Saturday, October 28, 2006

Syphilis and Genius 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI remember reading about the genius-syphilis connection in my most beloved book of all time, Rats, Lice and History. The book, ostensibly a history of typhus, also includes any interesting digressions the writer, a microbiologist, damn well pleases. It's like sitting in on the most fascinating college lecture you ever had, one in which the teacher wanders off on these electrifying tangents until some killjoy nimrod breaks in and asks, "Is this going to be on the test?" Here Zinsser rather wistfully speculates upon the unexpected cost to mankind the easy antibiotic cure to syphilis brought.

"This might be a loss to civilisation: it has often been claimed that since so many brilliant men have had syphilis, much of the world's greatest achievement was evidently formulated in brains stimulated by the cerebral irritation of an early general paresis. We omit reference to specific instances of this among our contemporaries only to avoid, for our publishers, the vulgar embarrassment of libel suits".

Now I'm reading the illuminating and riveting POX: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. The author explores the controversial history (New World or Old World or some horrible super combination of those strains?) of syphilis, the misery and the devastation it wrought, but also the link between genius and syphilis' tertiary stage.

“Right before madness, the syphilitic was often rewarded, in a kind of Faustian bargain for enduring the pain and despair, by episodes of creative euphoria, electrified, joyous energy when grandiosity led to new vision. The heightened perception, dazzling insights and almost mystical knowledge experienced during this time were expressed while precision of form of expression was still possible. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was believed that, in rare instances, syphilis could produce a genius.”

Some of our greatest thinkers who are suspected of having the disease: Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant, Abraham Lincoln, Vincent van Gogh and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Before any aspiring geniuses run off and infect themselves with syphilis for their art, please read up about the unimaginably agonizing ways the disease ravages and destroys the infected's brain, body and bones, as in the case of Isak Dineson, who reported being struck "with sudden bouts of vomiting and abdominal pain so severe that at times she sat on the floor howling like an animal." Syphilis can eat away at bones, leaving these horrifically painful lesions that look like the bones have been eaten away by acid. Forensic anthropologists looooove syphilis because of the telltale symptoms it leaves on teeth and bones. Most evidence of other disease is lost when the flesh is gone, but a syphillitic's bones tells tales.

Buy a cute plushy syphilis microbe to snuggle up with in bed instead.

Thought you might be curious, your post inspired me to draw a picture. I really enjoy your blog, there's always something interesting going down in your corner of the internet.
Thank you - you made my day. I loved your personification of syphilis as dark muse.
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