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

Pornographic Knowledge

Hamilton’s assertion “we are never told” (1909: 50) must be further qualified. While it dramatizes the alleged absence of a public debate around syphilis, it also veils the sites of syphilis’ recurring visibility, however transitory and transformative their character. In fact, as the discussion of the public anatomy museums and domestic medicine manuals has shown, Hamilton is not the first to use the argument of a persistent and pervasive ignorance concerning the disease. This line of argumentation, while intensified at the fin de siecle, was recurrent throughout the nineteenth century. Jointly, though with divergent goals in mind, orthodox medicine, domestic medicine manuals, public anatomy museums and New Woman writing broached the subject of venereal diseases by inscribing it in varying educational agendas. Flanked by didactic narratives that professed the greater good of the individual and the nation and fostered civic responsibility, syphilis recognition became a valid political means that facilitated voicing an array of demands concerning the distribution of knowledge. It was instrumental in tailoring the ebb and flow of information as well as in broader power struggles. Syphilis recognition was also a potent tool of self-stylization, which enhanced the authority of medical practitioners, writers and museum proprietors and justified their political and economic actions. However, uniformly recognized as dangerous, acts of syphilis recognition had to be guarded and distilled for public viewing. Since they were entwined in political, professional and economic struggles, they were often regulated by gender and class considerations. Despite recurring opinions to the contrary, women’s access to knowledge about syphilis was not as homogenously absent as many would profess. Although, by the late nineteenth century, a lot of spaces of syphilis disappeared, the CD Acts debates and New Woman fiction continued to make syphilis public.

These technologies of unveiling, however, were not without repercussions. It is not clear what motivated Hamilton to bar from the viewer the statistics that terrified her. She must have been aware of the possible allegations of obscenity that could be levelled at her unrestrained exposition of knowledge about syphilis. Writings of Pankhurst and Martindale, who were bolder in this respect, met with criticism, albeit less fierce in comparison to the censorship of public anatomy museums. The House of Commons discussed placing Martindale’s Under the Surface on the list of obscene publications (Cooter and Pickstone 2003: 660; Fawcett 2000: 24-6) and Pankhurst’s claims were not always positively received even in feminist circles. Bland quotes Rebecca West’s acerbic comment: “I say that her remarks are utterly valueless and likely to discredit the cause in which we believe. [... ] this scolding attitude ... is also a positive incentive to keep these diseases the secret, spreading things as they are” (2002: 247-8). West’s remark is characteristic of the attempts at barring syphilis from entering the public sphere.

Despite these efforts, syphilis, like pornography, existed on the margins of visibility. While provocative, this comparison indicates both the formal, thematic and circulatory restraints that characterize the late nineteenth-century distribution of knowledge about the disease. As medicine offered students almost unrestrained access to the ‘unseemly’ visions, the educational narratives that surrounded the disease aimed to alleviate the threat it posed, which they themselves communicated in their paranoiac repetitions. Similarly, other discourses took up biblical or scientific language to create a moral foothold from which to talk about the disease. These practices were, more or less, direct technologies of distancing that cocooned syphilis with a discursive cordon sanitaire. In a way, however, what they also made visible was the Victorian “pornographic drive for knowledge [about syphilis] and its erotic economy of [in]visibility” (Nead 1992: 96). In fact, if we take Nead’s definition of pornography and exchange female sexuality for syphilis, an exchange that, while it is highly problematic, is also viable in this context (see Chapter 4), we will arrive at an apt description of the late nineteenth-century uneasiness about the disease:

In many ways, pornography can be seen to re-enact continually the boundary dividing visibility and invisibility. In each repeated attempt to “show” the truth of [syphilis], pornography inevitably reinstates the impossibility of this project. In its endless quest for clarity, objectivity and disclosure, it endlessly reinvokes that alternative, anxious sense of the [syphilitic] body as dark, mysterious and formless. (1992: 99)

Knowledge about syphilis was invariably connoted as pornographic in fin de siecle culture. Hence the continuous struggle of those who wrote about it to tailor the form and the content of the discussions and to navigate their (mass) circulation to prevent foreseeable allegations of obscenity. If their technologies were pornographic, they were not “hard-core pornography [which] obsessively seeks to show” (Nead 1992: 96), but soft-core dissemination, which concealed as much as it made visible. The rhetorical contexts of the cultural explanations of syphilis must be seen as spaces of continuous struggle to conceal the latently pornographic character of the knowledge they displayed. As every act of syphilis recognition was regarded as potentially unnerving and dangerous, only certain syphilitic bodies could be shown in public. While some ways of coping with the hazards of such exposition have already been mentioned, Chapter 4 concentrates on the ways in which late Victorian visual culture constructed and partially sanitized syphilitic bodies, yet never managed to assuage the dangers they posed.

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