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. 

 

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.

Wrongdoings and Getting Judged for Them

I remember my first run-in with an authority figure that wasn’t one of my parents. I was seven, and I had to sit on the step for saying some cheeky rhyme with the word ‘bum’ in it, in front of the new preps. Rather than taking my punishment with a quiet dignity, I cried the entire time I was on the step – I wasn’t the most rebellious of youth.

Each person’s own unique and ongoing relationship to the rules they’re told to abide by, is fascinating and not always fair.  Regardless of whether you choose to challenge or comply with moral or societal restrictions, the influence rules have in sculpting who we are, is immeasurable. And sometimes, you’ll fight the law and the law wins.

So if you’re in the mood to ponder the judicial process, here are a few bits of writing which are thankfully much shorter reads than Crime and Punishment (just don’t read Crime and Punishment I proper struggled)

The Trial (Franz Kakfa, 1925)

Like Kafka’s other stories, The Trial is often considered particularly chilling because it’s said to foreshadow life under Nazi occupation – an era which Kakfa never lived to see.

Originally written in 1915 and published posthumously, The Trial tells the story of Josef K. who wakes up one morning told he has been charged for a crime which is never revealed to him by a mysterious bureaucratic system.

Josef K. hopelessly fights his case even though he doesn’t know what exactly he is being charged with, to a powerful yet invisible, system that’s structure is unknown.

Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose, 1957)

A short American screenplay which, as you’re promised, has twelve men in it that are sometimes arguing (it never escalates into a street fight though which is a bit of a let down).

Set in a sequestered jury room, the jurors need to reach a unanimous verdict on the 19 year old defendant accused of killing his father. If found guilty he’ll be sentenced to death.

In short, the play is the jurors arguing into the night, attempting to determine whether there is a reasonable doubt. It’s also meant to make you think about how much personal prejudices can be put aside to ensure they don’t ‘obscure the truth’.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde, 1898)

Written after his release, this powerful poem describes a hanging Wilde witnessed during his two year prison sentence of a Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge who had murdered his wife in a jealous rage for suspected infidelity.

A statement against capital punishment, Wilde humanise’s Wooldridge by detailing his movements as he walks toward the scaffold. He attempts to capture the pain of witnessing a fellow man die ‘a death of shame’; his underlying point being that we are all sinful yet not all of us are forced to die this way. Repeatedly the poem describes the ‘wisful eyes’ of Wooldridge on this fateful day, and comes back to this one poignant verse,

‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!’

Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1472)

I have two favourite parts of this classic epic poem/brochure of what to except if you’ve been a bit of a wrongin during your life,

  1. That God seems to be a fan of handing out very specific ironic punishments
  2. People who were unable to commit to the church because it was before their time-period are still sent to the first circle of hell for not believing in God. That’s a bit of a dick move.

The first of three poems (I have only read this one though, cause I thought it would be juicy), Inferno is about Dante getting himself lost in the forest and the ghost of Virgil needing to lead him through the nine circles of hell to get back onto his path.

Consequences of Being Too Pretty in Fiction

Last week I went and saw the live action version of Beauty and the Beast. Now it’s a musical so there was only so much I was ever going to be able to enjoy it, BUT I did get one very important bit of life advice out of it.

I couldn’t believe that I’d never noticed it before but the story is essentially a Beast utilising his library to give himself a bit of sex appeal. Books are pretty brilliant like that, its just an easy kind of collection to sex up – I would love to see the Beast try the same tactic using a less enticing collection like stamps, or train sets.

In fact I have a confession, studying publishing and owning a shit ton of books has all been one big ruse to appear hotter – I actually hate books and can’t read you fools muh-hahahaha!!!!!

Anyway, on that note, I want to talk about the consequences of vanity, or even just being too pretty, that have come up in classic literature.

Remedios the Beauty (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967)

Up until this point I’ve really wanted to write something on One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I just love that book so much that every idea I’ve had for it just doesn’t seem like it’s going to do it justice.

As One Hundred Years of Solitude belongs to the magic realism genre, a lot of odd shit happens in it and often its hard to keep track because things are constantly happening and majority of the male characters have similar or even the same names.

The narrative is all tied to the history of the Buendía family and the isolated village of Macondo. Remedios the beauty is a minor character who belongs to the second generation of Buendías.

Her beauty has such a strong power over men that it leads to accidental deaths of those who are trying to watch her. She is angelic and lucid to the extreme however; she has no self-awareness and cannot take basic care of herself. Her brief appearance ends when suddenly without warning, she literally transcends up to the sky.

Dorian Gray (A Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890)

You all know this story. It’s just such an incredible metaphor – the idea of a physically seeing the moral character of your soul.

This was Oscar Wilde’s only novel, and it centres around pretty boy Dorian Gray. What happens is that when Dorian is an innocent, un-corrupted youth, he sits for portrait  painted by an artist, Basil Hallward, who is obsessed with his beauty.

After months of work Dorian finally sees the completed portrait – and its the first time it dawns on him that he’s really actually attractive. In that moment Dorian is bitter that he will have to grow old, and wishes that the portrait could take his place (the book’s very much like a late-Victorian era style Freaky Friday). 

Dorian then later begins to notice that the portrait changes and becomes uglier the crueller he acts. He is blessed with eternal beauty but this horrible painting sits hidden in the attic revealing his true nature.

Narcissus (Metamorphoses, 8 ADish)

In the story of Echo and Narcissus, the beautiful youth Narcissus sees his own reflection as he’s getting water by a stream, and not realising that its just a reflection he falls madly in love with it – we’ve all been there right guys?

The Oval Portrait (Tales of Mystery & Imagination, 1842)

This is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. What happen is, for weeks an artist is so enthralled with his painting and obsessed with capturing the “rare beauty” of his wife, who is sitting for him, that he doesn’t notice that she has died during the portraits creation.