Sex and pain

Benita Eisler, in her otherwise generous review of my edition of Alphonse Daudet's "In the Land of Pain" (Feb. 9), finds much to condemn in Daudet's sexual behavior, and chides me for not doing the same. But in her eagerness to disapprove, she misrepresents the evidence.

In 1884, Daudet suffered from hydrocele; he told Edmond de Goncourt how he "cocked a snook" at the impending operation. Eisler tells us: "[He] went on the prowl ... [and] was rewarded by finding a very young girl, whose face, he reported, 'still had the delicacy and openness of childhood.' " What Goncourt actually reports is this: "Il avait ete voir une fille ... qui avait un gentil minois et tout jeunet." Robert Baldick, the best translator of the Goncourt journal, renders it thus: "He had been to see a tart who had ... the sweetest little face." Thus "tart" has been changed to "very young girl" -- not even in quotes, indicating translation, but as a matter of recorded fact -- and Daudet, who went to visit a prostitute, has been turned into a pedophile on the prowl.

This skewing leads into Eisler's final and most serious charge. "Neither Daudet's male confidants nor his recent commentators," she writes, "raise the issue of the numbers of women he must have infected with the deadly spirochete during four decades as a predatory syphilitic." There are several points that need to be made about this: (a) In Daudet's time, the link between the early, common stages of syphilis and the dread terminal occurrence of neurosyphilis (which developed in 5% to 7% of male cases and in far fewer female cases) was largely unclear. This was because of the long period in which the disease could lie dormant -- 10, 15, even 20 years. Charcot, for instance, until the end of his days refused to accept any link between syphilitic infection and tabes dorsalis; (b) It is generally accepted -- now as then -- that after the second, highly infectious, stage has passed, the chances of a syphilitic transmitting the disease is virtually nil; (c) This is why, like other men who caught syphilis in their exuberant youth, Daudet was able to marry without passing on the disease to either his wife or children; (d) Ironically, when Daudet went out womanizing in the course of this 30-year marriage, there was more chance of his picking up a further infection than of transmitting one.

Thus the parallel Eisler seeks to make with someone who, knowing he or she is HIV positive, recklessly infects others will not hold. Daudet, for more than three of the four decades Eisler cites, couldn't have infected anyone; nor would he, or any medical expert of the time, have thought that he could.

Finally, there is that loaded word "predatory." Daudet seems to have been sexually tireless -- certainly his appetite impressed Goncourt (our main source, who may have been envious); he was also eager, attractive, well-off and in Paris two centuries back. Does this make him a predator? "Illness is a period piece," writes Eisler. So is morality -- ours as well as theirs. Then was not now; being over-moralistic about the past ends up oversimplifying it rather than making it clearer.

Julian Barnes, London


Benita Eisler replies:

I was not merely disapproving of Alphonse Daudet's sexual behavior as a syphilitic; I was appalled. By any measure -- starting with his own preening account of himself -- Daudet was a predator and proud of it.

The plentiful supply of child prostitutes in 19th century Paris scarcely required men to be skulking pedophiles. Police round-ups routinely included 10-year-old streetwalkers. (Ten was also the age of consent for girls in England in this period.) Barnes tactfully omits the translation of Goncourt's phrase, taken from his friend's report: The little tart Daudet picked up to reassure himself that surgery had not affected his capacity for sexual pleasure is described as tout jeunet or "terribly young."

As prey for syphilitics, children have a long history. Daudet would certainly have been aware of the prevalent folk wisdom that held that the disease could be cured by intercourse with a virgin. This was often invoked by those accused of child rape, a belief now resurgent among HIV-positive African males that accounts for rising incidences of the same crime against children.

Recent research now gives two to seven years for the period when syphilis is most infectious. Stages of the disease were never clear-cut: The author of the classic textbook on venereal infection found so much overlap, he warned students that with syphilis, "Almost anything is to be expected at any time." Even if Daudet believed in precise limits to the period of "unsafe" sex, should we suppose that he -- or any of his contemporaries -- took vows of chastity for the duration of their infectious stage? (I love the image, though: chambers of bowler-hatted bourgeois, taking the pledge together, as in citizenship swearings-in).

Barnes takes it on faith that neither Daudet's wife or children were infected. But how does he know? Syphilis is still called the "Great Imitator," mimicking the symptoms of at least 40 other diseases. Until very recently, among middle-class women, the incidence and extent of sexually transmitted diseases remained unreported and impossible to document. (A lady could not even be examined unclothed.) Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that venereal diseases, transmitted by husbands to wives, lovers and unborn children, were the dirty secret of families, reaching well into the privileged classes.

At the end of her life, Mabel Dodge Luhan, free spirit and patroness of the arts, described in a letter to a friend how she had been infected with syphilis, first by the young bridegroom to whom she had been married off as a teenager by her Buffalo family; then, following painful mercury cures, she was reinfected by two subsequent husbands. "Is there no man free of this dread disease?" she asked. (Her ever-longer periods of invalidism were ascribed to "heart trouble.") Questions still persist on the link between birth defects in children and infected mothers. The mental retardation and other developmental problems of the son and only child of Byron's lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, and her husband, William (future Lord Melbourne), have been attributed to the disease, transmitted by one or both parents. These two examples surfaced by chance, literally falling out of folders devoted to minor characters in my research into the lives of Georgia O'Keeffe and Lord Byron, respectively. But this coincidence should give anyone pause before pronouncing on the health of spouses, mistresses or children of known syphilitics.

Illness, thanks to its cures, becomes, as I wrote, a period piece. Chic historical relativism notwithstanding, morality remains less tractable. Daudet's egoism and hypocrisy, with his political alliances that paved the way for fascism, are no less ugly now than they were a century ago. Maybe uglier. And Barnes' own comments confirm that male attitudes toward sex and women have changed little. Daudet remains the beneficiary of the sneaking admiration most men feel on hearing about the sexual exploits of their peers. In the French writer's case, the unzipped trousers represent, for his contemporaries and recent translator, the heroic triumph of lust over pain.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World