Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis

by Deborah Hayden
ISBN: 0465028810

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A Cruel Disease Unleased on Mankind
by Matt Sturrock

For the more hysterical or morbid members of our readership, agitated at the thought of all those engineered bio-weapons out there waiting to do us in, it might be useful to remember that the threat of incurable superbugs is nothing new. Indeed, as early as the 15th century, the world was embroiled in a primitive, and mostly incidental, form of germ warfare that eradicated millions on either side of the Atlantic. When Columbus visited the New World in 1492, he was spearheading an invasion by his countrymen who brought with them smallpox, measles, influenza, and typhus-diseases that dashed the powers of the American empires and led to the most successful genocide in human history. And when, as Deborah Hayden argues in her book, Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis, Columbus returned from the New World in 1493, he brought back with him the Americas' counterattack- the syphilis spirochete-a microscopic parasite that maimed and disfigured its way across Europe and then the rest of the globe unchecked for 450 years, consigning its victims to an anguished, abbreviated life and an excruciating death.
European syphilis first began to appear among the strumpets and scamps of Barcelona's waterfront shanties before migrating through Spain to Italy, France, Germany, India, China, Japan, and Russia. It typically flourished during times of war, aided in its proliferation by the travels of transnational mercenaries and the imbedded battalions of prostitutes who serviced them. A particularly virulent strain visited misery on Napoleon's army during its occupation of Rome in the early nineteenth century; French poet Theophile Gautier witnessed its horrors and, perhaps after consulting a pocket medical dictionary, produced this piece of vividly overwrought prose:

"boils are exploding in groins like shells, and purulent jets of clap vie with the fountains in the Piazza Navona . . . tibias are exfoliating in extoses like ancient columns of greenery in a Roman ruin. . . ."

While Napoleon plotted the movements of soldiers and munitions, syphilis developed a new tactic of its own-a mutation that enabled it to enter the central nervous system and wreak havoc on the brain. The grab-bag of ailments that syphilis produced-chancres, rashes, joint pain, headaches, fever, eye inflammation, and gastrointestinal agony-swelled to include paresis (gradual paralysis and periods of dementia) and tabes dorsalis (a progressive wasting of the spinal column). The most significant result of this, at least for the purposes of Hayden's book, is that the long-suffering syphilitic "was often rewarded, in a kind of Faustian bargain for enduring the pain and despair, by episodes of creative euphoria, electrified, joyous energy . . . and almost mystical knowledge."
In the nineteenth century, the artistic and medical communities were convinced that syphilis could produce genius. In Pox, Hayden sets out to explore the validity of this belief, presenting evidence from the lives of "a number of people known-or suspected-to have had it": Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Baudelaire, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, Flaubert, Maupassant, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Wilde, Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Joyce, and Hitler. Her research is impressively thorough; she cites medical and autopsy reports, diary entries, secret correspondences, and evidence sometimes hidden by previous biographers. In each chapter, though, once she's made a reasonable case that a given figure is syphilitic, she's faced with the additional burden of demonstrating that the illness amplified the subject's aptitudes to such a degree that their work would not have been possible otherwise. It's a tall order.
I was only convinced in three cases. Van Gogh became "a human charged with electricity," painting for long hours in an ecstatic, dreamlike state, abandoning his coal sketches to instead produce the brightly hued oil paintings for which he is now famous. Nietzsche was fed the inspiration for Thus Spake Zarathustra in a (religious) flash; Freud marvelled at the unprecedented introspection the philosopher commanded and attributed it to paresis. Guy de Maupassant went from being an idle mediocrity to a master of the short story and "the most talked about writer in Paris," capable of composing a 14,000-word piece in his head and putting it to paper without a single correction. In a career that lasted only a decade, "he turned out more than twenty-seven volumes-three hundred stories, six novels, three plays, travel books, and poetry."
As Hayden herself admits, it's difficult sometimes to tease apart the mind-altering effects of syphilis from those of certain medicines-laudanum, absinthe, mercury-ingested by the subject to ease their suffering. Moreover, isn't it conceivable that the drama of living with any serious disease-the fear, the sudden liberation from more banal concerns, the realization that time is short-lead some to create works they might otherwise never have gotten around to?.

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