The Poetics and Politics of Syphilis Typologies

The omnipresence of illness narratives and the centrality of (diseased) bodies in Victorian culture have long been noted. “There is scarcely a Victorian fictional narrative,” Miriam Bailin claims, “without its ailing protagonist, its depiction of a sojourn in the sickroom” (1994: 5). In the nineteenth century, the (ailing) body was a continuous reference point in the structuring of material, economic and political relations. Athena Vrettos argues that this interest in physicality, characterized by frequent attempts at relocating questions of sexual, racial and class ordering onto the body, was a way of monitoring diverse socio-cultural problems (1995: 3). Diseased bodies were not only potentially disruptive to existing economies, they were also indicative of the discrepancy between individual experience and social body politics (5). The political concerns which could not be resolved were relocated to the playground of regulatory practices targeting non-normative corporealities (3). Under these circumstances, syphilis-infected bodies proved an excellent means of making visible many of the distressing issues of the Victorian era. What could not be dealt with on a grand scale of social relations could be transferred onto the terrain of private experience.

Importantly, this body of political reference was an inherently sex- ualized body. Critics have highlighted the centrality of sexuality to the new orders of modernity. According to Thomas Laqueur, the new technologies of the marketplace fostered a link between sexuality and consumption whereas theories of capitalism regarded “[d]esire [ ... ] for sexual gratification or for consumer goods” as essential to the new order, in which avarice and insatiable appetite were not vices but rather sought-for patterns of consumerist behaviour (1992: 205). In this respect, any social or personal perversion of sexual bonds - such as prostitution, homosexuality, miscegenation, etc. - was regarded as a violation against the existing social order while the fecundity of the lower classes was seen as a type of monstrous generation that could implode it from within. Sexualized bodies were a constant reminder of society’s fragility, hence the continual attempts at outlining, classifying and policing of individual and collective (diseased) corporealities (210-14).

For centuries, syphilis classification took the shape of specific gender-, class- and race-related practices, some of which continued well into the nineteenth century. As noted above, critics have highlighted a preponderant feminization of the disease that went beyond the medical discourse. I argue, however, that this tendency was in no way static. If Vrettos is right in claiming “the inability of Victorian culture to tell a coherent story of itself’ (1995: 11), then the medical discourse around the gendering and sexing of venereal disease is one symptom of this failure. If, as Gilman argues, early nineteenth-century medical writings indeed framed the prostitute’s body as the quintessential syphilis- infected body (1989: 238-9), this gendering became less significant in the course of the second half of the nineteenth century, with both male and female bodies increasingly conceptualized as potentially syphilitic. Medical texts and atlases became a veritable compendium of grotesque, disgusting corporealities, which threatened to thwart attempts at discursive ordering of the disease. It was also a time, I argue, when a new alliance between syphilis and tuberculosis was forged in the popular imagination and in scientific parlance that redirected fears from strictly sexual relations to a more general arena of consumption. With these changes under way, a shift took place from the semantics of a syphilitic body to the syntax of contagious touch. What came with this change was the diversification of syphilitic bodies so that, by the end of the century, medical texts on syphilis could no longer be said to simply feminize the disease. Where all bodies could be syphilis-ridden, what had to be policed were not only their sexual practices but their entire contours, their interactions: the potentially corruptive exchange economy.

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