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

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:04 am

Part 2 of 2

As the formation of an ‘I,’ of an individuality clearly conscious of its separate existence, is the highest achievement of living matter, so the highest degree of development of the ‘I’ consists in embodying in itself the ‘not-I,’ in comprehending the world, in conquering egoism, and in establishing close relations with other beings, things and phenomena. Auguste Comte, and after him Herbert Spencer, have named this stage ‘altruism,’ from the Italian word altrui, ‘others.’ The sexual instinct which forces an individual to seek for another individual is as little altruism as the hunger which incites the hunter to follow an animal in order to kill and eat it. There can be no question of altruism until an individual concerns himself about another being from sympathy or curiosity, and not in order to satisfy an immediate, pressing necessity of his body, the momentary hunger of some organ.

Not till he attains to altruism is man in a condition to maintain himself in society and in nature. To be a social being, man must feel with his fellow-creatures, and show himself sensitive to their opinion about him. Both the one and the other presuppose that he is capable of so vividly representing to himself the feelings of his fellow-creatures as to experience them himself. He who is not capable of imagining the pain of another with sufficient clearness to suffer the same himself will not have compassion, and he who cannot exactly feel for himself what impression an action or an omission on his part will make on another will have no regard for others. In both cases he will soon see himself excluded from the human community as the enemy of all, and treated as such by all, and very probably he will perish. And to defend himself against destructive natural forces and turn them to his advantage, man must know them intimately—that is, he must be able distinctly to picture their effects. A clear presentation of the feelings of others, and of the effects of natural forces, presupposes the faculty of occupying himself intensively with the ‘not-I.’ While a man is attending to the ‘not-I,’ he is not thinking of his ‘Ego,’ and the latter descends below the level of consciousness. In order that the ‘not-I’ should in this way prevail over the ‘I,’ the sensory nerves must properly conduct the external impressions, the cerebral centres of perception must be sensitive to the excitations of the sensory nerves, the highest centres must develop, in a sure, rapid and vigorous manner, the perceptions into ideas, unite these into conceptions and judgments, and, on occasion, transform them into acts of volition and motor impulses. And as the greatest part of these different activities is accomplished by the gray cortex of the frontal lobes, this means that this gray cortex must be well developed and work vigorously.

It is thus that a sane man appears to us. He perceives little and rarely his internal excitations, but always and clearly his external impressions. His consciousness is filled with images of the external world, not with images of the activity of his organs. The unconscious work of his inferior centres plays an almost vanishing part by the side of the fully conscious work of the highest centres. His egoism is no stronger than is strictly necessary to maintain his individuality, and his thoughts and actions are determined by knowledge of Nature and his fellow-creatures, and by the consideration he owes to them.

Quite otherwise is the spectacle offered by the degenerate person. His nervous system is not normal. In what the digression from the norm ultimately consists we do not know. Very probably the cell of the degenerate is formed a little differently from that of sane men, the particles of the protoplasm are otherwise and less regularly disposed; the molecular movements take[254] place, in consequence, in a less free and rapid, less rhythmic and vigorous, manner. This is, however, a mere undemonstrable hypothesis. Nevertheless, it cannot reasonably be doubted that all the bodily signs or ‘stigmata’ of degeneration, all the arrests and inequalities of development that have been observed, have their origin in a bio-chemical and bio-mechanical derangement of the nerve-cell, or, perhaps, of the cell in general.

In the mental life of the degenerate the anomaly of his nervous system has, as a consequence, the incapacity of attaining to the highest degree of development of the individual, namely, the freely coming out from the factitious limits of individuality, i.e., altruism. As to the relation of his ‘Ego’ to his ‘non-Ego,’ the degenerate man remains a child all his life. He scarcely appreciates or even perceives the external world, and is only occupied with the organic processes in his own body. He is more than egoistical, he is an ego-maniac.

His ego-mania may spring directly from different circumstances of his organism. His sensory nerves may be obtuse, are, in consequence, but feebly stimulated by the external world, transmit slowly and badly their stimuli to the brain, and are not in a condition to incite it to a sufficiently vigorous perceptive and ideational activity. Or his sensory nerves may work moderately well, but the brain is not sufficiently excitable, and does not perceive properly the impressions which are transmitted to it from the external world.

The obtuseness of the degenerate is attested by almost all observers. From the almost illimitable number of facts which could be adduced on this point, we will only give a very concise, but sufficiently characteristic selection. ‘Among many idiots,’ says Sollier, ‘there is no distinction between sweet and bitter. When sugar and colocynth are administered to them alternately, they manifest no change of sensation.... Properly speaking, taste does not exist among them.... Besides this, there are perversions of taste. We are not speaking here of complete idiots ... but even of imbeciles who eat ordure or repulsive things ... even their own excrements.... The same remarks apply to smell. Perhaps sensibility appears still more absolutely obtuse for smells than for taste.... Tactile sensibility is very obtuse in general, but it is always uniformly so.... Sometimes it might be a question whether there is not complete anæsthesia.’[239] Lombroso has examined the general sensitiveness of skin in sixty-six criminals, and has found it obtuse in thirty-eight among them, and unequal in the two halves of the body in forty-six.[240] In a later work he sums up in[255] these words his observations of sensorial acuteness in the degenerate: ‘Inaccessible to the feeling of pain, themselves without feeling, they never understand pain even in others.’[241] Ribot traces the ‘diseases of personality’ (that is, the false ideas of the ‘I’) to ‘organic disturbances, of which the first result is to depress the faculty of feeling in general; the second, to pervert it.’ ‘A young man whose conduct had always been excellent suddenly gave himself up to the worst inclinations. It was ascertained that in his mental condition there was no sign of evident alienation, but it could be seen that the whole outer surface of the skin had become absolutely insensible.’ ‘It may seem strange that weak and false sensitivity ... that is, that simple disturbances or sensorial alterations should disorganize the “Ego.” Nevertheless, observation proves it.’[242] Maudsley[243] describes some cases of degeneration among children whose skin was insensible, and remarks: ‘They cannot feel impressions as they naturally should feel them, nor adjust themselves to their surroundings, with which they are in discord; and the motor outcomes of the perverted affections of self are accordingly of a meaningless and destructive character.’[244]

The defective sensibility of the degenerate, confirmed by all observers, is, moreover, susceptible of different interpretations. Whereas many consider it a consequence of the pathological condition of the sensory nerves, others believe that the perturbation has its seat, not in these nerves, but in the brain; not in the ducts, but in the centres of perception. To quote one of the most eminent among the psycho-physiologists of the new school, Binet[245] has proved that, ‘if a portion of the body of a person is insensible, he is ignorant of what passes there; but, on the other hand, the nervous centres in connection with this insensible[256] region can continue to act; the result is that certain acts, often simple, but sometimes very complicated, can be accomplished in the body of a hysterical subject, without his knowledge; much more, these acts can be of a psychical nature, and manifest an intelligence which will be distinct from that of the subject, and will constitute a second “I” co-existent with the first. For a long time there was a misconception of the true nature of hysterical anæsthesia, and it was compared to a common anæsthesia from organic causes, due, for example, to the interruption of afferent nerves. This view must be wholly abandoned, and we know now that hysterical anæsthesia is not a true insensibility; it is insensibility from unconsciousness from mental disaggregation; in a word, it is psychical insensibility.’

Most frequently it is not a question of simple cases, where it is the sensory nerves alone, or only the cerebral centres which work badly, but of mixed cases, where the two apparatuses have a diversely varying part in the disturbance. But whether the nerves do not conduct the impressions to the brain, or the brain does not perceive, or does not raise the impressions brought to it into consciousness, the result is always the same, viz., the external world will not be correctly and distinctly grasped by consciousness, the ‘not-I’ will not be suitably represented in consciousness, the ‘I’ will not experience the necessary derivation of the exclusive preoccupation with the processes taking place in its own organism.

The natural healthy connection between organic sensations and sense-perceptions is much more strongly displaced when to the insensibility of the sensory nerves, or of the centres of perception, or both, is added an unhealthily modified and intensified vital activity of the organs. Then the organic ego-sensibility, or cœnæsthesis, advances irrepressibly into the foreground, overshadowing in great part or wholly the perceptions of the external world in consciousness, which no longer takes notice of anything but the interior processes of the organism. In this way there originates that peculiar hyper-stimulation or emotionalism constituting, as we have seen, the fundamental phenomenon of the intellectual life of the degenerate. For the fundamental emotional tone, despairing or joyful, angry or tearful, which determines the colour of his presentations as well as the course of his thoughts, is the consequence of phenomena taking place in his nerves, vessels and glands.[246] The consciousness of the emotionally degenerate subject is filled with obsessions which[257] are not inspired by the events of the external world, and by impulsions which are not the reaction against external stimulation. To this is added next the unfailing weakness of will of the degenerate person, which makes it impossible for him to suppress his obsessions, to resist his impulsions, to control his fundamental moods, to keep his higher centres to the attentive pursuit of objective phenomena. According to the saying of the poet, the necessary result of these conditions is that the world must be differently reflected in such heads than it is in normal ones. The external world, the ‘not-I,’ either does not exist at all in the consciousness of an emotionally degenerate subject, or it is merely represented there as on a faintly reflecting surface, by a scarcely recognisable, wholly colourless image, or, as in a concave or convex mirror, by a completely distorted, false image; consciousness, on the other hand, is imperiously monopolized by the somatic ‘I,’ which does not permit the mind to be occupied with anything but the painful or tumultuous processes taking place in the depths of the organs.

Badly-conducting sensory nerves, obtuse perceptive centres in the brain, weakness of will with its resulting incapacity of attention, morbidly irregular and violent vital processes in the cells, are therefore the organic basis on which ego-mania develops.

The ego-maniac must of necessity immensely over-estimate his own importance and the significance of all his actions, for he is only engrossed with himself, and but little or not at all with external things. He is therefore not in a position to comprehend his relation to other men and the universe, and to appreciate properly the part he has to play in the aggregate of social institutions. There might at this juncture be an inclination to confound ego-mania with megalomania, but there is a characteristic difference between the two states. Megalomania, it is true, is itself, like its clinical complement, the delusion of persecution, occasioned by morbid processes within the organism obliging consciousness perpetually to be attending to its own somatic ‘Ego.’ More especially the unnaturally increased bio-chemical activity of the organs gives rise to the pleasantly extravagant presentations of megalomania, while retarded or morbidly aberrant activity gives rise to the painful presentations of the delusion of persecution.[247] In megalomania, however, as in the delusion of persecution, the patient is constantly engrossed with the external[258] world and with men; in ego-mania, on the contrary, he almost completely withdraws himself from them. In the systematically elaborated delirium of the megalomaniac and persecution-maniac, the ‘not-I’ plays the most prominent part. The patient accounts for the importance his ‘Ego’ obtains in his own eyes by the invention of a grand social position universally recognised, or by the inexorable hostility of powerful persons, or groups of persons. He is Pope, or Emperor, and his persecutors are the chief men in the State, or great social powers, the police, the clergy, etc. His delirium, in consequence, takes account of the State and society; he admits their importance, and attaches the greatest value, in one case, to the homage, in the other to the enmity, of his neighbours. The ego-maniac, on the contrary, does not regard it as necessary to dream of himself as occupying some invented social position. He does not require the world or its appreciation to justify in his own eyes himself as the sole object of his own interest. He does not see the world at all. Other people simply do not exist for him. The whole ‘non-Ego’ appears in his consciousness merely as a vague shadow or a thin cloud. The idea does not even occur to him that he is something out of the common, that he is superior to other people, and for this reason either admired or hated; he is alone in the world; more than that, he alone is the world and everything else, men, animals, things are unimportant accessories, not worth thinking about.

The less diseased are the conducting media, the centres of nutrition, perception and volition, so much the weaker naturally will the ego-mania be, and so much the more harmlessly will it be manifested. Its least objectionable expression is the comic importance which the ego-maniac often attributes to his sensations, inclinations and activities. Is he a painter? he has no doubt that the whole history of the universe only hinges on painting, and on his pictures in particular. Is he a writer of prose or verse? he is convinced that humanity has no other care, or at least no more serious care, than for verses and books. Let it not be objected that this is not peculiar to ego-maniacs, but is the case with the vast majority of mankind. Assuredly everyone thinks what he is doing is important, and that man would not be worth much who performed his work so heedlessly and so superficially, with so little pleasure and conscientiousness, that he himself could not look upon it with respect. But the great difference between the rational and sane man and the ego-maniac is, that the former sees clearly how subordinate his occupation is to the rest of humanity, although it fills his life and exacts his best powers, while the latter can never imagine that any exertion to which he devotes his time and efforts can appear to others as unimportant and even puerile.[259] An honest cobbler, resoleing an old boot, gives himself up heart and soul to his work, nevertheless he admits that there are far more interesting and important things for humanity than the repairing of damaged sole-leather. The ego-maniac, on the contrary, if he is a writer, does not hesitate to declare, like Mallarmé, ‘The world was made to lead up to a fine book.’ This absurd exaggeration of one’s own occupations and interests produces in literature the Parnassians and the Æsthetes.

