Printer Friendly

Writing, disease and psychic degeneration in the poem la Venusalgie ou Maladie de Venusby Jean Francois Sacombe.

In the present article, we would like to show how the medicalised poem of doctor Sacombe can integrate in a large poetic discourse. By making an analysis of the artistic devices used by the author in his poem, we will try to demonstrate that Sacombe's writing is the material representation and the first sign of the disease named syphilis. More precisely, our intention to support the idea that the text in the dramatic poem by Sacombe is by itself the sign of the contamination with venusalgia; the words seem to be gangrened, worn out and ill, so that, as if in a paradoxical way, they manage to better identify and explain syphilis and to anticipate the degradation it induces on the psychic.

The appearance of this grave disease at the end of the 15th century (about 1494), which spread rapidly in Europe, created a large technical literature dealing with its description and therapy. Out of the many texts of this type, that were published in the following centuries, we will mention, in 1814, the poem La Venusalgie by doctor Sacombe, structured in three cantos, which later on was to become one of the most important landmarks in the didactic poetry of the time.

We should also mention the fact that, when this text was published (the 19th century), the psychiatrists spoke about a new and devastating form of dementia, which had no cure and caused death to its victims--GPI (General Paralysis of Insane). In numerous studies, syphilis is considered to be the central factor in the etiology of this mental disease. Psychiatrists started to diagnose this disease--GPI, by means of tests for syphilis (1). The negative effect syphilis had on the psychic of its victims and the intensity of the pathological condition are present in Sacombe's poem.

In the three acts of the poem, accompanied by paratextual elements (a dedication, an epistle, a preface, a section with detailed notes and two tableaux, one pathological and another one therapeutic), Sacombe makes a complex incursion into mythology, trying to describe the disease in a diachronic and spatial dimension, focusing mainly on the mythological characters affected by the virus of this terrible disease [??] syphilis.

Broadly speaking, the physician writer in his dramatic poem, La Venusalgie, tries to describe the origin, causes, and symptoms of syphilis and the remedies for this disease. The text, which opens with an epistle, in which the writer speaks directly to his son Louis, seems to present already the didactic and publicity functions of the poem. Taking over a didactic strategy, the author advises his son to be careful and avoid being contaminated with this terrible disease. More than that, the poet, who declares himself to be the voice to give advice and strict indications, does not forget to make reference to his practical experience in the field of medicine: "J'ai gueri de chancres au prepuce, une personne saine" or some lines bellow "j'ai traite d'ulceres a la gorge une femme tres saine [...] j'ai ete oblige de soumettre a un traitement regulier, un jeune homme tres sain". Right from the first lines of the epistle, the author makes clear the topic of his poem. By outlining the disease from figural to figurative, that is, from a political and social presentation of the disease of France ("La Corse, est le sejour sauvage [...] La Corse, en son ame perfide, / Medite le vol, l'homicide/Et nourrit le mepris des dieux") to a presentation of the epidemic diseases (cholera or plague) whose direct successor is the syphilis, Sacombe indicates one of devices he uses to point out the numerous allegorical senses in his text. By means of metaphors, repetitions, enumerations, anaphoras, finally by a cumulative way of writing the writer invites his reader to discover, succeeding, in this way, not only to introduce the disease by means of words, but to allow the disease introduce itself. In short, the originality of the physician writer is evident in choosing to approach a medical subject by a mythological interpretation. In order to involve his readers, Sacombe uses the two themes from Horatio [??] to like and to instruct "(...) Sachons meler a l'agreable / D'utiles observations / Fruits lents d'une longue pratique". The usefulness of his verses is clearly underlined in the preface to the poem "(...) mon dessein n'est pas de faire un ouvrage licencieux, un nouveau Tableau de L'Amour conjugal, mais un ouvrage utile aux jeunes praticiens auxquels il suffit d'indiquer la route de la science, que le genie seul peut leur faire parcourir avec succes". From this we can realize that the author subjected his text to the censorship of bashfulness; he does not describe the anatomy of the human body (vagina, rectum, sexual intercourse, clitoris etc, words that are present in the preface), but is rather more concerned to give an esthetic touch to the contamination of the anatomical parts of the body. Sacombe does not do the job of an anatomist, he is a clinician versifier of human actions, who displays his medical knowledge by means of a lyrical discourse. More than that, the versifier physician does not intend to construct a physiological thesis of the disease, but, rather, to elaborate a hygienic and moral theory through a burlesque register or through an allegorized rhetoric whose aim is not only to frighten, but also to induce the horror of syphilis in the reader's consciousness. The only fragments where the author mentions some elements of the body anatomy are to be found in the para-textual lines: "la fermentation des semences de plusieurs hommes sains, dans un organe humide et chaud, tel que le vagin (...) dans un intestin humide, tel que le rectum, (...) la Venusalgie ne se propage pas seulement par le coit mais aussi par le contact du virus par le clitoris etc." Once these are taken out from the specialized domain, these references signal the generic orientation of the author in relation to his subject and, also, his competences in this domain. Even from the first lines, the physician paves the way to an allegorical interpretation of his topic--the syphilis H seen in mythology, in the centre of which, there is the couple of lovers Venus and Bacchus, the two symbols of sin and syphilis. Starting from the first canto of the poem we find a moralizing voice, which blames the libertinage of pleasures. For the author, pleasure is the source of all misfortunes resulting from the contamination with syphilis: "Et dont le terrible incendie/Metamorphose en maladie/Les plaisirs le plus innocents".

