I attributed his craziness to the Zeitgeist

Monday, July 10th, 2017

E. Michael Jones talks about his writing mentor Bob Summers and how his behavior began to change in a dramatic way around 1970:

His actions became increasingly bizarre. He would withdraw all of his (and Joan’s) money from the bank, kidnap his son, fly to California, put himself up at expensive hotels until his money ran out, then end up back in Philadelphia after someone sent him a bus ticket. On one trip back, he got off the bus in Iowa on a hot day and had a stroke. Deprived of the ability to speak, he settled into a depression as deep as his former elation had been high. He tried to kill himself a number of times and finally succeeded. He was discovered dangling from a pipe in the basement of a house where one of his friends ran a Philadelphia version of Esalen, which is to say, a place where sensitivity sessions and sexual contact were supposed to lead to new levels of consciousness.

I used to think it was Bob’s ideas that drove him crazy. During the time I knew him, Bob had abandoned tradtional playwriting and had become a devotee of something he was calling psychodrama. I remember listening to him mention names like Moreno, Fritz Perls, and Julian Beck, whose troupe came to town and did Frankenstein, as the introduction to the concept he had for a new play. It was to be called “King of Tetch,” as in “tetched in the head,” and during the course of the play, Bob would go crazy on stage. In the end, he didn’t need a play to crazy. He as going crazy anyway.

Since Bob was a playwright, I suppose he planned make money off of the inevitable. I remember thinking it was a crazy idea at the time, but it was a time when crazy ideas were at a premium and, besides, I knew other people who were going crazy at that time too. So I attributed his craziness to the Zeitgeist, and, behind all of the other figures Bob mentioned, I attributed the ideas that drove him crazy to Wilhelm Reich, who was undergoing his New York Times documented (or promoted) revival at the time. Bob was an eastern European Jew, who shared ethnic sympathy with Reich and Reich’s project. South Street was a lot like Prague and Vienna immediately after World War I. Reich’s theories had driven Reich crazy. Why shouldn’t they have the same effect on Bob. Bob, I concluded as part of my education in the ’70s, had acted out Reich’s theories of sexual liberation and that had driven him crazy.

I still believe that. Deborah Hayden’s book Pox, however, leads me to believe that the connection between Bob Summers and Wilhelm Reich may have been more than simply ideas having consequences. Both of them, I now believe were suffering from the same disease. Both Reich and Bob Summers went crazy at the end of lives dedicated to sexual liberation. Both of them probably died of complications arising from syphilis. William Osler could have had both Bob Summers and Wilhelm Reich in mind when he described the syphilitic as manifesting “a change in character… which may astonish the friends and relatives” and warned to watch for “important indications of moral perversions manifested in offenses against decency.” Osler is talking about the final stages of syphilis, specifically paresis or general paralysis of the insane when the spirochetes which have been active all along since the period of initial infection finally succeed in destroying the brain. The most interesting aspect of the disease from a cultural point of view is the period “close to the onset of paresis,” when, in Hayden’s words, “mood shifts become more extreme as euphoria, electric excitement, bursts of creative energy, and grandiose self-reflections alternate with severe often suicidal depression. Delusions of grandeur, paranoia, exaltation, irritability, rages and irrational social behavior define the progression toward insanity. The patient may suddenly begin to gamble, go on absurd spending sprees, or imagine owning vast riches.”

Bob was around 25 years older than me. That means that he was born around 1923; that means that he was 20 years old when penicillin was invented. That means that he couldn’t have taken it as a cure until roughly four or five years later. By then, even if he had taken it, penicillin would have been too late to keep the disease from spreading to where it often did damage, namely, the brain. Because penicillin has all but eradicated the disease and most certainly has removed it as the central concern of whole cultures in the way that syphilis was at the beginning of the 20th century, the average doctor has lost his knowledge of the progression of the disease. This is a fortiori true of the man in the street. As a result, large areas of cultural history and biography are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to contemporary readers and thinkers.

Syphilis emerged into history at the birth of the modern era. It is most commonly described as having been brought back from the New World by Columbus. Hayden makes the case that Columbus, whose health never recovered after his first voyage and who heard angels speaking to him at the end, was himself infected with syphilis and died of paresis when the spirochete, the corkscrew shaped bacillus otherwise known as the pale treponema, destroyed his brain.