If degeneration is deeper, and ego-mania is stronger, the latter no longer assumes the comparatively innocent form of total absorption in poetic and artistic cooings, but manifests itself as an immorality, which may amount to moral madness. The tendency to commit actions injurious to himself or society is aroused now and then even in a sane man when some obnoxious desire demands gratification, but he has the will and the power to suppress it. The degenerate ego-maniac is too feeble of will to control his impulsions, and cannot determine his actions and thoughts by a regard to the welfare of society, because society is not at all represented in his consciousness. He is a solitary, and is insensible to the moral law framed for life in society, and not for the isolated individual. It is evident that for Robinson Crusoe the penal code did not exist. Alone on his island, having only Nature to deal with, it is obvious he could neither kill, steal, nor pillage in the sense of the penal code. He could only commit misdemeanours against himself. Want of insight and of self-control are the only immoralities possible to him. The ego-maniac is a mental Robinson Crusoe, who in his imagination lives alone on an island, and is at the same time a weak creature, powerless to govern himself. The universal moral law does not exist for him, and the only thing he may possibly see and avow, perhaps also regret a little, is that he sins against the moral law of the solitary, i.e., against the necessity of controlling instincts in so far as they are injurious to himself.

Morality—not that learnt mechanically, but that which we feel as an internal necessity—has become, in the course of thousands of generations, an organized instinct. For this reason, like all other organized instincts, it is exposed to ‘perversion,’ to aberration. The effect of this is that an organ, or the whole organism, works in opposition to its normal task and its natural laws, and cannot work otherwise.[248] In perversion of taste the[260] patient seeks greedily to swallow all that ordinarily provokes the deepest repugnance, i.e., is instinctively recognised as noxious, and rejected for that reason—decaying organic matter, ordure, pus, spittle, etc. In perversion of smell he prefers the odours of putrefaction to the perfume of flowers. In perversion of the sexual appetite he has desires which are directly contrary to the purpose of the instinct, i.e., the preservation of the species. In perversion of the moral sense the patient is attracted by, and feels delight in, acts which fill the sane man with disgust and horror. If this particular perversion is added to ego-mania, we have before us not merely the obtuse indifference towards crime which characterizes moral madness, but delight in crime. The ego-maniac of this kind is no longer merely insensible to good and evil, and incapable of discriminating between them, but he has a decided predilection for evil, esteems it in others, does it himself every time he can act according to his inclination, and finds in it the peculiar beauty that the sane man finds in good.

The moral derangement of an ego-maniac, with or without perverted moral instincts, will naturally manifest itself in ways varying according to the social class to which he belongs, as well as according to his personal idiosyncrasies. If he is a member of the disinherited class, he is simply either a fallen or degraded being, whom opportunity has made a thief, who lives in horrible promiscuity with his sisters or daughters, etc., or is a criminal from habit and profession. If he is cultivated and well-to-do, or in a commanding position, he commits misdemeanours peculiar to the upper classes which have as their object not the gratification of material needs, but of other kinds of craving. He becomes a Don Juan of the drawing-room, and carries shame and dishonour without hesitation into the family of his best friend. He is a legacy-hunter, a traitor to those who trust in him, an intriguer, a sower of discord, and a liar. On the throne he may even develop into a rapacious animal, and to a universal conqueror. With a limited tether he becomes Charles the Bad the Count d’Evreux and King of Navarre, Gilles de Rais, the prototype of Blue Beard, or Cæsar Borgia; and, with a wider range, Napoleon I. If his nervous system is not strong enough to elaborate imperious impulsions, or if his muscles are too feeble to obey such impulsions, all these criminal inclinations remain unsatisfied, and only expend themselves by way of his imagination. The perverted ego-maniac is then only a platonic or theoretic malefactor, and if he embraces the literary career, he will concoct philosophic systems to justify his depravity, or will employ an accommodating rhetoric in verse and prose to celebrate it, bedizen it and present it under as seductive a form as possible. We then find ourselves in the presence of the[261] literary phases called Diabolism and Decadentism. ‘Diaboliques’ and ‘décadents’ are distinguished from ordinary criminals merely in that the former content themselves with dreaming and writing, while the latter have the resolution and strength to act. But they have this bond in common, of being both of them ‘anti-social beings.’[249]

A second characteristic which is shared by all ego-maniacs is their incapacity to adapt themselves to the conditions in which they live, whether they assert their anti-social inclinations in thought or action, in writings or as criminals. This want of adaptability is one of the most striking peculiarities of the degenerate, and it is to them a source of constant suffering, and finally of ruin. It is a necessary result, however, of the constitution of his central nervous system. The indispensable premise of adaptation is the having an exact presentation of the facts to which a man must adapt himself.[250] I cannot avoid the ruts[262] in the road if I do not see them; I cannot ward off the blow I do not see coming; it is impossible to thread a needle if its eye is not seen with sufficient clearness, and if the thread is not carried with steady hand to the right spot. All this is so elementary it is scarcely necessary to say it. What we term power over Nature is, in fact, adaptation to Nature. It is an inexact expression to say we make the forces of Nature subject to us. In reality we observe them, we learn to know their peculiarities, and we manage so that the tendencies of natural forces and our own desires coincide. We construct a wheel at the point where the water power, by natural law, must fall, and we have then the advantage that the wheel turns according to our needs. We know that electricity flows along copper wire, and so, with cunning submission to its peculiar ways, we lay down copper lines to the place where we want it, and where its action would be useful to us. Without knowledge of Nature,[263] therefore, no adaptation, and without adaptation no possibility of profiting by its forces. Now, the degenerate subject cannot adapt himself, because he has no clear idea of the circumstances to which he ought to adapt himself, and he does not obtain from them any clear idea, because, as we know, he has bad nerve-conductors, obtuse centres of perception, and feeble attention.

The active cause of all adaptation, as of all effort in general—and adaptation is nothing else than an effort of a particular kind—is the wish to satisfy some organic necessity, or to escape from some discomfort. In other words, the aim of adaptation is to give feelings of pleasure, and to diminish or suppress the feelings of discomfort. The being incapable of self-adaptation is for this reason far less able to procure agreeable, and avoid disagreeable, sensations than the normal being; he runs up against every corner, because he does not know how to avoid them; and he longs in vain for the luscious pear, because he does not know how to catch hold of the branch on which it hangs. The ego-maniac is a type of such a being. He must, therefore, necessarily suffer from the world and from men. Hence at heart he is bad-tempered, and turns in wrathful discontent against Nature, society and public institutions, irritated and offended by them, because he does not know how to accommodate himself to them. He is in a constant state of revolt against all that exists, and contrives how he may destroy it, or, at least, dreams of destruction. In a celebrated passage Henri Taine indicates ‘exaggerated self-esteem’ and ‘dogmatic argument’ as the roots of Jacobinism.[251] This leads to contempt for and rejection of institutions already established, and hence[264] not invented or chosen by himself. He considers the social edifice absurd because it is not ‘a work of logic,’ but of history.

Besides these two roots of Jacobinism which Taine has brought to light, there is yet another, and the most important, that has escaped his attention, viz., the inability of the degenerate to adapt himself to given circumstances. The ego-maniac is condemned by his natural organization to be a pessimist and a Jacobin. But the revolutions he wishes for, preaches, and perhaps effectively accomplishes, are barren as regards progress. He is, as a revolutionary, what an inundation or cyclone would be as a street-sweeper. He does not clear the ground with conscious aim, but blindly destroys. This distinguishes him from the clear-minded innovator, the true revolutionary, who is a reformer, leading suffering and stagnating humanity from time to time by toilsome paths into a new Canaan. The reformer hurls down with pitiless violence, if violence is necessary, the ruins which have become obstacles, in order to make way for useful constructions; the ego-maniac raves against everything that stands upright, whether useful or useless, and does not think of clearing the building-ground after the devastation; his pleasure consists in seeing heaps of rubbish overgrown by noxious weeds where once walls and gables reared themselves.

There is an impassable gulf between the sane revolutionary and the ego-maniac Jacobin. The former has positive ideals, the latter has not. The former knows what he is striving for; the latter has no conception how that which irritates him could be changed for the better. His thoughts do not reach so far; he never troubles himself to question what will replace the things destroyed. He knows only that everything frets him, and he desires to vent his muddled and blustering ill-humour on all around him. Hence it is characteristic that the foolish necessity to revolt of this kind of revolutionary frequently turns against imaginary evils, follows puerile aims, or even fights against those laws which are wise and beneficent. Here they form a ‘league against lifting the hat in saluting’; there they oppose compulsory vaccination; another time they rise in protest against taking the census of the population; and they have the ridiculous audacity to conduct these silly campaigns with the same speeches and attitudes that the true revolutionaries assume—for example, in the service of suppression of slavery, or liberty of thought.

To the ego-maniac’s incapacity for adaptation is often added the mania for destruction, or clastomania, which is so frequently observed among idiots and imbeciles, and in some forms of insanity.[252] In a child the instinct of destruction is normal. It[265] is the first manifestation of the desire to exert muscular strength. Very soon, however, the desire is aroused to exert its strength, not in destroying, but in creating. Now, the act of creating has a psychic premise, viz., attention. This being absent in the degenerate, the impulse to destroy, which can be gratified without attention, by disorderly and casual movements, does not rise in them to the instinct of creation.

Hence, discontent as the consequence of incapacity of adaptation, want of sympathy with his fellow-creatures arising from weak representative capacity, and the instinct of destruction, as the result of arrested development of mind, together constitute the anarchist, who, according to the degree of his impulsions, either merely writes books and makes speeches at popular meetings, or has recourse to a dynamite bomb.

Finally, in its extreme degree of development, ego-mania leads to that folly of Caligula in which the unbalanced mind boasts of being ‘a laughing lion,’ believes himself above all restraints of morality or law, and wishes the whole of humanity had one single head that he might cut it off.

The reader who has hitherto followed me will now, I hope, quite comprehend the psychology of ego-mania. As I have stated above, consciousness of the ‘Ego’ originates from the sensations of the vital processes in all parts of our body, and the conception of the ‘non-Ego’ from changes in our organs of special sense. How, generally speaking, we arrive at the assumption of the existence of a ‘not-I,’ I have explained above in detail, hence it is unnecessary to repeat it here. If we wish to leave the firm soil of positively established facts, and risk ourselves on the somewhat shaky ground of probable assumptions, we may say that consciousness of the ‘Ego’ has its anatomical basis in the sympathetic system, and the conception of the ‘not-I’ in the cerebro-spinal system. In a healthy man the perception of vital internal facts does not rise above the level of consciousness. The brain receives its stimulations far more from the sensory, than from the sympathetic nerves. In consciousness the presentation of the external world greatly outweighs the consciousness of the ‘Ego.’ In the degenerate, either (1) vital internal facts are morbidly intensified, or proceed abnormally, and are therefore constantly perceived by consciousness; or (2) the sensory nerves are obtuse, and the perceptional centres weak[266] and sluggish; or (3) perhaps these two deviations from the norm co-exist. The result in all three cases is that the notion of the ‘Ego’ is far more strongly represented in consciousness than the image of the external world. The ego-maniac, consequently, neither knows nor grasps the phenomenon of the universe. The effect of this is a want of interest and sympathy, and an incapacity to adapt himself to nature and humanity. The absence of feeling, and the incapacity of adaptation, frequently accompanied by perversion of the instincts and impulses, make the ego-maniac an anti-social being. He is a moral lunatic, a criminal, a pessimist, an anarchist, a misanthrope, and he is all these, either in his thoughts and his feelings, or also in his actions. The struggle against the anti-social ego-maniac, his expulsion from the social body, are necessary functions of the latter; and if it is not capable of accomplishing it, it is a sign of waning vital power or serious ailment. Toleration, and, above all, admiration, of the ego-maniac, be he one in theory or in practice, is, so to speak, a proof that the kidneys of the social organism do not accomplish their task, that society suffers from Bright’s disease.

In the following chapters we shall study the forms under which ego-mania manifests itself in literature, and we shall find occasion to treat in detail of many points to which at this stage mere allusion has been sufficient.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:06 am

Part 1 of 2

CHAPTER II. PARNASSIANS AND DIABOLISTS.

