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.

Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

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Part 2 of 3

If we wish to know at the outset what Symbolists understand by symbol and symbolism, we shall meet with the same difficulties we encountered in determining the precise meaning of the name pre-Raphaelitism, and for the same reason, viz., because the inventors of these appellations understood by them hundreds of different mutually contradictory, indefinite things, or simply nothing at all. A skilled and sagacious journalist, Jules Huret,[118] instituted an inquiry about the new literary movement in France, and from its leading representatives acquired information, by which he has furnished us with a trustworthy knowledge of the meaning which they connect, or pretend to connect, with the expressions and phraseology of their programme. I will here adduce some of these utterances and declarations. They will not tell us what Symbolism is. But they may afford us some insight into symbolist methods of thought.

M. Stéphane Mallarmé, whose leadership of the Symbolist band is least disputed among the disciples, expresses himself as follows: ‘To name an object means to suppress three-quarters of the pleasure of a poem—i.e., of the happiness which consists in gradually divining it. Our dream should be to suggest the object. The symbol is the perfected use of this mystery, viz., to conjure up an object gradually in order to show the condition of a soul; or, conversely, to choose an object, and out of it to reveal a state of the soul by a series of interpretations.’

If the reader does not at once understand this combination of vague words, he need not stop to solve them. Later on I will translate the stammerings of this weak mind into the speech of sound men.

M. Paul Verlaine, another high-priest of the sect, expresses himself as follows: ‘It was I who, in the year 1885, laid claim to the name of Symbolist. The Parnassians, and most of the romanticists, in a certain sense lacked symbols.... Thence errors of local colouring in history, the shrinking up of the myth through false philosophical interpretations, thought without the discernment of analogies, the anecdote emptied of feeling.’

Let us listen to a few second-rate poets of the group. ‘I declare art,’ says M. Paul Adam, ‘to be the enshrining of a dogma in a symbol. It is a means of making a system prevail, and of bringing truths to the light of day.’ M. Rémy de Gourmont confesses honestly: ‘I cannot unveil the hidden meaning of the word “symbolism,” since I am neither a theorist nor a magician.’ And M. Saint-Pol-Roux-le-Magnifique utters this profound warning: ‘Let us take care! Symbolism carried to excess leads to nombrilisme, and to a morbid mechanism.... This symbolism is to some extent a parody of mysticism.... Pure symbolism is an anomaly in this remarkable century, remarkable for militant activities. Let us view this transitional art as a clever trick played upon naturalism, and as a precursor of the poetry of to-morrow.’

We may expect from the theorists and philosophers of the group more exhaustive information concerning their methods and aims. Accordingly, M. Charles Morice instructs us how ‘the symbol is the combination of the objects which have aroused our sensations, with our souls, in a fiction [fiction]. The means is suggestion; it is a question of giving people a remembrance of something which they have never seen.’ And M. Gustav Kahn says: ‘For me personally, symbolic art consists in recording in a cycle of works, as completely as possible, the modifications and variations of the mind of the poet, who is inspired by an aim which he has determined.’

In Germany there have already been found some imbeciles and idiots, some victims of hysteria and graphomania, who affirm that they understand this twaddle, and who develop it further in lectures, newspaper articles and books. The cultured German Philistine, who from of old has had preached to him contempt for ‘platitude,’ i.e., for healthy common-sense, and admiration for ‘deep meaning,’ which is as a rule only the futile bubbling of soft and addled brains incapable of thought, becomes visibly uneasy, and begins to inquire if there may not really be something behind these senseless series of words. In France people have not been caught on the limed twigs of these poor fools and cold-blooded jesters, but have considered Symbolism to be what in fact it is, madness or humbug. We shall meet with these words in the writings of noted representatives of all shades of literary thought.

‘The Symbolists!’ exclaims M. Jules Lemaître, ‘there are[117] none.... They themselves do not know what they are or what they want. There is something stirring and heaving under the earth, but unable to break through. Do you understand? When they have painfully produced something, they would like to build formulæ and theories around it, but fail in doing so, because they do not possess the necessary strength of mind.... They are jesters with a certain amount of sincerity—that I grant them—but nevertheless jesters.’ M. Joséphin Péladan describes them as ‘whimsical pyrotechnists of metrics and glossaries, who combine in order to get on, and give themselves odd names in order to get known.’ M. Jules Bois is much more forcible: ‘Disconnected action, confused clamour, such are the Symbolists. Cacophony of savages who have been turning over the leaves of an English grammar, or a glossary of obsolete words. If they have ever known anything, they pretend to have forgotten it. Indistinct, faulty, obscure, they are nevertheless as solemn as augurs.... You, decadent Symbolists, you deceive us with childish and necromantic formulæ.’ Verlaine himself, the co-founder of Symbolism, in a moment of sincerity, calls his followers a ‘flat-footed horde, each with his own banner, on which is inscribed Réclame!’ M. Henri de Régnier says apologetically: ‘They feel the need of gathering round a common flag, so that they may fight more effectually against the contented.’ M. Zola speaks of them as ‘a swarm of sharks who, not being able to swallow us, devour each other.’ M. Joseph Caraguel designates symbolical literature as ‘a literature of whining, of babbling, of empty brains, a literature of Sudanese Griots [minstrels].’ Edmond Haraucourt plainly discerns the aims of the Symbolists: ‘They are discontented, and in a hurry. They are the Boulangists of literature. We must live! We would take a place in the world, become notorious or notable. We beat wildly on a drum which is not even a kettledrum.... Their true symbol is “Goods by express.” Everyone goes by express train. Their destination—Fame.’ M. Pierre Quillard thinks that under the title of Symbolists ‘poets of rare gifts and unmitigated simpletons have been arbitrarily included.’ And M. Gabriel Vicaire sees in the manifestoes of Symbolists ‘nothing but schoolboy jokes.’ Finally, M. Laurent Tailhade, one of the leading Symbolists, divulges the secret: ‘I have never attached any other value to this performance than that of a transient amusement. We took in the credulous judgment of a few literary beginners with the joke of coloured vowels, Theban love, Schopenhauerism, and other pranks, which have since made their way in the world.’ Quite so; just, as we have already said, in Germany.

To abuse, however, is not to explain, and although summary justice is fit in the case of deliberate swindlers, who, like quack-dentists, play the savage in order to entice money from[118] market-folk, yet anger and ridicule are out of place in dealing with honest imbeciles. They are diseased or crippled, and as such deserve only pity. Their infirmities must be disclosed, but severity of treatment has been abolished even in lunatic asylums since Pinel’s time.

The Symbolists, so far as they are honestly degenerate and imbecile, can think only in a mystical, i.e., in a confused way. The unknown is to them more powerful than the known; the activity of the organic nerves preponderates over that of the cerebral cortex; their emotions overrule their ideas. When persons of this kind have poetic and artistic instincts, they naturally want to give expression to their own mental state. They cannot make use of definite words of clear import, for their own consciousness holds no clearly-defined univocal ideas which could be embodied in such words. They choose, therefore, vague equivocal words, because these best conform to their ambiguous and equivocal ideas. The more indefinite, the more obscure a word is, so much the better does it suit the purpose of the imbecile, and it is notorious that among the insane this habit goes so far that, to express their ideas, which have become quite formless, they invent new words, which are no longer merely obscure, but devoid of all meaning. We have already seen that, for the typical degenerate, reality has no significance. On this point I will only remind the reader of the previously cited utterances of D. G. Rossetti, Morice, etc. Clear speech serves the purpose of communication of the actual. It has, therefore, no value in the eyes of a degenerate subject. He prizes that language alone which does not force him to follow the speaker attentively, but allows him to indulge without restraint in the meanderings of his own reveries, just as his own language does not aim at the communication of definite thought, but is only intended to give a pale reflection of the twilight of his own ideas. That is what M. Mallarmé means when he says: ‘To name an object means to suppress three quarters of the pleasure.... Our dream should be to suggest the object.’

Moreover, the thought of a healthy brain has a flow which is regulated by the laws of logic and the supervision of attention. It takes for its content a definite object, manipulates and exhausts it. The healthy man can tell what he thinks, and his telling has a beginning and an end. The mystic imbecile thinks merely according to the laws of association, and without the red thread of attention. He has fugitive ideation. He can never state accurately what he is thinking about; he can only denote the emotion which at the moment controls his consciousness. He can only say in general, ‘I am sad,’ ‘I am merry,’ ‘I am fond,’ ‘I am afraid.’ His mind is filled with evanescent, floating, cloudy ideas, which take their hue from the reigning emotion, as[119] the vapour hovering above a crater flames red from the glow at the bottom of the volcanic caldron. When he poetizes, therefore, he will never develop a logical train of thought, but will seek by means of obscure words of distinctly emotional colouring to represent a feeling, a mood. What he prizes in poetical works is not a clear narrative, the exposition of a definite thought, but only the reflected image of a mood, which awakens in him a similar, but not necessarily the same, mood. The degenerate are well aware of this difference between a work which expresses strong mental labour and one in which merely emotionally coloured fugitive ideation ebbs and flows; and they eagerly ask for a distinguishing name for that kind of poetry of which alone they have any understanding. In France they have found this designation in the word ‘Symbolism.’ The explanations which the Symbolists themselves give of their cognomen appear nonsensical; but the psychologist gathers clearly from their babbling and stammering that under the name ‘symbol’ they understand a word (or series of words) expressing, not a fact of the external world, or of conscious thought, but an ambiguous glimmer of an idea, which does not force the reader to think, but allows him to dream, and hence brings about no intellectual processes, but only moods.

The great poet of the Symbolists, their most admired model, from whom, according to their unanimous testimony, they have received the strongest inspiration, is Paul Verlaine. In this man we find, in astonishing completeness, all the physical and mental marks of degeneration, and no author known to me answers so exactly, trait for trait, to the descriptions of the degenerate given by the clinicists—his personal appearance, the history of his life, his intellect, his world of ideas and modes of expression. M. Jules Huret[119] gives the following account of Verlaine’s physical appearance: ‘His face, like that of a wicked angel grown old, with a thin, untrimmed beard, and abrupt(?) nose; his bushy, bristling eyebrows, resembling bearded wheat, hiding deep-set green eyes; his wholly bald and huge long skull, misshapen by enigmatic bumps—all these give to his physiognomy a contradictory appearance of stubborn asceticism and cyclopean appetites.’ As appears in these ludicrously laboured and, in part, entirely senseless expressions, even the most unscientific observer has been struck with what Huret calls his ‘enigmatic bumps.’ If we look at the portrait of the poet, by Eugène Carrière, of which a photograph serves as frontispiece in the Select Poems of Verlaine,[120] and still more at that by M. Aman-Jean, exhibited in the Champs de Mars Salon in 1892, we instantly remark the great asymmetry of the head, which Lombroso[121] has pointed out[120] among degenerates, and the Mongolian physiognomy indicated by the projecting cheek-bones, obliquely placed eyes, and thin beard, which the same investigator[122] looks upon as signs of degeneration.

Verlaine’s life is enveloped in mystery, but it is known, from his own avowals, that he passed two years in prison. In the poem Écrit en 1875[123] he narrates in detail, not only without the least shame, but with gay unconcern, nay, even with boasting, that he was a true professional criminal:

‘J’ai naguère habité le meilleur des châteaux
Dans le plus fin pays d’eau vive et de coteaux:
Quatre tours s’élevaient sur le front d’autant d’ailes,
Et j’ai longtemps, longtemps habité l’une d’elles...
Une chambre bien close, une table, une chaise,
Un lit strict où l’on pût dormir juste à son aise,...
Tel fut mon lot durant les longs mois là passés...
...J’étais heureux avec ma vie,
Reconnaissant de biens que nul, certes, n’envie.’

And in the poem Un Conte he says:

...’ce grand pécheur eut des conduites
Folles à ce point d’en devenir trop maladroites,
Si bien que les tribunaux s’en mirent—et les suites!
Et le voyez-vous dans la plus étroite des boîtes?
Cellules! prison humanitaires! Il faut taire
Votre horreur fadasse et ce progrès d’hypocrisie’...

It is now known that a crime of a peculiarly revolting character led to his punishment; and this is not surprising, since the special characteristic of his degeneration is a madly inordinate eroticism. He is perpetually thinking of lewdness, and lascivious images fill his mind continually. I have no wish to quote passages in which this unhappy slave of his morbidly excited senses has expressed the loathsome condition of his mind, but the reader who wishes to become acquainted with them may be referred to the poems Les Coquillages, Fille, and Auburn.[124] Sexual license is not his only vice. He is also a dipsomaniac, and (as may be expected in a degenerate subject) a paroxysmal dipsomaniac, who, awakened from his debauch, is seized with deep disgust of the alcoholic poison and of himself, and speaks of ‘les breuvages exécrés’ (La Bonne Chanson), but succumbs to the temptation at the next opportunity.

Moral insanity, however, is not present in Verlaine. He sins through irresistible impulse. He is an Impulsivist. The difference between these two forms of degeneration lies in the fact that the morally insane does not look upon his crimes as bad, but commits them with the same unconcern as a sane man would[121] perform any ordinary or virtuous act, and after his misdeed is quite contented with himself; whereas the Impulsivist retains a full consciousness of the baseness of his deeds, hopelessly fights against his impulse until he can no longer resist it, and after the performance[125] suffers the most terrible remorse and despair. It is only an Impulsivist who speaks in execration of himself as a reprobate (‘Un seul Pervers,’ in Sagesse), or strikes the dejected note which Verlaine touches in the first four sonnets of Sagesse:

‘Hommes durs! Vie atroce et laide d’ici bas!
Ah! que du moins, loin des baisers et des combats,
Quelque chose demeure un peu sur la montagne,

‘Quelque chose du cœur enfantin et subtil,
Bonté, respect! car qu’est-ce qui nous accompagne,
Et vraiment quand la mort viendra que reste-t-il?...

‘Ferme les yeux, pauvre âme, et rentre sur-le-champ:
Une tentation des pires. Fuis l’infâme ...
Si la vieille folie était encore en route?

‘Ces souvenirs, va-t-il falloir les retuer?
Un assaut furieux, le suprême, sans doute!
O va prier contre l’orage, va prier!...

‘C’est vers le Moyen-Age énorme et delicat
Qu’il faudrait que mon cœur en panne naviguât,
Loin de nos jours d’esprit charnel et de chair triste ...

‘Et là que j’eusse part...
...à la chose vitale,
Et que je fusse un saint, actes bons, pensers droits,

‘Haute théologie et solide morale,
Guidé par la folie unique de la Croix
Sur tes ailes de pierre, ô folle Cathédrale!’

This example serves to show that there is not wanting in Verlaine that religious fervour which usually accompanies morbidly intensified eroticism. This finds a much more decided expression in several other poems. I should wish to quote only from two.[126]

‘O mon Dieu, vous m’avez blessé d’amour,
Et la blessure est encore vibrante,
O mon Dieu, vous m’avez blessé d’amour.

‘O mon Dieu, votre crainte m’a frappé,
Et la brûlure est encore là qui tonne
O mon Dieu, votre crainte m’a frappé.

(Observe the mode of expression and the constant repetitions.)

‘O mon Dieu, j’ai connu que tout est vil,
Et votre gloire en moi s’est installée,
[122]O mon Dieu, j’ai connu que tout est vil.

‘Noyez mon âme aux flots de votre vin,
Fondez ma vie au pain de votre table,
Noyez mon âme aux flots de votre vin.

‘Voici mon sang que je n’ai pas versé,
Voici ma chair indignée de souffrance,
Voici mon sang que je n’ai pas versé.’

Then follows the ecstatic enumeration of all the parts of his body, which he offers up in sacrifice to God; and the poem closes thus:

‘Vous connaissez tout cela, tout cela,
Et que je suis plus pauvre que personne,
Vous connaissez tout cela, tout cela,
Mais ce que j’ai, mon Dieu, je vous le donne.’

He invokes the Virgin Mary as follows:

‘Je ne veux plus aimer que ma mère Marie.
Tous les autres amours sont de commandement,
Nécessaires qu’ils sont, ma mère seulement
Pourra les allumer aux cœurs qui l’ont chérie.

‘C’est pour Elle qu’il faut chérir mes ennemis,
C’est pour Elle que j’ai voué ce sacrifice,
Et la douceur de cœur et le zèle au service.
Comme je la priais, Elle les a permis.

‘Et comme j’étais faible et bien méchant encore,
Aux mains lâches, les yeux éblouis des chemins,
Elle baissa mes yeux et me joignit les mains,
Et m’enseigna les mots par lesquels on adore.’

The accents here uttered are well known to the clinics of psychiatry. We may compare them to the picture which Legrain[127] gives of some of his patients. ‘His speech continually reverts to God and the Virgin Mary, his cousin.’ (The case in question is that of a degenerate subject who was a tramway conductor.) ‘Mystical ideas complete the picture. He talks of God, of heaven, crosses himself, kneels down, and says that he is following the commandments of Christ.’ (The subject under observation is a day labourer.) ‘The devil will tempt me, but I see God who guards me. I have asked of God that all people might be beautiful,’ etc.

The continual alternation of antithetical moods in Verlaine—this uniform transition from bestial lust to an excess of piety, and from sinning to remorse—has struck even observers who do not know the significance of such a phenomenon. ‘He is,’ writes M. Anatole France,[128] ‘alternately devout and atheistical, orthodox and sacrilegious.’ These he certainly is. But why? Simply because he is a circulaire. This not very happy expression, invented by French psychiatry, denotes that form[123] of mental disease in which states of excitement and depression follow each other in regular succession. The period of excitement coincides with the irresistible impulses to misdeeds and blasphemous language; that of dejection with the paroxysms of contrition and piety. The circulaires belong to the worst species of the degenerate. ‘They are drunkards, obscene, vicious, and thievish.’[129] They are also in particular incapable of any lasting, uniform occupation, since it is obvious that in such a condition of mental depression they cannot accomplish any work which demands strength and attention. The circulaires are, by the nature of their affliction, condemned to be vagabonds or thieves, unless they belong to rich families. In normally constituted society there is no place for them. Verlaine has been a vagabond the whole of his life. He has loafed about all the highways of France, and roamed as well through Belgium and England. Since his release from prison he has spent most of his time in Paris, where, however, he has no residence, but resorts to the hospitals under the pretext of rheumatism, which for that matter he may easily have contracted during the nights which, as a tramp, he has spent under the open sky. The administration winks at his doings, and grants him food and shelter gratis, out of regard for his poetical capacity. Conformably with the constant tendency of the human mind to beautify what cannot be altered, he persuades himself that his vagrancy, which was forced upon him by his organic vice, is a glorious and enviable condition; he prizes it as something beautiful, artistic, and sublime, and looks upon vagabonds with especial tenderness. Speaking of them he says (Grotesques):

‘Leur jambes pour toutes montures,
Pour tous biens l’or de leurs regards,
Par le chemin des aventures
Ils vont haillonneux et hagards.

‘Le sage, indigné, les harangue;
Le sot plaint ces fous hasardeux;
Les enfants leur tirent la langue
Et les filles se moquent d’eux.’

We find in every lunatic and imbecile the conviction that the rational minds who discern and judge him are ‘blockheads.’

‘... Dans leurs prunelles
Rit et pleure—fastidieux—
L’amour des choses éternelles,
Des vieux morts et des anciens dieux!

‘Donc, allez, vagabonds sans trêves,
Errez, funestes et maudits,
Le long des gouffres et des grèves,
Sous l’œil fermé des paradis!

‘La nature à l’homme s’allie
Pour châtier comme il le faut
L’orgueilleuse mélancolie
Qui vous fait marcher le front haut.’

In another poem (Autre) he calls to his chosen mates:

‘Allons, frères, bons vieux voleurs,
Doux vagabonds
Filous en fleur
Mes chers, mes bons,
‘Fumons philosophiquement,
Promenons nous
Rien faire est doux.’

As one vagabond feels himself attracted by other vagabonds, so does one deranged mind feel drawn to others. Verlaine has the greatest admiration for King Louis II. of Bavaria, that unhappy madman in whom intelligence was extinct long before death, in whom only the most abominable impulses of foul beasts of the most degraded kind had survived the perishing of the human functions of his disordered brain. He apostrophizes him thus:

‘Roi, le seul vrai Roi de ce siècle, salut, Sire,
Qui voulûtes mourir vengeant votre raison
Des choses de la politique, et du délire
De cette Science intruse dans la maison,
‘De cette Science assassin de l’Oraison
Et du Chant et de l’Art et de toute la Lyre,
Et simplement et plein d’orgueil et floraison
Tuâtes en mourant, salut, Roi, bravo, Sire!
‘Vous fûtes un poète, un soldat, le seul Roi
De ce siècle ...
Et le martyr de la Raison selon la Foi....’

Two points are noticeable in Verlaine’s mode of expression. First, we have the frequent recurrence of the same word, of the same turn of phrase, that chewing the cud, or rabâchage (repetition), which we have learnt to know as the marks of intellectual debility. In almost every one of his poems single lines and hemistiches are repeated, sometimes unaltered, and often the same word appears instead of one which rhymes. Were I to quote all the passages of this kind, I should have to transcribe nearly all his poems. I will therefore give only a few specimens, and those in the original, so that their peculiarity will be fully apparent to the reader. In the Crépuscule du soir mystique the lines, ‘Le souvenir avec le crépuscule,’ and ‘Dahlia, lys, tulipe et renoncules,’ are twice repeated without any internal necessity. In the poem Promenade sentimentale the adjective blême (wan) pursues the poet in the manner of an obsession or ‘onomatomania,[125]’ and he applies it to water-lilies and waves (‘wan waves’). The Nuit du Walpurgis classique begins thus:

‘Un rythmique sabbat, rythmique, extrêmement

In the Sérénade the first two lines are repeated verbatim as the fourth and eighth. Similarly in Ariettes oubliées, VIII.:

‘Dans l’interminable
Ennui de la plaine,
La neige incertaine
Luit comme du sable.

‘Le ciel est de cuivre,
Sans lueur aucune.
On croirait voir vivre
Et mourir la lune.

‘Comme des nuées
Flottent gris les chênes
Des forêts prochaines
Parmi les buées.

‘Le ciel est de cuivre,
Sans lueur aucune.
On croirait voir vivre
Et mourir la lune.

‘Corneille poussive,
Et vous, les loups maigres,
Par ces bises aigres
Quoi donc vous arrive?

‘Dans l’interminable
Ennui de la plaine,
La neige incertaine
Luit comme du sable.’

The Chevaux de bois begins thus:

‘Tournez, tournez, bons chevaux de bois,
Tournez cent tours, tournez mille tours,
Tournez souvent et tournez toujours,
Tournez, tournez au son des hautbois.’

In a truly charming piece in Sagesse he says:

‘Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,
Si bleu, si calme!
Un arbre, par dessus le toit
Berce sa palme.
‘La cloche, dans le ciel qu’on voit,
Doucement tinte.
Un oiseau, sur l’arbre qu’on voit,
Chante sa plainte.’

In the passage in Amour, ‘Les fleurs des champs, les fleurs innombrables des champs ... les fleurs des gens,’ ‘champs’ and ‘gens’ sound somewhat alike. Here the imbecile repetition[126] of similar sounds suggests a senseless pun, to the poet, and as for this stanza in Pierrot gamin:

‘Ce n’est pas Pierrot en herbe
Non plus que Pierrot en gerbe,
C’est Pierrot, Pierrot, Pierrot.
Pierrot gamin, Pierrot gosse,
Le cerneau hors de la cosse,
C’est Pierrot, Pierrot, Pierrot!’

it is the language of nurses to babies, who do not care to make sense, but only to twitter to the child in tones which give him pleasure. The closing lines of the poem Mains point to a complete ideational standstill, to mechanical mumbling:

‘Ah! si ce sont des mains de rêve,
Tant mieux, ou tant pis, ou tant mieux.’[130]

The second peculiarity of Verlaine’s style is the other mark of mental debility, viz., the combination of completely disconnected nouns and adjectives, which suggest each other, either through a senseless meandering by way of associated ideas, or through a similarity of sound. We have already found some examples of this in the extracts cited above. In these we find the ‘enormous and tender Middle Ages’ and the ‘brand which thunders.’ Verlaine writes also of ‘feet which glide with a pure and wide movement,’ of ‘a narrow and vast affection,’ of ‘a slow landscape,’[131] of ‘a slack liqueur’ (‘jus flasque’), ‘a gilded perfume,’ a ‘condensed’ or ‘terse contour’ (‘galbe succinct’), etc. The Symbolists admire this form of imbecility, as ‘the research for rare and precious epithets’ (la recherche de l’epithète rare et précieuse).

Verlaine has a clear consciousness of the vagueness of his thoughts, and in a very remarkable poem from the psychological point of view, Art poétique, in which he attempts to give a theory of his lyric creation, he raises nebulosity to the dignity of a fundamental method:

‘De la musique avant toute chose
Et pour cela préfère l’Impair
Plus vague et plus soluble dans l’air,
Sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose.’

The two verbs ‘pèse’ and ‘pose’ are juxtaposed merely on account of their similarity of sound.

‘Il faut aussi que tu n’ailles point
Choisir les mots sans quelque méprise;
Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise
Où l’Indécis au Précis se joint.

‘C’est des beaux yeux derrière des voiles,
C’est le grand jour tremblant de midi,
C’est par un ciel d’automne attiédi,
Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!

‘Car nous voulons la Nuance encor,
Pas la Couleur, rien que la nuance!
Oh! la nuance seule fiance
Le rêve au rêve et la flûte au cor!’

(This stanza is completely delirious; it places ‘nuance’ and ‘colour’ in opposition, as though the latter were not contained in the former. The idea of which the weak brain of Verlaine had an inkling, but could not bring to a complete conception, is probably that he prefers subdued and mixed tints, which lie on the margin of several colours, to the full intense colour itself.)

‘Fuis du plus loin la Pointe assassine,
L’esprit cruel et le Rire impur,
Qui font pleurer les yeux de l’Azur,
Et tout cet ail de basse cuisine!’

It cannot be denied that this poetical method in the hands of Verlaine often yields extraordinarily beautiful results. There are few poems in French literature which can rival the Chanson d’Automne:

‘Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
‘Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
‘Je me souviens
Des jours anciens,
Et je pleure.
‘Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.’

Even if literally translated, there remains something of the melancholy magic of the lines, which in French are richly rhythmical and full of music. Avant que tu ne t’en ailles (p. 99) and Il pleure dans mon cœur (p. 116) may also be called pearls among French lyrics.

This is because the methods of a highly emotional, but intellectually incapable, dreamer suffice for poetry which deals exclusively with moods, but this is the inexorable limit of his power. Let the true meaning of mood be always present with[128] us. The word denotes a state of mind, in which, through organic excitations which it cannot directly perceive, consciousness is filled with presentations of a uniform nature, which it elaborates with greater or less clearness, and one and all of which relate to those organic excitations inaccessible to consciousness. The mere succession of words, giving a name to these presentations, the roots of which are in the unknown, expresses the mood, and is able to awaken it in another. It has no need of a fundamental thought, or of a progressive exposition to unfold it. Verlaine often attains to astonishing effects in such poetry of moods. Where, however, distinct vision, or a feeling the motive of which is clear to consciousness, or a process well delimitated in time and space, is to be poetically rendered, the poetic art of the emotional imbecile fails utterly. In a healthy and sane poet even the mood pure and simple is united to clear presentations, and is not a mere undulation of fragrance and rose-tinted mist. Poems like Goethe’s Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh, Der Fischer, or Freudvoll und leidvoll, can never be created by the emotionally degenerate; but, on the other hand, the most marvellous of Goethe’s poems are not so utterly incorporeal, not such mere sighs, as three or four of the best of a Verlaine.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:52 am

Part 3 of 3

We have now the portrait of this most famous leader of the Symbolists clearly before us. We see a repulsive degenerate subject with asymmetric skull and Mongolian face, an impulsive vagabond and dipsomaniac, who, under the most disgraceful circumstances, was placed in gaol; an emotional dreamer of feeble intellect, who painfully fights against his bad impulses, and in his misery often utters touching notes of complaint; a mystic whose qualmish consciousness is flooded with ideas of God and saints, and a dotard who manifests the absence of any definite thought in his mind by incoherent speech, meaningless expressions and motley images. In lunatic asylums there are many patients whose disease is less deep-seated and incurable than is that of this irresponsible circulaire at large, whom only ignorant judges could have condemned for his epileptoid crimes.

A second leader among the Symbolists, whose prestige is in no quarter disputed, is M. Stéphane Mallarmé. He is the most curious phenomenon in the intellectual life of contemporary France. Although long past fifty years of age, he has written hardly anything, and the little that is known of him is, in the opinion of his most unreserved admirers, of no account; and yet he is esteemed as a very great poet, and the utter infertility of his pen, the entire absence of any single work which he can produce as evidence of his poetical capacity, is prized as his greatest merit, and as a most striking proof of his intellectual importance. This statement must appear so fabulous to any reader not deranged in mind, that he may rightly demand proofs[129] of these statements. M. Charles Morice[132] says of Mallarmé: ‘I am not obliged to unveil the secrets of the works of a poet who, as he has himself remarked, is excluded from all participation in any official exposition of the beautiful. The fact itself that these works are still unknown ... would seem to forbid our associating the name of M. Mallarmé with those of men who have given us books. I let vulgar criticism buzz without replying to it, and state that M. Mallarmé, without having given us books ... is famous—a fame which, of course, has not been won without arousing the laughter of stupidity in both petty and important newspapers, but which does not offer public and private ... ineptitude that opportunity for showing its baseness which is provoked by the advent of a new wonder.... The people, in spite of their abhorrence of the beautiful, and especially of novelty in the beautiful, have gradually, and in spite of themselves, come to comprehend the prestige of a legitimate authority. They themselves, even they, feel ashamed of their foolish laughter; and before this man, whom that laughter could not tear from the serenity of his meditative silence, laughter became dumb, and itself suffered the divine contagion of silence. Even for the million this man, who published no books, and whom, nevertheless, all designated “a poet,” became, as it were, the very symbol of a poet, seeking, where possible, to draw near to the absolute.... By his silence, he has signified that he ... cannot yet realize the unprecedented work of art which he wishes to create. Should cruel life refuse to support him in his effort, our respect—nay, more, our veneration—can alone give an answer worthy of a reticence thus conditioned.’

The graphomaniac Morice (of whose crazy and distorted style of expression this literally translated example gives a very good idea) assumes that perhaps Mallarmé will yet create his ‘unprecedented work.’ Mallarmé himself, however, denies us the right to any such hope. ‘The delicious Mallarmé,’ Paul Hervieu relates,[133] ‘told me one day ... he could not understand that anyone should let himself appear in print. Such a proceeding gave him the impression of an indecency, an aberration, resembling that form of mental disease called “exhibitionism.” Moreover, no one has been so discreet with his soul as this incomparable thinker.’[134]

So, then, this ‘incomparable thinker’ shows ‘a complete discretion as regards his soul.’ At one time he bases his silence on a sort of shamed timidity at publicity; at another, on the[130] fact that he ‘cannot yet realize the unprecedented work of art which he wishes to create,’ two reasons for that matter reciprocally precluding each other. He is approaching the evening of his life, and beyond a few brochures, such as Les Dieux de la Grèce and L’après-midi d’un Faune, together with some verses and literary and theatrical criticisms, scattered in periodicals, the lot barely sufficing for a volume, he has published nothing but some translations from the English and a few school-books (M. Mallarmé is a teacher of English in a Parisian lycée), and yet there are some who admire him as a great poet, as the one exclusive poet, and they overwhelm the ‘blockheads’ and the ‘fools’ who laugh at him with all the expressions of scorn that the force of imagination in a diseased mind can display. Is not this one of the wonders of our day? Lessing makes Conti, in Emilia Galotti, say that ‘Raphael would have been the greatest genius in painting, even if he had unfortunately been born without hands.’ In M. Mallarmé we have a man who is revered as a great poet, although ‘he has unfortunately been born without hands,’ although he produces nothing, although he does not pursue the art he professes. During the period when in London a great number of bubble-company swindles were being promoted, when all the world went mad for the possession of the least scrap of Stock Exchange paper, it happened that a few sharp individuals advertised in the newspapers, inviting people to subscribe for shares in a company of which the object was kept a secret. There really were men who brought their money to these lively promoters, and the historian of the City crisis regards this fact as inconceivable. Inconceivable as it is, Paris sees it repeated. Some persons demand unbounded admiration for a poet whose works are his own secret, and will probably remain such, and others trustingly and humbly bring their admiration as required. The sorcerers of the Senegal negroes offer their congregation baskets and calabashes for veneration, in which they assert that a mighty fetich is enclosed. As a matter of fact they contain nothing; but the negroes regard the empty vessels with holy dread, and show them and their possessors divine honours. Exactly thus is empty Mallarmé the fetich of the Symbolists, who, it must be admitted, are intellectually far below the Senegal negroes.

This position of a calabash worshipped on bended knees he has attained by oral discourse. Every week he gathers round him embryonic poets and authors, and develops his art theories before them. He speaks just as Morice and Kahn write. He strings together obscure and wondrous words, at which his disciples become as stupid ‘as if a mill-wheel were going round in their heads,’ so that they leave him as if intoxicated, and with the impression that incomprehensible, superhuman disclosures have been made to them. If there is anything comprehensible[131] in the incoherent flow of Mallarmé’s words, it is perhaps his admiration for the pre-Raphaelites. It was he who drew the attention of the Symbolists to this school, and enjoined imitation of it. It is through Mallarmé that the French mystics received their English mediævalism and neo-Catholicism. Finally, it may be mentioned that among the physical features of Mallarmé are ‘long pointed faun-like ears.’[135] After Darwin, who was the first to point out the apish character of this peculiarity, Hartmann,[136] Frigerio,[137] and Lombroso,[138] have firmly established the connection between immoderately long and pointed external ears and atavism and degeneration; and they have shown that this peculiarity is of especially frequent occurrence among criminals and lunatics.

The third among the leading spirits of the Symbolists is Jean Moréas, a Franco-Greek poet, who at the completion of his thirty-sixth year (his friends assert, it may be in friendly malice, that he makes himself out to be very much younger than he is) has produced in toto three attenuated collections of verses, of hardly one hundred to one hundred and twenty pages, bearing the titles, Les Syrtes, Les Cantilènes, and Le Pélerin passionné. The importance of a literary performance does not, of course, depend upon its amplitude, if it is otherwise unusually significant. When, however, a man cackles during interminable café séances of the renewal of poetry and the unfolding of a new art of the future, and finally produces three little brochures of childish verses as the result of his world-stirring effort, then the material insignificance of the performance also becomes a subject for ridicule.

Moréas is one of the inventors of the word ‘Symbolism.’ For some few years he was the high-priest of this secret doctrine, and administered the duties of his service with requisite seriousness. One day he suddenly abjured his self-founded faith, and declared that ‘Symbolism’ had always been meant only as a joke, to lead fools by the nose withal; and that the true salvation of poetry was in Romanism (romanisme). Under this new word he affirms a return to the language, versification and mode of feeling of the French poets at the close of the Middle Ages, and of the Renaissance period; but it were well to adopt his declarations with caution, since in two or three years he may be proclaiming his ‘romanisme’ as much a tap-room joke as his ‘symbolism.’ The appearance of the Pélerin passionné in 1891 was celebrated by the Symbolists as an event which was to be the beginning of a new era in[132] poetry. They arranged a banquet in honour of Moréas, and in the after-dinner speeches he was worshipped as the deliverer from the shackles of ancient forms and notions, and as the saviour who was bringing in the kingdom of God of true poetry. And the same poets who sat at the table with Moréas, and delivered to him rapturous addresses or joined in the applause, a few weeks after this event overwhelmed him with contumely and contempt. ‘Moréas a Symbolist!’ cried Charles Vignier.[139] ‘Is he one through his ideas? He laughs at them himself! His thoughts! They don’t weigh much, these thoughts of Jean Moréas!’ ‘Moréas?’ asks Adrien Remacle,[140] ‘we have all been laughing at him. It is that which has made him famous.’ René Ghil calls his Pélerin passionné ‘doggerel written by a pedant,’ and Gustav Kahn[141] passes sentence on him thus: ‘Moréas has no talent.... He has never done anything worth mentioning. He has his own particular jargon.’ These expressions disclose to us the complete hollowness and falseness of the Symbolistic movement, which outside France is obstinately proclaimed as a serious matter by imbeciles and speculators, although its French inventors make themselves hoarse in trying to convince the world that they merely wanted to banter the Philistine with a tap-room jest and advertise themselves.

After the verdict of his brethren in the Symbolist Parnassus, I may really spare myself the trouble of dwelling longer on Moréas; I will, however, cite a few examples from his Pélerin passionné, in order that the reader may form an idea of the softness of brain which displays itself in these verses.

The poem Agnes[142] begins thus:

‘Il y avait des arcs où passaient des escortes
Avec des bannières de deuil et du fer
Lacé (?) des potentats de toutes sortes
—Il y avait—dans la cité au bord de la mer.
Les places étaient noires, et bien pavées, et les portes,
Du côté de l’est et de l’ouest, hautes; et comme en hiver
La forêt, dépérissaient les salles de palais, et les porches,
Et les colonnades de belvéder.

