Aetiology and Etymology: Concepts, Bodies, Media
While aetiology and etymology refer to two generative principles - that of disease and that of language - this chapter goes beyond such narrow understandings of these terms and spans broader practices at work in the cultural and medical coding and conceptualization of syphilis. In describing the four fundamental levels that are combined in my reading of syphilis, this chapter takes its cue from Jean-Martin Charcot and Paul Richer’s interpretation of the detail from Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altar “piece” entitled “Les Syphilitiques dans l’Art.” Published as part of the acclaimed Nouvelle iconographie de la Salpetriere, clinique des maladies du systeme nerveux (1888), the essay is an argumentative exposition aiming to convince its readers that the grotesque figure on the bottom left of the right inner wing panel, which shows St Anthony’s temptation, bears the signs of syphilis. While it can be regarded as another case of misreading - another case of the intertwining of visibility and invisibility - the essay is interesting with regard to the various levels of interpretation it offers.
Rather than describing the painting themselves, Charcot and Richer quote a notice of one Dr Keller, whose interpretation of the painting conjoins three planes of reference: 1) corporeal symptoms, 2) the media of painting and language and 3) the concept of the disease. Keller’s iconic reading of the diseased body collapses his historical knowledge of the disease and its currently acknowledged symptoms.1 He sees syphilis symptoms in the ulceration of the figure’s face that has destroyed
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M. Pietrzak-Franger, Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture,
Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine,
a part of the nose and ear, in the deformed bones and in the reduction of the left hand to a stump. He also recognizes a characteristic skin eruption (Charcot and Richer 1888: 259). The provenance of this last symptom seems to be unquestionable for the narrator, who inquires with an air of smugness: “Qui pourrait se tromper a l’aspect de ces lesions et quelle autre maladie pourrait le produire si ce n’est la syphilis?” (259). Keller examines the reliability of Grunewald’s depiction, arguing both that the artist must have copied the lesions from life “car les lesions paraissent figurees avec une grande verite” and that the cutaneous manifestations seem “peintes avec plus de fidelite encore: elles ne different pas de celles que l’on peut voir de nos jours dans les formes un peu severes de la maladie” (259). Through this combination of the ad vivum argument and the historical knowledge about the disease symptomatology, the body of the figure is established as syphilitic.
This iconic interpretation of art, which strives to attest the mimetic qualities of the painting, is accompanied by a reflection on the historical conceptualization of the disease and its media depiction. The red cape and bird-like feet of the creature remind Keller of the medieval conventions of depicting the devil and the damned (Charcot and Richer 1888: 259-60). He also links the pictorial and the verbal when he implies that while looking at the painting one can understand the name that has been given to the disease, that of the “grosse verole,” the great pox (260). This blending of the painterly rendering of the disease with its naming shows the readiness to intertwine these two sign systems and their traditions, and indicates the significance of the concept of the disease that underlies these depictions. In the last of his rhetorical questions, Keller wonders what lies behind Grunewald’s decision to turn the sufferer into a demon-like, diabolical figure: “Est-ce pour marquer l’opprobre dont etaient couverts les malheur- eux syphilitiques a son epoque, que Grunewald a fait de son personnage une sorte de demon, probablement un damne?” (260). In this indication of shame as central to the conception ofthe disease in the Middle Ages, Keller certifies the importance of the ingrained patterns of thinking that accompany the evocation of the disease and signals some of the socio-cultural and political effects they have. By that, he emphasizes the social character of syphilis, recognizes complex processes that take part in its cultural production and links them to a variety of sign systems and media, which provide a rich landscape for this production.
Although this interpretation may in many ways be regarded as fallible, the three categories the authors use in the analysis - concepts, bodies and media - are crucial to the complex semantics of the disease at the fin de siecle and to its subsequent readings. They are also cues to my multilevel preoccupation with the disease, delineated in this chapter. The section “Syphilis Concepts” surveys the historical development of the concept of syphilis while attending to the etymology of the term and its historicity. It corroborates the necessity of inspecting disease concepts with reference to the particular styles of thinking that produced them. It also sketches the basic tenets of the expert knowledge on syphilis at the fin de siecle as a way of introduction to the medical creed built around the disease. In the section “Discursive-Material Syphilis,” I argue for the necessity of discussing syphilis concepts with reference to the materiality of the disease. Against the background of recent interdisciplinary discussions of illness2 and with the help of a posthumanist-materialist framework, this section lays out the need for an integrative discursive-material interpretation of syphilis. With reference to Jonathan Hutchinson’s abundant collection of didactic materials on syphilis, the subsequent section “Syphilis-in-Media” exemplifies the richness of media depictions of the disease and advocates an expansion of the study of syphilis beyond the textual landscape. Following contemporary discussions of intermediality, it makes evident the various media mechanisms that participate in the production and dissemination of knowledge about the disease. Attending to these processes reveals complex mechanisms of knowledge diffusion and underscores the concomitant invisibility/visibility dialectics. Finally, the last section delineates the degree to which a consideration of the rhetorical use of syphilis can be helpful in assessing the role of the disease in the construction of individual and collective identities and its functions in broader socio-political and cultural frameworks.