It has become the custom to designate the French Parnassians a school, but those who are comprised under this denomination have always refused to allow themselves to be included under a common name. ‘The Parnassus?’ ... exclaimed one of the most undoubted Parnassians, M. Catulle Mendès.[253] ‘We have never been a school!... The Parnassus! We have not even written a preface!... The Parnassus originated from the necessity of reaction against the looseness of poetry issuing from the adherents of Murger, Charles Bataille, Amédée Rolland, Jean du Boys; then it became a league of minds, who sympathized in matters of art....’

The name ‘Parnassiens’ was, in fact, applied to a whole series of poets and writers who have scarcely a point in common between them. They are united by a purely external bond; their works have been brought out by the Parisian editor[267] Alphonse Lemerre, who was able to make Parnassians, as the editor Cotta, in the first half of this century, made German classics. The designation itself emanates from a sort of almanac of the Muses, which Catulle Mendès published in 1860 under the title, Le Parnasse contemporain: recueil de vers nouveaux, and which contains contributions from almost all the poets of the period.

With most of the names of this numerous group I do not need to concern myself, for those who bear them are not degenerate, but honest average men, correctly twittering what others have first sung to them. They have exercised no sort of direct influence on contemporary thought, and have only indirectly contributed to strengthen the action of a few leaders by grouping themselves around them in the attitude of disciples, and in permitting them thus to present themselves with an imposing retinue, which always makes an impression on vacuous minds.

The leaders alone are of importance in my inquiries. It is of them we think when we speak of the Parnassians, and it is from their peculiarities that the artistic theory attributed to Le Parnasse has been derived. Embodied most completely in Théophile Gautier, it can be summed up in two words: perfection of form and impassibilité, or impassiveness.

To Gautier and his disciples the form is everything in poetry; the substance has no importance. ‘A poet,’ says he,[254] ‘say what you will, is a labourer; he ought not to have more intelligence than a labourer, or know any other trade than his own, otherwise he will do it badly. I hold the mania that there is for putting them on an ideal pedestal is perfectly absurd; nothing is less ideal than a poet.... The poet is a keyboard [clavecin], and nothing more. Every idea in passing lays its finger on a key; the key vibrates and gives its note, that is all.’ In another place he says: ‘For the poet, words have in themselves, and outside the sense they express, a beauty and value of their own, like precious stones as yet uncut, and set in bracelets, necklaces, or rings; they charm the connoisseur who looks at them, and sorts them with his finger in the little bowl where they are stored.’[255] Gustave Flaubert, another worshipper of words, takes entirely this view of the subject when he exclaims:[256] ‘A beautiful verse meaning nothing, is superior to a verse less beautiful meaning something.’ By the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘less beautiful,’ Flaubert here understands[268] ‘names with triumphant syllables, sounding like the blast of clarions,’ or ‘radiant words, words of light.’[257] Gautier only credited Racine, for whom he, a romanticist, naturally had a profound contempt, with one verse of any value:

‘La fille de Minos et de Pasiphae.’


The most instructive application of this theory is found in a piece of poetry by Catulle Mendès, entitled Récapitulation, which begins as follows:

‘Rose, Emmeline,
Margueridette,
Odette,
Alix, Aline.
‘Paule, Hippolyte,
Lucy, Lucile,
Cécile,
Daphné, Mélite.
‘Artémidore,
Myrrha, Myrrhine,
Périne,
Naïs, Eudore.’


Eleven stanzas of the same sort follow, which I will dispense with reproducing, and then this final strophe:

‘Zulma, Zélie,
Régine, Reine,
Irène!...
Et j’en oublie.’[258]


‘And I forget the rest’—this is the only one of the sixty lines of the piece which has any sense, the fifty-nine others being composed of women’s names only.

What Catulle Mendès intends here is clear enough. He wishes to show the state of a libertine’s soul, who revels in the remembrance of all the women he has loved, or with whom he has flirted. In the mind of the reader the enumeration of their names is to give rise to voluptuous images of a troop of young girls, ministrants of pleasure, of pictures of a harem or of the paradise of Mahomet. But apart from the length of the list, which makes the piece insupportably wearisome and chilling, Mendès does not attain the desired effect for yet a second reason—because his artificiality betrays at the first glance the profound insincerity of his pretended emotion. When before the mind of a gallant the figures of the Phyllises of his pastoral idylls present themselves, and he really feels the necessity of tenderly murmuring their names, he certainly does not think of arranging these names as a play on words (Alix—Aline,[269] Lucy—Lucile, Myrrha—Myrrhine, etc.). If he is cold-blooded enough to give himself up to this barren desk-work, he cannot possibly find himself in the lascivious ecstasy which the piece is supposed to express and impart. This emotion, immoral and vulgar in its boasting, would still have the right, like every genuine affection of the soul, of being lyrically expressed. But a list of unmeaning names, artificially combined, and arranged according to their assonance, implies nothing. According to the art theory of the Parnassians, however, Récapitulation is poetry—nay, the ideal of poetry—for it ‘ne signifie rien,’ as Flaubert requires, and is wholly composed of words which, according to Th. Gautier, ‘ont en eux-mêmes une beauté et une valeur propres.’

Another eminent Parnassian, Théodore de Banville,[259] without pushing to its extreme limits, with the intrepid logic of Catulle Mendès, the theory of verbal resonance bare of all meaning, has professed it with a sincerity to which homage is due. ‘I charge you,’ he exclaims to poets in embryo, ‘to read as much as possible, dictionaries, encyclopædias, technical works treating of all the professions, and of all the special sciences, catalogues of libraries and of auctions, handbooks of museums—in short, all the books which can increase your stock of words, and give you instruction on their exact sense, proper or figurative. Directly your head is thus furnished you will be already well prepared to find rhymes.’ The only essential thing in poetry, according to Banville, is to catch rhymes. To compose a piece of poetry on any subject, he teaches his disciples: ‘All the rhymes on this subject must first of all be known. The remainder, the soldering, that which the poet must add to stop up the holes with the hand of an artist and workman—these are called the plugs. I should like to see those who counsel us to avoid the plugs bind two planks together with the help of thought.’ The poet—Banville thus sums up his doctrine—has no ideas in his brain; he has only sounds, rhymes, and play on words (calembours). This play on words inspires his ideas, or his simulacra of ideas.

Guyau rightly uses this criticism with regard to the æsthetic theory of the Parnassians established by Banville.[260] ‘The search for rhyme, pushed to the extreme, tends to make the poet lose the habit of logically connecting his ideas—that is to say, in reality to think—for to think, as Kant has said, is to unite and to bind. To rhyme, on the contrary, is to place in juxtaposition words necessarily unconnected.... The cult of rhyme for rhyme’s sake introduces into the brain itself of the poet, little[270] by little, a kind of disorder and permanent chaos; all the usual laws of association, all the logic of thought is destroyed in order to be replaced by the chance encounter of sounds.... Periphrasis and metaphor are the only resources for good rhyming.... The impossibility in seeking for rich rhymes, of remaining simple, involves in its turn a consequent risk of a certain lack of sincerity. Freshness of spontaneous feeling will disappear in the too consummate artist in words; he will lose that respect for thought as such which ought to be the first quality of the writer.’

Where Guyau commits an error is when he says that the cult of rhyme for rhyme’s sake ‘introduces into the brain even of the poet a kind of disorder and permanent chaos.’ The proposition must be reversed. ‘Permanent chaos’ and ‘disorder’ in the brain of the poet are there already; the exaggeration of the importance of rhyme is only a consequence of this state of mind. Here we have again to deal with a form of that inaptitude for attention, well known to us, which is a peculiarity of the degenerate subject. The course of his ideas is determined, not by a central idea round which the will groups all other ideas, suppressing some and strengthening others with the help of attention; but by the wholly mechanical association of ideas, awakened in the case of the Parnassians by a similar or identical verbal sound. His poetical method is pure echolalia.

The Parnassian theory of the importance of form, notably of rhyme, for poetry, of the intrinsic value of beauty in the sound of words, of the sensuous pleasure to be derived from sonorous syllables without regard to their sense, and of the uselessness, and even harmfulness, of thought in poetry, has become decisive in the most recent development of French poetry.[261] The Symbolists, whom we have studied in an earlier chapter, hold closely to this theory. These poor in spirit, who only babble ‘sonorous syllables’ without sense, are the direct descendants of the Parnassians.

The Parnassian theory of art is mere imbecility. But the ego-mania of the degenerate minds who have concocted it reveals itself in the enormous importance they attribute to their hunt for rhymes, to their puerile pursuit of words which are ‘tonitruants’ and ‘rayonnants.’ Catulle Mendès ends a poem (La seule Douceur), where he describes in the most fulsome manner a series of the pleasures of life, with this envoi: ‘Prince, I lie.[271] Beneath the Twins or the Urn (? Aquarius) to make noble words rhyme together in one’s book, this is the sole joy of life.’[262] He who is not of this opinion is simply said to forfeit his humanity. Thus it is that Baudelaire calls Paris ‘a Capernaum, a Babel peopled by the imbecile and useless, not over-fastidious in their ways of killing time, and wholly inaccessible to literary pleasures.’[263] To treat as imbecile those who look upon a senseless jumble of rhymes and a litany of so-called beautiful proper names as of no value, is a stupid self-conceit at which one might well laugh. But Baudelaire goes so far as to speak of the ‘useless.’ No one has a right to live who is inaccessible to what he calls ‘literary pleasures’—that is, an idiotic echolalia! Because he cultivates the art of playing on words with a puerile seriousness, everyone must place the same importance as he does on his infantile amusements, and whoever does not do so is not simply a Philistine or an inferior being, without susceptibility or refinement—no, he is a ‘useless creature.’ If this simpleton had the power, he would no doubt wish to pursue his idea to the end and sweep the ‘useless’ out of the ranks of the living, as Nero put to death those who did not applaud his acting in the theatre. Can the monstrous ego-mania of one demented be more audaciously expressed than in this remark of Baudelaire’s?

The second characteristic of the Parnassians, after their insane exaggeration of the value for humanity of the most external form for poetry and rhyming, is their ‘impassibility,’ or impassivity. They themselves, of course, will not admit that this term is applicable to them. ‘Will they ever have done with this humbug!’ angrily cried Leconte de Lisle, when interrogated on the subject of ‘impassibility,’ and Catulle Mendès says, ‘Because Glatigny has written a poem entitled Impassible, and because I myself wrote this line, the avowed pose in which is belied in the course of the poem,

‘“Pas de sanglots humains dans le chant des poètes!”[264]
it has been concluded that the Parnassians were or wished to be “impassive.” Where do they find it, where do they see it, this icy equanimity, this dryness which they have ascribed to us?’[265]

Criticism, in sooth, has chosen its word badly. ‘Impassibility[272]’ in art, in the sense of complete indifference to the drama of nature and of life, there cannot be. It is psychologically impossible. All artistic activity, in so far as it is not the mere imitation of disciples, but flows from an original necessity, is a reaction of the artist upon received impressions. Those which leave him completely indifferent inspire the poet with no verse, the painter with no picture, the musician with no tone composition. Impressions must strike him in some way or other, they must awaken in him some emotion, in order that he may have the idea at all of giving them an objective artistic form. In the infinite volume of phenomena flowing uniformly past his senses, the artist has distinguished the subject he treats with the peculiar methods of his art; he has exercised a selective activity, and has given the preference to this subject over others. This preference presupposes sympathy or antipathy; the artist, therefore, must have felt something on perceiving his subject. The sole fact that an author has written a poem or a book testifies that the subject treated of has inspired him with curiosity, interest, anger, an agreeable or disagreeable emotion, that it has compelled his mind to dwell upon it. This is, therefore, the contrary of indifference.

