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  • Sifilografía: A History of the Writerly Pox in the Eighteenth-Century Hispanic World by Juan Carlos González Espitia
  • Cristian Berco
Sifilografía: A History of the Writerly Pox in the Eighteenth-Century Hispanic World. By juan carlos gonzÁlez espitia. Charlottesville: Virginia University Press, 2019. 395 pp.

In Sifilografía, Juan Carlos González Espitia engages in a wideranging cultural history of syphilis across the eighteenth-century Hispanic world. Not only does this work, therefore, tackle a relatively understudied period for this venereal disease but it also provides a nuanced reading of its multiple cultural reverberations in these societies. Drawing from medical, prescriptive, humorous, and even artistic sources, González Espitia succeeds in weaving a tapestry that reveals the underside of syphilitic discourses.

What emerges from his careful analysis are various tensions across discursive and geographical spaces: whether tackling Enlightenment thought and both its challenge to Galenic frameworks and discomfort with prostitution as a threat to moral order, or whether unspooling the thread of debates around the origins of syphilis and their effect on emerging notions of American self-worth and identity, González Espitia adroitly manages to approach syphilis as both lived reality and cultural metaphor. In doing so, he reveals the centrality of this disease.

The book is divided into short, tightly argued chapters which, though at first glance appear to move across traditional thematic boundaries in haphazard fashion, nevertheless underscore broader argumentative columns. After detailing his methodological and theoretical approach, González Espitia engages eighteenth-century medical and institutional culture. Chapters 2 to 6, therefore, focus on syphilis and its intersection with Enlightenment thought. From a somewhat conventional interpretation of the changing state of medical practice in the eighteenth century to a fascinating analysis of the power dynamics embedded in the usually overlooked preliminary sections of printed works, González Espitia leaves few stones unturned. Other chapters include reflections on Feijoo and contemporaries' slow [End Page 169] introduction of experimental thinking and methods, the role of the hospital and other institutions of control in Enlightenment policy and practice, and the uneven incorporation of emerging notions of germs, blood circulation and chemical treatments into medical understandings of syphilis.

These sections on Enlightenment ideologies and how they intersect with medical, scientific, and institutional practices around syphilis provide a solid basis that then allow González Espitia to broaden his scope. After all, while syphilis was a reality threaded across patients' bodies and institutional architecture, it also served as a useful metaphor to explore the burning issues of the time. The trinity of chapters 7 through 9, thus, adroitly focus on that perennial problem around syphilis—the question of its name and origin. Tracking the complex tensions around the propensity to assign syphilis a gallic name as well as ongoing debates about the potential American origin of the disease, González Espitia makes an effective case for the emergence of an American sense of identity and self worth in relation to these questions. Indeed, syphilis became a perfect vehicle for these identitary concerns to manifest well before independence movements in the Americas.

The following chapters (10 through 16) will continue this exploration of syphilis as metaphor and somatic reality, further illuminating cultural threads around the disease. In what amounts to a series of well argued case studies, González Espitia further nuances some of the main themes of his research: syphilis as both a visible and emblematic site of moralistic control and as subterranean locus for desires, tensions, and identities that ultimately destabilize the Enlightenment project. Among other topics, he therefore explores the multifaceted role of humor: not only do these works provide moral critiques of the ills of the day but they serve to make sense of the reality of venereal disease, including complex tensions around prostitutes who were, at once, seen as necessary to contain otherwise unstructured male desire while also being condemned as vectors of disease. Of particular interest to readers might be especially innovative readings of works as diverse as Lizardi's The Mangy Parrot and Moratín's Arte de las putas to Goya's series of Caprichos or even the bureaucratic reports of Francisco Cabarrus.

As erudite and innovative as...


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pp. 169-171
Launched on MUSE
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