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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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Individual Suffering and the Economy of Care

In Victorian fiction the syphilitic child and the syphilitic insane metamorphosed into corporeal sites of anxiety about the future. The metaphorical utility of these figures obliterated the suffering of the actual syphilis victims. At the same time, the pain and suffering of Victorian syphilis patients, and especially the sufferers of general paralysis of the insane (GPI), resurfaced - albeit surrounded by a complex tension between visibility and invisibility - in medical casebooks. Recognizing the complexity of this medical exposition and juxtapositing it with the novelistic silence around the disease and with Alfonse Daudet’s linguistic deluge provoked by his third stage syphilis, I argue that the cultural coding of the disease was not the only factor in erasing it from medical records and popular consciousness. The disease itself - or more specifically, the disorders ofthe third stage such as general paralysis ofthe insane - was partly responsible for this silencing. At the same time, its symptoms allowed almost an indexical recording of the deterioration of a syphilis patient. Because of that, studying medical records does not only provide a means to investigate the pain and endurance of the syphilis sufferers but also offers a chance to address the ethics of care.

In her seminal study The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985), Elaine Scarry posits the ineffability of pain. Highlighting the disappearance of language in times of acute suffering, she denies the communal character of its experience. “Whatever pain achieves,” she writes, “it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language” (Scarry 1985: 4). Scarry supports this contention with Virginia Woolf’s often quoted and frequently decontex- tualized claim about the poverty of the English language which, while it offers innumerable means to express love, “has no words for the shiver and the headache” (qtd. in Scarry 1985: 4). In fact, she draws attention to the active destruction of language through pain (2-4). Similar claims have been made by scholars highlighting the disintegration of personal narratives in times of physical and psychological trauma.10

Recent developments in the study of pain, however, have reconsidered Scarry’s stance, revealing the necessity of differentiating between various types and functions of pain and between the different tendencies in its articulation. “While pain experienced might indeed annihilate language,” Martha Stoddard Holmes argues, “beside this putative absence [i]s pain anticipated, observed, and recollected, and the lushness of language and literariness it generate[s] in doctors” (2005: 129). This multiplication of the experience of pain and suffering leads her to differentiate between acute and chronic pain, where the former “makes for good theoretical discussion,” while the latter - in its persistence - is challenging “both for theory and transitional narrative, to say nothing of patients and their physicians” (131). For her, chronic pain is generative of language: it calls for expression but remains dependent on the cultural encrypting of suffering (130).

The complexities of the cultural expression of pain in the Victorian era have also been addressed by Lucy Bending who makes a case against Scarry’s refusal to recognize the communal character of pain as she signals a number of contradictions in its Victorian understanding and articulation:

[Pain] could and could not be written about, since social conventions and physical and linguistic incapacity silenced individuals, whilst novelistic conventions gave physical suffering free rein, but in so doing to a large extent took the physicality out of that suffering and turned it into an empty convention. (2000: 82)

These incompatibilities are traceable in the commonly held ideas about suffering and its function. On the one hand, the Victorians believed in the universality of pain, and by that, in its potential sharability, on the other hand, however, they also attributed a distinctive individuality to its particular experience, which remained “incommunicable” to others (Bending 2000: 83). Bending foregrounds the Victorian understanding of suffering as a site of heroism, endurance and humanity, as she reflects on the exigencies of decorum, which hindered its direct expression. Yet, even if these conceptual complexities can be made accountable for the difficulties in the direct expression of suffering, they in no way entirely erased it from literature. Rather, they necessitated “a range of representational tactics” that made such an expression possible (Bending 2000: 83). According to Bending, the novelistic take on suffering in Victorian Britain was often used as a key in the representation of characters and their moral standing, in the delineation of class distinctions but also in the legitimation and plotting of stories (93-6). At the same time, silence enveloped the physical aspects of pain at a time when the expression of emotional experience was culturally charged (96). In a society that saluted the virtue of endurance and saw pain as a universal, potentially ennobling experience, “an ideal of non-verbalized suffering was held up to those who suffered physically” (102).

Indeed, the shift towards the metaphoricity of syphilis, characteristic of the fiction discussed in the previous section, instantiates this complex attitude. The cultural implications of the syphilitic child as a site of dread and a figure of national, personal and familial degeneration was accompanied by a pervasive silence concerning the actual situation of the sufferer. The descriptions of syphilitic children in New Woman fiction ponder on the reproachful gaze of the creatures born of sin and hereditary vice, without, however, describing the ravages of the disease. They displace the horror of the disease onto the reaction of the bystanders and thus magnify it. In Brooke’s A Superfluous Woman, silence marks the moment of Dr Cornerstone’s confrontation with Jessamine’s children. While their deformity is noted, its extent and type are replaced by Cornerstone’s increasing dismay. Inspecting the children “with rapid scrutiny and a horror-stricken heart,” he notices “a poor malformed thing - a child who lived in pain, and whose eyes alone answered for him” (1894: 270-1). The reproachful gaze is the only further characterization of the children as we are left with Dr Cornerstone’s impression that “[o]f all the scenes of anguish upon which his eyes had rested, this, in its repressed and concentrated horror, was the most appalling” (271). This rendition of the syphilitic child is an example of what Bending refers to as the “Burkean model of inexpressivity” or his “convention of Gothic silence,” which refer to the power of the obscure to evoke dread and horror (2000: 97-9). In this context, then, the description of the actual suffering of the syphilitic child in New Woman writing, like the pervasive silence around the disease discussed in Chapter 4 gains rhetorical complexity. On the one hand, this elliptic rendition of syphilis may be a way of catering for the tastes of the Victorian market, of justifying the works’ preoccupation with venereal disease. On the other hand, however, the emphasis on the symbolic value of syphilis, accompanied by an erasure of its physical symptoms, may be read in accordance with the Gothic convention as a way ofevoking, but not describing, the horrors of the disease.

