Degeneration, by Max Nordau

What is the mind? What is the mind of a human? What is the mind of the one who investigates the human? Can the human mind understand itself? Can a human mind understand the mind of an other? This is psychology.

Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:37 am

by Max Nordau
Author of "Conventional Lies of Our Civilization," "Paradoxes," etc.
Translated from the Second Edition of the German Work





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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:37 am


Dear and honoured Master,

I dedicate this book to you, in open and joyful recognition of the fact that without your labours it could never have been written.

The notion of degeneracy, first introduced into science by Morel, and developed with so much genius by yourself, has in your hands already shown itself extremely fertile in the most diverse directions. On numerous obscure points of psychiatry, criminal law, politics, and sociology, you have poured a veritable flood of light, which those alone have not perceived who obdurately close their eyes, or who are too short-sighted to derive benefit from any enlightenment whatsoever.

But there is a vast and important domain into which neither you nor your disciples have hitherto borne the torch of your method—the domain of art and literature.

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, music, and painting have in recent years come into extraordinary prominence, and are[viii] revered by numerous admirers as creators of a new art, and heralds of the coming centuries.

This phenomenon is not to be disregarded. Books and works of art exercise a powerful suggestion on the masses. It is from these productions that an age derives its ideals of morality and beauty. If they are absurd and anti-social, they exert a disturbing and corrupting influence on the views of a whole generation. Hence the latter, especially the impressionable youth, easily excited to enthusiasm for all that is strange and seemingly new, must be warned and enlightened as to the real nature of the creations so blindly admired. This warning the ordinary critic does not give. Exclusively literary and æsthetic culture is, moreover, the worst preparation conceivable for a true knowledge of the pathological character of the works of degenerates. The verbose rhetorician exposes with more or less grace, or cleverness, the subjective impressions received from the works he criticises, but is incapable of judging if these works are the productions of a shattered brain, and also the nature of the mental disturbance expressing itself by them.

Now I have undertaken the work of investigating (as much as possible after your method), the tendencies of the fashions in art and literature; of proving that they have their source in the degeneracy of their authors, and that the enthusiasm of their admirers is for manifestations of more or less pronounced moral insanity, imbecility, and dementia.

Thus, this book is an attempt at a really scientific criticism, which does not base its judgment of a book upon the purely accidental, capricious and variable emotions it awakens—emotions depending on the temperament and mood of the individual reader—but upon the psycho-physiological elements from which it sprang. At the same time it ventures to fill a void still existing in your powerful system.

I have no doubt as to the consequences to myself of my initiative. There is at the present day no danger in attacking the Church, for it no longer has the stake at its disposal. To write against rulers and governments is likewise nothing venturesome, for at the worst nothing more than imprisonment could follow, with compensating glory of martyrdom. But grievous is the fate of him who has the audacity to characterize æsthetic fashions as forms of mental decay. The author or artist attacked never pardons a man for recognising[ix] in him a lunatic or a charlatan; the subjectively garrulous critics are furious when it is pointed out how shallow and incompetent they are, or how cowardly in swimming with the stream; and even the public is angered when forced to see that it has been running after fools, quack dentists, and mountebanks, as so many prophets. Now, the graphomaniacs and their critical bodyguard dominate nearly the entire press, and in the latter possess an instrument of torture by which, in Indian fashion, they can rack the troublesome spoiler of sport, to his life’s end.

The danger, however, to which he exposes himself cannot deter a man from doing that which he regards as his duty. When a scientific truth has been discovered, he owes it to humanity, and has no right to withhold it. Moreover, it is as little possible to do this as for a woman voluntarily to prevent the birth of the mature fruit of her womb.

Without aspiring to the most distant comparison of myself with you, one of the loftiest mental phenomena of the century, I may yet take for my example the smiling serenity with which you pursue your own way, indifferent to ingratitude, insult, and misunderstanding.

Pray remain, dear and honoured master, ever favourably disposed towards your gratefully devoted

Max Nordau.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:39 am



Fin-de-siècle is a name covering both what is characteristic of many modern phenomena, and also the underlying mood which in them finds expression. Experience has long shown that an idea usually derives its designation from the language of the nation which first formed it. This, indeed, is a law of constant application when historians of manners and customs inquire into language, for the purpose of obtaining some notion, through the origins of some verbal root, respecting the home of the earliest inventions and the line of evolution in different human races. Fin-de-siècle is French, for it was in France that the mental state so entitled was first consciously realized. The word has flown from one hemisphere to the other, and found its way into all civilized languages. A proof this that the need of it existed. The fin-de-siècle state of mind is to-day everywhere to be met with; nevertheless, it is in many cases a mere imitation of a foreign fashion gaining vogue, and not an organic evolution. It is in the land of its birth that it appears in its most genuine form, and Paris is the right place in which to observe its manifold expressions.

No proof is needed of the extreme silliness of the term. Only the brain of a child or of a savage could form the clumsy idea that the century is a kind of living being, born like a beast or a man, passing through all the stages of existence, gradually ageing and declining after blooming childhood, joyous youth, and vigorous maturity, to die with the expiration of the hundredth year, after being afflicted in its last decade with all the infirmities of mournful senility. Such a childish anthropomorphism or zoomorphism never stops to consider that the[2] arbitrary division of time, rolling ever continuously along, is not identical amongst all civilized beings, and that while this nineteenth century of Christendom is held to be a creature reeling to its death presumptively in dire exhaustion, the fourteenth century of the Mahommedan world is tripping along in the baby-shoes of its first decade, and the fifteenth century of the Jews strides gallantly by in the full maturity of its fifty-second year. Every day on our globe 130,000 human beings are born, for whom the world begins with this same day, and the young citizen of the world is neither feebler nor fresher for leaping into life in the midst of the death-throes of 1900, nor on the birthday of the twentieth century. But it is a habit of the human mind to project externally its own subjective states. And it is in accordance with this naïvely egoistic tendency that the French ascribe their own senility to the century, and speak of fin-de-siècle when they ought correctly to say fin-de-race.[1]

But however silly a term fin-de-siècle may be, the mental constitution which it indicates is actually present in influential circles. The disposition of the times is curiously confused, a compound of feverish restlessness and blunted discouragement, of fearful presage and hang-dog renunciation. The prevalent feeling is that of imminent perdition and extinction. Fin-de-siècle is at once a confession and a complaint. The old Northern faith contained the fearsome doctrine of the Dusk of the Gods. In our days there have arisen in more highly-developed minds vague qualms of a Dusk of the Nations, in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world.

It is not for the first time in the course of history that the horror of world-annihilation has laid hold of men’s minds. A similar sentiment took possession of the Christian peoples at the approach of the year 1000. But there is an essential difference between chiliastic panic and fin-de-siècle excitement. The despair at the turn of the first millennium of Christian chronology proceeded from a feeling of fulness of life and joy of life. Men were aware of throbbing pulses, they were conscious of unweakened capacity for enjoyment, and found it unmitigatedly appalling to perish together with the world, when[3] there were yet so many flagons to drain and so many lips to kiss, and when they could yet rejoice so vigorously in both love and wine. Of all this in the fin-de-siècle feeling there is nothing. Neither has it anything in common with the impressive twilight-melancholy of an aged Faust, surveying the work of a lifetime, and who, proud of what has been achieved, and contemplating what is begun but not completed, is seized with vehement desire to finish his work, and, awakened from sleep by haunting unrest, leaps up with the cry: ‘Was ich gedacht, ich eil’ es zu vollbringen.’[2]

Quite otherwise is the fin-de-siècle mood. It is the impotent despair of a sick man, who feels himself dying by inches in the midst of an eternally living nature blooming insolently for ever. It is the envy of a rich, hoary voluptuary, who sees a pair of young lovers making for a sequestered forest nook; it is the mortification of the exhausted and impotent refugee from a Florentine plague, seeking in an enchanted garden the experiences of a Decamerone, but striving in vain to snatch one more pleasure of sense from the uncertain hour. The reader of Turgenieff’s A Nest of Nobles will remember the end of that beautiful work. The hero, Lavretzky, comes as a man advanced in years to visit at the house where, in his young days, he had lived his romance of love. All is unchanged. The garden is fragrant with flowers. In the great trees the happy birds are chirping; on the fresh turf the children romp and shout. Lavretzky alone has grown old, and contemplates, in mournful exclusion, a scene where nature holds on its joyous way, caring nought that Lisa the beloved is vanished, and Lavretzky, a broken-down man, weary of life. Lavretzky’s admission that, amidst all this ever-young, ever-blooming nature, for him alone there comes no morrow; Alving’s dying cry for ‘The sun—the sun!’ in Ibsen’s Ghosts—these express rightly the fin-de-siècle attitude of to-day.

This fashionable term has the necessary vagueness which fits it to convey all the half-conscious and indistinct drift of current ideas. Just as the words ‘freedom,’ ‘ideal,’ ‘progress’ seem to express notions, but actually are only sounds, so in itself fin-de-siècle means nothing, and receives a varying signification according to the diverse mental horizons of those who use it.

The surest way of knowing what fin-de-siècle implies, is to consider a series of particular instances where the word has been applied. Those which I shall adduce are drawn from French books and periodicals of the last two years.[3]


A king abdicates, leaves his country, and takes up his residence in Paris, having reserved certain political rights. One day he loses much money at play, and is in a dilemma. He therefore makes an agreement with the Government of his country, by which, on receipt of a million francs, he renounces for ever every title, official position and privilege remaining to him. Fin-de-siècle king.

A bishop is prosecuted for insulting the minister of public worship. The proceedings terminated, his attendant canons distribute amongst the reporters in court a defence, copies of which he has prepared beforehand. When condemned to pay a fine, he gets up a public collection, which brings in tenfold the amount of the penalty. He publishes a justificatory volume containing all the expressions of support which have reached him. He makes a tour through the country, exhibits himself in every cathedral to the mob curious to see the celebrity of the hour, and takes the opportunity of sending round the plate. Fin-de-siècle bishop.

The corpse of the murderer Pranzini after execution underwent autopsy. The head of the secret police cuts off a large piece of skin, has it tanned, and the leather made into cigar-cases and card-cases for himself and some of his friends. Fin-de-siècle official.

An American weds his bride in a gas-factory, then gets with her into a balloon held in readiness, and enters on a honeymoon in the clouds. Fin-de-siècle wedding.

An attaché of the Chinese Embassy publishes high-class works in French under his own name. He negotiates with banks respecting a large loan for his Government, and draws large advances for himself on the unfinished contract. Later it comes out that the books were composed by his French secretary, and that he has swindled the banks. Fin-de-siècle diplomatist.

A public schoolboy walking with a chum passes the gaol where his father, a rich banker, has repeatedly been imprisoned for fraudulent bankruptcy, embezzlement and similar lucrative misdemeanours. Pointing to the building, he tells his friend with a smile: ‘Look, that’s the governor’s school.’ Fin-de-siècle son.

Two young ladies of good family, and school friends, are chatting together. One heaves a sigh. ‘What’s the matter?’ asks the other. ‘I’m in love with Raoul, and he with me.’ ‘Oh, that’s lovely! He’s handsome, young, elegant; and yet you’re sad?’ ‘Yes, but he has nothing, and is nothing, and[5] my parents want me to marry the baron, who is fat, bald, and ugly, but has a huge lot of money.’ ‘Well, marry the baron without any fuss, and make Raoul acquainted with him, you goose.’ Fin-de-siècle girls.

Such test-cases show how the word is understood in the land of its birth. Germans who ape Paris fashions, and apply fin-de-siècle almost exclusively to mean what is indecent and improper, misuse the word in their coarse ignorance as much as, in a previous generation, they vulgarized the expression demi-monde, misunderstanding its proper meaning, and giving it the sense of fille de joie, whereas its creator Dumas intended it to denote persons whose lives contained some dark period, for which they were excluded from the circle to which they belong by birth, education, or profession, but who do not by their manner betray, at least to the inexperienced, that they are no longer acknowledged as members of their own caste.

Prima facie, a king who sells his sovereign rights for a big cheque seems to have little in common with a newly-wedded pair who make their wedding-trip in a balloon, nor is the connection at once obvious between an episcopal Barnum and a well-brought-up young lady who advises her friend to a wealthy marriage mitigated by a cicisbeo. All these fin-de-siècle cases have, nevertheless, a common feature, to wit, a contempt for traditional views of custom and morality.

Such is the notion underlying the word fin-de-siècle. It means a practical emancipation from traditional discipline, which theoretically is still in force. To the voluptuary this means unbridled lewdness, the unchaining of the beast in man; to the withered heart of the egoist, disdain of all consideration for his fellow-men, the trampling under foot of all barriers which enclose brutal greed of lucre and lust of pleasure; to the contemner of the world it means the shameless ascendency of base impulses and motives, which were, if not virtuously suppressed, at least hypocritically hidden; to the believer it means the repudiation of dogma, the negation of a supersensuous world, the descent into flat phenomenalism; to the sensitive nature yearning for æsthetic thrills, it means the vanishing of ideals in art, and no more power in its accepted forms to arouse emotion. And to all, it means the end of an established order, which for thousands of years has satisfied logic, fettered depravity, and in every art matured something of beauty.

One epoch of history is unmistakably in its decline, and another is announcing its approach. There is a sound of rending in every tradition, and it is as though the morrow would not link itself with to-day. Things as they are totter and plunge, and they are suffered to reel and fall, because man[6] is weary, and there is no faith that it is worth an effort to uphold them. Views that have hitherto governed minds are dead or driven hence like disenthroned kings, and for their inheritance they that hold the titles and they that would usurp are locked in struggle. Meanwhile interregnum in all its terrors prevails; there is confusion among the powers that be; the million, robbed of its leaders, knows not where to turn; the strong work their will; false prophets arise, and dominion is divided amongst those whose rod is the heavier because their time is short. Men look with longing for whatever new things are at hand, without presage whence they will come or what they will be. They have hope that in the chaos of thought, art may yield revelations of the order that is to follow on this tangled web. The poet, the musician, is to announce, or divine, or at least suggest in what forms civilization will further be evolved. What shall be considered good to-morrow—what shall be beautiful? What shall we know to-morrow—what believe in? What shall inspire us? How shall we enjoy? So rings the question from the thousand voices of the people, and where a market-vendor sets up his booth and claims to give an answer, where a fool or a knave suddenly begins to prophesy in verse or prose, in sound or colour, or professes to practise his art otherwise than his predecessors and competitors, there gathers a great concourse, crowding around him to seek in what he has wrought, as in oracles of the Pythia, some meaning to be divined and interpreted. And the more vague and insignificant they are, the more they seem to convey of the future to the poor gaping souls gasping for revelations, and the more greedily and passionately are they expounded.

Such is the spectacle presented by the doings of men in the reddened light of the Dusk of the Nations. Massed in the sky the clouds are aflame in the weirdly beautiful glow which was observed for the space of years after the eruption of Krakatoa. Over the earth the shadows creep with deepening gloom, wrapping all objects in a mysterious dimness, in which all certainty is destroyed and any guess seems plausible. Forms lose their outlines, and are dissolved in floating mist. The day is over, the night draws on. The old anxiously watch its approach, fearing they will not live to see the end. A few amongst the young and strong are conscious of the vigour of life in all their veins and nerves, and rejoice in the coming sunrise. Dreams, which fill up the hours of darkness till the breaking of the new day, bring to the former comfortless memories, to the latter high-souled hopes. And in the artistic products of the age we see the form in which these dreams become sensible.

Here is the place to forestall a possible misunderstanding.[7] The great majority of the middle and lower classes is naturally not fin-de-siècle. It is true that the spirit of the times is stirring the nations down to their lowest depths, and awaking even in the most inchoate and rudimentary human being a wondrous feeling of stir and upheaval. But this more or less slight touch of moral sea-sickness does not excite in him the cravings of travailing women, nor express itself in new æsthetic needs. The Philistine or the Proletarian still finds undiluted satisfaction in the old and oldest forms of art and poetry, if he knows himself unwatched by the scornful eye of the votary of fashion, and is free to yield to his own inclinations. He prefers Ohnet’s novels to all the symbolists, and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana to all Wagnerians and to Wagner himself; he enjoys himself royally over slap-dash farces and music-hall melodies, and yawns or is angered at Ibsen; he contemplates gladly chromos of paintings depicting Munich beer-houses and rustic taverns, and passes the open-air painters without a glance. It is only a very small minority who honestly find pleasure in the new tendencies, and announce them with genuine conviction as that which alone is sound, a sure guide for the future, a pledge of pleasure and of moral benefit. But this minority has the gift of covering the whole visible surface of society, as a little oil extends over a large area of the surface of the sea. It consists chiefly of rich educated people, or of fanatics. The former give the ton to all the snobs, the fools, and the blockheads; the latter make an impression upon the weak and dependent, and intimidate the nervous. All snobs affect to have the same taste as the select and exclusive minority, who pass by everything that once was considered beautiful with an air of the greatest contempt. And thus it appears as if the whole of civilized humanity were converted to the æsthetics of the Dusk of the Nations.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:39 am


Let us follow in the train frequenting the palaces of European capitals, the highways of fashionable watering-places, the receptions of the rich, and observe the figures of which it is composed.

Amongst the women, one wears her hair combed smoothly back and down like Rafael’s Maddalena Doni in the Pitti at Florence; another wears it drawn up high over the temples like Julia, daughter of Titus, or Plotina, wife of Trajan, in the busts[8] in the Louvre; a third has hers cut short in front on the brow and long in the nape, waved and lightly puffed, after the fashion of the fifteenth century, as may be seen in the pages and young knights of Gentile Bellini, Botticelli and Mantegna. Many have their hair dyed, and in such a fashion as to be startling in its revolt against the law of organic harmony, and the effect of a studied discord, only to be resolved into the higher polyphony of the toilet taken as a whole. This swarthy, dark-eyed woman snaps her fingers at nature by framing the brown tones of her face in copper-red or golden-yellow; yonder blue-eyed fair, with a complexion of milk and roses, intensifies the brightness of her cheeks by a setting of artificially blue-black tresses. Here is one who covers her head with a huge heavy felt hat, an obvious imitation, in its brim turned up at the back, and its trimming of large plush balls, of the sombrero of the Spanish bull-fighters, who were displaying their skill in Paris at the exhibition of 1889, and giving all kinds of motifs to modistes. There is another who has stuck on her hair the emerald-green or ruby-red biretta of the mediæval travelling student. The costume is in keeping with the bizarre coiffure. Here is a mantle reaching to the waist, slit up on one side, draping the breast like a portière, and trimmed round the hem with little silken bells, by the incessant clicking of which a sensitive spectator would in a very short time either be hypnotized or driven to take frantic fright. There is a Greek peplos, of which the tailors speak as glibly as any venerable philologist. Next to the stiff monumental trim of Catharine de Medicis, and the high ruff of Mary, Queen of Scots, goes the flowing white raiment of the angel of the Annunciation in Memling’s pictures, and, by way of antithesis, that caricature of masculine array, the fitting cloth coat, with widely opened lapels, waistcoat, stiffened shirt-front, small stand-up collar, and necktie. The majority, anxious to be inconspicuous in unimaginative mediocrity, seems to have for its leading style a laboured rococo, with bewildering oblique lines, incomprehensible swellings, puffings, expansions and contractions, folds with irrational beginning and aimless ending, in which all the outlines of the human figure are lost, and which cause women’s bodies to resemble now a beast of the Apocalypse, now an armchair, now a triptych, or some other ornament.

The children, strolling beside their mothers thus bedecked, are embodiments of one of the most afflicting aberrations into which the imagination of a spinster ever lapsed. They are living copies of the pictures of Kate Greenaway, whose love of children, diverted from its natural outlet, has sought gratification in the most affected style of drawing, wherein the sacredness of childhood is profaned under absurd disguises. Here is[9] an imp dressed from head to foot in the blood-red costume of a mediæval executioner; there a four-year-old girl wears a cabriolet bonnet of her great-grandmother’s days and sweeps after her a court mantle of loud-hued velvet. Another wee dot, just able to keep on her tottering legs, has been arrayed in the long dress of a lady of the First Empire, with puffed sleeves and short waist.

The men complete the picture. They are preserved from excessive oddity through fear of the Philistine’s laugh, or through some remains of sanity in taste, and, with the exception of the red dress-coat with metal buttons, and knee-breeches with silk stockings, with which some idiots in eye-glass and gardenia try to rival burlesque actors, present little deviation from the ruling canon of the masculine attire of the day. But fancy plays the more freely among their hair. One displays the short curls and the wavy double-pointed beard of Lucius Verus, another looks like the whiskered cat in a Japanese kakemono. His neighbour has the barbiche of Henri IV., another the fierce moustache of a lansquenet by F. Brun, or the chin-tuft of the city-watch in Rembrandt’s ‘Ronde de Nuit.’

The common feature in all these male specimens is that they do not express their real idiosyncrasies, but try to present something that they are not. They are not content to show their natural figure, nor even to supplement it by legitimate accessories, in harmony with the type to which they approximate, but they seek to model themselves after some artistic pattern which has no affinity with their own nature, or is even antithetical to it. Nor do they for the most part limit themselves to one pattern, but copy several at once, which jar one with another. Thus we get heads set on shoulders not belonging to them, costumes the elements of which are as disconnected as though they belonged to a dream, colours that seem to have been matched in the dark. The impression is that of a masked festival, where all are in disguises, and with heads too in character. There are several occasions, such as the varnishing day at the Paris Champs de Mars salon, or the opening of the Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London, where this impression is so weirdly intensified, that one seems to be moving amongst dummies patched together at haphazard, in a mythical mortuary, from fragments of bodies, heads, trunks, limbs, just as they came to hand, and which the designer, in heedless pell-mell, clothed at random in the garments of all epochs and countries. 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[10] matter whether agreeably or disagreeably. The fixed idea is to produce an effect at any price.

Let us follow these folk in masquerade and with heads in character to their dwellings. Here are at once stage properties and lumber-rooms, rag-shops and museums. The study of the master of the house is a Gothic hall of chivalry, with cuirasses, shields and crusading banners on the walls; or the shop of an Oriental bazaar with Kurd carpets, Bedouin chests, Circassian narghilehs and Indian lacquered caskets. By the mirror on the mantelpiece are fierce or funny Japanese masks. Between the windows are staring trophies of swords, daggers, clubs and old wheel-trigger pistols. Daylight filters in through painted glass, where lean saints kneel in rapture. In the drawing-room the walls are either hung with worm-eaten Gobelin tapestry, discoloured by the sun of two centuries (or it may be by a deftly mixed chemical bath), or covered with Morris draperies, on which strange birds flit amongst crazily ramping branches, and blowzy flowers coquet with vain butterflies. Amongst armchairs and padded seats, such as the cockered bodies of our contemporaries know and expect, there are Renaissance stools, the heart or shell-shaped bottoms of which would attract none but the toughened hide of a rough hero of the jousting lists. Startling is the effect of a gilt-painted couch between buhl-work cabinets and a puckered Chinese table, next an inlaid writing-table of graceful rococo. On all the tables and in all the cabinets is a display of antiquities or articles of vertù, big or small, and for the most part warranted not genuine; a figure of Tanagra near a broken jade snuff-box, a Limoges plate beside a long-necked Persian waterpot of brass, a bonbonnière between a breviary bound in carved ivory, and snuffers of chiselled copper. Pictures stand on easels draped with velvet, the frames made conspicuous by some oddity, such as a spider in her web, a metal bunch of thistle-heads, and the like. In a corner a sort of temple is erected to a squatting or a standing Buddha. The boudoir of the mistress of the house partakes of the nature of a chapel and of a harem. The toilet-table is designed and decorated like an altar, a prie-Dieu is a pledge for the piety of the inmate, and a broad divan, with an orgiastic abandon about the cushions, gives reassurance that things are not so bad. In the dining-room the walls are hung with the whole stock-in-trade of a porcelain shop, costly silver is displayed in an old farmhouse dresser, and on the table bloom aristocratic orchids, and proud silver vessels shine between rustic stone-ware plates and ewers. In the evening, lamps of the stature of a man illumine these rooms with light both subdued and tinted by sprawling shades, red, yellow or green of hue, and even covered by black lace. Hence the inmates[11] appear, now bathed in variegated diaphanous mist, now suffused with coloured radiance, while the corners and backgrounds are shrouded in depths of artfully-effected clair-obscur, and the furniture and bric-à-brac are dyed in unreal chords of colour. Unreal, too, are the studied postures, by assuming which the inmates are enabled to reproduce on their faces the light effects of Rembrandt or Schalcken. Everything in these houses aims at exciting the nerves and dazzling the senses. The disconnected and antithetical effects in all arrangements, the constant contradiction between form and purpose, the outlandishness of most objects, is intended to be bewildering. There must be no sentiment of repose, such as is felt at any composition, the plan of which is easily taken in, nor of the comfort attending a prompt comprehension of all the details of one’s environment. He who enters here must not doze, but be thrilled. If the master of the house roams about these rooms clothed after the example of Balzac in a white monk’s cowl, or after the model of Richepin in the red cloak of the robber-chieftain of an operetta, he only gives expression to the admission that in such a comedy theatre a clown is in place. All is discrepant, indiscriminate jumble. The unity of abiding by one definite historic style counts as old-fashioned, provincial, Philistine, and the time has not yet produced a style of its own. An approach is, perhaps, made to one in the furniture of Carabin, exhibited in the salon of the Champs de Mars. But these balusters, down which naked furies and possessed creatures are rolling in mad riot, these bookcases, where base and pilaster consist of a pile of guillotined heads, and even this table, representing a gigantic open book borne by gnomes, make up a style that is feverish and infernal. If the director-general of Dante’s ‘Inferno’ had an audience-chamber, it might well be furnished with such as these. Carabin’s creations may be intended to equip a house, but they are a nightmare.

We have seen how society dresses and where it dwells. We shall now observe how it enjoys itself, and where it seeks stimulation and distraction. In the art exhibition it crowds, with proper little cries of admiration, round Besnard’s women, with their grass-green hair, faces of sulphur-yellow or fiery-red, and arms spotted in violet and pink, dressed in a shining blue cloud resembling faintly a sort of nightdress; that is to say, it has a fondness for bold, revolutionary debauch of colour. But not exclusively so. Next to Besnard it worships with equal or greater rapture the works of Puvis de Chavannes, wan, and as though blotted out with a half-transparent wash of lime; or those of Carrière, suffused in a problematical vapour, reeking as if with a cloud of incense; or those of Roll, shimmering in a soft and silvery sheen. The purple of the Manet school,[12] steeping the whole visible creation in bluish glamour, the half-tones, or, rather, phantom-colours of the ‘Archaists,’ that seem to have risen, faded and nebulous, out of some primeval tomb, and all these palettes of ‘dead leaves,’ ‘old ivory,’ evaporating yellows, smothered purple, attract on the whole more rapturous glances than the voluptuous ‘orchestration’ of the Besnard section. The subject of the picture leaves these select gazers apparently indifferent; it is only seamstresses and country-folk, the grateful clientèle of the chromo, who linger over the ‘story.’ And yet these as they pass stop by preference before Henry Martin’s ‘Every Man and his Chimæra,’ in which bloated figures, in an atmosphere of yellow broth, are doing incomprehensible things that need profound explanation; or before Jean Béraud’s ‘Christ and the Adulteress,’ where, in a Parisian dining-room, in the midst of a company in dress-coats, and before a woman in ball-dress, a Christ robed in correct Oriental gear, and with an orthodox halo, acts a scene out of the Gospel; or before Raffaelli’s topers and cut-throats of the purlieus of Paris, drawn in high relief, but painted with ditch-water and dissolved clay. Steering in the wake of ‘society’ through a picture-gallery, one will be unalterably convinced that they turn up their eyes and fold their hands before pictures at which the commoner sort burst out laughing or pull the grimace of a man who believes he is made a fool of; and that they shrug their shoulders and hasten with scornful exchange of looks past such as the latter pause at in grateful enjoyment.

At opera and concert the rounded forms of ancient melody are coldly listened to. The translucent thematic treatment of classic masters, their conscientious observance of the laws of counterpoint, are reckoned flat and tedious. A coda graceful in cadence, serene in its ‘dying fall,’ a pedal-base with correct harmonization, provoke yawns. Applause and wreaths are reserved for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and especially the mystic Parsifal, for the religious music in Bruneau’s Dream, or the symphonies of César Franck. Music in order to please must either counterfeit religious devotion, or agitate the mind by its form. The musical listener is accustomed involuntarily to develop a little in his mind every motive occurring in a piece. The mode in which the composer carries out his motif is bound, accordingly, to differ entirely from this anticipated development. It must not admit of being guessed. A dissonant interval must appear where a consonant interval was expected; if the hearer is hoping that a phrase in what is an obvious final cadence will be spun out to its natural end, it must be sharply interrupted in the middle of a bar. Keys and pitch must change suddenly. In the orchestra a vigorous[13] polyphony must summon the attention in several directions at once; particular instruments, or groups of instruments, must address the listener simultaneously without heeding each other, till he gets as nervously excited as the man who vainly endeavours to understand what is being said in the jangle of a dozen voices. The theme, even if in the first instance it has a distinct outline, must become ever more indefinite, ever more dissolving into a mist, in which the imagination can see any forms it likes, as in driving clouds of night. The tide of sound must flow on without any perceptible limit or goal, surging up and down in endless chromatic passages of triplets. If now and then it delude the listener, borne along by it, and straining his eyes to see land with glimpses of a distant shore, this is soon discovered to be a fleeting mirage. The music must continually promise, but never perform; must seem about to tell some great secret, and grow dumb or break away ere to throbbing hearts it tells the word they wait for. The audience go to their concert-room in quest of Tantalus moods, and leave it with all the nervous exhaustion of a young pair of lovers, who for hours at the nightly tryst have sought to exchange caresses through a closely-barred window.