C’était (tu dois bien t’en souvenir) c’était aux plus beaux jours de ton

‘Dans la cité au bord de la mer, la cape et la dague lourdes
De pierres jaunes, et sur ton chapeau des plumes de perroquets,
Tu t’en venais, devisant telles bourdes,
Tu t’en venais entre tes deux laquais
Si bouffis et tant sots—en verité, des happelourdes!—
Dans la cité au bord de la mer tu t’en venais et tu vaguais
Parmi de grands vieillards qui travaillaient aux felouques,
Le long des môles et des quais.

C’était (tu dois bien t’en souvenir) c’était aux plus beaux jours de ton

And thus the twaddle goes on through eight more stanzas, and in every line we find the characteristics of the language used by imbeciles and made notorious by Sollier (Psychologie de l’Idiot et de l’Imbécile), the ‘ruminating’ as it were, of the same expressions, the dreamy incoherence of the language, and the insertion of words which have no connection with the subject.

Two Chansons[143] run thus:

‘Les courlis dans les roseaux!
(Faut-il que je vous en parle,
Des courlis dans les roseaux?)
O vous joli’ Fée des eaux.

‘Le porcher et les pourceaux!
(Faut-il que je vous en parle,
Du porcher et des pourceaux?)
O vous joli’ Fée des eaux.

‘Mon cœur pris en vos réseaux!
(Faut-il que je vous en parle,
De mon cœur en vos réseaux?)
O vous joli’ Fée des eaux.

‘On a marché sur les fleurs au bord de la route,
Et le vent d’automne les secoue si fort, en outre.

‘La malle-poste a renversé la vieille croix au bord de la route;
Elle était vraiment si pourrie, en outre.

‘L’idiot (tu sais) est mort au bord de la route,
Et personne ne le pleurera, en outre.’

The stupid artifice with which Moréas here seeks to produce a feeling of wretchedness by conjuring up the three associated figures of crushed flowers, dishevelled by the wind, an overturned and mouldering cross, and a dead, unmourned idiot, makes this poem a model of the would-be profound production of a madhouse!

When Moréas is not soft of brain, he develops a rhetorical turgidity which reminds us of Hofmann von Hofmannswaldau in his worst efforts. Only one example[144] of this kind, and we have done with him:

‘J’ai tellement soif, ô mon amour, de ta bouche,
Que j’y boirais en baisers le cours detourné
Du Strymon, l’Araxe et le Tanaïs farouche;
Et les cent méandres qui arrosent Pitané,
Et l’Hermus qui prend sa source où le soleil se couche,
Et toutes les claires fontaines dont abonde Gaza,
Sans que ma soif s’en apaisât.’

Behind the leaders Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Moréas a troop of minor Symbolists throng, each, it is true, in his own eyes the one great poet of the band, but whose illusions of greatness do not entitle them to any special observation. Sufficient justice[134] is dealt them if the spirit they are made of be characterized by quoting a few lines of their poetry. Jules Laforgue, ‘unique not only in his generation, but in all the republic of literature,’[145] cries: ‘Oh, how daily [quotidienne] is life!’ and in his poem Pan et la Syrinx we come upon lines like the following:

‘O Syrinx! voyez et comprenez la Terre et la merveille de cette matinée et la circulation de la vie.
Oh, vous là! et moi, ici! Oh vous! Oh, moi! Tout est dans Tout!’[146]

Gustav Kahn, one of the æstheticists and philosophers of Symbolism, says in his Nuit sur la Lande: ‘Peace descends from thy lovely eyes like a great evening, and the borders of slow tents descend, studded with precious stones, woven of far-off beams and unknown moons.’

In German, at least, ‘borders of slow tents which descend’ is completely unintelligible nonsense. In French they are also unintelligible; but in the original their meaning becomes apparent. ‘Et des pans de tentes lentes descendent,’ the line runs, and betrays itself as pure echolalia, as a succession of similar sounds, as it were, echoing each other.

Charles Vignier, ‘the beloved disciple of Verlaine,’ says to his mistress:

‘Là-bas c’est trop loin,
Pauvre libellule,
Reste dans ton coin
Et prends des pilules...

‘Sois Edmond About
Et d’humeur coulante,
Sois un marabout
Du Jardin des Plantes.’

Another of his poems, Une Coupe de Thulé, runs thus:

‘Dans une coupe de Thulé
Où vient pâlir l’attrait de l’heure,
Dort le sénile et dolent leurre
De l’ultime rêve adulé.

‘Mais des cheveux d’argent filé
Font un voile à celle qui pleure,
Dans une coupe de Thulé
Où s’est éteint l’attrait de l’heure.

‘Et l’on ne sait quel jubilé
Célèbre une harpe mineure
Que le hautain fantôme effleure
D’un lucide doigt fuselé!...
Dans une coupe de Thulé!’

These poems remind us so forcibly of those doggerel rhymes at which in Germany jovial students are often wont to try their skill, and which are known as ‘flowery [lit. blooming] nonsense,’ that, in spite of the solemn assurance of French critics, I am convinced that they were intended as a joke. If I am right in my supposition, they are really evidences, not of the mental status of Vignier, but of his readers, admirers, and critics.

Louis Dumur addresses the Neva in the following manner:

‘Puissante, magnifique, illustre, grave, noble reine!
O Tsaristsa [sic!] de glace et de fastes Souveraine!
Matrone hiératique et solennelle et vénérée!...
Toi qui me forces à rêver, toi qui me deconcertes,
Et toi surtout que j’aime, Émail, Beauté, Poème, Femme.
Néva! j’évoque ton spectacle et l’hymne de ton âme!’

And René Ghil, one of the best-known Symbolists (he is chief of a school entitled ‘évolutive-instrumentiste’), draws from his lyre these tones, which I also quote in French; in the first place because they would lose their ring in a translation, and, secondly, because if I were to translate them literally, it is hopeless to suppose that the reader would think I was serious:

‘Ouïs! ouïs aux nues haut et nues où
Tirent-ils d’aile immense qui vire ...
et quand vide
et vers les grands pétales dans l’air plus aride—
‘(Et en le lourd venir grandi lent stridule, et
Titille qui n’alentisse d’air qui dure, et!
Grandie, erratile et multiple d’éveils, stride
Mixte, plainte et splendeur! la plénitude aride)
‘et vers les grands pétales d’agitations
Lors évanouissait un vol ardent qui stride....
‘(des saltigrades doux n’iront plus vers les mers....)’

One thing must be acknowledged, and that is, the Symbolists have an astonishing gift for titles. The book itself may belong to pure madhouse literature; the title is always remarkable. We have already seen that Moréas names one of his collection of verses Les Syrtes. He might in truth just as well call it the North Pole, or The Marmot, or Abd-el-Kader, since these have just as much connection with the poems in the little volume as Syrtes; but it is undeniable that this geographical name calls up the lustre of an African sun, and the pale reflection of classic antiquity, which may well please the eye of the hysteric reader. Edouard Dubus entitles his poem, Quand les Violons sont partis; Louis Dumur, Lassitudes; Gustave Khan, Les Palais nomades; Maurice du Plessis, La Peau de Marsyas; Ernest Raynaud, Chairs profanes and Le Signe; Henri de Régnier, Sites et[136] Episodes; Arthur Rimbaud, Les Illuminations; Albert Saint Paul, L’Echarpe d’Iris; Viélé-Griffin, Ancæus; and Charles Vignier, Centon.

Of the prose of the Symbolists, I have already given some examples. I should further like to cite only a few passages from a book which the Symbolists declare to be one of their most powerful mental manifestations, La Littérature de tout-à-l’heure, by Charles Morice. It is a sort of bird’s-eye view of the development of literature up to the present time, a rapid critique of the more and most recent books and authors, a kind of programme of the literature of the future. This book is one of the most astonishing which exists in any language. It strongly resembles Rembrandt as Educator, but is far beyond that book in the utter senselessness of its concatenations of words. It is a monument of pure literary insanity, of ‘graphomania’; and neither Delepierre in his Littérature des Fous, nor Philomnestes (Gustave Brunet) in his Fous Littéraires, quotes examples of more complete mental dislocation than are visible in every page of this book. Notice the following confession of faith by Morice:[147] ‘Although in this book treating only of æsthetics—although of æsthetics based upon metaphysics—we shall remember to refrain, as far as possible, from pure philosophizing, we must approximately paraphrase a word which will more than once be made use of, and which, in the highest sense here put upon it, is not incapable of being paraphrased. God is the first and universal cause, the final and universal end; the bond between spirits; the point of intersection where two parallels would meet; the fulfilment of our inclinations; the fruition which accords with the glories of our dreams; the abstraction itself of the concrete; the unseen and unheard and yet certain ideal of our demands for beauty in truth. God is, par excellence, THE very word—the very word, that is to say, that unknown certain word of which every author has the incontrovertible, but undiscernible idea, the self-evident but hidden goal which he will never reach, and which he approaches as near as possible. In, so to say, practical æsthetics He is the atmosphere of joy in which the mind revels victorious, because it has reduced irreducible mystery to imperishable symbols.’ I do not for a moment doubt that this incomparable jumble will be quite intelligible to theologians. Like all mystics, they discover a sense in every sound; that is, they persuade themselves and others that the nebulous ideas which the sound awakens in their brains by association are the meaning of that sound. But anyone who demands of words that they should be the media of definite thoughts, will perceive in the face of this twaddle that the author was not thinking anything at all[137] when he wrote, although he was dreaming of many things. ‘Religion’ is for Morice (p. 56), ‘the source of art, and art in its essence is religious’—an affirmation which he borrows from Ruskin, although he does not acknowledge it. ‘Our scholars, our thinkers ... the luminous heads of the nineteenth century,’ are ‘Edgar Poe, Carlyle, Herbert Spencer, Darwin, Auguste Comte, Claude Bernard, Berthelot’ (p. 57). Edgar Poe by the side of Spencer, Darwin, and Claude Bernard! never have ideas danced a crazier fools’ quadrille in a disordered brain.

And this book, of which the passages we have cited give a sufficiently correct idea, was, in France (just as Rembrandt as Educator was in Germany), pronounced by thoroughly responsible critics to be ‘strange, but interesting and suggestive.’ A poor degenerate devil who scribbles such stuff, and an imbecile reader who follows his twaddle like passing clouds, are simply to be pitied. But what words of contempt are strong enough for the sane intellectual tatterdemalions who, in order not to offend or else to give themselves the appearance of possessing a remarkable faculty of comprehension, or to affect fairness and benevolence even towards those whose opinions they in part do not share, insist that they discover in books of this kind many a truth, much wit along with peculiar whims, an ideal of fervour and frequent lightnings of thought?

The word ‘Symbolism’ conveys, as we have seen, no idea to its inventors. They pursue no definite artistic tendency; hence it is not possible to show them that their tendency is a false one. It is otherwise with some of their disciples, who joined their ranks, partly through a desire to advertise themselves, partly because they thought that, in the conflicts between literary parties, they were fighting on the side which was the stronger and the more sure of victory, and partly, also, through the folly of fashion, and through the influence exerted by any noisy novelty over uncritical minds. Less weak-brained than the leaders, they felt the need of giving the word ‘Symbolism’ a certain significance, and, in fact, drew up a number of axioms which, according to their profession, serve to guide them in their creations. These axioms are sufficiently defined to allow of discussion.

The Symbolists demand greater freedom in the treatment of French verse. They fiercely rebel against the old alexandrines, with the cæsura in the middle, and the necessary termination of the sentence at the end; against the prohibition of the hiatus; against the law of a regular alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes. They make defiant use of the ‘free verse,’ with length and rhythm ad libitum, and false rhymes. The foreigner can only smile at the savage gestures with which this conflict is carried on. It is a schoolboys’ war against some[138] hated book, which is solemnly torn in pieces, trodden under foot, and burned. The whole dispute concerning prosody and the rules of rhyme is, so to speak, an inter-Gallic concern, and is of no consequence to the literature of the world. We have long had everything which the French poets are only now seeking to obtain by barricades and street massacres. In Goethe’s Prometheus, Mahomet’s Gesang, Harzreise im Winter, in Heine’s Nordsee Cyklus, etc., we possess perfect models of free verse; we alternate the rhymes as we will; we allow masculine and feminine rhymes to follow one another as seems good to us; we do not bind ourselves to the rigid law of old classic metres, but suffer, in the cradling measure of our verse, anapæsts to alternate with iambics and spondees, according to our feeling for euphony. English, Italian and Sclavonic poetry have gone equally far, and if the French alone have remained behind, and have at last found a need for casting aside their old matted, moth-eaten periwig, this is quite reasonable; but to anyone but a Frenchman they merely make themselves ridiculous when they trumpet their painful hobbling after the nations who are far in front of them, as an unheard-of discovery of new paths and opening up of new roads, and as an advance inspired by the ideal into the dawn of the future.

Another æsthetic demand of the Symbolists is that the line should, independently of its sense, call forth an intended emotion merely by its sound. A word should produce an effect, not through the idea which it embodies, but as a tone, language becoming music. It is noteworthy that many of the Symbolists have given their books titles which are intended to awaken musical ideas. We find Les Gammes (The Scales), by Stuart Merrill; Les Cantilènes, by Jean Moréas; Cloches dans la Nuit, by Adolphe Retté; Romances sans Paroles, by Paul Verlaine, etc. To make use of language as a musical instrument for the production of pure tone effects is the delirious idea of a mystic. We have seen that the pre-Raphaelites demand of the fine arts that they should not represent the concrete plastically or optically, but should express the abstract, and therefore simply undertake the rôle of alphabetic writing. Similarly, the Symbolists displace all the natural boundary lines of art, and impose upon the word a task which belongs to musical signs only. But while the pre-Raphaelites wish to raise the fine arts to a higher rank than is suited to them, the Symbolists greatly degrade the word. In its origin sound is musical. It expresses no definite idea, but only a general emotion of the animal. The cricket fiddles, the nightingale trills, when sexually excited. The bear growls when stirred by the rage of conflict; the lion roars in his pleasure when tearing a living prey. In proportion as the brain develops in the animal kingdom, and mental life becomes richer, the means of[139] vocal expression are evolved and differentiated, and become capable of making perceptible to the senses not only simple generic emotions, but also presentative complexes of a more restricted and definitely delimitated nature—nay, if Professor Garner’s observations concerning the language of apes are accurate, even tolerably distinct single presentations. Sound, as a means of expressing mental operations, reaches its final perfection in cultivated, grammatically articulated language, inasmuch as it can then follow exactly the intellectual working of the brain, and make it objectively perceptible in all the minutest details. To bring the word, pregnant with thought, back to the emotional sound is to renounce all the results of organic development, and to degrade man, rejoicing in the power of speech, to the level of the whirring cricket or the croaking frog. The efforts of the Symbolists, then, result in senseless twaddle, but not in the word-music they intend, for this simply does not exist. No word of any single human language is, as such, musical. Many languages abound in consonants; in others vowels predominate. The former require more dexterity in the muscles employed in speaking; their pronunciation, therefore, counts as more difficult, and they seem less agreeable to the ears of foreigners than the languages which are rich in vowels. But this has nothing to do with the musical side of the question. What remains of the phonetic effect of a word if it is whispered, or if it is only visible as a written character? And yet in both cases it is able to awaken the same emotions, as if it had reached consciousness full-toned through the sense of hearing. Let anyone have read aloud to him the most cleverly chosen arrangement of words in a language completely unknown to him, and try to produce in himself a definite emotion through the mere phonetic effect. In every case it will be found impossible. The meaning of a word, and not its sound, determines its value. The sound is as such neither beautiful nor ugly. It becomes so only through the voice which gives it life. Even the first soliloquy in Goethe’s Iphigenie would be ugly coming from the throat of a drunkard. I have had the opportunity of convincing myself that even the Hottentot language, spoken in a mellow, agreeable contralto voice, could be pleasing.

Still more cracked is the craze of a sub-section of the Symbolists, the ‘Instrumentalists,’ whose spokesman is René Ghil. They connect each sound with a definite feeling of colour, and demand that the word should not only awaken musical emotion, but at the same time operate æsthetically in producing a colour-harmony. This mad idea has its origin in a much-quoted sonnet by Arthur Rimbaud, Les Voyelles (Vowels), of which the first line runs thus:

‘A black, e white, i red, u green, o blue.’

Morice declares[148] explicitly (what in any case no one in a sane state of mind would have doubted) that Rimbaud wished to make one of those silly jokes which imbeciles and idiots are in the habit of perpetrating. Some of his comrades, however, took the sonnet in grim earnest, and deduced from it a theory of art. In his Traité du Verbe René Ghil specifies the colour-value, not only of individual vowels, but of musical instruments. ‘Harps establish their supremacy by being white. And violins are blue, often softened by a shimmer of light, to subdue paroxysms.’ (It is to be hoped the reader will duly appraise these combinations of words.) ‘In the exuberance of ovations, brass instruments are red, flutes yellow, allowing the childlike to proclaim itself astonished at the luminance of the lips. And the organ, synthesis of all simple instruments, bewails deafness of earth and the flesh all in black....’ Another Symbolist, who has many admirers, M. Francis Poictevin, teaches us, in Derniers Songes, to know the feelings corresponding to colours. ‘Blue goes—without more of passion—from love to death; or, more accurately, it is a lost extreme. From turquoise blue to indigo, one goes from the most shame-faced influences to final ravages.’

Wiseacres were, of course, at once to the fore, and set up a quasi-scientific theory of ‘colour-hearing.’ Sounds are said to awaken sensations of colour in many persons. According to some, this was a gift of specially finely organized nervous natures; according to others, it was due to an accidental abnormal connection between the optic and acoustic brain-centres by means of nerve filaments. This anatomical explanation is entirely arbitrary, and has not been substantiated by any facts. But ‘colour-hearing’ itself is by no means confirmed. The most complete book hitherto published on this subject, the author of which is the French oculist, Suarez de Mendoza,[149] collects all the available observations on this alleged phenomenon, and deduces from them the following definition: ‘It is the faculty of associating tones and colours, by which every objective acoustic perception of sufficient intensity, nay, even the memory-image of such a perception, arouses in certain persons a luminous or non-luminous image, which is always the same for the same letters, the same tone of voice or instrument, and the same intensity or pitch of tone.’ Suarez well hits the truth when he says, ‘Colour-hearing’ (he calls it pseudo-photesthésie) ‘is often a consequence of an association of ideas established in youth ... and often of a special action of the brain, the particular nature of which is unknown to us, and may have a certain similarity to sense-illusion and hallucination.’ For my part, I have no[141] doubt that colour-hearing is always the consequence of association of ideas, the origins of which must remain obscure, because the combination of certain presentations of colour with certain sensations of sound may possibly depend upon the very evanescent perceptions of early childhood, which were not powerful enough to arouse the attention, and have therefore remained undiscerned in consciousness. That it is a question of purely individual associations brought about by the accident of associated ideas, and not of organic co-ordinations depending upon definite abnormal nervous connections, is made very probable by the fact that every colour-hearer ascribes a different colour to the same vowel or instrument. We have seen that to Ghil the flute is yellow, to L. Hoffmann (whom Goethe cites in his Farbenlehre) this instrument is scarlet. Rimbaud calls the letter ‘a’ black. Persons whom Suarez mentions heard this vowel as blue, and so on.

The relation between the external world and the organism is originally very simple. Movements are continually occurring in nature, and the protoplasm of living cells perceives these movements. Unity of effect corresponds to unity of cause. The lowest animals perceive of the outer world only this, that something in it changes, and possibly, also, whether this change is marked or slight, sudden or slow. They receive sensations differing quantitatively, but not qualitatively. We know, for example, that the proboscis, or syphon, of the Pholas dactylus, which contracts more or less vigorously and quickly at every excitation, is sensitive to all external impressions—light, noise, touch, smell, etc. This mollusc sees, hears, feels and smells, therefore, with this simple organ; his proboscis is to him at once eye, ear, nose, finger, etc. In the higher animals the protoplasm is differentiated. Nerves, ganglia, brain and sense-apparatus are formed. The movements of nature are now perceived in a variety of ways. The differentiated senses transform the unity of the phenomenon into the diversity of the percept. But even in the highest and most differentiated brain there still remains something like a very distant and very dim remembrance that the cause which excites the different senses is one and the same movement, and there are formed presentations and conceptions which would be unintelligible if we could not concede this vague intuition of the fundamental unity of essence in all perceptions. We speak of ‘high’ and ‘deep’ tones, and thus give to sound-waves a relationship in space which they cannot have. In the same way we speak of tone-colour, and, conversely, of colour-tones, and thus confound the acoustic and optic properties of the phenomena. ‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ lines or tones, ‘sweet’ voices, are frequent modes of expression, which depend on a transference of the perception of one sense to the impressions[142] of another. In many cases this method of speech may no doubt be traced to mental inertia. It is more convenient to designate a sense-perception by a word which is familiar, though borrowed from the province of another sense, than to create a special word for the particular percept. But even this loan for convenience’ sake is possible and intelligible only if we admit that the mind perceives certain resemblances between the impressions of the different senses—resemblances which, although they are often to be explained by conscious or unconscious association of ideas, are oftener quite inexplicable objectively. It only remains for us to assume that consciousness, in its deepest substrata, neglects the differentiation of phenomena by the various senses, passes over this perfection attained very late in organic evolution, and treats impressions only as undifferentiated material for the acquirement of knowledge of the external world without reference to their origin by way of this or that sense. It thus becomes intelligible that the mind mingles the perceptions attained through the different senses, and transforms them one into another. Binet[150] has established, in his excellent essays, this transposition of the senses in hysterical persons. A female patient, whose skin was perfectly insensible on one half of her body, took no notice when, unseen by herself, she was pricked with a needle. But at the moment of puncture there arose in her consciousness the image of a black (in the case of another invalid, of a bright) point. Consciousness thus transposed an impression of the nerves of the skin, which, as such, was not perceived, into an impression of the retina, of the optic nerve.

In any case, it is an evidence of diseased and debilitated brain-activity, if consciousness relinquishes the advantages of the differentiated perceptions of phenomena, and carelessly confounds the reports conveyed by the particular senses. It is a retrogression to the very beginning of organic development. It is a descent from the height of human perfection to the low level of the mollusc. To raise the combination, transposition and confusion of the perceptions of sound and sight to the rank of a principle of art, to see futurity in this principle, is to designate as progress the return from the consciousness of man to that of the oyster.

Moreover, it is an old clinical observation that mental decay is accompanied by colour mysticism. One of Legrain’s[151] mental invalids ‘endeavoured to recognise good and evil by the difference of colour, ascending from white to black; when he was reading, words had (according to their colour) a hidden meaning, which he understood.’ Lombroso[152] cites ‘eccentric[143] persons’ who, ‘like Wigman, had the paper for their books specially manufactured with several colours on each page.... Filon painted each page of the books he wrote in a different colour.’ Barbey d’Aurevilly, whom the Symbolists venerate as a pioneer, used to write epistles in which each letter of a word was coloured with a different tint. Most alienists know similar cases in their experience.

The more reliable Symbolists proclaim their movement as ‘a reaction against naturalism.’ Such a reaction was certainly justified and necessary; for naturalism in its beginnings, as long as it was embodied in De Goncourt and Zola, was morbid, and, in its later development in the hands of their imitators, vulgar and even criminal, as will be proved further on. Nevertheless Symbolism is not in the smallest degree qualified to conquer naturalism, because it is still more morbid than the latter, and, in art, the devil cannot be driven out by Beelzebub.

Finally, it is affirmed that Symbolism connotes ‘the inscribing of a symbol in human form.’ Expressed unmystically, this means that in the poems of the Symbolists the particular human form should not only exhibit its special nature and contingent destiny, but also represent a general type of humanity, and embody a universal law of life. This quality, however, is not the monopoly of Symbolistic poetry, but belongs to all kinds of poetry. No genuine poet has yet been impelled to deal with an utterly unprecedented and unique case, or with a monstrous being whose likeness is not to be found in mankind. That which interests him in men and their destiny is just the intimate connection between the two and the universal laws of human life. The more the government of universal laws is made apparent in the fate of the individual, the more there is embodied in him that which lives in all men, so much the more attractive will this destiny and this man be to the poet. There is not in all the literature of humanity a single work of recognised importance which in this sense is not symbolic, and in which the characters, their passions and fortunes, have not a typical significance, far transcending the particular circumstances. It is, therefore, a piece of foolish arrogance in the Symbolists to lay claim to the sole possession of this quality in the works of their school. They show, moreover, that they do not understand their own formulæ; for those theorists of the school who demand of poetry that it should be ‘a symbol inscribed in human form,’ assert at the same time that only the ‘rare and unique case’ (le cas rare et unique) deserves the attention of the poet, i.e., the case which is significant of nothing beyond itself, and consequently the opposite of a symbol.[153]

We have now seen that Symbolism, like English pre-Raphaelitism (from which it borrowed its catch-words and opinions), is nothing else than a form of the mysticism of weak-minded and morbidly emotional degeneration. The efforts of some followers of the movement to import a meaning into the stammering utterances of their leaders, and falsely to ascribe to them a sort of programme, do not for a moment withstand criticism, but show themselves to be graphomaniac and delirious twaddle, without the smallest grain of truth or sound reason. A young Frenchman, who is certainly not adverse to rational innovation, Hugues Le Roux,[154] describes the group of Symbolists quite correctly in saying of them: ‘They are ridiculous cripples, each intolerable to the other; they live uncomprehended by the public, several by their friends as well, and a few by themselves. As poets or prose writers they proceed in the same way: no material, no sense, and only juxtapositions of loud-sounding musical (?) words; teams of strange rhymes, groupings of unexpected colours and tones, swaying cadences, hurtlings, hallucinations and evoked suggestions.’
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:55 am

Part 1 of 2


Count Leo Tolstoi has become in the last few years one of the best-known, and apparently, also, of the most widely-read authors in the world. Every one of his words awakens an echo among all civilized nations on the globe. His strong influence over his contemporaries is unmistakable. But it is no artistic influence. No one has yet imitated him—at least, for the present. He has formed no school after the manner of the pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists. The already large number of writings to which he has given occasion are explanatory or critical. There are no poetical creations modelled upon his own. The influence which he exercises over contemporary thoughts and feelings is a moral one, and applies far more to the great bulk of his readers than to the smaller circle of struggling authors who are on the look-out for a leader. What[145] we, then, can call Tolstoism is no æsthetic theory, but rather a conception of life.

In order to bring forward the proof that Tolstoism is a mental aberration, that it is a form of the phenomenon of degeneration, it will be necessary to look critically first at Tolstoi himself, and then at the public which is inspired by his thoughts.

Tolstoi is at once a poet and a philosopher, the latter in the widest sense—i.e., he is a theologian, a moralist, and a social theorist. As the author of works of imagination he stands very high, even if he does not equal his countryman Tourgenieff, whom he at present appears in the estimation of most people to have thrown into the shade. Tolstoi does not possess the splendid sense of artistic proportion of Tourgenieff, with whom there is never a word too much, who neither protracts his subject nor digresses from his point, and who, as a grand and genuine creator of men, stands Prometheus-like over the figures he has inspired with life. Even Tolstoi’s greatest admirers admit that he is long-winded, loses himself in details, and does not always know how to sacrifice the unessential in order, with sure judgment, to enhance the indispensable. Speaking of the novel War and Peace, M. de Vogüé[155] says: ‘Is this complicated work properly to be termed a novel?... The very simple and very loose thread of the plot serves to connect chapters on history, politics, philosophy, which are all crammed promiscuously into this polygraphy of Russian life.... Enjoyment has here to be purchased in a manner resembling a mountain ascent. The way is often wearisome and hard; at times one goes astray; effort is necessary and toil.... Those who only seek diversion in fiction are by Tolstoi driven from their wonted ways. This close analyst does not know, or else disdains, the first duty of analysis, which is so natural to the French genius; we desire that the novelist should select; that he should set apart a person, a fact, out of the chaos of beings and things, in order to observe the objects of his choice. The Russian, governed by the feeling of universal interdependence, cannot make up his mind to cut the thousand cords which unite a man, a fact, a thought, to the whole course of the world.’

Vogüé sees rightly that these facts are deserving of notice, but he cannot explain them. Unconsciously he has clearly characterized the method with which a mystical degenerate looks upon the world, and depicts its phenomena. We know that it is lack of attention which constitutes the peculiarity of mystical thought. It is attention which selects from the chaos of phenomena, and so groups what it selects as to illustrate the predominating thought in the mind of the beholder. If attention[146] fails, the world appears to the beholder like a uniform stream of enigmatic states, which emerge and disappear without any connection, and remain completely without expression to consciousness. These primary facts of mental life must ever be kept in view by the reader. The attitude of the attentive man in the face of external phenomena is one of activity; that of the inattentive man is passive; the former orders them according to a plan which he has worked out in his mind; the latter receives the turmoil of their impress without attempting to organize, separate, or co-ordinate. The difference is the same as that between the reproduction of the scenes of nature by a good painter and a photographic plate. The painting suppresses certain features in the world’s phenomena, and brings others into prominence, so that it at once permits a distinct external incident, or a definite internal emotion of the painter, to be recognised. The photograph reflects the whole scene with all its details indiscriminately, so that it is without meaning, until the beholder brings into play his attention, which the sensitive plate could not do. At the same time it is to be observed that even the photograph is not a true impression of reality, for the sensitive plate is only sensitive to certain colours; it records the blue and violet, and receives from yellow and red either a weak impression or none at all. The sensitiveness of the chemical plate corresponds to the emotionalism of the degenerate mind. The latter also makes a choice among phenomena, not, however, according to the laws of conscious attention, but according to the impulse of unconscious emotionalism. He perceives whatever is in tune with his emotions; what is not consonant with them does not exist for him. Thus arises the method of work which Vogüé has pointed out in Tolstoi’s novels. The details are perceived equally, and placed side by side, not according to their importance for the leading idea, but according to their relation with the emotions of the novelist. For that matter, there is scarcely any leading idea, or none at all. The reader must first carry it into the novel, as he would carry it into Nature herself, into a landscape, into a crowd of people, into the course of events. The novel is only written because the novelist felt certain strong emotions, and certain features of the world’s panorama as it unrolled before his eyes intensified these emotions. Thus, the novel of Tolstoi resembles the picture of the pre-Raphaelites: an abundance of amazingly accurate details,[156] a mystically blurred, scarcely recognisable,[147] leading idea,[157] a deep and strong emotion.[158] This is also distinctly felt by M. de Vogüé, but again without his being able to explain it. He says:[159] ‘Through a peculiar and frequent contradiction, this troubled, vacillating mind, steeped as it is in the mists of Nihilism, is endowed with an incomparable clearness and power of penetration for the scientific (?) study of the phenomena of life. He sees distinctly, rapidly, analytically, everything on earth.... One might say, the mind of an English chemist in the soul of an Indian Buddhist. Let anyone who can explain this singular union; whoever succeeds will be able to explain Russia.... These phenomena, which offer so firm a basis to him when he observes them singly, he wishes to know in their universal relations, and to arrive at the definite laws governing these relations, and at their inaccessible causes. Then it is that this clear vision darkens, the intrepid inquirer loses his footing, he falls into the abyss of philosophical contradictions; in him and around him he feels only nothingness and night.’

M. de Vogüé wishes for an explanation of this ‘singular union’ between great clearness in apprehension of details, and complete incapacity of understanding their relations to each other. The explanation is now familiar to my readers. The mystical intellect, the intellect without attention, of the émotif conveys to his consciousness isolated impressions, which can be very distinct if they relate to his emotions; but it is not in the condition to connect these isolated impressions intelligibly, just because it is deficient in the attention necessary to this object.

Grand as are the qualities which Tolstoi’s works of fiction possess, it is not them he has to thank for his world-wide fame, or his influence on his contemporaries. His novels were recognised as remarkable works, but for decades of years neither Peace and War, nor Anna Karenina, nor his short stories, had very many readers outside Russia; and the critics bestowed upon their author only a guarded commendation. In Germany, as recently as 1882, Franz Bornmüller said of Tolstoi in his Biographical Dictionary of Authors of the Present Time: ‘He possesses no ordinary talent for fiction, but one devoid of due artistic finish, and which is influenced by a certain one-sidedness in his views of life and history.’ This was the opinion until a few years ago of the not very numerous non-Russian readers who knew him at all.

In 1889 his Kreutzer Sonata appeared, and was the first of his works to carry his name to the borders of civilization. This little tale was the first to be translated into all cultivated languages. It was disseminated in hundreds of thousands of copies, and was read by millions with lively emotion. From this time onward the public opinion of the Western nations placed him in the first rank of living authors: his name was in everyone’s mouth, and universal sympathy turned not only towards his early writings (which had remained unnoticed for decades), but also to his person and his career, and he became, as it were, in a night what he unquestionably is now in the evening of his life—one of the chief representative figures of the departing century. Yet the Kreutzer Sonata stands, as a poetic creation, not so high as most of his older works. A fame which was not gained by War and Peace, The Cossacks, Anna Karenina, etc., nor, indeed, until long after the appearance of these rich creations, but came at one stroke through the Kreutzer Sonata, cannot therefore depend either solely or principally on æsthetic excellence. The history of this fame shows consequently that Tolstoi the novelist is not the cause of Tolstoism.

In fact, the tendency of mind so named is far more—perhaps wholly and entirely—traceable to Tolstoi the philosopher. The philosopher is, therefore, incomparably more important to our inquiry than the novelist.

Tolstoi has formed certain views on the position of man in the world, on his relation to collective humanity, and on the aim of his life, which are visible in all his creations, but which he has also set forth connectedly in several theoretic works, especially in My Confession, My Faith, A Short Exposition of the Gospel, and About my Life. These views are but little complicated, and can be condensed in a few words: the individual is nothing; the species is everything; the individual lives in order to do his fellow-creatures good; thought and inquiry are great evils; science is perdition; faith is salvation.

How he arrived at these results is related in My Confessions: ‘I lost my faith early. I lived for a long time like everyone else, in the frivolities of life. I wrote books, and taught, like everyone else, what I did not know. Then the Sphinx began to follow me more and more ruthlessly: “Guess my problem or I will tear thee to pieces.” Science has explained absolutely nothing to me. In answer to my everlasting question, the only one which means anything, “Wherefore am I alive?” Science replied by teaching me things that were indifferent to me. Science only said ...: “Life is a senseless evil.” I wanted to kill myself. Finally I had a fancy to see how the vast majority of men lived who, unlike us of the so-called upper classes, who give ourselves up to pondering and investigation, work and[149] suffer, and are, nevertheless, quiet and clear in their minds over the aim of life. I understood that to live like these men one must return to their simple beliefs.’

If this train of thought is seriously considered, it will be recognised at once as nonsensical. The question, ‘Wherefore am I alive?’ is incorrectly and superficially put. It tacitly presupposes the idea of finality in nature, and it is just upon this presupposition that the mind, thirsting earnestly for truth and knowledge, has to exercise its criticism.

In order to ask, ‘What is the aim of our life?’ we must take for granted, above all, that our life has a definite aim, and since it is only a particular phenomenon in the universal life of nature, in the evolution of our earth, of our solar system, of all solar systems, this assumption includes in itself the wider one, that the universal life of Nature has a definite aim. This assumption, again, necessarily presupposes the rule of a conscious, prescient, and guiding mind over the universe. For what is an aim? The fore-ordained effect in the future of forces active in the present. The aim exercises an influence on these forces in pointing out to them a direction, and is thus itself a force. It cannot, however, exist objectively, in time and space, because then it would cease to be an aim and become a cause, i.e., a force fitting in with the general mechanism of the forces of nature, and all the speculation concerning the aim would fall to the ground. But if it is not objective, if it does not exist in time and space, it must, in order to be conceivable, exist somewhere, virtually, as idea, as a plan and design. But that which contains a design, a thought, a plan, we name consciousness; and a consciousness that can conceive a plan of the universe, and for its realization designedly uses the forces of nature, is synonymous with God. If a man, however, believes in a God, he loses at once the right to raise the question, ‘Wherefore am I alive?’ Since it is in that case an insolent presumption, an effort of small, weak man to look over God’s shoulder, to spy out God’s plan, to aspire to the height of omniscience. But neither is it in such a case necessary, since a God without the highest wisdom cannot be conceived, and if He has devised a plan for the world, this is certain to be perfect, all its parts are in harmony, and the aim to which every co-operator, from the smallest to the greatest, will devote himself is the best conceivable. Thus, man can live in complete rest and confidence in the impulses and forces implanted in him by God, because he, in every case, fulfils a high and worthy destiny by co-operating in a, to him, unknown Divine plan of the world.

