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Of Sapho and Syphilis: Alphonse Daudet on and in Illness Michael Worton L'homme est un apprenti, la douleur est son maître. —Alfred de Musset Apprends à penser avec douleur. —Maurice Blanchot THE INTERACTION between literature and medicine has a long history, with Apollo, god of medicine and poetry, as its titular deity, and yet, as G. S. Rousseau has pointed out, medicine has long been omitted from the cultural debate. * Interestingly, many fewer patients than doctors have written about illness,2 with the perhaps inevitable result that for both writers and readers there has been a concern with the processes of infection, contagion and healing and with the thematics of suffering rather than with the poetics of illness. The Aristotelian association of art with catharsis has tended to dominate consideration of literary and artistic texts, and, indeed, from Aeschylus onwards, western culture has privileged the notion of pathei mathein (suffering alone teaches), thereby making of illness an ethical and epistemol ógica! phenomenon and ensuring that the aesthetics of illness (or, at least, its representation) remains a largely unexplored area. Before the nineteenth century, the literary function of illness was generally thematic, advancing narrative development or serving to comment on a character's personality or moral make-up. In the nineteenth century , however, hospital and laboratory medicine became more sophisticated and widespread in France, and in 1880 Zola set out his concepts of naturalism in Le Roman expérimental, which is explicitly and repeatedly indebted to the physiologist Claude Bernard's L'Introduction à la medicine expérimentale (1865), the classic manifesto of nineteenthcentury scientific medicine. Although Balzac, Flaubert, the Goncourts and Stendhal all included descriptions of illness and suffering in their works, Zola surpassed all of them in his detailed chronicling of a range of diseases from anthracosis to peritonsilar abscess, smallpox and wound sepsis. There is, however, one singular medical absence in Zola and gen38 Fall 1997 WORTON erally in all the literature of the nineteenth century, this absence being all the remarkable for the fact that it was responsible for the death of many of the century's greatest writers, including Alphonse Daudet, Flaubert, Jules de Goncourt, Gautier, Maupassant and, possibly, Baudelaire: syphilis. This disease attained epidemic proportions in nineteenth-century France, with contemporary venereologists estimating that at the midcentury at least 15% of the Parisian population was syphilitic, and with Parent-Duchâtelet maintaining in his vastly influential De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris that syphilis was the most serious, most dangerous and most fearsome of all the contagious diseases,3 and in 1884, the year that Daudet published Sapho, Huysmans's des Esseintes was to sigh in fin-de-siècle wonder at the extraordinary episode of the flowers and the Virus: "Tout n'est que syphilis."4 Although it was a profoundly social disease (in all senses of the term), syphilis was associated with prostitution, with dégénérescence and with madness, and so was percceived with even more moral anxiety than other diseases—and was consequently veiled in silence, at least in literary discourses . Even in medical circles, its history is one of uncertainty, with Cullerier and Ratier opening their entry on syphilis in an 1836 medical dictionary as follows: "Dénomination bizarre, synonyme de maladie vénérienne, qui n'est ni plus exacte ni plus significative," and suggesting that the very name of the disease needed considering in order to understand its working: "Dans un ouvrage spécial, il serait à propos peut-être d'examiner dans l'histoire des mots l'histoire des choses.. ."5 The greatest and most famous specialist of syphilis was Philippe Ricord, whose main achievements were to distinguish it from gonorrhea and other venereal diseases and to insist on the fact that symptoms follow each other in a strict chronology, not, as his predecessors had believed, in confusion and a haphazard order. He crucially identified what he himself called "Ie poison morbide qui produit la syphilis," affirming that "Ce poison, on peut l'appeler de son nom, c'est le virus syphilitique," whereas previously even the most eminent doctors had refused such an appellation: "C'était le temps où le savant Jourdan, dans un acc...