The Parnassians are not impassive. In their poems there is whimpering, cursing and blasphemy, and the utterance of joy, enthusiasm and sorrow. But what tortures them or enchants them is exclusively their own states, their own experiences. The only foundation of their poetry is their ‘Ego.’ The sorrow and joy of other men do not exist for them. Their ‘impassibilité’ is, therefore, not impassivity, but rather a complete absence of sympathy. The ‘tower of ivory’ in which, according to the expression of one of them, the poet lives and proudly withdraws himself from the indifferent mob, is a pretty name given to his obtuseness in regard to the being and doing of his fellow-creatures. All this has been well discerned by that beneficently clear-minded critic, M. Ferdinand Brunetière. ‘One of the worst consequences,’ he writes, ‘that they [the theories of the Parnassians, and, in particular, those of Baudelaire] may involve, is, by isolating art, to isolate the artist as well, making him an idol to himself, and as it were enclosing him in the sanctuary of his “Ego.” Not only, then, does his work become a question merely concerned with himself—of his griefs and his joys, his loves and his dreams—but, in order to develop himself in the direction of his aptitudes, there is no longer anything which he respects or spares, there is nothing he will not subordinate to himself; which is, to speak by the way, the true definition of immorality. To make one’s self the centre of things, from a philosophical point of view, is as puerile an illusion as to see in man “the king of creation,” or in the earth[273] what the ancients called “the navel of the world”; but, from the purely human point of view, it is the glorification of egoism, and, consequently, the negation itself of solidarity.’[266]

Thus Brunetière notices the ego-mania of the Parnassians, and affirms their anti-social principles, their immorality; he believes, however, that they have freely chosen their point of view. This is his only error. They are not ego-maniacs by free choice, but because they must be, and cannot be otherwise. Their ego-mania is not a philosophy or a moral doctrine; it is their malady.

The impassivity of the Parnassians is, as we have seen, a callousness with regard, not to everything, but only to their fellow-creatures, united to the tenderest love for themselves. But their ‘impassibility’ has yet another aspect, and those who have found the term have probably thought above all of this, without having given themselves a complete account of it. The indifference which the Parnassians display, and of which they are particularly proud, applies less to the joys and sufferings of their fellow-creatures than to the universally recognised moral law. For them there is neither virtue nor vice, but only the beautiful and the ugly, the rare and the commonplace. They took their point of view ‘beyond good and evil,’ long before the moral madness of Frederick Nietzsche found this formula. Baudelaire justifies it in the following terms: ‘Poetry ... has no other aim than itself; it cannot have any other, and no poem will be so great, so noble, so truly worthy of the name of poem, as that which will have been written only for the pleasure of writing a poem. I do not wish to say—be it well understood—that poetry may not ennoble morals, that its final result may not be to raise man above vulgar interests. This would evidently be an absurdity. I say that, if the poet has pursued a moral aim he has diminished his poetical power, and it is not imprudent to wager that his work will be bad. Poetry cannot, under pain of death or degradation, assimilate itself to science or morals. It has not truth for its object, it has only itself.’ And Th. Gautier, who records this remark, wholly approves of it. ‘On the high summits he [the poet] is at peace: pacem summa tenent,’ he says,[267] in employing an image which occurs dozens of times in Nietzsche.

Let us nail here first of all a current sophistical artifice employed by Baudelaire. The question to which he wishes to reply is this: Is poetry to be moral or not? Suddenly he smuggles science, with which it has nothing to do, into his[274] demonstration, names it in the same breath with morality, shows triumphantly that science has nothing in common with poetry, and then acts as though he had demonstrated the same thing on the subject of morality. Now, it does not occur to any reasonable man of the present day to demand of poetry the teaching of scientific truths, and for generations no serious poet has thought of treating of astronomy or physics in a didactic poem. The only question which some minds would wish to consider as an open one is that of knowing if we may, or may not, exact of poetry that it be moral, and it is this question that Baudelaire answers by an unproven affirmative, and by a crafty shuffling.

I have no wish to linger here on this question, not because it embarrasses me and I should like to avoid it, but because it seems to me more in place to discuss it when considering the disciples of the ‘Parnassus,’ the ‘Décadents,’ and the Æsthetes, who have pushed the doctrine to its extreme. I will for the present leave uncontradicted the assertion of the Parnassians, that poetry has not to trouble itself about morality. The poet ought to stand ‘beyond good and evil.’ But that could only reasonably signify an absolute impartiality; it can only amount to this—that the poet, in considering some action or aspect, simply aspires to find himself confronted by a drama, which he judges only for its beauty or ugliness, without even asking if it is moral or not. A poet of this kind must necessarily see, then, as many beautiful as ugly things, as many moral as immoral. For, taking all in all, moral and beautiful things in humanity and Nature are at least as frequent as the contrary, and must even preponderate. For we consider as ugly, either what presents a deviation from laws which are familiar to us, and to which we have adapted ourselves, or that in which we recognise the manifestation of anything prejudicial to us; and we regard as immoral all that is contrary to the prosperity, or even the maintenance, of society. Now, the mere fact that we have looked to find laws is a proof that phenomena corresponding to recognised laws, and consequently agreeable to us, must be far more numerous than the phenomena in contradiction to those laws, and therefore repulsive; and so, too, the maintenance of society is a proof that conservative and favourable, i.e., moral, forces must be more vigorous than destructive, i.e., immoral, forces. Hence, in a poem which while it did not trouble itself about morals, was nevertheless truly impartial, as it pretended to be, morality would be represented on a scale at least as large as, and even somewhat larger than, immorality. But in the poetry of the Parnassians this is not the case. It delights almost exclusively in depravity and ugliness. Théophile[275] Gautier extols, in Mademoiselle de Maupin, the basest sensuality, which, if it should become the general rule, would carry humanity back to the condition of savages living in sexual promiscuousness without individual love, and without any family institutions whatever; Sainte-Beuve, in other respects more romanticist than Parnassian, builds in his novel Volupté an altar to sexual pleasure, at which the ancient Asiatic adorers of Ashtaroth could, without hesitation, have performed their worship; Catulle Mendès, who began his literary career by being condemned for a moral outrage (brought upon himself by his play Le Roman d’une Nuit) exalts in his later works, of which I will not quote the titles, one of the most abominable forms of unnatural license; Baudelaire sings of carrion, maladies, criminals and prostitutes; in short, if one contemplates the world in the mirror of Parnassian poetry, the impression received is that it is composed exclusively of vices, crimes and corruption without the smallest intermixture of healthy emotions, joyous aspects of Nature and human beings feeling and acting honestly. In perpetual contradiction to himself, as becomes a truly degenerate mind, the same Baudelaire, who in one place does not wish poetry to be confounded with morality, says in another place: ‘Modern art has an essentially devilish [démoniaque] tendency. And it seems that this infernal side of his nature, which man takes a pleasure in explaining to himself, increases daily, as if the devil amused himself by magnifying it through artificial processes, in imitation of the poultry-farmers, patiently cramming the human species in his hen-yards to prepare for himself a more succulent nourishment.’[268]

There is no indifference here to virtue or vice; it is an absolute predilection for the latter, and aversion for the former. Parnassians do not at all hold themselves ‘beyond good or evil,’ but plunge themselves up to the neck in evil, and as far as possible from good. Their feigned ‘impartiality’ with regard to the drama of morality or immorality is in reality a passionate partisanship for the immoral and the disgusting. It was wrong, therefore, to think of characterizing them by ‘impassibility.’ Just as they lack feeling only towards their fellow-creatures, and not towards themselves, so they are only cold and indifferent towards good, not towards evil; the latter attracts them, on the contrary, as forcibly, and fills them as much with feelings of pleasure, as the good attracts and rejoices the sane majority of men.

This predilection for evil has been discerned by many observers, and a good number have endeavoured to explain it[276] philosophically. In a lecture on ‘Evil as the Object of Poetical Representation,’ Franz Brentano says:[269]

‘Since what is presented in tragedy appears so little desirable and cheerful, it suggests the idea that these explanations (of the pleasure we find in it) are less to be sought in the excellence of the subject than in some peculiar need of the public, which finds a response alone in the things thus exhibited.... Can it be that man feels, from time to time, the need of a melancholy emotion, and longs for tragedy as for something which satisfies this need in the most efficacious way, assisting him, so to speak, to weep heartily for once?... If for a long time no passions, such as tragedies excite, have had sway in us, the power to experience them demands anew, in some way, to manifest itself, and it is tragedy which comes to our aid; we feel the emotions painfully, it is true, but at the same time we experience a beneficial alleviation of our need. I think I have observed similar facts a hundred times—less in myself than in others, in those, for example, who devour with avidity the newspaper report of the “latest murder.”’

Professor Brentano here confounds first of all, with a lamentable levity, what is evil and what is saddening—two wholly different concepts. The death of a beloved being, for example, is saddening, but there is nothing evil in it, i.e., immoral, unless, by a subtle quibble, it is proposed to interpret as an immorality the action of natural forces in the dissolution of the individual. Further, he gives as an explanation what is only a perfectly superficial paraphrase—Why do we take pleasure in evil? Because ...we have evidently in us a tendency to take pleasure in evil! Opium facit dormire quia est in eo virtus dormitiva. M. Fr. Paulhan has treated the question more seriously, but neither do we get very far with him. ‘A contemplative, broad, inquisitive, penetrating mind,’ he says,[270] ‘with profound moral tendencies, which can nevertheless sink into oblivion in great part during scientific research or æsthetic contemplation; sometimes also with a slight natural perversion, or simply a marked tendency towards certain pleasures, whatever they may be, which are not an evil in themselves, and may even be a good, but of which the abuse is an evil—such are the foundations of the sentiment (love of evil) which is occupying us. The idea of evil, by flattering a taste, finds a solid point of support; and there is one reason more why it is agreeable—in that it satisfies, ideally, an inclination which reason hinders from being satisfied really to satiety.’

[277]

Here again is this sequence of ideas revolving in a circle, like a cat at play biting its tail: we have a taste for evil, because we find a taste for evil. The intellectual ineptitude which M. Paulhan here reveals is so much the more surprising in that, some pages above, he came very near the true solution of the enigma. ‘There are morbid states,’ he there says, ‘where the appetites are depraved; the patient eagerly swallows coal, earth, or things still worse. There are others in which the will is vitiated, and the character warped in some point. The pathological examples are striking, and the case of the Marquis de Sade is one of the most characteristic.... One sometimes finds enjoyment in the evils suffered by one’s self, just as in those of others. The sentiments of voluptuousness, sorrow and pity, which psychology has studied, appear to betray sometimes a veritable perversion, and to contain as elements the love of sorrow for sorrow itself.... Often one has to do with people who desire their own weal primarily, and then the woe of others. One or other of these psychical states is visible in many cases of wickedness; for example, in the fact of a rich manufacturer falsely accusing a young man, who is going to marry, of being affected by a venereal disease, and maintaining his assertion for the pleasure of doing so ... or, again, of a young villain who relishes the pleasure of theft to the point of crying: “Even if I were rich, I should always like to steal.” Even the sight of physical suffering is not always disagreeable; many people seek it.... This perversion is probably of all times and of all countries.... It would seem that into the mind of a man of our times there might enter a certain enjoyment in upsetting the order of nature, which does not appear to have been manifested before with a similar intensity. It is one of the thousand forms of recoiling on one’s self which characterizes our advanced civilization.’ Here M. Paulhan touches the kernel of the question, without remarking it or being arrested by it. The love of evil is not a universally human attribute; it is an ‘aberration’ and a ‘perversion,’ and ‘one of the thousand forms of recoiling on one’s self,’ otherwise more briefly and more clearly expressed as ego-mania.

The literature of penal legislation and mental therapeutics has registered hundreds of cases of aberration in which the patient has felt a passionate predilection for the evil and horrible, for sorrow and death. I should like to quote only one characteristic example: ‘In the autumn of 1884 there died, in a Swiss prison, Marie Jeanneret, a murderess. After having received a good education she devoted herself to the care of the sick, not for the love of doing good, but to satisfy a mad passion. The sufferings, groans and distorted features of the sick filled her with secret voluptuousness. She implored the doctors, on her[278] knees and with tears, to allow her to assist in dangerous operations, in order to be able to gratify her cravings. The death-agony of a human being afforded her the height of enjoyment. Under the pretext of a disease of the eyes, she had consulted several oculists, and had obtained from them belladonna and other poisons. Her first victim, a woman, was her friend; others followed; the doctors, to whom she had recommended herself as nurse, having no suspicions, the less so because she frequently changed her residence. An attempt failing in Vienna led to discovery; she had poisoned not less than nine persons, but felt neither repentance nor shame. In prison her most ardent wish was to fall dangerously ill, in order to satiate herself in the looking-glass with the contortions of her own features.’[271]

Thus we recognise, in the light of clinical observation, the true nature of the Parnassians. Their impassivity, in so far as it is mere indifference to the sufferings of others, and to virtue and vice, proceeds from their ego-mania, and is a consequence of their obtuseness, which makes it impossible for them to receive a sufficiently keen presentation of the external world, hence also of sorrow, vice, or ugliness, so as to be able to respond by normal reactions, by aversion, indignation, or pity. But in cases where impassivity constitutes a declared predilection for what is evil and disgusting, we can see the same aberration which makes of the imbecile a cruel torturer of animals,[272] and of Marie Jeanneret, cited above, a tenfold poisoner. The whole difference consists in the degree of impulsion. If it is strong enough, its consequences are heartless acts and crimes. If it is elaborated by diseased centres with insufficient force, it can be satisfied by imagination alone, by poetic or artistic activity.

