Poe and Other Writers who may have had the French curse

[I’ve just wanted an excuse to use that South Park clip for a while now, it’s got nothing to do with anything beyond our darling lord of darkness featuring in it]

Several months ago I wrote an article (not for this blog) about syphilis amongst bohemian types in the Victorian era; so an extremely handy by-product of this has been that I still have a bunch of syphilis-based trivia etched into my brain (I do have a trivia night tomorrow though, I’m sure this wealth of syphilis fun-facts will make me a real asset to the team!).

I don’t want to brag, but my horror-movie night buddy, Mitch, took us all to see a play last week – in an attempt to bring a touch more class to spooks night – and I guessed one of the characters had syphilis within seconds of them mentioning he’d been hanging out with artistic types in Paris, and that he had a headache (the play was Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen – the ghosts were metaphorical, it was a huge letdown).

By the end of the nineteenth century, it’s estimated that 15% of Paris’s population was infected with syphilis, hence the term ‘French curse’. Yet due to factors such as: the stigma surrounding the disease, the difficulty of diagnosing syphilis in it’s first stage and the long period of remission that untreated syphilis will go into before ultimately reaching the final tertiary stage – generally scholars can only speculate as to whether the death’s of certain notable figures were perhaps connected to the venereal disease.

One theory, concerning Poe’s mysterious surrounding death, for instance, is that the writer had tertiary stage syphilis. This theory, would explain why Poe was in a complete state of delirium in the four days leading up to his death, however it remains unconfirmable.

Like Poe, here are a few other literary figures whose untimely deaths could have, or were speculated, to have been syphilis-related.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

The last 11 years of German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche’s life were spent in a Swiss asylum following a public breakdown on the streets of Turin, Italy. He had been triggered by seeing a horse being whipped by its master, and became so distraught that he threw his arms around the animal, in an attempt to defend it.

Although in 2003 a medical study by  Dr. Leonard Sax, confirmed that the cause of Nietzsche’s progressive dementia was brain cancer, Nietzsche’s initial diagnosis was tertiary syphilis, and it is still a subject to debate whether Nietzsche contracted syphilis from experiences at brothels. 

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

Wilde’s tombstone in Paris is covered in lipstick marks. I personally think that’s an adorable and wholesome graffiti tradition, but apparently it’s really terrible for stone erosion.

Anyway, following the Irish playwright’s release from his two year prison sentence, he spent the final three years of his life in various hotels across Paris, until his death at age 46 of cerebral meningitis.

The popular belief that Wilde had syphilis was especially perpetuated by Arthur Ransome’s 1912 biography of Wilde. Although, none of Wilde’s doctors recording syphilis as a cause of death, Ransome’s biography stated that the poet’s death was directly due to meningitis, the legacy of an attack of tertiary syphilis’: a claim which subsequent biographers would continue to make despite no definitive evidence or a recorded syphilis diagnosis.

Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891)

Described by Patti Smith as ‘the first punk poet’ and famously by Andre Breton as ‘a veritable god of  puberty’; French poet, Arthur Rimbaud became a legendary figure, for what he achieved during the five years he was a practicing poet, but also for his cheeky trouble-making antics and affairs throughout his tumultuous and poverty-stricken youth.

Rimbaud wrote his first published poem just before he turned sixteen, and quit writing altogether at age 20, choosing to spend his life as a colonial trader in Africa. He died at age 37 after losing his leg to a knee injury. However whether this injury was a complication of syphilis or bone cancer is a subject of debate amongst biographers. 

Graham Robb’s biography Rimbaud (2000) for instance, contends that Rimbaud got syphilis working as a trader, after becoming involved with women. But Rimbaud’s adult and post-poetry life is pretty shrouded in mystery so evidence on that one is quite slim pickings.

The Name Game

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was the first time I’d heard about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theory of language and ostensive definition: or as summarized by Nelson, the idea that ‘the inexpressible is contained—inexpressibly!—in the expressed’. 

Roughly, this quote is a summary of Wittgenstein’s lifelong pondering’s into language, and how much power words have to effectively represent every nuance of what reality they are attempting to describe.

A name, assigned to define something through language, and the physical entity itself, have two separate existences. Thus leading a name/word to acquire its meaning through the context its used.

Wittgenstein referred to our everyday intermingling of reality and words as ‘the language game’, and its a theory which has me thinking about how much the names that people know us by reflect the individual they’re there to represent.

Personally, I think my own name (selected in 1993 when Mum was watching a lot of Family Ties reruns) does suit my personality and the look I’ve got going. But sometimes I do wonder to what extent – if any – my life or personality might have alternated had I been carting around another title for the last 26 years. Classic literature after all, is peppered with instances where a character’s name, sculpts their fate or defines their reality. Here are a few I could think of,

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967)

The first time I attempted to read this Russian classic was five years ago. I quit about twenty pages in, and now after revisiting it I can’t believe how quick I was to dismiss it.

It’s such an incredible book and I could’ve so easily never bothered picking it up again.  I’m such a fool! I missed finding one of my favourite books early – why didn’t I stick with it for a few more pages? A book about Satan working in Moscow as a magician and being cheeky and messing with everyone – that’s well up my alley (and I love that Satan is a smoker – of course Satan doesn’t give a shit about lung health of course!!!).

I’m mad at past me but at the same time it’s so exciting to be able to read it for the first time now.

Anyway the reason it’s relevant to a discussion on whether or not names determine your fate is that in The Master and Margarita, the Prince of Darkness holds a ball whenever he’s visiting a city, and his ongoing tradition is finding a girl from that city  whose name is Margarita to be his date. In exchange, for attending what promises to a wicked part-tay for the damned, el Diablo will grant Margarita her deepest wish.

The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde, 1895)

So it’s a play about two rich Victorian socialites who have a weirdly specific type, and are only interested in dating fellows called ‘Earnest’. So naturally two incorrigible gents pretend their names are Earnest to win these fair maidens affections. It’s a comedy, but people were easier to make laugh in Victorian times.

Basically I couldn’t get into it because I just kept thinking, was there ever a point in history where the name Earnest was the ultimate bachelor name? It just makes me think of those of those stupid 1990s flicks where doofus Ernest gets into various jams, like needing to save Christmas or assemble hard furniture.

The delightful twist (and sorry for spoilers) is that the two gents find out their names were Earnest all along so they were technically never liars – isn’t life funny like that?

Tess of the D’urbervilles (Thomas Hardy,  ‎1891)

Tess Durbeyfield is the eldest of John and Joan Durbeyfield – a dirt poor couple, whose hopes go up when they learn that they may be descendants of a noble family the d’Urbervilles.

Tess’ family name is the reason she is sent by her parents to ‘claim kin’ and ultimately work at the d’Urberville estate for Alec d’Urberville. Yet the reason I’m bringing this book up in this post, is for the name she gives her son – the product of Alec’s crime against Tess – baby Sorrow.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, 1970)

The saga of six generations of the Buendía family, all living within the isolated village  their family founded called Macondo, one reason this book gets progressively more difficult to follow is that names are passed down through the generations. The most extreme example being the second son of José Arcadio Buendía (the first generation’s patriarch), Colonel Aureliano Buendía, who names his seventeen sons (to seventeen different women – the Colonel was a dog!) all Aureliano. 

Here, the consistent repetition of names within the family is part of the novel’s ongoing point that history is a cycle repeating itself.