Neurosyphilis. Recently, in an attempt to keep my brain occupied (read: prevent utter mental paralysis) while my agent shops my novel, I decided to begin researching my next project. So now, instead of lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering the terrible economy and my dumb luck to finish writing my book this of all Novembers, I am lying awake in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, pondering my awesome luck at being born in twenty-first-century America where no one ever gets neurosyphilis.1
That’s right. Neurosyphilis. I teach early British literature at the local college, and after another semester of teaching Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, for some reason I’m finding myself inexplicably fascinated with the darker side of Tudor England. Picture it. Turn-of-the-seventeenth-century London. A place without antibiotics. Southwark, the red light district. Where a man strolling out of one of Shakespeare’s plays could walk into a brothel and purchase a woman’s attentions, along with the disease which was known at this time in London as the “French welcome” for the low low price of (that’s right, sir, step right up, sir, she can be yours for) only ten shillings.
It would start quietly enough: painless chancres. Condyloma lata. But then would come the swelling of your lower lymph nodes. A vague feeling of general malaise. The faintest sense of muscular atrophy. You would know what was happening. You would be quite aware of it. You would think back to that time you went to go see Twelfth Night with your grammar school chum Edwardus and curse yourself for having enough ale after (or was it during) the show to allow Eddie to convince you to step into The Swan (or was it The Gun) where you met that redhead. That redhead. You would begin to hate her. You would begin to wander the cobblestoned streets of Southwark at night, trying to remember which brothel you and Eddie wandered into. You would begin to ask Eddie, over ale, after another play. All’s Well That Ends Well. Or Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour. And then, when the sores disappeared, you would begin to dread what was coming – a year from now, or maybe some time later, or never, if you were lucky – the blindness, the sores, the slight cross-eyes, the irregularly sized pupils. The dementia.
Famous people who have died of syphilis: Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant. Suspected cases: Adolf Hitler, Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Henry VIII. And then there is the story about Frederic Nietzsche, wandering the streets after his undiagnosed syphilis triggered a mental breakdown. He was arrested for causing some sort of (unknown, much-speculated upon) public disturbance. Some say he saw a horse being whipped and rushed over, weeping, to embrace it.2
Look at him. He couldn’t even see to shave.
Aren’t we lucky our only problem is the economy?
1 If you are the one remaining American with internet access – and thus easy access to lurid descriptions of this disease and its symptoms – who has let your syphilis go unchecked, dear god man, get thee to a doctor!
2 I am told he was weeping because he felt the whipping of the horse had been justified by Descartes, who had stated that animals couldn’t have souls, but my only source for this is my husband’s philosophy professor. There I was, sipping my Riesling and talking about this story in a local bar with a friend, trying to remember what exactly my husband had said Nietzsche told the horse, and then, suddenly, there was Dr. Berkeley, turning around from the seat behind me to say (in his loud British accent), “He was apologizing for Descartes’ error.”