Of course there have been attempts made to defend aberration as something justified and voluntary, and even to erect it[279] into an intellectual distinction. Thus it is that M. Paul Bourget[273] puts into the mouth of the ‘Décadents,’ with little artifices of style which do not permit a moment’s doubt that he is expressing his own opinion, the following argument: ‘We delight in what you call our corruptions of style, and we delight at the same time the refined people of our race and our time. It remains to be seen whether our exception is not an aristocracy, and whether, in the æsthetic order, the majority of suffrages represents anything else than the majority of ignorances.... It is a self-deception not to have the courage of one’s intellectual pleasure. Let us delight, therefore, in our singularities of ideal and of form, even if we must shut ourselves up in a solitude without visitors.’

It seems scarcely necessary to show that by these arguments, in which M. Bourget anticipates the whole delirious ‘philosophy’ of Nietzsche, every crime can be glorified as an ‘aristocratic’ action. The assassin has ‘the courage of his intellectual pleasure,’ the majority which does not approve of him is a majority of the ‘ignorant,’ he delights in the ‘singularity’ of his ‘ideal,’ and for this reason must at the most allow himself to be shut up in ‘a solitude without visitors,’ i.e., to speak plainly, in a reformatory, if ‘the majority of ignorances’ does not have him hanged or guillotined. Has not the ‘Décadent’ Maurice Barrès defended and justified Chambige, a specimen of the murderer for love of murder, with Bourget’s theory?

This same repulsive theorist of the most abandoned anti-social ego-mania denies also that one can speak of a mind as diseased or healthy. ‘There is,’ he says,[274] ‘from the metaphysical observer’s point of view, neither disease nor health of the soul; there are only psychological states, for he perceives in our sufferings and in our faculties, in our virtues and in our vices, in our volitions and in our renunciations, only changing combinations, inevitable, and therefore normal, subject to the known laws of the association of ideas. Only prejudice, in which the ancient doctrine of final causes and the belief in the definite aim of the universe reappear, can make us consider the loves of Daphnis and Chloë in the valley as natural and healthy, and the loves of a Baudelaire as artificial and unwholesome.’

To bring this silly sophistry down to its just value, common-sense has only to recollect the existence of lunatic asylums. But common-sense has not the right of suffrage among the rhetoricians of M. Paul Bourget’s stamp. We reply to him, then, with a seriousness he does not merit, that in fact every vital manifestation, those of the brain as of any other organ, is the[280] necessary and only possible effect of the causes which occasion them, but that, according to the state of the organ and of its elementary parts, its activity, necessary and natural as such, can be useful or hurtful to the whole organism. Whether the world has a purpose is a question that can altogether be left indecisive, but the activity of each part of the organism has nevertheless, if not the aim, at least unquestionably the effect, of preserving the whole organism; if it does not produce this effect, and if, on the contrary, it thwarts it, it is injurious to the whole organism, and for such an injurious activity of any particular organ language has coined the word ‘disease.’ The sophist who denies that there may be disease and health must also logically deny that there may be life and death, or, at least, that death may have some sort of importance. For, as a matter of fact, given a certain activity of its parts which we call morbid, the organism perishes, while with an activity of another nature, which we qualify as healthy, it lives and thrives. As long, then, as Bourget does not lay down the dogma that pain is as agreeable as pleasure, decrepitude as satisfactory as vigour, and death as desirable as life, he proves that he does not know, or dares not draw from his premise, the just conclusion which would immediately make the absurdity of it apparent.

The whole theory which must explain and justify the predilection for evil has, besides, been invented as an after-thought. The inclination for what is evil and disgusting existed first, and was not a consequence of philosophical considerations and self-persuasion. We have here merely another case of that method of our consciousness, so often attested in the course of these inquiries, which consists of inventing rational causes for the instincts and acts of the unconscious.

In the predilection of the Parnassians for the immoral, criminal and ugly, we have to deal merely with an organic aberration, and with nothing else. To pretend that inclinations of this kind exist in all men, even in the best and sanest, and are merely stifled by him, while the Parnassians give the rein to theirs, is an arbitrary and unproved assertion. Observation and the whole march of the historical development of humanity contradict it.

There may be repulsion and attraction in nature—no one denies it. A glance at the magnetic poles, at the positive and negative electrodes, suffices to establish this fact. We find this phenomenon again among the lowest forms of life. Certain materials attract, others repel them. There is no question here of an inclination or an expression of the will. We must rather consider the process as purely mechanical, having its reason probably in molecular relations which are still unknown to us. Microbiology gives to the attitude of micro-organisms towards attractive and repulsive matter the name of ‘chemotaxis[281]’ or chimiotaxia, invented by Pfeffer.[275] In higher organisms the conditions are naturally not so simple. Among them also, it is true, the ultimate cause of inclinations and aversions is certainly chimiotactic, but the effect of chimiotaxia must necessarily manifest itself under another form. A simple cell such as a bacillus, for example, is repelled directly when it penetrates into the radius of a chimic body which repels it. But the cell constituting a portion of a higher organism has not this liberty of movement. It cannot change its place independently. If it is now chimiotactically repelled, it cannot escape from the pernicious action, but must remain exposed to it, and submit to the disturbances in its vital activity. If these are sufficiently serious to injure the functions of the whole organism, the latter obtains knowledge of it, endeavours to perceive their cause, discovers it also, as a general rule, and does for the suffering cell what the latter cannot do alone, namely, shields it from the repelling action. The organism necessarily acquires experience in its defence against pernicious influences. It learns to know the circumstances in which they appear, and no longer permits matters to reach the stage of the really chimiotactic effect, but for the most part evades disturbing matters before they can exert a really direct repulsion. The knowledge acquired by the individual becomes hereditary, transforms itself into an organized faculty of the species, and the organism feels subjectively, as a discomfort which may amount to pain, the warning that a pernicious influence is acting upon it, and that it has to avoid it. To escape from pain becomes one principal function of the organism, which it cannot insufficiently provide against or neglect without expiating that negligence by its ruin.

In the human being processes take place not otherwise than as they have been here described. The hereditary organized experience of the species warns him of the noxiousness of influences to which he is frequently exposed. His outposts against naturally hostile forces are his senses. Taste and smell give him, as to repulsive chimiotactic matter, the impressions of nausea and of stench; the different kinds of skin-sensations make him aware, through sensations of pain, heat, or cold, that a given contact is unfavourable to him; eye and ear place him on his guard, by loud, shrill, discordant sensations, against the mechanical effects of certain physical phenomena. Finally, the higher cerebral centres respond to recognised noxious influences of a composite nature, or to the representation of them by an equally composite reaction of aversion in different degrees of intensity, from simple discomfort to horror, indignation, dismay, or fury.

The vehicle of this hereditary, organized, racial experience[282] is the unconscious life; to it is confided defence against simple, frequently recurring noxious influences. Nausea at intolerable tastes, repugnance to insufferable smells, the fear of dangerous animals, natural phenomena, etc., have become for it an instinct to which the organism abandons itself without reflection—i.e., without the intervention of consciousness. But the human organism learns to distinguish and avoid not only all that is directly prejudicial to itself; it acts in the same way with regard to that which menaces it not as an individual, but as a racial being, as a member of an organized society; antipathy to influences injurious to the maintenance or prosperity of the society becomes in him an instinct. But this enriching of organized unconscious cognition represents a higher degree of development than many human beings attain to. The social instincts are those that a man acquires last of all, and, in conformity to a known law, he loses them first when he retrogrades in his organic development.

Consciousness has occasion to declare the dangerous nature of phenomena, and to defend the organism against it, only if these phenomena are either quite new, or very rare, so that they cannot be hereditarily recognised and dreaded; or if they enclose in themselves many different elements, and do not act directly, but only by their more or less remote consequences, so that to know them exacts a complex activity of representation and judgment.

Thus aversion is always the instinctive, or conscious cognition of a noxious influence. Pleasure, its opposite, is not merely, as has been sometimes maintained, the absence of discomfort—i.e., a negative state—but something positive. Every part of the organism has definite needs which assert themselves as a conscious or unconscious tendency, as an inclination or appetite; the satisfaction of these needs is felt as a pleasure which can rise to a feeling of bliss. The first need of each organ is to manifest itself in activity. Its simple activity is a source of pleasure to it, so long as it does not go beyond its powers. The activity of the cerebral centres consists in receiving impressions, and in transforming them into representations and movements. This activity produces in them feelings of pleasure; they have in consequence a strong desire to receive impressions so as to be put into activity by them, and experience feelings of pleasure.

This, broadly sketched, is the natural history of the feelings of pleasure and pain. The reader who has mastered it will experience no difficulty in comprehending the nature of aberration.

Unconscious life is subject to the same biological laws as conscious life. The vehicle of the unconscious is the same nervous tissue—although, it may be, another portion of the system—in which consciousness is also elaborated. The unconscious is just[283] as little infallible as consciousness. It can be more highly developed or retarded in its development; it can be more or less stupid or intelligent. If the unconscious is incompletely developed, it distinguishes badly and judges falsely, it deceives itself in the knowledge of what is prejudicial or favourable to it, and instinct becomes unreliable or obtuse. Then we get the phenomenon of indifference to what is ugly, loathsome, immoral.

We know that among the degenerate divers arrested developments and malformations appear. Particular organs or entire systems of organs are arrested at a degree of development which corresponds to infancy, or even to the fœtal life. If the highest cerebral centres of the degenerate stop in their development at a very low stage, they become imbeciles or idiots. If the arrest of development strikes the nervous centres of unconscious life, the degenerate lose the instincts which, in normal beings, find expression in nausea and disgust at certain noxious influences; I might say, their unconscious life suffers from imbecility or idiocy.

Again, we have seen in the preceding chapter that the impressionability of the nerves and brain in the degenerate subject is blunted. Hence he only perceives strong impressions, and it is only these which excite his cerebral centres to that intellectual and motor activity which produces in them feelings of pleasure. Now, disagreeable impressions are naturally stronger than agreeable or indifferent impressions, for if they were not stronger we should not feel them as painful, and they would not induce the organism to make efforts to defend itself. To procure, then, the feelings of pleasure which are linked with the activity of the cerebral centres, to satisfy the need of functioning which is peculiar to the cerebral centres as to all the other organs, the degenerate person seeks impressions which are strong enough to excite to activity his obtuse and inert centres. But such impressions are precisely those which the healthy man feels as painful or repugnant. Thus, the aberrations or perversions of the degenerate find explanation. They have a longing for strong impressions, because these only can put their brains into activity, and this desired effect on their centres is only exercised by impressions that sane beings dread because of their violence, i.e., painful, repugnant and revolting impressions.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:10 am

Part 2 of 2

To say that every human being has secretly a certain predilection for the evil and the abominable is absurd: the only little spark of truth contained in this foolish assertion is, that even the normal human being becomes obtuse when fatigued, or exhausted by illness; i.e., he falls into the state which, in the degenerate, is chronic. Then he presents naturally the same phenomena as we have attested in the case of the latter, although in a much lower[284] degree. He may find pleasure, then, in crime and ugliness, and in the former rather than in the latter; for crimes are social injuries, while uglinesses are the visible form of forces unfavourable to the individual; but social instincts are feebler than the instincts of self-preservation. Consequently they are sooner put to sleep, and for this reason the repulsion against crime disappears more quickly than that against ugliness. In any case, this state is also an aberration in the normal being, but imputable to fatigue, and in him is not chronic, as in the degenerate, nor does it amount to the hidden fundamental character of his being, as the sophists who calumniate him pretend.