If, on the other hand, there is no belief in a God, it is also impossible to form a conception of the aim, for then the aim, existing in consciousness only as an idea, in the absence of a[150] universal consciousness, has no locus for its existence; there is no place for it in Nature. But if there is no aim, then one cannot ask the question, ‘Wherefore am I alive?’ Then life has not a predetermined aim, but only causes. We have then to concern ourselves only with these causes—at least, with the more proximate, and which are accessible to our examination, since the remote, and especially the first, causes elude our cognition. Our question must then run, ‘Why do we live?’ and we find the answer to it without difficulty. We live, because we stand, like the rest of cognizable Nature, under the universal law of causality. This is a mechanical law, which requires no predetermined plan, and no design, consequently also no universal consciousness. According to this law present phenomena are grounded on the past, not on the future. We live because we are engendered by our parents, because we have received from them a definite measure of force, which makes it possible for us to resist for a given time the influence upon us of Nature’s forces of dissolution. How our life is shaped is determined by the constant interaction of our inherited organic forces and of our environment. Our life is, therefore, objectively viewed, the necessary result of the law-governed activity of the mechanical forces of Nature. Subjectively it includes a quantity of pleasures and pains. We feel as pleasure the satisfaction of our organic impulses, as pain their fruitless struggles for satisfaction. In a sound organism, possessing a high capacity for adaptation, those appetites only attain development, the satisfaction of which is possible—at least, to a certain degree—and is accompanied by no bad consequences for the individual. In such a life pleasure consequently prevails decidedly over pain, and he looks upon existence, not as an evil, but as a great good. In the organism deranged by disease degenerate appetites exist which cannot be satisfied, or of which the gratification injures or destroys the individual, or the degenerate organism is too weak or too inapt to gratify the legitimate impulses. In his life pain necessarily predominates, and he looks upon existence as an evil. My interpretation of the riddle of life is nearly related to the well-known theory of eudæmonism, but it is founded on a biological, not a metaphysical, basis. It explains optimism and pessimism simply as an adequate or inadequate vitality, as the existence or absence of adaptability, as health or illness. Unprejudiced observation of life shows that the whole of mankind stands knowingly or unknowingly at the same philosophical standpoint. Men live willingly, and rather quietly happy than sadly, so long as existence affords them gratification. If the sufferings are stronger than the feeling of pleasure conferred by the satisfaction of the first and most important of all organic[151] impulses—the impulse of life or self-preservation—then they do not hesitate to kill themselves. When Prince Bismarck once said, ‘I do not know why I should bear all the troubles of life, if I were not able to believe in a God and a future life,’ it only shows that he is insufficiently acquainted with the progress of human thought since Hamlet, who raised somewhat the same question. He bears the troubles of life because, and as long as, he can bear them, and he throws them down infallibly at the moment in which his strength is no longer adequate to carry them. The unbeliever lives and is happy, so long as the sweets of life weigh down the scale, and for this reason also the believer, as experience daily teaches, will commit suicide if he sees his balance of life’s account yielding a deficit of satisfaction. The arguments of religion have undoubtedly in the mind of the believer, as have the arguments of duty and honour in the mind of the unbeliever, a convincing force, and must likewise be taken into account as so many assets. Nevertheless they have only a limited, if high value, and can counterbalance their own equivalent of suffering only, and no more.

From these considerations it follows that the terrible question—‘Wherefore am I alive?’—which nearly drove Tolstoi to suicide, is to be answered satisfactorily and without difficulty. The believer, who accepts the fact that his life must have an aim, will live according to his inclinations and powers, and tell himself that he performs correctly, in this way, his allotted portion of the world’s work without knowing its final aim; as also a soldier, at that point of the field of battle where he is placed, does his duty willingly, without having any notion of the general progress of the fight, and of its significance for the whole campaign. The unbeliever, who is convinced that his life is a particular instance of the universal life of Nature, that his individuality has blossomed into existence as a necessary law-governed operation of eternal organic forces, knows also very well not only ‘wherefore,’ but also ‘what for,’ he is alive; he lives because, and as long as, life is to him a source of gratification—that is to say, of joy and happiness.

Has Tolstoi found any other answer by his desperate seeking? No. The explanation which his pondering and searching did not offer him was, as we have seen in the above-quoted passage in My Confessions, given him by ‘the enormous majority of mankind, who ... labour and suffer, and, nevertheless, are quiet and clear in their minds as to the aim of life.’ ‘I understood,’ he adds, ‘that one must return to their simple faith to live as these men do.’ The conclusion is arbitrary, and is a saltum of mystic thought. ‘The masses live quietly, and are clear in their minds as to the aim of life,’ not because they have a ‘simple faith,’ but because they are healthy, because they like[152] to feel themselves alive, because life gives them, in every organic function, in every manifestation of their powers, at every moment, some gratification. The ‘simple faith’ is the accidental accompanying phenomenon of this natural optimism. No doubt the majority of the uneducated classes, who represent the healthy portion of mankind, and therefore certainly rejoice in life, receive, during childhood, instruction in religious faith, and afterwards only rarely rectify through their own thought the errors which, for state reasons, have been imparted to them; but their unthinking belief is a consequence of their poverty and ignorance, like their bad clothing, insufficient food, and insanitary dwellings. To say that the majority ‘live quietly, and are clear in their minds as to the aim of life,’ because they ‘have simple faith,’ is quite as logical a sequitur as the assertion that this majority ‘live quietly, and are clear in their minds as to the aim of life’ because they chiefly eat potatoes, or because they live in cellars, or because they seldom take baths.

Tolstoi has rightly noticed the fact that the majority do not share his pessimism, and rejoice in their life, but he has explained it mystically. Instead of recognising that the optimism of the masses is simply a sign of their vitality, he traces it to their belief, and then seeks in faith the clue to the aim of his existence. ‘I was led to Christianity,’ he writes in another book,[160] ‘neither through theological nor historical research, but by the circumstance that when, at fifty years of age, I asked myself and the wise among my acquaintance what myself and my life might signify, and received the answer: “You are an accidental concatenation of parts; there is no significance in life; life as such is an evil.”—I was then brought to despair, and wished to kill myself. Remembering, however, that formerly, in childhood, when I believed, life had a meaning for me, and that the people about me who believe—the greater number being men unspoilt by riches—both believe and lead real lives, I doubted the accuracy of the answer which had been given me by the wisdom of my circle, and endeavoured to understand that answer which Christianity gives to men who lead a real life.’[161]

He found this answer ‘in the Gospels, that source of light.’ ‘It was quite the same thing to me,’ he goes on to say, ‘whether Jesus was God or not God; whether the Holy Ghost proceeded from the one or the other. It was likewise neither necessary nor important for me to know when and by whom the Gospel, or any one of the parables, was composed, and whether they could be ascribed to Christ or not. What to me was important[153] was that Light, which for eighteen hundred years was the Light of the World, and is that Light still, but what name was to be given to the source of this Light, or what were its component parts, and by whom it was lighted, was quite indifferent to me.’

Let us appraise this process of thought in a mystical mind. The Gospel is the source of truth; it is, however, quite the same thing whether the Gospel is God’s revelation or man’s work, and whether it contains the genuine tradition of the life of Christ, or whether it was written down hundreds of years after his death on the basis of obscured and distorted traditions. Tolstoi himself feels that he here makes a great error of thought, but he deceives himself over and out of it in genuine mystical fashion, in that he makes use of a simile, and pretends that his image was the matter-of-fact truth. He speaks, namely, of the Gospel as a light, and says it is indifferent to him what that light is called, and of what it consists. This is correct if it concerns a real, material light, but the Gospel is only figuratively a light, and can obviously, therefore, be compared to a light only if it contains the truth. Whether it does contain the truth should first be decided by inquiry. Should inquiry result in establishing that it is man’s work, and consists only in unauthenticated traditions, then it would evidently be no receptacle of truth, and one could not any longer compare it with light, and the magnificent image with which Tolstoi cuts short inquiry into the source of the light would vanish into air. While, therefore, Tolstoi calls the Gospel a light, and denies the necessity of following up its origin, he forthwith takes as proven the very thing which is to be proved, namely, that the Gospel is a light. We know already, however, the peculiarity of mystics to found all their conclusions on the most senseless premises, alleging contempt of reality and resisting all reasonable verification of their starting-point. I only remind the reader of Rossetti’s sentence, ‘What does it matter to me whether the sun revolves round the earth, or the earth round the sun?’ and of Mallarmé’s expression, ‘The world is made in order to lead to a beautiful book.’

One can read for one’s self in his Short Exposition how Tolstoi handles the Gospel, so that it may give him the required explanation. He does not trouble himself in the least about the literal sense of the Scriptures, but puts into them what is in his own head. The Gospel which he has so recast has about as much resemblance to the canonical Scriptures as the Physiognomische Fragmente, which Jean Paul’s ‘merry little schoolmaster, Maria Wuz in Auenthal,’ ‘drew out of his own head,’ had with Lavater’s work of the same title. This Gospel of his taught him concerning the importance of life as follows:[162] ‘Men imagine[154] that they are isolated beings, each one shaping his own life as he wills. This, however, is a delusion. The only true life is that which acknowledges the will of the Father as the source of life. This unity of life my teaching reveals, and represents that life, not as separate shoots, but as a single tree on which all the shoots grow. He only who lives in the will of the Father, like a shoot on the tree, has life; but he who would live according to his own will, like a severed shoot, dies.’ He has already said that the Father is synonymous with God, and that God, who ‘is the eternal origin of all things,’ is synonymous with ‘Spirit.’ If, then, this passage has any sense at all, it can only be that the whole of Nature is a single living being, that every single living being, therefore also every human being, is a portion of universal life, and that this universal life is God. This teaching is, however, not invented by Tolstoi. It has a name in the history of philosophy, and is called Pantheism. It is shadowed forth in Buddhism[163] and Greek Hylozoism, and was elaborated by Spinoza. It is certainly not contained in the Gospel, and it is a definite denial of Christianity which, let its dogmas be ever so rationalistically interpreted and tortured, can never give up its doctrine of a personal God and the Divine nature of Christ without ridding itself of its whole religious import and its vitally important organs, and ceasing to be a creed.

Thus we see that, though Tolstoi supposes he has succeeded in his attempt to explain life’s problems by the Christian faith of the masses, he has, on the contrary, fallen into its very opposite, namely, Pantheism. The reply of the ‘wise,’ that he ‘is an accidental concatenation of parts, and that there is no significance in life,’ ‘drove him almost to suicide’; he is, on the contrary, quite tranquil in the knowledge that[164] ‘the true life is ...not the life which is past, nor that which will be, but is the life which now is, that which confronts everyone at the present minute’; he expressly denies in My Religion the resurrection of the body and the individuality of the soul, and does not notice that the teaching which contents him is quite the same as that of the ‘wise,’ who ‘almost drove him into suicide.’ For if life exists only in the present, it can have no aim, since this would refer to the future; and if the body does not rise again, and the soul has no individual existence, then the ‘wise’ are quite right to call the human being (certainly not accidental, but necessary, because causally conditioned) ‘a concatenation of parts.’

Tolstoi’s theory of life, the fruit of the despairing mental labour of his whole life, is therefore, nothing but a haze, a failure to comprehend his own questions and answers, and hollow[155] verbiage. His ethics—on which he himself lays a far greater stress than on his philosophy—is not in much better case than the latter. He comprises them[165] in five laws, of which the fourth is the most important: ‘Do not resist evil; suffer wrong, and do more than men ask; and so judge not, nor suffer to be judged....’ To avenge one’s self only teaches to avenge one’s self. His admirer, M. de Vogüé, expresses Tolstoi’s moral philosophy in this form:[166] ‘Resist not evil, judge not, kill not. Consequently no courts of justice, no armies, no prisons, no public or private reprisals. No wars nor judgments. The world’s law is the struggle for existence; the law of Christ is the sacrifice of one’s own existence for others.’

Is it still necessary to point out the unreasonableness of these ethics? It is obvious to sound common-sense without saying any more. If the murderer had no longer to fear the gallows, and the thief the prison, throat-cutting and stealing would be soon by far the most generally adopted trade. It is so much more convenient to filch baked bread and ready-made boots than to rack one’s self at the plough and in the workshop. If society should cease to take care that crime should be a dangerous risk, what would there be, forsooth, to deter wicked men, who certainly exist, according to Tolstoi’s assumption, from surrendering themselves to their basest impulses; and how could the great mass of indifferent people be restrained, who have no pronounced leaning either for good or for evil, from imitating the example of the criminal? Certainly not Tolstoi’s own teaching that ‘the true life is life in the present.’ The first active measures of society, for the sake of which individuals originally formed themselves into a society, is the protection of their members against those who are diseased with homicidal mania, and against the parasites—another unhealthy variation from the normal human type—who can only live by the work of others, and who, to appease all their lusts, unscrupulously overpower every human being who crosses their path. Individuals with anti-social impulses would soon be in the majority if the healthy members did not subdue them, and make it difficult for them to thrive. Were they once to become the stronger, society, and soon mankind itself, would of a necessity be devoted to destruction.

In addition to the negative precept that one should not resist evil, Tolstoi’s moral philosophy has yet a positive precept, viz.: we ought to love all men; to sacrifice everything, even one’s own life, for them; to do good to them where we can. ‘It is necessary to understand that man, if he does good, only does that to which he is bound—what he cannot leave undone.... If he gives up his carnal life for the good, he does nothing for[156] which he need be thanked and praised.... Only those live who do good’ (Short Exposition of the Gospel). ‘Not is alms-giving effectual, but brotherly sharing. Whoever has two cloaks should give one to him who has none’ (What ought one to Do?). This distinction between charity and sharing cannot be maintained in earnest. Every gift that a man receives from some other man without work, without reciprocal service, is an alms, and as such is deeply immoral. The sick, the old, the weak, those who cannot work, must be supported and tended by their fellow-creatures; it is their duty, and it is also their natural impulse. But to give to men capable of working is under all circumstances a sin and a self-deception. If men capable of work find no work, this is obviously attributable to some defect in the economical structure of society; and it is the duty of each individual to assist earnestly in removing this defect, but not to facilitate its continuance by pacifying for awhile the victim of the defective circumstances by a gift. Charity has in this case merely the aim of deadening the conscience of the donor, and furnishing him with an excuse why he should shirk his duty of curing recognised evils in the constitution of society. Should, however, the capable man be averse to labour, then charity spoils him completely, and kills in him entirely any inclination to put his powers into action, which alone keeps the organism healthy and moral. Thus alms, extended to an able-bodied man, degrades both the donor and the recipient, and operates like poison on the feeling of duty and the morality of both.

But the love of our neighbour which exhibits itself in alms-giving, or even brotherly sharing, is, properly speaking, no such love if we look at it closely. Love in its simplest and most original form (I speak here not of sexual love, but of general sympathy for some other living being, and that need not even be a human being) is a selfish impulse, which seeks only its own gratification, not that of the beloved being; in its higher development, on the contrary, it is principally, or wholly, bent upon the happiness of the beloved being, and forgets itself. The healthy man, who has no anti-social impulses, enjoys the company of other men; he therefore avoids almost unconsciously those actions which would cause his fellow-creatures to avoid him, and he does that which, without costing himself too much effort, is sufficiently pleasant to his fellows to attract them to him. In the same healthy man the idea of sufferings, even when they are not his own, produces pain, which is always greater or less according to the degree of excitability of his brain; the more active the idea of suffering, the more violent is the accompanying feeling of pain. Because the ideas excited by direct sense-impressions are the most vivid, the sufferings[157] which he sees with his own eyes cause him the sharpest pain, and in order to escape from this, he makes suitable efforts to put an end to this extraneous suffering, or often, it is true, only not to witness it. This degree of love to our neighbour is, as was said above, pure self-love; it merely aims at averting pain from self, and at increasing one’s own feelings of pleasure. The love of our neighbour, on the contrary, which Tolstoi obviously wishes to preach, claims to be unselfish. It contemplates the diminution of the sufferings, and the increase of the happiness, of others; it can no longer be exercised instinctively, for it demands an exact knowledge of the conditions of life, and the feelings and wishes of others, and the acquisition of this knowledge presupposes observation, reflection, and judgment. One must earnestly consider what is really needful and good for one’s neighbour. One must come out of one’s self, must set aside one’s own habits and ideas completely, and strive to slip into the skin of him to whom one would show love. One must regard the intended benefit with the other’s eyes, and feel with his nature, and not with one’s own. Does Tolstoi do this? His novels, in which he shows his alleged love between fellow-men living and working, prove the exact contrary.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:55 am

Part 2 of 2

In the tale Albert[167] Delessow takes up a sickly, strolling violin-player out of admiration for his great talent, and out of pity for his poverty and helplessness. But the unhappy artist is a drunkard. Delessow locks him up in his dwelling, places him under the care of his servant Sachar, and keeps him from intoxicating drinks. On the first day Albert the artist submits, but is very depressed and out of temper. On the second day he is already casting ‘malignant glances’ at his benefactor. ‘He seemed to fear Delessow, and whenever their eyes met a deadly terror was depicted on his face.... He did not answer the questions which were put to him.’ Finally, on the third day Albert rebels against the restraint to which he believes himself subjected. ‘You have no right to shut me up here,’ he cries. ‘My passport is in order. I have stolen nothing from you; you can search me. I will go to the superintendent of police.’ The servant Sachar tries to appease him. Albert becomes more and more enraged, and suddenly ‘shrieks out at the top of his voice: “Police!”’ Delessow allows him to depart. Albert ‘goes out of the door without taking leave, and constantly muttering to himself incomprehensible words.’

Delessow had taken Albert home, because the sight was painful to him of the poorly-clad, sickly, pale artist, trembling in the cold of a Russian winter. When he saw him in his warm house, before a well-spread table, in his own handsome dressing-gown,[158] Delessow felt contented and happy. But was Albert also contented? Tolstoi testifies that Albert feels himself much more unhappy in the new position than in the old—so unhappy that very soon he could not bear it, and freed himself from it with an outburst of fury. To whom, then, had Delessow done good, to himself or to Albert?

In this narrative a mentally diseased man is depicted, and, it must be admitted, upon such a one a benefit has frequently to be forcibly pressed, which he does not understand or appreciate as such, though, of course, in a manner more consistent, persistent, and prudent than Delessow’s. In another story in the same volume, however, From the Diary of the Prince Nechljudow, Lucerne, the absurdity of love for one’s fellow-creature which does not trouble itself about the real needs of the fellow-creature is brought out more vividly and without any excuse.

One glorious evening in July, in front of the Schweizer-Hof, in Lucerne, Prince Nechljudow heard a street-singer whose songs touched and enraptured him deeply. The singer is a poor, small, hump-backed man, insufficiently clad and looking half starved. On all the balconies of the sumptuous hotel rich Englishmen and their wives are standing; all have enjoyed the glorious singing of the poor cripple, but when he takes off his hat and begs a small reward for his artistic performance, not one person throws even the smallest coin to him. Nechljudow falls into the most violent excitement. He is beside himself over the fact that ‘the singer could beg three times for a gift, and no one gave him the smallest thing, while the greater number laughed at him.’ It seems to him ‘an event which the historian of our times should inscribe in the pages of history with indelible letters of fire.’ He, for his part, will not be a participator in this unprecedented sin. He hastens after the poor devil, overtakes him and invites him to drink a bottle of wine with him. The singer accepts. ‘Close by is a small café,’ says he; ‘we can go in there—it is a cheap one,’ he continued. ‘The words, “a cheap one,” involuntarily suggested the idea,’ relates Nechljudow in his diary, ‘not to go to a cheap cafe, but into the Schweizer-Hof, where were the people who had listened to his singing. Although he refused the Schweizer-Hof several times in timid agitation, because he thought it was much too grand there, I persisted in it.’

He leads the singer into the splendid hotel. Although he appears in the company of the princely guest, the servants look at the badly dressed vagabond with hostile and contemptuous glances. They show the pair into the ‘saloon on the left, the drinking-bar for the people.’ The singer is very much embarrassed, and wishes himself far away, but he conceals his feelings.[159] The Prince orders champagne. The singer drinks without any real pleasure and without confidence. He talks about his life, and says suddenly: ‘I know what you wish. You want to make me drunk, and then see what can be got out of me.’ Nechljudow, annoyed by the scornful and insolent demeanour of the servants jumps up and goes with his guest into the handsome dining-room on the right hand, which is set apart for the visitors. He will be served here and nowhere else. The English, who are present, indignantly leave the room; the waiters are dismayed, but do not venture to oppose the angry Russian Prince. ‘The singer drew a very miserable, terrified face, and begged me, as soon as possible, to go away, evidently not understanding why I was angry and what I wished.’ The little mannikin ‘sat more dead than alive’ near the Prince, and was very happy when Nechljudow finally dismissed him.

It must be noticed how extremely absurdly Prince Nechljudow behaves from beginning to end. He invites the singer to a bottle of wine, although, if he had possessed the faintest glimmer of sound common-sense, he might have said to himself that a hot supper, or, still better, a five-franc piece, would be far more necessary and useful to the poor devil than a bottle of wine. The singer proposes to go to a modest restaurant, where he himself would feel comfortable. The Prince pays not the smallest attention to this natural, reasonable desire, but drags the poor devil into a leading hotel, where he feels extremely uncomfortable in his bad clothing, under the cross-fire of the waiters’ insolent and scornful looks. The Prince does not care about this, but orders champagne, to which the singer is not accustomed, and which gives him so little pleasure that the thought occurs to him that his noble host desires to make sport of him by seeing him drunk. Nechljudow begins to squabble with the waiters, proceeds to the finest saloon of the hotel, scares away the remaining guests, who do not desire to sit at supper with the street-singer, and does not concern himself during the whole of this time about the feelings of his guest, who sits on hot coals, and would far rather sink into the floor, and who only breathes again when his terrible benefactor lets him escape out of his fangs.

Did Nechljudow exercise neighbourly love? No. He did nothing pleasant to the singer. He tormented him. He only satisfied himself. He wished to revenge himself on the hard-hearted English people, with whom he was furious, and he did so at the expense of the poor devil. Nechljudow calls it an unheard-of occurrence that the wealthy Englishmen should give nothing to the singer, but what he did to the latter is worse. The odious niggardliness of the English people annoyed the singer for a quarter of an hour, perhaps; Nechljudow’s foolish entertainment[160] tortured him for an hour. The Prince never took the trouble to consider, even for a moment, what would be agreeable and useful to the singer; he thought always of himself only, of his own feelings, his anger, his indignation. This tender-hearted philanthropist is a dangerous, depraved egoist.

The irrational neighbourly love of the emotional mystic fails necessarily in its ostensible aim, because it does not arise from a knowledge of the true needs of the neighbour. The mystic practises a sentimental anthropomorphism. He transfers his own feelings, without more ado, to other beings, who feel quite differently from himself. He is in a condition bitterly to commiserate the moles because they are condemned to brood in perpetual darkness in their underground passages, and dreams, perhaps with tears in his eyes, of introducing electric light into their burrows. Because he, as seeing, would suffer severely under the conditions of a mole’s life, therefore this animal is naturally to be pitied also, although it is blind and so does not miss the light. An anecdote relates that a child poured some hot water into the drawing-room aquarium one winter’s day because it must have been so intolerably cold for the gold-fish; and in comic papers there is frequently a hit at the benevolent societies which bestow warm winter clothing on the negroes at the equator. This is Tolstoi’s love of one’s neighbour put into practice.

One especial point of his moral doctrine is the mortification of the flesh. All sexual intercourse is for him unchaste; marriage is quite as impure as the loosest tie. The Kreutzer Sonata is the most complete, and at the same time most celebrated, embodiment of these propositions. Pozdnyscheff, the murderer from motives of jealousy, says:[168] ‘There is nothing pleasant in the honeymoon; on the contrary, it is a period of continual embarrassment, a shame, a profound depression, and, above all, boredom—fearful boredom! I can only compare the situation to that of a youth who is beginning to smoke: he feels sick, swallows his saliva, and pretends to like it very much. If the cigar is to give him any pleasure, it can only be later on, as it is with marriage. In order to enjoy it, the married couple must first accustom themselves to the vice.’

‘How do you mean—to the vice? You are speaking of one of the most natural things—of an instinct.’

‘Natural thing? An instinct? Not in the least. Allow me to tell you that I have been brought to, and maintain, the opposite conviction. I, the depraved and dissolute, assert that it is something unnatural.... It is an entirely unnatural treatment for any pure girl, just as it would be for a child.’


Further on Pozdnyscheff develops the following crazy theory of the law of life: ‘The object of man, as of humanity in general, is happiness, and to attain it humanity has a law which must be carried out. This law consists in the union of the individual beings which compose humanity. Human passions only impede this union, particularly the strongest and worst of all, sensual love, sexual pleasures. When human passions, especially the most violent, sensuality, shall have been suppressed, the union will be accomplished, and humanity, having attained its end, will have no further reason for existing.’ And his last words are: ‘People should understand that the true meaning of the words of St. Matthew, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart,” applies to one’s sister, and not only to a strange woman, but also, and above all, to one’s own wife.’

Tolstoi, in whom, as in every ‘higher degenerate,’ two natures co-exist, of whom the one notices and judges the follies of the other, has yet a distinct feeling of the senselessness of his Kreutzer Sonata theory, and he makes his mouthpiece, Pozdnyscheff, declare[169] that he ‘was looked upon as cracked.’ But in the Short Exposition, where Tolstoi speaks in his own name, he develops, if with somewhat more reserve, the same philosophy.[170] The temptation to break the seventh commandment is due to the fact that we believe woman to have been created for carnal pleasure, and that, if a man leave one wife and take another, he will have more pleasure. Not to fall into this temptation, we must remember that it is not the will of the Father that the man should have pleasure through feminine charms....’ In the story Family Happiness[171] he likewise explains that a husband and wife, even if they have married from love, must become enemies in their wedded life, and it is quite purposeless to attempt a lasting cultivation of the original feelings.

It is not indeed necessary to refute a theory which pours contempt on all experience, all observations of nature, all institutions and laws that have been historically developed, and the known aim of which is the destruction of humanity. The thought of assailing it with zeal could only occur to men who were themselves more or less deranged. It is sufficient for the healthy minded to state it in distinct language; it is at once recognisable, then, for what it is—insanity.

For Tolstoi the great enemy is science. In My Confession he is never tired of accusing and abusing it. It is of no use to the people, but only to governments and to capitalists. It[162] occupies itself with idle and vain things, such as the inquiries into protoplasm and spectrum analysis, but has never yet thought of anything useful, e.g., ‘how an axe and an axe-handle can best be manufactured; how a good saw ought to be fashioned; how good bread can be baked, which species of flour is best adapted for the purpose, how to manage the yeast, construct and heat the baking-oven; what foods and beverages are the most wholesome; what mushrooms are edible,’ etc.

He is, be it noted, particularly unfortunate in his examples, since, as a matter of fact, every beginner takes up all the subjects he enumerates in the scientific study of hygiene and mechanics. In accordance with his poetic nature, he has had a strong desire to embody his views on science artistically. This he has done in the comedy The Fruits of Enlightenment. What does he scoff at in that? At the pitiable blockheads who believe in spirits and, in dread of death, hunt after bacteria. Spiritualism, and the opinions created in uneducated men of the world by the imperfectly understood news of the day, conveyed in political papers, respecting infectious micro-organisms, are what he takes for science, and against them he directs the arrows of his satire.

Real science does not need to be protected against attacks of this sort. I have already proved, in estimating the value of the reproaches which the neo-Catholic Symbolists and their critical patrons raised against natural science, that all those phrases were either childish or dishonest. The accusation of dishonesty cannot be brought against Tolstoi. He believes what he says. But childish his complaints and his mockery certainly are. He speaks of science as a blind man of colour. He has evidently no suspicion of its essence, its mission, its methods and the subjects with which it deals. He resembles Bouvard and Pécuchet, Flaubert’s two idiots, who, completely ignorant, without teachers or guides, skim through a number of books indiscriminately, and fancy themselves in this sportive manner to have gained positive knowledge; this they seek to apply with the candour of a trained Krooboy, commit, self-evidently, one hair-raising stupidity after another, and then believe themselves justified in sneering at science, and declaring it a vain folly and deception. Flaubert avenged himself on the absurdity of his own efforts to conquer science as a lieutenant conquers a music-hall singer, by tarring and feathering Bouvard and Pécuchet. Tolstoi exploded his little fuss and fume on Science, that proud, disdainful beauty, who is only to be won by long, earnest, unselfish service, by lampooning the blockheads of his Fruits of Enlightenment. The degenerate Flaubert and the degenerate Tolstoi meet here in the same frenzy.

The way to happiness is, according to Tolstoi, the turning away from science, the renunciation of reason, and the return to[163] the life of Nature; that is, to agriculture. ‘The town must be abandoned, the people must be sent away from the factories and into the country to work with their hands; the aim of every man should be to satisfy all his wants himself’ (What ought one to Do?).

How oddly is reason mixed with nonsense even in these economic demands! Tolstoi has rightly discerned the evils which follow the uprooting of the people from fostering Mother Earth, and the incubation of a day-wage-earning, urban industrial proletariate. It is true, also, that agriculture could employ very many more men healthily and profitably than at present if the land were the property of the community, and each one received only such a share, and that only for his lifetime, as he could himself cultivate thoroughly. But must industry on this account be destroyed? Would not that mean the destruction of civilization itself? Is it not rather the duty of intelligent philanthropy and justice carefully to maintain the division of labour, this necessary and profitable result of a long evolution, but at the same time, through a better system of economy, to transform the artisan from a factory convict, condemned to misery and ill-health, into a free producer of wealth, who enjoys the fruits of his labour himself, and works no more than is compatible with his health and his claims on life?

It is vain to seek for even the slightest hint of such a solution in Tolstoi. He contents himself with a barren enthusiasm for country life, which, if beautiful in Horace, has become annoying and ridiculous in Rousseau; and he garrulously plagiarizes the hollow phrases about the worthlessness of civilization of the eloquent Genevese, who, smitten with the mania of persecution, could only have led a sentimental century like his own by the nose. Return to nature! It is not possible to compress more absurdity into fewer words. On our earth Nature is our enemy, whom we must fight, before whom we dare not lay down our weapons. In order to maintain our span of life we must create endlessly complicated artificial conditions; we must clothe our bodies, build a roof over our heads, and store up provisions for many months, during which Nature denies us every nourishment. There is only one very narrow strip of our planet where mankind can live without exertion, without inventions and arts, like the beast in the forest and the fish in the water, and that is on some of the South Sea islands. There, in perpetual spring, he certainly needs no clothes and no dwelling, or only some palm-leaves as a shelter from occasional rain. There, at all seasons of the year, he finds food constantly prepared for him in the cocoanut palm, the bread-fruit tree, the banana, in some domestic animals, in fish and mussels. No beast of prey threatens his safety, and forces on him the development of strength and contempt[164] of death. But how many men can this earthly paradise maintain? Perhaps a hundredth part of present humanity. The remaining ninety-nine hundredths have only the alternative either of perishing, or of settling in regions of our planet where the table is not spread, and the pillow of delight is not prepared, but in which everything which life demands for its sustenance must be procured artificially and laboriously. The ‘return to Nature’ means, in our degrees of latitude, the return to hunger, to freezing, to being devoured by wolves and bears. Not in the impossible ‘return to Nature’ lies healing for human misery, but in the reasonable organization of our struggle with Nature, I might say, in universal and obligatory service against it, from which only the crippled should be exempted.

We have now learnt to know the particular ideas which together constitute Tolstoism. As a philosophy it gives explanations of the world and of life, with unmeaning or contradictory paraphrases of some intentionally misunderstood Bible verses. As ethics, it prescribes the renunciation of resistance against vice and crime, the distribution of property, and the annihilation of mankind by complete abstinence. As sociological and economic doctrine it preaches the uselessness of science, the happiness of becoming stupid, the renunciation of manufactured products, and the duty of agriculture, though without betraying from whence the farmer is to get the necessary soil for cultivation. The remarkable thing in this system is, that it does not notice its own superfluity. If it understood itself, it would restrict itself to one single point—abstinence—since it is evident that it is unnecessary to break one’s head over the aim and import of human life, over crime and love of your neighbour, and particularly over country or town life, if in any case through abstinence humanity is to die out with the present generation.

Rod[172] denies that Tolstoi is a mystic. ‘Mysticism was always, as the word indicates, a transcendental doctrine. The mystics, especially the Christian mystics, have always sacrificed the present to the future life.... What, on the contrary, astonishes an unprejudiced mind in Tolstoi’s books is the almost complete absence of all metaphysics, his indifference to the so-called questions of the other world.’

Rod simply does not know what mysticism is. He unduly restricts the sense of the word, if he only uses it to mean the investigation of ‘other-world questions.’ If he were less superficial he would know that religious enthusiasm is only one special instance of a general mental condition, and that mysticism is any morbid obscuration and incoherence of thought which is accompanied by emotionalism, and therefore includes that thought, the fruit of which is the system at once Materialistic, Pantheistic[165] Christian, Ascetic, Rousseauistic and Communistic, of Leo Tolstoi.

Raphael Löwenfeld, whom we have to thank for the first complete German edition of Tolstoi’s works, has also written a very commendable biography of the Russian novelist, yet in which he feels himself obliged, not only to take sides vehemently with his hero, but also to assure that hero’s possible critics beforehand of his deep contempt for them. ‘Want of comprehension,’ he says,[173] ‘calls them (the “independent phenomena” of Tolstoi’s sort) eccentrics, unwilling to allow that anyone should be a head taller than the rest. The unprejudiced man, who is capable of admiring greatness, sees in their independence the expression of an extraordinary power which has outgrown the possibilities of the time, and, leading on, points out the paths to those coming after.’ It is indeed hazardous forthwith to accuse all who are not of his opinion of ‘want of comprehension.’ One who judges so autocratically will have to put up with the answer, that he is guilty of ‘want of comprehension’ who, without the most elementary training, enters upon the criticism of a phenomenon, to the understanding of which some degree of æsthetical and literary so-called ‘knowledge’ and personal feeling are very far from sufficient. Löwenfeld boasts of his capacity to admire greatness. He is possibly wrong not to presuppose this capacity in others also. What he precisely has to prove is this, that what he admires deserves in truth the designation of greatness. His assertion, however, is the only proof he brings on this most important point. He calls himself unprejudiced. It may be admitted that he is free from prejudices, but then he is free also from the preliminary knowledge that alone entitles anyone to form an opinion on psychological phenomena, which strike even the uninitiated as extraordinary, and to present them with self-assurance. Did he possess this preliminary knowledge he would know that Tolstoi, who, ‘leading, is to point out the paths to those coming after,’ is a mere copy of a class of men who have had their representatives in every age. Lombroso[174] instances a certain Knudsen, a madman, who lived in Schleswig about 1680, and asserted that there was neither a God nor a hell; that priests and judges were useless and pernicious, and marriage an immorality; that men ceased to exist after death; that everyone must be guided by his own inward insight,’ etc. Here we have the principal features of Tolstoi’s cosmology and moral philosophy. Knudsen has, however, so little ‘pointed out, leading, the way to those coming after,’ that he still only exists as an instructive case of mental aberration in books on diseases of the mind.


The truth is that all Tolstoi’s idiosyncrasies could be traced to the best-known and most often observed stigmata of higher degeneration. He even relates of himself:[175] ‘Scepticism brought me at one time to a condition nearly bordering on frenzy. I had the idea that besides myself nobody and nothing existed in the whole world; that things were not things, but presentations, which only became phenomenal at what time I directed my attention to them, and that these presentations disappeared at once when I ceased to think of them.... There were hours when, under the influence of this fixed idea, I came to such a pitch of mental bewilderment that I at times looked quickly the other way, in the hope that in the place where I was not, I might be surprised by nothingness.’ And in his Confession he says explicitly: ‘I felt that I was not quite mentally sound.’[176] His feeling was correct. He was suffering from a mania of brooding doubt, observable in many of the ‘higher degenerates.’ Professor Kowalewski[177] explains the mania of doubt straight away as exclusively a psychosis of degeneration. Griesinger[178] relates the case of a patient who continually brooded over the notions of beauty, existence, etc., and put endless questions about them. Griesinger, however, was less familiar with the phenomena of degeneration, and therefore held his case as ‘one little known.’ Lombroso[179] mentions in the enumeration of the symptoms of his maniacs of genius: ‘Almost all are taken up, in the most painful manner, with religious doubts, which disturb the mind and oppress the timid conscience and sick heart, like a crime.’ It is not, then, the noble desire for knowledge which forces Tolstoi to be ceaselessly occupied with questions concerning the aim and meaning of life, but the degeneration-mania of doubt and brooding thought, which is barren, because no answer, no explanation can satisfy them. For it is obvious that be the ‘therefore’ never so clear, never so exhaustive, it can never silence the mechanically impulsive ‘wherefore’ proceeding from the Unconscious.