Like a surgeon having the forceps and the lancet in his hand, the poet cuts his verses with precision in his ample description of the terrible homicide. Venus the symbol of beauty above all is accompanied by her son Olympe, who creates panic in the Paradise of Gods and Goddesses, he himself being contaminated by the venereal evil: "concut et mit au jour/Un enfant...un monstre effroyable/Horreur du celeste sejour/(...) Apollon qui connait la cause/Du mal par Venus enfante". Venus is the one who destroys the beauty of the Paradise through her body which seduces and contaminates her beaux. Thus, the Goddess of Beauty becomes the target of irony in Sacombe's lines ("par ses mille et une faveurs/elle couronne sa folie"), the image of the "trade with love" and the symbol of shamelessness.

Blaming all the harmful liberties of the mythological characters, the author seems to mock in his verses the force that accelerates the disease. The frequent transfers from one izotopy to another one, from one image to another one or from an ideal metamorphosis of beauty to its demetamorphosis help the poet to put into light the destructive effects of syphilis. More than that, by the mechanism of transfers, Sacombe creates the framework for a deconstruction of his allegorizing project, that is, the allegorical interpretation of the disease, using a discourse of contingency, lacking a mythological aura. The progressive fall of the characters from an ideal Paradise towards a locus horribilis determines not only the change from a metaphorical way of writing to one of stereotypes and cliches, but it is shaped as a remembering of the loss of the divine order (the descriptive episode of the orgy in the ancient city of Sodom: "Jupin eut beau bruler Sodome, / Affreuse, execrable cite, / sejour de l'impudicite/Ou parfois la femme etait homme;/Et meme sans necessite". The dimension stretching from the high Paradise to the downwards terrestrial also simulates the progress of the syphilitic disease by describing the contaminated body. From up to bottom, the poet describes the gangrened body as a result of the disease: "Sa chevelure en flots, doree / Dans ces racines devoree / Son front serein, majestueux / De perles d'un suc onctueux/D'abord affecte ses deux yeux / Ses yeux eteints et chassieux / Son nez, jadis de bon augure/Se detache de sa figure / Sa bouche, autrefois si vermeille / Exhale au loin la syphilis / De l'Hymen auguste domaine/Qui profane par la debauche". The celestial figure of Venus, the Goddess, is gradually replaced by the earthly figure of Sophie, which implies on an objective level a replacement of the natural beauty with a caricature of the artificial beauty or the face with a masque (2), and, on a poetic level a passage from there and then to here and now, that is, from a collective historical fable to a singular pathological case. This movement from a dimension of a mythological past to the terrestrial present has a double function: on the one hand, to simulate the origin, evolution and speed of propagation in time of the disease, on the other hand, to anticipate the moralizing effect the author has in view in his artistic project. The antithetic description of the two feminine characters --Venus and Sophie--embodies itself the disease. The artificial masque suffers the effect of degradation up to the point it becomes a grotesque masque of putrefaction and purulence: "la putrefaction veut qu'il n'y ait plus de masque que celle de la purulence". Thus, everything turns to the worse under the pen of the poet: the fire of love and pleasure becomes the image of a physical combustion; "the charming chalice of beauty", "the wistful kisses", "the intoxication with love" become signs of liquefaction, of the mortuary masque worn by the cadaverous body. The whole body bears the horrible masque of the devouring disease.