An uninterrupted line of development leads from the French romantic school to the Parnassians, and all the germs of the aberrations which confront us in full expansion among the latter can be distinguished in the former. We have seen in the preceding book how superficial and poor in ideas their poetry is, how they exalt their imagination above the observation of reality, and what importance they assign to their world of dreams. Sainte-Beuve, who at first joined their group, says on this subject, with a complacency which proves he was not conscious of expressing any blame: ‘The Romance School ... had a thought, a cult, viz., love of art and passionate inquisitiveness for a vivid expression, a new turn, a choice image, a brilliant rhyme: they wished for every one of their frames a peg of gold. [A remarkably false image, let it be said in passing. A rich frame may be desired for a picture, but as to the nail which supports it, regard will be had to its solidity and not to its preciousness.] Children if you will, but children of the Muses, who never sacrifice to ordinary grace [grâce vulgaire].’[276]

Let us hold this admission firmly, that the romantic writers were children; they were so in their inaptitude to comprehend the world and men, in the seriousness and zeal with which they gave themselves up to their game of rhymes, in the artlessness with which they placed themselves above the precepts of morality and good sense in use among adults. Let us exaggerate this childishness a little (without allying with it the wild and exuberant imagination of a Victor Hugo, and his gift of lightning-like rapidity of association, evoking the most startling antitheses), and we obtain the literary figure of Théophile Gautier, whom the imbecile Barbey d’Aurevilly could name in the same breath with Goethe,[277] evidently for the sole reason that the sound of the great German poet’s name in French pronunciation has a certain resemblance to that of Gautier, but of whom one of his admirers,[285] M. J. K. Huysmans, says:[278] ‘Des Esseintes [the hero of his novel] became gradually indifferent to Gautier’s work; his admiration for that incomparable painter had gone on diminishing from day to day, and now he was more astonished than delighted by his indifferent descriptions. The impression left by the objects was fixed on his keenly observant eye, but it was localized there, and had not penetrated further into his brain and flesh [?]; like a monstrous reflector, he was constantly limited to reverberate his environment with an impersonal distinctness.’

When M. Huysmans regards Gautier as an impersonal mirror of reality, he is the victim of an optical illusion. In verse as in prose, Gautier is a mechanical worker, who threads one line of glittering adjectives after another, without designing anything particular. His descriptions never give a clear outline of the object he wishes to depict. They recall some crude mosaic of the later Byzantine decadence, the different stones of which are lapis-lazuli, malachite, chrysoprase and jasper, and which yield, for this reason, an impression of barbarous splendour, while scarcely any design is discernible. In his ego-mania, lacking all sympathy with the external world, he does not suspect what sorrows and joys its drama encloses, and just as he feels nothing in the prospect before him, so neither can he awaken in the reader emotion of any sort by his listless and affected attempts to render it. The only emotions of which he is capable, apart from his arrogance and vanity, are those connected with sex; hence, in his works we merely find alternations between glacial coldness and lubricity.

If we exaggerate Théophile Gautier’s worship of form and lasciviousness, and if to his indifference towards the world and men we associate the aberration which caused it to degenerate into a predilection for the bad and the loathsome, we have before us the figure of Baudelaire. We must stop there awhile, for Baudelaire is—even more than Gautier—the intellectual chief and model of the Parnassians, and his influence dominates the present generation of French poets and authors, and a portion also of English poets and authors, to an omnipotent degree.

It is not necessary to demonstrate at length that Baudelaire was a degenerate subject. He died of general paralysis, after he had wallowed for months in the lowest depths of insanity. But even if no such horrible end had protected the diagnosis from all attack, there would be no doubt as to its accuracy, seeing that Baudelaire showed all the mental stigmata of degeneration during the whole of his life. He was at once a mystic and an[286] erotomaniac,[279] an eater of hashish and opium;[280] he felt himself attracted in the characteristic fashion by other degenerate minds, mad or depraved, and appreciated, for example, above all authors, the gifted but mentally-deranged Edgar Poe, and the opium-eater Thomas de Quincey. He translated Poe’s tales, and devoted to them an enthusiastic biography and critique, while from the Confessions of an Opium-Eater, by De Quincey, he compiled an exhaustive selection, to which he wrote extravagant annotations.

The peculiarities of Baudelaire’s mind are revealed to us in the collection of his poems, to which he has given a title betraying at once his self-knowledge and his cynicism: Les Fleurs du Mal—‘The Flowers of Evil.’ The collection is not complete. There lack some pieces which only circulate in manuscript, because they are too infamous to bear the full publicity of a marketable book. I will take my quotations, however, from the printed verses only, which are quite sufficient to characterize their author.

Baudelaire hates life and movement. In the piece entitled Les Hiboux, he shows us his owls sitting in a row, motionless, under the black yews, and continues:

‘Leur attitude au sage enseigne
Qu’il faut en ce monde qu’il craigne
Le tumulte et le mouvement.

L’homme ivre d’une ombre qui passe
Porte toujours le châtiment
D’avoir voulu changer de place.’


Beauty says of herself, in the piece of that name:

‘Je hais le mouvement qui déplace les lignes;
Et jamais je ne pleure et jamais je ne ris.’


He abhors the natural as much as he loves the artificial. Thus he depicts his ideal world (Rêve Parisien):

‘De ce terrible paysage
Que jamais œil mortel ne vit,
Ce matin encore l’image,
Vague et lointaine, me ravit....

‘J’avais banni de ces spectacles
Le végétal irrégulier....

‘Je savourais dans mon tableau
L’enivrante [!] monotonie
Du métal, du marbre et de l’eau.

‘Babel d’escaliers et d’arcades
C’était un palais infini,
Plein de bassins et de cascades
Tombant dans l’or mat ou bruni;

‘Et des cataractes pesantes,
Comme des rideaux de cristal,
Se suspendaient, éblouissantes,
A des murailles de métal.

‘Non d’arbres, mais de colonnades
Les étangs dormants s’entouraient,
Où de gigantesques naïades,
Comme des femmes, se miraient.

‘Des nappes d’eau s’épanchaient, bleues,
Entre des quais roses et verts,
Pendant des millions de lieues,
Vers les confins de l’univers;

‘C’étaient des pierres inouïes
Et des flots magiques; c’étaient
D’immenses glaces éblouies
Par tout ce qu’elles reflétaient.

‘Et tout, même la couleur noire,
Semblait fourbi, clair, irisé....

‘Nul astre d’ailleurs, nuls vestiges
De soleil, même au bas du ciel,
Pour illuminer ces prodiges,
Qui brillaient d’un feu personnel (!)

‘Et sur ces mouvantes merveilles
Planait (terrible nouveauté!
Tout pour l’œil, rien pour les oreilles!)
Un silence d’eternité.’


Such is the world he represents to himself, and which fills him with enthusiasm: not an ‘irregular’ plant, no sun, no stars, no movement, no noise, nothing but metal and glass, i.e., something like a tin landscape from Nuremberg, only larger and of more costly material, a plaything for the child of an American millionaire suffering from the wealth-madness of parvenus, with[288] a little electric lamp in the interior, and a mechanism which slowly turns the glass cascades, and makes the glass sheet of water slide. Such must necessarily be the aspect of the ego-maniac’s ideal world. Nature leaves him cold or repels him, because he neither perceives nor comprehends her; hence, where the sane man sees the picture of the external world, the ego-maniac is surrounded by a dark void in which, at most, uncomprehended nebulous forms are hovering. To escape the horror of them he projects, as from a magic-lantern, coloured shadows of the images which fill his consciousness; but these representations are rigid, inert, uniform and infantile, like the morbid and weak cerebral centres by which they are elaborated.

The incapacity of the ego-maniac to feel aright external impressions, and the toil with which his brain works, are also the key of the frightful tedium of which Baudelaire complains, and of the profound pessimism with which he contemplates the world and life. Let us hear him in Le Voyage:

‘Nous avons vu partout...
Le spectacle ennuyeux de l’immortel péché:

‘La femme, esclave vile, orgueilleuse et stupide,
Sans rire s’adorant et s’aimant sans dégôut;
L’homme, tyran goulu, paillard, dur et cupide,
Esclave de l’esclave et ruisseau dans l’égout;

‘Le bourreau qui jouit, le martyr qui sanglote;
La fête qu’assaisonne et parfume le sang;...

‘Et les moins sots, hardis amants de la démence,
Fuyant le grand troupeau parqué par le Destin,
Et se réfugiant dans l’opium immense [!].
—Tel est du globe entier l’éternel bulletin...

‘O Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre!
Ce pays nous ennuie, O Mort! Appareillons!

‘Nous voulons...
Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?
Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!’


This desperate cry towards the ‘new’ is the natural complaint of a brain which longs to feel the pleasures of action, and greedily craves a stimulation which his powerless sensory nerves cannot give him. Let a sane man imagine the state of mind into which he would fall if he were imprisoned in a cell where no ray of light, no noise, no scent from the outer world would reach him. He would then have an accurate idea of the chronic state of mind in the ego-maniac, eternally isolated by the imperfection of his nervous system from the universe, from its joyous sounds, from its changing scenes and from its captivating movement. Baudelaire cannot but suffer terribly from ennui, for his mind really learns nothing new and amusing, and is[289] forced constantly to indulge in the contemplation of his ailing and whimpering self.

The only pictures which fill the world of his thought are sombre, wrathful and detestable. He says (Un Mort joyeux):

‘Dans une terre grasse et pleine d’escargots
Je veux creuser moi-même une fosse profonde
Où je puisse à loisir étaler mes vieux os
Et dormir dans l’oubli comme un requin dans l’onde...
Plutôt que d’implorer une larme du monde
Vivant, j’aimerais mieux inviter les corbeaux
A saigner tous les bouts de ma carcasse immonde.
‘O vers! noir compagnons sans oreille et sans yeux,
Voyez venir à vous un mort libre et joyeux!’


In La Cloche fêlée, he says of himself:

‘... Mon âme est fêlée, et lorsqu’en ses ennuis
Elle veut de ses chants peupler l’air froid des nuits
Il arrive souvent que sa voix affaiblie

Semble le râle épais d’un blessé qu’on oublie
Au bord d’un lac de sang, sous un grand tas de morts.’


Spleen:

‘...on triste cerveau...
C’est.. un immense caveau
Qui contient plus de morts que la fosse commune.
—Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune
Où, comme des remords, se traînent de longs vers....’


Horreur sympathique:

‘Cieux déchirés comme des grèves,
En vous se mire mon orgueil!
Vos vastes nuages en deuil.

‘Sont les corbillards de mes rêves,
Et vos lueurs sont le reflet,
De l’Enfer où mon cœur se plaît!’


Le Coucher du Soleil romantique:

‘Une odeur de tombeau dans les ténèbres nage,
Et mon pied peureux froisse, au bord du marécage,
Des crapauds imprévus et de froids limaçons.’


Dance macabre: The poet speaking to a skeleton:

‘Aucuns t’appelleront une caricature,
Qui ne comprennent pas, amants ivres de chair,
L’élégance sans nom de l’humaine armature.
Tu réponds, grand squelette, à mon goût le plus cher!...’


Une Charogne:

‘Rappelez-vous l’objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d’été si doux:
Au détour d’un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux,
‘Les jambes en l’air, comme une femme lubrique
Brûlante et suant les poisons,
Ouvrait d’une façon nonchalante et cynique
Son ventre plein d’exhalaisons....
‘Et le ciel regardait la carcasse superbe [!]
Comme une fleur s’épanouir.
La puanteur était si forte, que sur l’herbe
Vous crûtes vous évanouir....
‘Et pourtant vous serez semblable à cette ordure,
A cette horrible infection,
Étoile de mes yeux, soleil de ma nature,
Vous, mon ange et ma passion!
‘Oui! telle vous serez, ô la reine des grâces,
Après les derniers sacrements,
Quand vous irez, sous l’herbe et les floraisons grasses,
Moisir parmi les ossements....’


That which pleases Baudelaire most are these pictures of death and corruption which I could quote in still greater numbers if I did not think that these examples sufficed. However, next to the frightful and the loathsome it is the morbid, the criminal and the lewd, which possess the strongest attraction for him.

Le Rêve d’un Curieux:

‘Connais-tu, comme moi, la douleur savoureuse?...’


Spleen:

‘Mon chat sur le carreau cherchant une litière
Agite sans repos son corps maigre et galeux....’


Le Vin du Solitaire:

‘Un baiser libertin de la maigre Adeline....’


Le Crépuscule du Soir:

‘Voici le soir charmant, ami du criminel; ...
Et l’homme impatient se change en bête fauve....’


La Destruction:

‘Sans cesse à mes côtés s’agite le Démon....
Je l’avale et le sens qui brûle mon poumon
Et l’emplit d’un désir éternel et coupable....

‘Il me conduit....
Haletant et brisé de fatigue, au milieu
Des plaines de l’Ennui, profondes et désertes,

‘Et jette dans mes yeux....
Des vêtements souillés, des blessures ouvertes,
Et l’appareil sanglant de la Destruction!’


In Une Martyre he describes complacently and in detail a bedroom in which a young, presumably pretty courtesan has[291] been murdered; the assassin had cut off her head and carried it away. The poet is only curious to know one thing:

‘L’homme vindicatif que tu n’as pu, vivante,
Malgré tant d’amour, assouvir,
Combla-t-il sur ta chair inerte et complaisante
L’immensité de son désir?’


