Log in / Register
Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility


  • 1. The website of the National Gallery in London references this plurality of readings: “The howling figure on the left has been variously interpreted as Jealousy, Despair and the effects of syphilis” (“An Allegory with Venus and Cupid”).
  • 2. Critical literature on the role of syphilis in the European context is not free of such shortcomings. Tomasz Spiewak (2006), for instance, describes an instance of critical blindness to syphilis with reference to one of the most acclaimed representatives of the fin de siecle “Young Poland” movement. A reverse tendency of a careless identification of syphilis in works in which other diseases are clearly referenced has been pointed out by Mieke Bal in relation to two interpretations of Zola’s Nana (1996: 208).
  • 3. In September 2010, the US Department of Health and Human Services made public the “Findings from a CDC Report on the 1946-1948 US Public Health Service Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Inoculation Study,” revealing the extent of the US/Guatemala experiments. On the Guatemala, Oslo and Tuskegee experiments, see McNeil 2010, J. Jones 1981, Reverby 2000, 2009 and Uschan 2006.
  • 4. On the outbreak of syphilis in the early twenty-first century, see for instance Hourihan et al. 2004, Ashton et al. 2003, Simms et al. 2005. A warning about the spread of syphilis was communicated by Patrick French in the BBC radio programme “The Return of Syphilis” (25 January 2008), in which he indicated the alarming increase of births of children with congenital syphilis despite syphilis screenings for pregnant women. In July 2001, NAM, an organization aiming to raise awareness about AIDS and HIV, published a special issue of its monthly journal on the UK syphilis outbreak (“Aids Treatment Update” 2001). Even British tabloids reported the spread of the disease (“Syphilis in Unwelcome Return” 2007).
  • 5. Popular culture often limits syphilis to a humorous trope: for example, in MAD TV’s parody of Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous Girl,” “Syphilis Girl,” as well as in the American (medical, crime) series (Grey’s Anatomy, House M.D., Bones). Sporadic film representations which regard the disease with more seriousness are Miss Evers’ Boys (Dir. Sargent 1997) and The Libertine (Dir. Dunmore 2004).
  • 6. Sander Gilman (1987), Susan Sontag (1989: 24-6) and Anja Schonlau (2005: 2) regard AIDS as a cultural successor of syphilis. It should not be forgotten, however, that contemporary criticism produces the link between syphilis and AIDS as much as it describes this connection. In his analysis of the intersection of discourses on contagion, moral panic and homosexuality in various reports on AIDS, for instance, Simon Watney claims that AIDS patients are “usually hospitalized and physically debilitated, ‘withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage’ - the authentic cadaver of Dorian Gray” (1993: 206), thus clothing contemporary fears in the iconographic legacy of the Victorian era.
  • 7. On these developments, see Hardy 2001 and Bynum 2006.
  • 8. For an overview of these developments, see Crissey and Parish 1981: 219, 352-5, Oriel 1994: 49, Quetel 1990: 162-4.
  • 9. Chapter 3 discusses the question of professionalization in the context of syphilis debates. For the discussions of “quackery” in terms of medical “fringe,” see Bynum and Porter 1987.
  • 10. On the influence of continental literature in Britain, see Schonlau (2005) and Goens (1995). By far the most detailed and analytically compelling study of French literature and its treatment of the disease is offered by Lasowski (1982).
  • 11. Allan M. Brandt’s remarkable study No Magic Bullet (1985) offers a similar survey in the American context.
  • 12. A number of dissertations in the history of medicine have lent specific attention to issues that have either been overlooked or oversimplified. As they remain unpublished and not easily accessible, they have generated little impact on contemporary discussions. Of particular interest here are Townsend 1999, K. Taylor 1997 and McMahon 2000.
  • 13. Other sub-interests within the thematic study of degeneration have been the symbolic function of syphilis in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), R. L. Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (1886), and H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” (1895). Wilde scholars have frequently addressed the health of the author himself (Atkinson 2004, Nater 1993, Holland 1988). Some studies on Arthur Conan Doyle and his literary treatment of the disease have been primarily interested in the accuracy of syphilis’ depiction (Somasundaram 2009, Silverstein and Ruggere 2006).
  • 14. While concerned with French literature, Patrick Wald Lasowski’s 1982 study is worth mentioning due to its analytical sensitivity and its detailed survey of the role the disease played in the French literature of the fin de siecle. Lasowski’s major contribution to the study of syphilis lies in the links he draws between the illness and French textual modernity (1982: 164-5).
  • 15. In her discussion of visual culture, Mieke Bal proposes to leave open the question of disciplinarity (2003: 6) and instead refer to this area of study as a “movement” (2003: 6). Rather than “transdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary,” she regards it, after Barthes, to be “interdisciplinary” in the sense that it creates its own object of study (2003: 7). For further discussions concerning the definition, scope and the relationship between visual culture and other disciplines, such as cultural and media studies, art history, feminism or aesthetics, see Morra and Smith 2006 vol. I, A. Jones 2006: 34—6, Evans and Hall 2006:43-5, W. J. Mitchell 2002: 87.
  • 16. Visual culture scholars stress this programmatic element with particular vehemence. Morra and Smith affirm the propensity of visual culture to question the status quo of disciplines, including its own (2006: 14-15).
  • 17. Both Bal and Verhoeff attribute “seriating” to Bhabha (1994: 22), to my knowledge, however, The Location of Culture, referenced here, does not contain this quotation.
  • 18. In this context, Bal is talking about “glancing” as opposed to “gazing,” where the former is regarded as “the involved look where views are aware of and bodily participating in the process of looking” (1996: 264).
Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >
Business & Finance
Computer Science
Language & Literature
Political science