This, however, does not entail that the suffering of syphilis patients was altogether absent from the Victorian cultural landscape. Bending shows the extent to which pain found an indirect vent through metaphor.11 In her talk “Translating the Pain: Overcoming the Ineffability of Pain” at the Birkbeck symposium “Rhetorics of Pain: Historical Reflections” (2011), Bending addressed the modes with which French author Alphonse Daudet transformed the ravages of tabes dorsalis into his literary language. Daudet considered writing a novel inspired by his third-stage syphilis. What remains of these attempts is a number of diary entries, first published posthumously in 1930 under the title La Doluou (In the Land of Pain, 2002).

At a time when the relationship between tabes dorsalis and syphilis was being confirmed, the social impact of the latter was regarded with growing concern. Not only was syphilis deemed responsible for the deaths and suffering of innocent wives and children, it was also regarded as conductive to paralysis and dementia. Gould’s The Student’s Medical Dictionary (1900), defines tabes as “a disease dependent upon sclerosis of the posterior columns of the spinal cord,” whose symptoms include “lightning-pains, unsteadiness and in coordination of voluntary movements,” “disorders of vision,” “cutaneous anesthesia” (n. pag.). The progressive degeneration of the nerves in the spinal column gradually leads to sensory and motoric disorders: disturbed sensations, incontinence, impairment of the senses of touch and sight or degeneration of joints. Even though these symptoms are scattered on the pages of Daudet’s diary, his interpreters stress his constant preoccupation with the difficulties in the evocation of pain. One single page recapitulates - in the ellipses and elisions - the various acoustics of pain and reflects on its nature:

How much I suffered last night [... ]. Sheer torture ... there are no words to express it, only howls of pain could do so. [... ]

Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, [... ].

No great theory of pain. Each patient discovers his own, and the nature of pain varies, like a singer’s voice, according to the acoustics of the hall. (Daudet 2002: 15)

This passage is reminiscent of Stoddard Holmes’ descriptions. It also brings to mind Canguilhem’s rhetorics, in which he compares illness to the orchestra of the organs (1989: 243; see Chapter 2). The idiosyncrasy of pain elides but also necessitates communication; the pain dictates: “dictante dolore” (Daudet 2002: 29; original emphasis).

Bending sees a discrepancy between the subjective experience of pain and its expression in one of Daudet’s first passages - in the moment of (mis)recognition:

In my cubicle at the shower-baths, in front of the mirror: what emaciation! I’ve suddenly turned into a funny little old man.

I’ve vaulted from forty-five to sixty-five. Twenty years I haven’t experienced. (Daudet 2002: 3)

The moment is indicative of the difference between the abstract and the experiential, between the externality of the sufferer’s body and the intern- ality of his pain. It also signals discordance between feeling and appearance and articulates a demand for the expression of pain through a negotiation of various discourses. Julian Barnes, Daudet’s translator, highlights the mundaneness of Daudet’s analogies such as the one in which he compares his incapacitated leg to a “knife-grinder” (2002: xiv). While she recognizes the interweaving of external realities and internal sensations in Daudet’s language, Bending also points out its multidiscursivity, characterized by the multiplicity of framings and perspectives from which pain is seen. She contends that the “nautical metaphor” - the metaphor of the body as a ship, in which Daudet encapsulates his identity as a sufferer - is insufficient to express the plurality of sensations, the types of pain and the changes in consciousness visible in his work (Bending 2011). These ongoing linguistic exercises not only highlight the force of pain itself, its mutability and its irrevocability to the human consciousness, but also, Bending argues, capture its emotional resonance (Bending 2011).

In contrast to Daudet’s diary, British literature of the fin de siecle alludes to but never evokes the extent of suffering, thereby shifting the attention away from the pain of syphilis victims towards the dystopian visions of the future. This may be the reason why the question of the actual afflictions brought about by syphilis has rarely been addressed by critics. The medical casebooks of the Bethlem Hospital, and especially the ways in which they expunged physical suffering, demonstrate that, despite this erasure, they continue to offer complex records of the progression of syphilis and often also indexical testimonies to the mental and physical deterioration of syphilis patients. They record the local idiosyncrasies of the economy of care in addition to being disturbing documents of syphilis patients’ transformation from insubordinate citizens to silent sufferers.

 
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