Femmes damnées, a piece dedicated to the worst aberration of degenerate women, terminates with this ecstatic apostrophe to the heroines of unnatural vice:

‘O vierges, ô démons, ô monstres, ô martyres,
De la réalité grands esprits contempteurs,
Chercheuses d’infini, dévotes et satyres,
Tantôt pleines de cris, tantôt pleines de pleurs,

Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a poursuivies,
Pauvres sœurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains....’


Préface:

‘Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l’incendie,
N’ont pas encore brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C’est que notre âme, hélas! n’est pas assez hardie....’


But if he is not bold enough to commit crimes himself, he does not leave a moment’s doubt that he loves them, and much prefers them to virtue, just as he prefers the ‘end of autumns, winters, springs steeped in mud,’ to the fine season of the year (Brumes et Pluies). He is ‘hostile to the universe rather than indifferent’ (Les sept Vieillards). The sight of pain leaves him cold, and if tears are shed before him they only evoke in his mind the image of a landscape with running waters.

Madrigal triste:

‘Que m’importe que tu sois sage?
Sois belle! et sois triste! Les pleurs
Ajoutent un charme au visage,
Comme le fleuve au paysage.’


In the struggle between Abel et Caïn he takes the part of the latter without hesitation:

‘Race d’Abel, dors, bois et mange;
Dieu te sourit complaisamment.

‘Race de Caïn, dans la fange
Rampe et meurs misérablement.

‘Race d’Abel, ton sacrifice
Flatte le nez du Séraphin.

‘Race de Caïn, ton supplice
Aura-t-il jamais une fin?

‘Race d’Abel, vois tes semailles
Et ton bétail venir à bien;

‘Race de Caïn, tes entrailles
Hurlent la faim comme un vieux chien.

‘Race d’Abel, chauffe ton ventre
A ton foyer patriarchal;

‘Race de Caïn, dans ton antre
Tremble de froid, pauvre chacal!

‘Ah! race d’Abel, ta charogne
Engraissera le sol fumant!

‘Race de Caïn, ta besogne
N’est pas faite suffisamment.

‘Race d’Abel, voici ta honte:
Le fer est vaincu par l’épieu! [?]

‘Race de Caïn, au ciel monte
Et sur la terre jette Dieu!’


If he prays it is to the devil (Les Litanies de Satan):

‘Gloire et louange à toi, Satan, dans les hauteurs
Du Ciel, où tu régnas, et dans les profondeurs
De l’Enfer, où, vaincu, tu rêves en silence!
Fais que mon âme un jour, sous l’Arbre de Science,
Près de toi se repose....’


Here there mingles with the aberration that mysticism which is never wanting in the degenerate. Naturally, the love of evil can only take the form of devil-worship, or diabolism, if the subject is a believer, if the supernatural is held to be a real thing. Only he who is rooted with all his feelings in religious faith will, if he suffers from moral aberration, seek bliss in the adoration of Satan, in impassioned blasphemy of God and the Saviour, in the violation of the symbols of faith, or will wish to incite unnatural voluptuousness by mortal sin and infernal damnation, though humouring it in the messe noire, in the presence of a really consecrated priest, and in a hideous travesty of all the forms of the liturgy.

Besides the devil, Baudelaire adores only one other power, viz., voluptuousness. He prays thus to it (La Prière d’un Païen):

‘Ah! ne ralentis pas tes flammes!
Réchauffe mon cœur engourdi,
Volupté, torture des âmes!...
Volupté, sois toujours ma reine!’


To complete the portrait of this mind, let us cite two more of his peculiarities. He suffers first from images of perpetual anguish, as his piece testifies (Le Gouffre), which is valuable as a confession:

‘... Tout est abîme,—action, désir, rêve,
Parole! et sur mon poil qui tout droit se relève
Mainte fois de la peur je sens passer le vent.

‘En haut, en bas, partout, la profondeur, la grève, Le silence, l’espace affreux et captivant...
Sur le fonde de mes nuits, Dieu, de son doigt savant,
Dessine un cauchemar multiforme et sans trêve.

‘J’ai peur du sommeil comme on a peur d’un grand trou,
Tout plein de vague horreur, menant on ne sait où;
Je ne vois qu’infini par toutes les fenêtres,

‘Et mon esprit, toujours du vertige hanté,
Jalouse du néant l’insensibilité.’


Baudelaire describes here accurately enough that obsession of degenerates which is called ‘fear of abysses’ (cremnophobia).[281] His second peculiarity is his interest in scents. He is attentive to them, interprets them; they provoke in him all kinds of sensations and associations. He expresses himself thus on this subject in Correspondances:

‘Les parfums, les couleurs, et les sons se répondent.

‘Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
—Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

‘Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.’


He loves woman through his sense of smell ... (‘Le parfum de tes charmes étranges,’ A une Malabaraise), and never fails, in describing a mistress, to mention her exhalations.

Parfum exotique:

‘Quand les deux yeux fermés, en un soir chaud d’automne,
Je respire l’odeur de ton sein chaleureux,
Je vois se dérouler des rivages heureux
Qu’eblouissent les feux d’un soleil monotone.’


La Chevelure:

‘O toison, moutonnant jusque sur l’encolure!
O boucles! O parfum chargé de nonchaloir!...

‘La langoureuse Asie et la brûlante Afrique,
Tout un monde lointain, absent, presque défunt,
Vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique!’


Naturally, instead of good odours, he prefers the perfumes which affect the healthy man as stinks. Putrefaction, decomposition and pestilence charm his nose.

Le Flacon:

‘Il est de forts parfums pour qui toute matière
Est poreuse. On dirait qu’ils pénètrent le verre...
Parfois on trouve un vieux flacon qui se souvient,
D’où jaillit toute vive une âme qui revient.

‘Voilà le souvenir enivrant qui voltige
Dans l’air troublé; les yeux se ferment; le vertige
Saisit l’âme vaincue et la pousse à deux mains
Vers un gouffre obscurci de miasmes humains;

‘Il la terrasse au bord d’un gouffre séculaire,
Où, Lazare odorant déchirant son suaire,
Se meut dans son réveil le cadavre spectral
D’un vieil amour ranci, charmant et sepulcral.

‘Ainsi, quand je serai perdu dans la memoire
Des hommes, dans le coin d’une sinistre armoire
Quand on m’aura jeté, vieux flacon désolé,
Décrépit, poudreux, sale, abject, visqueux, fêlé,

‘Je serai ton cercueil, aimable pestilence!
Le témoin de ta force et de ta virulence,
Cher poison préparé par les anges!...’


We now know all the features which compose Baudelaire’s character. He has the ‘cult of self’;[282] he abhors nature, movement and life; he dreams of an ideal of immobility, of eternal silence, of symmetry and artificiality; he loves disease, ugliness and crime; all his inclinations, in profound aberration, are opposed to those of sane beings; what charms his sense of smell is the odour of corruption; his eye, the sight of carrion, suppurating wounds and the pain of others; he feels happy in muddy, cloudy, autumn weather; his senses are excited by unnatural pleasures only. He complains of frightful tedium and of feelings of anguish; his mind is filled with sombre ideas, the association of his ideas works exclusively with sad or loathsome images; the only thing which can distract or interest him is badness—murder, blood, lewdness and falsehood. He addresses his prayers to Satan, and aspires to hell.

He has attempted to make his peculiarities pass for a comedy and a studied pose. In a note placed at the head of the first edition (1857) of the Fleurs du Mal, he says: ‘Among the following pieces, the most characteristic ... has been considered, at least by men of intellect, only for what it really is: the imitation of the arguments of ignorance and fury. Faithful to his painful programme, the author has had, like a good comedian, to fashion his mind to all sophisms, as to all corruptions. This candid declaration will, doubtless, not prevent honest critics from ranking him among the theologians of the people,’ etc. Some of his admirers accept this explanation or appear to accept it. ‘His intense disdain of the vulgar,’ murmurs Paul Bourget, ‘breaks out in extremes of paradox, in laborious mystification.... Among many readers, even the keenest, the fear of being duped by this grand disdainer hinders full admiration.’[283] The[295] term has become a commonplace of criticism for Baudelaire; he is a ‘mystificateur’; everything for him is only a deception; he himself neither feels nor believes anything he expresses in his poetry. It is twaddle, and nothing else. A rhetorician of the Paul Bourget sort, threshing straw, and curling scraps of paper, may believe that an inwardly free man is capable of preserving artificially, all his life long, the attitude of a galley-slave or a madman, well knowing he is only acting a comedy. The expert knows that the choice of an attitude, such as Baudelaire’s, is a proof in itself of deep-seated cerebral disturbance.

Mental therapeutics has declared that persons who simulate insanity with some perseverance, even with a rational object, as, for example, in the case of certain criminals on their trial, in order to escape punishment, are almost without exception really mad,[284] although not to the degree they try to represent, just as the inclination to accuse one’s self, or to boast, of imaginary crimes is a recognised symptom of hysteria. The assertion of Baudelaire himself, that his Satanism is only a studied rôle, has no sort of value whatever. As is so frequently the case among the ‘higher degenerates,’ he feels in his heart that his aberrations are morbid, immoral and anti-social, and that all decent persons would despise him or take pity on him, if they were convinced that he was really what he boasts of being in his poems; he has recourse, consequently, to the childish excuse that malefactors also often have on their lips, viz., ‘that it was not meant[296] seriously.’ Perhaps also Baudelaire’s consciousness experienced a sincere horror of the perverse instincts of his unconscious life, and he sought to make himself believe that with his Satanism he was laughing at the Philistines. But such a tardy palliation does not deceive the psychologist, and is of no importance for his judgment.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:11 am

Part 1 of 3

CHAPTER III. DECADENTS AND ÆSTHETES.

As on the death of Alexander the Great his generals fell on the conqueror’s empire, and each one seized a portion of land, so did the imitators that Baudelaire numbered among his contemporaries and the generation following—many even without waiting for his madness and death—take possession of some one of his peculiarities for literary exploitation. The school of Baudelaire reflects the character of its master, strangely distorted; it has become in some sort like a prism, which diffracts this light into its elementary rays. His delusion of anxiety (anxiomania), and his predilection for disease, death and putrefaction (necrophilia), have fallen, as we have seen in the preceding book, to the lot of M. Maurice Rollinat. M. Catulle Mendès has inherited his sexual aberrations and lasciviousness, and besides all the newer French pornographists rely upon them for proving the ‘artistic raison d’être’ of their depravity. Jean Richepin, in La Chanson des Gueux, has spied in him, and copied, his glorification of crime, and, further, in Les Blasphèmes, has swelled Baudelaire’s imprecations and prayers to the devil to the size of a fat volume, in a most dreary and wearisome manner. His mysticism suckles the Symbolists, who, after his example, pretend to perceive mysterious relations between colours and the sensations of the other senses, with this difference, that they hear colours while he smelt them; or, if you will, they have an eye in their ear, while he saw with the nose. In Paul Verlaine we meet again his mixture of sensuality and pietism. Swinburne has established an English depot for his Sadism, compounded of lewdness and cruelty, for his mysticism and for his pleasure in crime, and I greatly fear that Giosué Carducci himself, otherwise so richly gifted and original, must have turned his eyes towards the Litanies de Satan, when he wrote his celebrated Ode à Satan.

The diabolism of Baudelaire has been specially cultivated by Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and Barbey d’Aurevilly. These two men have, in addition to the general family likeness of the degenerate,[297] a series of special features in common. Villiers and Barbey attributed to themselves, as the deranged frequently do, a fabulous genealogy; the former aspired to be a descendant of Count de l’Isle-Adam, the celebrated Marshal and Grand-Master of Malta (who as such could not be married, be it understood!), and he claimed one day, in a letter addressed to the Queen of England, the surrender of Malta in virtue of his right of heritage. Barbey annexed the aristocratic surname of d’Aurevilly, and during the whole of his life spoke of his noble race—which had no existence. Both made a theatrical display of fanatical Catholicism, but revelled at the same time in studied blasphemies against God.[285] Both delighted in eccentricities of costume and modes of life, and Barbey had the habit of graphomaniacs, which we know already, of writing his letters and his literary works with different coloured inks. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, and still more Barbey d’Aurevilly, created a class of poetry to the worship of the devil, which recalls the craziest depositions of witches of the Middle Ages when put to the torture. Barbey especially may be said to have gone, in this respect, to the limits of the imaginable. His book Le Prêtre marié might be written by a contemporary of witch-burners; but it is surpassed in its turn by Les Diaboliques, a collection of crack-brained histories, where men and women wallow in the most hideous license, continually invoking the devil, extolling and serving him. All the invention in these ravings Barbey stole with utter shamelessness from the books of the Marquis de Sade, without a shade of shame; that which belongs properly to him is the colouring of Catholic theology he gives to his profligacies. If I only speak in general terms of the books mentioned here, without entering into details, without summarizing the contents, or quoting characteristic passages, it is because my demonstrations do not require a plunge into this filth, and it is sufficient to point the finger from afar at the sink of vice which testifies to Baudelaire’s influence on his contemporaries.