A special form of the phenomenon of scepticism and brooding thought is a rage for contradiction, and the inclination to bizarre assertions, as is noted by many clinicists—e.g., Sollier[180]—as a special stigma of degeneration. It has appeared very strongly in Tolstoi at certain times. ‘In the struggles for independence,’ relates Löwenfeld,[181] ‘Tolstoi frequently overstepped the limits of good taste, while he combated tradition only because it was tradition. [167]Thus he called ... Shakespeare a scribbler by the dozen, and asserted that the admiration ... for the great Englishman ...has properly no other origin than the custom of echoing strange opinions with thoughtless obsequiousness.’

What one finds most touching and most worthy of admiration in Tolstoi is his boundless spirit of fraternity. I have already shown above that it is foolish in its starting-points and manifestations. Here, however, I may have to point out that it is likewise a stigma of degeneration. Though he has not the experience of an alienist, the clear-minded, healthy Tourgenieff has, by his own common-sense, ‘scoffingly’ called Tolstoi’s fervent love for the oppressed people ‘hysterical,’ as Löwenfeld[182] says. We shall find it again in many degenerate subjects. ‘In contrast to the selfish imbecile,’ Legrain[183] teaches, ‘we have the imbeciles who are good to excess, who are philanthropic, who set up a thousand absurd systems in order to advance the happiness of humanity.’ And further on: ‘Full of his love for humanity, the imbecile patient, without reflection, takes up the social question on its most difficult side, and settles it confidently in a series of grotesque inventions.’ This irrational philanthropy, untutored by judgment, which Tourgenieff, with just surmise if incorrect designation, called ‘hysterical,’ is nothing else than a manifestation of that emotionalism which constitutes for Morel the fundamental character of degeneration. Nothing in this diagnosis is altered by the fact that Tolstoi had the good fortune, during the recent famine, of being able to develop the most highly effective and most devoted helpfulness for the alleviation of the misery of his countrymen. The case happened to be very simple. The need of his fellow-creatures was of the most primitive form, want of bodily food. Fraternal love could likewise set to work in its most primitive form, in the distribution of food and clothing. A special power of judgment, a deep comprehension of the need of his fellow-creatures, was here unnecessary. And that Tolstoi’s preparations for the relief of the sufferers were more effective than those of the proper authorities only proved the stupidity and incapacity of the latter.

Tolstoi’s attitude towards women also, which must remain incomprehensible to a healthy human understanding, will, in the light of clinical experience, forthwith be understood. It has been repeatedly pointed out in these pages that the emotionalism of the degenerate has, as a rule, an erotic colouring, because of the pathological alteration in their sexual centres. The abnormal excitability of these parts of the nervous system can have as a consequence both an especial attraction towards woman and an especial antipathy to her. The common[168] element connecting these opposing effects of one and the same organic condition is the being constantly occupied with woman, the being constantly engrossed with presentations in consciousness from the region of sexuality.[184]

In the mental life of a sane man, woman is far from filling the part she plays in that of the degenerate. The physiological relation of man to woman is that of desire for the time being toward her, and of indifference when the state of desire is not present. Antipathy, let alone violent enmity, to woman, the normal man never feels. If he desires the woman, he loves her; if his erotic excitement is appeased, he becomes cool and more distant in his attitude, though without feeling aversion or fear. The man, from his purely subjective, physiological necessities and inclinations, would certainly never have invented marriage, the persistent alliance with woman. This is not a sexual but a social arrangement. It does not rest on the organic instincts of the individual man, but on the need of collectivity. It depends on the existing economic order and the dominant opinions about the State, its problems and its relations to the individual, and changes its form with these. A man may—or at least should—choose a certain woman for his consort out of love; but what holds him fast married, after a suitable choice and successful courtship, is no longer physiological love, but a complex mixture of habit, gratitude, unsexual friendship, convenience, the wish to obtain for himself social advantages (to which must naturally be added an ordered household, social representation, etc.), considerations of duty towards children and State; more or less, also, unthinking imitation of a universal observance. But feelings such as are described in the Kreutzer Sonata and in Family Happiness the normal man never experiences towards his wife, even if he has ceased to love her in the natural sense of the word.

These relations are quite otherwise in the degenerate. The morbid activity of his sexual centres completely rules him. The thought of woman has for him the power of an ‘obsession.’ He feels that he cannot resist the exciting influences proceeding from the woman, that he is her helpless slave, and would commit any folly, any madness, any crime, at her beck and call. He necessarily, therefore, sees in woman an uncanny, overpowering force of nature, bestowing supreme delights or dealing[169] destruction, and he trembles before this power, to which he is defencelessly exposed. If, then, besides this, the almost never-failing aberrations set in, if he, in fact, commits things for woman for which he must condemn and despise himself; or if woman, without its coming to actual deeds, awakens in him emotions and thoughts before whose baseness and infamy he is horrified, then, in the moment of exhaustion, when judgment is stronger than impulse, the dread which woman inspires him withal will be suddenly changed into aversion and savage hatred. The erotomaniac ‘degenerate’ stands in the same position to the woman as a dipsomaniac to intoxicating drinks. Magnan[185] has given an appalling picture of the struggles waged in the mind of a dipsomaniac by the passionate eagerness for the bottle, and the loathing and horror of it. The mind of an erotomaniac presents a similar spectacle, but probably still stronger struggles. These frequently lead the unhappy creature, who sees no other means of escaping from his sexual obsession, to self-mutilation. There are in Russia, as is well known, a whole sect of ‘degenerates,’ the Skoptzi, by whom this is systematically exercised, as the only effective treatment to escape the devil and be saved. Pozdnyscheff, in the Kreutzer Sonata, is a Skopetz without knowing it, and the sexual morality which Tolstoi teaches in this narrative and in his theoretic writings is the expression in literature of the sexual psychopathy of the Skoptzi.

The universal success of Tolstoi’s writings is undoubtedly due in part to his high literary gifts. But that part is not the greatest; for, as we have seen in the beginning of this chapter, it was not his artistically most important creations, the works of his best years, but his later mystical works, which have won for him his body of believers. This effect is to be explained, not on æsthetical, but on pathological grounds. Tolstoi would have remained unnoticed, like any Knudsen of the seventeenth century, if his extravagances as a degenerate mystic had not found his contemporaries prepared for their reception. The widespread hysteria from exhaustion was the requisite soil in which alone Tolstoism could flourish.

That the rise and expansion of Tolstoism is to be traced, not to the intrinsic merit of Tolstoi’s writings, but to the mental condition of his readers, is made clear in the most significant manner by the difference in those parts of his system which have made an impression in various countries. In every nation just such tones awakened an echo as were attuned with its own nervous system.

In England it was Tolstoi’s sexual morality that excited the[170] greatest interest, for in that country economic reasons condemn a formidable number of girls, particularly of the educated classes, to forego marriage; and, from a theory which honoured chastity as the highest dignity and noblest human destiny, and branded marriage with gloomy wrath as abominable depravity, these poor creatures would naturally derive rich consolation for their lonely, empty lives, and their cruel exclusion from the possibility of fulfilling their natural calling. The Kreutzer Sonata has, therefore, become the book of devotion of all the spinsters of England.

In France Tolstoism is particularly valued for the way in which it casts out science, deposes the intellect from all offices and dignities, preaches the return to implicit faith, and praises the poor in spirit as alone happy. This is water to the mill of neo-Catholics, and those mystics, from political motives, or from degeneration, who erect a cathedral to pious symbolism, raise up also a high altar to Tolstoi in their church.

In Germany, on the whole, but little enthusiasm is evinced for the abstinence-morality of the Kreutzer Sonata, and the intellectual reaction of My Confession, My Religion, and Fruits of Enlightenment. On the other hand, his followers in that country exalt Tolstoi’s vague socialism and his morbid fraternal love into their dogma. All the muddle-headed among our people who, not from sober scientific conviction, but from hysterical emotionalism, feel a leaning towards a sickly, impotent socialism, which tends principally towards ministering cheap broth to proletarians, and towards revelling in sentimental romances and melodramas from the pretended life of the city worker, naturally discovered in Tolstoi’s ‘give-me-something-communism,’ with its scorn for all economic and moral laws, the expression of their—very platonic!—love for the disinherited. And in the circles in which Herr von Egidy’s watery rationalism (at least a hundred years behind time) could rise into notoriety, and in which his first writing could call forth nearly a hundred replies, assents, and explanations, Tolstoi’s Short Exposition of the Gospel, with its denial of the divine nature of Christ, and of existence after death, with its effusions of a superabundance of feelings of aimless love, its incomprehensible personal sanctification and rhetoric morality, and especially with its astounding misinterpretation of the clearest passages from Scripture, must indeed have been an event. All the adherents of Herr von Egidy are predestined followers of Tolstoi, and all Tolstoi’s admirers perpetrate an inconsistency if they do not enter into the new Salvation Army of Herr von Egidy.

By the special timbre of the echo which Tolstoism calls forth in different countries, he has become an instrument which is better fitted than any other tendency of degeneration in contemporary[171] literature for the determination, measurement, and comparison, in kind and degree, of degeneration and hysteria among those civilized nations in which the phenomenon of the Dusk of the Nations has been observed.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:56 am

Part 1 of 3


WE have seen in a previous chapter that the whole mystic movement of the period has its roots in romanticism, and hence originally emanates from Germany. In England German romanticism was metamorphosed into pre-Raphaelitism, in France the latter engendered, with the last remains of its procreative strength, the abortions of symbolism and neo-Catholicism, and these Siamese twins contracted with Tolstoism a mountebank marriage such as might take place between the cripple of a fair and the wonder of a show-booth. While the descendants of the emigrant (who on his departure from his German home already carried in him all the germs of subsequent tumefactions and disfigurements), so changed as to be almost unrecognisable, grew up in different countries, and set about returning to their native land to attempt the renewal of family ties with their home-staying connections, Germany gave birth to a new prodigy, who was in truth only reared with great trouble to manhood, and for long years received but little notice or appreciation, but who finally obtained an incomparably mightier attractive force over the great fools’ fair of the present time than all his fellow-competitors. This prodigy is ‘Wagnerism.’ It is the German contribution to modern mysticism, and far outweighs all that the other nations combined have supplied to that movement. For Germany is powerful in everything, in evil as in good, and the magnitude of its elementary force manifests itself in a crushing manner in its degenerate, as well as in its ennobling, efforts.

Richard Wagner is in himself alone charged with a greater abundance of degeneration than all the degenerates put together with whom we have hitherto become acquainted. The stigmata of this morbid condition are united in him in the most complete and most luxuriant development. He displays in the general constitution of his mind the persecution mania, megalomania and mysticism; in his instincts vague philanthropy, anarchism, a craving for revolt and contradiction; in his writings all the signs of graphomania, namely, incoherence, fugitive ideation, and a tendency to idiotic punning, and, as the groundwork of[172] his being, the characteristic emotionalism of a colour at once erotic and religiously enthusiastic.

For Wagner’s persecution mania, we have the testimony of his most recent biographer and friend, Ferdinand Praeger, who relates that for years Wagner was convinced that the Jews had conspired to prevent the representation of his operas—a delirium inspired by his furious anti-Semitism. His megalomania is so well known through his writings, his verbal utterances, and the whole course of his life, that a bare reference to it is sufficient. It is to be admitted that this mania was essentially increased by the crazy procedure of those who surrounded Wagner. A much firmer equilibrium than that which obtained in Wagner’s mind would have been infallibly disturbed by the nauseous idolatry of which Bayreuth was the shrine. The Bayreuther Blätter is a unique phenomenon. To me, at least, no other instance is known of a newspaper which was founded exclusively for the deification of a living man, and in every number of which, through long years, the appointed priests of the temple have burned incense to their household god, with the savage fanaticism of howling and dancing dervishes, bent the knee, prostrated themselves before him, and immolated all opponents as sacrificial victims.

We will take a closer view of the graphomaniac Wagner. His Collected Writings and Poems form ten large thick volumes, and among the 4,500 pages which they approximately contain there is hardly a single one which will not puzzle the unbiased reader, either through some nonsensical thought or some impossible mode of expression. Of his prose works (his poems will be treated of further on), the most important is decidedly The Art-work of the Future.[186] The thoughts therein expressed—so far as the wavering shadows of ideas in a mystically emotional degenerate subject may be so called—occupied Wagner during his whole life, and were again and again propounded by him in ever new terms and phraseology. The Opera and the Drama, Judaism in Music, On the State and Religion, The Vocation of the Opera, Religion and Art, are nothing more than amplifications of single passages of The Art-work of the Future. This restless repetition of one and the same strain of thought is itself characteristic in the highest degree. The clear, mentally sane author, who feels himself impelled to say something, will once for all express himself as distinctly and impressively as it is possible for him to do, and have done with it. He may, perhaps, return to the subject, in order to clear up misconceptions, repel attacks, and fill up lacunæ; but he will[173] never wish to rewrite his book, wholly or in part, two or three times in slightly different words, not even if in later years he attains to the insight that he has not succeeded in finding for it an adequate form. The crazed graphomaniac, on the contrary, cannot recognise in his book, as it lies finished before him, the satisfying expression of his thoughts, and he will always be tempted to begin his work afresh, a task which is endless, because it must consist in giving a fixed linguistic form to ideas which are formless.

The fundamental thought of the Art-work of the Future is this: The first and most original of the arts was that of dancing; its peculiar essence is rhythm, and this has developed into music; music, consisting of rhythm and tone, has raised (Wagner says ‘condensed’) its phonetic element to speech, and produced the art of poetry; the highest form of poetry is the drama, which for the purpose of stage-construction, and to imitate the natural scene of human action, has associated itself with architecture and painting respectively; finally, sculpture is nothing but the giving permanence to the appearance of the actor in a dead rigid form, while acting is real sculpture in living, flowing movement. Thus all the arts group themselves around the drama, and the latter should unite them naturally. Nevertheless they appear at present in isolation, to the great injury of each and of art in general. This reciprocal estrangement and isolation of the different arts is an unnatural and decadent condition, and the effort of true artists must be to win them back to their natural and necessary conjunction with each other. The mutual penetration and fusion of all arts into a single art will produce the genuine work of art. Hence the work of art of the future is a drama with music and dance, which unrolls itself in a landscape painting, has for a frame a masterly creation of architectural art designed for the poetico-musical end, and is represented by actors who are really sculptors, but who realize their plastic inspirations by means of their own bodily appearance.

In this way Wagner has set forth for himself the evolution of art. His system calls for criticism in every part. The historical filiation of the arts which he attempts to establish is false. If the original reciprocal connections of song, dance and poetry be granted, the development of architecture, painting and sculpture is certainly independent of poetry in its dramatic form. That the theatre employs all the arts is true, but it is one of those truths which are so self-evident that it is generally unnecessary to mention them, and least of all with profound prophetic mien and the grand priestly gestures of one proclaiming surprising revelations. Everyone knows from experience that the stage is in a theatrical building, that it displays painted[174] decorations which represent landscapes or buildings, and that on it there is speaking, singing and acting. Wagner secretly feels that he makes himself ridiculous when he strains himself to expound this trite matter of first experience in the Pythian mode, with an enormous outlay of gush and exaltation ...; hence he exaggerates it to such a degree as to turn it into an absurdity. He not only asseverates that in the drama (more correctly speaking, the opera, or the musical drama, as Wagner prefers to call it) different arts co-operate, but he asserts that it is only through this co-operation that each individual art is advanced to its highest capacity of expression, and that the individual arts must and will surrender their independence as an unnatural error, in order to continue to exist only as collaborators of the musical drama.

The first asseveration is at least doubtful. In the cathedral of Cologne architecture produces an impression without the representation of a drama; the accompaniment of music would add nothing whatever to the beauty and depth of Faust and Hamlet; Goethe’s lyric poetry and the Divina Commedia need no landscape-painting as a frame and background; Michael Angelo’s Moses would hardly produce a deeper impression surrounded by dancers and singers; and the Pastoral Symphony does not require the accompaniment of words in order to exercise its full charm. Schopenhauer, although Wagner admired him as the greatest thinker of all time, expresses himself very decidedly on this point. ‘The grand opera,’ he says,[187] ‘is, properly speaking, no product of pure artistic sense, but rather of the somewhat barbaric conception of elevating æsthetic enjoyment through accumulation of means, simultaneity of quite different impressions, and intensification of the effect through the multiplication of the operating masses and forces; while, on the other hand, music, as the mightiest of all arts, is able by itself alone completely to occupy the mind which is susceptible to it; indeed, its loftiest productions, to be appropriately grasped and enjoyed, demand a mind wholly undivided and undiverted, so that it may yield itself up to them, and lose itself in them, in order completely to understand their incredible inwardness of language. Instead of this, in highly complicated operatic music the mind is besieged at the same time by way of the eye, by means of the most variegated pomp, the most fantastic pictures, and the liveliest impressions of light and colour; while over and above this it is occupied with the story of the piece.... Strictly speaking, then, one may call opera an unmusical invention for the benefit of unmusical minds, into which music must only be smuggled by means of a medium[175] foreign to it, that is, as a sort of accompaniment to a long spun-out, insipid love-story, and its poetical thin broth; for the libretto of an opera does not tolerate concise poetry, full of genius and thought.’ This is an absolute condemnation of the Wagnerian idea of the musical drama as the collective art-work of the future. It might seem, it is true, that certain recent experiments in psychophysics had come to the help of Wagner’s theory of the reciprocal enhancement of the simultaneous effects of different arts. Charles Féré[188] has, in fact, shown that the ear hears more keenly when the eye is simultaneously stimulated by an agreeable (dynamogenous) colour; but, in the first place, this phenomenon may also be interpreted thus: that the keenness of hearing is enhanced not by the visual impression as such, not simply as sense excitation, but only through its dynamogenous quality, which arouses the whole nervous system as well to a more lively activity. And then the question in Féré’s experiments is merely one of simple sense-perceptions, whereas the musical drama is supposed to awaken a higher cerebral activity, to produce presentations and thoughts, together with direct emotions; in which case each of the arts acting in concert will produce, in consequence of the necessary dispersion of the attention to it, a more feeble effect than if it appealed by itself alone to sense and intellect.

Wagner’s second assertion, that the natural evolution of each art necessarily leads it to the surrender of its independence and to its fusion with the other arts,[189] contradicts so strongly all experience and all the laws of evolution, that it can at once be characterized as delirious. Natural development always proceeds from the simple to the complex—not inversely; progress consists in differentiation, i.e., in the evolution of originally similar parts into special organs of different structure and independent functions, and not in the retrogression of differentiated beings of rich specialization to a protoplasm without physiognomy.

The arts have not arisen accidentally; their differentiation is the consequence of organic necessity; once they have attained independence, they will never surrender it. They can degenerate, they can even die out, but they can never again shrink back into the germ from which they have sprung. The effort to return to beginnings is, however, a peculiarity of degeneration, and founded in its deepest essence. The degenerate subject is himself on the downward road from the height of organic development which our species has reached; his imperfect brain is incapable of the highest and most refined operations of thought; he has therefore a strong desire to lighten them, to simplify the multifariousness of phenomena and make them easier to survey; to drag everything animate and inanimate down to lower and older stages of existence, in order to make them more easy of access to his comprehension. We have seen that the French Symbolists, with their colour-hearing, wished to degrade man to the indifferentiated sense-perceptions of the pholas or oyster. Wagner’s fusion of the arts is a pendant to this notion. His Art-work of the Future is the art-work of times long past. What he takes for evolution is retrogression, and a return to a primeval human, nay, to a pre-human stage.

Still more extraordinary than the fundamental idea of the book is its linguistic form. For example, let us estimate the following remarks on musical art (p. 68): ‘The sea separates and unites countries; thus musical art separates and unites the two extreme poles of human art, dancing and poetry. It is the heart of man; the blood which takes its circulation from it gives to the outward flesh its warm living colour; but it nourishes with an undulating, elastic force the nerves of the brain which are directed inward’ [!!]. ‘Without the activity of the heart, the activity of the brain would become a piece of mechanical skill [!], the activity of the external limbs an equally mechanical, emotionless procedure.’ ‘By means of the heart the intellect feels itself related to the entire body [!]; the mere sensuous man rises to intellectual activity’ [!]. ‘Now, the organ of the heart [!] is sound, and its artistic language is music.’ What here floated before the mind of Wagner was a comparison, in itself senseless, between the function of music as the medium of expression for the feelings, and the function of the blood as the vehicle of nutritive materials for the organism. But as his mystically-disposed brain was not capable of clearly grasping the various parts of this intricate idea, and of arranging them in parallel lines, he entangled himself in the absurdity of an ‘activity of the brain without activity of the heart’; of a ‘relation between the intellect and the whole body through the heart,’ etc., and finally attains to the pure twaddle of calling ‘sound’ the ‘organ of the heart.’


He wishes to express the very simple thought that music cannot communicate definite images and judgments, but merely feelings of a general character; and for this purpose devises the following rigmarole (p. 88): ‘It is never able ... of itself alone to bring the human individual, determined as to sensation and morals, to an exactly perceptible, distinctive representation; it is in its infinite involution always and only feeling; it appears as an accompaniment of the moral deed, not as the deed itself; it can place feelings and dispositions side by side, not develop in necessary sequence one disposition from another; it is lacking in moral will’ [!].

Let the reader further bury himself in this passage (p. 159): ‘It is only and exactly in the degree to which the woman of perfected womanliness, in her love for the man, and through her absorption into his being, shall have developed the masculine element as well as this womanliness, and brought it with the purely womanly element in herself to a complete consummation; in other words, in the degree in which she is not only the man’s mistress, but also his friend, is the man able to find perfect satisfaction in a woman’s love.’

Wagner’s admirers asseverate that they understand this string of words thrown together at random. Indeed, they find them remarkably clear! This, however, should not surprise us. Readers who through weakness of mind or flightiness of thought are incapable of attention always understand everything. For them there exists neither obscurity nor nonsense. They seek in the words over which their absent gaze flits superficially, not the author’s thoughts, but a reflection of their own rambling dreams. Those who have lived lovingly observant in children’s nurseries must have frequently seen the game in which a child takes a book, or printed paper, and, holding it before his face, generally upside down, begins gravely to read aloud, often the story told him by his mamma yesterday before he dropped asleep, or, more frequently, the fancies which at the moment are buzzing in his little head. This is somewhat the procedure of these blessed readers who understand everything. They do not read what is in the books, but what they put into them; and as far as the process and result of this mental activity are concerned, it is certainly very much a matter of indifference what the author has actually thought and said.

The incoherence of Wagner’s thought, determined as it is by the excitations of the moment, manifests itself in his constant contradictions. At one time (p. 187) he asserts, ‘The highest aim of mankind is the artistic; the most highly artistic is the drama;’ and in a foot-note (p. 194) he exclaims, ‘These easy-going creatures are fain to see and hear everything, except the real, undisfigured human being who stands exhorting at the exit[178] of their dreams. But it is exactly this very human being whom we must now place in the foreground.’ It is evident that one of these affirmations is diametrically opposed to the other. The ‘artistic’ ‘dramatic’ man is not the ‘real’ man, and it will be impossible for him, who looks upon it as his task to occupy himself with the real man, to recognise art as ‘the highest aim of man,’ and to regard his ‘dreams’ as the most distinguished of his activities.

In one passage (p. 206) he says: ‘Who, therefore, will be the artist of the future? Unquestionably the poet. But who will be the poet? Incontestably the interpreter. Again, however, who will be the interpreter? Necessarily the association of all artists.’ If this has any sense at all, it can only be that in the future the people will jointly write and act their dramas; and that Wagner really meant this he proves in the passage (p. 225) where he meets the objection he anticipated, that therefore the mob is to be the creator of the art-work of the future, with the words, ‘Bear in mind that this mob is in no way a normal product of real human nature, but rather the artificial result of your unnatural civilization; that all the devices and abominations which disgust you in this mob are only the desperate movements of the fight which real human nature is carrying on against its cruel oppressor, modern civilization.’ Let us contrast with these expressions the following passage from the treatise, What is German?[190]: ‘The fact that from the bosom of the German race there have sprung Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Beethoven, too easily seduces the greater number of persons of mediocre gifts into regarding these great minds as belonging by right to them, and to attempt, with the complacency of a demagogue, to persuade the masses that they themselves are Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Beethoven.’ But who, if not Wagner himself, has thus persuaded the masses, proclaiming them to be the ‘artists of the future’? And this very madness, which he himself recognises as such in the remark quoted, has made a great impression on the multitude. They have taken literally what Wagner, with the ‘complacency of a demagogue,’ has persuasively said to them. They have really imagined themselves to be the ‘artists of the future,’ and we have lived to see societies formed in many places in Germany who wanted to build theatres of the future, and themselves to perform works of the future in them! And these societies were joined not only by students or young commercial employés in whom a certain propensity for acting plays comes as a malady of adolescence, and who persuade themselves that they are serving the ‘ideal’ when with childish vanity and in grotesque[179] theatrical costume they gesticulate and declaim before their touched and admiring relatives and acquaintances. Nay, old burgesses, bald and bulky, abandoned their sacred skat, and even the thrice-holy morning tankard, and prepared themselves devoutly for noble dramatic achievements! Since the memorable occasion on which Quince, Snug, Bottom, Flute, Snout, and Starveling rehearsed their admirable Pyramus and Thisbe, the world has seen no similar spectacle. Emotional shopkeepers and enthusiastic counter-jumpers got Wagner’s absurdities on the brain, and the provincials and Philistines whom his joyful message had reached actually set about with their united strength to carry on the work of Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Beethoven.

In the passages quoted, in which, in the most used-up style of Rousseau, he glorifies the masses, speaks of ‘unnatural culture,’ and calls ‘modern civilization’ ‘the cruel oppressor of human nature,’ Wagner betrays that mental condition which the degenerate share with enlightened reformers, born criminals with the martyrs of human progress, namely, deep, devouring discontent with existing facts. This certainly shows itself otherwise in the degenerate than in reformers. The latter grow angry over real evils only, and make rational proposals for their remedy which are in advance of the time: these remedies may presuppose a better and wiser humanity than actually exists, but, at least, they are capable of being defended on reasonable grounds. The degenerate subject, on the other hand, selects among the arrangements of civilization such as are either immaterial or distinctly suitable, in order to rebel against them. His fury has either ridiculously insignificant aims or simply beats the air. He either gives no earnest thought to improvement, or hatches astoundingly mad projects for making the world happy. His fundamental frame of mind is persistent rage against everything and everyone, which he displays in venomous phrases, savage threats, and the destructive mania of wild beasts. Wagner is a good specimen of this species. He would like to crush ‘political and criminal civilization,’ as he expresses it. In what, however, does the corruption of society and the untenableness of the condition of everything reveal themselves to him? In the fact that operas are played with tripping airs, and ballets are performed! And how shall humanity attain its salvation! By performing the musical drama of the future! It is to be hoped that no criticism of this universal plan of salvation will be demanded of me.

Wagner is a declared anarchist. He distinctly develops the teaching of this faction in the Art-work of the Future (p. 217): ‘All men have but one common need ... the need of living and being happy. Herein lies the natural bond between all men.... It is only the special needs which, according to time, place, and[180] individuality, make themselves known and increase, which in the rational condition of future humanity can serve as a basis for special associations.... These associations will change, will take another form, dissolve and reconstitute themselves according as those needs change and reappear.’[191] He does not conceal the fact that this ‘rational condition of future humanity’ ‘can be brought about only by force’ (p. 228). ‘Necessity must force us, too, through the Red Sea if we, purged of our shame, are to reach the Promised Land. We shall not be drowned in it; it is destructive only to the Pharaohs of this world, who have once already been swallowed up—man and horse ... the arrogant, proud Pharaohs who then forgot that once a poor shepherd’s son with his shrewd advice had saved their land from starvation.’

Together with this anarchistic acerbity, there is another feeling that controls the entire conscious and unconscious mental life of Wagner, viz., sexual emotion. He has been throughout his life an erotic (in a psychiatric sense), and all his ideas revolve about woman. The most ordinary incitements, even those farthest removed from the province of the sexual instinct, never fail to awaken in his consciousness voluptuous images of an erotic character, and the bent of the automatic association of ideas is in him always directed towards this pole of his thought. In this connection let this passage be read from the Art-work of the Future (p. 44), where he seeks to demonstrate the relation between the art of dancing, music, and poetry: ‘In the contemplation of this ravishing dance of the most genuine and noblest muses, of the artistic man [?], we now see the three arm-in-arm lovingly entwined up to their necks; then this, then that one, detaching herself from the entwinement, as if to display to the others her beautiful form in complete separation, touching the hands of the others only with the extreme tips of her fingers; now the one, entranced by a backward glance at the twin forms of her closely entwined sisters, bending towards them; then two, carried away by the allurements of the one [!] greeting her in homage; finally all, in close embrace, breast to breast, limb to limb, in an ardent kiss of love, coalescing in one blissfully living shape. This is the love and life, the joy and wooing of art,’ etc. (Observe the word-play: Lieben und Leben, Freuen und Freien!) Wagner here visibly loses the thread of his argument; he neglects what he really wishes to say, and revels in the picture of the three dancing[181] maidens, who have arisen before his mind’s eye, following with lascivious longing the outline of their forms and their seductive movements.

The shameless sensuality which prevails in his dramatic poems has impressed all his critics. Hanslick[192] speaks of the ‘bestial sensuality’ in Rheingold, and says of Siegfried: ‘The feverish accents, so much beloved by Wagner, of an insatiable sensuality, blazing to the uttermost limits—this ardent moaning, sighing, crying, and sinking to the ground, move us with repugnance. The text of these love-scenes becomes sometimes, in its exuberance, sheer nonsense.’ Compare in the first act of the Walküre,[193] in the scene between Siegmund and Sieglinde, the following stage directions: ‘Hotly interrupting’; ‘embraces her with fiery passion’; ‘in gentle ecstasy’; ‘she hangs enraptured upon his neck’; ‘close to his eyes’; ‘beside himself’; ‘in the highest intoxication,’ etc. At the conclusion, it is said, ‘The curtain falls quickly,’ and frivolous critics have not failed to perpetrate the cheap witticism, ‘Very necessary, too.’ The amorous whinings, whimperings and ravings of Tristan und Isolde, the entire second act of Parsifal, in the scene between the hero and the flower-girls, and then between him and Kundry in Klingsor’s magic garden, are worthy to rank with the above passages. It certainly redounds to the high honour of German public morality, that Wagner’s operas could have been publicly performed without arousing the greatest scandal. How unperverted must wives and maidens be when they are in a state of mind to witness these pieces without blushing crimson, and sinking into the earth for shame! How innocent must even husbands and fathers be who allow their womankind to go to these representations of ‘lupanar’ incidents! Evidently the German audiences entertain no misgivings concerning the actions and attitudes of Wagnerian personages; they seem to have no suspicion of the emotions by which they are excited, and what intentions their words, gestures and acts denote; and this explains the peaceful artlessness with which these audiences follow theatrical scenes during which, among a less childlike public, no one would dare lift his eyes to his neighbour or endure his glance.

With Wagner amorous excitement assumes the form of mad delirium. The lovers in his pieces behave like tom-cats gone mad, rolling in contortions and convulsions over a root of valerian. They reflect a state of mind in the poet which is well known to the professional expert. It is a form of Sadism. It is the love of those degenerates who, in sexual transport, become like wild[182] beasts.[194] Wagner suffered from ‘erotic madness,’ which leads coarse natures to murder for lust, and inspires ‘higher degenerates’ with works like Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Tristan und Isolde.

Wagner’s graphomania is shown not only by the substance, but also by the outward form of his writings. The reader will have been able to remark in the quotations given what a misuse Wagner makes of italics. He often has whole half-pages printed in spaced letters. Lombroso expressly establishes this phenomenon among graphomaniacs.[195] It is sufficiently explained by the peculiarity of mystical thought, so often set forth in this work. No linguistic form which the mystically degenerate subject can give to his thought-phantoms satisfies him; he is always conscious that the phrases he is writing do not express the mazy processes of his brain; and as he is forced to abandon the attempt to embody these in words, he seeks, by means of notes of exclamation, dashes, dots, and blanks, to impart to his writings more of mystery than the words themselves can express.

The irresistible propensity to play on words—another peculiarity of graphomaniacs and imbeciles—is developed to a high degree in Wagner. I will here give only a few examples from the Art-work of the Future—p. 56: ‘Thus it [the science of music] acquires through sound, which has become speech ... its most exalted satisfaction, and at the same time its most satisfying exaltation,’ p. 91: ‘Like a second Prometheus, who from Thon (clay) formed men, Beethoven had striven to form them from Ton (music). Not from clay or music (Thon or Ton), but from both of these substances, should man, the image of Zeus, the dispenser of life, be created.’ Special attention may, however, be called to the following astounding passage (p. 103): ‘If fashion or custom permitted us again to adopt, in speech and writing, the genuine and true use of[183] Tichten for Dichten (to compose poetry), we should thus obtain, in the united names of the three primitive human arts, Tanz-, Ton-, and Tichtkunst (dancing, music, and poetry), a beautifully significant, sensuous image of the essence of this trinity of sisters, viz., a perfect alliteration.... This alliteration would, moreover, be peculiarly characteristic, on account of the position held in it by Tichtkunst (poetry), for only as its last member would Tichtkunst transform the alliteration into rhyme,’ etc.

We now come to the mysticism of Wagner, which permeates all his works, and has become one of the chief causes of his influence over his contemporaries—at least, outside Germany. Although he is irreligious through and through, and frequently attacks positive religions, their doctrines and their priests, there have, nevertheless, remained active in him from childhood (passed in an atmosphere of Christian Protestant views and religious practices) ideas and sentiments which he subsequently transformed so strangely in his degenerate mind. This phenomenon, viz., the persistence, in the midst of later doubts and denials, of early-acquired Christian views, operating as an ever-active leaven, singularly altering the whole mind, and at the same time themselves suffering manifold decomposition and deformation—may be frequently observed in confused brains. We shall meet it, for example, in Ibsen. At the foundation of all Wagner’s poems and theoretical writings there is to be found a more or less potent sediment of the Catechism, distorted as to its doctrines; and in his most luxuriant pictures, between the thick, crude colours, we get glimpses of strange and hardly recognisable touches, betraying the fact that the scenes are brutally daubed on the pale background of Gospel reminiscences.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:56 am

Part 2 of 3

One idea, or, more accurately, one word, has remained especially deeply fixed in his mind, and pursued him throughout his whole life as a real obsession, viz., the word ‘redemption.’ True, it has not with him the value it possesses in the language of theology. To the theologian ‘redemption,’ this central idea of the whole Christian doctrine, signifies the sublime act of superhuman love, which freely takes upon itself the greatest suffering, and gladly bears it, that it may free from the power of evil those whose strength is insufficient for such a task. So understood, redemption presupposes three things. Firstly, we must assume a dualism in nature, most distinctly developed in the Zend religion; the existence of a first principle of good and one of evil, between which mankind is placed, and becomes the cause of their strife. Secondly, the one who is to be redeemed must be free from all conscious and wilful fault; he must be the victim of superior forces which he is himself incapable of warding off. Thirdly in order that the redeemer’s act may be a true act of[184] salvation and acquire power to deliver, he must, in the fulfilment of a clearly recognised and purposed mission, offer himself in sacrifice. It is true that a tendency has often asserted itself to think of redemption as an act of grace, in which not only the victims, but also sinners, may participate; but the Church has always recognised the immorality of such a conception, and has expressly taught that, in order to receive redemption, the guilty must himself strive for it, through repentance and penance, and not passively await it as a completely unmerited gift.

This theological redemption is not redemption in Wagner’s sense. With him it has never any clearly recognisable import, and serves only to denote something beautiful and grand, which he does not more closely specify. At the outset the word has evidently made a deep impression on his imagination, and he subsequently uses it like a minor chord, let us say a, c, e, which is likewise without definite significance, but, nevertheless, awakens emotion and peoples consciousness with floating presentations. With Wagner someone is constantly being ‘redeemed.’ If (in the Art-work of the Future) the art of painting ceases to paint pictures, and produces thenceforth only decorations for the theatre, this is its ‘redemption.’ In the same way the music accompanying a poem is a ‘redeemed’ music. Man is ‘redeemed’ when he loves a woman, and the people is ‘redeemed’ when it plays at the drama. His compositions also turn upon ‘redemption.’ Nietzsche[196] has already remarked this, and makes merry over it, if with repulsively superficial witticisms. ‘Wagner,’ he says, ‘has meditated on nothing so much as on redemption’ (a wholly false assertion, since Wagner’s redemption-twaddle is certainly no result of meditation, but only a mystical echo of childish emotions); ‘his opera is the opera of redemption. With him someone is always wanting to be redeemed—now a male, now a female.... Who, if not Wagner, teaches us that innocence has a predilection for redeeming interesting sinners (the case of Tannhäuser)? Or that even the Wandering Jew will be redeemed and become sedentary when he marries (the case of The Flying Dutchman)? Or that depraved old wantons prefer to be redeemed by chaste youths (the case of Kundry)? Or that beauteous maidens like best to be redeemed by a knight who is a Wagnerian (the case in Meistersinger)? Or that even married women like to be redeemed by a knight (the case of Isolde)? Or that the ancient god, after having morally compromised himself in every respect, is redeemed by a free-thinker and an immoral character (the case in the Niebelungen)? How particularly admirable is this last profundity! Do you understand it? As for me, defend me from understanding it.’

