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

Recognizing Syphilis: Pornographic Knowledge and the Politics of Explanation

The frontispiece of A. M. Barthelemy’s Syphilis: Po'eme en Quatre Chants (1851) epitomizes the uneasy tensions characteristic of late nineteenth- century transmedia and transgeneric preoccupations with syphilis (Fig. 3.1). Inscribed in a romantic situation, syphilis is personified by Madame de la Mort hiding her gaping skull behind the mask of beauty. The rendering anticipates the late nineteenth-century tendency to depict death as a woman, both “the angel of death and the seductress” (Guthke 1999: 186), which found realization in such works as Edvard Munch’s The Kiss of Death (1899), Felicien Rops’s La Mort qui danse (ca. 1865), or Jacek Malczewski’s Thanatos I (1898). At the same time, the print also references “Frau Welt, Madam World,” an allegory of worldly sensuality which entwines temptation and evanescence (Gilman 1985: 253). It adapts the tradition to the realities of the mid-nineteenth century. The a la mode frivolousness of the woman’s dress - a low cut bodice, an abundance of frills, lavish trims and a crinoline support - is indicative of her moral corruption hidden by a fashionable, if deceitful, appearance. The flowers denote transience and volatility but also decomposition and putrefaction. Death’s insignia - the half-hidden scythe - emerges from underneath the curtain. Aghast by the scene, the putti fly away as, armed with caduceus, Mars awaits his turn.

Apart from offering a mid-century personification of syphilis, the print evinces the difficulty in displaying the disease, which, sanitized through

© The Author(s) 2017 71

M. Pietrzak-Franger, Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture,

Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49535-4_3

The frontispiece of A. M. Barthelemy’s Syphilis

Fig. 3.1 The frontispiece of A. M. Barthelemy’s Syphilis: Poe'me en Quatre Chants, 1851. Wellcome Library masks and death accoutrements, is relegated to the realm of symbolism. The masked woman substantiates the tendencies in syphilis visualization: its concealment behind an abundance of representational means that indicate but do not instantly reveal the scale of its unsightliness. The print also underscores the dynamics of seeing and recognition. As the frightened putti, pensive Mars and the viewer realize the danger of the situation, the kneeling lover, hesitant but eager for closeness, is ignorant about the risk. Is it an apprehensive or loving look with which he inspects the visage? Is his gesture aiming to strip off the deceitful facade? Will he recognize the treacherous disease lurking beneath?

This uncertainty in the depicted situation and its saturation with symbolic meaning accentuate two key concerns of this chapter: the tension between invisibility and visibility as characteristic of the transmedia acts of syphilis evocation and the power dynamics underlying various acts of syphilis recognition. In this sense, the print prefigures my main preoccupation with the expository situations and rhetorical contexts of medical and cultural explanations of syphilis. When, and under what circumstances, could one view the disease? Who was allowed to see it? What was the justification behind these acts of evocation? How was the spectacle of syphilis framed and what political considerations accompanied the display of the disease? While existing critical literature puts emphasis on the (gender) dichotomization of literary preoccupations with syphilis, it is worthwhile to juxtapose the various acts of its literary exposition with other popular and medical spaces of its evocation in order to inspect the concomitant politics of explanation. As much as these acts and their political agendas differ with respect to the genre, medium and prospective audience, they also have a lot in common. Taking into consideration the places of syphilis’ heightened visibility - medical multimedia environments, New Woman fiction and feminist writings along with domestic medicine manuals and popular anatomy museums - I inspect the ways in which syphilis was evoked and the ideological underpinnings of these evocations.

The first part outlines the function of syphilis recognition in the multimedia context of Jonathan Hutchinson’s work. It exposes a number of tensions that he, as a syphilographer and physician, had to face in his day. As in other contexts, in medical circles, acts of syphilis exposition were regarded as dangerous to individual integrity, professional reputation and the status of medicine at the time. Yet they were also associated with professional insight. His example shows that the ability to recognize syphilis played a prominent role in the profiling of clinical medicine and constituted a key element in medical narratives of professional enlightenment. It was thus inexorably connected to more general problems of professionalization, citizenship and national identity. Yet, although the visibility of syphilis in medical circles was at its height, it was a precarious visibility that was guarded by narratives of education and professional and national assent.

The heightened visibility of syphilis in medical milieus has often been contrasted with the ‘conspiracy of silence’ that surrounded the disease in public. New Woman and feminist writings, public anatomy museums and domestic medicine manuals directly addressed this silence using the trope of syphilis recognition as an instrument for propagating their socioeconomic agendas. However, like medical publications, they had to grapple with a number of limitations that were intrinsic to the acts of showing syphilis. Like in the medical context, here, evoking syphilis was morally ambiguous and potentially even more dangerous. Similarly, it necessitated an overarching educational narrative. It is only through the activation of this narrative and with the help of various degrees of syphilis mediation that the topic could be discussed. In this context, the trope of syphilis recognition was variably used as part of cautionary tales to safeguard late Victorian moralities, as a tool against the double moral standard and as an instrument for implementing ‘progressive’ agendas rooted in social- Darwinist, eugenic and purity movements. In the medical and popular contexts, educational narratives helped overcome allegations of obscenity with which various acts of syphilis evocation were associated.

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