Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Pox on You 

Image hosted by Photobucket.comI finally finished off Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis. As fascinating a read as it was, even a morbid gorehound like myself who likes to curl up before bedtime with books like this could only handle all the chronicles of suffering in small, carefully timed chunks. Before I read the book it never really dawned on me how profoundly significant syphilis was from a historical standpoint, and how it caused as much societal upheaval as the Black Plague. As much as I hate to agree with the Religious Right, promiscuity is one hell of a vector for disease. Syphilis' effects on sexual mores linger today, and is as much an argument for safe sex and monogamy as there ever was.

During the first major European outbreak in Naples in 1494, before the disease burned down and worked out a more agreeable arrangement with its host, the symptoms of of syphilis were immediate, horrific and virulent. Mortality often occurred in as little as two weeks.

From Rats, Lice and History.
The ulcerations which often resulted from the eruptions covered the body from the head to the knees. Crusts formed and the sick presented so dreadful an appearance that their companions abandoned them and even the lepers avoided them. Extensive losses of tissue in the nose, throat, and mouth followed the skin manifestations, and in the train of these came painful swellings of the bones, often involving the skull. In survivors, emaciation and exhaustion lasted for many years.

I also read in Pox that infant rape, that barbarous home remedy for AIDS you hear about going on in Africa, also occurred in the early days of the syphilis outbreak in Europe. It turns out that ‘virgin cure’ for venereal disease isn’t something just currently being promulgated by witch doctors in Africa.

The complexity of the disease and its varying horrific manifestations are truly mind boggling. Syphilis is knows as the Great Imitator because during its decades long progression it mimics an amazing number of other painful conditions and diseases. Malaria, gout, insanity, clinical depression, heart disease and conjunctivitis are just a taste of the diseases syphilis can mimic and be misdiagnosed as. The needless agony that those doctors allowed in the Tuskeegee Experiments makes me believe that those responsible should be made an example of and hanged Nuremberg style.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comHistorians believe that this figure from the Isenheim Altarpiece, the unparalleled masterpiece that Grunewald created for hospital chapel of Saint Anthony's Monastery, is suffering from syphilis. St Anthony is the patron saint of skin diseases, and the monastery served as a hospital for those afflicted with both ergotism and syphilis.
I wonder if the agony of the syphilitics inspired Grunewald's truly grotesque painting, “Dead Lovers.” Note the clammy toad suctioned on to the woman’s genitals, the ghastly rictus of their faces, the snakes whipping and writhing through their corpses. Witnessing the terrible toll that venereal disease could enact must have made quite an impression upon Grunewald.

Eww eww EWW! As I often say lovingly to your cousin R, "Why do I like you?" I'm addicted. I'll be back.
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