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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Syphilis in Victorian Literature and Culture: Medicine, Knowledge and the Spectacle of Victorian Invisibility
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Facing Pathology: Modern (Re)Production of Difference

Since knowledge about syphilis was regarded as pornographic, the acts of its exposition had to be closely monitored and policed, thus supporting a politics of its ‘healthy visibility’. This chapter continues the theme by attending to the aesthetic codes that developed around the disease in the nineteenth century. Although some of the modes of syphilis mediation have already been touched upon, here, I would like to offer a more systematic discussion of the production of its meaning - of its iconography, understood as an organizational practice with specific material and political consequences. In view of the main focus of this study, I ask both about the poetics and politics of syphilis depiction. How was syphilis represented? What (gender, racial and class) ideologies underlined these representational practices and to what extent did these technologies of visualization participate in the production of individual and collective identities?

While the triangulated class-gender-ethnicity relationship has often been used to bring closer the concerns that the disease generated at the time, special attention needs to be paid to their workings within the context of British modernity. In the atmosphere of rapid economic, industrial and political developments, the question of social hierarchies gained particular importance. For Alan O’Shea, the late nineteenth-century preoccupation with social stratification, like the abundance of discourses about British

© The Author(s) 2017 127

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

Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49535-4_4

superiority and the growing “virulent xenophobia,” is part of the specifically British experience of modernity (1996: 27). It was an experience that combined claims to national supremacy and a growing “desire to consume” with the question of social hierarchies (O’Shea 1996: 29). As evidenced in Chapter 3, the rhetorical power of syphilis became particularly useful in spotlighting and questioning the processes of (new) ordering, especially with respect to the access to knowledge (with its alleged openness in the classical liberal state) and the socio-economic privilege of political minorities (visible especially in Hamilton’s claim). At the same time, the increasing importance ofdegeneration theories, intensified anthropological studies and a continuing import of phrenology produced an unremitting interest in the types of bodies particularly susceptible to the disease. What were the new typologies that promised to order, and hence to reduce the danger of, these bodies? How were they linked to various ideologies of difference? In a broader context, visualization and typification of syphilitic bodies was bound with the allocation of blame, which served the production and sustenance of socio-economic hierarchies. How was syphilis iconography used in negotiating these hierarchies?

Cultural critics and medical historians have outlined historical tendencies in the gendering and racializing of syphilitic bodies. The first section, therefore, inspects late nineteenth-century visualizations of syphilis in order to see whether these tendencies continued into the fin de siecle. As the prostitute’s body has been judged to have provided a rewarding instrument of syphilis identification, I inquire to what extent it continued to function as a site of contagion and how other sexualized, classed and racialized bodies were positioned in its relation. In my view, the coupling of syphilis and consumption, most vividly instantiated by Francis Galton’s composite phthisical syphilitic type (Fig. 4.1), helps address these dynamic socio-economic and political interconnections. Galton’s portrait links the aesthetics of syphilis production to broader economic and political concerns. It frames the probing question of the centrality of syphilis to the (dis)order of modernity and foregrounds its crucial role in the intertwining of desire and consumption - as a means towards individuation and social development - with the underlying threat of excess and attendant depravity. While certain scientific discourses indeed continued to rely on this straightforward blame allocation, medical publications of the last two

Francis Galton’s composite portrait of the phthisical syphilitic type

Fig. 4.1 Francis Galton’s composite portrait of the phthisical syphilitic type. Francis Galton and F. A. Mahomed. “An Inquiry into the Physiognomy of Phthisis by the Method of ‘Composite Portraiture’” 1882. Wellcome Library

decades of the nineteenth century widened the issue and shifted the focus from gendering and sexing of the disease to the problem of contagious touch. This expansion not only complicated existing narratives of the disease but also fostered a reconsideration of modern exchange economies that became indirectly pathologized in such an exposition.

The second section expands the field of inquiry to include popular - visual and literary - pan-European sites of syphilis. It outlines the ways in which the syphilitic body became highly sublimated and, in fact, displaced in popular consciousness. This closer attention to the ‘feminization’ and ‘sanitation’ of the disease spotlights concerns broader than the issue of unstable gender relations and a crude power struggle as central to the mechanisms of syphilis visualization. In fact, it addresses the intertwining of sexual and fiscal economies as central to modernity and helps attend to the question of the value of consumption as the prime technology of modern identity formation. In Britain, as in the rest of Europe, the disease was linked to the new dimensions of modern self-awareness with its immanent urge for personal and social development.1 A juxtaposition of Emma Brooke’s A Superfluous Woman (1894) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) highlights the centrality of the disease to the question of socio-economic positioning in times when large- scale consumption became an important criterion of political legibility and the prime determinant of social hierarchies. In this context, the visual (artistic and literary) idiom that had developed around syphilis helped negotiate fundamental contradictions of modernity and its overtaxation of modern subjects and their (re)productive possibilities.

 
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