The books in which the public here depicted finds its delight or edification diffuse a curious perfume yielding distinguishable odours of incense, eau de Lubin and refuse, one or the other preponderating alternately. Mere sewage exhalations are played out. The filth of Zola’s art and of his disciples in literary canal-dredging has been got over, and nothing remains for it but to turn to submerged peoples and social strata. The vanguard of civilization holds its nose at the pit of undiluted naturalism, and can only be brought to bend over it with sympathy and curiosity when, by cunning engineering, a drain from the boudoir and the sacristy has been turned into it. Mere sensuality passes as commonplace, and only finds admission when disguised as something unnatural and degenerate. Books treating of the relations between the sexes, with no matter how little reserve, seem too dully moral. Elegant titillation only begins where normal sexual relations leave off. Priapus has become a symbol of virtue. Vice looks to Sodom and Lesbos, to Bluebeard’s castle and the servants’ hall of the ‘divine’ Marquis de Sade’s Justine, for its embodiments.

The book that would be fashionable must, above all, be obscure. The intelligible is cheap goods for the million only. It must further discourse in a certain pulpit tone—mildly unctuous, not too insistent; and it must follow up risky scenes by tearful outpourings of love for the lowly and the suffering, or glowing transports of piety. Ghost-stories are very popular, but they must come on in scientific disguise, as hypnotism,[14] telepathy, somnambulism. So are marionette-plays, in which seemingly naïve but knowing rogues make used-up old ballad dummies babble like babies or idiots. So are esoteric novels, in which the author hints that he could say a deal about magic, kabbala, fakirism, astrology and other white and black arts if he only chose. Readers intoxicate themselves in the hazy word-sequences of symbolic poetry. Ibsen dethrones Goethe; Maeterlinck ranks with Shakespeare; Nietzsche is pronounced by German and even by French critics to be the leading German writer of the day; the Kreutzer Sonata is the Bible of ladies, who are amateurs in love, but bereft of lovers; dainty gentlemen find the street ballads and gaol-bird songs of Jules Jouy, Bruant, MacNab and Xanroff very distingué on account of ‘the warm sympathy pulsing in them,’ as the stock phrase runs; and society persons, whose creed is limited to baccarat and the money market, make pilgrimages to the Oberammergau Passion-play, and wipe away a tear over Paul Verlaine’s invocations to the Virgin.

But art exhibitions, concerts, plays and books, however extraordinary, do not suffice for the æsthetic needs of elegant society. Novel sensations alone can satisfy it. It demands more intense stimulus, and hopes for it in spectacles, where different arts strive in new combinations to affect all the senses at once. Poets and artists strain every nerve incessantly to satisfy this craving. A painter, who for that matter is less occupied with new impressions than with old puffs, paints a picture indifferently well of the dying Mozart working at his Requiem, and exhibits it of an evening in a darkened room, while a dazzling ray of skilfully directed electric light falls on the painting, and an invisible orchestra softly plays the Requiem. A musician goes one step further. Developing to the utmost a Bayreuth usage, he arranges a concert in a totally darkened hall, and thus delights those of the audience who find opportunity, by happily chosen juxtapositions, to augment their musical sensations by hidden enjoyment of another sort. Haraucourt, the poet, has his paraphrase of the Gospel, written in spirited verse, recited on the stage by Sarah Bernhardt, while, as in the old-fashioned melodrama, soft music in unending melody accompanies the actress. Even the nose, hitherto basely ignored by the fine arts, attracts the pioneers, and is by them invited to take part in æsthetic delights. A hose is set up in the theatre, by which the spectators are sprayed with perfumes. On the stage a poem in approximately dramatic form is recited. In every division, act, scene, or however the thing is called, a different vowel-sound is made to preponderate; during each the theatre is illuminated with a differently tinted light, the orchestra discourses[15] music in a different key, and the jet gives out a different perfume. This idea of accompanying verses with odours was thrown out years ago, half in jest, by Ernest Eckstein. Paris has carried it out in sacred earnest. The new school fetch the puppet theatre out of the nursery, and enact pieces for adults which, with artificial simplicity, pretend to hide or reveal a profound meaning, and with great talent and ingenuity execute a magic-lantern of prettily drawn and painted figures moving across surprisingly luminous backgrounds; and these living pictures make visible the process of thought in the mind of the author who recites his accompanying poem, while a piano endeavours to illustrate the leading emotion. And to enjoy such exhibitions as these society crowds into a suburban circus, the loft of a back tenement, a second-hand costumier’s shop, or a fantastic artist’s restaurant, where the performances, in some room consecrated to beery potations, bring together the greasy habitué and the dainty aristocratic fledgling.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:40 am


The manifestations described in the preceding chapter must be patent enough to everyone, be he never so narrow a Philistine. The Philistine, however, regards them as a passing fashion and nothing more; for him the current terms, caprice, eccentricity, affectation of novelty, imitation, instinct, afford a sufficient explanation. The purely literary mind, whose merely æsthetic culture does not enable him to understand the connections of things, and to seize their real meaning, deceives himself and others as to his ignorance by means of sounding phrases, and loftily talks of a ‘restless quest of a new ideal by the modern spirit,’ ‘the richer vibrations of the refined nervous system of the present day,’ ‘the unknown sensations of an elect mind.’ But the physician, especially if he have devoted himself to the special study of nervous and mental maladies, recognises at a glance, in the fin-de-siècle disposition, in the tendencies of contemporary art and poetry, in the life and conduct of the men who write mystic, symbolic and ‘decadent’ works, and the attitude taken by their admirers in the tastes and æsthetic instincts of fashionable society, the confluence of two well-defined conditions of disease, with which he is quite familiar, viz. degeneration (degeneracy) and hysteria, of which the minor stages are designated as neurasthenia. These two conditions of the organism differ from each other, yet have many features in common, and frequently occur together; so[16] that it is easier to observe them in their composite forms, than each in isolation.

The conception of degeneracy, which, at this time, obtains throughout the science of mental disease, was first clearly grasped and formulated by Morel. In his principal work—often quoted, but, unfortunately, not sufficiently read[4]—the following definition of what he wishes to be understood by ‘degeneracy’ is given by this distinguished expert in mental pathology, who was, for a short time, famous in Germany, even outside professional circles.[5]

‘The clearest notion we can form of degeneracy is to regard it as a morbid deviation from an original type. This deviation, even if, at the outset, it was ever so slight, contained transmissible elements of such a nature that anyone bearing in him the germs becomes more and more incapable of fulfilling his functions in the world; and mental progress, already checked in his own person, finds itself menaced also in his descendants.’

When under any kind of noxious influences an organism becomes debilitated, its successors will not resemble the healthy, normal type of the species, with capacities for development, but will form a new sub-species, which, like all others, possesses the capacity of transmitting to its offspring, in a continuously increasing degree, its peculiarities, these being morbid deviations from the normal form—gaps in development, malformations and infirmities. That which distinguishes degeneracy from the formation of new species (phylogeny) is, that the morbid variation does not continuously subsist and propagate itself, like one that is healthy, but, fortunately, is soon rendered sterile, and after a few generations often dies out before it reaches the lowest grade of organic degradation.[6]

Degeneracy betrays itself among men in certain physical[17] characteristics, which are denominated ‘stigmata,’ or brand-marks—an unfortunate term derived from a false idea, as if degeneracy were necessarily the consequence of a fault, and the indication of it a punishment. Such stigmata consist of deformities, multiple and stunted growths in the first line of asymmetry, the unequal development of the two halves of the face and cranium; then imperfection in the development of the external ear, which is conspicuous for its enormous size, or protrudes from the head, like a handle, and the lobe of which is either lacking or adhering to the head, and the helix of which is not involuted; further, squint-eyes, hare-lips, irregularities in the form and position of the teeth; pointed or flat palates, webbed or supernumerary fingers (syn-and polydactylia), etc. In the book from which I have quoted, Morel gives a list of the anatomical phenomena of degeneracy, which later observers have largely extended. In particular, Lombroso[7] has conspicuously broadened our knowledge of stigmata, but he apportions them merely to his ‘born criminals’—a limitation which from the very scientific standpoint of Lombroso himself cannot be justified, his ‘born criminals’ being nothing but a subdivision of degenerates. Féré[8] expresses this very emphatically when he says, ‘Vice, crime and madness are only distinguished from each other by social prejudices.’

There might be a sure means of proving that the application of the term ‘degenerates’ to the originators of all the fin-de-siècle movements in art and literature is not arbitrary, that it is no baseless conceit, but a fact; and that would be a careful physical examination of the persons concerned, and an inquiry into their pedigree. In almost all cases, relatives would be met with who were undoubtedly degenerate, and one or more stigmata discovered which would indisputably establish the diagnosis of ‘Degeneration.’ Of course, from human consideration, the result of such an inquiry could often not be made public; and he alone would be convinced who should be able to undertake it himself.

Science, however, has found, together with these physical stigmata, others of a mental order, which betoken degeneracy quite as clearly as the former; and they allow of an easy demonstration from all the vital manifestations, and, in particular, from all the works of degenerates, so that it is not necessary to measure the cranium of an author, or to see the lobe of a painter’s ear, in order to recognise the fact that he belongs to the class of degenerates.


Quite a number of different designations have been found for these persons. Maudsley and Ball call them ‘Borderland dwellers’—that is to say, dwellers on the borderland between reason and pronounced madness. Magnan gives to them the name of ‘higher degenerates’ (dégénérés supérieurs), and Lombroso speaks of ‘mattoids’ (from matto, the Italian for insane), and ‘graphomaniacs,’ under which he classifies those semi-insane persons who feel a strong impulse to write. In spite, however, of this variety of nomenclature, it is a question simply of one single species of individuals, who betray their fellowship by the similarity of their mental physiognomy.

In the mental development of degenerates, we meet with the same irregularity that we have observed in their physical growth. The asymmetry of face and cranium finds, as it were, its counterpart in their mental faculties. Some of the latter are completely stunted, others morbidly exaggerated. That which nearly all degenerates lack is the sense of morality and of right and wrong. For them there exists no law, no decency, no modesty. In order to satisfy any momentary impulse, or inclination, or caprice, they commit crimes and trespasses with the greatest calmness and self-complacency, and do not comprehend that other persons take offence thereat. When this phenomenon is present in a high degree, we speak of ‘moral insanity’ with Maudsley;[9] there are, nevertheless, lower stages in which the degenerate does not, perhaps, himself commit any act which will bring him into conflict with the criminal code, but at least asserts the theoretical legitimacy of crime; seeks, with philosophically sounding fustian, to prove that ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ virtue and vice, are arbitrary distinctions; goes into raptures over evildoers and their deeds; professes to discover beauties in the lowest and most repulsive things; and tries to awaken interest in, and so-called ‘comprehension’ of, every bestiality. The two psychological roots of moral insanity, in all its degrees of development, are, firstly, unbounded egoism,[10] and, secondly, impulsiveness[11]—i.e., inability[19] to resist a sudden impulse to any deed; and these characteristics also constitute the chief intellectual stigmata of degenerates. In the following sections of this work, I shall find occasion to show on what organic grounds, and in consequence of what peculiarities of their brain and nervous system, degenerates are necessarily egoistical and impulsive. In these introductory remarks I would wish only to point out the stigma itself.

Another mental stigma of degenerates is their emotionalism. Morel[12] has even wished to make this peculiarity their chief characteristic—erroneously, it seems to me, for it is present in the same degree among hysterics, and, indeed, is to be found in perfectly healthy persons, who, from any transient cause, such as illness, exhaustion, or any mental shock, have been temporarily weakened. Nevertheless it is a phenomenon rarely absent in a degenerate. He laughs until he sheds tears, or weeps copiously without adequate occasion; a commonplace line of poetry or of prose sends a shudder down his back; he falls into raptures before indifferent pictures or statues; and music especially, even the most insipid and least commendable, arouses in him the most vehement emotions. He is quite proud of being so vibrant a musical instrument, and boasts that where the Philistine remains completely cold, he feels his inner self confounded, the depths of his being broken up, and the bliss of the Beautiful possessing him to the tips of his fingers. His excitability appears to him a mark of superiority; he believes himself to be possessed by a peculiar insight lacking in other mortals, and he is fain to despise the vulgar herd for the dulness and narrowness of their minds. The unhappy creature does not suspect that he is conceited about a disease and boasting of a derangement of the mind; and certain silly critics, when, through fear of being pronounced deficient in comprehension, they make desperate efforts to share the emotions of a degenerate in regard to some insipid or ridiculous production, or when they praise in exaggerated expressions the beauties which the degenerate asserts he finds therein, are unconsciously simulating one of the stigmata of semi-insanity.

Besides moral insanity and emotionalism, there is to be observed in the degenerate a condition of mental weakness and despondency, which, according to the circumstances of his life, assumes the form of pessimism, a vague fear of all men, and of[20] the entire phenomenon of the universe, or self-abhorrence. ‘These patients,’ says Morel,[13] ‘feel perpetually compelled ... to commiserate themselves, to sob, to repeat with the most desperate monotony the same questions and words. They have delirious presentations of ruin and damnation, and all sorts of imaginary fears.’ ‘Ennui never quits me,’ said a patient of this kind, whose case Roubinovitch[14] describes, ‘ennui of myself.’ ‘Among moral stigmata,’ says the same author,[15] ‘there are also to be specified those undefinable apprehensions manifested by degenerates when they see, smell, or touch any object.’ And he further[16] calls to notice ‘their unconscious fear of everything and everyone.’ In this picture of the sufferer from melancholia; downcast, sombre, despairing of himself and the world, tortured by fear of the Unknown, menaced by undefined but dreadful dangers, we recognise in every detail the man of the Dusk of the Nations and the fin-de-siècle frame of mind, described in the first chapter.

With this characteristic dejectedness of the degenerate, there is combined, as a rule, a disinclination to action of any kind, attaining possibly to abhorrence of activity and powerlessness to will (aboulia). Now, it is a peculiarity of the human mind, known to every psychologist, that, inasmuch as the law of causality governs a man’s whole thought, he imputes a rational basis to all his own decisions. This was prettily expressed by Spinoza when he said: ‘If a stone flung by a human hand could think, it would certainly imagine that it flew because it wished to fly.’ Many mental conditions and operations of which we become conscious are the result of causes which do not reach our consciousness. In this case we fabricate causes a posteriori for them, satisfying our mental need of distinct causality, and we have no trouble in persuading ourselves that we have now truly explained them. The degenerate who shuns action, and is without will-power, has no suspicion that his incapacity for action is a consequence of his inherited deficiency of brain. He deceives himself into believing that he despises action from free determination, and takes pleasure in inactivity; and, in order to justify himself in his own eyes, he constructs a philosophy of renunciation and of contempt for the world and men, asserts that he has convinced himself of the excellence of Quietism, calls himself with consummate self-consciousness a Buddhist, and praises Nirvana in poetically eloquent phrases as the highest and worthiest ideal of the human mind. The degenerate and insane are the predestined disciples of Schopenhauer and Hartmann,[21] and need only to acquire a knowledge of Buddhism to become converts to it.

With the incapacity for action there is connected the predilection for inane reverie. The degenerate is not in a condition to fix his attention long, or indeed at all, on any subject, and is equally incapable of correctly grasping, ordering, or elaborating into ideas and judgments the impressions of the external world conveyed to his distracted consciousness by his defectively operating senses. It is easier and more convenient for him to allow his brain-centres to produce semi-lucid, nebulously blurred ideas and inchoate embryonic thoughts, and to surrender himself to the perpetual obfuscation of a boundless, aimless, and shoreless stream of fugitive ideas; and he rarely rouses himself to the painful attempt to check or counteract the capricious, and, as a rule, purely mechanical associations of ideas and succession of images, and bring under discipline the disorderly tumult of his fluid presentations. On the contrary, he rejoices in his faculty of imagination, which he contrasts with the insipidity of the Philistine, and devotes himself with predilection to all sorts of unlicensed pursuits permitted by the unshackled vagabondage of his mind; while he cannot endure well-ordered civil occupations, requiring attention and constant heed to reality. He calls this ‘having an idealist temperament,’ ascribes to himself irresistible æsthetic propinquities, and proudly styles himself an artist.[17]

We will briefly mention some peculiarities frequently manifested by a degenerate. He is tormented by doubts, seeks for the basis of all phenomena, especially those whose first causes are completely inaccessible to us, and is unhappy when his inquiries and ruminations lead, as is natural, to no result.[18] He is ever supplying new recruits to the army of system-inventing metaphysicians, profound expositors of the riddle of the universe, seekers for the philosopher’s stone, the squaring of the circle and perpetual motion.[19] These last three subjects have such a special attraction for him, that the Patent Office at Washington is forced to keep on hand printed replies to the numberless memorials in which patents are constantly[22] demanded for the solution of these chimerical problems. In view of Lombroso’s researches,[20] it can scarcely be doubted that the writings and acts of revolutionists and anarchists are also attributable to degeneracy. The degenerate is incapable of adapting himself to existing circumstances. This incapacity, indeed, is an indication of morbid variation in every species, and probably a primary cause of their sudden extinction. He therefore rebels against conditions and views of things which he necessarily feels to be painful, chiefly because they impose upon him the duty of self-control, of which he is incapable on account of his organic weakness of will. Thus he becomes an improver of the world, and devises plans for making mankind happy, which, without exception, are conspicuous quite as much by their fervent philanthropy, and often pathetic sincerity, as by their absurdity and monstrous ignorance of all real relations.

Finally, a cardinal mark of degeneration which I have reserved to the last, is mysticism. Colin says:[21] ‘Of all the delirious manifestations peculiar to the hereditarily-afflicted, none indicates the condition more clearly, we think, than mystical delirium, or, when the malady has not reached this point, the being constantly occupied with mystical and religious questions, an exaggerated piety, etc.’ I will not here multiply evidence and quotations. In the following books, where the art and poetry of the times are treated of, I shall find occasion to show the reader that no difference exists between these tendencies and the religious manias observed in nearly all degenerates and sufferers from hereditary mental taint.

I have enumerated the most important features characterizing the mental condition of the degenerate. The reader can now judge for himself whether or not the diagnosis ‘degeneration’ is applicable to the originators of the new æsthetic tendencies. It must not for that matter be supposed that degeneration is synonymous with absence of talent. Nearly all the inquirers who have had degenerates under their observation expressly establish the contrary. ‘The degenerate,’ says Legrain,[22] ‘may be a genius. A badly balanced mind is susceptible of the highest conceptions, while, on the other hand, one meets in the same mind with traits of meanness and pettiness all the more striking from the fact that they co-exist with the most brilliant qualities.’ We shall find this reservation in all authors[23] who have contributed to the natural history of the degenerate. ‘As regards their intellect, they can,’ says Roubinovitch,[23] ‘attain to a high degree of development, but from a moral point of view their existence is completely deranged.... A degenerate will employ his brilliant faculties quite as well in the service of some grand object as in the satisfaction of the basest propensities.’ Lombroso[24] has cited a large number of undoubted geniuses who were equally undoubted mattoids, graphomaniacs, or pronounced lunatics; and the utterance of a French savant, Guérinsen, ‘Genius is a disease of the nerves,’ has become a ‘winged word.’ This expression was imprudent, for it gave ignorant babblers a pretext, and apparently a right, to talk of exaggeration, and to contemn experts in nervous and mental diseases, because they professedly saw a lunatic in everyone who ventured to be something more than the most ordinary, characterless, average being. Science does not assert that every genius is a lunatic; there are some geniuses of superabundant power whose high privilege consists in the possession of one or other extraordinarily developed faculty, without the rest of their faculties falling short of the average standard. Just as little, naturally, is every lunatic a genius; most of them, even if we disregard idiots of different degrees, are much rather pitiably stupid and incapable; but in many, nay, in abundant cases, the ‘higher degenerate’ of Magnan, just as he occasionally exhibits gigantic bodily stature or the disproportionate growth of particular parts, has some mental gift exceptionally developed at the cost, it is true, of the remaining faculties, which are wholly or partially atrophied.[25] It is this which enables the well-informed to distinguish at the first glance between the sane genius, and the highly, or even the most highly, gifted degenerate. Take from the former the special capacity through which he becomes a genius, and there still remains a capable, often conspicuously intelligent, clever, moral, and judicious man, who will hold his ground with propriety in our social mechanism. Let the same be tried in the case of a degenerate, and there remains only a criminal or madman, for whom healthy humanity can find no use. If[24] Goethe had never written a line of verse, he would, all the same, have still remained a man of the world, of good principles, a fine art connoisseur, a judicious collector, a keen observer of nature. Let us, on the contrary, imagine a Schopenhauer who had written no astounding books, and we should have before us only a repulsive lusus naturæ, whose morals would necessarily exclude him from all respectable society, and whose fixed idea that he was a victim of persecution would point him out as a subject for a madhouse. The lack of harmony, the absence of balance, the singular incapacity of usefully applying, or deriving satisfaction from, their own special faculty among highly-gifted degenerates, strikes every healthy censor who does not allow himself to be prejudiced by the noisy admiration of critics, themselves degenerates: and will always prevent his mistaking the mattoid for the same exceptional man who opens out new paths for humanity and leads it to higher developments. I do not share Lombroso’s opinion[26] that highly-gifted degenerates are an active force in the progress of mankind. They corrupt and delude; they do, alas! frequently exercise a deep influence, but this is always a baneful one. It may not be at once remarked, but it will reveal itself subsequently. If cotemporaries do not recognise it, the historian of morals will point it out a posteriori. They, likewise, are leading men along the paths they themselves have found to new goals; but these goals are abysses or waste places. They are guides to swamps like will-o’-the-wisps, or to ruin like the ratcatcher of Hammelin. Observers lay stress on their unnatural sterility. ‘They are,’ says Tarabaud,[27] ‘cranks; wrong-headed, unbalanced, incapable creatures; they belong to the class of whom it may not be said that they have no mind, but whose mind produces nothing.’ ‘A common type,’ writes Legrain,[28] ‘unites them:—weakness of judgment and unequal development of mental powers.... Their conceptions are never of a high order. They are incapable of great thoughts and prolific ideas. This fact forms a peculiar contrast to the frequently excessive development of their powers of imagination.’ ‘If they are painters,’ we read in Lombroso,[29] ‘then their predominant attribute will be the colour-sense; they will be decorative. If they are poets, they will be rich in rhyme, brilliant in style, but barren of thought; sometimes they will be “decadents.”’

Such are the qualities of the most gifted of those who are[25] discovering new paths, and are proclaimed by enthusiastic followers as the guides to the promised land of the future. Among them degenerates and mattoids predominate. The second of the above-mentioned diagnoses, on the contrary, applies for the most part to the multitude who admire these individuals and swear by them, who imitate the fashions they design, and take delight in the extravagances described in the previous chapter. In their case we have to deal chiefly with hysteria, or neurasthenia.

For reasons which will be elucidated in the next chapter, hysteria has hitherto been less studied in Germany than in France, where, more than elsewhere, it has formed a subject of earnest inquiry. We owe what we know of it almost exclusively to French investigators. The copious treatises of Axenfeld,[30] Richer,[31] and in particular Gilles de la Tourette,[32] adequately comprise our present knowledge of this malady; and I shall refer to these works when I enumerate the symptoms chiefly indicative of hysteria.

Among the hysterical—and it must not be thought that these are met with exclusively, or even preponderantly, among females, for they are quite as often, perhaps oftener, found among males[33]—among the hysterical, as among the degenerate, the first thing which strikes us is an extraordinary emotionalism. ‘The leading characteristic of the hysterical,’ says Colin,[34] ‘is the disproportionate impressionability of their psychic centres.... They are, above all things, impressionable.’ From this primary peculiarity proceeds a second quite as remarkable and important—the exceeding ease with which they can be made to yield to suggestion.[35] The earlier observers always mentioned the boundless mendacity of the hysterical; growing, indeed, quite indignant at it, and making it the most prominent mark of the mental condition of such patients. They were mistaken. The hysterical subject does not consciously lie. He believes in the truth of his craziest inventions. The morbid mobility of his mind, the excessive excitability of his imagination, conveys to his consciousness all sorts of queer and senseless ideas. He suggests to himself that these ideas are founded on true perceptions, and believes in the truth of his foolish inventions until[26] a new suggestion—perhaps his own, perhaps that of another person—has ejected the earlier one. A result of the susceptibility of the hysterical subject to suggestion is his irresistible passion for imitation,[36] and the eagerness with which he yields to all the suggestions of writers and artists.[37] When he sees a picture, he wants to become like it in attitude and dress; when he reads a book, he adopts its views blindly. He takes as a pattern the heroes of the novels which he has in his hand at the moment, and infuses himself into the characters moving before him on the stage.

Added to this emotionalism and susceptibility to suggestion is a love of self never met with in a sane person in anything like the same degree. The hysterical person’s own ‘I’ towers up before his inner vision, and so completely fills his mental horizon that it conceals the whole of the remaining universe. He cannot endure that others should ignore him. He desires to be as important to his fellow-men as he is to himself. ‘An incessant need pursues and governs the hysterical—to busy those about them with themselves.’[38] A means of satisfying this need is the fabrication of stories by which they become interesting. Hence come the adventurous occurrences which often enough occupy the police and the reports of the daily press. In the busiest thoroughfare the hysterical person is set upon, robbed, maltreated and wounded, dragged to a distant place, and left to die. He picks himself up painfully, and informs the police. He can show the wounds on his body. He gives all the details. And there is not a single word of truth in the whole story; it is all dreamt and imagined. He has himself inflicted his wounds in order for a short time to become the centre of public attention. In the lower stages of hysteria this need of making a sensation assumes more harmless forms. It displays itself in eccentricities of dress and behaviour. ‘Other hysterical subjects are passionately fond of glaring colours and extravagant forms; they wish to attract attention and make themselves talked about.’[39]

It is certainly unnecessary to draw the reader’s attention in a special manner to the complete coincidence of this clinical picture of hysteria with the description of the peculiarities of the fin-de-siècle public, and to the fact that in the former we meet with all the features made familiar to us by the consideration of contemporary phenomena; in particular with the passion for imitating in externals—in dress, attitude, fashion of the hair and beard—the figures in old and modern pictures, and the feverish effort, through any sort of singularity, to make[27] themselves talked about. The observation of pronounced cases of degeneration and hysteria, whose condition makes them necessary subjects for medical treatment, gives us also the key to the comprehension of subordinate details in the fashions of the day. The present rage for collecting, the piling up, in dwellings, of aimless bric-à-brac, which does not become any more useful or beautiful by being fondly called bibelots, appear to us in a completely new light when we know that Magnan has established the existence of an irresistible desire among the degenerate to accumulate useless trifles. It is so firmly imprinted and so peculiar that Magnan declares it to be a stigma of degeneration, and has invented for it the name ‘oniomania,’ or ‘buying craze.’ This is not to be confounded with the desire for buying, which possesses those who are in the first stage of general paralysis. The purchases of these persons are due to their delusion as to their own greatness. They lay in great supplies because they fancy themselves millionaires. The oniomaniac, on the contrary, neither buys enormous quantities of one and the same thing, nor is the price a matter of indifference to him as with the paralytic. He is simply unable to pass by any lumber without feeling an impulse to acquire it.

The curious style of certain recent painters—‘impressionists,’ ‘stipplers,’ or ‘mosaists,’ ‘papilloteurs’ or ‘quiverers,’ ‘roaring’ colourists, dyers in gray and faded tints—becomes at once intelligible to us if we keep in view the researches of the Charcot school into the visual derangements in degeneration and hysteria. The painters who assure us that they are sincere, and reproduce nature as they see it, speak the truth. The degenerate artist who suffers from nystagmus, or trembling of the eyeball, will, in fact, perceive the phenomena of nature trembling, restless, devoid of firm outline, and, if he is a conscientious painter, will give us pictures reminding us of the mode practised by the draughtsmen of the Fliegende Blätter when they represent a wet dog shaking himself vigorously. If his pictures fail to produce a comic effect, it is only because the attentive beholder reads in them the desperate effort to reproduce fully an impression incapable of reproduction by the expedients of the painter’s art as devised by men of normal vision.

