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Love in the Time of Syphilis (Protagoras, June 6, 2007)
It was once said that the twentieth century started for Britain not in 1900 but in 1916, when the British volunteer army climbed out of their trenches and marched at a slow walk, as instructed, towards the German lines, not far from the river Somme. The result was not only the death of some 60,000 men, but the death of trust. My Station and its Duties, the title of that celebrated essay on ethics by the philosopher Bradley, could not survive such betrayal.
Another perhaps wiser account would be that it started in 1891, when Ibsen's Ghosts was first staged in London. The play had been staged in Chicago much earlier, in 1882, but its first staging in London marks the moment at which things were discussed openly and in public in England, which had previously only been alluded to privately in euphemisms.
At the end of the process which it started, almost all barriers to what used to be called 'free love' had fallen. We no longer spoke of 'making love' but of 'having sex'. Human sexual activity had become a spectator sport, sometimes in the form of broadcast pornography, sometimes in the form of interviews with distinguished celebrity porn starts, sometimes in the form of live performances on Big Brother.
Surveys do seem to show that the amount, and the variety of activity, have risen, inhibitions fallen, and nothing terrible seems to have happened. Over one hundred years, the world has changed significantly. How silly they were in Victorian times to be so obsessively inhibited! In this change we have lost our understanding of the world which inspired Ghosts and Victorian morality. Let me show you.
The first hint, when Regina speaks of her putative father's leg as 'pied de mouton' will mean nothing to today's audience. A little later we cannot shudder in shocked anticipation at Oswald's revelation that his father used to put his lit pipe to his son's lips, and feel as that audience, or some of them, must have felt, surely he is not going to go that far?
In fact, to write this is to realize that one needs to explain to modern readers of the younger generation what this moment meant. The implication was that Regina's 'father' is suffering from late stage syphilis, that Oswald's father was deliberately and knowingly infecting his son with the syphilis which he knew himself to be suffering from, and which he knew to be incurable.
It is inexplicit enough to pass many of that audience unremarked, or as a slightly odd and cruel way to treat a child, while arousing in the informed section of it the horrifying certainty that this is a dramatist who knows no boundaries of decency and that what is to come will be truly shocking.
Syphilis made its first appearance in Europe at the siege of Naples in the 1490s. It rapidly spread to all classes. Historians of the 16th century offer it as a retrospective explanation of the surprising infertility of Henry VIII and his descendants.
There seem to have been two great epidemics in England: one about 1600, and another in the late nineteenth century. But it was endemic for 400 or so years. It is marked by three stages of infection. The first produces local sores, fevers and general debility. This is mostly succeeded by a long period of apparent remission which may last 50 years.
In the last stage, the brain is attacked and we find GPI (general paralysis of the insane). There is some evidence that since its first appearance, natural selection for less aggressive forms has reduced its severity, but it was still a terrible and feared condition until the age of antibiotics.
Once one's eyes are opened, as few are nowadays, you see it everywhere in European literature after 1600. In Bussy d'Amboise, we find the sad story of a promising young sprig who became infected of something unspecified, and died, and when they examined him, 'son corps etait tout pourri'.
Ricky, in The Longest Journey, has a club foot and fathers a deformed child. It is 'hereditary weakeness'. In Laclos, what Madame Merle suffers from, after her flight, may be smallpox, or it may be a euphemism. If you go to a modern performance of Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation of Laclos, you will hear the audience laughing knowingly as one conquest after another is revealed. They simply cannot imagine a world in which reputation, fortune, social position, all could depend on having a reputation for sexual restraint.
We do not find the aristocracy in France killing their wives for unchastity, but we do find them fighting duels with each other over sex, and for a reason. Modern audiences cannot imagine what underlying public health issue could lead to such a situation. All through ninetennth century novels, we find young girls being married off to 'old roues' for money; it inspires a particular horror. What could that be a horror of? Shakespeare is a mine of this. In Hamlet, 'patch as you will, the pox will out'. He was not speaking of smallpox.