The work of Wagner which may be truly termed ‘the opera[185] of redemption’ is Parsifal. Here we may catch Wagner’s mind in its most nonsensical vagaries. In Parsifal two persons are redeemed: King Amfortas and Kundry. The King has allowed himself to become infatuated with the charms of Kundry, and has sinned in her arms. As a punishment, the magic spear which had been entrusted to him has been taken from him, and be wounded by this sacred weapon. The wound gapes and bleeds unceasingly, and causes him dreadful suffering. Nothing can heal it but the spear itself which gave it. But ‘the pure fool who through compassion knows’ can alone wrest the spear from the wicked magician, Klingsor. Kundry, when a young maiden, had seen the Saviour on the path of his Passion, and had laughed at him. As a penalty for her act she is doomed to live for ever, longing in vain for death, and seducing to sin all men who approach her. Only if a man is able to resist her allurements can she be redeemed from her curse. (One man has, in fact, resisted her, the magician Klingsor. Yet this victorious resistance has not redeemed her as it ought. Why? Wagner does not reveal this by a single syllable.) It is Parsifal who brings redemption to the two accursed ones. The ‘pure fool’ has no inkling that he is predestined to redeem Amfortas and Kundry, and he neither undergoes any suffering nor exposes himself to any serious danger in accomplishing the act of salvation. It is true that, in forcing his way into the enchanted garden, he is obliged to have a small bout with its knights, but this skirmish is far more a pleasure than an effort for him, for he is far stronger than his adversaries, and, after some playful passes, puts them to flight, bleeding and beaten. He certainly resists the beauty of Kundry, and this is meritorious, yet it hardly constitutes an act of deadly self-sacrifice. He obtains the magic spear without any effort. Klingsor hurls it at him to slay him, but the weapon ‘remains floating above his head,’ and Parsifal has only to stretch out his hand to take it at his convenience, and then to fulfil his mission.

Every individual feature of this mystical piece is in direct contrast to the Christian idea of redemption, which has nevertheless inspired it. Amfortas is in need of redemption through his own weakness and guilt, not on account of an invincible fate, and he is redeemed without any assistance on his part beyond whining and moaning. The salvation he is awaiting and ultimately obtains has its source completely outside his will and consciousness. He has no part in its attainment. Another effects it for him, and bestows it on him as a gift. The redemption is a purely external affair, a lucky windfall, and not the reward of an inward moral struggle. Still more monstrous are the conditions of Kundry’s redemption. Not only is she not allowed to labour for her own salvation, but she is compelled to employ[186] all her strength to prevent it; for her redemption depends on her being despised by a man, and the task to which she has been condemned is to turn to account all the seductive power of beauty and passionate solicitation to win over the man. She must by all possible means thwart the man by whom her redemption is to come, from becoming her redeemer. If the man yields to her charms, then the redemption is frustrated, not through her fault, though by her action; if the man resists the temptation, she obtains redemption without deserving it, because in spite of her opposing effort. It is impossible to concoct a situation more absurd and at the same time more immoral. Parsifal the redeemer is, in fine, from beginning to end, a mystic re-incarnation of ‘Hans in Luck’ in the German fairy-tale. He succeeds in everything without personal effort. He sets out to kill a swan, and finds the Grail and the royal crown. His redeemership is no self-sacrifice, but a benefice. The favour of Heaven has called him to an enviable, honourable office—on what powerful recommendation Wagner does not disclose. But a closer examination reveals worse things. Parsifal, the ‘pure fool,’ is simply a precipitate of confused reminiscences of Christology. Powerfully struck by the poetical elements of the Saviour’s life and sufferings, Wagner has been impelled to externalize his impressions and emotions, and has created Parsifal, whom he causes to experience some of the most affecting scenes of the Gospel, and who in his hands becomes (partly, perhaps, without his being aware of it) at once a foolish and frivolous caricature of Jesus Christ. In the mystical work, the temptation of the Saviour in the desert is transformed into the temptation of Parsifal by Kundry. The scene in the Pharisee’s house, where the Magdalene anoints the Saviour’s feet, is reproduced exactly: Kundry bathes and anoints Parsifal’s feet, and dries them with her unbound hair; and the ‘pure fool’ plagiarizes the words of Christ, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee,’ in this exclamation: ‘Thus I accomplish my first office; be baptized and believe on the Redeemer.’ That the ordinary theatre-goer is not shocked by this misused application of the Christ legend—nay, that in the distorted fragments of the Gospel he is able to revive some of the emotions it perhaps at one time excited in him—is conceivable. But it is incomprehensible that earnest believers, and especially zealous fanatics, have never perceived what a profanation of their most sacred ideas is perpetrated by Wagner, when he endows his Parsifal with traits of the Christ Himself.

We may mention only one of the other absurd details of the Parsifal. The aged Titurel has succumbed to the earthly penalty of death, but through the Saviour’s mercy continues to live in the grave. The sight of the Grail continually renews for a time his waning vital strength. Titurel seems to attach a great value to[187] this comfortless life-in-death existence. ‘By the mercy of the Saviour I live in the tomb,’ he joyously cries from his coffin, demanding with impetuous vehemence that the Grail be shown him, in order that his life may thereby be prolonged. ‘Am I to-day to see once more the Grail and live?’ he asks in anguish, and because he receives no immediate answer thus laments, ‘Must I die unaccompanied by the Deliverer?’ His son, Amfortas, hesitates, whereupon the old man gives his orders: ‘Unveil the Grail! The benediction!’ And when his wishes are complied with, he exults: ‘Oh, sacred bliss! How bright the Lord doth greet us to-day!’ Subsequently Amfortas has for some time neglected the unveiling of the Grail, and hence Titurel has had to die. Amfortas is in despair. ‘My father! highly blessed of heroes!... I, who alone was fain to die, to thee have I given death!’ From all this it undoubtedly results that all the persons concerned see in life, even if it be the shadowy and empty life of a being already laid in his coffin, an exceedingly precious possession, and in death a bitter misfortune. And this takes place in the same piece in which Kundry endures eternal life as a frightful curse, and passionately longs for death as a most delicious salvation! Is a more ridiculous contradiction conceivable? Moreover, the Titurel episode is a denial of all the premises of Parsifal, constructed as it is on the foundation of the religious idea of personal persistence after death. How can death frighten the man who is convinced that the bliss of paradise awaits him? We are here in the presence of the same non-comprehension of his own assumptions which has already struck us in Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Tolstoi. But this is precisely the peculiarity of morbidly mystic thought. It unites mutually exclusive ideas; it shuns the law of consistency, and imperturbably combines details which are dumbfounded at finding themselves in company. We do not observe this phenomenon in one who is a mystic through ignorance, mental indolence, or imitation. He may take an absurd idea as a point of departure for a train of thought; but the latter unrolls itself rationally and consistently, and suffers no gross contradiction among its particular members.

As Christology inspired Wagner with the figures of Parsifal, so did the Eucharist inspire him with the most effective scene of the piece—the love-feast of the Grail. It is the mise-en-scène of the Catholic Mass, with the heretical addition of one Protestant feature—the partaking by the communicants of the elements in both kinds. The unveiling of the Grail corresponds to the elevation of the Host. The acolytes take the form of the choir of boys and youths. In the antiphonal songs and the actions of Amfortas, we find approximations to all four parts of the Mass. The knights of the Grail intone a sort of stunted[188] introit, the long plaint of Amfortas: ‘No! Let it not be unveiled! Oh, may no one, no one, fathom the depths of this torment!’ etc., may be regarded as a Confiteor. The boys sing the offertory (‘Take ye my blood for the sake of our love!’ etc.). Amfortas proceeds to the consecration; all partake in the Communion, and there is even a parodied reminiscence of the ‘Ite, missa est’ in Gurnemanz’s exclamation, ‘Go out hence upon thy way!’ Since Constantine the Great, since the elevation of Christianity to the rank of a State religion, no poet has dared do what Wagner has done; he has drawn theatrical effects from the incomparable rich emotional content of the function of the Mass. He felt profoundly the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper; it provoked in him a powerful mystical excitement, and the need arose in him of endowing the symbolical event with a dramatic form, and of sensuously experiencing in all its details and in its entirety that which in the sacrifice of the Mass is only indicated, condensed, and spiritualized. He wished to see and feel in his own person how the elect enjoy, amid violent emotions, the body of Christ and His redeeming blood; and how super-terrestrial phenomena, the purple gleaming of the Grail and the downward hovering dove (in the final scene), etc., make palpable the real presence of Christ and the divine nature of the Eucharist. Just as Wagner has borrowed from the Church his inspiration for the scenes in the Grail, and then for his own purposes has popularized the liturgy in the style of the Biblia Pauperum, so does the audience find again the cathedral and high mass on his stage, and import into the piece all the emotions left in their soul by Church ceremonies. The real priest in his sacerdotal robes, the remembrance of his gestures, of the hand-bell and the genuflexions of the servers, the blue reek and perfume of the incense, the pealing of the organ and the play of chequered sunlight through the stained windows of the church—these are, in the heart of the public, Wagner’s collaborators; and it is not his art which lulls them into mystic ecstasy, but the fundamental mood inculcated in the vast majority of white races by two centuries of Christian sentiment.

Mysticism is, as we know, always accompanied by eroticism, especially in the degenerate, whose emotionalism has its chief source in morbidly excited states of the sexual centres. Wagner’s imagination is perpetually occupied with woman. But he never sees her relation to man in the form of healthy and natural love, which is a benefit and satisfaction for both lovers. As with all morbid erotics (we have already remarked this in Verlaine and Tolstoi), woman presents herself to him as a terrible force of nature, of which man is the trembling, helpless victim. The woman that he knows is the[189] gruesome Astarté of the Semites, the frightful man-eating Kali Bhagawati of the Hindoos, an apocalyptic vision of smiling bloodthirstiness, of eternal perdition and infernal torment, in demoniacally beautiful embodiment. No poetical problem has so profoundly moved him as the relation between man and this his ensnaring destroyer. He has approached this problem from all sides, and has given it different solutions corresponding to his instincts and views of morality. The man frequently succumbs to the temptress, but Wagner revolts against this weakness, of which he is himself only too conscious, and in his chief works makes the man offer a desperate, but finally victorious, resistance. Not, however, by his own strength does man tear himself from the paralyzing charm of woman. He must receive supernatural aid. This proceeds most frequently from a pure and unselfish virgin, who forms the antithesis to the sphinx with soft woman’s body and lion’s paws. In conformity with the psychological law of contrast, Wagner invents as a counterpart to the terrible woman of his inmost perception an angelic woman, who is all love, all devotion, all celestial mildness; a woman who asks for nothing and gives all; a woman soothing, caressing and healing; in a word, a woman for whom an unhappy creature pants as he writhes, consumed by flames, in the white-hot flames of Belit. Wagner’s Elizabeth, Elsa, Senta, and Gertrude are extremely instructive manifestations of erotic mysticism, in which the half-unconscious idea is struggling for form, viz., that the safety of the sexually crazy degenerate lies in purity, continence, or in the possession of a wife having no sort of individuality, no desire and no rights, and hence incapable of ever proving dangerous to the man.

In one of his first compositions, as in his last, in Tannhäuser as in Parsifal, he treats of the combat between man and his corruptress, the fly versus the spider, and in this way testifies that for thirty-three years, from youth to old age, the subject has never been absent from his mind. In Tannhäuser it is the beautiful devil Venus herself who ensnares the hero, and with whom he has to wage a desperate conflict for the salvation of his soul. The pious and chaste Elizabeth, this dream-being, woven of moonlight, prayer, and song, becomes his ‘redeemer.’ In Parsifal the beautiful devil is named Kundry, and the hero escapes the danger with which she threatens his soul only because he is ‘the pure fool,’ and is in a state of grace.

In the Walküre Wagner’s imagination surrenders itself to unbridled passion. He here represents the ardent man wildly and madly abandoning himself to his appetite, without regard to the dictates of society, and without attempting to resist the furious impetuosity of his instinct. Siegmund sees Sieglinde, and thenceforth has but one idea—to possess her. That she is[190] another’s wife—nay, that he recognises her as his own sister—does not check him for a moment. Those considerations are as feathers before the storm. He pays for his night of pleasure by his death the following morning. For with Wagner love is always a fatality, and ever round its pillow blaze the flames of hell. And as he has not made manifest in Sieglinde the images of carnage and annihilation evoked in him by his idea of woman, he personifies these separately in the Walküre. Their appearance in the drama is for him a psychological need. The traits inseparable in his mind from his conception of woman, and ordinarily united by him in a single figure, are here separated and raised to the dignity of independent types. Venus, Kundry, are seducer and destroyer in one person. In the Walküre Sieglinde is only the seducer, but the destroyer grows into a horde of gruesome Amazons, who drink the blood of battling men, revel in the spectacle of murderous blows, and rush with wild, exulting cries across the corpse-strewn waste.

Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Tristan und Isolde are exact repetitions of the essential content of the Walküre. It is always the dramatic embodiment of the same obsession of the terrors of love. Siegfried sees Brunhilde in the midst of her fire-circle, and both instantly fall into each other’s arms in a rage of love; but Siegfried must expiate his happiness with his life, and falls under the steel of Hagen. The mere death of Siegfried does not suffice for Wagner’s imagination as the inevitable consequence of love; destiny must show itself more terribly. The castle of Asgard itself breaks out in flames, and the slave of love in dying drags to his own perdition all the gods of heaven along with him. Tristan und Isolde is the echo of this tragedy of passion. Here also is the complete annihilation of the sentiment of duty and self-conquest, by the springing up of love both in Tristan and Isolde; and here also is death as the natural end towards which love is hurried. To express his fundamental mystic thought, that love is an awful fatality wherewith the unapproachable powers of destiny visit the poor mortal incapable of resistance, he has resort to a childishly clumsy device; he introduces into his compositions love-philtres of potent spell, now to explain the birth of the passion itself, and to indicate its superhuman nature, as in Tristan und Isolde; now to withdraw all the moral life of the hero from the control of his will, and show him as the plaything of super-terrestrial forces, as in the Götterdämmerung.

Thus Wagner’s poems give us a deep insight into the world of ideas of an erotically emotional degenerate nature. They reveal the alternating mental conditions of a most reckless sensuality, of a revolt of moral sentiment against the tyranny of appetite, of the ruin of the higher man and his despairing repentance. As has[191] already been said, Wagner is an admirer of Schopenhauer and his philosophy. Like his master, he persuaded himself that life is a misfortune, and non-existence salvation and happiness. Love, as the constantly active incitement to the maintenance of the species and continuance of life, with all its accompanying sufferings, was bound to seem to him the source of all evil; and, on the other hand, the highest wisdom and morality, to consist in the victorious resistance of this incitement, in chastity, sterility, the negation of the will to perpetuate the species. And while his judgment bound him to these views, his instincts attracted him irresistibly to woman, and forced him during his whole life to do all that flouted his convictions and condemned his doctrine. This discord between his philosophy and his organic inclinations is the inner tragedy of his mental life, and his poems form a unique whole, recounting the process of the internal conflict. He sees a woman, at once loses himself, and is absorbed in her charms (Siegmund and Sieglinde, Siegfried and Brunhilde, Tristan and Isolde). This is a great sin, demanding expiation; death alone is an adequate punishment (final scenes in the Walküre, Götterdämmerung, Tristan und Isolde). But the sinner has a timid and feeble excuse: ‘I could not resist. I was the victim of superhuman powers. My seducer was of the race of the gods’ (Sieglinde, Brunhilde). ‘Magic philtres deprived me of my reason’ (Tristan, Siegfried in his relations with Gutrune). How glorious to be strong enough to vanquish the devouring monster of appetite within! How radiant and exalted the figure of a man able to plant his foot on the neck of the demon woman! (Tannhäuser and Parsifal). And, on the other hand, how beautiful and adorable the woman who should not set ablaze the hell-fire of passion in man, but aid him in quenching it; who should not exact of him a revolt against reason, duty, and honour, but be an example to him of renunciation and self-discipline; who, instead of enslaving him, should, as his loving handmaid, divest herself of her own nature, to blend herself with his; in a word, a woman who would leave him safe in his defencelessness, because she herself would be unarmed! (Elizabeth, Elsa, Senta, Gutrune). The creation of these forms of woman is a sort of De Profundis of the timid voluptuary, who feels the sting of the flesh, and implores aid to protect him from himself.

Like all the degenerates, Wagner is wholly sterile as a poet, although he has written a long series of dramatic works. The creative force capable of reproducing the spectacle of universal normal life is denied him. He has recourse to his own mystico-erotic emotions for the emotional content of his pieces, and the external incidents forming their skeleton are purely the fruits of reading, the reminiscences of books which have made an impression[192] on him. This is the great difference between the healthy and the degenerate poet who receives his sentiments at second-hand. The former is able to ‘plunge into full human life,’ as Goethe says; to seize it, and either make it enter all breathing and palpitating into a poem which itself thus becomes a part of natural life, or else remould it with idealizing art, suppressing its accidental, accessory features, so as to make prominent the essential; and in this way convincingly to reveal law behind enigmatically bewildering phenomena. The degenerate subject, on the contrary, can do nothing with life; he is blind and deaf to it. He is a stranger in the midst of healthy men. He lacks the organs necessary for the comprehension of life—nay, even for its perception. To work from a model does not lie within his powers. He can only copy existing sketches, and then colour them subjectively with his own emotions. He can see life only when it lies before him on paper in black and white. While the healthy poet resembles the chlorophyllic plant, which dives into the soil, and, by the honest labour of its own roots, procures for itself the nutritive materials out of which it constructs its blossoms and fruit, the degenerate poet has the nature of a parasitic plant, which can only live on a host, and receives its nutriment exclusively from the juices already elaborated by the latter. There are modest parasites and proud parasites. Their range extends from the insignificant lichen to the wondrous rafflesia, the flower of which, a yard in breadth, illumines the sombre forests of Sumatra with the wild magnificence of its blood-red colour. Wagner’s poems have in them something of the carrion stench and uncanny beauty of this plant of rapine and corruption. With the single exception of the Meistersinger, they are grafted on the Icelandic sagas, the epics of Gottfried of Strassburg, Wolfram of Eschenbach, and the singer of the Wartburg war in the Manessian manuscript, as on so many trunks of half-dead trees, and they draw their strength from these. Tannhäuser, the Niebelungen Tetralogy, Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, and Lohengrin, are constructed entirely from materials supplied him by ancient literature. Rienzi he derives from written history, and the Fliegender Holländer from the tradition already utilized a hundred times. Among popular legends, that of the Wandering Jew has made the deepest impression on his mind, on account of its mysticism. He has elaborated it once in the Fliegender Holländer; a second time transposed it feature for feature into a feminine form in the person of Kundry, not without weaving into this inversion some reminiscences of the legend of Herodias. All this is patchwork and dilettantism. Wagner deceives himself (probably unconsciously) as to his incapacity for creating human beings, representing, not men, but gods and demi-gods, demons and spectres, whose deeds are not to be explained by human[193] motives, but by mysterious destinies, curses and prophecies, fatal and magic forces. That which passes before our eyes in Wagner’s pieces is not life, but spectres, witches’ sabbaths, or dreams. He is a dealer in old clothes, who has bought at second-hand the cast-off garments of fairy-tales, and makes of them (often not without clever tailoring) new costumes, in which we may recognise, strangely jumbled and joined, rags of ancient gala stuffs and fragments of damascened suits of armour. But these masquerading suits do not serve for clothes to a single being of flesh and blood. Their apparent movements are produced exclusively by the hand of Wagner, who has slipped into the empty doublets and sleeves, and behind the flowing trains and dangling robes, and kicks about in them with epileptic convulsions, that he may awaken in the spectator the impression of a ghostly animation in this obsolete wardrobe.

Healthy geniuses have also, no doubt, allied themselves with popular tradition or history, like Goethe in Faust and Tasso. But what a difference between the respective treatment by a healthy poet and a degenerate one of that which they find, of that which is given! To the former it is a vessel which he fills with genuine, fresh life, so that the new contents become the essential part; to the latter, on the contrary, the outside is and remains the chief thing, and his own activity consists at best in choking the receptacle with the chaff of nonsensical phrases. The great poets, too, lay claim to the cuckoo’s privilege of laying their egg in a strange nest. But the bird which issues from the egg is so much larger, handsomer and stronger than the original denizens, that the latter are mercilessly driven from their home and the former remains the sole possessor. When the great poet puts his new wine into old bottles, he doubtless shows a little indolence, a little poverty of invention and a not very high-minded reckoning on the reader’s pre-existing emotions. But he cannot be held too rigorously accountable for this small amount of stinginess, because, after all, he gives us so much that is his own. Imagine Faust deprived of all the portions drawn from old popular books; there would still remain nearly everything; there would remain all of the man who thirsts for knowledge and seeks for it; all the struggle between his baser instincts craving for satisfaction, and the higher morality rejoicing in renunciation; in brief, just that which makes the work one of the loftiest poems of humanity. If, on the other hand, Wagner’s old ancestral marionettes are stripped of their armour and brocades, there remains nothing, or, at best, only air and a musty smell. Assimilating minds have hundreds of times felt tempted to modernize Faust. The undertaking is so sure of success that it is superfluous; Faust in dress-coat would be no other than the unaltered embodiment of Goethe’s own[194] Faust. But imagine Lohengrin, Siegmund, Tristan, Parsifal, as contemporaries! They would not even serve for burlesque, in spite of the Tannhäuser lampoon by the old Viennese poet Nestroy.

Wagner swaggered about the art-work of the future, and his partisans hailed him as the artist of the future. He the artist of the future! He is a bleating echo of the far-away past. His path leads back to deserts long since abandoned by all life. Wagner is the last mushroom on the dunghill of romanticism. This ‘modern’ is the degraded heir of a Tieck, of a La Motte-Fouqué—nay more, sad to say, of a Johann Friedrich Kind. The home of his intellect is the Dresden evening paper. He derives his subsistence from the legacy of mediæval poems, and dies of starvation when the remittance from the thirteenth century fails to arrive.

The subject alone of the Wagnerian poems can raise a claim to serious consideration. As for their form, it is beneath criticism. The absurdity of his style, his shallowness, the awkwardness of his versification, his complete inability to clothe his feelings and thoughts in anything like adequate language—these have been so often pointed out and exposed in detail that I may spare myself the trouble of dwelling on these points. But one faculty among the essential constituents of dramatic endowment cannot be denied him—that of picturesque imagination. It is developed in him to the point of genius. Wagner as a dramatist is really a historical painter of the highest rank. Nietzsche (in his skit, Der Fall Wagner[197]) perhaps means the same when, without stopping at this important assertion, he calls Wagner, not only ‘magnetizer’ and ‘collector of gew-gaws,’ but also a ‘fresco-painter.’ This he is in a degree never yet attained by any other dramatic author in the whole world of literature. Every action embodies itself for him in a series of most imposing pictures, which, when they are composed as Wagner has seen them with his inner eye, must overwhelm and enrapture the beholder. The reception of the guests in the hall of the Wartburg; the arrival and departure of Lohengrin in the boat drawn by the swan; the gambols of the Rhine maidens in the river; the defiling of the gods over the rainbow-bridge towards the castle of Asgard; the bursting of the moonlight into Hunding’s hut; the ride of the Walküre over the battlefield; Brunhilde in the circle of fire; the final scene in Götterdämmerung, where Brunhilde flings herself on to her horse and leaps into the midst of the funeral-pyre, while Hagen throws himself into the surging Rhine, and the heavens are aflame with the glow from the burning palace of the gods; the love-feast of the knights in the castle of the Grail; the obsequies of Titurel and the healing of Amfortas—these are pictures to[195] which nothing hitherto in art approaches. It is on account of this gift for inventing incomparably imposing spectacles that Nietzsche has termed Wagner a ‘comedian.’ The word signifies nothing, and, in so far as it may contain a tinge of contempt, is unjust. Wagner is no comedian, but a born painter. If he had been a healthy genius, endowed with intellectual equilibrium, that is what he would undoubtedly have become. His inner vision would have forced the brush into his hand, and constrained him to realize it on canvas, by means of colour. Leonardo da Vinci had the same gift. It made him the greatest painter the world had yet known, and at the same time the unsurpassed deviser and organizer of fêtes, pageants, triumphs, and allegorical plays, which, perhaps more than his genius as a painter, won for him the admiration of his princely patrons Ludovico Moro, Isabella of Aragon, Cæsar Borgia, Charles VIII., Louis XII., Francis I. But Wagner, as is the case with all the degenerate, did not see clearly into his own nature. He did not understand his natural impulses. Perhaps also, with the feeling of his own deep organic feebleness, he dreaded the heavy labour of drawing and painting, and, conformably with the law of least effort, his instinct sought vent in the theatre, where his inner visions were embodied by others—the decorative painters, machinists, and actors—without requiring him to exert himself. His pictures have unquestionably a large share in the effect produced by his pieces. They are admired without an inquiry into how far their introduction is warranted by the rational course of the drama. However nonsensical as part of an action, they justify their appearance, from an artistic standpoint, by their intrinsic beauty, which makes of them independent æsthetical phenomena. Through their enormous aggrandizement by the media of the stage, their pictorial allurements are perceptible even to the eye of the most crass Philistine, whose sense were otherwise dead to them.

Of Wagner the musician, more important to all appearance than Wagner the author, dramatic poet and fresco-painter, I treat lastly, because this task will give us a clear proof of his degeneration, although this is very much more evident in his writings than in his music, where certain stigmata of degeneration are not so prominent, and where others appear as its unmistakable advantages. The incoherence in words, noticeable at once to an attentive person, does not exhibit itself in music unless it is excessively strongly marked; the absurdity, the contradictions, the twaddle, are hardly apparent in the language of tones, because it is not the function of music to express an exact meaning, and emotionalism is not in it an indication of disease, since emotion is music’s proper essence.

We know, moreover, that high musical talent is compatible[196] with a very advanced state of degeneration—nay, even with pronounced delusion, illusion, and idiocy. Sollier[198] says: ‘We have to deal with certain aptitudes very often manifested with great intensity by idiots and imbeciles.... That for music especially is often met with.... Although this may seem disagreeable to musicians, it nevertheless proves that music is the least intellectual of all the arts.’ Lombroso[199] remarks: ‘It has been observed that the aptitude for music has been displayed almost involuntarily and unexpectedly among many sufferers from hypochondria and mania, and even among the really insane.’ He cites, with other cases, a mathematician attacked with melancholia, who improvised on the piano; a woman seized with megalomania, who ‘sang very beautiful airs, at the same time improvising two different themes on the piano’; a patient ‘who composed very beautiful new and melodious tunes,’ etc.; and he adds in explanation that those who are afflicted with megalomania and general paralysis surpass other mental invalids in musical talent, ‘and from the very same cause as that of their unusual aptitude for painting, viz., their violent mental excitation.’
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:57 am

Part 3 of 3

Wagner the musician encounters his most powerful attacks from musicians themselves. He himself bears witness to it:[200] ‘Both my friends (Ferd. Hiller and Schumann) believed that they very soon discovered me to be a musician of no remarkable endowment. My success also has seemed to them to be due to the libretti written by myself.’ In other language, the same old story—musicians regarded him as a poet, and poets as a musician. It is of course convenient to explain a posteriori the decisive judgments of men who were at once prominent professionals and sincere friends of Wagner by saying (after he had attained success) that his tendency was too novel to be immediately appreciated, or even understood, by them. This solution, however, hardly applies to Schumann, as he was a friend to all innovations, and audacities, even differing from his own, rather attracted than shocked him. Rubinstein[201] still makes important reservations in regard to Wagner’s music; and among serious contemporary musical critics who have witnessed the birth, development and triumph of the Wagner cult, Hanslick remained a long time recalcitrant, until at last, though not very valiantly, he struck his colours in face of the overpowering fanaticism of hysterical Wagnerphiles. What Nietzsche (in his Der Fall Wagner) says against Wagner as a musician is unimportant, since the brochure of abjuration is quite as insanely delirious as[197] the brochure of deification (Wagner in Bayreuth) written twelve years before.

In spite of the unfavourable judgments of many of his professional brethren, Wagner is incontestably an eminently gifted musician. This coolly-expressed recognition will certainly seem grotesque to Wagnerian fanatics, who place him above Beethoven. But a serious inquirer into truth need not trouble himself about the impressions provoked by Wagner among these persons. In the first period of his productivity Wagner much oftener achieved compositions of beauty than subsequently, and among these many may be termed pearls of musical literature, and will for a long time enjoy even the esteem of serious and rational people. But Wagner the musician had to confront a lifelong enemy, who forcibly prevented the full unfolding of his gifts, and this enemy was Wagner the musical theorist.

In his graphomaniacal muddle he concocted certain theories, which represent so many fits of æsthetic delirium. The most important of these are the dogmas of the leit-motif and of the unending melody. Everyone now undoubtedly knows what Wagner understood by the former. The expression has passed into all civilized languages. The leit-motif, in which the threshed-out discarded ‘programme music’ was bound logically to culminate, is a sequence of tones supposed to express a definite conception, and appears in the orchestration whenever the composer intends to recall to the auditor the corresponding conception. By the leit-motif Wagner transforms music into dry speech. The orchestration, leaping from leit-motif to leit-motif, no longer embodies general emotions, but claims to appeal to memory and to reason, and communicate sharply defined presentations. Wagner combines a few notes into a musical figure, as a rule not even distinct or original, and makes this arrangement with the auditor:—‘This figure signifies a combat, that a dragon, a third a sword,’ etc. If the auditor does not agree to the stipulation, the leit-motifs lose all significance, for they possess in themselves nothing which compels us to grasp the meaning arbitrarily lent them; and they cannot have anything of this kind in them, because the imitative powers of music are by its nature limited to purely acoustical phenomena, or at most to those optical phenomena ordinarily accompanied by acoustical phenomena. By imitating thunder, music can express the notion of a thunderstorm; by the imitation of the tones of a bugle, it can call up that of an army in such a way that the listener can hardly have a doubt as to the significance of the corresponding sequences of tones. On the other hand, it is absolutely denied to music, with the means at its disposal, to produce an unequivocal embodiment of the visible and tangible world, let alone that of abstract thought. Hence the[198] leit-motifs are at best cold symbols, resembling written characters, which in themselves say nothing, and convey to the initiated and the learned alone the given import of a presentation.

Here again is found the phenomenon already repeatedly indicated by us as a mark of the mode of thought among the degenerate—the unconscious moon-struck somnambulous way in which they transgress the most firmly-established limits of the particular artistic domain, annul the differentiation of the arts arrived at by long historical evolution, and lead them back to the period of the lacustrines, nay, of the most primitive troglodytes. We have seen that the pre-Raphaelites reduce the picture to a writing which is no longer to produce its effect by its pictorial qualities, but must express an abstract idea; and that the Symbolists make of the word, that conventional vehicle of a conception, a musical harmony, by whose aid they endeavour to awaken not an idea, but a phonetic effect. In precisely the same way Wagner wishes to divest music of its proper essence, and to transform it from a vehicle of emotion into a vehicle of rational thought. The disguise produced by this interchange of costumes is in this way complete. Painters proclaim themselves writers; poets behave like the composers of symphonies; the musician plays the poet. Pre-Raphaelites wishing to record a religious apothegm do not make use of writing, which leaves nothing to be desired in the way of convenience, and by which they would be distinctly understood, but plunge into the labour of a highly-detailed painting, costing them much time, and which, in spite of its wealth of figures, is far from speaking so clearly to the intelligence as a single line of rational writing. Symbolists desirous of awakening a musical emotion do not compose a melody, but join meaningless, though ostensibly musical words, capable, perhaps, of provoking amusement or vexation, but not the intended emotion. When Wagner wishes to express the idea of ‘giant,’ ‘dwarf,’ ‘tarn-cap which makes the wearer invisible,’ he does not say in words universally understood ‘giant,’ ‘dwarf,’ ‘tarn-cap’ (which makes the wearer invisible), but replaces these excellent words by a series of notes, the sense of which no one will divine without a key. Is anything more needed to expose the complete insanity of this confusion of all the means of expression, this ignorance of what is possible to each art?

It is Wagner’s ambition to imitate those facetious students who teach their dog to say ‘papa.’ He wants to perform the trick of making music say the names ‘Schulze’ and ‘Müller’ (=Smith and Jones). The score should, when necessary, supply the place of the directory. Language does not suffice him. He creates for himself a volapük, and demands that his hearers should learn it. No admission without hard work! Those who[199] have not assimilated the vocabulary of the Wagnerian volapük cannot understand his operas. It is useless to go to the trouble of a journey to Bayreuth if one cannot talk fluently in leit-motifs. And how pitiable after all is the result of this delirious effort! H. von Wolzogen, the writer of the Thematische Leitfaden (Thematic Guide) to the Niebelungen Tetralogy, finds in all these four prodigious works only ninety leit-motifs. A language of ninety words, however inflated they may be, such as ‘motif of the weary Siegmund,’ ‘motif of the mania for vengeance,’ ‘motif of bondage,’ etc.! with such a vocabulary it would be impossible even to exchange ideas about the weather with a native of Tierra del Fuego. A page of Sanders’ lexicon contains more means of expression than Wolzogen’s entire dictionary of the Wagnerian leit-motif language. The history of art knows no more astounding aberration than this leit-motif craze. To express ideas is not the function of music; language provides for that as completely as could be desired. When the word is accompanied by song or orchestra it is not to make it more definite, but to re-enforce it by the intervention of emotion. Music is a kind of sounding-board, in which the word has to awake something like an echo from the infinite. But such an echo of presentiment and mystery does not ring out from leit-motifs coldly pasted together, as if by the labour of a conscientious registrar.

With the ‘unending melody,’ the second of Wagner’s tenets, it is the same as with the leit-motif. It is a product of degenerate thought; it is musical mysticism. It is the form in which incapacity for attention shows itself in music. In painting, attention leads to composition; the absence of it to a uniformly photographic treatment of the whole field of vision as with the pre-Raphaelites. In poetry, attention results in clearness of ideas, consistency of statement, the suppression of the unimportant, and the giving emphasis to the essential; its absence leads to twaddle as with the graphomaniacs, and to a painful prolixity in consequence of the indiscriminate recording of all perceptions as with Tolstoi. Finally, in music attention expresses itself in completed forms, i.e., in well-defined melodies; its absence, on the contrary, by the dissolution of form, the obliteration of its boundary lines, and thus by unending melodies as with Wagner. This parallelism is not an arbitrary play of ideas, but an exact picture of the corresponding mental processes among the different groups of degenerate subjects, producing in the different arts different manifestations according to their specific means and aims.

Let us grasp what melody is. It is the regular grouping of notes in a highly expressive series of tones. Melody in music corresponds to what in language is a logically-constructed[200] sentence, distinctly presenting an idea, and having a clearly-marked beginning and ending. The dreamy rambling of half-formed nebulous thoughts as little allows the mintage of sentences of this kind, as does the fleeting agitation of the vague bewildered emotion lead to the composition of a melody. The emotions, too, have their own grades of distinctness. They, too, can appear as chaotic, or as well-regulated states. In the one case they stand out in the consciousness which grasps their composition and their purpose as discriminable modes strongly illuminated by the attention; in the other case they are a disturbing enigma to consciousness, and perceived by it merely as a generic excitement, as a sort of subterranean trembling and rumbling of unknown origin and tendency. If the emotions are intelligible, they will be fain to manifest themselves in a form at once the most expressive and most easily grasped. If, on the contrary, they are a generic continuous state, without determined cause and discoverable aim, the music presenting them to the senses will be as blurred and as nebulously fluctuating in form as themselves. Melody may be said to be an effort of music to say something definite. It is clear that an emotion unconscious of its cause and its aims, and unilluminated by attention, will not raise its musical expression to the height of melody, precisely because it has nothing definite to say.

A completed melody is a late acquisition of music, obtained by it only after long evolution. In its historic, and still more in its prehistoric, beginnings, the art of music knew it not. Music springs originally from song, and the rhythmic noise (i.e., noise repeated in equal or regular intervals of time) of accompanying stamping, knocking, or clapping of the hands; and song is nothing but speech grown louder and moving in wider intervals through emotional excitement. I should like to cite only one passage from the almost unlimited literature on this hackneyed subject. Herbert Spencer, in his well-known treatise on The Origin and Function of Music,[202] says: ‘All music is originally vocal.... The dance-chants of savage tribes are very monotonous, and in virtue of their monotony are much more nearly allied to ordinary speech than are the songs of civilized races.... The early poems of the Greeks, which, be it remembered, were sacred legends embodied in that rhythmical, metaphorical language which strong feeling excites, were not recited, but chanted; the tones and the cadences were made musical by the same influences which made the speech poetical.... This chanting is believed to have been not what we call singing, but nearly allied to our recitative; far simpler, indeed, if we may judge from the fact that the early Greek lyre, which had but[201] four strings, was played in unison with the voice, which was therefore confined to four notes.... That recitative—beyond which, by the way, the Chinese and Hindoos seem never to have advanced—grew naturally out of the modulations and cadences of strong feeling, we have, indeed, still current evidence. There are even now to be met with occasions on which strong feeling vents itself in this form. Whoever has been present when a meeting of Quakers was addressed by one of their preachers (whose practice it is to speak only under the influence of religious emotion) must have been struck by the quite unusual tones, like those of a subdued chant, in which the address was made.’