There is hardly a hysterical subject whose retina is not partly insensitive.[40] As a rule the insensitive parts are connected, and include the outer half of the retina. In these cases the field of vision is more or less contracted, and appears to him not as it does to the normal man—as a circle—but as a picture bordered by whimsically zigzag lines. Often, however, the[28] insensitive parts are not connected, but are scattered in isolated spots over the entire retina. Then the sufferer will have all sorts of gaps in his field of vision, producing strange effects, and if he paints what he sees, he will be inclined to place in juxtaposition larger or smaller points or spots which are completely or partially dissociated. The insensitiveness need not be complete, and may exist only in the case of single colours, or of all. If the sensitiveness is completely lost (‘achromatopsy’) he then sees everything in a uniform gray, but perceives differences in the degree of lustre. Hence the picture of nature presents itself to him as a copper-plate or a pencil drawing—where the effect of the absent colours is replaced by differences in the intensity of light, by greater or less depth and power of the white and black portions. Painters who are insensitive to colour will naturally have a predilection for neutral-toned painting; and a public suffering from the same malady will find nothing objectionable in falsely-coloured pictures. But if, besides the whitewash of a Puvis de Chavannes, obliterating all colours equally, fanatics are found for the screaming yellow, blue, and red of a Besnard, this also has a cause, revealed to us by clinical science. ‘Yellow and blue,’ Gilles de la Tourette[41] teaches us, ‘are peripheral colours’ (i.e., they are seen with the outermost parts of the retina); ‘they are, therefore, the last to be perceived’ (if the sensitiveness for the remaining colours is destroyed). ‘These are ... the very two colours the sensations of which in hysterical amblyopia [dulness of vision] endure the longest. In many cases, however, it is the red, and not the blue, which vanishes last.’

Red has also another peculiarity explanatory of the predilection shown for it by the hysterical. The experiments of Binet[42] have established that the impressions conveyed to the brain by the sensory nerves exercise an important influence on the species and strength of the excitation distributed by the brain to the motor nerves. Many sense-impressions operate enervatingly and inhibitively on the movements; others, on the contrary, make these more powerful, rapid and active; they are ‘dynamogenous,’ or ‘force-producing.’ As a feeling of pleasure is always connected with dynamogeny, or the production of force, every living thing, therefore, instinctively seeks for dynamogenous sense-impressions, and avoids enervating and inhibitive ones. Now, red is especially dynamogenous. ‘When,’ says Binet,[43] in a report of an experiment on a female hysterical subject who was paralyzed in one half of her body, ‘we place a dynamometer[29] in the anæsthetically insensible right hand of Amélie Cle.... the pressure of the hand amounts to 12 kilogrammes. If at the same time she is made to look at a red disc, the number indicating the pressure in kilogrammes is at once doubled.’ Hence it is intelligible that hysterical painters revel in red, and that hysterical beholders take special pleasure in pictures operating dynamogenously, and producing feelings of pleasure.

If red is dynamogenous, violet is conversely enervating and inhibitive.[44] It was not by accident that violet was chosen by many nations as the exclusive colour for mourning, and by us also for half-mourning. The sight of this colour has a depressing effect, and the unpleasant feeling awakened by it induces dejection in a sorrowfully-disposed mind. This suggests that painters suffering from hysteria and neurasthenia will be inclined to cover their pictures uniformly with the colour most in accordance with their condition of lassitude and exhaustion. Thus originate the violet pictures of Manet and his school, which spring from no actually observable aspect of nature, but from a subjective view due to the condition of the nerves. When the entire surface of walls in salons and art exhibitions of the day appears veiled in uniform half-mourning, this predilection for violet is simply an expression of the nervous debility of the painter.

There is yet another phenomenon highly characteristic in some cases of degeneracy, in others of hysteria. This is the formation of close groups or schools uncompromisingly exclusive to outsiders, observable to-day in literature and art. Healthy artists or authors, in possession of minds in a condition of well-regulated equilibrium, will never think of grouping themselves into an association, which may at pleasure be termed a sect or band; of devising a catechism, of binding themselves to definite æsthetic dogmas, and of entering the lists for these with the fanatical intolerance of Spanish inquisitors. If any human activity is individualistic, it is that of the artist. True talent is always personal. In its creations it reproduces itself, its own views and feelings, and not the articles of faith learnt from any æsthetic apostle; it follows its creative impulses, not a theoretical formula preached by the founder of a new artistic or literary church; it constructs its work in the form organically necessary to it, not in that proclaimed by a leader as demanded by the fashion of the day. The mere fact that an artist or author allows himself to be[30] sworn in to the party cry of any ‘ism,’ that he perambulates with jubilations behind a banner and Turkish music, is complete evidence of his lack of individuality—that is, of talent. If the mental movements of a period—even those which are healthy and prolific—range themselves, as a rule, under certain main tendencies, which receive each its distinguishing name, this is the work of historians of civilization or literature, who subsequently survey the combined picture of an epoch, and for their own convenience undertake divisions and classifications, in order that they may more correctly find their way among the multifariousness of the phenomena. These are, however, almost always arbitrary and artificial. Independent minds (we are not here speaking of mere imitators), united by a good critic into a group, may, it is true, have a certain resemblance to each other, but, as a rule, this resemblance will be the consequence, not of actual internal affinity, but of external influences. No one is able completely to withdraw himself from the influences of his time, and under the impression of events which affect all contemporaries alike, as well as of the scientific views prevailing at a given time, certain features develop themselves in all the works of an epoch, which stamp them as of the same date. But the same men who subsequently appear so naturally in each other’s company, in historical works, that they seem to form a family, went when they lived their separate ways far asunder, little suspecting that at one time they would be united under one common designation. Quite otherwise it is when authors or artists consciously and intentionally meet together and found an æsthetic school, as a joint-stock bank is founded, with a title for which, if possible, the protection of the law is claimed, with by-laws, joint capital, etc. This may be ordinary speculation, but as a rule it is disease. The predilection for forming societies met with among all the degenerate and hysterical may assume different forms. Criminals unite in bands, as Lombroso expressly establishes.[45] Among pronounced lunatics it is the folie à deux, in which a deranged person completely forces his insane ideas on a companion; among the hysterical it assumes the form of close friendships, causing Charcot to repeat at every opportunity: ‘Persons of highly-strung nerves attract each other;’[46] and finally authors found schools.

The common organic basis of these different forms of one and the same phenomenon—of the folie à deux, the association of neuropaths, the founding of æsthetic schools, the banding of criminals—is, with the active part, viz., those who lead and inspire, the predominance of obsessions: with the[31] associates, the disciples, the submissive part, weakness of will and morbid susceptibility to suggestion.[47] The possessor of an obsession is an incomparable apostle. There is no rational conviction arrived at by sound labour of intellect, which so completely takes possession of the mind, subjugates so tyrannically its entire activity, and so irresistibly impels it to words and deeds, as delirium. Every proof of the senselessness of his ideas rebounds from the deliriously insane or half-crazy person. No contradiction, no ridicule, no contempt, affects him; the opinion of the majority is to him a matter of indifference; facts which do not please him he does not notice, or so interprets that they seem to support his delirium; obstacles do not discourage him, because even his instinct of self-preservation is unable to cope with the power of his delirium, and for the same reason he is often enough ready, without further ado, to suffer martyrdom. Weak-minded or mentally-unbalanced persons, coming into contact with a man possessed by delirium, are at once conquered by the strength of his diseased ideas, and are converted to them. By separating them from the source of inspiration, it is often possible to cure them of their transmitted delirium, but frequently their acquired derangement outlasts this separation.

This is the natural history of the æsthetic schools. Under the influence of an obsession, a degenerate mind promulgates some doctrine or other—realism, pornography, mysticism, symbolism, diabolism. He does this with vehement penetrating eloquence, with eagerness and fiery heedlessness. Other degenerate, hysterical, neurasthenical minds flock around him, receive from his lips the new doctrine, and live thenceforth only to propagate it.

In this case all the participants are sincere—the founder as well as the disciples. They act as, in consequence of the diseased constitution of their brain and nervous system, they are compelled to act. The picture, however, which from a clinical standpoint is perfectly clear, gets dimmed if the apostle of a craze and his followers succeed in attracting to themselves the attention of wider circles. He then receives a concourse of unbelievers, who are very well able to recognise the insanity of the new doctrine, but who nevertheless accept it, because they hope, as associates of the new sect, to acquire fame and money. In every civilized nation which has a developed art and literature there are numerous intellectual eunuchs, incapable of producing with their own powers a living mental work, but quite able to imitate the process of production. These cripples[32] form, unfortunately, the majority of professional authors and artists, and their many noxious followers often enough stifle true and original talent. Now it is these who hasten to act as camp-followers for every new tendency which seems to come into fashion. They are naturally the most modern of moderns, for no precept of individuality, no artistic knowledge, hinders them from bunglingly imitating the newest model with all the assiduity of an artisan. Clever in discerning externals, unscrupulous copyists and plagiarists, they crowd round every original phenomenon, be it healthy or unhealthy, and without loss of time set about disseminating counterfeit copies of it. To-day they are symbolists, as yesterday they were realists or pornographists. If they can promise themselves fame and a good sale, they write of mysteries with the same fluency as if they were spinning romances of knights and robbers, tales of adventure, Roman tragedies, and village stories at a time when newspaper critics and the public seemed to demand these things in preference to others. Now these practitioners, who, let it be again asserted, constitute the great majority of the mental workers of the fashionable sects in art and literature, and therefore of the associates of these sects also, are intellectually quite sane, even if they stand at a very low level of development, and were anyone to examine them, he might easily doubt the accuracy of the diagnosis ‘Degeneration’ as regards the confessors of the new doctrines. Hence some caution must be exercised in the inquiry, and the sincere originators be always distinguished from the aping intriguers,—the founder of the religion and his apostles from the rabble to whom the Sermon on the Mount is of less concern than the miraculous draught of fishes and the multiplication of loaves.

It has now been shown how schools originate. They arise from the degeneration of their founders and of the imitators they have convinced. That they come into fashion, and for a short time attain a noisy success, is due to the peculiarities of the recipient public, namely, to hysteria. We have seen that hypersusceptibility to suggestion is the distinguishing characteristic of hysteria. The same power of obsession with which the degenerate in mind wins imitators, gathers round him adherents. When a hysterical person is loudly and unceasingly assured that a work is beautiful, deep, pregnant with the future, he believes in it. He believes in everything suggested to him with sufficient impressiveness. When the little cow-girl, Bernadette, saw the vision of the Holy Virgin in the grotto of Lourdes, the women devotees and hysterical males of the surrounding country who flocked thither did not merely believe that the hallucinant maiden had herself seen the vision, but all of them saw the Holy Virgin with their own eyes. M. E. de[33] Goncourt[48] relates that in 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, a multitude of men, numbering tens of thousands, in and before the Bourse in Paris, were convinced that they had themselves seen—indeed, a part of them had read—a telegram announcing French victories fastened to a pillar inside the Exchange, and at which people were pointing with their finger; but as a matter of fact it never existed. It would be possible to cite examples by the dozen, of illusions of the senses suggested to excited crowds. Thus the hysterical allow themselves without more ado to be convinced of the magnificence of a work, and even find in it beauties of the highest kind, unthought of by the authors themselves and the appointed trumpeters of their fame. If the sect is so completely established that, in addition to the founders, the priests of the temple, the paid sacristans and choir-boys, it has a congregation, processions, and far-sounding bells, it then attaches to itself other converts besides the hysterical who have accepted the new belief by way of suggestion. Young persons without judgment, still seeking their way, go whither they see the multitude streaming, and unhesitatingly follow the procession, because they believe it to be marching on the right road. Superficial persons, fearing nothing so much as to be thought behind the times, attach themselves to the procession, shouting ‘Hurrah!’ and ‘All hail!’ so as to convince themselves that they also are really dancing along before the latest conqueror and newest celebrity. Decrepit gray-beards, filled with a ridiculous dread of betraying their real age, eagerly visit the new temple and mingle their quavering voices in the song of the devout, because they hope to be thought young when seen in an assembly in which young persons predominate.

Thus a regular concourse is established about a victim of degeneration. The fashionable coxcomb, the æsthetic ‘gigerl,’[49] peeps over the shoulder of the hysterical whose admiration has been suggested to him; the intriguer marches at the heel of the dotard, simulating youth; and between all these comes pushing the inquisitive young street-loafer, who must always be in every place where ‘something is going on.’ And this crowd, because it is driven by disease, self-interest and vanity, makes very much more noise and bustle than a far larger number of sane men, who, without self-seeking after-thought, take quiet enjoyment in works of sane talent, and do not feel obliged to shout out their appreciation in the streets, and to threaten with death harmless passers-by who do not join in their jubilations.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:40 am


We have recognised the effect of diseases in these fin-de-siècle literary and artistic tendencies and fashions, as well as in the susceptibility of the public with regard to them, and we have succeeded in maintaining that these diseases are degeneracy and hysteria. We have now to inquire how these maladies of the day have originated, and why they appear with such extraordinary frequency at the present time.

Morel,[50] the great investigator of degeneracy, traces this chiefly to poisoning. A race which is regularly addicted, even without excess, to narcotics and stimulants in any form (such as fermented alcoholic drinks, tobacco, opium, hashish, arsenic), which partakes of tainted foods (bread made with bad corn), which absorbs organic poisons (marsh fever, syphilis, tuberculosis, goitre), begets degenerate descendants who, if they remain exposed to the same influences, rapidly descend to the lowest degrees of degeneracy, to idiocy, to dwarfishness, etc. That the poisoning of civilized peoples continues and increases at a very rapid rate is widely attested by statistics.[51] The consumption of tobacco has risen in France from 0.8 kilogramme per head in 1841 to 1.9 kilogrammes in 1890. The corresponding figures for England are 13 and 26 ounces;[52] for Germany, 0.8 and 1.5 kilogrammes. The consumption of alcohol[53] during[35] the same period has risen in Germany (1844) from 5.45 quarts to (1867) 6.86 quarts; in England from 2.01 litres to 2.64 litres; in France from 1.33 to 4 litres. The increase in the consumption of opium and hashish is still greater, but we need not concern ourselves about that, since the chief sufferers from them are Eastern peoples, who play no part in the intellectual development of the white races. To these noxious influences, however, one more may be added, which Morel has not known, or has not taken into consideration—residence in large towns. The inhabitant of a large town, even the richest, who is surrounded by the greatest luxury, is continually exposed to unfavourable influences which diminish his vital powers far more than what is inevitable. He breathes an atmosphere charged with organic detritus; he eats stale, contaminated, adulterated food; he feels himself in a state of constant nervous excitement, and one can compare him without exaggeration to the inhabitant of a marshy district. The effect of a large town on the human organism offers the closest analogy to that of the Maremma, and its population falls victim to the same fatality of degeneracy and destruction as the victims of malaria. The death-rate in a large town is more than a quarter greater than the average for the entire population; it is double that of the open country, though in reality it ought to be less, since in a large town the most vigorous ages predominate, during which the mortality is lower than in infancy and old age.[54] And the children of large towns who are not carried off at an early age suffer from the peculiar arrested development which Morel[55] has ascertained in the population of fever districts. They develop more or less normally until fourteen or fifteen years of age, are up to that time alert, sometimes brilliantly endowed, and give the highest promise; then suddenly there is a standstill, the mind loses its facility of comprehension, and the boy who, only yesterday, was a model scholar, becomes an obtuse, clumsy dunce, who can only be steered with the greatest[36] difficulty through his examinations. With these mental changes bodily modifications go hand in hand. The growth of the long bones is extremely slow, or ceases entirely, the legs remain short, the pelvis retains a feminine form, certain other organs cease to develop, and the entire being presents a strange and repulsive mixture of incompleteness and decay.[56]

Now we know how, in the last generation, the number of the inhabitants of great towns increased[57] to an extraordinary degree. At the present time an incomparably larger portion of the whole population is subjected to the destructive influences of large towns than was the case fifty years ago; hence the number of victims is proportionately more striking, and continually becomes more remarkable. Parallel with the growth of large towns is the increase in the number of the degenerate of all kinds—criminals, lunatics, and the ‘higher degenerates’ of Magnan; and it is natural that these last should play an ever more prominent part in endeavouring to introduce an ever greater element of insanity into art and literature.

The enormous increase of hysteria in our days is partly due to the same causes as degeneracy, besides which there is one cause much more general still than the growth of large towns—a cause which perhaps of itself would not be sufficient to bring about degeneracy, but which is unquestionably quite enough to produce hysteria and neurasthenia. This cause is the fatigue of the present generation. That hysteria is in reality a consequence of fatigue Féré has conclusively demonstrated by convincing experiments. In a communication to the Biological Society of Paris, this distinguished investigator says:[58] ‘I have recently observed a certain number of facts which have made apparent the analogy existing between fatigue and the chronic condition of the hysterical. One knows that among the hysterical [involuntary!] symmetry of movements[37] frequently shows itself in a very characteristic manner. I have proved that in normal subjects this same symmetry of movements is met with under the influence of fatigue. A phenomenon which shows itself in a very marked way in serious hysteria is that peculiar excitability which demonstrates that the energy of the voluntary movements, through peripheral stimulations or mental presentations, suffers rapid and transitory modifications co-existing with parallel modifications of sensibility, and of the functions of nutrition. This excitability can be equally manifested during fatigue.... Fatigue constitutes a true temporary experimental hysteria. It establishes a transition between the states which we call normal and the various states which we designate hysteria. One can change a normal into a hysterical individual by tiring him.... All these causes (which produce hysteria) can, as far as the pathogenic part they play is concerned, be traced to one simple physiological process—to fatigue, to depression of vitality.’

Now, to this cause—fatigue—which, according to Féré, changes healthy men into hysterical, the whole of civilized humanity has been exposed for half a century. All its conditions of life have, in this period of time, experienced a revolution unexampled in the history of the world. Humanity can point to no century in which the inventions which penetrate so deeply, so tyrannically, into the life of every individual are crowded so thick as in ours. The discovery of America, the Reformation, stirred men’s minds powerfully, no doubt, and certainly also destroyed the equilibrium of thousands of brains which lacked staying power. But they did not change the material life of man. He got up and laid down, ate and drank, dressed, amused himself, passed his days and years as he had been always wont to do. In our times, on the contrary, steam and electricity have turned the customs of life of every member of the civilized nations upside down, even of the most obtuse and narrow-minded citizen, who is completely inaccessible to the impelling thoughts of the times.

In an exceptionally remarkable lecture by Professor A. W. von Hofmann, in 1890, before the Congress of German Natural Science held in Bremen, he gave, in concluding, a short description of the life of an inhabitant of a town in the year 1822. He shows us a student of science who at that date is arriving with the coach from Bremen to Leipzig. The journey has lasted four days and four nights, and the traveller is naturally stiff and bruised. His friends receive him, and he wishes to refresh himself a little. But there is yet no Munich beer in Leipzig. After a short interview with his comrades, he goes in search of his inn. This is no easy task, for in the streets an Egyptian darkness reigns, broken only at long[38] distances by the smoky flame of an oil-lamp. He at last finds his quarters, and wishes for a light. As matches do not yet exist, he is reduced to bruising the tips of his fingers with flint and steel, till he succeeds at last in lighting a tallow candle. He expects a letter, but it has not come, and he cannot now receive it till after some days, for the post only runs twice a week between Frankfort and Leipzig.[59]

But it is unnecessary to go back to the year 1822, chosen by Professor Hofmann. Let us stop, for purposes of comparison, at the year 1840. This year has not been arbitrarily selected. It is about the date when that generation was born which has witnessed the irruption of new discoveries in every relation of life, and thus personally experienced those transformations which are the consequences. This generation reigns and governs to-day; it sets the tone everywhere, and its sons and daughters are the youth of Europe and America, in whom the new æsthetic tendencies gain their fanatical partisans. Let us now compare how things went on in the civilized world in 1840 and a half-century later.[60]

In 1840 there were in Europe 3,000 kilometres of railway; in 1891 there were 218,000 kilometres. The number of travellers in 1840, in Germany, France and England, amounted to 2-1/2 millions; in 1891 it was 614 millions. In Germany every inhabitant received, in 1840, 85 letters; in 1888, 200 letters. In 1840 the post distributed in France 94 millions of letters; in England, 277 millions; in 1881, 595 and 1,299 millions respectively. The collective postal intercourse between all countries, without including the internal postage of each separate country, amounted, in 1840, to 92 millions; in 1889, to 2,759 millions. In Germany, in 1840, 305 newspapers were published; in 1891, 6,800; in France, 776 and 5,182; in England (1846), 551 and 2,255. The German book trade produced, in 1840, 1,100 new works; in 1891, 18,700. The exports and imports of the world had, in 1840, a value of 28, in 1889 of 74, milliards of marks. The ships which, in 1840, entered all the ports of Great Britain contained 9-1/2, in 1890 74-1/2, millions of tons. The whole British merchant navy measured, in 1840, 3,200,000; in 1890, 9,688,000 tons.


Let us now consider how these formidable figures arise. The 18,000 new publications, the 6,800 newspapers in Germany, desire to be read, although many of them desire in vain; the 2,759 millions of letters must be written; the larger commercial transactions, the numerous journeys, the increased marine intercourse, imply a correspondingly greater activity in individuals. The humblest village inhabitant has to-day a wider geographical horizon, more numerous and complex intellectual interests, than the prime minister of a petty, or even a second-rate state a century ago. If he do but read his paper, let it be the most innocent provincial rag, he takes part, certainly not by active interference and influence, but by a continuous and receptive curiosity, in the thousand events which take place in all parts of the globe, and he interests himself simultaneously in the issue of a revolution in Chili, in a bush-war in East Africa, a massacre in North China, a famine in Russia, a street-row in Spain, and an international exhibition in North America. A cook receives and sends more letters than a university professor did formerly, and a petty tradesman travels more and sees more countries and people than did the reigning prince of other times.

All these activities, however, even the simplest, involve an effort of the nervous system and a wearing of tissue. Every line we read or write, every human face we see, every conversation we carry on, every scene we perceive through the window of the flying express, sets in activity our sensory nerves and our brain centres. Even the little shocks of railway travelling, not perceived by consciousness, the perpetual noises, and the various sights in the streets of a large town, our suspense pending the sequel of progressing events, the constant expectation of the newspaper, of the postman, of visitors, cost our brains wear and tear. In the last fifty years the population of Europe has not doubled, whereas the sum of its labours has increased tenfold, in part even fifty-fold. Every civilized man furnishes, at the present time, from five to twenty-five times as much work as was demanded of him half a century ago.

This enormous increase in organic expenditure has not, and cannot have, a corresponding increase of supply. Europeans now eat a little more and a little better than they did fifty years ago, but by no means in proportion to the increase of effort which to-day is required of them. And even if they had the choicest food in the greatest abundance, it would do nothing towards helping them, for they would be incapable of digesting it. Our stomachs cannot keep pace with the brain and nervous system. The latter demand very much more than the former are able to perform. And so there follows[40] what always happens if great expenses are met by small incomes; first the savings are consumed, then comes bankruptcy.

Its own new discoveries and progress have taken civilized humanity by surprise. It has had no time to adapt itself to its changed conditions of life. We know that our organs acquire by exercise an ever greater functional capacity, that they develop by their own activity, and can respond to nearly every demand made upon them; but only under one condition—that this occurs gradually, that time be allowed them. If they are obliged to fulfil, without transition, a multiple of their usual task, they soon give out entirely. No time was left to our fathers. Between one day and the next, as it were, without preparation, with murderous suddenness, they were obliged to change the comfortable creeping gait of their former existence for the stormy stride of modern life, and their heart and lungs could not bear it. The strongest could keep up, no doubt, and even now, at the most rapid pace, no longer lose their breath, but the less vigorous soon fell out right and left, and fill to-day the ditches on the road of progress.

To speak without metaphor, statistics indicate in what measure the sum of work of civilized humanity has increased during the half-century. It had not quite grown to this increased effort. It grew fatigued and exhausted, and this fatigue and exhaustion showed themselves in the first generation, under the form of acquired hysteria; in the second, as hereditary hysteria.

The new æsthetic schools and their success are a form of this general hysteria; but they are far from being the only one. The malady of the period shows itself in yet many other phenomena which can be measured and counted, and thus are susceptible of being scientifically established. And these positive and unambiguous symptoms of exhaustion are well adapted to enlighten the ignorant, who might believe at first sight that the specialist acts arbitrarily in tracing back fashionable tendencies in art and literature to states of fatigue in civilized humanity.

It has become a commonplace to speak of the constant increase of crime, madness and suicide. In 1840, in Prussia, out of 100,000 persons of criminally responsible age, there were 714 convictions; in 1888, 1,102 (from a letter communicated by the Prussian bureau of statistics). In 1865, in every 10,000 Europeans there were 63 suicides; in 1883, 109; and since that time the number has increased considerably. In the last twenty years a number of new nervous diseases have been discovered and named.[61] Let it not be believed that they always existed, and were merely overlooked. If they had been[41] met with anywhere they would have been detected, for even if the theories which prevailed in medicine at various periods were erroneous, there have always been perspicacious and attentive physicians who knew how to observe. If, then, the new nervous diseases were not noticed, it is because they did not formerly appear. And they are exclusively a consequence of the present conditions of civilized life. Many affections of the nervous system already bear a name which implies that they are a direct consequence of certain influences of modern civilization. The terms ‘railway-spine’ and ‘railway-brain,’ which the English and American pathologists have given to certain states of these organs, show that they recognise them as due partly to the effects of railway accidents, partly to the constant vibrations undergone in railway travelling. Again, the great increase in the consumption of narcotics and stimulants, which has been shown in the figures above, has its origin unquestionably in the exhausted systems with which the age abounds. There is here a disastrous, vicious circle of reciprocal effects. The drinker (and apparently the smoker also) begets enfeebled children, hereditarily fatigued or degenerated, and these drink and smoke in their turn, because they are fatigued. These crave for a stimulus, for a momentary, artificial invigoration, or an alleviation of their painful excitability, and then, when they recognise that this increases, in the long-run, their exhaustion as well as their excitability, they cannot, through weakness of will, resist those habits.[62]

Many observers assert that the present generation ages much more rapidly than the preceding one. Sir James Crichton-Browne points out this effect of modern circumstances on contemporaries in his speech at the opening of the winter term, 1891, before the medical faculty of the Victoria University.[63] From 1859 to 1863 there died in England, of heart-disease, 92,181 persons; from 1884 to 1888, 224,102. Nervous complaints carried off from 1864 to 1868, 196,000 persons; from 1884 to 1888, 260,558. The difference of figures would have been still more striking if Sir James had chosen a more remote period for comparison with the present, for in 1865 the high pressure under which the English worked was already nearly as great as in 1885. The dead carried off by heart and nerve diseases are the victims of civilization. The heart and nervous system first break down under the overstrain. Sir James in his speech says further on: ‘Men and women grow[42] old before their time. Old age encroaches upon the period of vigorous manhood.... Deaths due exclusively to old age are found reported now between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five....’ Mr. Critchett (an eminent oculist) says: ‘My own experience, which extends now over a quarter of a century, leads me to believe that men and women, in the present day, seek the aid of spectacles at a less advanced period of life than their ancestors.... Previously men had recourse to spectacles at the age of fifty. The average age is now forty-five years.’ Dentists assert that teeth decay and fall out at an earlier age than formerly. Dr. Lieving attests the same respecting the hair, and assures us that precocious baldness is to be specially observed ‘among persons of nervous temperaments and active mind, but of weak general health.’ Everyone who looks round the circle of his friends and acquaintances will remark that the hair begins to turn gray much sooner than in former days. Most men and women show their first white hairs at the beginning of the thirties, many of them at a very much younger age. Formerly white hair was the accompaniment of the fiftieth year.

All the symptoms enumerated are the consequences of states of fatigue and exhaustion, and these, again, are the effect of contemporary civilization, of the vertigo and whirl of our frenzied life, the vastly increased number of sense impressions and organic reactions, and therefore of perceptions, judgments, and motor impulses, which at present are forced into a given unity of time. To this general cause of contemporary pathological phenomena, one may be added special to France. By the frightful loss of blood which the body of the French people suffered during the twenty years of the Napoleonic wars, by the violent moral upheavals to which they were subjected in the great Revolution and during the imperial epic, they found themselves exceedingly ill-prepared for the impact of the great discoveries of the century, and sustained by these a more violent shock than other nations more robust and more capable of resistance. Upon this nation, nervously strained and predestined to morbid derangement, there broke the awful catastrophe of 1870. It had, with a self-satisfaction which almost attained to megalomania, believed itself the first nation in the world; it now saw itself suddenly humiliated and crushed. All its convictions abruptly crumbled to pieces. Every single Frenchman suffered reverses of fortune, lost some members of his family, and felt himself personally robbed of his dearest conceptions, nay, even of his honour. The whole people fell into the condition of a man suddenly visited by a crushing blow of destiny, in his fortune, his position, his family, his reputation, even in his self-respect. Thousands lost their reason. In[43] Paris a veritable epidemic of mental diseases was observed, for which a special name was found—la folie obsidionale, ‘siege-madness.’ And even those who did not at once succumb to mental derangement, suffered lasting injury to their nervous system. This explains why hysteria and neurasthenia are much more frequent in France, and appear under such a greater variety of forms, and why they can be studied far more closely in this country than anywhere else. But it explains, too, that it is precisely in France that the craziest fashions in art and literature would necessarily arise, and that it is precisely there that the morbid exhaustion of which we have spoken became for the first time sufficiently distinct to consciousness to allow a special name to be coined for it, namely, the designation of fin-de-siècle.

The proposition which I set myself to prove may now be taken as demonstrated. In the civilized world there obviously prevails a twilight mood which finds expression, amongst other ways, in all sorts of odd æsthetic fashions. All these new tendencies, realism or naturalism, ‘decadentism,’ neo-mysticism, and their sub-varieties, are manifestations of degeneration and hysteria, and identical with the mental stigmata which the observations of clinicists have unquestionably established as belonging to these. But both degeneration and hysteria are the consequences of the excessive organic wear and tear suffered by the nations through the immense demands on their activity, and through the rank growth of large towns.

Led by this firmly linked chain of causes and effects, everyone capable of logical thought will recognise that he commits a serious error if, in the æsthetic schools which have sprung up in the last few years, he sees the heralds of a new era. They do not direct us to the future, but point backwards to times past. Their word is no ecstatic prophecy, but the senseless stammering and babbling of deranged minds, and what the ignorant hold to be the outbursts of gushing, youthful vigour and turbulent constructive impulses are really nothing but the convulsions and spasms of exhaustion.

We should not allow ourselves to be deceived by certain catch-words, frequently uttered in the works of these professed innovators. They talk of socialism, of emancipation of the mind, etc., and thereby create the outward show of being deeply imbued with the thoughts and struggles of the times. But this is empty sham. The catch-words in vogue are scattered through the works without internal sequence, and the struggles of the times are merely painted on the outside. It is a phenomenon observed in every kind of mania, that it receives its special colouring from the degree of culture of the invalid, and from the views prevailing at the times in which he lived.[44] The Catholic who is a prey to megalomania fancies he is the Pope; the Jew, that he is the Messiah; the German, that he is the Emperor or a field-marshal; the Frenchman, that he is the President of the Republic. In the persecution-mania, the invalid of former days complained of the wickedness and knavery of magicians and witches; to-day he grumbles because his imaginary enemies send electric streams through his nerves, and torment him with magnetism. The degenerates of to-day chatter of Socialism and Darwinism, because these words, and, in the best case, the ideas connected with these, are in current use. These so-called socialist and free-thinking works of the degenerate as little advance the development of society towards more equitable economic forms, and more rational views of the relations among phenomena, as the complaints and descriptions of an individual suffering from persecution-mania, and who holds electricity responsible for his disagreeable sensations, advance the knowledge of this force of nature. Those obscure or superficially verbose works which pretend to offer solutions for the serious questions of our times, or, at least, to prepare the way thereto, are even impediments and causes of delay, because they bewilder weak or unschooled brains, suggest to them erroneous views, and make them either more inaccessible to rational information or altogether closed to it.

The reader is now placed at those points of view whence he can see the new æsthetic tendencies in their true light and their real shape. It will be the task of the following books to demonstrate the pathological character of each one of these tendencies, and to inquire what particular species of degenerate delirium or hysterical psychological process they are related to or identical with.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:41 am



We have already learnt to see in mysticism a principal characteristic of degeneration. It follows so generally in the train of the latter, that there is scarcely a case of degeneration in which it does not appear. To cite authorities for this is about as unnecessary as to adduce proof for the fact that in typhus a rise in the temperature of the body is invariably observed. I will therefore only repeat one remark of Legrain’s:[64] ‘Mystical thoughts are to be laid to the account of the insanity of the degenerate. There are two states in which they are observed—in epilepsy and in hysterical delirium.’ When Federoff,[65] who makes mention of religious delirium and ecstasy as among the accompanying features of an attack of hysteria, puts them down as a peculiarity of women, he commits an error, since they are at least as common in male hysterical and degenerate subjects as in female.

What is really to be understood by this somewhat vague term ‘mysticism’? The word describes a state of mind in which the subject imagines that he perceives or divines unknown and inexplicable relations amongst phenomena, discerns in things hints at mysteries, and regards them as symbols, by which a dark power seeks to unveil or, at least, to indicate all sorts of marvels which he endeavours to guess, though generally in vain. This condition of mind is always connected with strong emotional excitement, which consciousness conceives to be the result of its presentiments, although it is this excitement, on the contrary, which is pre-existent, while the presentiments are caused by it and receive from it their peculiar direction and colour.

All phenomena in the world and in life present themselves in a different light to the mystic from what they do to the sane man. The simplest word uttered before the former appears to him an allusion to something mysteriously occult; in the most commonplace and natural movements he sees hidden signs. All things have for him deep backgrounds; far-reaching shadows are thrown by them over adjacent tracts; they send out wide-spreading roots into remote substrata. Every image that rises up in his mind points with mysterious silence, though with significant look and finger, to other images distinct or shadowy, and induces him to set up relations between ideas, where other people recognise no connection. In consequence of this peculiarity of his mind, the mystic lives as if surrounded by sinister forms, from behind whose masks enigmatic eyes look forth, and whom he contemplates with constant terror, since he is never sure of recognising any shapes among the disguises which press upon him. ‘Things are not what they seem’ is the characteristic expression frequently heard from the mystic. In the history of a ‘degenerate’ in the clinics of Magnan[66] it is written: ‘A child asks drink of him at a public fountain. He finds this unnatural. The child follows him. This fills him with astonishment. Another time he sees a woman sitting on a curb-stone. He asks himself what that could possibly mean.’ In extreme cases this morbid attitude amounts to hallucinations, which, as a rule, affect the hearing; but it can also influence sight and the other senses. When this is so, the mystic does not confine himself to conjectures and guesses at mysteries in and behind phenomena, but hears and sees as real, things which for the sane man are non-existent.

Pathological observation of the insane is content to describe this mental condition, and to determine its occurrence in the hysterical and degenerate. That, however, is not the end of the matter. We also want to know in what manner the degenerate or exhausted brain falls into mysticism. In order to understand the subject, we must refer to some simple facts in the growth of the mind.[67]

Conscious intellection is activity of the gray surface of the brain, a tissue consisting of countless nerve-cells united by nerve-fibres. In this tissue the nerves, both of the external bodily surface and of the internal organs, terminate. When one of these nerves is excited (the nerve of vision by a ray of[47] light, a nerve in the skin by contact, an organic nerve by internal chemical action, etc.), it at once conveys the excitement to the nerve-cell in the cerebral cortex in which it debouches. This cell undergoes in consequence chemical changes, which, in a healthy condition of the organism, are in direct relation to the strength of the stimulus. The nerve-cell, which is immediately affected by the stimulus conveyed to it by the conducting nerve, propagates in its turn the stimulus received to all the neighbouring cells with which it is connected by fibrous processes. The disturbance spreads itself on all sides, like a wave-circle that is caused by any object thrown into water, and subsides gradually exactly as does the wave—more quickly or more slowly, with greater or less diffusion, as the stimulus that caused it has been stronger or weaker.

Every stimulus which reaches a place on the cerebral cortex results in a rush of blood to that spot,[68] by means of which nutriment is conveyed to it. The brain-cells decompose these substances, and transmute the stored-up energy in them into other forms of energy, namely, into ideas and motor impulses.[69] How an idea is formed out of the decomposition of tissues, how a chemical process is metamorphosed into consciousness, nobody knows; but the fact that conscious ideas are connected with the process of decomposition of tissues in the stimulated brain-cells is not a matter of doubt.[70]

In addition to the fundamental property in the nerve-cells of responding to a stimulus produced by chemical action, they have also the capacity of preserving an image of the strength and character of this stimulus. To put it popularly, the cell is able to remember its impressions. If now a new, although it may be a weaker, disturbance reach this cell, it rouses in it an image of similar stimuli which had previously reached it, and this memory-image strengthens the new stimulus, making it more distinct and more intelligible to consciousness. If the cell could not remember, consciousness would be ever[48] incapable of interpreting its impressions, and could never succeed in attaining to a presentation of the outer world. Particular direct stimuli would certainly be perceived, but they would remain without connection or import, since they are by themselves, and without the assistance of earlier impressions, inadequate to lead to knowledge. Memory is therefore the first condition of normal brain activity.

The stimulus which reaches a brain-cell gives rise, as we have seen, to an expansion of this stimulus to the neighbouring cells, to a wave of stimulus proceeding in all directions. And since every stimulus is connected with the rise of conscious presentations, it proves that every stimulus calls a large number of presentations into consciousness, and not only such presentations as are related to the immediate external cause of the stimulation perceived, but also such as are only aroused by the cells that elaborate them happening to lie in the vicinity of that cell, or group of cells, which the external stimulus has immediately reached. The wave of stimulus, like every other wave-motion, is strongest at its inception; it subsides in direct ratio to the widening of its circle, till at last it vanishes into the imperceptible. Corresponding to this, the presentations, having their seat in cells which are in the immediate neighbourhood of those first reached by the stimulus, are the most lively, while those arising from the more distant cells are somewhat less distinct, and this distinctness continues to decrease until consciousness can no longer perceive them—until they, as science expresses it, sink beneath the threshold of consciousness. Each particular stimulus arouses, therefore, not only in the cell to which it was directly led, but also in countless other contiguous and connected cells, the activity which is bound up with presentation. Thus arise simultaneously, or, more accurately, following each other in an immeasurably short interval of time, thousands of impressions of regularly decreasing distinctness; and since unnumbered thousands of external and internal organic stimuli are carried to the brain, so continually thousands of stimulus-waves are coursing through it, crossing and intersecting each other with the greatest diversity, and in their course arousing millions of emerging, waning, and vanishing impressions. It is this that Goethe means when he depicts in such splendid language how

‘...ein Tritt tausend Fäden regt,
Die Schifflein herüber, hinüber schiessen,
Die Fäden ungesehen fliessen,
Ein Schlag tausend Verbindungen schlägt.’[71]

Now, memory is a property not only of the nerve-cell, but also of the nerve-fibre, which is only a modification of the cell. The fibre has a recollection of the stimulus which it conveyed, in the same way as the cell has of that which it has transformed into presentation and motion. A stimulus will be more easily conducted by a fibre which has already conveyed it, than by one which propagates it for the first time from one cell to another. Every stimulus which reaches a cell will take the line of least resistance, and this will be set out for it along those nerve-tracks which it has already traversed. Thus a definite path is formed for the course of a stimulus-wave, a customary line of march; it is always the same nerve-cells which exchange mutually their stimulus-waves. Presentation always awakens the same resulting presentations, and always appears in consciousness accompanied by them. This procedure is called the association of ideas.

It is neither volition nor accident that determines to which other cells a disturbed cell habitually communicates its stimulus, which accompanying impressions an aroused presentation draws with it into consciousness. On the contrary, the linking of presentations is dependent upon laws which Wundt especially has well formulated.

Those who have not been born blind and deaf (like the unfortunate Laura Bridgman, cited by all psychologists) will never be influenced by one external stimulus only, but invariably by many stimuli at once. Every single phenomenon of the outer world has, as a rule, not only one quality, but many; and since that which we call a quality is the assumed cause of a definite sensation, it results that phenomena appeal at once to several senses, are simultaneously seen, heard, felt, and moreover are seen in different degrees of light and colour, heard in various nuances of timbre, etc. The few phenomena which possess only one quality and arouse therefore only one sense, e.g., thunder, which is only heard, although with varying intensity, occur nevertheless in conjunction with other phenomena, such as, to keep to thunder, with a clouded sky, lightning and rain. Our brains are therefore accustomed to receive at once from every phenomenon several stimuli, which proceed partly from the many qualities of the phenomenon itself, and partly from the phenomena usually accompanying it. Now, it is sufficient that only one of these stimuli should reach the brain, in order to call into life, in virtue of the habitual association of the memory-images, the remaining stimuli of the same group as well. Simultaneity of impressions is therefore a cause of the association of ideas.

One and the same quality belongs to many phenomena. There is a whole series of things which are blue, round, and[50] smooth. The possession of a common quality is a condition of similarity, which is greater in proportion to the number of common qualities. Every single quality, however, belongs to a habitually associated group of qualities, and can by the mechanism of simultaneity arouse the memory-image of this group. In consequence of their similarity, therefore, the memory-images can be aroused of all those groups, which resemble each other in some quality. The colour blue is a quality which belongs equally to the cheerful sky, the cornflower, the sea, certain eyes, and many military uniforms. The perception of blue will awaken the memory of some or many blue things which are only related through their common colour. Similarity is therefore another cause of the association of ideas.

It is a distinctive characteristic of the brain-cell to elaborate at the same time both a presentation and its opposite. It is probable that what we perceive as its opposite is generally, in its original and simplest form, only the consciousness of the cessation of a certain presentation. As the fatigue of the optic nerve by a colour arouses the sensation of the complimentary colour, so, on the exhaustion of a brain-cell through the elaboration of a presentation, the contrary presentation appears in consciousness. Now, whether this interpretation be right or not, the fact itself is established through the ‘contradictory double meaning of primitive roots,’ discovered by K. Abel.[72] Contrast is the third cause of the association of ideas.

Many phenomena present themselves in the same place close to, or after, one another; and we associate there, presentation of the particular place with those objects, to which it is used to serve as a frame. Simultaneity, similarity, contrast, and occurrence in the same place (contiguity), are thus, according to Wundt, the four conditions under which phenomena will be connected in our consciousness through the association of ideas. To these James Sully[73] believes yet a fifth should be added: presentations which are rooted in the same emotion. Nevertheless all the examples cited by the distinguished English psychologist demonstrate without effort the action of one or more of Wundt’s laws.

In order that an organism should maintain itself, it must be in a position to make use of natural resources, and protect itself from adverse conditions of every sort. It can accomplish this only if it possesses a knowledge of these adverse conditions, and of such natural resources as it can use; and it can do this better and more surely the more complete this knowledge is.[51] In the more highly differentiated organism it devolves upon the brain and nervous system to acquire knowledge of the outer world, and to turn that knowledge to the advantage of the organism. Memory makes it possible for the brain to perform its task, and the mechanism by which memory is made to serve the purport of knowledge is the association of ideas. For it is clear that a brain, in which a single perception awakens through the operation of the association of ideas a whole train of connected representations, will recognise, conceive and judge far more rapidly than one in which no association of ideas obtains, and which therefore would form only such concepts as had for their content direct sense-perceptions and such representations as originated in those cells which, by the accident of their contiguity, happened to lie in the circuit of a stimulus-wave. For the brain which works with association of ideas, the perception of a ray of light, of a tone, is sufficient, in order instantly to produce the presentation of the object from which the sensation proceeds, as well as of its relations in time and space, to group these presentations as concepts, and from these concepts to arrive at a judgment. To the brain without association of ideas that perception would only convey the presentation of having something bright or sonant in front of it. In addition, presentations would be aroused which had nothing in common with this bright or sonant something; it could form no image of the exciter of the sense, but it would first have to receive a train of further impressions from several or all of the senses, in order to learn to recognise the various properties of the object, of which at first only a tone or a colour was perceived, and to unite them in a single presentation. Even then the brain would only know in what the object consisted, i.e., what it had in front of it, but not how the object stood in relation to other things, where and when it had already been perceived, and by what phenomena it was accompanied, etc. Knowledge of objects thus acquired would be wholly unadapted to the formation of a right judgment. It can now be seen what a great advantage was given to the organism in the struggle for existence by the association of ideas, and what immense progress in the development of the brain and its activity the acquirement of it signified.

But this is only true with a limitation. The association of ideas as such does not do more to lighten the task of the brain in apprehending and in judging than does the uprising throng of memory-images in the neighbourhood of the excited centre. The presentations, which the association of ideas calls into consciousness, stand, it is true, in somewhat closer connection with the phenomenon which has sent a stimulus to the brain, and by the latter has been perceived, than do those occurring[52] in the geometrical circuit of the stimulus-wave; but even this connection is so slight, that it offers no efficient help in the interpretation of the phenomenon. We must not forget that properly all our perceptions, ideas, and conceptions are connected more or less closely through the association of ideas. As in the example cited above the sensation of blue arouses the ideas of the sky, the sea, a blue eye, a uniform, etc., so will each of these ideas arouse in its turn, according to Wundt’s law, ideas associated with them. The sky will arouse the idea of stars, clouds and rain; the sea, that of ships, voyages, foreign lands, fishes, pearls, etc.; blue eyes, that of a girl’s face, of love and all its emotions; in short, this one sensation, through the mechanism of the association of ideas, can arouse pretty well almost all the conceptions which we have ever at any time formed, and the blue object which we have in fact before our eyes and perceive, will, through this crowd of ideas which are not directly related to it, be neither interpreted nor explained.

In order, however, that the association of ideas may fulfil its functions in the operations of the brain, and prove itself a useful acquisition to the organism, one thing more must be added, namely, attention. This it is which brings order into the chaos of representations awakened by the association of ideas, and makes them subserve the purposes of cognition and judgment.

What is attention? Th. Ribot[74] defines this attribute as ‘a spontaneous or an artificial adaptation of the individual to a predominating thought’. (I translate this definition freely because too long an explanation would be necessary to make the uninitiated comprehend the expressions made use of by Ribot.) In other words, attention is the faculty of the brain to suppress one part of the memory-images which, at each excitation of a cell or group of cells, have arisen in consciousness, by way either of association or of stimulus-wave; and to maintain another part, namely, only those memory-images which relate to the exciting cause, i.e., to the object just perceived.

Who makes this selection among the memory-images? The stimulus itself, which rouses the brain-cells into activity. Naturally those cells would be the most strongly excited which are directly connected with the afferent nerves. Somewhat weaker is the excitement of the cells to which the cell first excited sends its impulse by way of the customary nerve channels; still weaker the excitement of those cells which, by the same mechanism, receive their stimulus from the secondarily excited cell. That idea will be the most powerful, therefore,[53] which is awakened directly by the perception itself; somewhat weaker that which is aroused by the first impression through association of ideas; weaker still that which the association in its turn involves. We know further that a phenomenon never produces a single stimulus, but several at once. If, for example, we see a man before us, we do not merely perceive a single point in him, but a larger or smaller portion of his exterior, i.e., a large number of differently coloured and differently illuminated points; perhaps we hear him as well, possibly touch him, and, at all events, perceive besides him somewhat of his environment, of his spacial relations. Thus, there arise in our brain quite a number of centres of stimulation, operating simultaneously in the manner described above. There awakes in consciousness a series of primary presentations, which are stronger, i.e., clearer, than the associated or consequent representations, namely, just those presentations which the man standing before us has himself aroused. They are like the brightest light-spots in the midst of others less brilliant. These brightest light-spots necessarily predominate in consciousness over the lesser ones. They fill the consciousness, which combines them in a judgment. For what we call a judgment is, in the last resort, nothing else than a simultaneous lighting up of a number of presentations in consciousness, which we in truth only bring into relation with each other because we ourselves became conscious of them at one and the same moment. The ascendency which the clearer presentations acquire over the more obscure, the primary presentations over derived representations, in consciousness, enables them, with the help of the will, to influence for a time the whole brain-activity to their own advantage, viz., to suppress the weaker, i.e., the derived, representations; to combat those which cannot be made to agree with them; to reinforce, to draw into their circuit of stimulation, or simply to arouse, others, through which they themselves are reinforced and secure some duration in the midst of the constant emergence and disappearance of representations in their pursuit of each other. I myself conceive the interference of the will in this struggle for life amongst representations as giving motor impulses (even if unconsciously) to the muscles of the cerebral arteries. By this means the bloodvessels are dilated or contracted as required,[75] and the consequent supply of blood becomes more or[54] less copious.[76] The cells which receive no blood must suspend their action; those which receive a larger supply can, on the contrary, operate more powerfully. The will which regulates the distribution of blood, when incited by a group of presentations temporarily predominating, thus resembles a servant who is constantly occupied in a room in carrying out the behests of his master: to light the gas in one place, in another to turn it up higher, in another to turn it off partly or wholly, so that at one moment this, and at another that, corner of the room becomes bright, dim, or dark. The preponderance of a group of presentations allows them during their period of power to bring into their service, not only the brain-cells, but the whole organism besides; and not only to fortify themselves through the representations which they arouse by way of association, but also to seek certain new sense-impressions, and repress others, in order, on the one hand, to obtain new excitations favourable to their persistence—new original perceptions—and on the other hand, through the exclusion of the rest, to ward off such excitations as are adverse to their persistence.

For instance, I see in the street a passer-by who for some reason arouses my attention. The attention immediately suppresses all other presentations which, an instant before, were in my consciousness, and permits those only to remain which refer to the passer-by. In order to intensify these presentations I look after him, i.e., the ciliary and ocular muscles, then the muscles of the neck, perhaps also the muscles of the body and of the legs, receive motor impulses, which serve the purpose only of keeping up continually new sense-impressions of the object of my attention, by means of which the presentations of him are continuously strengthened and multiplied. I do not notice other persons who for the time come into my field of vision, I disregard the sounds which meet my ears, if my attention is strong enough I do not perhaps even hear them; but I should at once hear them if they proceeded from the particular passer-by, or if they had any reference to him.

This is the ‘adaptation of the whole organism to a predominant[55] idea’ of which Ribot speaks. This it is which gives us exact knowledge of the external world. Without it that knowledge would be much more difficult of attainment, and would remain much more incomplete. This adaptation will continue until the cells, which are the bearers of the predominating presentations, become fatigued. They will then be compelled to surrender their supremacy to other groups of cells, whereupon the latter will obtain the power to adapt the organism to their purposes.

Thus we see it is only through attention that the faculty of association becomes a property advantageous to the organism, and attention is nothing but the faculty of the will to determine the emergence, degree of clearness, duration and extinction of presentations in consciousness. The stronger the will, so much the more completely can we adapt the whole organism to a given presentation, so much the more can we obtain sense impressions which serve to enhance this presentation, so much the more can we by association induce memory-images, which complete and rectify the presentation, so much the more definitely can we suppress the presentations which disturb it or are foreign to it; in a word, so much the more exhaustive and correct will our knowledge be of phenomena and their true connection.

Culture and command over the powers of nature are solely the result of attention; all errors, all superstition, the consequence of defective attention. False ideas of the connection between phenomena arise through defective observation of them, and will be rectified by a more exact observation. Now, to observe means nothing else than to convey deliberately determined sense-impressions to the brain, and thereby raise a group of presentations to such clearness and intensity that it can acquire preponderance in consciousness, arouse through association its allied memory-images, and suppress such as are incompatible with itself. Observation, which lies at the root of all progress, is thus the adaptation through attention of the sense-organs and their centres of perception to a presentation or group of presentations predominating in consciousness.

A state of attention allows no obscurity to persist in consciousness. For either the will strengthens every rising presentation to full clearness and distinctness, or, if it cannot do this, it extinguishes the idea completely. The consciousness of a healthy, strong-minded, and consequently attentive man, resembles a room in the full light of day, in which the eye sees all objects distinctly, in which all outlines are sharp, and wherein no indefinite shadows are floating.

Attention, therefore, presupposes strength of will, and this, again, is the property only of a normally constituted and unexhausted[56] brain. In the degenerate, whose brain and nervous system are characterized by hereditary malformations or irregularities; in the hysterical, whom we have learnt to regard as victims of exhaustion, the will is entirely lacking, is possessed only in a small degree. The consequence of weakness or want of will is incapacity of attention. Alexander Starr[77] published twenty-three cases of lesions, or diseases of the convolutions of the brain, in which ‘it was impossible for the patients to fix their attention’; and Ribot[78] remarks: ‘A man who is tired after a long walk, a convalescent who has undergone a severe illness—in a word, all weakened persons are incapable of attention.... Inability to be attentive accompanies all forms of exhaustion.’

Untended and unrestrained by attention, the brain activity of the degenerate and hysterical is capricious, and without aim or purpose. Through the unrestricted play of association representations are called into consciousness, and are free to run riot there. They are aroused and extinguished automatically; and the will does not interfere to strengthen or to suppress them. Representations mutually alien or mutually exclusive appear continuously. The fact that they are retained in consciousness simultaneously, and at about the same intensity, combines them (in conformity with the laws of conscious activity) into a thought which is necessarily absurd, and cannot express the true relations of phenomena.

Weakness or want of attention, produces, then, in the first place, false judgments respecting the objective universe, respecting the qualities of things and their relations to each other. Consciousness acquires a distorted and blurred view of the external world. And there follows a further consequence. The chaotic course of stimuli along the channels of association and of the adjacent structures arouses the activity both of contiguous, of further, and of furthest removed groups of cells, which, left to themselves, act only so long and with such varying intensity as is proportionate to the intensity of the stimulus which has reached them. Clear, obscure, and yet obscurer representations rise in consciousness, which, after a time, disappear again, without having attained to greater distinctness than they had when first appearing. The clear representations produce a thought, but such a one as cannot for a moment become firmer or clearer, because the definite representations of which it is composed are mingled with others which consciousness perceives indistinctly, or scarcely perceives at all. Such obscure ideas cross the threshold of even a healthy person’s consciousness; but in that case attention intervenes[57] at once, to bring them fully to the light, or entirely to suppress them. These synchronous overtones of every thought cannot, therefore, blur the tonic note. The emergent thought-phantoms can acquire no influence over the thought-procedure because attention either lightens up their faces, or banishes them back to their under-world of the Unconscious. It is otherwise with the degenerate and debilitated, who suffer from weakness of will and defective attention. The faint, scarcely recognisable, liminal presentations are perceived at the same time as those that are well lit and centrally focussed. The judgment grows drifting and nebulous like floating fog in the morning wind. Consciousness, aware of the spectrally transparent shapes, seeks in vain to grasp them, and interprets them without confidence, as when one fancies in a cloud resemblances to creatures or things. Whoever has sought on a dark night to discern phenomena on a distant horizon can form an idea of the picture which the world of thought presents to the mind of an asthenic. Lo there! a dark mass! What is it? A tree? A hayrick? A robber? A beast of prey? Ought one to fly? Ought one to attack it? The incapacity to recognise the object, more guessed at than perceived, fills him with uneasiness and anxiety. This is just the condition of the mind of an asthenic in the presence of his liminal presentations. He believes he sees in them a hundred things at once, and he brings all the forms that he seems to discern into connection with the principal presentation which has aroused them. He has, however, a strong feeling that this connection is incomprehensible and inexplicable. He combines presentations into a thought which is in contradiction to all experience, but which he must look upon as equal in validity to all his remaining thoughts and opinions, because it originated in the same way. And even if he wishes to make clear to himself what is really the content of his judgment, and of what particular presentations it is composed, he observes that these presentations are, as a matter of fact, nothing but unrecognisable adumbrations of presentations, to which he vainly seeks to give a name. Now, this state of mind, in which a man is straining to see, thinks he sees, but does not see—in which a man is forced to construct thoughts out of presentations which befool and mock consciousness like will-o’-the-wisps or marsh vapours—in which a man fancies that he perceives inexplicable relations between distinct phenomena and ambiguous formless shadows—this is the condition of mind that is called Mysticism.

From the shadowy thinking of the mystic, springs his washed-out style of expression. Every word, even the most abstract, connotes a concrete presentation or a concept, which, inasmuch as it is formed out of the common attributes of different concrete[58] presentations, betrays its concrete origin. Language has no word for that which one believes he sees as through a mist, without recognisable form. The mystic, however, is conscious of ghostly presentations of this sort without shape or other qualities, and in order to express them he must either use recognised words, to which he gives a meaning wholly different from that which is generally current, or else, feeling the inadequacy of the fund of language created by those of sound mind, he forges for himself special words which, to a stranger, are generally incomprehensible, and the cloudy, chaotic sense of which is intelligible only to himself; or, finally, he embodies the several meanings which he gives to his shapeless representations in as many words, and then succeeds in achieving those bewildering juxtapositions of what is mutually exclusive, those expressions which can in no way be rationally made to harmonize, but which are so typical of the mystic. He speaks, as did the German mystics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of the ‘cold fire’ of hell, and of the ‘dark light’ of Satan; or, he says, like the degenerate in the twenty-eighth pathological case of Legrain,[79] ‘that God appeared to him in the form of luminous shadows;’ or he remarks, as did another of Legrain’s patients:[80] ‘You have given me an immutable evening’ (soirée immutable).[81]

The healthy reader or listener who has confidence in his own judgment, and tests with lucidity and self-dependence, naturally discerns at once that these mystical expressions are senseless, and do but reflect the mystic’s confused manner of thinking. The majority of mankind, however, have neither self-confidence nor the faculty of judging, and cannot throw off the natural inclination to connect some meaning with every word. And since the words of the mystic have no definite meaning in themselves, or in their juxtaposition, a certain meaning is arbitrarily imputed to them, is mysteriously conjured into them. The effect of the mystical method of expression on[59] people who allow themselves to be bewildered is for this reason a very strong one. It gives them food for thought, as they call it; that is to say, it allows them to give way to all kinds of dream-fancies, which is very much easier, and therefore more agreeable, than the toil of reflecting on firmly outlined presentations and thoughts admitting of no evasions and extravagances.[82] It transports their minds to the same condition of mental activity determined by unbridled association of ideas that is peculiar to the mystic; it awakens in them also his ambiguous, unutterable presentations, and makes them divine the strangest and most impossible relations of things to each other. All the weak-headed appear therefore ‘deep’ to the mystic, and this designation has, from the constant use made of it by them, become almost an insult. Only very strong minds are really deep, such as can keep the processes of thought under the discipline of an extraordinarily powerful attention. Such minds are in a position to exploit the association of ideas in the best possible way, to impart the greatest sharpness and clearness to all representations which through them are called into consciousness; to suppress them firmly and rapidly if they are not compatible with the rest; to procure new sense-impressions, if these are necessary in order to make the presentations and judgments predominant at the time in their minds still more vivid and distinct; they gain in this way an incomparably clear picture of the world, and discover true relations among phenomena which, to a weaker attention, must always remain hidden. This true depth of strong select minds is wholly luminous. It scares shadows out of hidden corners, and fills abysses with radiant light. The mystic’s pseudo-depth, on the contrary, is all obscurity. It causes things to appear deep by the same means as darkness, viz., by reason of its rendering their outlines imperceptible. The mystic obliterates the firm outlines of phenomena; he spreads a veil over them, and conceals them in blue vapour. He troubles what is clear, and makes the transparent opaque, as does the cuttle-fish the waters of the ocean. He, therefore, who sees the world through the eyes of a mystic, gazes into a black heaving mass, in which he can always find what he desires, although, and just because, he actually perceives nothing at all. To the weak-headed everything which is clearly, firmly defined, and which, therefore, has strictly but one meaning, is[60] flat. To them everything is profound which has no meaning, and which, therefore, allows them to apply what meaning they please. To them mathematical analysis is flat; theology and metaphysics, deep. The study of Roman law is flat; the dream-book and the prophecies of Nostradamus are deep. The forms assumed by pouring molten lead on New Year’s Eve are the true symbols of their depth.

