Syphilus, Sisyphus

by Leonardo Espinoza Benavides

The case of humanity proved interesting.

            From the historical material collected and safeguarded, it was a poem written by the Italian physician Girolamo Fracastoro that allowed us to assign a narrative origin to this. His verses said that, in a European meadow, a shepherd named Syphilus contracted a strange new disease, after disobeying his gods in the midst of a foreign invasion. Syphilis sive morbus gallicus ended up naming the so-called “French disease of the Earth” after its protagonist, as well as humanising and giving conceptual form to the pathology.

            The impact on civilisation of a condition perpetuated by sexually transmitted contagion had irreparable repercussions on the psyche of the species. Wood carvings such as Albrecht Dürer’s Der syphilitische Mann and ballads such as Juliane Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci are evidence of the collective tribulation. Scientific efforts found the culprit: a bacterium, of the spirochete type, which they called Treponema pallidum pallidum, transmitted solely and exclusively between people, without affecting any other form of life on the planet. It was the Japanese microbiologist Hideyo Noguchi who later demonstrated the presence of the germ in brain tissue. The sexuality of the population was restructured in the neurological and mental apparatus of its individuals. An unavoidable nightmare, as so was dreaming. The case is a clear example of a check between nature and life.

            Effective forms of diagnosis were invented, relentless antimicrobial treatments and even the disciplines of dermatology and venereology were perfected. There was every possible form of prevention, from physical barriers of leather and latex to drugs that controlled the momentum of the relentless libido in the most at-risk sectors (which ended up being the whole world). Entire institutions dedicated to the monitoring and control of syphilis. The efforts, however, were described by humanity itself as a labour akin to lifting a rock up a mountainside only to see it fall at the end of each day.

            The moment when it became public knowledge that the spirochete had become resistant to the latest therapies has been postulated as a cultural turning point. Famous was the speech of the Chilean academic and physician Félix Salvo, before the high commissioners of the World Health Organisation, when he assured the triumph of the pathogen, “The Great Pretender,” which paled the complexity of other known infections, viral, bacterial, fungal, whichever it was. Humans had no use for arsphenamine and penicillin after only a couple of years of their development. Apparently, the cytoplasmic protein A filaments of the bacterium—which moved like a corkscrew—interacted with the indicated chromosomes of the micro-organism to mutate it. They never knew for sure. Humanity did not have the time or the determination to continue the epic. In its defence, there are many current hypotheses that vindicate this disappointment in favour, rather, of a resolute acceptance. Eternity as an illusion awaiting an end point.

            The case of humanity leaves no sentient species indifferent, including those that are radically different in their way of reproduction and preservation. It is impossible to predict the history of the next Syphilus; its moment, its time and the colour of its meadow.

            All the other extinct civilisations that we have managed to study in that particular region of that minor spiral arm of the galaxy ended their chronologies, directly or indirectly, because of warfare. The only species that did not succumb to war was humanity. After eleven thousand years since the first settlements in the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial marsh, humans, in short, opted for a grand final orgy.

~

Bio:

Leonardo Espinoza Benavides (a.k.a Leo) is a Chilean physician-writer, always in conflict with the concept of sleep hygiene (which he hopes to achieve). He lived for a few years in the United States and now in Santiago de Chile, currently trying to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Philosophy Note:

As a dermatovenereologist, it never ceases to amaze me—every time I treat a new patient with syphilis and then the many cases of reinfection—that this fascinating spirochete can still be treated with a simple and common penicillin shot. The Sisyphean part of this narrative is what evoked the rest: what if the history of syphilis with humanity had been different, if it had not been a pathogen that seems to not even try to defend itself? This story takes this idea to the extreme, in terms of the cultural outcome it could’ve had.

7 Comments

  1. Great story! In a few words it shows how easy is to twist a little part of our own reality to generate a completely different future. Moreover, these lines become a chance to remember how fragile we are, and to accept that when related to healthcare and microbiology, size doesn’t matter.

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