Recitative, which is nothing but speech intensified, and allows no recognition of completed forms of melody, is therefore the most ancient form of music; it is the degree of development reached by the art of music among savages, the ancient Greeks, and contemporary races in Eastern Asia. Wagner’s ‘unending melody’ is nothing but recitative, richly harmonized and animated, but, nevertheless, recitative. The name bestowed by him on his pretended invention must not mislead us. In the mouth of the degenerate a word has never the meaning ascribed to it by universal language. Wagner calmly applies the term ‘melody’—with a distinguishing adjective—to a form which is actually the negation and suppression of melody. He designates unending melody as an advance in music, while it is really a return to its primeval starting-point. Here there recurs in Wagner what we have so often laid stress upon in the preceding chapters, viz., that by a strange optical illusion the degenerate regard their atavism, their morbid reversion to the most remote and lowest grades of evolution, as an ascent into the future.

Wagner was led to his theory of unending melody by his limited capacity for the invention of finite, that is of real, melodies. His weakness in melodic creation has struck all impartial musicians. In youth his power in this direction was more abundant, and he succeeded in creating some superb melodies (in Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Fliegende Höllander). With increasing age this power became more and more impoverished, and in proportion as the torrent of melodic invention dried up in him, he accentuated his theory of unending melody with ever more obstinacy and asperity. Always there reappears the well-known device of concocting a theory a posteriori as a plausible ground for, and palliation of, what is done through unconscious organic necessity. Wagner was incapable of distinguishing the individual personages of his operas by a purely musical characterization, and therefore he invented the leit-motif.[203] Experiencing a great difficulty, especially with[202] advancing age, in creating true melodies, he set up the postulate of the unending melody.

All the other crotchets of his musical theory also find their explanation in this clear consciousness of definite incompetency. In the Art-work of the Future he overwhelms the theory of counterpoint and the contrapuntists—those dull pedants who abase the most vital of all arts to a desiccated, dead mathematics—with a scorn intended to be biting, but producing the effect of an echo of Schopenhauer’s invectives against the German philosophers. Why? Because, as an inattentive mystic, abandoned to amorphous dreams, he must feel intolerably oppressed by the severe discipline and fixed rules of the theory of composition, which gave a grammar to the musical babbling of primeval times, and made of it a worthy medium for the expression of the emotions of civilized men. He asserts that pure instrumental music ended with Beethoven; that progress after him is impossible; that ‘musical declamation’ is the only path along which the art of music can further develop itself. It may be that, after Beethoven, instrumental music will make no progress for decades, or for centuries. He was such a stupendous genius that it is, in fact, difficult to imagine how he can be surpassed, or even equalled. Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe, produce a similar impression; and, in truth, these geniuses have not yet been surpassed. It is also conceivable that there are limits which it is impossible for any given art to pass at all, so that a very great genius says the last word for it, and after that no progress can be made in it. In such a case, however, the aspirant should humbly say: ‘I know that I cannot do better than the supreme master of my art; I am therefore contented to labour as one of the epigoni in the shadow of his greatness, content if my work expresses some peculiarities of my individuality.’ He ought not in presumptuous self-conceit to affirm: ‘There is no sense in emulating the eagle-flight of the mighty one; progress now lies alone in the flapping of my bats’-wings.’ But this is exactly what Wagner does. Not being himself endowed with any great gift for pure instrumental music, as his few symphonic works suffice to prove, he decrees in the tone of infallibility: ‘Instrumental music ended with Beethoven. It is an error to seek for anything on this well-browsed field. The future of music lies in the accompaniment of the word, and I am he who is to show you the way into that future.’

Here Wagner simply makes a virtue of his necessity, and of[203] his weakness a title of glory. The symphony is the highest differentiation of musical art. In it music has wholly discarded its relationship with words, and attained its highest independence. Hence the symphony is the most musical of all that music can produce. To disown it is to disown that music is a special, differentiated art. To place above the symphony music as an accompaniment of words is to raise the handmaiden to a higher rank than her free-born mistress. It will never occur to a composer, whose inmost being is charged with musical feeling and thought, to seek words instead of musical themes for the expression of that in him which is yearning for embodiment. For if it does occur to him, it is a proof that in his inmost being he is a poet or an author, and not a musician. The choruses in the Ninth Symphony are not to be cited as proof of the inaccuracy of this assertion. In that case Beethoven was overmastered by an emotion so powerful and univocal, that the more general and equivocal character of purely musical expression could no longer suffice for him, and he was unconditionally compelled to call in the aid of words. In the deeply significant Biblical legend, even Balaam’s ass acquired the power of speech when he had something definite to say. The emotion which becomes clearly conscious of its content and aim ceases to be a mere emotion, and transforms itself into presentation, notion and judgment, but these express themselves, not in music, but in articulate language. When Wagner, as a fundamental principle, placed music as an accompaniment to words above that which is purely instrumental, and not as a medium for the expression of thought—for in regard to that there can be no difference of opinion—but as a musical form properly so called, he only proved that, in the inmost depths of his nature, and by virtue of his organic disposition, he was not a musician, but a confused mixture of a poet feeble in style, and a painter lazy of brush, with a Javanese ‘gamelang’ accompaniment buzzing in between. This is the case with most ‘higher degenerates,’ except that the separate fragments of their strangely intermingled hybrid talent are not so strong and great as Wagner’s.

The musical productions in which Wagner has been most successful—the Venusberg music; the E flat, G, B flat, ‘Wigala-Weia’ of the Rhinemaidens, repeated one hundred and thirty-six times; the Walküre ride; the fire incantation; the murmur of the forest; the Siegfried idyl; the Good-Friday spell; magnificent compositions, and highly praised with justice—show precisely the peculiarly unmusical character of his genius. All these pieces have one thing in common that they depict. They are not an inner emotion crying out from the soul in music, but the mental vision of the gifted eye of a painter, which Wagner, with[204] gigantic power, but also with gigantic aberration, strives to fix in tones instead of lines and colours. He avails himself of natural sounds or noises, either imitating them directly, or awakening ideas of them through association, reproducing the ripple and roar of waves, the sough of the tree-top and the song of wild birds, which are in themselves acoustic; or, by an acoustic parallelism, the optical phenomena of the movements in the dance of voluptuous female forms, the tearing along of fiercely snorting steeds, the blazing and flickering of flames, etc. These creations are not the outgrowth of emotional excitement, but have been produced by external impressions conveyed through the senses; they are not the utterance of a feeling but a reflection—i.e., something essentially optical. I might compare Wagner’s music, at its very best, to the flight of flying-fishes. It is an astonishing and dazzling spectacle, and yet unnatural. It is a straying from a native to an alien element. Above all, it is something absolutely barren and incapable of profiting either normal fishes or normal birds.

Wagner has felt this himself very forcibly; he was quite clear on the point that no one could build further on the foundation of his tone-paintings; for with reference to the efforts of musicians eagerly desirous of founding a Wagner school, he complains[204] that ‘younger composers were most irrationally putting themselves to trouble in imitating him.’

A searching examination has thus shown us that this pretended musician of the future is an out-and-out musician of long-ago. All the characteristics of his talent point not forward, but far behind us. His leit-motif, abasing music to a conventional phonetic symbol, is atavism; his unending melody is atavism, leading back the fixed form to the vague recitative of savages; atavism, his subordination of highly differentiated instrumental music to music-drama, which mixes music and poetry, and allows neither of the two art-forms to attain to independence; even his peculiarity of almost never permitting more than one person on the stage to sing and of avoiding vocal polyphony is atavism. As a personality he will occupy an important place in music; as an initiator, or developer of his art, hardly any, or a very narrow one. For the only thing that musicians of healthy capacity can learn from him is to keep song and accompaniment in opera closely connected with the words, to declaim with sincerity and propriety, and to suggest pictorial ideas to the imagination by means of orchestral effects. But I dare not decide whether the latter is an enlargement or an upheaval of the natural boundaries of musical art, and in any event disciples[205] of Wagner must use his rich musical palette with caution if they are not to be led astray.

Wagner’s mighty influence on his contemporaries is to be explained, neither by his capacities as author and musician, nor by any of his personal qualities, with the exception, perhaps, of that ‘stubborn perseverance in one and the same fundamental idea’ which Lombroso[205] cites as a characteristic of graphomaniacs, but by the peculiarities in the life of the present nervous temperament. His earthly destiny resembles that of those strange Oriental plants known as ‘Jericho roses’ (Anastatica asteriscus), which, dingy-brown in colour, leathery and dry, roll about, driven by every wind, until they reach a congenial soil, when they take root and blossom into full-blown flowers. To the end of his life Wagner’s existence was conflict and bitterness, and his boastings had no other echo than the laughter not only of rational beings, but, alas! of fools also. It was not until he had long passed his fiftieth year that he began to know the intoxication of universal fame; and in the last decade of his life he was installed among the demi-gods. It had come to this, that the world had, in the interval, become ripe for him—and for the madhouse. He had the good fortune to endure until the general degeneration and hysteria were sufficiently advanced to supply a rich and nutritious soil for his theories and his art.

The phenomenon repeatedly established and verified in these pages, that lunatics fly to each other as iron filings to the magnet, is quite strikingly observable in Wagner’s life. His first great patroness was the Princess Metternich, daughter of the well-known eccentric Count Sandor, and whose own eccentricities formed material for the chronicle of the Napoleonic Court. His most enthusiastic disciple and defender was Franz Liszt, whom I have elsewhere characterized (see my Ausgewählte Pariser Briefe; 2te Auflage; Leipzig, 1887, p. 172), and of whom I will therefore only briefly remark that he bore in his nature the greatest resemblance to Wagner. He was an author (his works, filling six thick volumes, have an honourable place in the literature of graphomaniacs), composer, erotomaniac and mystic, all in an incomparably lower degree than Wagner, whom he surpassed only in a prodigiously developed talent for pianoforte-playing. Wagner was an enthusiastic admirer of all graphomaniacs who came in his way—e.g., of that A. Gleizès expressly cited by Lombroso[206] as a lunatic, but whom Wagner praises in most exuberant terms;[207][206] and he even gathered round him a court of select graphomaniacs, among whom may be mentioned Nietzsche, whose insanity compelled his confinement in a madhouse; H. von Wolzogen, whose Poetische Laut-Symbolik might have been written by the most exquisite of French ‘Symbolists’ or ‘Instrumentists’;[208] Henri Porges, E. von Hagen, etc. But the most important relations of this kind were with the unhappy King Louis II. In him Wagner found the soul he needed. In him he met with a full comprehension of all his theories and his creations. It may be safely asserted that Louis of Bavaria created the Wagner Cult. Only when the King became his protector did Wagner and his efforts become of importance for the history of civilization; not, perhaps, because Louis II. offered Wagner the means of realizing the boldest and most sumptuous of his artistic dreams, but chiefly because he placed the prestige of his crown in the service of the Wagnerian movement. Let us for a moment consider how deeply monarchical is the disposition of the vast majority of the German people; how the knees of the beery Philistine tremble as he reverentially salutes even an empty court carriage; and how the hearts of well-bred maidens flutter with ineffable inspiration at the sight of a prince! And here was a real king, handsome as the day, young, surrounded by legends, whose mental infirmity was at that time regarded by all sentimentalists as sublime ‘idealism,’ displaying unbounded enthusiasm for an artist, and reviving on a far larger scale the relations between Charles Augustus and Goethe! From that moment it was natural that Wagner should become the idol of all loyal hearts. To share in the royal taste for the ‘ideal’ was a thing to be proud of. Wagner’s music became provisionally a royal Bavarian music, adorned with crown and escutcheon, till it should subsequently become an imperial German music. At the head of the Wagnerian movement there walks, as is fit, an insane king. Louis II. was able to bring Wagner into vogue with the entire German nation (excepting, of course, those Bavarians who were revolted by the King’s prodigalities); nevertheless, no amount of grovelling obsequiousness could by itself have produced a fanaticism for Wagner. That the mere Wagner-fashion might attain to this height another factor was necessary—the hysteria of the age.

Although not so widespread as in France and England, this[207] hysteria is not wanting in Germany, where during the last quarter of a century it has continued to gain ground. Germany has been longer protected from it than the civilized nations of the West by the smaller development of large industry and by the absence of large cities properly so called. In the last generation, however, both of these gifts have been abundantly accorded her, and two great wars have done the rest to make the nervous system of the people susceptible to the pernicious influences of the city and the factory system.

The effect of war on the nerves of the participants has never been systematically investigated; and yet how highly important and necessary a work this would be! Science knows what disorders are produced in man by a single strong moral shock, e.g., a sudden mortal danger; it has recorded hundreds and thousands of cases in which persons saved from drowning, or present at a fire on shipboard, or in a railway accident, or who have been threatened with assassination, etc., have either lost their reason, or been attacked by grave and protracted, often incurable, nervous illnesses. In war hundreds of thousands are exposed to all these fearful impressions at the same time. For months cruel mutilation or sudden death menaces them at every step. They are frequently surrounded by the spectacle of devastation, conflagration, the most appalling wounds, and heaps of corpses frightful to behold. Moreover, the greatest demands are made on their strength; they are forced to march until they break down, and cannot count on having adequate nourishment or sufficient sleep. And shall there not appear among these hundreds of thousands the effect which is proved to result from a single one of the occurrences which take place by thousands during war? Let it not be said that in a campaign a soldier becomes callous to the horrors encompassing him. That merely signifies that they cease to excite the attention of his consciousness. They are nevertheless perceived by the senses and their cerebral centres, and therefore leave their traces in the nervous system. That the soldier does not at the moment notice the deep shock—nay, even shattering—he has experienced, equally proves nothing. ‘Traumatic hysteria,’ ‘railway spine,’ the nervous maladies consequent on a moral shock, are also frequently unobserved until months after the event occasioning them.

In my belief, it can scarcely be doubted that every great war is a cause of hysteria among multitudes, and that far the larger number of soldiers, even completely unknown to themselves, bring home from a campaign a somewhat deranged nervous system. Of course this is much less applicable to the conquerors than to the conquered, for the feeling of triumph is one of the most pleasurable the human brain can experience, and the force-producing (‘dynamogenous’) effect of this pleasurable[208] feeling is well qualified to counteract the destructive influences of the impressions produced by war. But it is difficult for it to entirely annul these impressions, and the victors, like the vanquished, no doubt leave a large part of their nervous strength and moral health on the battlefield and in the bivouac.

The brutalization of the masses after every war has become a commonplace. The expression originates in the perception that after a campaign the tone of the people becomes fiercer and rougher, and that statistics show more acts of violence. The fact is correctly stated, but the interpretation is superficial. If the soldier on returning home becomes more short-tempered, and even has recourse to the knife, it is not because the war has made him rougher, but because it has made him more excitable. This increased excitability is, however, only one of the forms of the phenomenon of nervous debility.

Hence under the action of the two great wars in connection with the development of large industries and the growth of large towns, hysteria among the German people has, since 1870, increased in an extraordinary manner, and we have very nearly overtaken the unenviable start which the English and French had over us in this direction. Now, all hysteria, like every form of insanity, and for that matter like every disease, receives its special form from the personality of the invalid. The degree of culture, the character, propensities and habits of the deranged person give the derangement its peculiar colour. Among the English, always piously inclined, degeneration and hysteria were bound to appear both mystical and religious. Among the French, with their highly developed taste and widespread fondness for all artistic pursuits, it was natural that hysteria should take an artistic direction, and lead to the notorious extravagances in their painting, literature and music. We Germans are in general neither very pious nor very cultivated in matters of art. Our comprehension of the beautiful in art expresses itself, for the most part, in the idiotic ‘Reizend!’ (charming), and ‘Entzückend!’ (ravishing), squeaked in shrill head-tones and with upturned eyes by our well-bred daughters at the sight of a quaintly-shaved poodle, and before the Darmstadt Madonna by Holbein, indiscriminately; and in the grunts of satisfaction with which the plain citizen pumps in his beer at a concert of his singing club. Not that we are by nature devoid of a sense of the beautiful—I believe, on the contrary, that in our deepest being we have more of it than most other nations—but owing to unfavourable circumstances this sense has not been able to attain development. Since the Thirty Years’ War we have been too poor, we have had too hard a struggle for the necessities of life to have anything left for any sort of luxury; and our ruling classes, profoundly[209] Latinized and slaves to French fashion, were so estranged from the masses, that for the last two centuries the latter could have no part in the culture, taste, or æsthetic satisfactions of the upper strata of society, separated from them by an impassable gulf. As, therefore, the large majority of the German people had no interest in art, and troubled themselves little about it, German hysteria could not assume an artistic, æsthetic form.

It assumed other forms, partly abominable, partly ignoble and partly laughable. German hysteria manifests itself in anti-Semitism, that most dangerous form of the persecution-mania, in which the person believing himself persecuted becomes a savage persecutor, capable of all crimes (the persécuté persécuteur of the French mental therapeutics).[209] Like hypochondriacs and ‘hémorroïdaires,’ the German hysterical subject is anxiously concerned about his precious health. His crazes hinge on the exhalations of his skin and the functions of his stomach. He becomes a fanatic for Jaeger vests, and for the groats which vegetarians grind for themselves. He gets vehemently affected over Kneipp’s douches and barefoot perambulations on wet grass. At the same time, he excites himself with morbid sentimentalism (the ‘Zoophilia’ of Magnan) concerning the sufferings of the frog, utilized in physiological experiments, and through all this anti-Semitic, Kneippish, Jaegerish, vegetarian, and anti-vivisection insanity, there rings out the fundamental note of a megalomaniacal, Teutonomaniacal Chauvinism, against which the noble Emperor Frederick vainly warned us. As a rule, all these derangements appear simultaneously, and in nine out of ten cases it is safe to take the proudly strutting wearer of Jaeger’s garments for a Chauvinist, the Kneipp visionary for a groats-dieted maniac, and the defender of the frog, thirsting for the professor’s blood, for an anti-Semitist.

Wagner’s hysteria assumed the collective form of German hysteria. With a slight modification of Terence’s Homo sum, he could say of himself, ‘I am a deranged being, and no kind of derangement is a stranger to me.’ He could as an anti-Semitist give points to Stoecker.[210] He has an inimitable mastery of Chauvinistic phraseology.[211] Was he not able to convince his hypnotized hysterical following that the heroes of his pieces were primeval German figures—these Frenchmen and Brabanters, these Icelanders and Norwegians, these women of Palestine—all the fabulous beings he had fetched from the[210] poems of Provence and Northern France, and from the Northern saga, who (with the exception of Tannhäuser and the Meistersinger) have not a single drop of German blood or a single German fibre in their whole body? It is thus that, in public exhibitions, a quack hypnotist persuades his victims that they are eating peaches instead of raw potatoes. Wagner became an advocate for vegetarianism, and as the fruit needed for the nourishment of the people in accordance with this diet exists in abundance only in warm regions of the earth, he promptly advised ‘the direction of a rational emigration to lands resembling the South American peninsula, which, it has been affirmed, might, through its superabundant productivity, supply nourishment for the present population of the entire globe.’[212] He brandishes his knightly sword against the physiologists who experiment on animals.[213] He was not an enthusiast for wool, because personally he preferred silk; and this is the only hiatus in the otherwise complete picture. He did not live to witness the greatness of the reverend Pastor Kneipp, otherwise he probably would have found words of profound significance for the primitive German sanctity of wet feet, and the redeeming power vested in the knee-douche.

When, therefore, the enthusiastic friendship of King Louis had given Wagner the necessary prestige, and directed the universal attention of Germany to him; when the German people had learned to know him and his peculiarities, then all the mystics of the Jewish sacrifice of blood, of woollen shirts, of the vegetable menu, and sympathy cures, were compelled to raise their pæans in his honour, for he was the embodiment of all their obsessions. As for his music, they simply threw that into the bargain. The vast majority of Wagner fanatics understood nothing of it. The emotional excitement which the works of their idol made them experience did not proceed from the singers and the orchestra, but in part from the pictorial beauty of the scenic tableaux, and in a greater measure from the specific craze each brought with him to the theatre, and of which each worshipped Wagner as the spokesman and champion.

I do not, however, go so far as to assert that skat[214] patriotism, and the heroic idealism of natural cures, rice with fruit, ‘away with the Jews!’ and flannel, alone made the hearts of Wagner-bigots beat faster in blissful emotion when they were listening to his music. This music was certainly of a nature to fascinate the hysterical. Its powerful orchestral effects produced in them hypnotic states (at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris the[211] hypnotic state is often induced by suddenly striking a gong), and the formlessness of the unending melody was exactly suited to the dreamy vagaries of their own thought. A distinct melody awakens and demands attention, and is hence opposed to the fugitive ideation of the weak brains of the degenerate. A flowing recitative, on the contrary, without beginning or end, makes no sort of demand on the mind—for most auditors trouble themselves either not at all, or for a very short time, about the hide-and-seek play of the leit-motif—one can allow one’s self to be swayed and carried along by it, and to emerge from it at pleasure, without any definite remembrance, but with a merely sensual feeling of having enjoyed a hot, nervously exciting tone-bath. The relation of true melody to the unending melody is the same as that of a genre or historical painting to the wayward arabesques of a Moorish mural decoration, repeated a thousand times, and representing nothing definite; and the Oriental knows how favourable the sight of his arabesques is to ‘Kef’—that dreamy state in which Reason is lulled to sleep, and crazy Imagination alone rules as mistress of the house.

Wagner’s music initiated hysterically-minded Germans into the mysteries of Turkish Kef. Nietzsche may make sport of this subject with his idiotic play on words ‘Sursum—bum-bum,’ and with his remarks about the German youth who seeks for ‘Ahnung’ (presentiments); but the fact is not to be denied that a part of Wagner’s devotees—those who brought a diseased mysticism with them to the theatre—found in him their satisfaction; for nothing is so well qualified to conjure up ‘presentiments,’ i.e., ambiguous, shadowy borderland presentations, as a music which is itself born of nebulous adumbrations of thought.

Hysterical women were won over to Wagner chiefly by the lascivious eroticism of his music, but also by his poetic representation of the relation of man to woman. Nothing enchants an ‘intense’ woman so much as demoniacal irresistibleness on the part of the woman, and trembling adoration of her supernatural power on the part of the man. In contrast to Frederick William I., who cried in anger, ‘You should not fear, but love me,’ women of this sort would rather shout to every man, ‘You are not to love me, but to lie, full of dread and terror, in the dust at my feet.’ ‘Frau’ Venus, Brunhilde, Isolde, and Kundry have won for Wagner much more admiration among women than have Elizabeth, Elsa, Senta, and Gudrune.

After Wagner had once conquered Germany, and a fervent faith in him had been made the first article in the catechism of German patriotism, foreign countries could not long withstand his cult. The admiration of a great people has an extraordinary power of conviction. Even its aberrations it forces with irresistible[212] suggestion on other nations. Wagner was one of the foremost conquerors in the German wars. Sadowa and Sedan were fought in his behalf. The world, nolens volens, had to take up its attitude with regard to a man whom Germany proclaimed its national composer. He began his triumphal march round the globe draped in the flag of Imperial Germany. Germany’s enemies were his enemies, and this forced even such Germans as withstood his influence to take his side against foreign lands. ‘I beat my breast: I, too, have fought for him against the French in speech and writing. I also have defended him against the pastrycooks who hissed his Lohengrin in Paris.’ How was one to get off this duty? Hamlet thrusts at the arras, well knowing that Polonius stands there; hence any son or brother of Polonius is bound resolutely to attack Hamlet. Wagner had the good fortune to play the part of the tapestry to the French Hamlets, giving them the pretext for thrusting at the Polonius of Germany. As a result, the attitude in the Wagner question of every German was rigidly prescribed for him.

To the zeal of Germans all manner of other things added their aid in favouring the success of Wagner abroad. A minority, composed in part of really independent men of honorably unprejudiced minds, but in part also of degenerate minds with a morbid passion for contradiction, took sides with him just because he was blindly and furiously maligned by the Chauvinist majority, who were a prey to national hatred. ‘It is contemptible,’ cried the minority, ‘to condemn an artist because he is a German. Art has no fatherland. Wagner’s music should not be judged with the memory of Alsace-Lorraine.’ These views are so reasonable and noble, that those who entertained them must have rejoiced in them and been proud of them. On listening to Wagner, they had the clear feeling, ‘We are better and cleverer than the Chauvinists,’ and this feeling necessarily placed them at the outset in such an agreeable and benevolent mood, that his music seemed much more beautiful than they would have found it if they had not been obliged first to stifle their vulgar and base instincts, and fortify those which were more elevated, free and refined. They erroneously ascribed to Wagner’s music the emotions produced by their self-satisfaction.

The fact that only in Bayreuth could this ‘music be heard, unfalsified and in its full strength, was also of great importance for the esteem in which it was held. If it had been played in every theatre, if, without trouble and formalities, one could have gone to a representation of Wagner as to one of Il Trovatore, Wagner would not have obtained his most enthusiastic public from foreign countries. To know the real Wagner it was necessary to journey to Bayreuth. This could be done only at long[213] intervals and at specified times; seats and lodgings had to be obtained long in advance, and at great expenditure of trouble. It was a pilgrimage requiring much money and leisure; hence ‘hoi polloi’ were excluded from it. Thus, the pilgrimage to Bayreuth became a privilege of the rich and well-bred, and to have been to Bayreuth came to be a great social distinction among the snobs of both worlds. The journey was a thing to make a great parade of and be haughty over. The pilgrim no longer belonged to the vulgar crowd, but to the select few; he became a hadji! Oriental sages so well know the peculiar vanity of the hadjis, that one of their proverbs contains an express warning against the pious man who has been thrice to Mecca.

Hence the pilgrimage to Bayreuth became a mark of aristocracy, and an appreciation of Wagner’s music, in spite of his nationality, was regarded as evidence of intellectual preeminence. The prejudice in his favour was created, and provided one went to him in this mood, there was no reason why Wagner should not have the same influence on hysterical foreigners as on hysterical Germans. Parsifal was especially fitted completely to subjugate the French neo-Catholics and Anglo-American mystics who marched behind the banner of the Salvation Army. It was with this opera that Wagner chiefly triumphed among his non-German admirers. Listening to the music of Parsifal has become the religious act of all those who wish to receive the Communion in musical form.

These are the explanatory causes of Wagner’s conquest, first of Germany, and then of the world. The absence of judgment and independence among the multitude, who chant the antiphony in the Psalter; the imitation of musicians possessed of no originality, who witnessed his triumph, and, like genuine little boys wanting ‘to be taken,’ clung to his coat-tails—these did what was still needed to lay the world at his feet. As it is the most widely diffused, so is Wagnerism the most momentous aberration of the present time. The Bayreuth festival theatre, the Bayreuther Blätter, the Parisian Revue Wagnérienne, are lasting monuments by which posterity will be able to measure the whole breadth and depth of the degeneration and hysteria of the age.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 12:59 am

Part 1 of 2


The artistic and poetic forms of mysticism, which we have studied hitherto, might perhaps inspire doubts in superficial or insufficiently instructed minds as to their origin in degeneration, and present themselves as manifestations of a genuine and fertile talent. But beside them appear others, in which a state of mind reveals itself which suddenly arrests and perplexes any reader, however credulous, and however accessible to the suggestion of printed words, and to self-puffing charlatanism. Books and theories find publication, in which even the unlearned observe the deep intellectual degradation of their authors. One pretends to be able to initiate the reader into the black art, and enable him to practise magic himself; another gives a poetical form to definitely insane ideas, such as have been classified by mental therapeutics; a third writes books as if prompted by thoughts and feelings worthy of little children or idiots. A great part of the works I have in view would justify, without further consideration, the placing of their authors under constraint. As, however, in spite of their manifest craziness, well-known critics are bent upon discovering in them ‘the future,’ ‘fresh nerve-stimulations,’ and beauties of a mysterious kind, and to puff them by their chatter to gaping simpletons as revelations of genius, it is not superfluous to devote some brief consideration to them.

A not very large amount of mysticism leads to belief; a larger amount leads necessarily to superstition, and the more confused, the more deranged, the mind is, so much the crazier will be the kind of superstition. In England and America this most frequently takes the form of spiritualism and the founding of sects. The hysterical and deranged receive spiritual inspirations, and begin to preach and prophesy, or they conjure up spirits and commune with the dead. In English fiction ghost-stories have begun to occupy a large place, and in English newspapers to act glibly as stopgaps, as was done formerly in the Continental press by the sea-serpent and the Flying Dutchman. A society has been formed which has for its object the collecting of ghost-stories, and testing their authenticity; and even literary men of renown have been seized with the vertigo of the supernatural, and condescend to serve as vouchers for the most absurd aberrations.

In Germany, too, spiritualism has found an entrance, although, on the whole, it has not gained much ground. In the large[215] towns there may be some small spiritualist bodies. The English expression trance has become so familiar to some deranged persons that they have adopted it in German as trans, imagining apparently, with the popular etymology, that it means ‘beyond’ instead of ‘ecstasy,’ or, in other words, the state in which, according to the spiritualist hypothesis, the medium ought to find himself who enters into communication with the world of spirits. Nevertheless, spiritualism has as yet exerted little influence on our literature. Excluding the later romanticists who have fallen into childishness, notably the authors of tragedies based on the idea of ‘fatality’ (Schicksalstragödien), few writers have dared to introduce the supernatural into their creations otherwise than allegorically. At most in Kleist and Kerner it attains a certain importance, and healthy readers do not consider that as a merit in the dramas of the unfortunate author of the Hermannsschlacht, and in the Seer of Prevorst of the Swabian poet. On the other hand, it must certainly be noted that it is the ghost element precisely which has brought to these two writers, in recent times, a renewal of youth and popularity among degenerate and hysterical Germans. Maximilian Perty, who was evidently born too soon, met with but rare and even rather derisive notice from the less soft-headed generation which preceded ours, for his bulky books on apparitions. And, among contemporaries, none but Freiherr Karl du Prel has chosen the spirit world as the special subject of his theoretic writings and novels. After all, our plays, our tales, are very little haunted, scarcely enough to make a schoolgirl shiver; and even among the eminent foreign authors best known in Germany, such, for example, as Tourgenieff, it is not the world of apparitions which attracts German readers.

The few ghost-seers whom we have at present in Germany endeavour naturally to give their mental derangement a scientific colouring, and appeal to individual professors of mathematics and natural science who happen entirely to agree with them, or are supposed to be partially inclined to do so. However, their one sheet-anchor is Zöllner, who is simply a sad proof of the fact that a professorship is no protection from madness; and they can besides, at any rate, point to opportune remarks of Helmholtz and other mathematicians on n dimensions, which they, either intentionally or from mystical weakness of mind, have misunderstood. In an analytical problem the mathematician, instead of one, two, or three dimensions, may place n dimensions without altering thereby the law of the problem and its legitimately resulting corollaries, but it does not occur to him to imagine, under the geometrical expression, ‘nth dimension,’ something given in space, and capable of being apprehended by the senses. When Zöllner gives the well-known[216] example of the inversion of the india-rubber ring which, because only possible in the third dimension, necessarily appeared quite inconceivable and supernatural to a bi-dimensional being, he believes that he facilitates the comprehension of the formation of a knot in a closed ring as an operation practicable in the fourth dimension. In doing this he simply offers one more example of the known tendency of the mystic to delude himself, as he does others, with words which seem to signify something, and which a simpleton is convinced oftener than not that he understands, but which in reality express no idea, and are, therefore, empty sound, void of import.

France is about to become the promised land of believers in ghosts. Voltaire’s countrymen have already got the start of the pious Anglo-Saxons in dealings with the supernatural. I am not now thinking of the lower ranks of the people, among whom the book of dreams (La Clé des Songes) has never ceased to constitute the family library, together with the Calendar, and, perhaps, the ‘Paroissien’ (missal); nor of the fine ladies who at all times have ensured excellent incomes to clairvoyantes and fortune-tellers; but only of the male representatives of the educated classes. Dozens of spiritualist circles count their numbers by thousands. In numerous drawing-rooms of the best (even in the opinion of the ‘most cultured’!) society, the dead are called up. A monthly publication, L’Initiation, announces, in weighty tones, and with a prodigality of philosophical and scientific technicalities, the esoteric doctrine of the marvels of the unearthly. A bi-monthly publication, Annales des Sciences Psychiques, terms itself a ‘collection of observations and researches.’ Next to these two most important periodicals, a whole series of others exist, similar in tendency, and all having a wide circulation. Strictly technical works on hypnotism and suggestion run through edition after edition, and it has become a profitable speculation for doctors without practice, who do not attach much importance to the opinions of their colleagues, to compile so-called manuals and text-books on these subjects, which scientifically are completely worthless, but which are bought up by the public like hot rolls. Novels have, with rare exceptions, no longer any sale in France, but works on obscure phenomena of nerve function go off splendidly, so that sagacious publishers give their discouraged authors this advice: ‘Leave novels for a time, and write on magnetism.’

Some of the books on magic which have appeared of late years in France connect their subject directly with the phenomena of hypnotism and suggestion; for example, A. De Rochas’ Les États profonds de l’Hypnose, and C. A. de Bodisco’s Traits de Lumière, or ‘physical researches dedicated to unbelievers and egoists.’ This has brought many observers to the idea that the[217] works and discoveries of the Charcot school in general have given the impulse to the whole of this movement. Hypnotism, say the representatives of this opinion, has brought such remarkable facts to light that the accuracy of certain traditions, popular beliefs and old records can no longer be doubted, though hitherto they have been generally considered inventions of superstition; possession, witch-spells, second-sight, healing by imposition of hands, prophecy, mental communication at the remotest distance without the intervention of words, have received a new interpretation and have been recognised as possible. What, then, more natural than that minds weak in balance, and of insufficient scientific training, should become accessible to the marvellous (against which they had shielded themselves, as long as they considered it to be all old nurses’ fables), when they saw it appear in the garb of science, and found themselves in the best society by believing in it?

Plausible as this opinion is, it is not the less false. It puts the cart before the horse. It confounds cause with effect. No completely sound mind has been led by the experiences of the new hypnotic science into a belief in the marvellous. In former times no attention was paid to obscure phenomena, or they were passed by with eyes intentionally closed, because they could not be fitted in to the prevailing system, and were consequently held to be chimæras or frauds. For the last twelve years official science has taken cognizance of them, and Faculties and Academies are engaged upon them. But no one thinks of them for a moment as supernatural, or supposes the working of unearthly forces behind them. They class them with all other natural phenomena which are accessible to the observation of the senses, and are determined by the ordinary laws of nature. Our knowledge has simply enlarged its frame, and admitted an order of facts which in former times had remained beyond its pale. Many processes of hypnosis are more or less satisfactorily explained; others as yet not at all. But an earnest and healthy mind attaches no great importance to this, for he knows that the pretended explanation of phenomena does not go very far, and that we have mostly to be satisfied to determine them with certainty, and to know their immediate conditions. I do not say that the new science has exhausted its subject and has reached its limits. But whatever it may bring to light of the unknown and the unexpected, it is not a matter of doubt to the healthy mind that it will be accounted for by natural means, and that the simple, ultimate laws of physics, chemistry and biology cannot be shaken by these discoveries.

If, therefore, so many people now interpret the phenomena of hypnosis as supernatural, and indulge the hope that the conjuration of the spirits of the dead, aerial voyages on Faust’s magic[218] cloak, omniscience, etc., will soon be arts as common as reading and writing, it is not the discoveries of science which have brought them to this delusion, although the existing delusion is happy to be able to pass itself off for science. Far from concealing itself, as formerly, it exhibits itself proudly in the streets on the arms of professors and academicians. Paulhan understands the matter very well: ‘It is not the love of positive facts,’ he says,[215] ‘which has carried minds away; there has been a certain kind of return for the love of the marvellous in desires formerly satisfied, and which, now repressed, slumbered unacknowledged in a latent condition. Magic, sorcery, astrology, divination, all these ancient beliefs correspond to a need of human nature; that of being able easily to act upon the external world and the social world; that of possessing, by means relatively easy, the knowledge requisite to make this action possible and fruitful.’ The stormy outburst of superstition has by no means been let loose through hypnological researches; it merely launches itself into the channels they have dug. We have here already repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that unbalanced minds always adapt their crazes to the prevailing views, and usurp by predilection the most recent discoveries of science to explain them. The physicists were still far from occupying themselves with magnetism and electricity, when the persons attacked by persecution-mania were already referring their own unpleasant sensations and hallucinations to the electric currents or sparks which their persecutors were supposed to cast on them through walls, ceilings and floors; and in our days the degenerate were equally the first to appropriate to themselves the results of hypnological researches, and to employ them as ‘scientific’ proofs of the reality of spirits, angels and devils. But the degenerate started with the belief in miracles; it is one of their peculiar characteristics,[216] and it was not first called forth by the observations of Parisian and Nancy hypnologists.