Syphilis, often named by various phrases, as: "the homicide evil", "depopulating evil", "the terrible disease", "the infernal disease", "the most hideous God", is the main factor of the havocs taking place in the characters' lost Paradise, and the destructive cause which affects health, youth, love, beauty, virtue, overwhelming its victims bringing panic, distress and pity in their lives.

But, it is important to note that from all the values turned into gangrenes, the text is the one which gains a lot In other words, writing is by itself an architecture which transcribes the fall of the mythological characters subjected to the harmful power of the disease. Allowing the syphilis enter this mythological universe, the author increases his power of imagination, which makes the evil have numerous denominations. Sacombe's text gets its inspiration from the putrefaction, that the disease inflicts in the flesh of the human body. Writing, devouring by being used, gives way in many instances to macabre descriptions made by the physician writer. In his whole description from the second canto of the poem, the author makes his words express the gangrene of the frightening disease. The evil is contained in the material substance of words. Syphilis grows and multiplies along with the multiplications of images in the text. Hence, Sacombe's great talent to let the disease communicate by means of words (3).

The mosaic like structure of the poem on the stylistic and generic levels, seems to incorporate the protean disease and the decay caused by syphilis. Syphilis does not change into alterity only the body of its victim, but, at the same time, it breaks up even the skeleton of Sacombe's text The three cantos (descriptive, pathological, therapeutic), footnotes, personal anecdotes, retaking the great myths (Adonis' myth, that of Diana and Actaeon), theatrical scenes, intertextual passages, various theories (venusalgia contains various etiological theories) and different polemics (mercury is a false remedy, the origin of the disease is endemic), medical correspondences, Biblical excerpts, pathological cases accompanied by rich stylistic devices, all in all contributes to the heteroclite character of the poem. As a result, the rhapsodic writing represents the metaphor of the output of the disease signaled in the lines: "Cependant ce fleau terrible/Se developpant par degres,/ Faisait d'insensibles progres,/Lorsqu'une explosion horrible".

Mariana-Diana CASLARU--Assistant research, Ph. D., "Alexandru loan Cuza" University Iasi; Editor, Apollonia Publisher, Iasi, Romania


The author declares she has no potential conflicts of interest to disclose.


In our analysis, the poem La Venusalgie is not merely a didactic and medical discourse, but also a lyrical discourse which could be included both in the medical literature and in the artistic literature. By its fragmented text, by the various tonalities, by the rich range of stylistic devices, by merging the words with the disease, by the esthetic of the evil as it is presented by Sacombe, the poem may be a real source of reference in literature.


Carlino, Andrea; WENGER, Alexandre, Litterature et medecine: approches et perspectives de XVIe-XIXe siecles, Droz, 2007.

Davis Gayle, The Cruel Madness of Love (Sex, Syphilis and Psychiatry in Scotland, 1880-1930), Clio Medica 85, Amsterdam--New-York, 2008.

Sacombe, Jean Francois, La Venusalgie, ou La maladie de Venus, Paris, juin 1814.

Sontag, Susan, Devant la douleur des autres, Christian Bourgois, 2003.

Sontag, Susan, Garder le sens mais alterer la forme--Essai et Discours, Christian Bourgois, 2008.

Sontag, Susan, La maladie comme metaphore--Essai, Seuil, Paris, 1979.

Sontag, Susan, Le sida et ses metaphores, Christian Bourgois, 1989.

Wald Lasowski, Patrick, Syphilis: essai sur la litterature francaise du XIXe siecle, ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1982.

(1) Gayle Davis, The Cruel Madness of Love (Sex, Syphilis and Psychiatry in Scotland, 1880-1930), 2008.

(2) "Teint vermeil, de lis et de rose;/Bouche petite, a demi close / (...) des dents plus blanches que le bel ivoire / Gorge d'albatre et gaze noire".

(3) See Patrick Wald Lasowski, Syphilis: essai sur la litterature francaise du XIXe siecle, ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1982, p. 56: "Bientot le mal se communique/Prend le nom de la syphilitique [...] on ne peut rien dire sinon qu'elle se communique".




No. 5 str. Toma Cozma, ap. 17, Iasi, Romania


Submission: January, 12, 2015

Acceptance: February, 24, 2015
COPYRIGHT 2015 Institute of Psychiatry Socola, Iasi
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Caclaru, Mariana-Diana
Publication:Bulletin of Integrative Psychiatry
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 1, 2015
Previous Article:Self-induced serenity. A psycho-social approach to superstitions.
Next Article:Madness and eccentricity: a case study of the character Raoul Spifame from Les Illumines by Gerard de Nerval.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters