The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Its first victim was Jean-Albert Dadas, a gas fitter from Bordeaux who was admitted to hospital in 1886 with exhaustion. His documents revealed he had traveled across France on foot, but he himself could remember little about it. Later, Dadas would walk to Moscow and Constantinople too, and those who met him on the way told of a man with a slim grasp of who he was, or the purpose of his journey.

A medical student, Philippe Tissié, wrote up Dadas’s case, and coined the word “dromomania” (from dromos, the Greek for racecourse) to describe it. The diagnosis quickly became a medical sensation, and other cases followed. It was characterized by an insatiable urge to walk, sometimes for years. The walking was purposeful yet without a practical aim, and seemed to take place in an altered state of consciousness. When the dromomaniacs eventually rested, they had no memory of their journeys or why they had taken them. It was, wrote Tissié, a sort of “pathological tourism,” and within only twenty-five years it had faded into obscurity.

Perhaps it begins with a restless twitch. Perhaps with a fascination with a distant country or landscape, a kind of yearning, even homesickness, for a place you’ve never visited but have seen pictures of in books (see: KAUKOKAIPUU). We may long to leave a footprint on a glacier, or hear an echo of our voice across a lake at dawn. We know time slows down in strange lands. That other people’s ways of thinking shake up our own, and make the world new again (see: DÉPAYSEMENT).

The German word Wanderlust (originally: the pleasure of hiking) first came out of a defiant Romantic tradition of solitary walking (see: LONELINESS). But today, we take it to mean something much broader. It is a craving for adventure and discovery, the desire to experience something different. But more than that, it describes a kind of longing for movement that runs as deep in the human psyche as love or fear. It’s the desire, as old as human life itself, to see what lies beyond the next mountain, or outside the boundaries of the village—and may leave us with the gnawing feeling that life only makes sense if we are traveling in some direction or another.

When Tissié first met Dadas in the 1880s, the idea that humans might have a natural desire to roam was a popular one. Evolutionary theory had suggested that the human body could play host to ancient impulses, not all of which remained relevant to contemporary life. Tissié believed his patient’s urge to wander was an eruption of a long-buried nomadic instinct. He saw it as a kind of irrational outburst (and in many ways, this link between wandering and irrationality is still with us: “doing a geographic,” for instance, is Alcoholics Anonymous speak for relocating in the misguided hope that you’ll somehow be able to leave your emotional baggage behind). Yet, though Victorians may have feared the eruption of the nomadic instinct, in small doses it was welcomed. Not least because its discovery coincided with the birth of the modern tourist industry. With Cook’s Tours, and the publication of the first tourist guides (the Baedeker series), and the popularity of exotic travelers’ tales from the likes of Jules Verne and Mark Twain, Europeans had never been more ready to be on the move.

“Pathological tourism”—at least in the way Dadas experienced it—is rarely seen today. Modern psychiatrists would categorize it as a type of fugue state, or state of dissociative amnesia. How might we explain the sudden rise and fall of this strange illness, then, in late-nineteenth-century France? Such transient mental illnesses are sometimes thought to be a kind of folie à deux, a half-delusion created by both doctor and patient being willing to see an eccentricity in grandiose terms as symptomatic of an illness. In particular, these syndromes erupt when the cultural climate allows: in the case of dromomania, not only the growth of tourism but also a widespread fear of homeless people created the perfect conditions for anxiety about excessive wandering to fester. Once the symptoms of a new disease enter the psychiatric literature, an epidemic spreads through repeated diagnosis and self-identification (see also: SADNESS; NOSTALGIA). Against this backdrop, even a healthy urge to travel could infect those formerly content to stay at home. “Wanderlust arises as an emotional epidemic,” wrote one psychologist in 1902. Over a hundred years later, we may still be enjoying its effects.