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.

M Train, Just Kids & Other Reasons I Adore Patti Smith

I have a good feeling about 2017. It has a lot of promise. Last week I got to see Shania Choir
– a choir that sings and dresses as Shania Twain (fuck my life’s brilliant sometimes! I lost my shit when they started singing ‘If you’re Not in it For Love’*), and this April I get to see Patti Smith – one of the coolest people, as well as the artist and poet that I admire most.

So let’s talk about Patti Smith – a woman whose round about my grandma’s age, but who I’d still gladly try to flirt with if we ever actually met.

There’s this Pattibeautiful clip from an old BBC documentary, Chelsea Hotel, where the young ‘odd little waif like figure’** reads her little prayer for New York.

Now, whenever Patti talks/writes about something she cares about, it’s done with a fragile, poetic eloquence. But the reason I love this poem and this piece of footage in particular is for three reasons

1. It sums up that feeling of moving to a new city and suddenly growing as an individual,

‘I had lived such a sheltered childhood, so family orientated, and all of a sudden I was on my own. And that’s when I learned anything is possible’

2. That Jersey accent, and
3. Because she was so young and shy at this point.

She was only in the midst of developing into the artist she’d later become, and I love thinking about that nervous 24 year old who would later create works which exude such strength.

And I know it’s stating the obvious, but I love her poetry and autobiographies (Just Kids and M Train) for a similar reason – because of the way she describes life, her struggles and the people she loves, with a vulnerability and rawness we can all somewhat relate to.

Her poems for example, after her husband and brother had died within two months of each other, ‘myself destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express’.

She’s led a full, fascinating life entwined with her creativity: my personal favourite story is how her lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg began with him trying to chat her up because he thought she was a boy.

Reading all her unique little moments is a reminder to try and live through as many adventures as possible – as the wise one once said ‘Jesus died for somebody sins but not mine’.

[Side-note: I think I was the only person at the Robert Mapplethorpe documentary who really wasn’t expecting to see THAT many penises.]

*I was a complete disappoint though cause I promised everyone I’d take my top off if they sang that song, and I didn’t in the end.
**That’s a quote from British journalist Charles Shaar Murray