Friday, July 16, 2004

Syphilis Journal

I bought a copy of Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain, a journal about his experiences of the last phases of syphilis. Daudet was a celebrity writer of mid and late nineteenth century France. He has the disease since he was 17. Daudet describes his encounters with the famous physicians of the day: Charcot describes the disease in neurological terms. He treats Daudet with the Seyre suspension: hanging the individual by the jaw for the purpose of straightening the spine.
I am suspended in the air for four minutes, the last two solely by my jaw. Pain in the teeth. Then, as they let me down and unharness me, a terrible pain in my back and the nape of my neck, as if all the marrow was melting: it forces me to crouch down on all fours and then very slowly stand up again while--as it seems to me--the stretched marrow find its rightful place again.

He talks about he panoply of drugs that he must take. Bromide. Acetanlide turns the lips blue. And morphine. Always morphine. Daudet injects himself constantly.
Each injection stops the pain for three or four hours. Then comes "the wasps", the stinging and stabbing here, there and everywhere--followed by the Pain, that cruel guest.

The pain itself is at the center. It is his constant companion, the reason for his suffering, the cause of his deteriorating reason. Daudet writes about the pain in a very direct manner, eliminating ornate language, until only the image of the pain is left behind. The prose are oddly contemporary for a writer of this era.
My poor carcass is hollowed out, voided by anaemia. Pain echoes through it as a voice echoes in a house without furniture or curtains. There are day, long days, when the only part of me that's alive is my pain.

Daudet is preoccupied with the pain in his bones and joints. He describes his rib cage as an ill-fitting armored breastplate. He is preoccupied with his legs and feet. Although the pain is excruciating, he finds relief by walking and increasing stimuli. But sometimes produces more pain, as here when he is being dried at the public baths:
A bizarre new pain when they're rubbing my legs dry. It's in the tendons of the neck: on the right-hand side when they're rubbing my left leg ... Nerve-racking torture, enough to make you scream.

The book is not long--it can be read in a few hours. Thankfully, editor and translator Julian Barnes (and good author in his own right) adds lots of notes to give more depth to the journal (these notes compete for space with the journal). Many of these are from the memoirs of the famous publisher Goncourt, who recorded many of the specifics about how syphilis affected Daudet's work. Other notes talk about the therapies of the day. Posted by Hello


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