If another proof were needed in support of this affirmation, it could be found in the fact that the greater number of ‘occultists,’ as they call themselves, in their treatises on occult arts and magic sciences, scorn to fall back on the results of hypnological experiments, and, without any pretext of ‘modernity,’ without any concession to honest investigation of nature, have direct recourse to the most ancient traditions. Papus (the pseudonym of a physician, Dr. Encausse) writes a Traité méthodique de Science occulte, an enormous large-octavo volume of 1,050 pages, with 400 illustrations, which introduces the reader to the cabala, magic, necromancy and[219] cheiromancy, astrology, alchemy, etc., and to which an old, not undeserving savant, Adolf Franck, of the Institute of France, was imprudent enough to write a long eulogistic preface, presumably without having even opened the book himself. Stanislaus de Guaita, revered with awe by the adepts as past master in the Black Art, and arch-magician, gives two treatises, Au Seuil du Mystère and Le Serpent de la Genèse, so darkly profound that, in comparison, Nicolas Flamel, the great alchemist, whom no mortal has ever comprehended, seems clear and transparent as crystal. Ernest Bose confines himself to the theory of the sorcery of the ancient Egyptians. His book, Isis dévoilée, ou l’Egyptologie sacrée, has for the sub-title: ‘Hieroglyphics, papyri, hermetic books, religion, myths, symbols, psychology, philosophy, morals, sacred art, occultism, mysteries, initiation, music.’ Nehor has likewise his speciality. If Bosc unveils Egyptian mysteries, Nehor reveals the secrets of Assyria and Babylonia. Les Mages et le Secret magique is the name of the modest pamphlet in which he initiates us into the profoundest magic arts of the Chaldean Mobeds, or Knights Templars.

If I do not enter more fully into these books, which have found readers and admirers, it is because I am not quite certain that they are intended to be in earnest. Their authors read and translate so fluently Egyptian, Hebraic and Assyriac texts, which no professional Orientalist has yet deciphered; they quote so frequently and so copiously from books which are found in no library in the world; they give with such an imperturbable air exact instructions how to resuscitate the dead, how to preserve eternal youth, how to hold intercourse with the inhabitants of Sirius, how to divine beyond all the limits of time and space, that one cannot get rid of the impression that they wished, in cold blood, to make fun of the reader.

Only one of all these master-sorcerers is certainly to be taken in good faith, and as he is at the same time intellectually the most eminent among them, I will deal with him somewhat more in detail. This is M. Joséphin Péladan. He has even arrogated to himself the Assyrian royal title of ‘Sar,’ under which he is generally known. The public authorities alone do not give him his Sar title; but then they do not usually recognise any titles of nobility in France. He maintains he is the descendant of the old Magi, and the possessor of all the mental legacies of Zoroaster, Pythagoras and Orpheus. He is, moreover, the direct heir of the Knights Templars and Rosicrucians, both of which orders he has amalgamated and revived under a new form as the ‘Order of the Rosy Cross.’ He dresses himself archaically in a satin doublet of blue or black; he trims his extremely luxuriant blue-black hair and beard into the shape in use among the Assyrians; he affects a large upright hand, which might be[220] taken for mediæval character, writes by preference with red or yellow ink, and in the corner of his letter-paper is delineated, as a distinctive mark of his dignity, the Assyrian king’s cap, with the three serpentine rolls opening in front. As a coat of arms he has the device of his order; on an escutcheon divided by sable and argent a golden chalice surmounted by a crimson rose with two outspread wings, and overlaid with a Latin cross in sable. The shield is surmounted by a coronet with three pentagrams as indents. M. Péladan has appointed a series of commanders and dignitaries of his order (‘grand-priors,’ ‘archons,’ ‘æsthetes’), which numbers, besides, ‘postulants’ and ‘grammarians’ (scholars). He possesses a special costume as grand-master and Sar (in which his life-sized portrait has been painted by Alexandre Séon), and a composer, who belongs to the order, has composed for him a special fanfare, which on solemn occasions is to be played by trumpets at his entrance. He makes use of extraordinary formulæ. His letters he calls ‘decrees,’ or commands (mandements). He addresses the persons to whom they are directed either as ‘magnifiques,’ or ‘peers,’ sometimes also ‘dearest adelphe,’ or ‘synnoède.’ He does not call them ‘sir,’ but ‘your lordship’ (seigneurie). The introduction is: ‘Health, light and victory in Jesus Christ, in the only God, and in Peter, the only king’; or ‘Ad Rosam per Crucem, ad Crucem per Rosam, in eâ, in eis gemmatus resurgam.’ This is at the same time the heraldic motto of the Order of the Rosy Cross. At the conclusion is usually, ‘Amen. Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nominis tui gloriæ solæ.’ He writes the name of his order, with a cross inserted in the middle, thus: ‘Rose ✠ Croix.’ His novels he calls ‘éthopées,’ himself as their author ‘éthopoète,’ his dramas ‘wagneries,’ their table of contents ‘éumolpées.’

Every one of his books is ornamented with a large number of symbols. That which appears the most often is a vignette showing on a column a cowering form with the head of a woman breathing flames, and with a woman’s breast, lion’s paws, and the lower part of the body of a wasp or dragon-fly, terminating in an appendage similar to the tail of a fish. The work itself is always preceded by some prefaces, introductions and invocations, and is often followed by pages of the same nature. I take as an example the book entitled, Comment on devient Mage.[217] After the two title-pages adorned with a great number of symbolical images (winged Assyrian bulls, the mystic rose cross, etc.), comes a long dedication ‘to Count Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, grand-prior of the temple, archon of the[221] Rose ✠ Cross.’ Then follows in Latin a ‘prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas, well suited to warn the reader against the possible errors of this book’; after this, an élenctique (counter-demonstration) containing a sort of profession of Catholic faith; next, an ‘invocation to ancestors’ in the style of the Chaldean prayers; lastly, a long allocution ‘to the contemporary young man,’ after which the book properly begins.

At the head of every chapter appear nine mysterious formulæ. Here are two examples: ‘I. The Neophyte. Divine Name: Jud (the Hebrew letter so called). Sacrament: Baptism. Virtue: Faith. Gift: Fear of God. Beatitude: Poor in spirit. Work: Teaching. Angel: Michael. Arcanum: Unity. Planet: Samas. II. Society. Divine Name: Jah—El (in Hebrew characters, which Péladan evidently cannot read, for he turns it into El-lah). Sacrament: Consecration. Virtue: Hope. Gift: Pity. Beatitude: Gentleness. Work: Counsel. Angel: Gabriel. Arcanum: Duality. Planet: Sin.’

Of the further contents of this mighty volume I think no examples need be given. They correspond exactly with the headings of these chapters.

The novels or ‘éthopées’ of M. Péladan, of which nine have appeared hitherto, but of which the author has announced fourteen, are arranged in groups of seven, the mystical number. He has even established a Schéma de Concordance,[218] which claims to give a synopsis of their leading ideas. Let us hear how he explains his works:

‘First series of seven: I. The supreme vice. Moral and mental Diathesis of the Latin decline—Merodach, summit of conscious will, type of absolute entity; Alta, prototype of the monk in contact with the world; Courtenay, inadequate man-of-fate, bewitched by social facts; L. d’Este, extreme pride, the grand style in evil; Coryse, the true young maiden; La Nine, the wicked Androgyne, or, better, Gynander; Dominicaux, conscious reprobate, character of the irremediable, resulting from a specious æsthetic theory for every vice, which kills consciousness and, in consequence, conversion. Every novel has a Merodach, that is, an abstract Orphic principle, as opposed to an ideal enigma.

‘II. Inquisitive. Parisian clinical collective-phenomenism. Ethics: Nebo; the systematic, sentimental will. Erotics: Paula, passionate with Androgynous Prism. The great horror, the Beast with two backs, in Gynander (IX.), metamorphosing itself into unisexual corruption. Inquisitive, that is the everyday and the everybody of instinct. Gynander, the Goethesque midnight, and the exceptional,’ etc.

I have taken pains to reproduce faithfully all M. Péladan’s whimsical methods of expression. That his Concordance can give even the slightest idea of the contents of his novels, I do not for a moment believe. I will, therefore, say a few words about these in non-magian language.

They all move in the three following circles of ideas, variously penetrating and intersecting each other: The highest intellectual aim of man is to hear and thoroughly to appreciate Wagnerian music; the highest development of morality consists in renouncing sexuality and in transforming one’s self into a hybrid hermaphrodite (Androgyne and Gynander); the higher man can quit and retake his body at pleasure, soar into space as an ‘astral being,’ and subject to his will the entire supernatural power of the world of spirits, of the good as well as the bad.

Accordingly, in every romance a hero appears who unites in himself the distinctive marks of both sexes, and resists with horror the ordinary sexual instincts, who plays or enjoys the music of Wagner, enacts in his own life some scene from the Wagnerian drama, and conjures up spirits or has to repel their attacks.

If anyone wishes to trace the origin of all these delirious ideas, it will not be difficult to discover how they arose. One day while reading the Bible Péladan alighted on the name of the Babylonian king, Merodach Baladan. The similarity of sound between ‘Baladan’ and ‘Péladan’ gave an impulse to his imagination to establish relations between himself and the Biblical Babylonian king. Once he began to reflect on this, he found a resemblance, in the cast of his features, the colour of his hair, and the growth of his beard, to the heads of Assyrian kings on the alabaster casts from the palace at Nineveh. Thus he easily arrived at the idea that he was possibly a descendant of Baladan, or of other Assyrian kings, or, at least, that it would be a curious thing if he were. And he continued to work out this thought, until one day he resolutely took the title of Sar. If he were descended from the kings of Babylon, he could also be the heir of the wisdom of the Magi. So he began to proclaim the Magian esoteric doctrine. To these musings were added afterwards the impressions he received on a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, from Tristan, and especially from Parsifal. In fancy he wrought his own life into the legend of the Grail, looked upon himself as a knight of the Grail, and created his order of the ‘Rose Croix,’ which is entirely composed of reminiscences of Parsifal. His invention of the asexual hybrid being shows that his imagination is actively preoccupied with presentations of a sexual character, and unconsciously seeks to idealize the ‘contrary sexual feelings.’

The mental life of Péladan permits us to follow, in an extremely well-marked instance, the ways of mystic thought. He[223] is wholly dominated by the association of ideas. A fortuitous assonance awakens in him a train of thought which urges him irresistibly to proclaim himself an Assyrian king and Magus, without his attention being in a condition to make him realize the fact that a man can be called Péladan without being, therefore, necessarily descended from a Biblical Baladan. The meaningless flow of words of the mediæval scholastics misleads him, because he is continually thinking by way of analogy, that is to say, because he follows exclusively the play of the association of ideas provoked by the most secondary and superficial resemblances. He receives every artistic suggestion with the greatest ease. If he hears Wagner’s operas, he believes himself to be a Wagnerian character; if he reads of the Knights Templars and Rosicrucians, he becomes the Grand-Master of the Temple, and of all other secret orders. He has the peculiar sexual emotionalism of the ‘higher degenerates,’ and this endows him with a peculiar fabulous shape, which, at once chaste and lascivious, embodies, in curiously demonstrative manner, the secret conflicts which take place in his consciousness between unhealthily intensified instincts, and the judgment which recognises their dangerous character.

Does Péladan believe in the reality of his delusions? In other words, does he take himself seriously? The answer to this question is not so simple as many perhaps think. The two beings which exist in every human mind are, in a nature such as Péladan’s, a prey to a strange conflict. His unconscious nature is quite transfused with the rôle of a Sar, a Magus, a Knight of the Holy Grail, Grand-Master of the Order, etc., which he has invented. The conscious factor in him knows that it is all nonsense, but it finds artistic pleasure in it, and permits the unconscious life to do as it pleases. It is thus that little girls behave who play with dolls, caressing or punishing them, and treating them as if they were living beings, all the time well aware that in reality they have before them only an object in leather and porcelain.

Péladan’s judgment has no power over his unconscious impulses. It is not in his power to renounce the part of a Sar or a Magus, or no longer to pose as grand-master of an order. He cannot abstain from perpetually returning to his ‘Androgynous’ absurdity. All these aberrations, as well as the invention of neologisms and the predilection for symbols, the prolix titles, and the casket-series of prefaces, so characteristic of the ‘higher degenerates,’ proceed from the depths of his organic temperament, and evade the influence of his higher centres. On its conscious side Péladan’s cerebral activity is rich and beautiful. In his novels there are pages which rank among the most splendid productions of a contemporary pen. His moral ideal[224] is high and noble. He pursues with ardent hatred all that is base and vulgar, every form of egoism, falsehood, and thirst for pleasure; and his characters are thoroughly aristocratic souls, whose thoughts are concerned only with the worthiest, if somewhat exclusively artistic, interests of humanity. It is deeply to be regretted that the overgrowth of morbidly mystic presentations should render his extraordinary gifts completely sterile.

Far below Péladan stands Maurice Rollinat, who ought, nevertheless, to be mentioned first, because he embodies in a very instructive manner a definite form of mystic degeneration, and next because all French, and many foreign, hysterical persons honour in him a great poet.

In his poems, which with characteristic self-knowledge he entitles Les Névroses[219] (Nervous Maladies) he betrays all the stigmata of degeneration, which by this time ought to be familiar enough to the reader for me to content myself with a brief notice of them.

He feels in himself criminal impulses (Le Fantôme du Crime):

‘Wicked thoughts come into my soul in every place, at all hours, in the height of my work.... I listen in spite of myself to the infernal tones which vibrate in my heart where Satan knocks; and although I have a horror of vile saturnalias, of which the mere shadow suffices to anger me, I listen in spite of myself to the infernal tones.... The phantom of crime across my reason prowls around (in my skull).... Murder, rape, robbery, parricide, pass through my mind like fierce lightnings....’

The spectacle of death and corruption has a strong attraction for him. He delights in putrefaction and revels in disease.

‘My ghostly belovèd, snatched by death, played before me livid and purple.... Bony nakedness, chaste in her leanness! Hectic beauty as sad as it is ardent!... Near her a coffin ... greedily opened its oblong jaws, and seemed to call her....’ (L’Amante macabre).

‘Mademoiselle Squelette!
Je la surnommais ainsi:
Elle était si maigrelette!

‘Crachant une gouttelette
De sang très peu cramoisi...
Elle était si maigrelette!...

‘Sa phthisie étant complète;...
Sa figure verdelette...
Un soir, à l’espagnolette
Elle vint se pendre ici.

‘Horreur! une cordelette
Décapitait sans merci
Mademoiselle Squelette:
Elle était si maigrelette!’

Mademoiselle Squelette.

‘That I might rescue the angelically beautiful dead from the horrible kisses of the worm I had her embalmed in a strange box. It was on a winter’s night. From the ice-cold, stiff and livid body were taken out the poor defunct organs, and into the open belly, bloody and empty, were poured sweet-smelling salves....’ (La Morte embaumée).

‘Flesh, eyebrows, hair, my coffin and my winding-sheet, the grave has eaten them all; its work is done.... My skull has attested its shrinking, and I, a scaling, crumbling residue of death, have come to look back with regret upon the time when I was rotting, and the worm yet fasted not....’ (Le mauvais Mort).

This depravity of taste will not seldom be observed among the deranged. In Rollinat it merely inspires loathsome verses; among others it leads them to the eager devouring of human excretions, and, in its worst forms, to being enamoured of a corpse (Necrophilia).

Violent erotomaniacal excitement expresses itself in a series of poems (Les Luxures), which not only celebrate the most unbridled sensuality, but also all the aberrations of sexual psychopathy.

But the most conspicuous are the sensations of undefined horrors which continually beset him. Everything inspires him with anguish; all the sights of Nature appear to him to enclose some frightful mystery. He is always expecting, in trembling, some unknown terror.

‘I always shudder at the strange look of some boot and some shoe. Ay, you may shrug your shoulders mockingly, I do shudder; and suddenly, on thinking of the foot they cover, I ask myself: “Is it mechanical, or living?” ...’ (Le Maniaque).

‘My room is like my soul.... Heavy curtains, very ancient, cling round the deep bed; long fantastic insects dance and crawl on the ceiling. When my clock strikes the hour it makes an appalling noise; every swing of the pendulum vibrates, and is strangely prolonged.... Furniture, pictures, flowers, even the books, all smell of hell and poison; and the horror, which loves me, envelops this prison like a pall....’ (La Chambre).

‘The library made me think of very old forests; thirteen iron lamps, oblong and spectral, poured their sepulchral light day and night on the faded books full of shadow and secrets. I always shuddered when I entered. I felt myself in the midst of fogs and death-rattles, drawn on by the arms of thirteen pale armchairs, and scanned by the eyes of thirteen great portraits....’ (La Bibliothèque).

‘In the swamp full of malice, which clogs and penetrates his stockings, he hears himself faintly called by several voices making but one. He finds a corpse as sentinel, which rolls its dull eyeballs, and moves its corruption with an automatic spring. I show to his dismayed eyes fires in the deserted houses, and in the forsaken parks beds full of green rose.... And the old cross on the calvary hails him from afar, and curses him, crossing its stern arms as it stretches out and brandishes them....’ (La Peur).

I will not weary by multiplying examples, and will only quote the titles of a few more poems: The Living Grave; Troppmann’s Soliloquy (a well-known eight-fold murderer); The Crazy Hangman; The Monster; The Madman; The Headache (La Céphalalgie); The Disease; The Frenzied Woman; Dead Eyes; The Abyss; Tears; Anguish; The Slow Death-struggle; The Interment; The Coffin; The Death-knell; Corruption; The Song of the Guillotined, etc.

All these poems are the production of a craze, which will be frequently observed among degenerates. Even Dostojevski, who is known to have been mentally afflicted, suffered from it also. ‘As soon as it grew dusk,’ he relates of himself,[220] ‘I gradually fell into that state of mind which so often overmasters me at night since I have been ill, and which I shall call mystic fright. It is a crushing anxiety about something which I can neither define nor even conceive, which does not actually exist, but which perhaps is about to be realized suddenly, at this very moment, to appear and rise up before me like an inexorable, horrible, unshapen fact.’ Legrain[221] quotes a degenerate lunatic whose mania began ‘with feelings of fear and anguish at some fancy.’ Professor Kowalewski[222] indicates as degrees of mental derangement in degeneration—first, neurasthenia; secondly, impulses of ‘obsession’ and feelings of morbid anguish. Legrand du Saulle[223] and Morel[224] describe this state of groundless, undefined fear, and coin for it the not very happy word ‘Panophobia.’ Magnan calls it more correctly ‘Anxiomania’—frenzied anguish—and speaks of it as a very common stigma of degeneration. The anguish mania is an error of consciousness, which is filled with presentations of fear, and transfers their cause into the external world, while, as a matter of fact, they are stimulated by pathological processes within the organism. The invalid feels oppressed and uneasy, and imputes[227] to the phenomena which surround him a threatening and sinister aspect, in order to explain to himself his dread, the origin of which escapes him, because it is rooted in the unconscious.

As in Rollinat we have learnt to know the poet of anxiomania, so shall we find in another author, whose name has become widely known in the last two years, in the Belgian, Maurice Maeterlinck, an example of an utterly childish idiotically-incoherent mysticism. He reveals the state of his mind most characteristically in his poems,[225] of which I will give a few examples. Here is the first of the collection—Serres chaudes:

‘O hot-house in the middle of the woods. And your doors ever closed! And all that is under your dome! And under my soul in your analogies!

‘The thoughts of a princess who is hungry; the tedium of a sailor in the desert; a brass-band under the windows of incurables.

‘Go into the warm moist corners! One might say, ‘tis a woman fainting on harvest-day. In the courtyard of the infirmary are postilions; in the distance an elk-hunter passes by, who now tends the sick.

‘Examine in the moonlight! (Oh, nothing there is in its place!) One might say, a madwoman before judges, a battle-ship in full sail on a canal, night-birds on lilies, a death-knell towards noon (down there under those bells), a halting-place for the sick in the meadows, a smell of ether on a sunny day.

‘My God! my God! when shall we have rain and snow and wind in the hot-house?’

These idiotic sequences of words are psychologically interesting, for they demonstrate with instructive significance the workings of a shattered brain. Consciousness no longer elaborates a leading or central idea. Representations emerge just as the wholly mechanical association of ideas arouses them. There is no attention seeking to bring order into the tumult of images as they come and go, to separate the unconnected, to suppress those that contradict each other, and to group those which are allied into a single logical series.

A few more examples of these fugitive thoughts exclusively under the rule of unbridled association. Here is one entitled Bell-glasses (Cloches de verre):

‘O bell-glasses! Strange plants for ever under shelter! While the wind stirs my senses without! A whole valley of the soul for ever still! And the enclosed lush warmth towards noon! And the pictures seen through the glass!

‘Never remove one of them! Several have been placed on old moonlight. Look through their foliage. There is perhaps a vagabond on a throne; one has the impression that corsairs[228] are waiting on the pond, and that antediluvian beings are about to invade the towns.

‘Some have been placed on old snows. Some have been placed on ancient rains. (Pity the enclosed atmosphere!) I hear a festival solemnized on a famine Sunday; there is an ambulance in the middle of the house, and all the daughters of the king wander on a fast-day across the meadows.

‘Examine specially those of the horizon! They cover carefully very old thunderstorms. Oh, there must be somewhere an immense fleet on a marsh! And I believe that the swans have hatched ravens. (One can scarcely distinguish through the dampness.)

‘A maiden sprinkles the ferns with hot water; a troop of little girls watch the hermit in his cell; my sisters have fallen asleep on the floor of a poisonous grotto!

‘Wait for the moon and the winter, among these bells, scattered at last on the ice.’
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:02 am

Part 2 of 2

Another called Soul (Ame):

‘My soul! O my soul truly too much sheltered! And these flocks of desires in a hot-house! Awaiting a storm in the meadows! Let us go to the most sickly: they have strange exhalations. In the midst of them I cross a battlefield with my mother. They are burying a brother-in-arms at noon, while the sentries take their repast.

‘Let us go also to the weakest; they have strange sweats: here is a sick bride, treachery on Sunday, and little children in prison. (And further across the mist.) Is it a dying woman at the door of a kitchen? Or a nun, who cleans vegetables at the foot of the bed of an incurable?

‘Let us go lastly to the saddest: (at the last because they have poisons). O my lips accept the kisses of one wounded!

‘All the ladies of the castle are dead of hunger this summer in the towers of my soul! Here is the dawn, which enters into the festival! I have a glimpse of sheep along the quays, and there is a sail at the windows of the hospital!

‘It is a long road from my heart to my soul! And all the sentries are dead at their posts!

‘One day there was a poor little festival in the suburbs of my soul! They mowed the hemlock there one Sunday morning; and all the convent virgins saw the ships pass by on the canal one sunny fast-day. While the swans suffered under a poisonous bridge. The trees were lopped about the prison; medicines were brought one afternoon in June, and meals for the patients were spread over the whole horizon!

‘My soul! And the sadness of it all, my soul! and the sadness of it all!’

I have translated with the greatest exactness, and not omitted[229] one word of the three ‘poems.’ Nothing would be easier than to compose others on these models, overtrumping even those of Maeterlinck—e.g., ‘O Flowers! And we groan so heavily under the very old taxes! An hour-glass, at which the dog barks in May; and the strange envelope of the negro who has not slept. A grandmother who would eat oranges and could not write! Sailors in a ballroom, but blue! blue! On the bridge this crocodile and the policeman with the swollen cheek beckons silently! O two soldiers in the cowhouse, and the razor is notched! But the chief prize they have not drawn. And on the lamp are ink-spots!’ etc. But why parody Maeterlinck? His style bears no parody, for it has already reached the extreme limits of idiocy. Nor is it quite worthy of a mentally sound man to make fun of a poor devil of an idiot.

Certain of his poems consist simply of assonances, linked together without regard to sense and meaning, e.g., one which is entitled Ennui:

‘The careless peacocks, the white peacocks have flown, the white peacocks have flown from the tedium of awaking; I see the white peacocks, the peacocks of to-day, the peacocks that went away during my sleep, the careless peacocks, the peacocks of to-day, reach lazily the pond where no sun is, I hear the white peacocks, the peacocks of ennui, waiting lazily for the times when no sun is.’

The French original reveals why these words were chosen; they contain almost all the nasal sounds, ‘en’ or ‘an’ or ‘aon’: ‘Les paons nonchalants, les paons blancs ont fui, les paons blancs ont fui l’ennui du réveil; je vois les paons blancs ... atteindre indolents l’étang sans soleil,’ etc. This is a case of that form of echolalia which is observed not seldom among the insane. One patient says, e.g., ‘Man kann dann ran Mann wann Clan Bann Schwan Hahn,’ and he continues to grind similar sounds till he is either tired, or takes a word spoken before him as a starting-point for a new series of rhymes.

If Maeterlinck’s poems are read with some attention, it is soon seen that the muddled pictures which follow each other pell-mell as in a dream, are borrowed from a very limited circle of ideas, which have either generally, or only for him, an emotional content. ‘Strange,’ ‘old,’ ‘distant,’ are the adjectives he constantly repeats; they have this in common that they indicate something indistinct, not definitely recognisable, away on the bounds of the distant horizon, corresponding, therefore, to the nebulous thought of mysticism. Another adjective which sets him dreaming is ‘slow’ (lent). It also influences the French Symbolists, and hence their fondness for it. They evidently associated it with the idea of the movements of the priest reading the Mass, and it awakens in them the emotions of the[230] mysticism of faith. They betray this association of ideas by this, that they frequently use lent together with hiératique (sacerdotal). Maeterlinck, moreover, is constantly thinking of hospitals with their sick, and of everything connected with them (nuns, invalids’ diet, medicines, surgical operations, bandages, etc.), of canals with ships and swans, and of princesses. The hospitals and the canals, which are a feature in the Belgian landscape, may be connected with the first impressions of his childhood, and therefore produce emotions in him. The princesses, on the contrary, shut up in towers, suffering hunger, going astray, wading through swamps, etc., have evidently remained fixed in his imagination from the childish ballads of the pre-Raphaelites, one of which, by Swinburne, was given above as an example. Hospitals, canals, princesses, these are the pictures which always recur with the obstinacy of obsessions, and in the midst of the nebulous chaos of his jargon, alone show some sort of firm outline.

A few of his poems are written in the traditional poetical form; others, on the contrary, have neither measure nor rhyme, but consist of lines of prose, arbitrarily changing in length, not according to the style of Goethe’s free poems, or of Heine’s North Sea Songs, which ripple by with very strongly marked rhythmic movement, but deaf, jolting and limping, as the items of an inventory. These pieces are a servile imitation of the effusions of Walt Whitman, that crazy American to whom Maeterlinck was necessarily strongly attracted, according to the law I have repeatedly set forth—that all deranged minds flock together.

I should like here to interpolate a few remarks on Walt Whitman, who is likewise one of the deities to whom the degenerate and hysterical of both hemispheres have for some time been raising altars. Lombroso ranks him expressly among ‘mad geniuses.’[226] Mad Whitman was without doubt. But a[231] genius? That would be difficult to prove. He was a vagabond, a reprobate rake, and his poems[227] contain outbursts of erotomania so artlessly shameless that their parallel in literature could hardly be found with the author’s name attached. For his fame he has to thank just those bestially sensual pieces which first drew to him the attention of all the pruriency of America. He is morally insane, and incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, virtue and crime. ‘This is the deepest theory of susceptibility,’ he says in one place, ‘without preference or exclusion; the negro with the woolly head, the bandit of the highroad, the invalid, the ignorant—none are denied.’ And in another place he explains he ‘loves the murderer and the thief, the pious and good, with equal love.’ An American driveller, W. D. O’Connor, has called him on this account ‘The good gray Poet.’ We know, however, that this ‘goodness,’ which is in reality moral obtuseness and morbid sentimentality, frequently accompanies degeneration, and appears even in the cruellest assassins, for example, in Ravachol.

He has megalomania, and says of himself:

‘From this hour I decree that my being be freed from all restraints and limits.
‘I go where I will, my own absolute and complete master.
‘I breathe deeply in space. The east and the west are mine.
‘Mine are the north and south. I am greater and better than I thought myself.
‘I did not know that so much boundless goodness was in me....
‘Whoever disowns me causes me no annoyance.
‘Whoever recognises me shall be blessed, and will bless me.’

He is mystically mad, and announces: ‘I have the feeling of all. I am all, and believe in all. I believe that materialism is true, and that spiritualism is also true; I reject nothing.’ And in another still more characteristic passage:

‘Santa Spirita [sic!], breather, life,
Beyond the light, lighter than light,
Beyond the flames of hell, joyous, leaping easily above hell,
Beyond Paradise, perfumed solely with mine own perfume,
Including all life on earth, touching, including God, including Saviour and Satan,
Ethereal, pervading all, for without me what were all? what were God?
Essence of forms, life of the real identities ...
Life of the great round world, the sun and stars, and of man, I, the general soul.’

In his patriotic poems he is a sycophant of the corrupt American vote-buying, official-bribing, power-abusing, dollar-democracy, and a cringer to the most arrogant Yankee conceit.[232] His war-poems—the much renowned Drum Taps—are chiefly remarkable for swaggering bombast and stilted patter.

His purely lyrical pieces, with their ecstatic ‘Oh!’ and ‘Ah!’ with their soft phrases about flowers, meadows, spring and sunshine, recall the most arid, sugary and effeminate passages of our old Gessner, now happily buried and forgotten.

As a man, Walt Whitman offers a surprising resemblance to Paul Verlaine, with whom he shared all the stigmata of degeneration, the vicissitudes of his career, and, curiously enough, even the rheumatic ankylosis. As a poet, he has thrown off the closed strophe as too difficult, measure and rhyme as too oppressive, and has given vent to his emotional fugitive ideation in hysterical exclamations, to which the definition of ‘prose gone mad’ is infinitely better suited than it is to the pedantic, honest hexameters of Klopstock. Unconsciously, he seemed to have used the parallelism of the Psalms, and Jeremiah’s eruptive style, as models of form. We had in the last century the Paramythien of Herder, and the insufferable ‘poetical prose’ of Gessner already mentioned. Our healthy taste soon led us to recognise the inartistic, retrogressive character of this lack of form, and that error in taste has found no imitator among us for a century. In Whitman, however, his hysterical admirers commend this réchauffé of a superannuated literary fashion as something to come; and admire, as an invention of genius, what is only an incapacity for methodical work. Nevertheless, it is interesting to point out that two persons so dissimilar as Richard Wagner and Walt Whitman have, in different spheres, under the pressure of the same motives, arrived at the same goal—the former at ‘infinite melody,’ which is no longer melody; the latter at verses which are no longer verses, both in consequence of their incapacity to submit their capriciously vacillating thoughts to the yoke of those rules which in ‘infinite’ melody, as in lyric verse, govern by measure and rhyme.

Maeterlinck, then, in his poems is a servile imitator of crazy Walt Whitman, and carries his absurdities still further. Besides his poems he has written things to which one cannot well refuse the name of plays, since they are cast in the form of dialogues. The best known of them is The Princess Maleine.[228]

The ‘dramatis personæ,’ as he, true to the romantic and mystical practice of the pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists, entitles the list of his characters, are as follows: Hjalmar, King of one part of Holland; Marcellus, King of another part of Holland; Prince Hjalmar, son of King Hjalmar; little Allan, son of Queen Anne; Angus, friend to Prince Hjalmar; Stephano and[233] Vanox, officers of Marcellus; Anne, Queen of Jütland; Godeliva, wife of King Marcellus; Princess Maleine, daughter of Marcellus and Godeliva; Maleine’s nurse; Princess Uglyane, daughter of Queen Anne. With them come all the old well-known jointed dolls and puppets out of the dustiest corners of the old lumber-rooms of romance—a fool, three poor people, two old peasants, courtiers, pilgrims, a cripple, beggars, vagabonds, an old woman, seven (the mystic number!) nuns, etc.

The names which Maeterlinck gives to his figures should be noted. As a Fleming, he knows very well that Hjalmar is not Dutch, but Scandinavian; that Angus is Scotch. But he makes this confusion intentionally, in order to obliterate the distinct outlines with which he appears to surround his figures, when he calls them ‘Kings of Holland’; in order again to detach them from the firm ground on which he pretends to place them and to suppress their co-ordinates, which assign them a place in space and time. They may wear clothes, have names and take a human rank, but all the while they are only shadows and clouds.

King Hjalmar comes with Prince Hjalmar to the castle of Marcellus in order to ask for the hand of the Princess Maleine. The two young people see each other for the first time, and only for a few minutes, but they instantly fall in love with each other. At the banquet in honour of the King a quarrel breaks out, about which we learn no particulars; King Hjalmar is seriously offended, swears revenge, and leaves the castle in a rage. In the interlude Hjalmar wages war against Marcellus, kills him and his wife, Godeliva, and at once razes his castle and town to the ground. Princess Maleine and her nurse were on this occasion—how, why and by whom is not explained—immured in a vaulted room in a tower; then the nurse, after three days’ work with her finger-nails, loosens a stone in the wall, and the two women obtain their liberty.

Since Maleine loves Hjalmar and cannot forget him, they make their way towards his father’s castle. Things are going very badly in Hjalmar’s castle. There Queen Anne of Jütland resides, who has been driven away by her subjects, and with her grown-up daughter Uglyane and her little son Allan (here also the Dane is systematically given a Scottish name), has found hospitality with King Hjalmar. Queen Anne has turned the head of the old man. She has become his mistress, rules him completely, and makes him ill in body and soul. She wishes that his son should marry her daughter. Hjalmar is in despair about his father’s collapse. He detests his morganatic step-mother, and shudders at the thought of a marriage with Uglyane. He believes Maleine to have been slain with her parents in the war, but he cannot yet forget her.

Maleine has in the meantime been wandering with her nurse[234] through a kind of enchanted forest, and through an incomprehensible village, where she has uncanny meetings with all sorts of people, beggars, vagabonds, peasants, old women, etc., interchanging odd talk, and reaches Hjalmar’s castle, where no one knows her. She is, however, in spite of this, at once appointed as lady-in-waiting to the Princess Uglyane.

One evening Prince Hjalmar decides to make advances to Uglyane, and with that object he gives her a nocturnal rendezvous in the park of the castle, not a secret, but, so to speak, an official, lovers’ tryst, to which he, with his father’s consent, and she, with her mother’s, is to go. Maleine hinders it by telling Uglyane, who is splendidly attiring and adorning herself, that Prince Hjalmar has gone into the forest and will not come. She then goes herself into the park, and makes herself known to Hjalmar, who arrives punctually. He leads her in great delight to his father, who receives her as his future daughter-in-law, and there is no further talk of his betrothal to Uglyane. Queen Anne determines to get rid of the intruder. She behaves at first in a friendly manner, assigns her a beautiful room in the castle, then in the night she forces the King, who for a long time resists her, to penetrate into Maleine’s room, where she puts a cord round the Princess’s neck and strangles her. Signs and wonders accompany the deed: a tempest forces open a window, a comet appears, a wing of the castle falls in ruins, a forest bursts into flames, swans fall wounded out of the air, etc., etc.

Next morning the body of the Princess Maleine is discovered. King Hjalmar, whom the night’s murder has robbed of the last remnant of reason, betrays the secret of the deed. Prince Hjalmar stabs Queen Anne, and then plunges the dagger into his own heart. Thereupon the piece closes thus:

Nurse. Come away, my poor lord.

King. Good God! good God! She is waiting now on the wharf of hell!

Nurse. Come away! come away!

King. Is there anybody here that fears the curses of the dead?

Angus. Ay, my lord, I do.

King. Well, you close their eyes, and let us be gone.

Nurse. Ay, ay. Come hence! come hence!

King. I will; I will. Oh, oh! how lonely I shall feel hereafter! I am steeped in misery up to my ears at seventy-seven years of age. But where are you?

Nurse! Here, here!

King. You will not feel angry with me? Let us go to breakfast. Will there be salad for breakfast? I should like a little salad.

Nurse. Yes, yes. You shall have some, my lord.

King. I do not know why; I feel somewhat melancholy to-day. Good God! good God! How unhappy the dead do look!

[Exit with Nurse.

Angus. Another night such as this, and all our heads will have turned white.

[Exeunt all save the Nuns, who begin singing the Miserere while conveying the corpses towards the bed. The church bells cease sounding. Nightingales are heard warbling without. A cock jumps on the window-sill, and crows.