In Measure for Measure the lines, " Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die ," refer with the characteristic pregnant terseness of the dramatist in his later years to the fact that syphilis is the inevitable accompaniment of the expression of the desire that is our essential nature.
"Proper bane means the poison that is specific and essential to us. The desire is as natural as thirst, and as fatal."
In Measure for Measure we find also repeated references to aching bones, the Neapolitan bone ache. To fallen-in noses, both late stage symptoms. To houses where stewed prunes were served - supposed to be a preventative. To various French and Neapolitan things and attributes. Here is a typical example of a dialogue:
"And thou the velvet: thou art good velvet; thou'rt a three-piled piece, I warrant thee: I had as lief be a list of an English kersey as be piled, as thou art piled, for a French velvet. Do I speak feelingly now?"
[infected that is, three times over, with a French illness]
LUCIO " I think thou dost; and, indeed, with most painful feeling of thy speech: I will, out of thine own confession, learn to begin thy health; but, whilst I live, forget to drink after thee."
[that is, not from the same cup, for fear of infection]
"Thou art always figuring diseases in me; but thou art full of error; I am sound."
[sound = healthy]
LUCIO " Nay, not as one would say, healthy; but so sound as things that are hollow."
[a pun on the ringing tone made by hollow objects]:
"Thy bones are hollow; impiety has made a feast of thee."
[the erosion of the bones was a symptom of the disease, which seems to have been more virulent and progressed more rapidly in the early years]
They are talking about whether or not they are infected with syphilis. 'French velvet' - just as condoms were English hoods to the French, syphilis was French to the English. If they are, its a death sentence and a painful one. If they are, they are infectious. If they are, it is probably connected to visits to brothels.
It is by the way curious that in Ghosts, Oswald Alving also speaks of velvet: Because it doesn't necessarily have a fatal end quickly, the doctor said; he called it a kind of softening of the brain–or something of that sort. (Smiles mournfully.) I think that expression sounds so nice. It always makes me think of cherry-coloured velvet curtains– something that is soft to stroke.
This is why in Measure for Measure the death penalty is invoked for unchastity. It will pass a modern audience by - they will not understand a word of dialogues such as the above, and will find the idea simply ludicrous. The underlying theme is out of reach for us. The idea of the draconian measures is so bizarre as to seem merely quaint. The play explores a situation which was truly impossible for those who lived in it: human nature is what it is; however authoritative the voice of reason and morality and prudence is, we will fall. The Duke's response is humane, it commands assent, but it is also, we know, impractical. It is better to marry than burn, but we will inevitably do both.
Let us continue.
Rose thou art sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night and the howling storm
Hath found out thy bed of crimson joy
And his dark secret love Dost thy life destroy.
What do you think this is about? We have lost the habit of critical reading - we read now for a vague emotional lift, and we do not, when we cannot grasp the literal meaning of something, even have a sense that it is odd, that there is something requiring explanation. But here, there is something, and Blake knew what he wrote of, and thought his readers would too. Later, he writes more directly:
Let the brothels of Paris be opened
With many an alluring dance
To spread the pestilence through the city
Said the beautiful queen of France
In Edith Wharton's Backward Glance, we encounter the visit of Daudet to Meredith. They approach each other limping and shuffling. Both are suffering from the belated consequences of youthful indiscretions, says Wharton. Zola ends his days in an asylum. 'Monsieur Zola s'animalise', says his physician. It has reached the brain.
Proust in his letters describes an episode of dizziness going down stairs, is worried, and then reflects to his correspondent that he has never been infected - though he does not say, and does not have to say, with what. In Le Temps Retrouve, the narrator finds himself at a gathering, at which the friends of his youth appear to have come in fancy dress as old people. Some of them walk with limps. Paralysis is mentioned. Once again, the consequence of youthful indiscretions. The narrative mirrors the decline of Antoine Bibescu in real life.
