Mapping the Pox-Ridden World

In Charles-Louis Philippe’s Bubu de Montparnasse (1901), frustrated, syphilitic and desirous bodies become fused with the urban spaces of Paris. In an unremitting frenzy, they evolve into the stuff of the metropolis. When Bubu, the eponymous protagonist, leaves a bar after an orgy of absinthe, he sees the world as himself (22): “The world was like a man, innocent and pox-ridden, drinking absinthe on the terrace of a cafe” (43). This hallucinatory vision provokes a gasp of relief from Bubu, whose panic and inflated fears are attenuated when he realizes that his condition is quite common.

The assertion that “[t]he world was like a man, innocent and pox- ridden” also seems to have served as a motto to the late nineteenth-century medical and medical-geographical books that began to map out the dangers of the disease despite the apparent decrease in its severity and incidence.6 From the mid-century onwards, medical publications were engaged in the geopolitics of syphilis differentiation. Following a heightened historicist impulse, they set out to determine the geographical origin of the disease and outline the dangerous spaces of its current spread. Medical men of all sorts began to produce synchronic and diachronic maps ofthe disease, both of which had an identification and comparison of syphilis sites at their core. The study of syphilis etymology highlighted historical geographies of blame, which were fundamental to the conceptual heritage of the disease.7 It spotlighted the extent to which the relationship between mobility, proximity and geopolitical borders were central to the perception of syphilis. In historical debates, which pivoted around the question of the preColumbian origin of syphilis, the presumed site of its origination was juxtaposed with a number of localities where its prevalence had been recorded. The new discipline of forensic archaeology searched for the ‘primeval’ site of the disease. Texts and bones were the objects of its study: historical geography of syphilis was thus mapped out on a terrain where corporeality, textuality, temporality and space were conjoined.

Synchronic mappings of syphilis, on the other hand, were based on the identification of the prime sites of its incidence in the nineteenth century. At a time when, apart from venereal syphilis, medical practitioners recognized the existence of non-venereal and endemic types of the disease, such attempts were a means of communicating the dangers of syphilis transmission as well as of voicing one’s own political position concerning the modes of its prevention. With the advent of modernity, with new means of transportation, a changing urban landscape and new forms of capitalized labour, the disease threatened to destabilize existing material and social orders.

As I extensively argue elsewhere (Pietrzak-Franger 2017), while in Britain, like in continental Europe, syphilis became ever more closely associated with civilization, medicine offered a more nuanced view of this relationship. Medical and medical-geographical mappings of syphilis assumed a connection between venereal syphilis and the centres of modernity. In spatial terms, this involved a hierarchical cartography of syphilis occurrence. Whereas non-venereal, endemic forms of the disease were only tentatively linked to geographical distinctions, while being based on racial peculiarities and class divisions, the spread of its venereal form was considered as tantamount to the degree of civilizational progress. Yet the post-1850s insistence on an ‘innocent’ spread of the disease betrays larger fears fuelled by transformations brought about by modernity. In the context of new production and consumption modes, in which syphilis became divorced from the sexual act and extended over (intimate) relations, any sort of exchange became pathologized and served to outline the perils brought about by modernity as much as by the imperialist politics of the era.

This intensification of medical discourses around the non-venereal, extra-genital type of syphilis, as I argue, also put forth the ineffectiveness of regulationism as a prophylactic measure and exemplified much broader anxieties concerning the future of the nation. If the disease could be transmitted in a non-venereal way, and if there was no knowing who may or may not have it, how to protect society from this peril? Neither registration of syphilis cases, nor educational or coercive measures, however, seemed to offer a suitable means of syphilis prevention. Activating the vocabulary of civic responsibility, although indicative of changing attitudes towards the illness, was at the same time an expression of helplessness. No practical measures could guarantee a prophylactic success if the disease was so prevalent. Even at the time when the virulence of the disease was diminishing, geographical mappings of syphilis continued to spread panic and insist on its ubiquity. As there were no satisfying ways of prophylaxis, medical writings took part in the spatial rhetoric that underpinned diverse and often contradictory discourses concerning the regulation of migrant populations and their potential role in the spread of venereal diseases.

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