Thursday, April 10, 2008

Max Nordau on degeneration

Max Nordau, writing in 1892, said:
Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and pronounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists. These, however, manifest the same mental characteristics, and for the most part the same somatic features, as the members of the above-mentioned anthropological family, who satisfy their unhealthy impulses with the knife of the assassin or the bomb of the dynamiter, instead of with pen and pencil.

Some among these degenerates in literature, musica, and painting have in recent years come into extraordinary prominence, and are revered by numerous admirers as creators of a new art, and heralds of the coming century.

It is this last phrase, 'heralds of the coming century' which gives away the shrill hystericism of this claim. It harks back to the millennialist cults of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, certain that Armageddon was approaching and that the new century would be the harbinger of all doom.

This is, I suppose, the logical (or illogical) conclusion of Rousseau's attack on the arts and sciences, as though artists were in some way responsible for the ills of society. Nordau concludes his piece with:
The art and poetry of tomorrow, in all essential points, will be the art and poetry of today and yesterday, and the spasmodic seeking for new forms is nothing more than hysterical vanity, the freaks of strolling players and charlatanism.

This was at the time Nietzsche was deducing that peaks of artistic endeavour tend to coincide with times of high decadence and social corruption - although, of course, he was coming to an altogether different conclusion from Nordau's and felt such decadence should be embraced. But from whichever perspective, the question is one of cause and effect; or at least it would be, if one wished to ask such a question?

But, increasingly, I wonder why we might.

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