Degeneration (Nordau)  

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"In Degeneration, Nordau argued that madness, suicide, crime and pathological literature symptomatised modern times - "We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria". Having borrowed various contemporary terms and ideas from the works of Morel, Lombroso, Maudsley, Taine, Charcot and others, Nordau argued that modern society was witnessing a terrible crisis." --Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, C.1848-1918, page 24, Daniel Pick, 1993

Degeneration (Max Nordau) full text

Zola is affected by coprolalia to a very high degree. It is a necessity for him to employ foul expressions, and his consciousness is continually pursued by representations referring to ordure, abdominal functions, and everything connected with them. Andreas Verga described some years ago a form of onomatomania, or word-madness, which he called mania blasphematoria, or oath-madness. It is manifested when the patient experiences an irresistible desire to utter curses or blasphemies. Verga's diagnosis applies completely to Zola. It can only be interpreted as mania blasphematoria, when in La Terre he gives the nickname of Jesus Christ to a creature afflicted with flatulency, and that without any artistic necessity or any aiming thereby at aesthetic effect either of cheerfulness or of local colour.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Degeneration (Entartung, 1892) is a German language book by Max Nordau on the fin de siècle concept of degeneration. Although not his most popular or successful work whilst alive, it is the book most often remembered and cited today. Degeneration attempted to explain all modern art, music and literature by pointing out the degenerate characteristics of the artists involved. The work was popula, an English translation by William Heinemann was reprinted in nine editions between 1895 and 1900.

Frank Kermode in the introduction to The Romantic Agony (Mario Praz) noted that "Max Nordau's Degeneration aims at being a literary nosology of the Decadent Movement, but it is completely discredited by its pseudo-erudition, its grossly positivist point of view, and its insincere moral tone."



Nordau begins his work with a 'medical' and social interpretation of what has created this Degeneration in society. Nordau divides his study into five books. In the first book, Nordau identifies the phenomenon of fin de siècle in Europe. He sees it as first being recognised, though not originating, in France, 'a contempt for the traditional views of custom and morality.' He sees it as a sort of decadence, a world-weariness, and the wilful rejection of the moral boundaries governing the world. He uses examples from French periodicals and books in French to show how it has affected all elements of society. Nordau accuses also society of becoming more and more inclined to imitate what they see in art. He sees in the fashionable society of Paris and London that 'Every single figure strives visibly by some singularity in outline, set, cut or colour, to startle attention violently, and imperiously to detain it. Each one wishes to create a strong nervous excitement, no matter whether agreeably or disagreeably.'

Nordau establishes the cultural phenomenon of fin de siècle in the opening pages, but he quickly moves to the viewpoint of a physician and identifies what he sees as an illness. 'In the fin-de-siècle disposition, in the tendencies of contemporary art and poetry, in the life and conduct of men who write mystic, symbolic and 'decadent' works and the attitude taken by their admirers in the tastes and aesthetic instincts of fashionable society, the confluence of two well-defined conditions of disease, with which he [the physician] is quite familiar, viz. degeneration and hysteria, of which the minor stages are designated as neurasthenia.'

The book deals with numerous case studies of various artists, writers and thinkers (Wilde, Ibsen, Wagner and Nietzsche to name but a few) but its basic premise remains that society and human beings themselves are degenerating, and this degeneration is both reflected in and influenced by art.

The Politics of Degeneration

Nordau did not himself coin the expression or the idea of Entartung; it had been steadily growing in use in German speaking countries during the 19th century. The book reflects views on a degenerating society held by many people in Europe at the time, especially throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the early 20th century, the idea that society was degenerating, and that this degeneration was influenced by art, led to somewhat hysterical backlashes, as evidenced by the conviction of Austrian artist Egon Schiele for "distributing pornography to minors".

This cultural construct, which could be used to describe anything which deviated in any way from accepted norms, was given legitimacy by the pseudo-scientific branch of medicine called 'psycho-physiognomy.' 'Degeneration' was accepted as a serious medical term. Not until Sigmund Freud, and the ushering in of a new age of psychoanalysis, was this idea seriously contested. Sigmund Freud remarked rather drily in his 1905 work Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, "It may well be asked whether an attribution of 'degeneracy' is of any value or adds anything to our knowledge."

Although Nordau's work certainly reflects a reactionary strain of European thought, he also condemns the rising Anti-Semitism of the late 19th Century as a product of degeneration. At the time of his writing, Europe was undergoing unprecedented technological progress and social upheaval. The rapid industrialisation and accompanying urbanisation were breaking down many of the traditional structures of society.

Nordau's views were in many ways more like those of an 18th Century thinker, a belief in Reason, Progress, and more traditional, classical rules governing art and literature. The irrationalism and amorality of philosophers such as Nietzsche or the flagrant anti-Semitism of Wagner, was seen as proof that society was in danger of returning to an era before the Enlightenment.


See also

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