When we begin to read this piece we are startled, and ask: ‘Why is all this so familiar to me? Of what does it remind me?’ After a few pages it all at once becomes clear: the whole thing is a kind of cento from Shakespeare! Every character, every scene, every speech in any way essential to the piece! King Hjalmar is put together out of King Lear and Macbeth; Lear in his madness and manner of expressing himself, Macbeth in his share in the murder of the Princess Maleine. Queen Anne is patched up out of Lady Macbeth and Queen Gertrude; Prince Hjalmar is unmistakably Hamlet, with his obscure speeches, his profound allusions and his inner struggles between filial duty and morality; the nurse is from Romeo and Juliet; Angus is Horatio; Vanox and Stephano are Rosenkranz and Guildenstern, with an admixture of Marcellus and Bernardo, and all the subordinate characters, the fool, the doctor, the courtiers, etc., bear the physiognomy of Shakespeare’s characters.

The piece begins in the following manner:

The Gardens of the Castle.
Enter Stephano and Vanox.

Vanox. What o’clock is it?

Stephano. Judging from the moon, it should be midnight.

Vanox. I think ‘tis going to rain.

Let us compare this with the first scene in Hamlet:

A platform before the Castle.
Francisco ... Bernardo.

Francisco. You come most carefully upon your hour.

Bernardo. ‘Tis now struck twelve....

Francisco. ... ‘Tis bitter cold, and I am sick at heart, etc.

One could, if it were worth while, trace scene for scene, word for word, from some passage in Shakespeare. In the Princesse Maleine we find in succession the fearfully stormy night from Julius Cæsar (Act I., Scene 3); the entrance of King Lear into the palace of Albany (Act I., Scene 4 ... ‘Lear: Let me not stay a jot for dinner; go, get it ready,’ etc.); the night scene in Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth induces her husband to commit murder; the thrice-repeated ‘Oh! oh! oh!’ of Othello which Queen Anne here utters; Hamlet’s conversation with Horatio, etc. The death of the Princess Maleine has been inspired by memories both of Desdemona suffocated and of Cordelia hanged. All this is jumbled up in the craziest manner, and often distorted almost beyond recognition, or given the opposite meaning; but, with a little attention, one can always find one’s way.

Let us imagine a child, at the age when he is able to follow the conversation of grown-up people, attending a performance[236] or a reading of Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II., and who on his return to the nursery should relate in his own way to his little brothers and sisters what he had heard. We should in this way get a correct idea of the composition of Princesse Maleine. Maeterlinck has crammed himself with Shakespeare, and reproduces the pieces undigested, yet repulsively altered and with the beginnings of foul decomposition. This is an unappetizing picture, but it alone can serve to illustrate the mental process which goes on in the so-called ‘creations’ of the degenerate. They read greedily, receive a very strong impression in consequence of their emotionalism; this pursues them with the force of an ‘obsession,’ and they do not rest till they have reproduced, sadly travestied, what they have read. Thus their works resemble the coins of the barbarians, which are imitations of Roman and Greek models, while betraying that their artificers could not read or understand the letters and symbols inscribed on them.

Maeterlinck’s Princesse Maleine is a Shakespearian anthology for children or Tierra del Fuegians. The characters of the British poet have gone to make parts for the actors in a theatre of monkeys. They still remind us more or less of the attitudes and movements of the persons whom they ape, but they have not a human brain in their heads, and cannot say two connected and rational words. Here are a few examples of the manner in which Maeterlinck’s people converse:

King Marcellus in the First Act (Scene 2) endeavours to dissuade the Princess Maleine from loving Hjalmar.

Marcellus. Well, Maleine!

Maleine. My lord?

Marcellus. Do you not understand?

Maleine. What, my lord?

Marcellus. Will you promise me to forget Hjalmar?

Maleine. My lord!...

Marcellus. What say you? Do you still love Hjalmar?

Maleine. Ay, my lord.

Marcellus. Ay, my lord. Oh, devils and tempests! she coolly confesses it. She dares to tell me this without shame. She has seen Hjalmar once only, for one single afternoon, and now she is hotter than hell.

Godeliva. My lord!...

Marcellus. Be silent, you. “Ay, my lord!” and she is not yet fifteen! Ha! it makes one long to kill them then and there....

Godeliva. My lord....

Nurse. Isn’t she free to love, just like anyone else? Do you mean to put her under a glass case? Is this a reason to bully a poor child? She has done no harm....

Marcellus. Oh, she has done no harm!... Now, in the first place, hold your peace, you.... I am not addressing you; and it is doubtless at your prompting, you procuress....

Godeliva. My lord!...

Nurse. A procuress! I a procuress!

Marcellus. Will you let me speak? Begone! begone, both of you! Oh! I know well enough you have put your heads together, and that the[237] season of scheming and plotting has set in; but wait awhile.... Now, Maleine, ... you should be reasonable. Will you promise to be reasonable?

Maleine. Ay, my lord.

Marcellus. There! come now. Therefore you will not think any more of this marriage?...

Maleine. Ay.

Marcellus. Ay? You mean you will forget Prince Hjalmar?

Maleine. No.

Marcellus. You do not yet give up Prince Hjalmar?

Maleine. No.

Marcellus. Now, supposing I compel you? Ay, I! and supposing I have you put under lock and key? and supposing I separate you for evermore from your Hjalmar with his puny, girlish face? What say you? (She weeps.) Ha! that’s it—is’t? Begone, and we shall see about that—begone!

Next, the scene in the second act, where Maleine and Hjalmar meet in the gloomy park of the castle:

Hjalmar. ... Come!

Maleine. Not yet.

Hjalmar. Uglyane! Uglyane!

[Kisses her. Here the waterfall, blown about by the wind, collapses and splashes them.

Maleine. Oh! what have you done?

Hjalmar. It is the fountain.

Maleine. Oh, oh!

Hjalmar. It’s the wind.

Maleine. I am afraid.

Hjalmar. Think not of that any longer. Let us get further away. Let us not think of that any more. Ah, ah, ah! I am wet all over.

Maleine. There is somebody weeping, close by us.

Hjalmar. Somebody weeping?

Maleine. I am afraid.

Hjalmar. But cannot you hear that it’s only the wind?

Maleine. What are all those eyes on the tree, though?

Hjalmar. Where? Ha! those are the owls. They have returned. I will put them to flight. (Throws earth at them.) Away! away!

Maleine. There is yonder one that will not go.

Hjalmar. Where is it?

Maleine. On the weeping willow.

Hjalmar. Away!

Maleine. He is not gone.

Hjalmar. Away, away!

[Throws earth at the owl.

Maleine. Oh! you have thrown earth on me.

Hjalmar. Thrown earth on you?

Maleine. Ay, it fell on me.

Hjalmar. Oh, my poor Uglyane!

Maleine. I am afraid.

Hjalmar. Afraid—at my side?

Maleine. There are flames amid the trees.

Hjalmar. That is nothing—mere lightning. It has been very sultry to-day.

Maleine. I am afraid. Oh! who can be digging so at the ground around us?

Hjalmar. That is nothing. ‘Tis but a mole—a poor little mole at work.

(The mole in Hamlet! To our old acquaintance greeting!)

Maleine. I am afraid.

After some more conversation in the same style:

Hjalmar. What are you thinking of?

Maleine. I feel sad.

Hjalmar. Sad? Now, what are your sad thoughts about, Uglyane?

Maleine. I am thinking of Princess Maleine.

Hjalmar. What do you say?

Maleine. I am thinking of Princess Maleine.[229]

Hjalmar. Do you know Princess Maleine?

Maleine. I am Princess Maleine.

Hjalmar. You are not Uglyane?

Maleine. I am Princess Maleine.

Hjalmar. What! you Princess Maleine? Dead! But Princess Maleine is dead!

Maleine. I am Princess Maleine.

Has anyone anywhere in the poetry of the two worlds ever seen such complete idiocy? These ‘Ahs’ and ‘Ohs,’ this want of comprehension of the simplest remarks, this repetition four or five times of the same imbecile expressions, gives the truest conceivable clinical picture of incurable cretinism. These parts are precisely those most extolled by Maeterlinck’s admirers. According to them, all has been chosen with a deep artistic intention. A healthy reader will scarcely swallow that. Maeterlinck’s puppets say nothing, because they have nothing to say. Their author has not been able to put a single thought into their hollow skulls, because he himself possesses none. The creatures moving on his stage are not thinking and speaking human beings, but tadpoles or slugs, considerably more stupid than trained fleas at a fair.

Moreover, Princesse Maleine is not altogether a Shakespearian dream. The ‘seven nuns,’ e.g., belong to Maeterlinck. They are an astounding invention. They are ever marching like demented geese through the piece, winding in and out, with their psalm-singing, through all the rooms and corridors of the King’s castle, through the court, through the park, through the forest, coming unexpectedly round a corner in the middle of a scene, trotting across the stage and off at the other side without anyone understanding whence they come, whither they go, or for what purpose they are brought on at all. They are a living ‘obsession,’ mixing itself irresistibly in all the incidents of the piece. Here also we find all the intellectual fads which we noticed in the Serres Chaudes. The Princess Maleine is herself the embodiment of the hungry, sick, strayed princesses, wandering over the meadows, who haunt these poems, and undoubtedly sprang from Swinburne’s ballad of The King’s Daughters. The canals also play their part (p. 18). ‘And the expression of her eyes! It seemed as though one were all of a sudden in a great stream [Fr. canal] of fresh water....’ (p. 110). ‘We have been to look at the windmills along the canal,’ etc.[239] And sick people and illness are mentioned on almost every page (p. 110):

Anne. I was fever-stricken myself.

The King. Everyone is fever-stricken on arriving here.

Hjalmar. There is much fever in the village, etc

Besides Princesse Maleine, Maeterlinck has written some other pieces. One, L’Intruse (The Intruder), deals with the idea that in a house where a sick person lies in extremis, Death intrudes towards midnight, that he walks audibly through the garden, makes at first a few trial strokes with his scythe on the grass before the castle, then knocks at the door, forces it open because they will not admit him, and carries off his victim. In a second, Les Aveugles (The Blind), we are shown how a number of blind men, the inmates of a blind asylum, were led by an old priest into a forest, how the priest died suddenly without a sound, how the blind men did not at first notice this, but becoming at length uneasy, groped about, succeeded in touching the corpse, already growing cold, assured themselves by questioning each other that their leader was dead, and then in terrible despair awaited death by hunger and cold. For this charming story takes place on a wild island in the far north; and between the wood and the asylum lies a river, crossed by only one bridge, which the blind cannot find without a guide. It never occurs either to Maeterlinck or to his inconsolable blind men as possible that in the asylum, where, as is expressly mentioned, there are attendant nuns, the long absence of the whole body of blind men would be noticed, and someone sent out to look for them. The reader will not expect me to point out in detail the craziness of the assumption in both these pieces, or that, after these examples, I should relate and analyze two other pieces of Maeterlinck’s, Les Sept Princesses (‘seven,’ of course!) and Pelléas et Mélisande.

The Intruder has been translated into several languages, and performed in many towns. The Viennese laughed at its imbecility. In Paris and London men shook their heads. In Copenhagen an audience of appreciators of the ‘poetry of the future’ was touched, enraptured and inspired. This demonstrates the hysteria of to-day quite as much as the piece itself.

The history of Maeterlinck’s celebrity is especially remarkable and instructive. This pitiable mental cripple vegetated for years wholly unnoticed in his corner in Ghent, without the Belgian Symbolists, who outbid even the French, according him the smallest attention; as to the public at large, no one had a suspicion of his existence. Then one fine day in 1890 his writings fell accidentally into the hands of the French novelist, Octave Mirbeau. He read them, and whether he desired to make fun of his contemporaries in grand style, or whether he obeyed some morbid ‘impulsion’ is not known; it is sufficient to say that he[240] published in Le Figaro an article of an unheard-of extravagance, in which he represented Maeterlinck as the most brilliant, sublime, moving poet which the last three hundred years had produced, and assigned him a place near—nay, above Shakespeare. And then the world witnessed one of the most extraordinary and most convincing examples of the force of suggestion. The hundred thousand rich and cultivated readers to whom the Figaro addresses itself immediately took up the views which Mirbeau had imperiously suggested to them. They at once saw Maeterlinck with Mirbeau’s eyes. They found in him all the beauties which Mirbeau asserted that he perceived in him. Andersen’s fairy-tale of the invisible clothes of the emperor repeated itself line for line. They were not there, but the whole court saw them. Some imagined they really saw the absent state robes; the others did not see them, but rubbed their eyes so long that they at least doubted whether they saw them or not; others, again, could not impose upon themselves, but dared not contradict the rest. Thus Maeterlinck became at one stroke, by Mirbeau’s favour, a great poet, and a poet of the ‘future.’ Mirbeau had also given quotations which would have completely sufficed for a reader who was not hysterical, not given over irresistibly to suggestion, to recognise Maeterlinck for what he is, namely, a mentally debilitated plagiarist; but these very quotations wrung cries of admiration from the Figaro public, for Mirbeau had pointed them out as beauties of the highest rank, and one knows that a decided affirmation is sufficient to compel hypnotic subjects to eat raw potatoes as oranges, and to believe themselves to be dogs or other quadrupeds.

Everywhere apostles were quickly at hand to proclaim, interpret and extol the new master. The ‘mashers’ of the critic world, whose ambition is set on being the first to assume—nay, where it is possible, to foretell—the very latest fashions, the fashion of to-morrow, as much in the styles of literature, as in the colour and shape of neckties, vied with each other in deifying Maeterlinck. Ten editions of his Princesse Maleine have been sold out since Mirbeau’s suggestion, and, as I have said before, his Aveugles and Intruse have been performed in various places.

We now know the different forms under which the mysticism of degeneration manifests itself in contemporary literature. The magism of a Guaita and a Papus, the Androgyne of a Péladan, the anxiomania of a Rollinat, the idiotic drivelling of a Maeterlinck, may be regarded as its culminating aberrations. At least I cannot myself imagine that it would be possible for mysticism to go beyond, even by the thickness of a hair, these extreme points without even the hysterical, the devotees and the snobs of fashion, who are still in some degree capable of discernment, recognising in it a profound and complete intellectual darkness.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:03 am

Part 1 of 2



However dissimilar such individualities as Wagner and Tolstoi, Rossetti and Verlaine, may at first sight appear, we have, nevertheless, encountered in all of them certain common traits, to wit, vague and incoherent thought, the tyranny of the association of ideas, the presence of obsessions, erotic excitability, religious enthusiasm, by which we may recognise them as members of one and the same intellectual family, and justify their union into one single group—that of mystics.

We must go a step farther and say that not only the mystics among the degenerate, but in the main all the degenerate, of whatever nature they may be, are moulded from the same clay. They all show the same lacunæ, inequalities, and malformations in intellectual capacity, the same psychic and somatic stigmata. If, then, anyone, having a certain number of degenerate subjects to judge from, were to bring into prominence and represent as their exclusive peculiarity merely mystical thought in some, merely erotic emotionalism in others, merely vague, barren, fraternal love and a mania for regenerating the world, or else merely an impulsion to commit acts of a criminal nature, etc., he would manifestly be seeing only one side of the phenomenon, and taking no account of the rest. One or another stigma of degeneration may, in a given case, be especially apparent; but, on duly careful inspection, the presence of all the others, or, at least, indications of them, will be discerned.

To the celebrated French alienist, Esquirol, is due the signal merit of having discovered that there are forms of mental derangement in which thought proceeds apparently in a perfectly rational manner, but in which, in the midst of intelligent and logical cerebral activity, some insane presentations appear, like[242] erratic boulders, thus enabling us to recognise the subject as mentally diseased. But Esquirol has committed the fault of not digging deep enough; his observation is too much on the surface. It was through this that he came to introduce into science the notion of ‘monomania,’ that is, of well-delimitated, partial madness, of an isolated, fixed idea beside which all the rest of the intellectual life operates with sanity. This was an error. There is no monomania. Esquirol’s own pupil, the elder Falret, has sufficiently proved it, and our Westphal, from whose other merits I have no wish to detract, was far from standing in the forefront of research, when, half a century after Esquirol, and thirty years after Falret, he still described the ‘fear of space,’ or agoraphobia, as a special mental malady, or kind of monomania. What is apparently monomania is in reality an indication of a profound organic disorder which never reveals itself by one single phase of folly. A fixed idea never exists in isolation.[230] It is always accompanied by other irregularities of thought and feeling, which, it is true, at a cursory glance, may not be so distinctly remarked as the more strongly developed insane idea. Recent clinical observation has discovered a long series of similar fixed ideas or ‘monomanias,’ and recognised the fact that they are one and all the consequence of a fundamental disposition of the organism, viz., of its degeneration. It was unnecessary for Magnan to give a special name to each symptom of degeneration, and to draw up in array, with almost comical effect, the host of ‘phobias’ and ‘manias.’ Agoraphobia (fear of open space), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed space), rupophobia (fear of dirt), iophobia (fear of poison), nosophobia (fear of sickness), aichmophobia (fear of pointed objects), belenophobia (fear of needles), cremnophobia (fear of abysses), trichophobia (fear of hair), onomatomania (folly of words or names), pyromania (incendiary madness), kleptomania (madness for theft), dipsomania (madness for drink), erotomania (love madness), arithmomania (madness of numbers), oniomania (madness for buying), etc. This list might be lengthened at pleasure, and enriched by nearly all the roots of the Greek dictionary. It is simply philologico-medical trifling. None of the disorders discovered and described by Magnan and his pupils, and decorated with a sonorous Greek name, forms an independent entity, and appears separately; and Morel is right in disregarding as unessential all these varied manifestations of a morbid cerebral activity, and adhering to the principal phenomenon which lies at the base of all the ‘phobias[243]’ and ‘manias,’ namely, the great emotionalism of the degenerate.[231] If to emotionalism, or an excessive excitability, he had added the cerebral debility, which implies feebleness of perception, will, memory, judgment, as well as inattention and instability, he would have exhaustively characterized the nature of degeneration, and perhaps prevented psychiatry from being stuffed with a crowd of useless and disturbing designations. Kowalewski approached much nearer to the truth in his well-known treatise,[232] where he has represented all the mental disorders of the degenerate as one single malady, which merely presents different degrees of intensity, and which induces in its mildest form neurasthenia; under a graver aspect impulsions and groundless anxieties; and, in its most serious form, the madness of brooding thought or doubt. Within these limits may be ranged all the particular ‘manias’ and ‘phobias’ which at present swarm in the literature of mental therapeutics.

But if it be untenable to make a particular malady out of every symptom in which the fundamental disorder (i.e., degeneration) shows itself, it should not, on the other hand, be ignored that among certain of the degenerate a group of morbid phenomena distinctly predominates, without involving the absence of the other groups. Thus, it is permissible to distinguish among them certain principal species, notably, beside the mystics, of whom we have studied the most remarkable representatives in contemporary art and poetry, the ego-maniacs (Ichsüchtigen). It is not from affectation that I use this word instead of the terms ‘egoism’ (Selbstsucht) and ‘egoist,’ so generally employed. Egoism is a lack of amiability, a defect in education, perhaps a fault of character, a proof of insufficiently developed morality, but it is not a disease. The egoist is quite able to look after himself in life, and hold his place in society; he is often also, when the attainment of low ends only is in view, even more capable than the superior and nobler man, who has inured himself to self-abnegation. The ego-maniac, on the contrary, is an invalid who does not see things as they are, does not understand the world, and cannot take up a right attitude towards it. The difference I make in German between Ichsucht and Selbstsucht, the French also make in their language, where a careful writer will never confound the word ‘egotisme,’ borrowed from the English, with ‘egoïsme’—that is, selfishness.

Of course the reader to whom the mental physiognomy of ego-maniacs is shown ought always to remember that, if the principal representatives of this species and of that of the mystics are[244] characterized with sufficient clearness, the confines of the latter type are fluctuating. The ego-maniacs are, on the one hand, at once mystics, erotics, and, though it seems paradoxical, even affect occasionally an appearance of philanthropy; among the mystics, on the other hand, we frequently meet with a strongly-developed ego-mania. There are certain specimens among the degenerate in whom all the disorders are produced to such an equal degree that it is doubtful whether they ought to be classed with the mystics or the ego-maniacs. As a general rule, however, co-ordination under one class or the other will not be very difficult.

That egoism is a salient feature in the character of the degenerate has been unanimously confirmed by all observers. ‘The degenerate neither knows nor takes interest in anything but himself,’ says Roubinovitch;[233] and Legrain[234] asserts that he ‘has ... only one occupation, that of satisfying his appetites.’ This peculiarity establishes a bond which unites the highest of the degenerate to the lowest, the insane genius to the feeble mental cripple. ‘All delirious geniuses,’ remarks Lombroso, ‘are very much captivated by, and preoccupied with, their own selves,’[235] and Sollier writes on the subject of their antipodes, the imbeciles: ‘Undisciplined as they are, they obey only through fear, are often violent, especially to those who are weaker than themselves, humble and submissive towards those they feel to be stronger. They are without affection, egoistic in the highest degree, braggarts.’[236]

The clinicist is satisfied with indicating the fact of this characteristic egoism, but for ourselves we wish further to investigate what are its organic roots, why the degenerate must be more than egoistic, why he must be an ego-maniac, and cannot be otherwise.

In order to understand how the consciousness of the ‘I’ (morbidly exaggerated and frequently increasing to megalomania) originates, we must recall how the healthy consciousness of the ‘I’ is formed.

It is, of course, not my intention here to treat of the whole theory of cognition. It is only the most important results of this science, so highly developed in the present day, that can find place in this work.

It has become a philosophical commonplace that we know directly only those changes which take place in our own organism. If, in spite of this, we are able to form an image of the external world surrounding us, from perceptions derived[245] only from within, it is because we trace the changes in our organism which we have perceived to causes exterior to it; and from the nature and force of the changes taking place in our organism draw conclusions as to the nature and force of the external events causing them.

How we come in general to assume that there is something exterior, and that changes perceived by us only in our organism can have causes which are not in the organism itself, is a question over which metaphysics has cudgelled its brain for centuries. So little has it found an answer, that, in order to put an end to this difficulty anyhow, it has simply denied the very question, and jumped to the conclusion that the ‘I’ has actually no knowledge of a ‘not-I,’ of an external world, and cannot have it because there is no external world at all, that what we so call is a creation of our mind, and exists only in our thought as a presentation, but not outside our ‘I’ as a reality.

It is a fact characteristic of the soporific action exercised by the sound of a word on the human mind that this wholly senseless cackle, glib, well arranged and formed into the philosophical system of idealism, should have thoroughly satisfied for nearly eight generations the greater number of professional metaphysicians, from Berkeley to Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. These wise men repeated, in a tone of conviction, the doctrine of the non-existence of the ‘not-I,’ and it did not trouble them that they themselves contradicted constantly, in all their actions, their own fustian; that they devoted themselves from their birth to their death to an uninterrupted series of absolutely absurd actions, if there were no objective external world; that therefore they themselves recognised their system to be but wind and shadow, a childish game with words devoid of sense. And the most logical among these grave drivellers, Bishop Berkeley, did not even observe that after all he had not obtained, even at the price of the total abdication of common sense, the answer he sought to the fundamental question of knowledge, for his dogmatic idealism denies, it is true, the reality of the external world, but admits with frivolous thoughtlessness that there are other minds outside of him, Berkeley, and even a universal mind. Thus, then, even according to him, the ‘I’ is not all; there is still something outside of the ‘I,’ a ‘not-I’; there does exist an external world, if only under the form of immaterial spirits. This, however, brings up the question, How does Berkeley’s ‘I’ come to conceive the existence of something outside of itself, the existence of a ‘not-I’? That was the question which had to be answered, and, in spite of its sacrificing the whole world of phenomena, Berkeley’s idealism, like the idealism of every one of his successors, makes no reply to it whatsoever.

Metaphysics could find no answer to the question, because the latter, as stated by the former, does not admit of an answer. Scientific psychology—i.e., psycho-physiology—does not encounter the same difficulties. It does not take the finished ‘I’ of the adult, clearly conscious of himself, feeling himself distinctly opposed to the ‘not-I’ to the entire external world, but it goes back to the beginnings of this ‘I,’ investigates in what manner it is formed, and then finds that, at a time when the idea of the existence of a ‘not-I,’ would be really inexplicable, this idea, in fact, was absolutely non-existent, and that, when we do meet it, the ‘I’ has already had experiences which completely explain how it could and must arrive at the formation of the idea of a ‘not-I.’

We may assume that a certain degree of consciousness is the accompanying phenomenon of every reaction of the protoplasm on external action—i.e., is a fundamental quality of living matter. Even the simplest unicellular living organisms move with obvious intention towards certain goals, and away from certain points; they distinguish between foods and such materials as are unfit for nutrition; thus they have a species of will and judgment, and these two activities presuppose consciousness.[237] What may be the nature of this consciousness localized in protoplasm not yet even differentiated into nerve-cells, is a thing of which it is impossible for the human mind to form a definite idea. The only thing we can presuppose with any certainty is that in the crepuscular consciousness of a unicellular organism, the notion of an ‘I’ and a ‘not-I,’ which is opposed to it, does not exist. The cell feels changes in itself, and these changes provoke others, in accordance with established bio-chemical or bio-mechanical laws; it receives an impression to which it responds by a movement, but it has certainly no idea that the impression is caused by a process in the external world, and that its movement reacts on the external world.

Even among animals very much higher in the scale, and considerably more advanced in differentiation, a consciousness of the ‘Ego,’ properly so called, is inconceivable. How can the ray of a star-fish, the bud of a tunicate, of a botryllus, the half of a double animal (diplozoon), the tube of an actinia, or of some other coral polypus, be aware of itself as a separate ‘I,’ seeing that, though it is an animal, it is at the[247] same time a portion of a composite animal, of a colony of animals, and must perceive impressions which strike it directly, as well as those experienced by a companion of the same colony? Or can certain large worms, many of the species of Eunice, for example, have an idea of their ‘Ego,’ when they neither feel nor recognise portions of their own bodies as constituent parts of their individuality, and begin to eat their tails when, by any accident in coiling themselves, it happens to lie in front of their mouths?

The consciousness of the ‘Ego’ is not synonymous with consciousness in general. While the latter is probably an attribute of all living matter, the former is the result of the concordant action of a nervous tissue highly differentiated and ‘hierarchized,’ or brought into a relation of mutual dependence. It appears very late in the series of organic evolution, and is, up to the present, the highest vital phenomenon of which we have knowledge. It arises little by little from experiences which the organism acquires in the course of the natural activity of its constituent parts. Every one of our nerve-ganglia, every one of our nerve-fibres, and even every cell, has a subordinate and faint consciousness of what passes in it. As the whole nervous system of our body has numerous communications between all its parts, it perceives in its totality something of all the stimulations of its parts, and the consciousness which accompanies them. In this manner there arises in the centre where all the nerve ducts of the whole body meet, i.e., in the brain, a total consciousness composed of innumerable partial consciousnesses, having evidently for its object only the processes of its own organism. In the course of its existence, and that at a very early period, consciousness distinguishes two kinds of wholly different perceptions. Some appear without preparation, others accompanied and preceded by other phenomena. No act of will precedes the stimulation of the senses, but such an act does precede every conscious movement. Before our senses perceive anything, our consciousness has no notion of what they will perceive; before our muscles execute a movement, an image of this movement is elaborated in the brain, or spinal marrow (in the case of a reflex action). There exists then, beforehand, a presentation of the movement which the muscles will execute. We feel clearly that the immediate cause of the movement lies in ourselves. On the other hand, we have no similar feelings in regard to sense-impressions. Again, we learn by the muscular sense the realization of motor images elaborated by our consciousness; on the other hand, we experience nothing similar when we elaborate a motor image not having our own muscles exclusively for its object. We wish, for example, to raise our arm. Our consciousness elaborates[248] this image, the brachial muscles obey, and consciousness receives the communication that the image has been realized by the brachial muscles. Next, we wish to raise or throw a stone with our arm. Our consciousness elaborates a motor image, involving our own muscles and the stone. When we are executing the desired and meditated movement, our consciousness receives sensations from the muscles in activity, but not from the stone. Thus it perceives the movements which are accompanied by muscular sensations, and others which appear without this accompaniment.

In order thoroughly to comprehend the formation of our consciousness of the ‘Ego,’ and the presentation of the existence of a ‘non-Ego,’ we must consider a third point. All the parts, all the cells of our body, have their own separate consciousness, which accompanies every one of their excitations. These excitations are occasioned partly by the activity of nutrition, of assimilation, of the cleavage of the nucleus—that is to say, by the vital processes of the cell itself, and partly by action of the environment. The excitations which proceed from the interior, the bio-chemical and bio-mechanical processes of the cell, are continued, and endure as long as the life of the cell itself. The stimulations which are the result of the action of the environment only appear, of course, with this action, i.e., not continuously, but intermittently. The vital processes in the cell have direct value and significance only for the cell itself, not for the whole organism; actions of the environment may become important for the whole organism. The principal organ, the brain, acquires the habit of neglecting the excitations relating to the interior vital activity of the cell—first, because they are continuous, and we perceive distinctly only a change of state, not a state itself; and then, because the cell accomplishes its own functions by its own energy, which renders the interference of the brain useless. The brain takes notice, on the contrary, of excitations which are produced by action ab extra—first, because they appear with interruptions; and, secondly, because they may necessitate an adaptation of the whole organism, which could only take place through the intervention of the brain.

It cannot be doubted that the brain has knowledge also of the internal excitations of the organism, and only for the reasons already stated is not, as a general rule, distinctly conscious of them. If through illness a disturbance is produced in the functions of the single cell, we at once become conscious of the processes in the cell—we feel the diseased organ, it stimulates our attention; the whole organism is uncomfortable and out of tune. It is sensations of this kind, which, in a healthy state, do not distinctly reach our consciousness, that make up the[249] sensation of our body, our organic ‘I,’ the so-called cœnæsthesis or general sensibility.

Cœnæsthesis, the organic dimly-conscious ‘I,’ rises into the clear consciousness of the ‘Ego,’ by excitations of the second order, reaching the brain from the nerves and muscles, for they are stronger and more distinct than the others, and are interrupted. The brain learns the changes produced in the nervous system by external causes, and the contraction of the muscles. How it has knowledge of the latter is still obscure. It has been recently asserted that the muscular sense has for its seat the nerves of the joints. This is certainly false. We have distinct sensations of the contractions of muscles which put no joint in movement—for example, of the orbicular and constrictor muscles. Then there are the cramps and spasms even of isolated muscular fibres, which likewise do not produce a change of position in the joints. But in any case the perceptions of muscular sense exist, however they are or are not produced.

Thus consciousness very soon learns that the muscular movements it perceives are preceded by certain acts accomplished by itself, namely, the elaboration of motor images, and the despatch of impulses to the muscles. It receives knowledge of these movements twice, one after the other—it perceives them, first, directly as its own presentation and act of volition, as a motor image elaborated in the nerve-centres; and immediately afterwards as an impression arising from the muscular nerves as accomplished movement. It acquires the habit of connecting its own acts—those previously elaborated motor images—with the muscular movements, and of regarding the latter a consequence of the former—in short, of thinking causally. If consciousness has adopted the habit of causality, it seeks a cause in all its perceptions, and can no longer imagine a perception without a cause. The cause of muscular perceptions—that is, of movements consciously willed—it finds in itself. The cause of nervous perceptions—that is, the information reported by the nervous system concerning the excitations which it experiences—it does not find in itself. But the latter must have a cause. Where is it? As it is not in consciousness, it must necessarily exist somewhere else; there must then be something else outside consciousness, and so consciousness comes, through the habit of causal thought, to assume the existence of something outside itself, of a ‘not-I,’ of an external world, and to project into it the cause of the excitations which it perceives in the nervous system.

Experience teaches that the distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I’ is really only a question of a habit of thought, of a form of thought, and not of an effective, certain knowledge, which carries in itself the criteria of its accuracy and certitude.[250] When, in consequence of a morbid disturbance, our sensory nerves or their centres of perception are excited, and consciousness acquires knowledge of this excitation, it imputes to it without hesitation, according to its habit, an external cause existing in the ‘not-I.’ Hence arise illusions and hallucinations, which the patient takes for realities, and that so positively that there is absolutely no means of convincing him that he perceives facts passing within him, not outside of him. In the same manner consciousness concludes that the movements executed unconsciously are occasioned by an extraneous will. It perceives the movement, but it has not noticed that the habitual internal cause, viz., a motor image and an act of the will, has preceded it; hence it places the cause of the movement without hesitation in the ‘not-I,’ although it resides in the ‘I,’ and is only occasioned by subordinate centres, the activity of which remains concealed from consciousness. This it is which gives rise to spiritualism, which, in so far as it is in good faith and not openly a hocus-pocus, is simply a mystical attempt to explain movements, the real cause of which consciousness does not find in itself, and which it places, in consequence, in the ‘not-I.’

In ultimate analysis, the consciousness of the ‘Ego,’ and notably the opposition of the ‘Ego’ and the ‘non-Ego,’ is an illusion of the senses and a fallacy of thought. Every organism is related to a species, and, over and above that, to the universe. It is the direct material continuation of its parents; it is itself continued directly and materially in its descendants. It is composed of the same materials as the whole environing world; these materials are constantly penetrating into it, transforming it, producing in it all the phenomena of life and consciousness. All the lines of action of the forces of nature are prolonged in its interior; it is the scene of the same physical and chemical processes in action throughout the universe. What pantheism divines and clothes in needlessly mystic words is clear, sober fact, namely, the unity of nature, in which each organism is also a part related to the whole. Certain parts are more nearly connected; others are more separated from one another. Consciousness perceives only the closely-knit parts of its physical basis, not those more remote. Thus it falls into the illusion that the parts near together alone belong to it, and that the more distant are strangers to it, and to consider itself as an ‘individuum,’ confronting the world as a separate world or microcosm. It does not observe that the ‘I,’ so rigidly posited, has no fixed limits, but continues and spreads beneath the threshold of consciousness, with an ever-diminishing distinctness of separation, to the extreme depths of nature, till it blends there with all the other constituents of the universe.

We may now resume much more briefly the natural history of[251] the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I,’ and present it in a few formulæ. Consciousness is a fundamental quality of living matter. The highest organism itself is only a colony of the simplest organisms—that is to say, of living cells—differentiated diversely in order to qualify the colony for higher functions than the simple cell can accomplish. The collective or ego-consciousness of the colony is composed of the individual consciousness of the parts. The ego-consciousness has an obscure and disregarded part which relates to the vital functions of the cells, or the cœnæsthesis, and a clear, privileged part which is attentive to the excitations of the sensory nerves, and to the voluntary activity of the muscles, and which recognises them. Clear consciousness learns from experience that acts of will precede voluntary movements. It arrives at the assumption of causality. It observes that the sensorial excitations are not caused by anything contained in itself. It is compelled, in consequence, to transfer this cause, the assumption of which it cannot renounce, elsewhere, and is necessarily first brought by this to the presentation of a ‘not-I,’ and afterwards to the development of this ‘not-I’ into an apparent universe.

The old spiritualistic psychology, which regards the ‘Ego’ as something entirely different from the body, as a special unitary substance, maintains that this ‘Ego’ considers its own body as something not identical with it, as opposed to the ‘Ego’ properly so called, as something external—in fact, as ‘non-Ego.’ Thus, it denies cœnæsthesis—that is to say, an absolutely certain empirical fact. We constantly have an obscure sensation of the existence of all parts of our body, and our ego-consciousness immediately experiences a change if the vital functions of any one of our organs or tissues suffers a disturbance.[238]

Development advances from the unconscious organic ‘I’ to the clear conscious ‘I,’ and to the conception of the ‘not-I.’ The infant probably has cœnæsthesis even before, in any case after, its birth, for it feels its vital internal processes, shows satisfaction when they are in healthy action, manifests its discomfort by movements and cries, which are also only a movement of the respiratory and laryngeal muscles, when any disturbances[252] appear there, perceives and expresses general states of the organism, such as hunger, thirst and fatigue. But clear consciousness does not yet exist for it; the brain has not yet taken command over the inferior centres. Sense-impressions are perhaps perceived, but certainly not yet grouped into ideas; the greater part of the movements are preceded by no conscious act of will, and are only reflex actions—that is, manifestations of those local consciousnesses which later become so obscure as to be imperceptible, when the cerebral consciousness has attained its full clearness. Little by little the higher centres develop; the child begins to give heed to its sense-impressions, to form from its perceptions ideas, and to make voluntary movements adapted to an end. With the awakening of its conscious will the birth of the consciousness of its ‘Ego’ is linked. The child apprehends that it is an individual. But its internal organic processes occupy it very much more than does the procedure of the external world, transmitted to it by the sensory nerves, and its own states fill up its consciousness more or less completely. The child is, for this reason, a model of egoism, and, until it reaches a more advanced age, is wholly incapable of displaying either attention or interest in anything at all which is not directly connected with itself, its needs and inclinations. By the continued culture of his brain man finally arrives at that degree of maturity in which he acquires a just idea of his relations to other men and to Nature. Then consciousness pays less and less regard to the vital processes in its own organism, and more and more to the stimulations of its senses. It only notices the former when they reveal pressing necessities; it is, on the contrary, always concerned with the latter when in a waking state. The ‘I’ retires decidedly behind the ‘not-I,’ and the image of the world fills the greater part of consciousness.
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