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.

Ghostbusting

In all seriousness I once had what I’m definitely convinced was a paranormal experience.

I was on a ghost tour of an old building with some friends on Valentine’s Day last year (I can’t stress enough I went with other people! It wasn’t some completely tragic stag valentines evening), and this burst of light went past me. I didn’t tell anyone though just cause I’d been a massive smart ass up until that point (what you’d except you know, doing the creepy hand up people’s backs and the like).

This isn’t to say though that this one experience was enough to get me one hundred percent convinced in the existence of ghosts (and to be fair we had been drinking before this tour started), but it is quite poetic to believe that places remember their history and hold onto past energy. It’s like that classic Einstein quote which those terrible ghost hunting shows tend to reference, that ‘energy can neither be created nor destroyed it can only change forms’.

Anyway so let’s talk about ghosts in literature, and judge how they’re choosing to spend their afterlife. I haven’t read A Christmas Carol though, just cause I like to go into a book fresh and I think every person knows that plot before they’ve even knew it was Dickens – thanks a lot Muppets Christmas Carol!!!

The Canterville Ghost (Oscar Wilde, 1887)

This story is more adorable than it is scary. I think it must’ve been a children’s story.

So an American family moves into this long-abandoned mansion in the UK, Canterville Chase, and they’re warned by the seller, Lord Canterville, that no one wants to live there because it’s haunted by one of his dead relatives. But the Otis family are ballers, and they move in anyway cause the place was a bargain (which I respect).

Anyway so the Canterville ghost starts making its first appearances, but the family are treating the sight of the un-dead with impressive levels of nonchalance. Especially the two twin boys whose incessant pranks on the ghost actually start making the ghost so depressed that he starts keeping to himself in his room.

Its at this point that the youngest daughter, Virginia, starts to feel sorry for the Canterville ghost and she helps him on this little quest to get out of limbo and move into the afterlife. AWWWW!!!

The Turn of the Screw (Henry James, 1898)

Honestly it’s been roughly two years since I read Turn of the Screw, and personally I found it pretty underwhelming.

I had to quickly google what the plot was as I couldn’t for the life of me remember what happened beyond – it takes place in a mansion and the children act creepy for 80% of the story. So clearly I’ve blocked this reading experience from my memory.

Anyway so according to Sparknotes, what happens is a governess is taking care of two children, Flora and Miles, at this country home called Bly, and the kids progressively act more and more strange especially at night, as the governess frequently spots them roaming around outside.

Understandably the governess becomes more disturbed by these goings-on so she’s doing a bit of research, and it turns out the ghosts of Bly’s former governess and footman, Miss Jessel and Quint, are manipulating the children.

Truly, even rereading a plot summary I can’t remember this story at all. I do however remember thinking at the time, why would you want to spend your after-life hanging out in your old workplace with only some snooty manor house children for company?

The Brown Hand (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1899)

So because Arthur Conan Doyle is obviously most known for Sherlock Holmes, my very immature mind hoped that this story was a grim tale of Sherlock solving a fairly simple case of how a hand got brown (I’m disgusting and I need to grow up).

This one’s pretty good. It’s about a doctor who for twenty years has been visited every night by the ghost of a former patient. This patient was an Afghan hill-man who had his hand amputated by the doctor, and for religious reasons he needed to be buried with all parts of his body. The doctor had made a promise to the him that he would keep the hand preserved with his other specimens and he could have it back to be buried with, but due to a house fire the doctor was unable to keep his promise. So the deceased patient comes back every night, searches the remnants of the doctor’s collection and then looks angrily at the doctor because he can’t see his hand amongst the collection.

The Inexperienced Ghost (H.G Wells, 1902)

I do love how the majority of Victorian-era ghost stories all seem to start in the same way, where a group of men are in a cigar room or something and they all decide to exchange ghost-stories.

In this story, a man called Clayton is telling his golf buddies about how the previous night he met a sobbing ghost, and while he’s telling this story he dies of a heart-attack leaving his fellow golfers not sure whether his story was true or just an elaborate joke.