Tertiary neurosyphilis, he notes, is the most interesting form of the disease from a cultural point of view:

Just before the onset of paralysis, the sufferer is beset with delusions of grandeur, a sense of understanding everything, a sense that he is on the verge of some monumental discovery which will forever change the course of history, as well as a sense that some divine electricity is coursing through his veins. Since in this preliminary stage of tertiary syphilis, powers of expression are not impaired, a syphilitic who is also an artist may well produce a work of art that reflects this state of mind or, rather, this state of brain. Bob Summers felt that “King of Tetch” was just this kind of work. Wilhelm Reich felt that he had unlocked the secrets of the universe with the discovery of orgone energy, something that could now be accumulated in his orgone boxes, which would make power stations unnecessary. Hayden feels that Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was composed under these circumstances, after syphilis had destroyed Beethoven’s hearing and was in the process of destroying his brain as well. “Seid umschlungen Millionen!” The grandiosity of Schiller’s poem is matched by the grandiosity of Beethoven’s musical score, which, at least in terms of the Ode to Joy chorus, is based on a moronic melody (melody was never Beethoven’s strong suit anyway), as the film Immortal Beloved makes clear. The brain of the syphilitic approaching general paralysis of the insane is like the light bulb that grows brighter just before it burns out completely. The syphilitic experiences, in Hayden’s words,

“episodes of creative euphoria, electrified, joyous energy when grandiosity led to a new vision. The heightened perception, dazzling insights, and almost mystical knowledge experienced during this time were expressed while precision of form of expression was still possible. At the end of the 19th century, it was believed that, in rare instances, syphilis could produce genius.”

During the period, preliminary to final decline,

“the syphilitic may be plagued by sensations of electric currents in the head,… and auditory hallucinations such as being serenaded by angels. This warning stage often has an explosive aspect, a sense of enormous contained energy, while the patient retains an ability to achieve the most rigorous control of expression. Syphilis is not suspected because of the extreme clarity of mind without dementia.”

In the period from 1881 to 1882, Nietzsche wrote to his friends about how “Each cloud contains some form of electric charge which suddenly takes hold of me, reducing me to utter misery.” The sense that some sort of divine electricity was running through his veins was so strong in Nietzsche’s mind that he felt that he ought to be displayed at an electricity exhibition in Paris. In August 1881 Nietzsche wrote to his friend Peter Gay that he felt like a human lightning bolt, “like a zig-zag doodle drawn on paper by a superior power wanting to try out a new pen.”

A feeling of boundless intellectual power accompanied the sense that electrical currents were flowing through his veins. On December 18, 1888 Nietzsche wrote to Carl Fuchs explaining that

“Never before have I known anything remotely like these months from the beginning of September until now. The most amazing tasks are as easy as a game; my health, like the weather, coming up every day with boundless brilliance and certainty. I cannot tell you how much has been finished-everything. The world will be standing on its head for the next few years: since the Old God has abdicated, I shall rule the world from now on.”

The onset of the tertiary syphilis or dementia paralytica in Nietzsche’s life is dated from January 3, 1889, when, upset at seeing a horse beaten in Turin, Italy, Nietzsche embraced the horse’s neck and collapsed into madness. His writing days over, Nietzsche spent the next 11 years of his life, up until his death in 1900, under medical care, in and out of asylums for the insane. All of his most significant writings, including those in which Christ was deposed and Dionysos/Zarathustra/Nietzsche put in his place, took place in the period of creative euphoria that lasted from 1881 to 1889, when he felt the divine electricity that is the sure sign of the onset of paresis coursing through his veins.

“I am one of those machines that could explode… Each time I had wept too much the previous day while I was walking, and not tears of sentimentality but jubilation. I sang and talked nonsense, possessed by a new attitude. I am the first man to arrive at it.”

The literary history of modern Europe, but most especially that of the 19th century, is littered with unacknowledged evidence of syphilis. The most famous example is Dracula. I am, as far as I know, the first one to argue that Dracula is about syphilis. Bram Stoker died of syphilis, something which his grandson acknowledges in at the end of his biography almost as an afterthought, as if it had no connection to Stoker’s work in general and his classic Dracula in particular. I make the argument in the second part of Monsters from the Id, my book on horror.


Hayden gives some explanation of why the suppression of syphilis happens so frequently in biography. Biographies — and Reich’s case is no exception in this regard — are generally written by devotees, people who are inspired by the subject’s work. If the work is a function of syphilis, the devotee has based his life on an illusion. “The reluctance to attribute a shameful disease like syphilis to a great person,” is understandable according to Hayden, because of “the danger that the work will in some way be linked to the disease,” and as a result “an oeuvre” would be “tainted and denigrated.” Fears like this “contribute to sparse references to syphilis” in biographies. Add to that the general ignorance about a disease no longer as threatening as it used to be and you end up with large biographical lacunae. Claude McKay, author of Home to Harlem and initiator of the Harlem Renaissance, contracted syphilis in Berlin in the early ’20s, but his biographer missed that fact, even though McKay wrote poems about it. There is no indication that the syphilis proceeded to McKay’s brain; however, the thought that it jeopardized his work is never far away.

Nietzsche is a good case proving the same point. For some inexplicable reason, there is still controversy over whether Nietzsche had syphilis, in spite of an unmistakable symptomology and accounts from people like his friend Peter Gast, who claimed that Nietzsche told him that he deliberately infected himself with syphilis by having sex with a prostitute. The reluctance to accept the fact is a reflexive defense of the ideas that Nietzsche promoted. Those who see Nietzsche as the prophet of man’s emancipation from a tyrannical God are not going to be receptive to Stoker’s idea that the delusions of grandeur necessary to any theory of rebellious atheism are really just a sign that the onset of paresis is near. Were Nietzsche’s ideas on the will and its relationship to the intellect the logical consequence of the Reformation’s denigration of reason? Perhaps. But the ideas were pushed into the form Nietzsche gave them by the grandiosity which neurosyphilis’ attack on the brain engendered in the mind.