The content of mystic thought is determined by the individual character and level of culture possessed by each degenerate and hysteric. For we should never forget that the morbidly-affected or exhausted brain is only the soil which receives the seed sown by nurture, education, impressions and experience of life, etc. The seed-grains do not originate in the soil; they only receive in and through it their special irregularities of development, their deformities, and crazy offshoots. The naturalist who loses the faculty of attention becomes the so-called ‘Natural Philosopher,’ or the discoverer of a fourth dimension in space, like the unfortunate Zöllner. A rough, ignorant person from the low ranks of the people falls into the wildest superstition. The mystic, nurtured in religion and nourished with dogma, refers his shadowy impressions to his beliefs, and interprets them as revelations of the nature of the Trinity, or of the condition of existence before birth or after death. The technologist who has fallen into mysticism worries over impossible inventions, believes himself to be on the track of the solution of the problem of a perpetuum mobile, devises communication between earth and stars, shafts to the glowing core of the earth, and what not. The astronomer becomes an astrologist, the chemist an alchemist and a seeker after the philosopher’s stone; the mathematician labours to square the circle, or to invent a system in which the notion of progress is expressed by a process of integration, the war of 1870 by an equation, and so on.

As was set forth above, the cerebral cortex receives its stimuli, not only from the external nerves, but also from the interior of the organism, from the nerves of separate organs, and the nerve-centres of the spinal cord and the sympathetic system. Every excitement in these centres affects the brain-cells, and arouses in them more or less distinct presentations, which are necessarily related to the activity of the centres from which the stimulus proceeds. A few examples will make this clear, even to the uninitiated. If the organism feels the need of nourishment, and we are hungry, we shall not only be generally conscious of an indeterminate desire for food, but there will also arise in our minds definite representations of dishes, of served repasts, and of all the accessories of eating. If we, from some cause, maybe an affection of the heart or lungs, cannot[61] breathe freely, we have not only a hunger for air, but also accompanying ideas of an uneasy nature, presentiments of unknown dangers, melancholy memories, etc., i.e., representations of circumstances which tend to deprive us of breath or affect us oppressively. During sleep also organic stimuli exert this influence on the cerebral cortex, and to them we owe the so-called somatic dreams (Leibesträume), i.e., dream-images about the functioning of any organs which happen not to be in a normal condition.

Now, it is known that certain organic nerve-centres, the sexual centres, namely, in the spinal cord and the medulla oblongata, are frequently malformed, or morbidly irritated among the degenerate. The stimuli proceeding from them therefore awaken, in the brain of patients of this sort, presentations which are more or less remotely connected with the sexual activity. In the consciousness, therefore, of such a subject there always exist, among the other presentations which are aroused by the varying stimuli of the external world, presentations of a sexual character, erotic thoughts being associated with every impression of beings and things. In this way he attains to a state of mind in which he divines mysterious relations among all possible objective phenomena, e.g., a railway-train, the title of his newspaper, a piano on the one hand, and woman on the other; and feels emotions of an erotic nature at sights, words, odours, which would produce no such impression on the mind of a sound person, emotions which he refers to unknown qualities in those sights, words, etc. Hence it comes that in most cases mysticism distinctly takes on a decidedly erotic colouring, and the mystic, if he interprets his inchoate liminal presentations, always tends to ascribe to them an erotic import. The mixture of super-sensuousness and sensuality, of religious and amorous rapture, which characterizes mystic thought, has been noticed even by those observers who do not understand in what way it is brought about.

The mysticism which I have hitherto investigated is the incapacity, due to weakness of will, either innate or acquired, to guide the work of the association of ideas by attention, to draw shadowy liminal representations into the bright focal circle of consciousness, and to suppress presentations which are incompatible with those attended to. There exists, however, another form of mysticism, the cause of which is not defective attention, but an anomaly in the sensitivity of the brain and nervous system. In the healthy organism the afferent nerves convey impressions of the external world in their full freshness to the brain, and the stimulation of the brain-cell is in direct ratio to the intensity of the stimulus conducted to it. Not so is the deportment of a degenerate or exhausted organism.[62] Here the brain may have forfeited its normal irritability; it is blunted, and is only feebly excited by stimuli conveyed to it. Such a brain, as a rule, never succeeds in elaborating sharply-defined impressions. Its thoughts are always shadowy and confounded. There is, however, no occasion for me to depict in detail the characteristics of its mental procedure, for in the higher species of the degenerate a blunted brain is hardly ever met with, and plays no part in art or literature. To the possessor of a sluggishly-reacting brain it hardly ever occurs to compose or paint. He is of account only as forming the creative mystic’s partial and grateful public. Inadequate excitability may moreover be a property of the sensory nerves. This irregularity leads to anomalies in mental life, with which I shall deal exhaustively in the next book. Finally, instead of slow reaction there may exist excessive excitability, and this may be peculiar to the whole nervous system and brain, or only to a portion of the latter. A generally excessive excitability produces those morbidly-sensitive natures in whom the most insignificant phenomena create the most astonishing perceptions; who hear the ‘sobbing of the evening glow,’ shudder at the contact of a flower; distinguish thrilling prophecies and fearful threatenings in the sighing of the wind, etc.[83] Excessive irritability of particular groups of cells of the cerebral cortex gives rise to other phenomena. In the affected part of the brain, stimulated either externally or by adjacent stimuli, in other words, by sense impressions or by association, the disturbance does not in this case proceed in a natural ratio to the strength of the exciting cause, but is stronger and more lasting than is warranted by the stimulus. The aroused group of cells returns to a state of rest either with difficulty or not at all. It attracts large quantities of nutriment for purposes of absorption, withdrawing them from the other parts of the brain. It works like a machine which an unskilful hand has set in motion but cannot stop. If the normal action of the brain-cells may be compared to quiet combustion, the action of a morbidly-irritable group of cells may be said to resemble an explosion, and one, too, which is both violent and persistent. With the stimulus there flames forth in consciousness a presentation, or train of presentations, conceptions and reasonings, which suffuse the mind as with the glare of a conflagration, outshining all other ideas.


The degree of exclusiveness and insistence in the predominance of any presentation is in proportion to the degree of morbid irritability in the particular tract of brain by which it is elaborated. Where the degree is not excessive there arise obsessions which the consciousness recognises as morbid. They do not preclude the coexistence of healthy functioning of the brain, and consciousness acquires the habit of treating these co-existent obsessions as foreign to itself, and of banishing them from its presentations and judgments. In aggravated cases these obsessions grow into fixed ideas. The immoderately excitable portions of the brain work out their ideas with such liveliness that consciousness is filled with them, and can no longer distinguish them from such as are the result of sense-impressions, the nature and strength of which they accurately reflect. Then we reach the stage of hallucinations and delirium. Finally, in the last stage, comes ecstasy, which Ribot calls ‘the acute form of the effort after unity of consciousness.’ In ecstasy the excited part of the brain works with such violence that it suppresses the functioning of all the rest of the brain. The ecstatic subject is completely insensible to external stimuli. There is no perception, no representation, no grouping of presentations into concepts, and of concepts into judgments and reasoning. A single presentation, or group of presentations, fills up consciousness. These presentations are of extreme distinctness and clearness. Consciousness is, as it were, flooded with the blinding light of mid-day. There therefore takes place exactly the reverse of what has been noticed in the case of the ordinary mystic. The ecstatic state is associated with extremely intense emotions, in which the highest bliss is mixed with pain. These emotions accompany every strong and excessive functioning of the nerve-cells, every extraordinary and violent decomposition of nerve-nutriment. The feeling of voluptuousness is an example of the phenomena accompanying extraordinary decompositions in a nerve-cell. In healthy persons the sexual nerve-centres are the only ones which, conformably with their functions, are so differentiated and so adapted that they exercise no uniform or lasting activity, but, for by far the greatest part of the time, are perfectly tranquil, storing up large quantities of nutriment in order, during very short periods, to decompose this suddenly and, as it were, explosively. Every nerve-centre which operates in this way would procure us voluptuous emotion; but precisely among healthy persons there are, except the sexual nerve-centres, none which are compelled to act in this manner, in order to serve the purpose of the organism. Among the degenerate, on the contrary, particular morbidly excited brain-centres operate in this way, and the emotions of delight which accompany[64] their explosive activity are more powerful than sexual feelings, in proportion as the brain-centres are more sensitive than the subordinate and more sluggish spinal centres. One may completely believe the assurances of great ecstatics, such as a St. Theresa, a Mohammed, an Ignatius Loyola, that the bliss accompanying their ecstatic visions is unlike anything earthly, and almost more than a mortal can bear. This latter statement proves that they were conscious of the sharp pain which accompanies nerve-action in overexcited brain-cells, and which, on careful analysis, may be distinguished in every very strong feeling of pleasure. The circumstance that the only normal organic sensation known to us which resembles that of ecstasy is the sexual feeling, explains the fact that ecstatics connect their ecstatic presentations by way of association with the idea of love, and describe the ecstasy itself as a kind of supernatural act of love, as a union of an ineffably high and pure sort with God or the Blessed Virgin. This drawing near to God and the saints is the natural result of a religious training, which begets the habit of looking on everything inexplicable as supernatural, and of bringing it into connection with the doctrines of faith.

We have now seen that mysticism depends upon the incapacity to control the association of ideas by the attention, and that this incapacity results from weakness of will; while ecstasy is a consequence of the morbid irritability of special brain-centres. The incapacity of being attentive occasions, however, besides mysticism, other eccentricities of the intellect, which may here be briefly mentioned. In extreme stages of degeneration, e.g., in idiocy, attention is utterly wanting. No stimulus is able to arouse it, nor is there any external means of making an impression on the brain of the idiot, and awakening his consciousness to definite presentations. In less complete degeneration, i.e., in cases of mental debility, attention may exist, but it is extremely weak and fleeting. Imbeciles (weak minds) present, in graduated intensity, the phenomenon of fugitive thought (Gedankenflucht), i.e., the incapacity to retain, or to unite in a concept or judgment, the representations automatically and reciprocally called into consciousness in conformity with the laws of association, and also that of reverie, which is another form of fugitive thought, but which differs from it in that the particular representations of which it is composed are feebly elaborated, and are therefore shadowy and undefined, sometimes so much so that an imbecile, who in the midst of his reveries is asked of what he is thinking, is not able to state exactly what happens to be present in his consciousness. All observers maintain that the ‘higher degenerate’ is frequently ‘original, brilliant, witty,’ and that[65] whereas he is incapable of activity which demands attention and self-control, he has strong artistic inclinations. All these peculiarities are to be explained by the uncontrolled working of association.

The reader should recall the procedure of that brain which is incapable of attention. A perception arouses a representation which summons into consciousness a thousand other associated representations. The healthy mind suppresses the representations which are contradictory to, or not rationally connected with, the first perception. This the weak-minded cannot do. The mere similarity of sound determines the current of his thought. He hears a word, and feels compelled to repeat it, once or oftener, sometimes to the extent of ‘Echolalia’; or it calls into his consciousness other words similar to it in sound, but not connected with it in meaning,[84] whereupon he thinks and talks in a series of completely disconnected rhymes; or else the words have, besides their similarity of sound, a very remote and weak connection of meaning; this gives rise to punning. Ignorant persons are inclined to call the rhyming and punning of imbeciles witty, not bearing in mind that this way of combining ideas according to the sound of the words frustrates the purposes of the intellect by obscuring the apprehension of the real connections of phenomena. No witticism has ever made easier the discovery of any truth. And whoever has tried to hold a serious conversation with a quibbling person of weak mind will have recognised the impossibility of keeping him in check, of getting from him a logical conclusion, or of making him comprehend a fact or a causal connection. When[66] presentations are connected, not merely according to auditory impressions of simple similarity of sound, but also according to the other laws of association, those juxtapositions of words are effected which the ignorant designate as ‘original modes of expression,’ and which confer upon their originator the reputation of a ‘brilliant’ conversationalist or author. Sollier[85] cites some characteristic examples of the ‘original’ modes of expression of imbeciles. One said to his comrade, ‘You look like a piece of barley-sugar put out to nurse.’ Another expresses the thought that his friend made him laugh so much he could not restrain his saliva, by saying, ‘Tu me fais baver des ronds de chapeaux.’ The junction of words which by their sense have little or no relation to each other is, as a rule, an evidence of imbecility, although it often enough is sensational and mirth-provoking. The cleverness which in Paris is called blague, or boulevard-esprit, the psychologist discerns as imbecility. That this condition goes hand-in-hand with artistic tendencies is easy to understand. All callings which require knowledge of fact, and adaptation to it, presuppose attention. This capacity is wanting in imbeciles; hence they are not fitted for serious professions. Certain artistic occupations, especially those of a subordinate kind, are, on the contrary, quite compatible with uncontrolled association of ideas, reverie, or fugitive thought, because they exact only a very limited adaptation to fact, and therefore have great attractions for persons of weak intellect.

Between the process of thought and movement there exists an exact parallelism explicable by the fact that the elaboration of presentations is nothing else than a modification of the elaboration of the motor impulses. The phenomena of movement make the mechanism of thought more easily apprehensible to the lay mind. The automatic association of muscular contractions corresponds to the association of ideas, their co-ordination to attention. As with defective attention there ensues no intelligent thought, so with faulty co-ordination there can be no appropriate movement. Palsy is equivalent to idiocy, St. Vitus’s dance to obsessions and fixed ideas. The attempts at witticisms of the weak-minded are like beating the air with a sword; the notions and judgments of sound brains are like the careful thrust and parry of skilful fencing. Mysticism finds its reflected image in the aimless and powerless, often hardly discernible, movements of senile and paralytic trembling; and ecstasy is, for a brain-centre, the same state as a prolonged and violent tonic contraction for a muscle or group of muscles.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:45 am

Part 1 of 2


Mysticism is the habitual condition of the human race, and in no way an eccentric disposition of mind. A strong brain which works out every presentation to its full clearness—a powerful will, which sustains the toiling attention—these are rare gifts. Musing and dreaming, the free ranging of imagination, disporting itself at its own sweet will along the meandering pathways of association, demand less exertion, and will therefore be widely preferred to the hard labour of observation and intelligent judgment. Hence the consciousness of men is filled with a vast mass of ambiguous, shadowy ideas; they see, as a rule, in unmistakable clearness only those phenomena which are daily repeated in their most intimate personal experience, and, among these, those only which are the objects of their immediate needs.

Speech, that great auxiliary in the interchange of human thought, is no unmixed benefit. It brings to the consciousness of most men incomparably more obscurity than brightness. It enriches their memory with auditory images, not with well-defined pictures of reality. A word, whether written or spoken, excites a sense (sight or hearing), and sets up an activity in the brain. True; it always arouses presentation. A series of musical tones does the same. At an unknown word, at ‘Abracadabra,’ at a proper name, at a tune scraped on the fiddle, we also think of something, but it is either indefinite, or nonsensical, or arbitrary. It is absolute waste of labour to attempt to give a man new ideas, or to widen the circle of his positive knowledge, by means of a word. It can never do more than awaken such ideas as he already possesses. Ultimately everyone works only with the material for presentation which he has acquired by attentive personal observation of the phenomena of the universe. Nevertheless, he cannot do without the stimulus conveyed to him by speech. The desire for knowledge, without any hiatus, of all that is in the world, is irresistible; while the opportunities of perception at first hand, even in the most favourable circumstances, are limited. What we have not ourselves experienced we let others, the dead and the living, tell us. The word must take the place of the direct impressions of sense for us. And then it is itself an impression of sense, and our consciousness is accustomed to put this impression on a level with others, to estimate the idea aroused by this word equally with[68] those ideas which have been acquired through the simultaneous co-operation of all the senses, through observations, and handling on every side, through moving and lifting, listening to, and smelling the object itself. This parity of values is an error of thought. It is false in any case if a word do more than call into consciousness a memory-image of a presentation, which it has acquired through personal experience, or a concept composed of such presentations. Nevertheless, we all of us commit this fallacy. We forget that language was only developed by the race as a means of communication between individuals, that it is a social function, but not a source of knowledge. Words are in reality much more a source of error. For a man can only actually know what he has directly experienced and attentively observed, not what he has merely heard or read, and what he repeats; and if he would free himself from the errors which words have led him into, he has no other means than the increase of his sterling representative material, through personal experience and attentive observation. And since man is never in a position to do this save within certain limits, everyone is condemned to carry on the operations of his consciousness with direct presentations, and at the same time with words. The intellectual structure which is built up with materials of such unequal solidity reminds one of those dilapidated Gothic churches which brainless masons used to patch up with a plaster of soot and cheese, giving it, by means of a wash, the appearance of stone. To the eye the frontage is irreproachable, but many parts of the building could not for one moment resist a vigorous blow of criticism.

Many erroneous explanations of natural phenomena, the majority of false scientific hypotheses, all religious and metaphysical systems, have arisen in such a way that mankind, in their thoughts and opinions, have interwoven, as equally valid components, ideas suggested by words only, together with such as were derived from direct perception. The words were either invented by mystics and originally indicated nothing beyond the unbalanced condition of a weak and diseased brain, or, whereas they at first expressed a definite, correct presentation, their proper meaning was not caught by those who repeated them, and by them was arbitrarily falsified, differently interpreted, or blurred. Innate or acquired weakness of mind and ignorance lead alike to the goal of mysticism. The brain of the ignorant elaborates presentations that are nebulous, because they are suggested by words, not by the thing itself, and the stimulus of a word is not strong enough to produce vigorous action in the brain-cells; moreover, the brain of the exhausted and degenerate elaborates nebulous presentations, because in any case it is not in a condition to respond to a stimulus by vigorous action. Hence ignorance is[69] artificial weakness of mind, just as, conversely, weakness of mind is the natural organic incapacity for knowledge.

In one part or another of his mental field of vision each of us therefore is a mystic. From all the phenomena which he himself has not observed, everyone forms shadowy, unstable presentations. Nevertheless, it is easy to distinguish healthy men from those who deserve the designation of mystic. There is a sure sign for each. The healthy man is in a condition to obtain sharply-defined presentations from his own immediate perceptions, and to comprehend their real connection. The mystic, on the contrary, mixes his ambiguous, cloudy, half-formed liminal representations with his immediate perceptions, which are thereby disturbed and obscured. Even the most superstitious peasant has definite presentations of his field work, of the feeding of his cattle, and of looking after his landmark. He may believe in the weather-witch, because he does not know how the rain comes to pass, but he does not wait a moment for the angels to plough for him. He may have his field blessed, because the real conditions of the thriving or perishing of his seed are beyond his ken, but he will never so put his trust in supernatural favour as to omit sowing his grain. All the genuine mystic’s presentations, on the contrary, even those of daily experience, are permeated and overgrown with that which is incomprehensible, because it is without form. His want of attention makes him incapable of apprehending the real connecting links between the simplest and most obviously related phenomena, and leads him to deduce them from one or another of the hazy, intangible presentations wavering and wandering in his consciousness.

There is no human phenomenon in the art and poetry of the century with whom this characteristic of the mystic so completely agrees as with the originators and supporters of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in England. It may be taken for granted that the history of this movement is known—at least, in its outlines—and that it will suffice here to recall briefly its principal features. The three painters, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Holman Hunt, and Millais, in the year 1848, entered into a league which was called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. After the association was formed, the painters F. G. Stephens and James Collinson, and the sculptor Thomas Woolner, joined it. In the spring of 1849 they exhibited in London a number of pictures and statues, all of which, in addition to the signature of the artist, bore the common mark P.R.B. The result was crushing. Hitherto no hysterical fanatic had tyrannically forced on the public a belief in the beauty of these works, nor was it as yet under the domination of the fashion, invented by æsthetic snobs, of considering their admiration as a mark of distinction, and of membership of a narrow and exclusive circle[70] of the aristocrats of taste. Hence it confronted them without prepossession, and found them incomprehensible and funny. The contemplation of them roused inextinguishable laughter among the good-humoured, and wrath among the morose, who are nettled when they think themselves made fools of. The brotherhood did not renew their attempt; the P.R.B. exhibition was never repeated; the league broke up of itself. Its members no longer added the shibboleth of initials after their names. They formed no longer a closed association, involving formal admission, but only a loosely-knit circle, consisting of friends having tastes in common, and who were perpetually modifying its character by their joining and retiring. In this way it was joined by Burne Jones and Madox Brown, who also passed for Pre-Raphaelites, although they had not belonged to the original P.R.B. Later on the designation was extended from painters to poets, and among the Pre-Raphaelites, in addition to D. G. Rossetti (who soon exchanged the brush for the pen), were Algernon Charles Swinburne and William Morris.

What are the governing thoughts and aims of the Pre-Raphaelite movement? An Anglo-German critic of repute, F. Hüffer,[86] thinks that he answers this question when he says: ‘I myself should call this movement the renaissance of mediæval feeling.’ Apart from the fact that these words signify nothing, since every man may interpret ‘mediæval feeling’ as he pleases, the reference to the Middle Ages only emphasizes the most external accompanying circumstance of Pre-Raphaelitism, leaving its essence entirely untouched.

It is true that the Pre-Raphaelites with both brush and pen betray a certain, though by no means exclusive, predilection for the Middle Ages; but the mediævalism of their poems and paintings is not historical, but mythical, and simply denotes something outside time and space—a time of dreams and a place of dreams, where all unreal figures and actions may be conveniently bestowed. That they decorate their unearthly world with some features which may remotely recall mediævalism; that it is peopled with queens and knights, noble damozels with coronets on their golden hair, and pages with plumed caps—these may be accounted for by the prototypes which, perhaps unconsciously, hover before the eyes of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Movements in art and literature do not spring up suddenly and spontaneously. They have progenitors from whom they descend in the natural course of generation. Pre-Raphaelitism[71] is the grandson of German, and a son of French, Romanticism. But in its wanderings through the world Romanticism has suffered such alteration through the influence of the changing opinions of the times, and the special characteristics of various nations, that the English offspring bears scarcely any family resemblance to its German ancestor.

German romanticism was in its origin a reaction against the spirit of the French encyclopædists, who had held undisputed sway over the eighteenth century. Their criticism of ancient errors, their new systems which were to solve the riddles of the world and of the nature of man, had at first dazzled and nearly intoxicated mankind. They could not, however, satisfy in the long-run, for they committed a great fault in two respects. Their knowledge of facts was insufficient to enable them to explain the collective phenomenon of the universe, and they looked upon man as an intellectual being. Proud of their strictly logical and mathematical reasoning, they overlooked the fact that this is a method of knowledge, but not knowledge itself. The logical apparatus is a machine, which can manufacture only the material shot into it. If the machine is not fed, it runs on empty and makes a noise, but produces nothing. The condition of science in the eighteenth century did not allow the encyclopædists to make advantageous use of their logical machine. They did not take cognizance of this fact, however, and, with their limited material and much unconscious temerity, constructed a system which they complacently announced as a faithful representation of the system of the universe. It was soon discovered that the encyclopædists, for all their intellectual arrogance, were deluding both themselves and their followers. There were known facts which contradicted their hasty explanations, and there was a whole range of phenomena of which their system took no account, and failed to cover as if with too short a cloak, and which peeped out mockingly at all the seams. Hence the philosophy of the encyclopædists was kicked and abused, and the same faults were committed with respect to it which it had perpetrated; the methods of intelligent criticism were mistaken for the results obtained by them. Because the encyclopædists, from lack of knowledge and of natural facts, explained nature falsely and arbitrarily, those who were disappointed and thirsting for knowledge cried out, that intelligent criticism as such was a false method, that consistent reasoning led to nothing, that the conclusions of the ‘Philosophy of Enlightenment’ were just as unproven and unprovable as those of religion and metaphysics, only less beautiful, colder, and narrower; and mankind threw itself with fervour into all the depths of faith and superstition, where certainly the Tree of Knowledge did not grow, but where beautiful mirages charmed[72] the eye, and the warm fragrant springs of all the emotions bubbled up.

And more fatal than the error of their philosophy was the false psychology of the encyclopædists. They believed that the thoughts and actions of men are determined by reason and the laws of consistency, and had no inkling that the really impelling force in thought and deed are the emotions, those disturbances elaborated in the depths of the internal organs, and the sources of which elude consciousness, but which suddenly burst into it like a horde of savages, not declaring whence they come, submitting to no police regulations of a civilized mind, and imperiously demanding lodgment. All that wide region of organic needs and hereditary impulses, all that E. von Hartmann calls the ‘Unconscious,’ lay hidden from the rationalists, who saw nothing but the narrow circle of the psychic life which is illumined by the little lamp of consciousness. Fiction which should depict mankind according to the views of this inadequate psychology would be absurdly untrue. It had no place for passions and follies. It saw in the world only logical formulæ on two legs, with powdered heads and embroidered coats of fashionable cut. The emotional nature took its revenge on this æsthetic aberration, breaking out in ‘storm and stress,’ and in turn attaching value only to the unconscious, the inherited impulse, and the organic appetites, while it neglected entirely reason and will, which are there none the less.

Mysticism, which rebelled against the application of the rationalistic methods to explain the universe, and the Sturm und Drang, which rebelled against their application to the psychical life of mankind, were the first-fruits of romanticism, which is nothing but the union and exaggeration of these two revolutionary movements. That it took up with fondness the form of mediævalism was due to circumstances and the sentiment of the age. The beginnings of romanticism coincide with the time of the deepest humiliation of Germany, and the suffering of young men of talent at the ignominy of foreign rule gave to the whole content of their thought a patriotic colouring. During the Middle Ages Germany had passed through a period of the greatest power and intellectual florescence; those centuries which were irradiated at one and the same time by the might of the world-empire of the Hohenstaufen, by the splendour of the poems of the Court Minnesingers, and by the vastness of the Gothic cathedrals, must naturally have attracted those spirits who, filled with disgust, broke out against the intellectual jejuneness and political abasement of the times. They fled from Napoleon to Frederick Barbarossa, and drew refreshment with Walter von der Vogelweide from their abhorrence of Voltaire. The foreign imitators of the German romanticists do not know[73] that if in their flight from reality they come to a halt in mediævalism, they have German patriotism as their pioneer.

The patriotic side of romanticism was, moreover, emphasized only by the sanest talents of this tendency. In others it stands revealed most signally as a form of the phenomenon of degeneration. The brothers Schlegel, in their Athenæum, give this programme of romanticism: ‘The beginning of all poetry is to suspend the course and the laws of rationally thinking reason, and to transport us again into the lovely vagaries of fancy and the primitive chaos of human nature.... The freewill of the poet submits to no law.’ This is the exact mode of thought and expression of the weak-minded, of the imbecile, whose brain is incapable of following the phenomena of the universe with discernment and comprehension, and who, with the self-complacency which characterizes the weak-minded, proclaims his infirmity as an advantage, and declares that his muddled thought, the product of uncontrolled association, is alone exact and commendable, boasting of that for which the sane-minded are pitying him. Besides the unregulated association of ideas there appears in most romanticists its natural concomitant, mysticism. That which enchanted them in the idea of the Middle Ages was not the vastness and might of the German Empire, not the fulness and beauty of the German life of that period, but Catholicism with its belief in miracles and its worship of saints. ‘Our Divine Service,’ writes H. von Kleist, ‘is nothing of the kind. It appeals only to cold reason. A Catholic feast appeals profoundly to all the senses.’ The obscure symbolism of Catholicism, all the externals of its priestly motions, all its altar service so full of mystery, all the magnificence of its vestments, sacerdotal vessels and works of art, the overwhelming effect of the thunder of the organ, the fumes of incense, the flashing monstrance—all these undoubtedly stir more confused and ambiguous adumbrations of ideas than does austere Protestantism. The conversion of Friedrich Schlegel, Adam Müller, Zacharias Werner, Count Stolberg, to Catholicism is just as consistent a result as, to the reader who has followed the arguments on the psychology of mysticism, it is intelligible that, with these romanticists, the ebullitions of piety are accompanied by a sensuousness which often amounts to lasciviousness.

