Was Beethoven experiencing syphilitic euphoria when he composed “Ode to Joy”? Did van Gogh paint “Crows Over the Wheatfield” in a fit of diseased madness right before he shot himself? Was syphilis a stowaway on Columbus’s return voyage to Europe? The answers to these provocative questions are likely “yes,” claims Deborah Hayden in this riveting investigation of the effects of the “Pox” on the lives and works of world figures from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries. Writing with remarkable insight and narrative flair, Hayden argues that biographers and historians have vastly underestimated the influence of what Thomas Mann called “this exhilarating yet wasting disease.” Shrouded in secrecy, syphilis was accompanied by wild euphoria and suicidal depression, megalomania and paranoia, profoundly affecting sufferers’ worldview, their sexual behavior and personality, and, of course, their art. Deeply informed and courageously argued, Pox has already been heralded as a major contribution to our understanding of genius, madness, and creativity.

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