Frank Kermode

Tony Smith, reviewing J.K. Oates’s Penguin on herpes (LRB, Vol. 5, No 9), sounded, thank God, a cheerful rather than a holy note. Far from being a divine visitation on lechery, herpes is a manageable minor affliction. It may, however, be easier for the righteous to approve, and more difficult for doctors to demythologise, the condition Dr Smith called ‘the gay compromise syndrome’, better-known as AIDS. This may sound like a brand name for an indigestion tablet, but it is an acronym for Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Unlike herpes, this disease is a killer: the normal defences of the body fail, and the patient is vulnerable to rare forms of cancer and other disastrous infections. It is said that 80 per cent of those diagnosed three years ago are now dead. They were practically all male homosexuals, Haitian immigrants, heroin addicts or haemophiliacs. Some at least of the Haitians are now known to have histories of homosexuality. Since the number of sufferers doubles every six months, the gay community is not unreasonable in talking about an epidemic. Nobody knows what the agent is, and nobody knows why the more promiscuous are likelier victims than the less.

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