What is sadly relatable about this story is that the ghost is crying because he’s really terrible at doing hauntings and it’s gotten to him that even in death he’s managed to find something else he sucks at.

Also Wells gets some points for this stellar pun: ‘but being transparent of course he couldn’t avoid telling the truth’ – Wells you sly ol’ wordsmith you!!!

The Mound (H.P Lovecraft, 1929)

H.P Lovecraft is to science fiction what Poe is to Gothic literature, and I am surprised/deeply disappointed in myself that this is the first mention of him on this blog.

What’s great about Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories is that even though each are individual pieces that can be read individually and in no particular order, they interlace together through the fictional forbidden book of black magic, Necronomicon. 

In The Mound an ethnologist is visiting Binger, Oklahoma to study a mysterious Indian mound which the town is situated under. This mound is deeply feared by the locals due to the fates of the few people who have attempted to explore it. What’s more, it is said to be haunted by two ghosts, a man during the day and a headless woman at night.

And (*spoilers) while the two ‘ghosts’ haunting the mound turn out not to be ghosts but rather guards of a gateway into the underground realm of K’n-yan, I figured this story still belongs on the list because initially you do assume that the two recurring figures are ghosts. (If you’re going to start reading Lovecraft though, The Mound isn’t the best one, try The Thing on the Doorstep or The Shadow Over Innsmouth first).

Eileen (Ottessa Moshfegh, 2015)

Not strictly a ghost story either, but it uses ghosts as a metaphor often enough that I think I can bring it up here. Also it’s just impressive that for once I’ve branched out and actually read something written in this century for a change.

Recanted by the main character in her old age, Eileen takes place the week leading up to Christmas, 1962 – what would ultimately be the then 24 year old Eileen’s last week in her hometown of X-ville before she started a new life away from her abusive drunken father. It’s a clever hook because you do end up reading it pretty fast in a desperate need to know what’s gonna finally push Eileen to stand up for herself.

Specifically ghosts are regularly mentioned in relation to the dilapidated house she shares with her father, which has been left to fall apart since her mother’s death two years ago, but also more literally, her father is convinced that thuggish ‘hoodlum ghosts’ are living in their walls – which is a story-line I wish they further elaborated on.

‘There is a gentlemen, rather the worse for wear…’

[That cover image is Vincent Price in the film adaption of The Mask of the Red Death. Yes, he really does look like a massive weirdo in that costume – like the person who is ruining your otherwise rocking Halloween party]

In life, there are countless moments of varying significance that, for whatever reason, manage to get themselves forever lost to ol’ father time. For me personally, the absent memory of how that mysterious dalmatian ended up on top of me the night drinking Yahtzee was invented is the first thing that springs to my mind.

It’s usually a rather mundane reality that naturally not every single moment in history was recorded, and that memory is incapable of preserving every lived minute in pristine condition. Yet when it concerns a figure like Edgar Allan Poe – who never really needed any additional assistance coming across enigmatic – this commonplace phenomena becomes ten-fold more enthralling.

Poe’s unexplained disappearance and his subsequent mysterious death four days after he was found, is one of those historical subjects that gets me a little bit excited – as a fan of both some Poe trivia and a good mystery. Plus it makes me wonder whether fellow crime writer Agatha Christie ever thought of Poe during her own eleven day disappearance in 1926.

On 7 October  1849, at Washington College Hospital – in a cell-room normally reserved for drunks; the gorgeous 19th century equivalent of Robert Smith allegedly whispered ‘Lord help my poor soul’ before dying at age 40 – ten days before he was to marry what would have his second wife, fellow widow Elmira Royster Shelton.

Officially Poe death was documented as ‘congestion of the brain’, however an autopsy was never conducted, and as his doctor had denied all visitors, only one account exists of the state Poe was in leading up to his death.

During Poe’s four days of hospitalisation he was in a complete state of delirium, incapable of accounting what had happened since he was last seen on 27 September leaving Richmond, Virginia for an editing job in Philadelphia.