If Nietzsche’s defenders can stall a case as obvious as his in the court of literary and historical opinion, imagine the uproar that would be generated by claiming 1) that Abraham Lincoln had syphilis and 2) that the disease affected his conduct of the Civil War. Hayden claims that Lincoln contracted syphilis as a young man and that he infected his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, causing the insanity that plagued her at the end of her life. Does that mean that the sacred cause of the Union was a function of tertiary syphilis?


Not surprisingly, the best test case for Hayden’s theory that syphilis changed the course of history is Adolf Hitler. The best indication that Hitler had syphilis is his own writing, namely, Mein Kampf.


If the internal evidence of an autobiographical text has any significance, then the obsessions which get expressed in Mein Kampf give a clear indication that Hitler had syphilis, that he probably contracted it from a Jewish prostitute, and that he extrapolated from that experience a theory of race hatred that would, in Hayden’s terms, change the course of history.


The story died, in other words, not so much because there was no evidence to support the theory, but because it would have been inconvenient to the two groups which were most interested in Hitler research: the Nazis and the Anti-Nazis. The Old Nazis, according to Wiesenthal, “bridled at the image of a syphilitic paranoiac as the greatest leader of all time” because “this would have besmirched their idol.” But the Anti-Nazis were just as opposed to the same sort of investigation because they were “afraid that an enormously complex pattern of events might suddenly be reduced to the pathological degeneration of a single individual instead of being seen as the sickness of a whole society.” Wiesenthal concludes by saying that he “can see no other reason why the question of whether or not Hitler had syphilis has received so little attention from serious historical researchers.”


  1. Kirk says:

    It’s an interesting idea. But, like much of the whole concept of there being a genetic basis for human behavior in general, I think that the rejection of the entire premise is almost doomed to be automatic and thorough.

    Because, nobody wants to admit or acknowledge the idea that there may be some external driver to human behavior–If Adolf Hitler was a victim of syphilis, then that absolves him of responsibility for what he did, and what was done in his name. Likewise, if you are an acclaimed artistic genius like Beethoven, well… What are we to do? Give the disease the Oscar nomination?

    I suspect that there is rather more to the biology of it all than we would like to admit. Human consciousness is already a kludged-together concatenation of things that we’re only beginning to understand–And, there may be things we aren’t even guessing at, like the contribution made by our gut bacteria to the whole behavioral/cognitive realm. We don’t want to admit it, but we are more like a cooperative colony of organisms than we are a single discrete animal like most of us self-conceptualize.

    Hell, present me with convincing evidence of the idea that we’re really only sentient due to the influence of our gut bacteria, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised at the news. I think there’s a long, long way to go until we really understand the nature of human consciousness and sentience, and how it comes about.

    Until then, well… There’s this information about the influence of syphilis on human affairs, and the other thing that springs to mind is the potential for human effect with things like Toxoplasma Gondii, which is known to create some behaviors in rodents that assist cats in predation upon them. Human behavioral patterns may be modified by the disease, as well, but the issue is still being argued.

    Would not surprise me a bit to find out that a good deal of what makes us “human” is some kind of parasitical disease process that’s been coopted and bootstrapped into being actually beneficial, much the way early cells absorbed and took over mitochondria.

  2. Sam J. says:

    “…If Adolf Hitler was a victim of syphilis, then that absolves him of responsibility for what he did///”

    Hitler was innocent I tell you, innocent. :)

  3. Kirk says:

    Well, that is where the idea that who he became was a product of a disease process leads us, isn’t it?

    I’m not fond of the whole idea of making things like addictions and so forth medical issues vs. character ones. Sure, you might be a syphilitic victim of a disease process, but a lot of what comes out of that goes back to who you actually are. I’ve seen speculation that Emperor Norton, beloved nutjob of post-Gold Rush California, was another victim of syphilis. Supposing he was, then I think that there were still some fundamental issues of character there that made him a “better” megalomaniac than Hitler. Hitler went nuts, gained vast power, and then killed millions. Norton went nuts, became a street fixture, and amused hundreds of thousands. Who was the better human being?

  4. Jeff R. says:

    Very interesting stuff, I would just point out that Hitler’s shaky right hand seems to have become noticeable only after von Stauffenberg almost blew him up, so I’m not sure we can tally that one up in the pro syphilis evidence column.

  5. Lu An Li says:

    The Tuskegee Study [not experiment] demonstrated syphilis was not such a bad disease. Most everyone died of something else first. Debilitating syphilis was not as terrible as some other illnesses are.

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