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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What caused James Joyce's blindness?

Kevin Birmingham 

So, where did James Joyce's well-known vision problems come from? The Guardian reports that according to Kevin Birmingham,  author of a new book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, Joyce suffered from syphilis. This had been rumored before apparently, but Birmingham has tracked down some rather good evidence, i.e. Joyce's symptoms and a drug that was given to him for his medical condition.

Birmingham's book, which I mentioned in a previous blog post, was shaping up as a interesting read, anyway. Here is the Publisher's Weekly review.


michael said...

A few weeks ago I finished a 2012 book title _Shakespeare's Tremor and Orwell's Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers_, by John Ross, MD. There's an entire chapter on Joyce. I wonder if this Birmingham book truly breaks new ground? I'll check it out.

PQ said...

I'm excited about Birmingham's book but his research on the syphilis issue only confirms what was already strongly hinted at.

Joyce and the Burden of Disease explored Joyce's revelations about his disease through all of his works. The Wake has tons of references to syphilis. The first few pages of the (satirically autobiographical) Shem the Penman chapter have lots of not-so-hidden references to venereal disease from prostitutes.

Michael, what did the Joyce chapter in that book talk about?

michael said...

PQ: I think Dr.Ross used Joyce and the Burden of Disease, but also used his physician's knowledge to critique previous ideas about Joyce's health - esp the one by a female Joyce scholar that Lucia was schizophrenic because Joyce's syphilis infected her in the womb. Ross dispels that idea.

All in all, Ross is on about syphilis, but moreso: the damned eye problems. I finished the chapter meditating on Joyce, Bach, and Beethoven and their transcendent art amid constant physical suffering and nagging ailments.

Ross drops a few lines from Joyce about syphilis, and at the beginning of the chapter narrates Joyce going to a Dr. MacIntosh for a painful syphilis treatment. At first I thought, "The MacIntosh Mystery has been solved! Why hadn't I heard about it?" Then I realized "MacIntosh" was merely Ross's fancy.

Eric Wagner said...

I have an idea for a reality TV show: "Real Schoolboys of Dublin," based on chapter five of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I imagine the characters giving each other a hard time, and then they have interviews with each of them: "Stephen always has all the drama. He needs to get over himself."