Poe had been found 3 October outside a tavern and polling location (it was during an election), by a printer named Joseph Walker who recognised the famous poet. Poe gave Walker the name of an acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, and Walker got in contact with Snodgrass asking for help,

Dear Sir, 

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste,
JOS. W. WALKER
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

What’s particularly intriguing though, is that Poe was found dressed in clothes that were not his, yet still in possession of a sword cane he had nicked from a friend of his called Dr John Carter, who Poe had visited the night before he left Richmond (to be fair if any of my friends owned an actual sword cane I would “accidentally” leave their house with it too. I would so “accidentally” conceal it under my jacket somehow).

There are numerous theories that attempt to give an explanation on what precisely caused Poe’s death – such as rabies, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcoholism, a brain tumour. Or more sinister explanations such as murder, or being victim of ‘cooping’ – a type of voter fraud where gangs would kidnap victims and force them to repeatedly vote in various disguises.

What’s annoys me the most though about this never to be solved riddle is that a medium in the 1860s claimed Poe’s ghost wrote poetry through her – if you could communicate with Poe’s ghost, WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK HIM TO EXPLAIN HIS DEATH SO THAT IT ISN’T A TOPIC OF DEBATE 169 YEARS AFTER IT HAPPENED?????

April is the Cruelest Month

Knowing that this is definitely my last year of uni ever (seriously I can’t stress this enough – I’m never coming back for more of this shit!!!) means that my mind has recently started replaying the highlight reel of past procrastination, kind of like the flashback episode of a sitcom (particularly moments from my undergrad, that was pro level).

It’s all pretty embarrassing really, here’s a list of genuine things I’ve done over the years while procrastinating,

  • Got mad good at computer mah-jong and solitaire
  • Decided now was the best time to learn as much of Poe’s The Raven as I could off by heart (I can still get up to verse four though!)
  • Decided now was the best time to get back into knitting again
  • Spent the best part of a day carefully hand-picking the arils out of pomegranates
  • Watched the music video to Another Brick in the Wall a bunch of times then wondered why I wasn’t exactly feeling motivated to finish that essay

Anyway the reason I’m bringing this up is that, having a reminisce over all the self-inflicted pain which naturally comes with procrastination, has also got me thinking a lot about T.S Eliot – in particular the poem he is arguably most renowned for, The Wasteland.

While Eliot’s great line, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’  from Four Quartets may seem like a more appropriate sentiment for talk on procrastination; The Wasteland‘s morbid exploration into the futility of modern existence, and the personal suffering behind the poem’s creation, can easily be applied to procrastination. Plus surprisingly, The Wasteland is even able to give an unintentionally optimistic perspective on treading through the shittier times (or it’s likely that maybe I’m being way too positive, it is pretty bleak).

First published in 1922, The Wasteland traces modernity’s descent into hell in five parts, and was the piece which first gained Eliot attention as a poet (interestingly James Joyce’s Ulysses was published earlier that year – my brain needs to get a whole lot more bigger and impressive before I attempt to read that though).

Throughout The Wasteland, hordes of tragic figures are mechanically walking through life,

‘I had not thought death had undone so many,     

Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet’  

Eliot warns of culture’s progressing erosion and the monotony to be faced trapped in ‘the wasteland’. This theme of dredging through tedium is comparable to that feeling of just wishing a task was over, to the point where you almost feel detached from the initial reason why you’re doing this work.

Yet conversely, these words are also a challenge to be better. To find purpose and beauty, and not settle for sleepwalking through your existence. In my case, I shouldn’t overlook the fact that even the most tedious tasks, form part of something greater that I care deeply about.

Going deeper, and extending beyond the poem’s words; Eliot famously credited his tumultuous eighteen year marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood for ‘…the state of mind out of which came The Wasteland’.

An awareness that the darkest point in T.S Eliot life, sparked what is arguably the most significant piece of his literary legacy, puts present unhappiness towards tedium into perspective. Yes, maybe the present feels like a struggle – but maybe by living through it, something truly brilliant will derive out of it?

[Bit of an interesting fun-fact I learnt while doing some note-taking for this post: the owners of Eliot’s old family beach house in Massachusetts claim that its haunted by Eliot’s ghost. In life, T.S was a bit of a prude, so I like to think that his ghost only appears in the throes of passion to give you a judgemental glare