Book Review – Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis by Deborah Hayden

Normal people don’t give books about syphilis to their friends for their birthdays.  Then again, normal people don’t then go on to write book reports about books about syphilis so I think L and I are equally weird.

Mostly Pox: etc left me curiously unsatisfied.  It’s not that I believe or disbelieve that various historical figures had syphilis (although I’m highly unconvinced by the Schumann chapter), it’s the author’s methods I have issues with.  Syphilis is referred to throughout as the ‘great imitator’ and yet most of the time, other suggestions for what could be the cause of the symptoms shown in each “case” are not mentioned, never mind being discussed and shown to be unlikely.  The one exception to this is the chapter about Hitler where the discussion about the symptoms he had that resembled Parkinson’s disease is ended with “just because he had Parkinson’s doesn’t mean he didn’t have syphilis.”  Which is a fair enough point, but when you’re claiming all the symptoms are due to syphilis, it’s a bit rich.

The symptoms are another problem.  A list of them is in appendix A.  Not only would I have preferred them earlier in the book, but they’re so spectacularly vague and at the same time, wide-ranging.  Do not give this book to a hypochondriac who has ever had sex because they will convince themselves they have syphilis.

The other problem is that a lot of the symptoms resemble those of heavy metal poisoning, particularly mercury poisoning.  Now quite obviously, being poisoned by mercury doesn’t rule out having syphilis, especially given that mercury was used as a treatment for syphilis, but it was also used as a treatment for a great many other things.

One of the other aims of the book was to examine how on-going syphilis, or more particularly the parts from secondary syphilis onwards, affected the work of the various “patients”.  I have never really appreciated the idea of focusing on one aspect of an artist’s life and using it to explain everything they’ve ever done and I found this book had the same problem as most works in this vein.  It takes the attitude that this one thing explains all the great masterworks (and excuses the drivel) but never mentions the average.  If having syphilis was so much on the minds of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce that it was their idée fixe when they wrote the Picture of Dorian Gray and Ulysses, then why was it not on their minds when they wrote other things?

(There’s a highly cryptic remark about Nora Joyce “but the future of another woman he met that month, his life partner and the mother of his children, Nora Barnacle, is known.” (pp 241) Now, I’ve given her a quick wiki and can see no sign on that of doom and dread, so I’m none the wiser.  Does anyone have any idea what they could be referring to?)

Hayden does something quite clever by interleaving the “known cases” where the suffer has made admission of their disease with the “suspected” cases.  I recognise a good rhetorical trick when I see one, because it enables you to go, ‘see how x had the same symptoms as y, and we know x had syphilis, so y *must* have had it too’ without quite being so blunt about it.

I’ve left the Hitler chapter till last for a reason.  One, no matter how well researched the rest of it is, you get a distinct feeling that the author was working up to that chapter, it being 54 pages, when the next longest (about Oscar Wilde) is 29 pages.  Now there’s perfectly good and sound reasons to stop after the Hitler chapter, because the book is mostly chronologically ordered, and after 1945 penicillin became available as a treatment for syphilis, reducing the number of people affected in total and almost entirely preventing tertiary syphilis from developing.  Two, I can’t actually compete with the criticism that Hayden, to her credit, includes in her book, which says it is unfair, “to put the whole weight of the holocaust on the frail shoulders of that poor woman of the streets if she ever existed.”  (Pox pp 257, which gives a reference to Ron Rosenbaum ‘Explaining Hitler’ pp 197)  Because it does seem to be a rather simple-minded attempt to explain Hitler’s hatred of Jews so that it makes sense, rather than being a product of the times.  Because obviously, if there was a reason, it can’t happen again, right?!  Three, she quite often cites David Irving, without mentioning his lies on some other World War 2 related issues.  We’re talking about a man who was described by a high court judge as someone who “for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.” (Mr. Justice Charles Gray, Irving v Penguin Books Limited, Deborah E. Lipstadt)  I’m just going to suggest that, if possible, you find someone else to cite.

So yeah, I may have had issues with that chapter too.

In short, it’s a lovingly crafted, well-written book, with excellent sourcing and footnoting, with the exception of David Irving, but I feel it’s rather too hasty to make it cases without providing a bedrock in some of the “maybe” cases.

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