfortunately, repeated dosing brought severe side effects that included insomnia, dizziness, tremors, difficulty swallowing, swollen armpits, and shrunken testicles.

On March 22, 1842, while on leave in Paris from his consular post, Stendhal was on his way home from an official dinner at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He collapsed on the Boulevard des Capucines with an apoplectic stroke brought on by his worsening physical disabilities. He was taken to his home and twenty hours later died without regaining consciousness at the age of fifty-nine.

Stendhal’s pious cousin ordered a religious funeral at the Church of the Assumption, but Stendhal himself wanted no prayers said over him, and his burial in the Cimetière de Montmartre was conducted without any clergy or religious ceremony. The news of his death rated a paltry three lines in two Paris newspapers.

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