Romanticism penetrated into France a generation later than into Germany. The delay is easy of historical explanation. In the storms of the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the leading minds of the French people had no time to think of themselves. They had no leisure for testing the philosophy of their encyclopædists, to find it inadequate, reject it, and rise up against it. They devoted their whole energy to rough, big, muscular deeds of war, and the need for the emotional exercise[74] afforded by art and poetry, asserted itself but feebly, being completely satisfied by the far stronger emotions of self-love and despair produced by their famous battles and cataclysmic overthrows. Æsthetic tendencies only reasserted their rights during the half-dormant period following the battle of Waterloo, and then the same causes led to the same results as in Germany. The younger spirits in this case also raised the flag of revolt against the dominating æsthetic and philosophic tendencies. They wished Imagination to grapple with Reason, and place its foot on its neck, and they proclaimed the martial law of passion against the sober procedure of discipline and morality. Through Madame de Staël and A. W. Schlegel, partly by the latter’s personal intercourse with Frenchmen, and partly by his works, which were soon translated into French, they were in some measure made acquainted with the German movement. They joined it perhaps half unconsciously. Of the many impulses which were active among the German romanticists, patriotism and Catholic mysticism had no influence on the French mind, which only lent itself to the predilection for what was remote in time and space, and what was free from moral and mental restraints.

French romanticism was neither mediæval nor pious. It took up its abode rather in the Renaissance period as regards remoteness in time, and in the East or the realms of faerie, if it wished to be spacially remote from reality. In Victor Hugo’s works the one drama of Les Burgraves takes place in the thirteenth century; but in all the others, Cromwell, Maria Tudor, Lucrezia Borgia, Angelo, Ruy Blas, Hernani, Marion Delorme, Le Roi s’amuse, the scenes were laid in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and his one mediæval romance, Notre Dame de Paris, can be set over against all the rest, from Han d’Islande, which has for its scene of action a fancied Thule, to Les Miserables and 1793, which take place in an apocalyptic Paris and in a history of the Revolution suited to the use of hashish-smokers. The bent of French romanticism towards the Renaissance is natural. That was the period of great passions and great crimes, of marble palaces, of dresses glittering with gold, and of intoxicating revels; a period in which the æsthetic prevailed over the useful, and the fantastic over the rational, and when crime itself was beautiful, because assassination was accomplished with a chased and damascened poniard, and the poison was handed in goblets wrought by Benvenuto Cellini.

The French romanticists made use of the unreality of their scene of action and costumes chiefly for the purpose of enabling them, without restraint, to attribute to their characters all the qualities, exaggerated even to monstrosity, that were dear to the French, not yet ailing with the pain of overthrow. Thus[75] in the heroes of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Théophile Gautier, Alfred de Musset, we become acquainted with the French ideal of man and woman. The subtle inquiries of Faust, the soliloquies of Hamlet, are not their affair. They talk unceasingly in dazzling witticisms and antitheses; they fight one against ten; they love like Hercules in the Thespidian night, and their whole life is one riot of fighting, wantoning, wine, perfume, and pageantry—a sort of magnificent illusion, with performance of gladiators, Don Juans, and Monte Christos; a crazy prodigality of inexhaustible treasures of bodily strength, gaiety and gold. These ideal beings had necessarily to wear doublets or Spanish mantles, and speak in the tongues of unknown times, because the tightness of the contemporary dress-coat could not accommodate all this wealth of muscle, and the conversation of the Paris salon did not admit of the candour of souls which their authors had turned inside out.

The fate of romanticism in England was exactly the reverse of that which befell it in France. Whereas the French had imitated chiefly, and even exclusively, in the German romanticists, their divergence from reality, and their declaration of the sovereign rights of the passions, the English just as exclusively elaborated their Catholic and mystical elements. For them the Middle Ages had a powerful attraction, inasmuch as it was the period of childlike faith in the letter, and of the revelling of simple piety in personal intercourse with the Trinity, the Blessed Virgin, and all the guardian saints.

Trade, industry, and civilization were nowhere in the world so much developed as in England. Nowhere did men work so assiduously, nowhere did they live under such artificial conditions as there. Hence the state of degeneration and exhaustion, which we observe to-day in all civilized countries as the result of this over-exertion, must of necessity have shown itself sooner in England than elsewhere, and, as a matter of fact, did show itself in the third and fourth decade of the century with continually increasing violence. In consequence, however, of the peculiarity of the English mind, the emotional factor in degeneration and exhaustion necessarily assumed with them a religious colouring.

The Anglo-Saxon race is by nature healthy and strong-minded. It has therefore, in a high degree, that strong desire for knowledge which is peculiar to normally-constituted persons. In every age it has inquired into the why and how of phenomena, and shown passionate sympathy with, and gratitude to, everyone who held out hopes of an explanation of them. The well-known and deeply thoughtful discourse of the Anglican noble concerning what precedes and follows man’s life—a speech which Bede has preserved for us in his account of the[76] conversion of Edwin to Christianity—has been cited by all authors (e.g., by G. Freytag and H. Taine[87]) who have studied the origins of the English mental constitution. It shows that as early as the beginning of the seventh century the Anglo-Saxons were consumed by an ardent desire to comprehend the phenomenon of the universe. This fine and high-minded craving for knowledge has proved at once the strength and the weakness of the English. It led with them to the development along parallel lines of the natural sciences and theology. The scientific investigators contributed a store of facts won through toilsome observation; the experts in divinity obtained theirs through systems compounded of notions arbitrarily conceived. Both claimed to explain the nature of things, and the people were deeply grateful to both, more so, it is true, to the theologians than to the scholars, because the former could afford to be more copious and confident in their teaching than the latter. The natural tendency to reckon words as equivalent to facts, assertions to demonstrations, always gives theologians and metaphysicians an immense advantage over observers. The craving of the English for knowledge has produced both the philosophy of induction and spiritualism. Humanity owes to them on the one hand Francis Bacon, Harvey, Newton, Locke, Darwin, J. S. Mill; on the other, Bunyan, Berkeley, Milton, the Puritans, the Quakers, and all the religious enthusiasts, visionaries, and mediums of this century. No people has done so much for, and conferred such honour on, scientific investigators; no people has sought with so much earnestness and devotion for instruction, especially in matters of faith, as have the English. Eagerness to know is, therefore, the main source of English religiousness. There is this also to be noticed, that among them the ruling classes never gave an example of indifference in matters of faith, but systematically made religiousness a mark of social distinction; unlike France, where the nobility of the eighteenth century exalted Voltairianism into a symptom of good breeding. The evolution of history led in England to two results which apparently exclude each other—to caste-rule, and the liberty of the individual. The caste which is in possession of wealth and power naturally wishes to protect its possessions. The rigid independence of the English people precludes it from applying physical force. Hence it uses moral restraints to keep the lower ranks submissive and amenable, and, among these, religion is by far the most effective.

Herein lies the explanation both of the devoutness of the English and of the religious character of their mental degeneration.[77] The first result of the epidemic of degeneration and hysteria was the Oxford Movement in the thirties and forties. Wiseman turned all the weaker heads. Newman went over to Catholicism. Pusey clothed the entire Established Church in Romish garb. Spiritualism soon followed, and it is worthy of remark that all mediums adopted theological modes of speech, and that their disclosures were concerned with heaven and hell. The ‘revival meetings’ of the seventies, and the Salvation Army of to-day, are the direct sequel of the Oxford stream of thought, but rendered turbid and foul in accordance with the lower intellectual grade of their adherents. In the world of art, however, the religious enthusiasm of degenerate and hysterical Englishmen sought its expression in pre-Raphaelitism.

An accurate definition of the connotation of this word is an impossibility, in that it was invented by mystics, and is as vague and equivocal as are all new word-creations of the feeble and deranged in mind. The first members of the Brotherhood believed that, in the artists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in the predecessors of the great geniuses of the Umbrian and Venetian schools, they had discovered minds congenial to their own. For a short time they took the methods of these painters for their models, and created the designation ‘pre-Raphaelite.’ The term was bound to approve itself to them, since the prefix ‘pre’ (‘præ’) arouses ideas of the primeval, the far-away, the hardly perceptible, the mysteriously shadowy. ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ calls up, through association of ideas, ‘pre-Adamite,’[88] ‘prehistoric,’ etc.—in short, all that is opened to view by immeasurable vistas down the dusk of the unknown, and which allow the mind to wander dreamily beyond the limits of time and in the realms of myth. But that the pre-Raphaelites should have lit on the quattrocento painters for the embodiment of their artistic ideals is due to John Ruskin.

Ruskin is one of the most turbid and fallacious minds, and one of the most powerful masters of style, of the present century. To the service of the most wildly eccentric thoughts he brings the acerbity of a bigot and the deep sentiment of Morel’s ‘emotionalists.’ His mental temperament is that of the first Spanish Grand Inquisitors. He is a Torquemada of æsthetics. He would liefest burn alive the critic who disagrees with him, or the dull Philistine who passes by works of art without a feeling of devout awe. Since, however, stakes do not stand within his reach, he can at least rave and rage in word, and annihilate the heretic figuratively by abuse and cursing. To his ungovernable irascibility he unites great knowledge of all the[78] minutiæ in the history of art. If he writes of the shapes of clouds he reproduces the clouds in seventy or eighty existing pictures, scattered amongst all the collections of Europe. And be it noted that he did this in the forties, when photographs of the masterpieces of art, which render the comparative study of them to-day so convenient, were yet unknown. This heaping up of fact, this toilsome erudition, made him conqueror of the English intellect, and explains the powerful influence which he obtained over artistic sentiment and the theoretic views concerning the beautiful of the Anglo-Saxon world. The clear positivism of the Englishman demands exact data, measures, and figures. Supplied with these he is content, and does not criticise starting-points. The Englishman accepts a fit of delirium if it appears with footnotes, and is conquered by an absurdity if it is accompanied by diagrams. Milton’s description of hell and its inhabitants is as detailed and conscientious as that of a land-surveyor or a natural philosopher, and Bunyan depicts the Pilgrim’s Progress to the mystical kingdom of Redemption in the method of the most graphic writer of travels—a Captain Cook or a Burton. Ruskin has in the highest conceivable degree this English peculiarity of exactness applied to the nonsensical, and of its measuring and counting applied to fevered visions.

In the year 1843, almost simultaneously with the outbreak of the great Catholicizing movement, Ruskin began to publish the feverish studies on art which were subsequently collected under the title of Modern Painters. He was then a young divinity student, and as such he entered upon the study of works of art. The old scholasticism wished to make philosophy the ‘handmaid of godly learning.’ Ruskin’s mysticism had the same purpose with regard to art. Painting and sculpture ought to be a form of divine worship, or they ought not to exist at all. Works of art were valuable merely for the supersensuous thoughts that they conveyed, for the devotion with which they were conceived and which they revealed, not for the mastery of form.

From this point of view he was able to arrive at judgments among which I here quote a few of the most typical. ‘It appears to me,’ he says,[89] ‘that a rude symbol is oftener more efficient than a refined one in touching the heart, and that as pictures rise in rank as works of art they are regarded with less devotion and more curiosity.... It is man and his fancies, man and his trickeries, man and his inventions, poor, paltry, weak, self-sighted man, which the connoisseur for ever seeks and worships. Among potsherds and dunghills, among drunken boors and withered beldames, through every scene of debauchery and degradation, we follow the erring artist, not to receive one wholesome lesson, not to be touched with pity, nor moved with[79] indignation, but to watch the dexterity of the pencil, and gloat over the glittering of the hue.... Painting is nothing but a noble and expressive language, invaluable as the vehicle of thought, but by itself nothing.... It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what is represented and said, that the respective greatness either of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined.... The early efforts of Cimabue and Giotto are the burning messages of prophecy, delivered by the stammering lips of infants.... The picture which has the nobler and more numerous ideas, however awkwardly expressed, is a greater and a better picture than that which has the less noble and less numerous ideas, however beautifully expressed.... The less sufficient the means appear to the end the greater will be the sensation of power.’ These propositions were decisive in determining the direction taken by the young Englishmen of 1843, who united artistic inclinations with the mysticism of the degenerate and hysterical. They comprise the æstheticism of the first pre-Raphaelites, who felt that Ruskin had expressed with clearness what was vaguely fermenting within them. Here was the art-ideal which they had presaged—form as indifferent, idea as everything; the clumsier the representation, the deeper its effect; the devotion of faith as the only worthy import of a work of art. They reviewed the history of art for phenomena agreeing with the theories of Ruskin, which they had taken up with enthusiasm, and they found what they sought in the archaic Italian school, in which the London National Gallery is extraordinarily rich. There they had perfect models to imitate; they were bound to take for their starting-point these Fra Angelicos, Giottos, Cimabues, these Ghirlandajos and Pollajuolos. Here were paintings bad in drawing, faded or smoked, their colouring either originally feeble or impaired by the action of centuries; pictures executed with the awkwardness of a learner representing events in the Passion of Christ, in the life of the Blessed Virgin, or in the Golden Legend, symbolizing childish ideas of hell and paradise, and telling of earnest faith and fervent devotion. They were easy of imitation, since, in painting pictures in the style of the early masters, faulty drawing, deficient sense of colour, and general artistic incapacity, are so many advantages. And they constituted a sufficiently forcible antithesis to all the claims of the artistic taste of that decade to satisfy the proclivity for contradiction, paradox, negation and eccentricity which we have learned to recognise as a special characteristic of the feeble-minded.

Ruskin’s theory is in itself delirious. It mistakes the fundamental principles of æsthetics, and, with the unconsciousness of a saucy child at play, muddles and entangles the boundary lines of the different arts. It holds of account in plastic art only the[80] conception. A picture is valuable only in so far as it is a symbol giving expression to a religious idea. Ruskin does not take into consideration, or deliberately overlooks the fact, that the pleasurable feelings which are produced by the contemplation of a picture are not aroused by its intellectual import, but by it as a sensuous phenomenon. The art of painting awakens through its media of colour and drawing (i.e., the exact grasp and reproduction of differences in the intensity of light), firstly, a purely sensuously agreeable impression of beautiful single colours and happily combined harmonies of colour; secondly, it produces an illusion of reality and, together with this, the higher, more intellectual pleasures arising from a recognition of the phenomena depicted, and from a comprehension of the artist’s intention; thirdly, it shows these phenomena as seen with the eye of the artist, and brings out details or collective traits, which until then the inartistic beholder had not been by himself able to perceive. The painter therefore influences, through the medium of his art, only so far as he agreeably excites the sense of colour, gives to the mind an illusion of reality, together with the consciousness that it is an illusion, and, through his deeper, more penetrating vision, discloses to the spectator the hidden treasures of the phenomenal world. If, in addition to the presentation of the picture, ‘its story’ also affects the beholder, it is no longer the merit of the painter as such, but of his not exclusively pictorial intelligence in making choice of a subject, and in committing its portrayal to his specific pictorial abilities. The effect of the story is not called forth through the media of painting; it is not based on the pleasure of the spectator in colour, on the illusion of reality, or on a better grasp of the phenomenon, but on some pre-existing inclination, some memory, some prejudice. A purely painter’s picture, such as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, charms everyone whose eye has been sufficiently trained. A picture which tells a story, but is not distinguished for its purely pictorial qualities, leaves everyone unappreciative to whom the story in itself is uninteresting, i.e., to whom it would in any case have been uninteresting, had it not been executed by the instrumentality of pictorial art, but simply narrated. A Russian eikon affects a moujik, and leaves the Western art connoisseur cold. A painting which represents a French victory over Russian troops would excite and please a French Philistine, even if it were painted in the style of an Épinal. It is true, no doubt, that there is a sort of painting which does not seek to seize and awaken visual impressions in the spectator, together with the emotions which they directly arouse, but to express ideas, and in which the picture is intended to affect the mind, not by itself and its own consummate art, but by its spiritual significance. But this kind[81] of painting has a special name: we call it writing. The signs, which are meant to have no pictorial, but only symbolic value, where we turn away from the form in order to dwell upon their meaning, we call ‘letters,’ and the art which makes use of such symbols for the expression of mental processes is not painting, but poetry. Originally, pictures were actually, no doubt, a means of symbolizing thoughts, and their value as things of beauty was considered of secondary importance in relation to their value as means of expression. On the other hand, æsthetic impressions still play in these days a subdued accompaniment to our writing, and a beautiful handwriting, quite apart from its import, affects us more agreeably than one that is ugly. At the very beginning of their evolution, however, the kind of painting which satisfied only æsthetic needs separated itself from that of writing, which serves to render ideas perceptible to the senses. Descriptive drawing became the hieroglyph, the demotic writing, the letter; and it was reserved for Ruskin to be the first to try to annul a distinction which the scribes of Thebes had learnt to make six thousand years before him.

The pre-Raphaelites, who got all their leading principles from Ruskin, went further. They misunderstood his misunderstandings. He had simply said that defectiveness in form can be counter-balanced by devotion and noble feeling in the artist. They, however, raised it to the position of a fundamental principle, that in order to express devotion and noble feeling, the artist must be defective in form. Incapable, like all the weak-minded, of observing any process and of giving a clear account of it to themselves, they did not distinguish the real causes of the influence exercised over them by the old masters. The pictures touched and moved them; the most striking distinction between such pictures and others, to which they were indifferent, was their awkward stiffness; they did not look further, however, than this awkward stiffness for the source of what touched and moved them, and imitated with great care and conscientiousness the bad drawing of the old masters.

Now, the clumsiness of the old masters is certainly touching; but why? Because these Cimabues and Giottos were sincere. They wished to get closer to nature, and to free themselves from the thraldom of the Byzantine school, which had become entirely unreal. They struggled with vehement endeavour against the bad habits of hand and eye which they had acquired from the teachers of their guilds, and the spectacle of such a conflict, like every violent effort of an individuality which sets itself to rend fetters of any sort and save its own soul from bondage, is the most attractive thing possible to observe. The whole difference between the old masters and the pre-Raphaelites is,[82] that the former had first to find out how to draw and paint correctly, while the latter wished to forget it. Hence, where the former fascinate, the latter must repel. It is the contrast between the first babbling of a thriving infant and the stammering of a mentally enfeebled gray-beard; between childlike and childish. But this retrogression to first beginnings, this affectation of simplicity, this child’s play in word and gesture, is a frequent phenomenon amongst the weak-minded, and we shall often meet with it among the mystic poets.

According to the doctrine of their master in theory, Ruskin, the decline of art for pre-Raphaelites begins with Raphael—and for obvious reasons. To copy Cimabue and Giotto is comparatively easy. In order to imitate Raphael it is necessary to be able to draw and paint to perfection, and this was just what the first members of the Brotherhood could not do. Moreover, Raphael lived in the most glorious period of the Renaissance. The rosy dawn of the New Thought shone in his being and his work. With the liberal-mindedness of an enlightened Cinquecentist, he no longer painted only religious subjects, but mythological and historical, or, as the mystics say, profane, subjects as well. His paintings appealed not only to the devotion of faith, but also to the sense of beauty. They are no longer exclusively divine worship; consequently, as Ruskin says, and his disciples repeat, they are devil-worship, and therefore to be rejected. Finally, it is consistent with the tendency to contradiction, and to the repudiation of what is manifest, which governs the thoughts of the weak-minded, that they should declare as false those tenets in the history of art which others than themselves deemed the most incontestable. The whole world for three hundred years had said, ‘Raphael is the zenith of painting.’ To this they replied, ‘Raphael is the nadir of painting.’ Hence it came about that, in the designation which they appropriated, they took up a direct allusion to Raphael, and to no other master or other portion of the history of art.

Consistency of sequence and unity are not to be expected from mystical thought. It proceeds after its kind in perpetual self-contradiction. In one place Ruskin says:[90] ‘The cause of the evil lies in the painter’s taking upon him to modify God’s works at his pleasure, casting the shadow of himself on all he sees. Every alteration of the features of nature has its origin either in powerless indolence or blind audacity.’ Thus the painter should reproduce the phenomenon exactly as he sees it, and not suffer himself to make the smallest alteration in it. And a few pages further on:[91] ‘There is an ideal form of every herb, flower, and tree; it is that form to which every individual of the species has a tendency to attain, freed from the influence[83] of accident or disease.’ And, he continues, to recognise and to reproduce this ideal form is the one great task of the painter.

That one of these propositions completely nullifies the other it is hardly necessary to indicate. The ‘ideal form’ which every phenomenon strives after does not stand before the bodily eyes of the painter. He reads it, according to some preconceived notion, into the phenomenon. He has to deal with individual forms which, through ‘accident or disease,’ have diverged from the ‘ideal form.’ In order to bring them back in painting to their ideal form, he must alter the object given by nature. Ruskin demands that he should do this, but at the same time says that every alteration is an act of ‘powerless indolence or blind audacity.’ Naturally, only one of these mutually exclusive statements can be true. Unquestionably it is the former. The ‘ideal form’ is an assumption, not a perception. The separation of the essential from the accidental, in the phenomenon, is an abstraction—the work of reason, not of the eye or æsthetic emotion. Now, the subject-matter of painting is the visible, not the conjectural; the real, not the possible or probable; the concrete, not the abstract. To exclude individual features from a phenomenon as unessential and accidental, and to retain others as intrinsic and necessary, is to reduce it to an abstract idea. The work of art, however, is not to abstract, but to individualize. Firstly, because abstraction presupposes an idea of the law which determines the phenomenon, because this idea may be erroneous, because it changes with the ruling scientific theories of the day, whereas the painter does not reproduce changing scientific theories, but impressions of sense. Secondly, because the abstraction rouses the working of thought, and not emotion, while the task of art is to excite emotion.

Nevertheless, the pre-Raphaelites had no eye for these contradictions, and followed blindly all Ruskin’s injunctions. They typified the human form, but they rendered all accessories truthfully, and had neither ‘the blind audacity nor powerless indolence’ to change any of them. They painted with the greatest precision the landscape in which their figures stood, and the objects with which they were surrounded. The botanist can determine every kind of grass and flower painted; the cabinet-maker can recognise the joining and glueing in every footstool, the kind of wood and varnish in the furniture. Moreover, this conscientious distinctness is just the same in the foreground as in the extreme background, where, according to the laws of optics, things should be scarcely perceptible.

This uniformly clear reproduction of all the phenomena in the field of vision is the pictorial expression of the incapacity for attention. In intellection, attention suppresses a portion of that which is presented to consciousness (through association or[84] perception), and suffers only a dominant group of the latter to remain. In sight, attention suppresses a portion of the phenomena in the field of vision in order distinctly to perceive only that part which the eye can focus. To look at a thing is to see one object intently, and to disregard others. The painter must observe if he wishes to make clear to us what phenomenon has engrossed him, and what his picture is to show us. If he does not dwell observantly on a definite point in the field of vision, but represents the whole field of view with the same proportion of intensity, we cannot divine what he wishes particularly to tell us, and on what he wishes to direct our attention. Such a style of painting may be compared to the disconnected speech of a weak mind, who chatters according to the current of the association of ideas, wanders in his talk, and neither knows himself what he wishes to arrive at, nor is able to make it clear to us; it is painted drivelling, echolalia of the brush.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:45 am

Part 2 of 2

But it is just this manner of painting which has gained for itself an influence on contemporary art. It is the pre-Raphaelite contribution to its evolution. The non-mystical painters have also learnt to observe accessories with precision, and to reproduce them faithfully; but they have prudently avoided falling into the faults of their models, and nullifying the unity of their work by filling the most distant backgrounds with still life, painted with painful accuracy. The lawns, flowers and trees, which they render with botanical accuracy, the geologically correct rocks, surfaces of soil, and mountain structures, the distinct patterns of carpets and wall-papers, which we find in the new pictures, are traceable to Ruskin and the pre-Raphaelites.

These mystics believed themselves to be mentally affiliated with the Old Masters, because, like the latter, they painted religious pictures. But in this they deceive themselves. Cimabue, Giotto and Fra Angelico were no mystics, or, to put it more precisely, they are to be classed as mystics because of their ignorance, and not because of organic weakness of mind. The mediæval painter, who depicted a religious scene, was convinced that he was painting something perfectly true. An Annunciation, a Resurrection, an Ascension, an event in the lives of the saints, a scene of life in paradise or in hell, possessed for him the same incontestable character of reality as drinking bouts in a soldier’s tavern, or a banquet in a ducal palace. He was a realist when he was painting the transcendental. To him the legend of his faith was related as a fact; he was penetrated with a sense of its literal truth, and reproduced it exactly as he would have done any other true story. The spectator approached the picture with the same conviction. Religious art was the Bible[85] of the poor. It had for the mediæval man the same importance as the illustrations in the works on the history of civilization, and on natural science, have in our day. Its duty was to narrate and to teach, and hence it had to be exact. We know from the touching stanza of Villon[92] how the illiterate people of the Middle Ages regarded church pictures. The dissolute poet makes his mother say to the Virgin Mary:

‘A pitiful poor woman, shrunk and old,
I am, and nothing learn’d in letter-lore;
Within my parish-cloister I behold
A painted Heaven where harps and lutes adore,
And eke an Hell whose damned folk seethe full sore:
One bringeth fear, the other joy to me.
That joy, great Goddess, make thou mine to be—
Thou of whom all must ask it even as I;
And that which faith desires, that let it see,
For in this faith I choose to live and die.’

With this sober faith a mystic mode of painting would be quite incompatible. The painter then avoided all that was obscure or mysterious; he did not paint nebulous dreams and moods, but positive records. He had to convince others, and could do so, because he was convinced himself.

It was quite otherwise with the pre-Raphaelites. They did not paint sober visions, but emotions. They therefore introduced into their pictures mysterious allusions and obscure symbols, which have nothing to do with the reproduction of visible reality. I need cite only one example—Holman Hunt’s Shadow of the Cross. In this picture Christ is standing in the Oriental attitude of prayer with outstretched arms, and the shadow of his body, falling on the ground, shows the form of a cross. Here we have a most instructive pattern of the processes of mystic thought. Holman Hunt imagines Christ in prayer. Through the association of ideas there awakes in him simultaneously the mental image of Christ’s subsequent death[86] on the cross. He wants, by the instrumentality of painting, to make the association of these ideas visible. And hence he lets the living Christ throw a shadow which assumes the form of a cross, thus foretelling the fate of the Saviour, as if some mysterious, incomprehensible power had so posed his body with respect to the rays of the sun that a wondrous annunciation of his destiny must needs write itself on the floor. The invention is completely absurd. It would have been childish trifling if Christ had drawn his sublime death of sacrifice, whether in jest or in vanity, in anticipation, by his shadow on the ground. Neither would the shadow-picture have had any object, for no contemporary of Christ’s would have understood the significance of the shadowed cross before he had suffered death by crucifixion. In Holman Hunt’s consciousness, however, emotion simultaneously awakened the form of the praying Christ and of the cross, and he unites both presentations anyhow, without regard to their reasonable connection. If an Old Master had had to paint the same idea, namely, the praying Christ filled with the presentiment of his impending death, he would have shown us in the picture a realistic Christ in prayer, and in a corner an equally realistic crucifixion; but he would never have sought to blend both these different scenes into a single one by a shadowy connection. This is the difference between the religious painting of the strong healthy believer and of the emotional degenerate mind.

In the course of time the pre-Raphaelites laid aside many of their early extravagances. Millais and Holman Hunt no longer practise the affectation of wilfully bad drawing and of childish babbling in imitation of Giotto’s language. They have only retained, of the leading principles of the school, the careful reproduction of the unessential and the painting of the idea. A benevolent critic, Edward Rod,[93] says of them: ‘They were themselves writers, and their painting is literature.’ This speech is still applicable to the school.

A few of the earliest pre-Raphaelites have understood it. They have recognised in time that they had mistaken their vocation, and have gone over, from a style of painting which was merely thought-writing, to genuine writing. The most notable among them is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who, though born in England, was the son of an Italian Carbonaro, and a scholar of Dante. His father gave him the name of the great poet at his entrance into the world, and this expressive baptismal name became a constant suggestion, which Rossetti felt, and has, perhaps half unconsciously, admitted.[94] He is the most instructive example of the often-quoted assertion of Balzac, of the[87] determining influence of a name on the development and destiny of its bearer. Rossetti’s whole poetical feeling was rooted in Dante. His theory of life bears an indistinct cast of that of the Florentine. Through all his ideas there runs a reminiscence, faint or strong, of the Divina Commedia or the Vita Nuova.

The analysis of one of his most celebrated poems, The Blessed Damozel, will show this parasitic battening on the body of Dante, and at the same time disclose some of the most characteristic peculiarities of the mental working of a mystic’s brain. The first strophe runs thus:

‘The blessed damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of Heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.’

