Degeneration (Nordau)  

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"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."--Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau

"Connected with the sexual psychopathy of M. Zola is the part played in him by the olfactory sensations. The predominance of the sense of smell and its connection with the sexual life is very striking among many degenerates."--Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau

"I have read Max Nordau's Degeneration at your request: two hundred and sixty thousand mortal words, saying the same thing over and over again. That is the proper way to drive a thing into the mind of the world, though Nordau considers it a symptom of insane "obsession" on the part of writers who do not share his own opinions. His message to the world is that all our characteristically modern works of art are symptoms of disease in the artists, and that these diseased artists are themselves symptoms of the nervous exhaustion of the race by overwork."--"The Sanity of Art" (1895) by G. B. Shaw

"A Maudsley in England, a Charcot, a Magnan in France, a Lombroso, a Tonnini in Italy, have brought to vast circles of the people an understanding of the obscure phenomena in the life of the mind, and disseminated knowledge which would make it impossible in those countries for pronounced lunatics with the mania for persecution to gain an influence over hundreds of thousands of electoral citizens, even if it could not prevent the coming into fashion of the degenerate art."--Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau

"In perversion of taste the patient seeks greedily to swallow all that ordinarily provokes the deepest repugnance, i.e., is instinctively recognised as noxious, and rejected for that reason decaying organic matter, ordure, pus, spittle, etc. In perversion of smell he prefers the odours of putrefaction to the perfume of flowers. In perversion of the sexual appetite he has desires which are directly contrary to the purpose of the instinct, i.e., the preservation of the species. In perversion of the moral sense the patient is attracted by, and feels delight in, acts which fill the sane man with disgust and horror. If this particular perversion is added to ego-mania, we have before us not merely the obtuse indifference towards crime which characterizes moral madness, but delight in crime. The ego-maniac of this kind is no longer merely insensible to good and evil, and incapable of discriminating between them, but he has a decided predilection for evil, esteems it in others, does it himself every time he can act according to his inclination, and finds in it the peculiar beauty that the sane man finds in good."--Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau

"It is not my object, in a book intended primarily for the general educated reader, to dwell on this delicate subject. Anyone wishing to be instructed more closely in the morbid eroticism of the degenerate may read the books of Paul Moreau (of Tours) _Des Aberrations du Sens génésique_, 2^e édition, Paris, 1883; and Krafft-Ebing’s _Psychopathia sexualis_, Stuttgart, 1886. Papers on this subject by Westphal (_Archiv für Psychiatrie_, 1870 and 1876), by Charcot and Magnan (_Archives de Neurologie_, 1882), etc., are scarcely accessible to the general public."--Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau

"A Rebours can scarcely be called a novel, and Huysmans, in fact, does not call it so. It does not reveal a history, it has no action, but presents itself as a sort of portrayal or biography of a man whose habits, sympathies and antipathies, and ideas on all possible subjects, specially on art and literature, are related to us in great detail. This man is called Des Esseintes, and is the last scion of an ancient French ducal title."--Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau

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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.


Nordau did not coin the expression or the idea of Entartung, which 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 backlash, as evidenced by the conviction of Austrian artist Egon Schiele for "distributing pornography to minors".

That was given legitimacy by the 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. Freud remarked rather drily in his 1905 work Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality that "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.

Europe was then undergoing unprecedented technological progress and social upheaval. The rapid industrialisation and the 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 Friedrich Nietzsche and the flagrant anti-Semitism of Richard Wagner were seen as proof to Nordau that society was in danger of returning to an era before the Enlightenment.

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