There is a Sherlock Holmes story, in which a young aristocrat finds the only honourable course to be suicide. He is engaged to be married, and can neither go through with it, knowing what he knows about himself, nor break it off. What it is, is never stated directly. In my own youth, this practice of indirect speech had not vanished totally. A local family was said not to be of very sound stock. A local man had been exempt from service in the War; he 'had never been very strong', and he died fairly young, though of what, it seemed rather hard to say.
The world, in Europe and America, before the discovery of antibiotics, was a very different place, and while the clues to how it was are in front of our eyes as we read what has come down to us from our forbears, it was so different that we often cannot see them for what they are.
The first somewhat effective treatment of Syphilis was Salversan, which came into use during WWI. It was partially effective but dangerous, often producing convulsions. Vera Britain writes of witnessing a treatment with it during WWI on the Western Front, in the Testament of Youth.
The first really effective treatment was the antibiotics introduced around WWII Before about 1950, syphilis was common, permanent, untreatable, impossible to recognise in a potential partner, dormant for long periods, terrible in its effects.
It was often hereditary. In its later stages it was known as a mimic - it produced symptoms which could be taken as those of endless other illnesses, but were in fact due to it. Yet exposure was very difficult for the sexually driven to avoid. In an atmosphere of sexual repression, the brothel and prostitution generally was a main vector of infection, but also the only sexual outlet, and was accepted as such. Mayhew estimates the numbers of prostitutes in London: the figures are astounding.
In Oswald Schwarz' The Psychology of Sex, the author reminiscences nostalgically about Old Vienna, itself a revelation, and tells the story of a man who stops off at a brothel on the way home. His companions reproach him, but he replies he is merely being considerate - better that than to wake up his wife. Prostitution was common and accepted.
The other vector was the chain of sexual contacts - and the problem was concurrency. It was not how many sexual partners people had in their lives, it was how dense the web of contacts was. Serial monogamy is relatively proof against epidemics, but that is not how the bourgeoisie lived, and the wave of relaxation at the end of the nineteenth century produced the epidemic which inspired Ghosts.
Schnitzler's La Ronde appears to show a chain of sexual contacts, and one has heard modern audiences laughing knowingly at the cynical revelations of the vagaries of human sexual desire. But what the author had in mind, and what his audience understood, was vectors of transmission, and that was no laughing matter.
Our topic is literature, but one has to pause for a moment to consider the implications for men and women, choosing marriage partners, in this world of a vector of temptation and infection in every small town. When we read the famous passage at the end of Education Sentimentale where the two friends look back and agree that the moment before they entered the brothel in their local town, as young inexperienced adolescents, was probably the happiest of their lives, we may conjecture that Flaubert, himself infected, had in mind a darker overtone than the simple loss of sexual innocence or the replacement of anticipation by knowledge.
When we read in Mein Kampf those relentless mad tirades against the Jews, and the accusations that they have been the bearers of syphilis, which is a great destroyer of Western Civilisation, we need to move forward a few years, and make a connection. In the thirties , Hitler's physician was a leading expert on syphilis. He prescribed iodide salts, the standard late stage treatment then. Move back again, to the young Hitler living in Vienna with his close friend, and no visible means of support and then suddenly in 1908 vanishing to live alone a few blocks away. He was excused from Austrian military service with no explanation.
Later, after the first symptoms would have healed, he was admitted to the Bavarian army. How did he contract it? We shall never know. Everyone who had known Hitler in that early period seems to have died violently. Whatever the explanation however, the social and political effects of the disease appear to have followed a shadow path eerily like the way in which, in the body, it mimicks the symptoms of other illnesses. It was known as a chameleon, appearing, like the stern jackbooted leader on the dais, as anything but what it was.
Once you are aware of it, it is as if you have been for some time been unable to see a color visible to everyone else. That is how pervasive a thing it was for our parents and grandparents, the more pervasive for being undiscussed and undiscussable. That is how invisible it has become for us, on account of ignorance, not repression, as we read the literature of the past.
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