The whole of this description of a lost love, who looks down upon him from a heaven imagined as a palace, with paradisiacal decorations, is a reflection of Dante’s Paradiso (Canto iii.), where the Blessed Virgin speaks to the poet from the moon. We even find details repeated, e.g., the deep and still waters ( ... ‘ver per acque nitide e tranquille Non sì profonde, che i fondi sien persi ...’). The ‘lilies in her hand’ he gets from the Old Masters, yet even here there is a slight ring of the morning greeting from the Purgatorio (Canto xxx.), ‘Manibus o date lilia plenis.’ He designates his love by the Anglo-Norman word ‘damozel.’ By this means he makes any clear outlines in the idea of a girl or lady artificially blurred, and shrouds the distinct picture in a veil of clouds. By the word ‘girl’ we should just think of a girl and nothing else. ‘Damozel’ awakens in the consciousness of the English reader obscure ideas of slim, noble ladies in the tapestries of old castles, of haughty Norman knights in mail, of something remote, ancient, half forgotten; ‘damozel’ carries back the contemporary beloved into the mysterious depths of the Middle Ages, and spiritualizes her into the enchanted figure of a ballad. This one word awakens all the crepuscular moods which the body of romantic poets and authors have bequeathed as a residuum in the soul of the contemporary reader. In the hand of the ‘damozel’ Rossetti places three lilies, round her head he weaves seven stars. These numbers are, of course, not accidental. From the oldest times they have been reckoned as mysterious and holy. The ‘three’ and the ‘seven’ are allusions to something unknown, and of deep meaning, which the intuitive reader may try to understand.

It must not be said that my criticism of the means by which Rossetti seeks to express his own dreamy states of mind, and to arouse similar states in the reader, applies equally to all lyrics[88] and poetry generally, and that I condemn the latter when I adduce the former as the emanations of the mystic’s weakness of mind. All poetry no doubt has this peculiarity, that it makes use of words intended not only to arouse the definite ideas which they connote, but also to awaken emotions that shall vibrate in consciousness. But the procedure of a healthy-minded poet is altogether different from that of a weak-minded mystic. The suggestive word employed by the former has in itself an intelligible meaning, but besides this it is adapted to excite emotions in every healthy-minded man; and finally the emotions excited have all of them reference to the subject of the poem. One example will make this clear. Uhland sings the Praise of Spring in these words:

‘Saatengrün, Veilchenduft,
Lerchenwirbel, Amselschlag,
Sonnenregen, linde Luft:
Wenn ich solche Worte singe,
Braucht es dann noch grosse Dinge,
Dich zu preisen, Frühlingstag?’[95]

Each word of the first three lines contains a positive idea. Each of them awakens glad feelings in a man of natural sentiment. These feelings, taken together, produce the mood with which the awakening of spring fills the soul, to induce which was precisely the intention of the poet. When, on the other hand, Rossetti interweaves the mystical numbers ‘three’ and ‘seven’ in the description of his ‘damozel,’ these numbers signify nothing in themselves; moreover, they will call up no emotion at all in an intellectually healthy reader, who does not believe in mystical numbers; but even in the case of the degenerate and hysterical reader, on whom the cabbala makes impression, the emotions excited by the sacred numbers will not involve a reference to the subject of the poem, viz., the apparition of one loved and lost, but at best will call up a general emotional consciousness, which may perhaps tell in a remote way to the advantage of the ‘damozel.’

But to continue the analysis of the poem. To the maiden in bliss it appears that she has been a singer in God’s choir for only one day; to him who is left behind this one day has been actually a matter of ten years. ‘To one it is ten years of years.’ This computation is thoroughly mystical. It means, that is, absolutely nothing. Perhaps Rossetti imagined that there may[89] exist a higher unity to which the single year may stand as one day does to a year; that therefore 365 years would constitute a sort of higher order of year. The words ‘year of years’ therefore signified 365 years. But as Rossetti portrays this thought vaguely and imperfectly, he is far from expressing it as intelligibly as this.

‘It was the rampart of God’s house
That she was standing on;
By God built over the sheer depth
The which is space begun;
So high that, looking downward, thence
She scarce could see the sun.
‘It lies in heaven, across the flood
Of ether, as a bridge.
Beneath, the tides of day and night
With flame and darkness ridge
The void, as low as where this earth
Spins like a fretful midge.
‘Heard hardly, some of her new friends,
Amid their loving games,
Spake evermore among themselves
Their virginal chaste names,
And the souls mounting up to God
Went by her like thin flames.
‘From the fixed place of Heaven she saw
Time like a pulse shake fierce
Through all the worlds....’

I leave it to the reader to imagine all the details of this description and unite them into one complete picture. If he fail in this in spite of honest exertion, let him comfort himself by saying that the fault is not his, but Rossetti’s.

The damozel begins to speak. She wishes that her beloved were already with her. For come he will.

‘“When round his head the aureole clings,
And he is clothed in white,
I’ll take his hand and go with him
To the deep wells of light.
We will step down as to a stream.
And bathe there in God’s sight.”’

It is to be observed how, in the midst of the turgid stream of these transcendental senseless modes of speech, the idea of bathing together takes a definite shape. Mystical reverie never fails to be accompanied by sensuality.

‘“We two,” she said, “will seek the groves
Where the Lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies—
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret, and Rosalys.”’

The enumeration of these five feminine names, occupying two lines of the stanza, is a method of versification characteristic of the mystic. Here the word ceases to be the symbol of a distinct presentation or concept, and sinks into a meaningless vocal sound, intended only to awaken divers agreeable emotions through association of ideas. In this case the five names arouse gliding shadowy ideas of beautiful young maidens, ‘Rosalys’ those of roses and lilies as well; and the two verses together diffuse a glamour of faerie, as if one were roaming at ease in a garden of flowers, where between lilies and roses slender white and rosy maidens pace to and fro.

The maiden in paradise goes on picturing to herself the union with her beloved, and then:

‘she cast her arms along
The golden barriers,
And laid her face between her hands
And wept—I heard her tears.’

These tears are incomprehensible. The blessed maiden after her death lives in the highest bliss, in a golden palace, in the presence of God and the Blessed Virgin. What pains her now? That her beloved is not yet with her? Ten years of mortal men are to her as a single day. Even if it be her beloved’s destiny to live to be a very old man, she will at most have to wait only five or six of her days until he appears at her side, and after this tiny span of time there blossoms for them both an eternity of joy. It is not, therefore, obvious why she is distressed and sheds tears. This can only be attributed to the bewildered thoughts of the mystic poet. He imagines to himself a life of happiness after death, but at the same time there dawn in his consciousness dim pictures of the annihilation of individuality, and of final separation through death, and those painful feelings are excited which we are accustomed to associate with ideas of death, decay, and separation from all we love. Hence it is that he comes to close an ecstatic hymn of immortality with tears, which have a meaning only if one does not believe in the continuation of life after death. In other respects also there are contradictions in the poem which show that Rossetti had not formed any one of his ideas so clearly as to exclude the opposite and incompatible. Thus, at one time the dead are dressed in white, and adorned with a galaxy of stars; they appear in pairs and call each other by caressing names; they must also be thought of as resembling human beings in appearance, while on another occasion their souls are ‘thin flames’ which rustle past the damozel. Every single idea in the poem, when we try soberly to follow it out, infallibly takes refuge after this manner in darkness and intangibility.

In the ‘Divine Comedy,’ echoes of which are ever humming in Rossetti’s soul, we find nothing of this kind. This was because Dante, like the Old Masters, was a mystic from ignorance, not from the weak-mindedness of degeneration. The raw material of his thought, the store of facts with which he worked, was false, but the use his mind made of it was true and consistent. All his ideas were clear, homogeneous, and free from internal contradictions. His hell, his purgatory, his paradise, he built up on the science of his times, which based its knowledge of the world exclusively on dogmatic theology. Dante was familiar with the system of his contemporary, Thomas Aquinas (he was nine years old when the Doctor Angelicus died), and permeated by it. To the first readers of the Inferno the poem must have appeared at least as well founded on fact and as convincing as, let us say, Häckel’s Natural History of Creation does to the public of to-day. In coming centuries our ideas of an atom as merely a centre of force, of the disposition of atoms in the molecule of an organic combination, of ether and its vibrations, will perhaps be discerned to be just as much poetical dreams as the ideas of the Middle Ages concerning the abode of the souls of the dead appear to us. But that is no reason why anyone should claim the right to designate Helmholtz or William Thompson as mystics, because they base their work upon those notions which even to their minds do not to-day represent anything definite. For the same reason no one ought to call Dante a mystic like a Rossetti. Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel is not based upon the scientific knowledge of his time, but upon a mist of undeveloped germs of ideas in constant mutual strife. Dante followed the realities of the world with the keenly penetrating eyes of an observer, and bore with him its image down to his hell. Rossetti is not in a condition to understand, or even to see the real, because he is incapable of the necessary attention; and since he feels this weakness he persuades himself, in conformity with human habit, that he does not wish to do what in reality he cannot do. ‘What is it to me,’ he once said,[96] ‘whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth?’ To him it is of no importance, because he is incapable of understanding it.

It is, of course, impossible to go so deeply into all Rossetti’s poems as into the Blessed Damozel; but it is also unnecessary, since we should everywhere meet with the same mixture of transcendentalism and sensuality, the same shadowy ideation, the same senseless combinations of mutually incompatible ideas. Reference, however, must be made to some of the peculiarities of the poet, because they characterize the brain-work of weak degenerate minds.

The first thing that strikes us is his predilection for refrains. The refrain is an excellent artistic medium for the purpose of unveiling the state of a soul under the influence of a strong emotion. It is natural that, to the lover yearning for his beloved, the recurring idea of her should be ever thrusting itself among all the other thoughts in which he temporarily indulges. It is equally comprehensible that the unhappy being who is made miserable by thoughts of suicide should be unable to free himself from an idea which is in harmony with his mental condition, say of an Armensünderblum, or ‘flower of the doomed soul,’ which he sees when walking at night. (See Heine’s poem, Am Kreuzweg wird begraben, in which the line die Armensünderblum is repeated at the end of both strophes with peculiarly thrilling effect.)

Rossetti’s refrains, however, are different from this, which is natural and intelligible. They have nothing to do with the emotion or action expressed by the poem. They are alien to the circle of ideas belonging to the poem. In a word, they possess the character of an obsession, which the patient cannot suppress, although he recognises that they are in no rational connection with the intellectual content of his consciousness. In the poem Troy Town it is related how Helen, long before Paris had carried her off, kneels in the temple of Venus at Sparta, and, drunken with the luxuriant beauty of her own body, fervently implores the Goddess of Love to send her a man panting for love, where or whoever he might be, to whom she might give herself. The absurdity of this fundamental idea it is sufficient to indicate in passing. The first strophe runs thus:

‘Heaven-born Helen, Sparta’s Queen
(O Troy town!),
Had two breasts of heavenly sheen,
The sun and the moon of the heart’s desire.
All Love’s lordship lay between.
(O Troy’s down,
Tall Troy’s on fire!)
‘Helen knelt at Venus’ shrine
(O Troy town!)
Saying, “A little gift is mine,
A little gift for a heart’s desire.
Hear me speak and make me a sign!
(O Troy’s down,
Tall Troy’s on fire!)”’[97]

And thus through fourteen strophes there constantly recurs, after the first line, ‘O Troy town!’ at the end of the third line, ‘heart’s desire’; and after the fourth line, ‘O Troy’s down, tall Troy’s on fire!’ It is easy to discern what Rossetti wishes. In him there is repeated the mental process which we recognised[93] in Holman Hunt’s picture, The Shadow of the Cross. As by association of ideas, in thinking of Helen at Sparta, he hits upon the idea of the subsequent fate of Troy, so shall the reader, while he sees the young queen in Sparta intoxicated by her own beauty, be simultaneously presented with the picture of the yet distant tragical consequences of her longing desire. But he does not seek to connect these two trains of thought in a rational way. He is ever muttering as he goes, monotonously as in a litany, the mysterious invocations to Troy, while he is relating the visit to the temple of Venus at Sparta. Sollier[98] remarks this peculiarity among persons of feeble intellect. ‘Idiots,’ he says, ‘insert words which have absolutely no connection with the object.’ And further on: ‘Among idiots constant repetition [le rabâchage] grows into a veritable tic.’

In another very famous poem, Eden Bower,[99] which treats of the pre-Adamite woman Lilith, her lover the serpent of Eden, and her revenge on Adam, the litany refrain of ‘Eden Bower’s in flower,’ and ‘And O the Bower and the hour,’ are introduced alternately after the first line in forty-nine strophes. As a matter of course, between these absolutely senseless phrases and the strophe which each interrupts, there is not the remotest connection. They are strung together without any reference to their meaning, but only because they rhyme. It is a startling example of echolalia.

We frequently find this peculiarity of the weak and deranged mind, i.e., echolalia, in Rossetti. Here are a few proofs:

‘So wet she comes to wed’ (Stratton Water).

Here the sound ‘wed’ has called up the sound ‘wet.’ In the poem My Sisters Sleep, in one place where the moon is spoken of, it is said:

‘The hollow halo it was in
Was like an icy crystal cup.’

It is stark nonsense to qualify a plane surface such as a halo by the adjective ‘hollow.’ The adjective and noun mutually exclude each other, but the rhyming assonance has joined ‘hollow’ to ‘halo.’ With this we may also compare the line:

‘Yet both were ours, but hours will come and go’
(A New Year’s Burden),


‘Forgot it not, nay, but got it not’ (Beauty).

Many of Rossetti’s poems consist of the stringing together of wholly disconnected words, and to mystic readers these absurdities seem naturally to have the deepest meaning. I should like to cite but one example. The second strophe of the Song of the Bower says:

‘... My heart, when it flies to thy bower,
What does it find there that knows it again?
There it must droop like a shower-beaten flower,
Red at the rent core and dark with the rain.
Ah! yet what shelter is still shed above it—
What waters still image its leaves torn apart?
Thy soul is the shade that clings round it to love it,
And tears are its mirror deep down in thy heart.’[100]

The peculiarity of such series of words is, that each single word has an emotional meaning of its own (such as ‘heart,’ ‘bower,’ ‘flies,’ ‘droop,’ ‘flower,’ ‘rent,’ ‘dark,’ ‘lone,’ ‘tears,’ etc.), and that they follow each other with a cradled rhythm and ear-soothing rhyme. Hence they easily arouse in the emotional and inattentive reader a general emotion, as does a succession of musical tones in a minor key. And the reader fancies that he understands the strophe, while he, as a matter of fact, only interprets his own emotion according to his own level of culture, his character, and his recollections of what he has read.

Besides Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it has been customary to include Swinburne and Morris among the pre-Raphaelite poets. But the similarity between these two and the head of the school is remote. Swinburne is, in Magnan’s phrase, a ‘higher degenerate,’ while Rossetti should be counted among Sollier’s imbeciles. Swinburne is not so emotional as Rossetti, but he stands on a much higher mental plane. His thought is false and frequently delirious, but he has thoughts, and they are clear and connected. He is mystical, but his mysticism partakes more of the depraved and the criminal than of the paradisiacal and divine. He is the first representative of ‘Diabolism’ in English poetry. This is because he has been influenced, not only by Rossetti, but also and especially by Baudelaire. Like all ‘degenerates,’ he is extraordinarily susceptible to suggestion, and, consciously or unconsciously, he has imitated, one after another, all the strongly-marked poetic geniuses that have come under his notice. He was an echo of Rossetti and Baudelaire, as he was of Gautier and Victor Hugo, and in his poems it is possible to trace the course of his reading step by step.

Completely Rossettian, for example, is A Christmas Carol.[101]

‘Three damsels in the queen’s chamber,
The queen’s mouth was most fair;
She spake a word of God’s mother,
As the combs went in her hair.
“Mary that is of might,
Bring us to thy Son’s sight.”’

Here we find a mystical content united to the antiquarianism and childish phraseology of genuine pre-Raphaelitism. The Masque of Queen Bersabe is worked out on the same model, being an imitation of the mediæval miracle-play, with its Latin stage directions and puppet-theatre style. This, in its turn, has become the model of many French poems, in which there is only a babbling and stammering and a crawling on all fours, as if in a nursery.

Where he walks in Baudelaire’s footsteps, Swinburne tries to distort his face to a diabolical mien, and makes the woman say (in Anactoria) to the other unnaturally loved woman:

‘I would my love could kill thee. I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.
I would earth had thy body as fruit to eat,
And no mouth but some serpent’s found thee sweet.
I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,
Intense device, and superflux of pain;
... O! that I
Durst crush thee out of life with love, and die—
Die of thy pain and my delight, and be
Mixed with thy blood and molten unto thee.’
Or, when he curses and reviles, as in Before Dawn:
‘To say of shame—what is it?
Of virtue—we can miss it,
Of sin—we can but kiss it,
And it’s no longer sin.’

One poem deserves a more detailed analysis, because it contains unmistakably the germ of the later ‘symbolism,’ and is an instructive example of this form of mysticism. The poem is The King’s Daughter. It is a sort of ballad, which in fourteen four-lined stanzas relates a fairy story about the ten daughters of a king, of whom one was preferred before the remaining nine, was beautifully dressed, pampered with the most costly food, slept in a soft bed, and received the attentions of a handsome prince, while her sisters remained neglected; but instead of finding happiness at the prince’s side, she became deeply wretched and wished she were dead. In the first and third lines of every stanza the story is rehearsed. The second line speaks of a mythical mill-stream, which comes into the ballad one knows not how, and which always, by some mysterious influence, symbolically reflects all the changes that take place as the[96] action of the ballad progresses; while the fourth line contains a litany-like exclamation, which likewise makes a running reference to the particular stage reached in the narrative.

‘We were ten maidens in the green corn,
Small red leaves in the mill-water:
Fairer maidens never were born,
Apples of gold for the King’s daughter.
‘We were ten maidens by a well-head,
Small white birds in the mill-water:
Sweeter maidens never were wed,
Rings of red for the King’s daughter.’

In the following stanzas the admirable qualities of each of the ten princesses are portrayed, and the symbolical intermediate lines run thus:

‘Seeds of wheat in the mill-water— ... White bread and brown for the King’s daughter— ... Fair green weed in the mill-water— ... White wine and red for the King’s daughter— ... Fair thin reeds in the mill-water— ... Honey in the comb for the King’s daughter— ... Fallen flowers in the mill-water— ... Golden gloves for the King’s daughter— ... Fallen fruit in the mill-water— ... Golden sleeves for the King’s daughter— ...’

The King’s son then comes, chooses the one princess and disdains the other nine. The symbolical lines point out the contrast between the brilliant fate of the chosen one and the gloomy destiny of the despised sisters:

‘A little wind in the mill-water; A crown of red for the King’s daughter—A little rain in the mill-water; A bed of yellow straw for all the rest; A bed of gold for the King’s daughter—Rain that rains in the mill-water; A comb of yellow shell for all the rest,—A comb of gold for the King’s daughter—Wind and hail in the mill-water; A grass girdle for all the rest, A girdle of arms for the King’s daughter—Snow that snows in the mill-water; Nine little kisses for all the rest, An hundredfold for the King’s daughter.’

The King’s daughter thus appears to be very fortunate, and to be envied by her nine sisters. But this happiness is only on the surface, for the poem now suddenly changes:

‘Broken boats in the mill-water;
Golden gifts for all the rest,
Sorrow of heart for the King’s daughter.
‘“Ye’ll make a grave for my fair body,”
Running rain in the mill-water;
“And ye’ll streek my brother at the side of me,”
The pains of hell for the King’s daughter.’

What has brought about this change in her fate the poet purposely leaves obscure. Perhaps he wishes to have us understand that the King’s son has no right to sue for her hand, being her brother, and that the chosen princess for shame at the incest perishes. This would be in keeping with Swinburne’s[97] childish devilry. But I am not dwelling on this aspect of the poem, but on its symbolism.

It is psychologically justifiable that a subjective connection should be set up between our states of mind for the time being and phenomena; that we should perceive in the external world a reflection of our moods. If the external world shows a well-marked emotional character, it awakens in us the mood corresponding to it; and conversely, if we are under the influence of some pronounced feeling, we notice, in accordance with the mechanism of attention, only those features of nature which are in harmony with our mood, which intensify and sustain it, while the opposing phenomena we neither observe nor even perceive. A gloomy ravine overhung by a cloudy sky makes us sad. This is one form of associating our humour with the outer world. But if we from any cause are already sad, we find some corresponding sadness in all the scenes around us—in the streets of the metropolis ragged, starved-looking children, thin, miserably kept cab-horses, a blind beggar-woman; in the woods withered, mouldering leaves, poisonous fungi, slimy slugs, etc. If we are joyous, we see just the same objects, but take no notice of them, perceiving only beside them, in the street, a wedding procession, a fresh young maiden with a basket of cherries on her arm, gaily-coloured placards, a funny fat man with his hat on the back of his head; in the woods, birds flitting by, dancing butterflies, little white anemones, etc. Here we have the other form of that association. The poet has a perfect right to make use of both these forms. If Heine sings:

‘Es ragt ins Meer der Runenstein,
Da sitz ich mit meinen Träumen;
Es pfeift der Wind, die Möwen schrein,
Die Wellen, die wandern und schäumen.
‘Ich habe geliebt manch schönes Kind
Und manchen guten Gesellen—
Wo sind sie hin?—Es pfeift der Wind,
Es schäumen und wandern die Wellen,’[102]

he brings his own mournful, melancholy frame of mind with him. He bemoans the fleetingness of man’s life, the impermanence of the feelings, the shadowy passing by and away of beloved companions. In this state he looks out over the sea from the shore where he sits, and perceives only those objects[98] that are in keeping with his humour and give it embodiment: the driving gust of wind, the hurrying gulls, now seen, now lost to sight, the rolling in and trackless ebbing of the surf. These features of an ocean scene become symbols of what is passing through the poet’s mind, and this symbolism is sound and founded on the laws of thought.

Swinburne’s symbolism is of quite another kind. He does not let the external world express a mood, but makes it tell a story; he changes its appearance according to the character of the event he is describing. Like an orchestra, it accompanies all events which somewhere are taking place. Here nature is no longer a white wall on which, as in a game of shadows, the varied visions of the soul are thrown; but a living, thinking being, which follows the sinful love-romance with the same tense sympathy as the poet, and which, with its own media, expresses just as much as he does—complacency, delight, or sorrow—at every chapter of the story. This is a purely delirious idea. It corresponds in art and poetry to hallucination in mental disease. It is a form of mysticism, which is met with in all the degenerate. Just as in Swinburne the mill-water drives ‘small red leaves,’ and, what is certainly more curious, ‘little white birds,’ when everything is going on well, and on the other hand is lashed by snow and hail, and tosses shattered boats about, if things take an adverse turn; so, in Zola’s Assommoir, the drain from a dyeing factory carries off fluid of a rosy or golden hue on days of happiness, but a black or gray-coloured stream if the fates of Gervaise and Lantier grow dark with tragedy. Ibsen, too, in his Ghosts, makes it rain in torrents if Frau Alving and her son are in sore trouble, while the sunshine breaks forth just as the catastrophe is about to occur. Ibsen, moreover, goes farther in this hallucinatory symbolism than the others, since with him Nature not only plays an active part, but shows scornful malice—she not only furnishes an expressive accompaniment to the events, but makes merry over them.

William Morris is intellectually far more healthy than Rossetti and Swinburne. His deviations from mental equilibrium betray themselves, not through mysticism, but through a want of individuality, and an overweening tendency to imitation. His affectation consists in mediævalism. He calls himself a pupil of Chaucer.[103] He artlessly copies whole stanzas also from Dante, e.g., the well-known Francesca and Paolo episode from Canto V. of the Inferno, when he writes in his Guenevere:

‘In that garden fair
Came Lancelot walking; this is true, the kiss
Wherewith we kissed in meeting that spring day,
I scarce dare talk of the remembered bliss.’

Morris persuades himself that he is a wandering minstrel of the thirteenth or fourteenth century, and takes much trouble to look at things in such a way, and express them in such language, as would have befitted a real contemporary of Chaucer. Beyond this poetical ventriloquism, so to speak, with which he seeks so to alter the sound of his voice that it may appear to come from far away to our ear, there are not many features of degeneracy in him to notice. But he sometimes falls into outspoken echolalia, e.g., in a stanza of the Earthly Paradise:

‘Of Margaret sitting glorious there,
In glory of gold and glory of hair,
And glory of glorious face most fair’—

where ‘glory’ and ‘glorious’ are repeated five times in three lines. His emotional activity in recent years has made him an adherent of a vague socialism, consisting chiefly of love and pity for his fellow-men, and which has an odd effect when expressed artistically in the language of the old ballads.

The pre-Raphaelites have for twenty years exercised a great influence on the rising generation of English poets. All the hysterical and degenerate have sung with Rossetti of ‘damozels’ and of the Virgin Mary, have with Swinburne eulogized unnatural license, crime, hell, and the devil. They have, with Morris, mangled language in bardic strains, and in the manner of the Canterbury Tales; and if the whole of English poetry is not to-day unmitigatedly pre-Raphaelite, it is due merely to the fortunate accident that, contemporaneously with the pre-Raphaelites, so sound a poet as Tennyson has lived and worked. The official honours bestowed on him as Poet Laureate, his unexampled success among readers, pointed him out to a part at least of the petty strugglers and aspirants as worthy of imitation, and so it comes about that among the chorus of the lily-bearing mystics there are also heard other street-singers who follow the poet of the Idylls of the King.

In its further development pre-Raphaelitism in England degenerated into ‘æstheticism,’ and in France into ‘symbolism.’ With both of these tendencies we must deal more fully.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:51 am

Part 1 of 3


A similar phenomenon to that which we observed in the case of the pre-Raphaelites is afforded by the French Symbolists. We see a number of young men assemble for the purpose of founding a school. It assumes a special title, but in spite of all sorts of incoherent cackle and subsequent attempts at mystification it has, beyond this name, no kind of general artistic principle or clear æsthetic ideal. It only follows the tacit, but definitely recognisable, aim of making a noise in the world, and by attracting the attention of men through its extravagances, of attaining celebrity and profit, and the gratification of all the desires and conceits agitating the envious souls of these filibusters of fame.

Shortly after 1880 there was, in the Quartier Latin in Paris, a group of literary aspirants, all about the same age, who used to meet in an underground café at the Quai St. Michel, and, while drinking beer, smoking and quibbling late into the night, or early hours of the morning, abused in a scurrilous manner the well-known and successful authors of the day, while boasting of their own capacity, as yet unrevealed to the world.

The greatest talkers among them were Emile Goudeau, a chatterbox unknown save as the author of a few silly satirical verses; Maurice Rollinat, the author of Les Névroses; and Edmond Haraucourt, who now stands in the front rank of French mystics. They called themselves the ‘Hydropaths,’ an entirely meaningless word, which evidently arose out of an indistinct reminiscence of both ‘hydrotherapy’ and ‘neuropath,’ and which was probably intended, in the characteristic vagueness of the mystic thought of the weak-minded, to express only the general idea of people whose health is not satisfactory, who are ailing and under treatment. In any case there is, in the self-chosen name, a suggestion of shattered nervous vitality vaguely felt and admitted. The group, moreover, owned a weekly paper Lutèce, which ceased after a few issues.[104]

About 1884 the society left their paternal pot-house, and pitched their tent in the Café François I., Boulevard St. Michel. This café attained a high renown. It was the cradle of Symbolism. It is still the temple of a few ambitious youths, who hope, by joining the Symbolist school, to acquire that[101] advancement which they could not expect from their own abilities. It is, too, the Kaaba to which all foreign imbeciles make a pilgrimage, those, that is, who have heard of the new Parisian tendency, and wish to become initiated into its teachings and mysteries. A few of the Hydropaths did not join in the change of quarters, and their places were taken by fresh auxiliaries—Jean Moréas, Laurent Tailhade, Charles Morice, etc. These dropped the old name, and were known for a short time as the ‘Décadents.’ This had been applied to them by a critic in derision, but just as the ‘Beggars’ of the Netherlands proudly and truculently appropriated the appellation bestowed in contempt and mockery, so the ‘Décadents’ stuck in their hats the insult, which had been cast in their faces, as a sign of mutiny against criticism. Soon, however, these original guests of the François I. became tired of their name, and Moréas invented for them the designation of ‘Symbolists,’ under which they became generally known, while a special smaller group, who had separated themselves from the Symbolists, continued to retain the title of ‘Décadents.’

The Symbolists are a remarkable example of that group-forming tendency which we have learnt to know as a peculiarity of ‘degenerates.’ They had in common all the signs of degeneracy and imbecility: overweening vanity and self-conceit, strong emotionalism, confused disconnected thoughts, garrulity (the ‘logorrhœa’ of mental therapeutics), and complete incapacity for serious sustained work. Several of them had had a secondary education, others even less. All of them were profoundly ignorant, and being unable, through weakness of will and inability to pay attention, to learn anything systematically, they persuaded themselves, in accordance with a well-known psychological law, that they despised all positive knowledge, and held that only dreams and divinings, only ‘intuitions,’ were worthy of human beings. A few of them, like Moréas and Guaita, who afterwards became a ‘magian,’ read in a desultory fashion all sorts of books which chanced to fall into their hands at the bouquinistes of the Quais, and delivered themselves of the snatched fruits of their reading in grandiloquent and mysterious phrases before their comrades. Their listeners thereupon imagined that they had indulged in an exhausting amount of study, and in this way they acquired that intellectual lumber which they peddled out in such an ostentatious display in their articles and pamphlets, and in which the mentally sane reader, to his amused astonishment, meets with the names of Schopenhauer, Darwin, Taine, Renan, Shelley and Goethe; names employed to label the shapeless, unrecognisable rubbish-heaps of a mental dustbin, filled with raw scraps of uncomprehended and insolently mutilated propositions and fragments of thought, dishonestly extracted[102] and appropriated. This ignorance on the part of the Symbolists, and their childish flaunting of a pretended culture, are openly admitted by one of them. ‘Very few of these young men,’ says Charles Morice,[105] ‘have any exact knowledge of the tenets of religion or philosophy. From the expressions used in the Church services, however, they retain some fine terms, such as “monstrance,” “ciborium,” etc.; several have preserved from Spencer, Mill, Shopenhauer (sic!), Comte, Darwin, a few technical terms. Few are those who know deeply what they talk about, or those who do not try to make a show and parade of their manner of speaking, which has no other merit than that of being a conceit in syllables.’ (Charles Morice naturally is responsible for this last unmeaning phrase, not I.)

