I Have Herpes, and So Does Justine Henin, and So Do You!

And now to one of the most amusing sources of cross-cultural misunderstanding there is. One fine day, a co-worker and I were chatting in my office in German and she casually said: "Damn, my herpes is back. What do you do about your herpes? Is there some special American treatment?"

I just barely avoided a genuine, honest-to-Allah spit-take. Before I could ask what this prim, attractive member of the German haute bourgeoisie was talking about, she added "Fortunately, most of the blisters are on the inside, so it's not that embarrassing." And then she showed me what she was talking about, pointing to the location of the outbreak. I recoiled in horror, crossing my arms in front of me, as she exposed her infected...

...lips. The ones on the mouth, that is.

As you probably know, there are a few different kinds of herpes, and almost everyone carries Herpes Simplex Type I, the virus that causes blisters on the lips now and then. English speakers, in our prudish way, call these outbreaks 'cold sores'. In the English-speaking world, the word 'herpes', standing alone, refers exclusively to genital herpes, the incurable sexually-transmitted disease.

Which brings us to the tale of how Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin unwittingly became a poster girl for venereal disease. In a 2007 interview, she stated: 

Q. Weren’t you afraid that the emotional side of things would have too much influence on that match?

JUSTINE HENIN: No, I didn’t panic. I knew I was not starting that match well. I can tell you, I had a horrible night. My herpes came out again, and I said to my doctor, “Well, I see everything is fine, it’s great.”

So, really, I was a bit anxious. But also, I really wanted to do well. And very early in the match, the match turned over. And then I knew I was going to be able to keep it up until the end.

I rather doubt that Justine Henin, at the height of her career, casually confessed to millions of strangers at the French Open post-game press conference that she has genital herpes. That would be an extremely un-European thing to do.

But that is exactly how American fans interpreted it. One tennis forum entry reads: OMG!!!! Justine has herpes, while other articles praised her for her bravery and called her a 'champion' for herpes sufferers worldwide:

With six Grand Slam titles to her credit, Henin is no stranger to plaudits. But even more need to be extended to her for speaking openly about something that is the secret of so many.

With that one turn of a phrase, millions and millions of herpes sufferers now know that they are by no means alone. And with her remark, the term “Champion” fits her even to those who have no interest in professional tennis.

Another American sports outlet noted: "Henin either doesn’t mind talking publicly about her herpes, or herpes = humor in Germany." And another titled a post, "That's Right, Justine Henin has Herpes" and speculated whether her "admission" might have had something to do with her then-recent divorce.

And the legend lives on! Andrew Sullivan recently wrote something about the shame and stigma of herpes, and received the following note from a reader:

Update from a reader: As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?

I've sent in a correction by email to Sullivan, but I thought a blog entry was also in order.

Luc Tuymans in Brussels

Luc Tuymans is a Belgian artist, born in 1958. He still paints, and paints figuratively. That is, there's usually some sort of a recognizable object or surface in his paintings, and -- as a bonus -- the titles often indicate what it is ("Droplets", "Flag"). Tuyman's colors are washed-out and the edges blurred; the paintings look as if they've been left in the sun, or run several times through an antiquated copier. The curated text suggests their resemblance to Polaroid pictures caught in various stages of development. Tuymans does, in fact, often work from photographs. Artificial light plays a role as well: an interior illuminated by blacklight, a tree trunk caught in the harsh glare of a security spotlight, or a diorama throwing shadows against a wall. Tuyman's bleached, suggestive paintings work best as commentaries on the act of representation, without giving in to the self-referential emptiness of 'postmodern' works.


The problem starts when Tuymans gets political. There are paintings here of buildings in Brazzaville in the Congo, of Patrice Lumumba, of King Baudouin I, of the exterior of a concentration camp, of National Socialist functionaries, an American white supremacist, and of Condoleeza Rice. They are apparently intended as oblique political statements on European history, on Belgium's colonial past, or on post-9/11 America. But they're nothing more than Tuymans-esque paintings. Here, for instance, is Tuyamns' painting of a photograph of Patrice Lumumba:




The image is supposed to be freighted with political meaning, but...how, exactly? There's no value added here, nor is there any mystery. Tuymans' genius is not fundamentally narrative, his best paintings don't try to structure reality or channel meaning. Applying a technique this grounded in ambiguity and visual paradox to subjects as fraught as the Holocaust or Belgian colonialism overfreights the technique badly, and invites charges of superficiality.


The real revelation of the show is in Tuymans' video works from the early 1980s, a period in which Tuymans lost the inspiration to paint and turned to video. He shot hundreds of hours of footage of everything from the exterior of cathedrals to security drills to television programs to the glasses and ashtrays on top of café tables to dolls propped up against various backgrounds and harshly lit from the front. Most of the takes are grainy, willfully cropped and framed, and sometimes out of focus. The overall effect is nothing short of mesmerizing: the blurring and cropping of the images invests the most mundane of subjects with some sort of droll, mysterious import. The irony is that the brief interludes of crisply-shot "narrative" are the most surrealistic. At one point, for example, a cutout of a man holding what appears to be a drumstick moves purposefully across the screen and hesitates before a panel of objects that appear to be crudely-drawn, oversized eyes, hesitating before several of them, perhaps trying to decide whether to hit them.


Overall, an intriguing show that's worth a visit. Oddly enough, given that Tuymans is Belgian, the show was exhibited four times in the U.S. and the stop in Brussels is its last. If you go, I would advise against reading the (well-written and well-translated) information placards that explain the "context" of the political paintings.