The original guests of the François I. made their appearance at one o’clock in the day at their café, and remained there till dinner-time. Immediately after that meal they returned, and did not leave their headquarters till long after midnight. Of course none of the Symbolists had any known occupation. These ‘degenerates’ are no more capable of regularly fulfilling any duty than they are of methodical learning. If this organic deficiency appears in a man of the lower classes, he becomes a vagabond; in a woman of that class it leads to prostitution; in one belonging to the upper classes it takes the form of artistic and literary drivel. The German popular mind betrays a deep intuition of the true connection of things in inventing such a word as ‘day-thief’ (Tagedieb) for such æsthetic loafers. Professional thieving and the unconquerable propensity to busy, gossiping, officious idleness flow from the same source, to wit, inborn weakness of brain.

It is true that the boon companions of the café are not conscious of their mentally-crippled condition. They find pet names and graceful appellations for their inability to submit themselves to any sort of discipline, and to devote persistent concentration and attention to any sort of work. They call it ‘the artist nature,’ ‘genius roaming at large,’ ‘a soaring above the low miasma of the commonplace.’ They ridicule the dull Philistine, who, like the horse turning a winch, performs mechanically a regular amount of work; they despise the narrow-minded loons who demand that a man should either pursue a circumscribed bourgeois trade or possess an officially acknowledged status, and who profoundly distrust impecuniary professions. They glory in roving folk who wander about singing and carelessly begging, and they hold up as their ideal the ‘commoner of air,’ who bathes in morning dew, sleeps under flowers, and gets his clothing from the same firm as the lilies of the field in the Gospel. Richepin’s La Chanson des Gueux is the most typical expression[103] of this theory of life. Baumbach’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Spielmannslieder are analogous specimens in German literature, but of a less pronounced character. Schiller’s Pegasus im Joch seems to be pulling at the same rope as these haters of the work society expects of them, but it is only apparently so. Our great poet sides not with the impotent sluggard, but with that overflowing energy which would fain do greater things than the work of an office-boy or a night-watchman.

Moreover, the pseudo-artistic loafer, in spite of his imbecility and self-esteem, cannot fail to perceive that his mode of life runs contrary to the laws on which the structure of society and civilization are based, and he feels the need of justifying himself in his own eyes. This he does by investing with a high significance the dreams and chatter over which he wastes his time, calculated to arouse in him the illusion that they rival in value the most serious productions. ‘The fact is, you see,’ says M. Stéphane Mallarmé, ‘that a fine book is the end for which the world was made.’[106] Morice complains[107] touchingly that the poetic mind ‘should be bound to suffer the interruption of a twenty-eight days’ army drill between the two halves of a verse.’ ‘The excitement of the streets,’ he goes on, ‘the jarring of the Governmental engine, the newspapers, the elections, the change of the Ministry, have never made so much noise; the stormy and turbulent autocracy of trade has suppressed the love of the beautiful in the thoughts of the multitude, and industry has killed as much silence as politics might still have permitted to survive.’ In fact, what are all these nothings—commerce, manufactures, politics, administration—against the immense importance of a hemistich?

The drivelling of the Symbolists was not entirely lost in the atmosphere of their café, like the smoke of their pipes and cigarettes. A certain amount of it was perpetuated, and appeared in the Revue Indépendante, the Revue Contemporaine, and other fugitive periodicals, which served as organs to the round table of the François I. These little journals and the books published by the Symbolists were not at first noticed outside the café. Then it happened that chroniqueurs of the Boulevard papers, into whose hands these writings chanced to fall, devoted an article to them on days when ‘copy’ was scanty, but only to hold them up to ridicule. That was all the Symbolists wanted. Mockery or praise mattered little so long as they got noticed. Now they were in the saddle, and showed at once what unparalleled circus-riders they were. They themselves used every effort to get into the larger newspapers, and when one of them succeeded, like the smith of Jüterbock in the familiar fairy tale,[104] in throwing his cap into an editor’s office through the crack of the door incautiously put ajar, he followed it neck and crop, took possession of the place, and in the twinkling of an eye transformed it into the citadel of the Symbolist party. In these tactics everything served their turn—the dried-up scepticism and apathy of Parisian editors, who take nothing seriously, are capable neither of enthusiasm nor of repugnance, and only know the cardinal principle of their business, viz., to make a noise, to arouse curiosity, to forestall others by bringing out something new and sensational; the uncritical gaping attitude of the public, who repeat in faith all that their newspaper gossips to them with an air of importance; the cowardice and cupboard-love of the critics who, finding themselves confronted by a closed and numerous band of reckless young men, got nervous at the sight of their clenched fists and angry threatening glances, and did not dare to quarrel with them; the low cunning of the ambitious, who hoped to make a good bargain if they speculated on the rise of shares in Symbolism. Thus the very worst and most despicable characteristics of editors, critics, aspiring authors, and newspaper readers, co-operated to make known, and, in part, even famous, the names of the original habitués of the François I., and to awaken the conviction in very many weak minds of both hemispheres that their tendency governed the literature of the day, and included all the germs of the future. This triumph of the Symbolists marks the victory of the gang over the individual. It proves the superiority of attack over defence, and the efficacy of mutual-admiration-insurance, even in the case of the most beggarly incapacity.

With all their differences, the works of the Symbolists have two features in common. They are vague often to the point of being unintelligible, and they are pious. Their vagueness is only to be expected, after all that has been said here about the peculiarities of mystic thought. Their piousness has attained to an importance which makes it necessary to consider it more in detail.

When, in the last few years, a large number of mysteries, passion plays, golden legends, and cantatas appeared, when one dozen after another of new poets and authors, in their first poems, novels, and treatises, made ardent confessions of faith, invoked the Virgin Mary, spoke with rapture of the sacrifice of the Mass, and knelt in fervent prayer, the cry arose amongst reactionists, who have a vested interest in diffusing a belief in a reversion of cultured humanity to the mental darkness of the past: ‘Behold, the youth, the hope, the future of the French people is turning away from science; “emancipation” is becoming bankrupt; souls are opening again to religion, and the Holy Catholic Church steps anew into its lofty office, as the[105] teacher, comforter, and guide of civilized mankind.’ The Symbolistic tendency is designedly called ‘neo-Catholic,’ and certain critics pointed to its appearance and success as a proof that freethought was overthrown by faith. ‘Even the most superficial glance at the state of the world,’ writes Edouard Rod,[108] ‘shows us that we are on all sides in the full swing of reaction.’ And, further, ‘I believe in reaction in every sense of the word. How far this reaction will go is the secret of to-morrow.’

The jubilant heralds of the new reaction, in inquiring into the cause of this movement, find, with remarkable unanimity, this answer, viz.: The best and most cultivated minds return to faith, because they found out that science had deceived them, and not done for them what it had promised to do. ‘The man of this century,’ says M. Melchior de Vogüé,[109] ‘has acquired a very excusable confidence in himself.... The rational mechanism of the world has been revealed to him.... In the explanation of things the Divine order is wholly eliminated.... Besides, why follow after doubtful causes, when the operations of the universe and of humanity had become so clear to the physicist and physiologist?... The least wrong God ever wrought was that of being unnecessary. Great minds assured us of this, and all mediocre spirits were convinced of it. The eighteenth century had inaugurated the worship of Reason. The rapture of that millennium lasted but a moment. Then came eternal disillusion, the regularly recurring ruin of all that man had built upon the hollow basis of his reason.... He had to admit that, beyond the circle of acquired truths, the abyss of ignorance appeared again just as deep, just as disquieting.’

Charles Morice, the theorist and philosopher of the Symbolists, arraigns Science on almost every page of his book, La Littérature de tout-à-l’heure, for her great and divers sins. ‘It is lamentable,’ he says in his apocalyptic phraseology,[110] ‘that our learned men have no idea how, in popularizing science, they were disorganizing it (?). To entrust principles to inferior memories, is to expose them to the uncertainty of unauthorized interpretations, of erroneous commentaries and heterodox hypotheses. For the word that the books contain is a dead letter, and the books themselves may perish, but the impact which they leave behind them, the breath going forth from them, survives. And what if they have breathed out storm and unloosed (!) darkness? But this is just what all this chaos of vulgarization has as its most patent result.... Is not such the natural consequence of a century of psychological investigation, which was a good training for the reason, but whose immediate and actual[106] consequences must inevitably be weariness, and disgust, ay, and despair of reason?... Science had erased the word mystery. With the same stroke of the pen she had expunged the words beauty, truth, joy, humanity.... And now mysticism takes from Science, the intruder and usurper, not only all that she had stolen, but something also, it may be, of her own property. The reaction against the shameless and miserable negations of scientific literature ... has taken the form of an unforeseen poetical restoration of Catholicism.’

Another graphomaniac, the author of that imbecile book, Rembrandt as Educator, drivels in almost the same way. ‘Interest in science, and especially in the once so popular natural science, has widely diminished of late in the German world.... There has been to a certain extent a surfeit of induction; there is a longing for synthesis; the days of objectivity are declining once more to their end, and, in its place, subjectivity knocks at the door.’[111]

Edouard Rod[112] says: ‘The century has advanced without keeping all its promises’; and further on he speaks again of ‘this ageing and deluded century.’

In a small book, which has become a sort of gospel to imbeciles and idiots, Le Devoir présent, the author, M. Paul Desjardins,[113] makes continual attacks on ‘so-called scientific empiricism,’ and speaks of the ‘negativists, the empiricists, and the mechanists, whose attention is wholly taken up with physical and inexorable forces,’ boasting of his intention ‘to render invalid the value of the empirical methods.’

Even a serious thinker, M. F. Paulhan,[114] in his investigation of the basis of French neo-mysticism, comes to the conclusion that natural science has shown itself powerless to satisfy the needs of mankind. ‘We feel ourselves surrounded by a vast unknown, and demand that at least access to it should be permitted to us. Evolution and positivism have blocked the way.... For these reasons evolution could not but show itself incapable of guiding the mind, even if it left us great thoughts.’

Overwhelming as may appear this unanimity between strong minds commanding respect and weak graphomaniacs, it does not, nevertheless, contain the slightest spark of truth. To assert that the world turns away from science because the ‘empirical,’ which means the scientific, method of observation and registration has suffered shipwreck, is either a conscious lie or shows lack of mental responsibility. A healthy-minded and honourable man must almost feel ashamed to have still to[107] demonstrate this. In the last ten years, by means of spectrum-analysis, science has made disclosures in the constitution of the most distant heavenly bodies, their component matter, their degree of heat, the speed and direction of their motions; it has firmly established the essential unity of all modes of force, and has made highly probable the unity of all matter; it is on the track of the formation and development of chemical elements, and it has learnt to understand the building up of extremely intricate organic combinations; it shows us the relations of atoms in molecules, and the position of molecules in space; it has thrown wonderful light on the conditions of the action of electricity, and placed this force at the service of mankind; it has renewed geology and palæontology, and disentangled the concatenation of animal and vegetable forms of life; it has newly created biology and embryology, and has explained in a surprising manner, through the discovery and investigation of germs, some of the most disquieting mysteries of perpetual metamorphosis, illness, and death; it has found or perfected methods which, like chronography, instantaneous photography, etc., permit of the analysis and registration of the most fleeting phenomena, not immediately apprehensible by human sense, and which promise to become extremely fruitful for the knowledge of nature. And in the face of such splendid, such overwhelmingly grand results, the enumeration of which could easily be doubled and trebled, does anyone dare to speak of the shipwreck of science, and of the incapacity of the empirical method?

Science is said not to have kept what she promised. When has she ever promised anything else than honest and attentive observation of phenomena and, if possible, establishment of the conditions under which they occur? And has she not kept this promise? Does she not keep it perpetually? If anyone has expected of her that she would explain from one day to another the whole mechanism of the universe, like a juggler explains his apparent magic, he has indeed no idea of the true mission of science. She denies herself all leaps and flights. She advances step by step. She builds slowly and patiently a firm bridge out into the Unknown, and can throw no new arch over the abyss before she has sunk deep the foundations of a new pier in the depths, and raised it to the right height.

Meanwhile, she asks nothing at all about the first cause of phenomena, so long as she has so many more proximate causes to investigate. Many of the most eminent men of science go so far, indeed, as to assert that the first cause will never become the object of scientific investigation, and call it, with Herbert Spencer, ‘the Unknowable,’ or exclaim despondingly with Du Bois-Reymond, Ignorabimus. Both of them in this respect are[108] completely unscientific, and only prove that even clear thinkers like Spencer, and sober investigators like Du Bois-Reymond, stand yet under the influence of theological dreams. Science can speak of no Unknowable, since this would presuppose that she is able to mark exactly the boundaries of the Knowable. This, however, she cannot do, since every new discovery thrusts back that boundary. Moreover, the acceptance of an Unknowable involves the acknowledgment that there is something which we cannot know. Now, in order to be able seriously to assert the existence of this Something, either we must have acquired some knowledge of it, however slight and indistinct, and this, therefore, would prove that it cannot be unknowable, since we actually know it, and nothing then would justify us in declaring beforehand that our present knowledge of it, however little it may be, will not be extended and deepened; or else we have no knowledge, even of the minutest character, of the philosopher’s Unknowable, in which case it cannot exist for us. The whole conception is based upon nothing, and the word is an idle creation of a dreaming imagination. The same thing can be said of Ignorabimus. It is the opposite of science. It is not a correct inference from well-founded premises, it is not the result of observation, but a mystical prophecy. No one has the right to make communications with respect to the future as matters of fact. Science can announce what she knows to-day; she can also mark off exactly what she does not know; but to say what she will or will not at any time know is not her office.

It is true that whoever asks from Science that she should give an answer to all the questions of idle and restless minds with unshaken and audacious certainty must be disappointed by her; for she will not, and cannot, fulfil his desires. Theology and metaphysics have an easier task. They devise some fable, and propound it with overwhelming earnestness. If anyone does not believe in them, they threaten and insult the intractable client; but they can prove nothing to him, they cannot force him to take their chimeras for cash. Theology and metaphysics can never be brought into a dilemma. It costs them nothing to add to their words more words, to unite to one voluntary assertion another, and pile up dogma upon dogma. It will never occur to the serious sound mind, which thirsts after real knowledge, to seek it from metaphysics or theology. They appeal only to childish brains, whose desire for knowledge, or, rather, whose curiosity, is fully satisfied with the cradling croon of an old wife’s tale.

Science does not compete with theology and metaphysics. If the latter declare themselves able to explain the whole phenomenon of the universe, Science shows that these pretended explanations are empty chatter. She, for her part, is naturally[109] on her guard against putting in the place of a proved absurdity another absurdity. She says modestly: ‘Here we have a fact, here an assumption, here a conjecture. ‘Tis a rogue who gives more than he has.’ If this does not satisfy the neo-Catholics, they should sit down and themselves investigate, themselves find out new facts, and help to make clear the weird obscurity of the phenomenon of the universe. That would be a proof of a true desire for knowledge. At the table of Science there is room for all, and every fellow-observer is welcome. But this does not enter into even the dreams of these poor creatures, who drivel about the ‘bankruptcy of science.’ Talk is so much easier and more comfortable than inquiry and discovery!

True, science tells us nothing about the life after death, of harp-concerts in Paradise, and of the transformation of stupid youths and hysterical geese into white-clad angels with rainbow-coloured wings. It contents itself, in a much more plain and prosaic manner, with alleviating the existence of mankind on earth. It lessens the average of mortality, and lengthens the life of the individual through the suppression of known causes of disease; it invents new comforts, and makes easier the struggle against Nature’s destructive powers. The Symbolist, who is preserved after surgical interference through asepsy from suppuration, mortification, and death; who protects himself by a Chamberland filter from typhus; who by the careless turning of a button fills his room with electric light; who through a telephone can converse with someone beloved in far-distant countries, has to thank this alleged bankrupt science for it all, and not the theology to which he maintains that he wants to return.

The demand that science should give not only true, if limited, conclusions, and offer not only tangible benefits, but also solve all enigmas to-day and at once, and make all men omniscient, happy, and good, is ridiculous. Theology and metaphysics have never fulfilled this demand. It is simply the intellectual manifestation of the same foolish conceit, which in material concerns reveals itself in hankering after pleasure and in shirking work. The man who has lost his social status, who craves for wine and women, for idleness and honours, and complains of the constitution of society because it offers no satisfaction to his lusts, is own brother to the Symbolist who demands truth, and reviles science because it does not hand it to him on a golden platter. Both betray a similar incapacity to grasp the reality of things, and to understand that it is not possible to acquire goods without bodily labour, or truth without mental exertion. The capable man who wrests her gifts from Nature, the industrious inquirer who in the sweat of his brow bores into the sources of knowledge, inspires respect and cordial sympathy. On the other[110] hand, there can be but little esteem for the discontented idlers who look for riches from a lucky lottery ticket, or a rich uncle, and for enlightenment from a revelation which is to come to them without trouble on their part over the slovenly beer-drinking at their favourite café.

The dunces who abuse science, reproach it also for having destroyed ideals, and stolen from life all its worth. This accusation is just as absurd as the talk about the bankruptcy of science. A higher ideal than the increase of general knowledge there cannot be. What saintly legend is as beautiful as the life of an inquirer, who spends his existence bending over a microscope, almost without bodily wants, known and honoured by few, working only for his own conscience’ sake, without any other ambition than that perhaps one little new fact may be firmly established, which a more fortunate successor will make use of in a brilliant synthesis, and insert as a stone in some monument of natural science? What religious fable has inspired with a contempt of death sublimer martyrs than a Gehlen, who sank down poisoned while preparing the arsenious hydrogen which he had discovered; or a Crocé-Spinelli, who was overtaken by death in an over-rapid ascent of his balloon while observing the pressure of the atmosphere; or an Ehrenberg, who became blind over his life’s work; or a Hyrtl, who almost entirely destroyed his eyesight by his anatomical corrosive preparations; or the doctors, who inoculate themselves with some deadly disease—not to speak of the innumerable crowd of discoverers travelling to the North Pole, and to the interior of dark continents? And did Archimedes really feel his life to be so worthless when he entreated the pillaging bands of Marcellus, ‘Do not disturb my circles’? Genuine healthy poetry has always recognised this, and finds its most ideal characters, not in a devotee, who murmurs prayers with drivelling lips, and stares with distorted eyes at some visual hallucination, but in a Prometheus and a Faust, who wrestle for science, i.e., for exact knowledge of nature.

The assertion that science has not kept its promises, and that, therefore, the rising generation is turning away from it, does not for a moment resist criticism, and is entirely without foundation. It is a senseless premise of neo-Catholicism, were the Symbolists to declare a hundred times over that disgust with science had made them mystics. The explanations which even a healthy-minded man makes with respect to the true motives of his actions are only to be accepted with the most cautious criticism; those proffered by the degenerate are completely useless. For the impulse to act and to think originate, for the degenerate, in the unconscious, and consciousness finds subsequent, and in some measure plausible, reasons for the thoughts and deeds, the real[111] source of which is unknown to itself. Every book on suggestion gives illustrations of Charcot’s typical case: a hysterical female is sent into hypnotic sleep, and it is suggested to her that on awaking she is to stab one of the doctors present. She is then awakened. She grasps a knife and makes for her appointed victim. The blade is wrenched from her, and she is asked why she wishes to murder the doctor. She answers without hesitation, ‘Because he has done me an injury.’ Note that she had seen him that day for the first time in her life. This person felt when in a waking condition the impulse to kill the doctor. Her consciousness had no presentiment that this impulse had been suggested to her in a hypnotic state. Consciousness knows that a murder is never committed without some motive. Forced to find a motive for the attempted murder, consciousness falls back upon the only one reasonably possible under the circumstances, and fancies that it got hold of the idea of murder in order to avenge some wrong.

The brothers Janet[115] offer, as an explanation of this psychological phenomenon, the hypothesis of dual personality. ‘Every person consists of two personalities, one conscious and one unconscious. Among healthy persons both are alike complete, and both in equilibrium. In the hysteric they are unequal, and out of equilibrium. One of the two personalities, usually the conscious, is incomplete, the other remaining perfect.’ The conscious personality has the thankless task of inventing reasons for the actions of the unconscious. It resembles the familiar game where one person makes movements and another says words in keeping with them. In the degenerate with disturbed equilibrium consciousness has to play the part of an ape-like mother finding excuses for the stupid and naughty tricks of a spoiled child. The unconscious personality commits follies and evil deeds, and the conscious, standing powerless by, and unable to hinder it, seeks to palliate them by all sorts of pretexts.

The cause of the neo-Catholic movement, then, is not to be sought in any objection felt by younger minds to science, or in their having any complaint to make against it. A De Vogüé, a Rod, a Desjardins, a Paulhan, who impute such a basis to the mysticism of the Symbolists, arbitrarily attribute to it an origin which it never had. It is due solely and alone to the degenerate condition of its inventors. Neo-Catholicism is rooted in emotivity and mysticism, both of these being the most frequent and most distinctive stigmata of the degenerate.

That the mysticism of the degenerate, even in France, the[112] land of Voltaire, has frequently taken the form of religious enthusiasm might at first seem strange, but will be understood if we consider the political and social circumstances of the French people during the last decade.

The great Revolution proclaimed three ideals: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Fraternity is a harmless word which has no real meaning, and therefore disturbs nobody. Liberty, to the upper classes, is certainly unpleasant, and they lament greatly over the sovereignty of the people and universal suffrage, but still they bear, without too much complaint, a state of things which, after all, is sufficiently mitigated by a prying administration, police supervision, militarism, and gendarmerie, and which will always be sufficient to keep the mob in leash. But equality to those in possession is an insufferable abomination. It is the one thing won by the great Revolution, which has outlasted all subsequent changes in the form of government, and has remained alive in the French people. The Frenchman does not know much about fraternity; his liberty in many ways has a muzzle as its emblem; but his equality he possesses as a matter of fact, and to it he holds firmly. The lowest vagabond, the bully of the capital, the rag-picker, the hostler, believes that he is quite as good as the duke, and says so to his face without the smallest hesitation if occasion arises. The reasons of the Frenchman’s fanaticism for equality are not particularly elevated. The feeling does not spring from a proud, manly consciousness and the knowledge of his own worth, but from low envy and malicious intolerance. There shall be nothing above the dead level! There shall be nothing better, nothing more beautiful or even more striking, than the average vulgarity! The upper classes struggle against this rage for equalization with passionate vehemence, especially and precisely those who have reached their high position through the great Revolution.

The grandchildren of the rural serfs, who plundered and destroyed the country seats of noblemen, basely murdered the inmates, and seized upon their lands; the descendants of town grocers and cobblers, who waxed rich as politicians of street and club, as speculators in national property and assignats, and as swindlers in army purveyance, do not want to become identified with the mob. They want to form a privileged class. They want to be recognised as belonging to a more honourable caste. They sought, for this purpose, a distinguishing mark, which would make them at once conspicuous as members of a select class, and they found it in belonging to the Church.

This choice is quite intelligible. The mass of the people in France, especially in towns, is sceptical, and the aristocracy of the ancien régime, who in the eighteenth century bragged about free thought, had come out of the deluge of 1789 as very pious[113] persons, comprehending or divining the inner connection between all the old ideas and emblems of the Faith, of the Monarchy, and of feudal nobility. Hence, through their clericalism, the parvenus at once established a contrast between themselves and the multitude from whom they wanted to keep distinct, and a resemblance with the class into which they would like to smuggle or thrust themselves.

Experience teaches that the instinct of preservation is often the worst adviser in positions of danger. The man who cannot swim, falling into the water, involuntarily throws up his arms, and thus infallibly lets his head be submerged and himself be drowned; whereas his mouth and nose would remain above water if he held his arms and hands quietly under the surface. The bad rider, who feels his seat insecure, usually draws up his legs, and then comes the certainty of a fall; whereas he would probably be able to preserve his equilibrium if he left his legs outstretched. Thus the French bourgeoisie, who knew that they had snatched for themselves the fruits of the great upheaval, and let the Fourth Estate, who alone had made the Revolution, come out of it empty-handed, chose the worst means for retaining their unjustly-acquired possessions and privileges, and for escaping unnatural equalization when they made use of their clericalism for the establishment of their social status. They alienated, in consequence, the wisest, strongest, and most cultivated minds, and drove over to socialism many young men who, though intellectually radical, were yet economically conservative, and little in favour of equality, and who would have become a strong defence for a free-thinking bourgeoisie, but who felt that socialism, however radical its economic doctrines and impossible its theories of equality, represented emancipation.

But I have not to judge here whether the religious mimicry of the French bourgeoisie, which was to make them resemble the old nobility, exerts the protection expected of it or not; I only set down the fact of this mimicry. It is a necessary consequence that all the rich and snobbish parvenus send their sons to the Jesuit middle and high schools. To be educated by the Jesuits is regarded as a sign of caste, very much as is membership of the Jockey Club. The old pupils of the Jesuits form a ‘black freemasonry,’ which zealously advances their protégés in every career, marries them to heiresses, hurries to their assistance in misfortune, hushes up their sins, stifles scandal, etc. It is the Jesuits who for the last decade have made it their care to inculcate their own habits of thinking into the rich and high-born youth of France entrusted to them. These youths brought brains of hereditary deficiency, and therefore mystically disposed, into the clerical schools, and these then gave to the mystic thoughts of the degenerate pupils a religious content.[114] This is not an arbitrary assumption, but a well-founded fact. Charles Morice, the æsthetic theorist and philosopher of the Symbolists, received his education from the Jesuits, according to the testimony of his friends.[116] So did Louis le Cardonnel, Henri de Régnier, and others. The Jesuits invented the phrase ‘bankruptcy of science,’ and their pupils repeat it after them, because it includes a plausible explanation of their pietistic mooning, the real organic causes of which are unknown to them, and for that matter would not be understood if they were known. ‘I return to faith, because science does not satisfy me,’ is a possible statement. It is even a superior thing to say, since it presupposes a thirst for truth and a noble interest in great questions. On the contrary, a man will hardly be willing to confess, ‘I am an enthusiastic admirer of the Trinity and the Holy Virgin because I am degenerate, and my brain is incapable of attention and clear thought.’

That the Jesuitical argument as reported by MM. de Vogüé, Rod, etc., can have found credit beyond clerical circles and degenerate youth, that the half-educated are heard repeating to-day, ‘Science is conquered, the future belongs to religion,’ is consistent with the mental peculiarities of the million. They never have recourse to facts, but repeat the ready-made propositions with which they have been prompted. If they would have regard to facts, they would know that the number of faculties, teachers and students of natural science, of scientific periodicals and books, of their subscribers and readers, of laboratories, scientific societies and reports to the academies increases year by year. It can be shown by figures that science does not lose, but continually gains ground.[117] But the million does not care about exact statistics. In France it accepts without resistance the suggestion, that science is retreating before religion, from a few newspapers, written mainly for clubmen and gilded courtezans, into the columns of which the pupils of the clerical schools have found an entrance. Of science itself, of its hypotheses, methods, and results, they have never known anything. Science was at one time the fashion. The daily press of that date said, ‘We live in a scientific age’; the news of the day reported the travels and marriages of scientists; the feuilleton-novels contained witty allusions to Darwin; the inventors of elegant walking-sticks and perfumes called their productions ‘Evolution Essence’ or ‘Selection Canes’; those who[115] affected culture took themselves seriously for the pioneers of progress and enlightenment. To-day those social circles which set the fashions, and the papers which seek to please these circles, decree that, not science is chic, but faith, and now the paragraphs of the boulevard papers relate small piquant sayings of preachers; in the feuilleton-novels there are quotations from the Imitation of Christ; inventors bring out richly-mounted prie-dieus and choice rosaries, and the Philistine feels with deep emotion the miraculous flower of faith springing up and blossoming in his heart. Of real disciples science has scarcely lost one. It is only natural, on the contrary, that the plebs of the salons, to whom it has never been more than a fashion, should turn their backs on it at the mere command of a tailor or a modiste.

Thus much on the neo-Catholicism which, partly for party reasons, partly from ignorance, partly from snobbishness, is mistaken for a serious intellectual movement of the times.

The pretension of Symbolism to be, not only a return to faith, but a new theory of art and poetry, is what we must now proceed to test.
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