Barbey, the imitator of Baudelaire, has himself found an imitator in M. Joséphin Péladan, whose first novel, Vice suprême, occupies an eminent place in the literature of diabolism. M. Péladan, who had not yet promoted himself to the dignity of a first-class Assyrian king, paraphrases in his book what he means by ‘vice suprême’: ‘Let us deny Satan! Sorcery has always sorcerers ... superior minds which have no need of conjuring-book, their thought being a page written by hell for hell. Instead of the kid they have killed the good soul within them, and[298] are going to the Sabbath of the Word.’ [May the reader not stumble over obscurities! What were Péladan if he were not mystical?] ‘They assemble to profane and soil the idea. Existing vice does not satisfy them; they invent, they rival each other in seeking for, new evil, and if they find it they applaud each other. Which is worst, the Sabbath-orgies of the body or those of the mind, of criminal action or of perverted thought? To reason, justify, to apotheosize evil, to establish its ritual, to show the excellence of it—is this not worse than to commit it? To adore the demon, or love evil, the abstract or the concrete term of one and the same fact. There is blindness in the gratification of instinct, and madness in the perpetration of misdeeds; but to conceive and theorize exacts a calm operation of the mind which is the vice suprême.’[286]

Baudelaire has expressed this much more concisely in one single verse: ‘La conscience dans le Mal’ (‘consciousness in evil’).[287]

The same Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who has copied his diabolism from Baudelaire, has appropriated the predilection of the latter for the artificial, and has raised it to a funny pitch in his novel L’Ève future. In this half-fantastic half-satirical and wholly mad book, he imagines, as the next development of humanity, a state in which the woman of flesh and blood will be abolished, and be replaced by a machine to which he allows (which is a little contradictory) the shape of a woman’s body, and which it will be sufficient with the help of a screw so to dispose, in order to obtain from it at once whatever happens to be desired: love, caprices, infidelity, devotion, every perversion and every vice. This is in sooth even more artificial than Baudelaire’s tin and glass landscape!

A later disciple, M. Joris Karl Huysmans, is more instructive than all those imitators of Baudelaire who have only developed the one or the other side of him. He has undertaken the toilsome task of putting together, from all the isolated traits which are found dispersed in Baudelaire’s poems and prose writings, a human figure, and of presenting to us Baudelairism incarnate and[299] living, thinking and acting. The book in which he shows us his model ‘Decadent’ is entitled A Rebours (‘Against the Grain’).

The word ‘décadent’ was borrowed by the French critics, in the fifties, from the history of the declining Roman Empire, to characterize the style of Théophile Gautier, and notably of Baudelaire. At the present time the disciples of these two writers, and of their previous imitators, claim it as a title of honour. Otherwise than with the expressions ‘pre-Raphaelites’ and ‘Symbolists,’ we possess an exact explanation of the sense which those who speak of ‘decadence’ and ‘decadents’ attach to these words.

‘The style of decadence,’ says Théophile Gautier,[288] ‘... is nothing else than art arrived at that extreme point of maturity produced by those civilizations which are growing old with their oblique suns[!]—a style that is ingenious, complicated, learned, full of shades of meaning and research, always pushing further the limits of language, borrowing from all the technical vocabularies, taking colours from all palettes, notes from all keyboards, forcing itself to express in thought that which is most ineffable, and in form the vaguest and most fleeting contours; listening, that it may translate them, to the subtle confidences of the neuropath, to the avowals of ageing and depraved passion, and to the singular hallucinations of the fixed idea verging on madness. This style of decadence is the last effort of the Word (Verbe), called upon to express everything, and pushed to the utmost extremity. We may remind ourselves, in connection with it, of the language of the Later Roman Empire, already mottled with the greenness of decomposition, and, as it were, gamy (faisandée), and of the complicated refinements of the Byzantine school, the last form of Greek art fallen into deliquescence. Such is the inevitable and fatal idiom of peoples and civilizations where factitious life has replaced the natural life, and developed in man unknown wants. Besides, it is no easy matter, this style despised of pedants, for it expresses new ideas with new forms and words that have not yet been heard. In opposition to the classic style, it admits of shading, and these shadows teem and swarm with the larvæ of superstitions, the haggard phantoms of insomnia, nocturnal terrors, remorse which starts and turns back at the slightest noise, monstrous dreams stayed only by impotence, obscure phantasies at which the daylight would stand amazed, and all that the soul conceals of the dark, the unformed, and the vaguely horrible, in its deepest and furthest recesses.’

The same ideas that Gautier approximately expresses in this[300] rigmarole, Baudelaire enumerates in these terms: ‘Does it not seem to the reader, as it does to me, that the language of the later Latin decadence—the departing sigh of a robust person already transformed and prepared for the spiritual life—is singularly appropriate to express passion as it has been understood and felt by the modern poetic world? Mysticism is the opposite pole of that magnet in which Catullus and his followers, brutal and purely epidermic poets, have only recognised the pole of sensuality. In this marvellous language, solecism and barbarism appear to me to convey the forced negligences of a passion which forgets itself and mocks at rules. Words, received in a new acceptation, display the charming awkwardness of the Northern barbarian kneeling before the Roman beauty. Even a play on words, when it enters into these pedantic stammerings, does it not display the wild and bizarre grace of infancy?’[289]

The reader, who has the chapter on the psychology of mysticism present to his mind, naturally at once recognises what is hidden behind the word-wash of Gautier and Baudelaire. Their description of the state of mind which the ‘decadent’ language is supposed to express is simply a description of the disposition of the mystically degenerate mind, with its shifting nebulous ideas, its fleeting formless shadowy thought, its perversions and aberrations, its tribulations and impulsions. To express this state of mind, a new and unheard-of language must in fact be found, since there cannot be in any customary language designations corresponding to presentations which in reality do not exist. It is absolutely arbitrary to seek for an example and a model of ‘decadent’ expression in the language of the Later Roman Empire. It would be difficult for Gautier to discover in any writer whatever of the fourth or fifth century the ‘mottled greenness of decomposition and, as it were, gamy’ Latin which so greatly charms him. M. Huysmans, monstrously exaggerating Gautier’s and Baudelaire’s idea, as is the way with imitators, gives the following description of this supposed Latin of the fifth century: ‘The Latin tongue, ... now hung [!], completely rotten, ... losing its members, dropping suppurations, scarcely preserving, in the total decay of its body, some firm parts which the Christians detached in order to pickle them in the brine of their new language.’[290]

This debauch in pathological and nauseous ideas of a deranged mind with gustatory perversion is a delirium, and has no foundation whatever in philological facts. The Latin of the later period of decadence was coarse and full of errors, in consequence of the increasing barbarity in the manners and taste of the readers, the narrow-mindedness and grammatical ignorance[301] of the writers, and the intrusion of barbarous elements into its vocabulary. But it was very far from expressing ‘new ideas with new forms’ and from taking ‘colours from all palettes’; it surprises us, on the contrary, by its awkwardness in rendering the most simple thoughts, and by its profound impoverishment. The German language has also had a similar period of decadence. After the Thirty Years’ War, even the best writers, a Moscherosch, a Zinkgref, a Schupp, were ‘often almost incomprehensible’ with ‘their long-winded and involved periods,’ and ‘their deportment as distorted as it was stiff’;[291] the grammar displayed the worst deformities, the vocabulary swarmed with strange intruders, but the German of those desolate decades was surely not ‘decadent’ in the sense of Gautier’s, Baudelaire’s and Huysmans’ definitions. The truth is, that these degenerate writers have arbitrarily attributed their own state of mind to the authors of the Roman and Byzantine decadence, to a Petronius, but especially to a Commodianus of Gaza, an Ausonius, a Prudentius, a Sidonius Apollinaris, etc., and have created in their own image, or according to their morbid instincts, an ‘ideal man of the Roman decadence,’ just as Rousseau invented the ideal savage and Chateaubriand the ideal Indian, and have transported him by their own imagination into a fabulous past or into a distant country. M. Paul Bourget is more honest when he refrains from fraudulently quoting the Latin authors of the Latin decline, and thus describes the ‘decadence,’ independently of his Parnassian masters: ‘The word “decadence” denotes a state of society which produces too great a number of individuals unfit for the labours of common life. A society ought to be assimilated to an organism. As an organism, in fact, it resolves itself into a federation of lesser organisms, which again resolve themselves into a federation of cells. The individual is the social cell. In order that the whole organism should function with energy, it is necessary that the component organisms should function with energy, but with a subordinate energy. And in order that these inferior organisms should themselves function with energy, it is necessary that their component cells should function with energy, but with a subordinate energy. If the energy of the cells becomes independent, the organisms composing the total organism cease likewise to subordinate their energy to the total energy, and the anarchy which takes place constitutes the decadence of the whole.’[292]

Very true. A society in decadence ‘produces too great a number of individuals unfit for the labours of common life’;[302] these individuals are precisely the degenerate; ‘they cease to subordinate their energy to the total energy,’ because they are ego-maniacs, and their stunted development has not attained to the height at which an individual reaches his moral and intellectual junction with the totality, and their ego-mania makes the degenerate necessarily anarchists, i.e., enemies of all institutions which they do not understand, and to which they cannot adapt themselves. It is very characteristic that M. Bourget, who sees all this, who recognises that ‘decadent’ is synonymous with inaptitude for regular functions and subordination to social aims, and that the consequence of decadence is anarchy and the ruin of the community, does not the less justify and admire the decadents, especially Baudelaire. This is ‘la conscience dans le mal’ of which his master speaks.

We will now examine the ideal ‘decadent’ that Huysmans draws so complacently and in such detail for us, in A Rebours. First, a word on the author of this instructive book. Huysmans, the classical type of the hysterical mind without originality, who is the predestined victim of every suggestion, began his literary career as a fanatical imitator of Zola, and produced, in this first period of his development, romances and novels in which (as in Marthe) he greatly surpassed his model in obscenity. Then he swerved from naturalism, by an abrupt change of disposition, which is no less genuinely hysterical, overwhelmed this tendency and Zola himself with the most violent abuse, and began to ape the Diabolists, particularly Baudelaire. A red thread unites both of his otherwise abruptly contrasted methods, viz., his lubricity. That has remained the same. He is, as a languishing ‘Decadent,’ quite as vulgarly obscene as when he was a bestial ‘Naturalist.’

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

The Duke Jean des Esseintes is physically an anæmic and nervous man of weak constitution, the inheritor of all the vices and all the degeneracies of an exhausted race. ‘For two centuries the Des Esseintes had married their children to each other, consuming their remnant of vigour in consanguineous unions.... The predominance of lymph in the blood appeared.’ (This employment of technical expressions and empty phrases, scientific in sound, is peculiar to many modern degenerate authors and to their imitators. They sow these words and expressions around them, as the ‘learned valet’ of a well-known[303] German farce scatters around him his scraps of French, but without being more cognizant of science than the latter was of the French language.) Des Esseintes was educated by the Jesuits, lost his parents early in life, squandered the greater part of his patrimony in foolish carousing which overwhelmed him with ennui, and soon retired from society, which had become insupportable. ‘His contempt for humanity increased; he understood at last that the world is composed for the most part of bullies and imbeciles. He had certainly no hope of discovering in others the same aspirations and the same hatreds, no hope of uniting himself with a kindred spirit delighting in a diligent decrepitude [!] as he did. Enervated, moody, exasperated by the inanity of interchanged and accepted ideas, he became like a person aching all over, till at last he was constantly excoriating his epidermis, and suffering from the patriotic and social nonsense which was dealt out each morning in the newspapers.... He dreamed of a refined Thebaid, of a comfortable desert, a warm and unmoving ark, where he would take refuge far from the incessant flood of human stupidity.’

He realizes this dream. He sells his possessions, buys Government stock with the ruins of his fortune, draws in this way an annual income of fifty thousand francs, buys himself a house which stands alone on a hill at some distance from a small village near Paris, and arranges it according to his own taste.

‘The artificial appeared to Des Esseintes as the distinguishing mark of human genius. As he expressed it, the day of nature is past: by the disgusting uniformity of its landscapes and skies, it has positively exhausted the attentive patience of refined spirits. In sooth, what platitude of a specialist who sees no further than his own line! what pettiness of a tradeswoman keeping this or that article to the exclusion of every other! what a monotonous stock of meadows and trees! what a commonplace agency for mountains and seas!’ (p. 31).

He banishes, in consequence, all that is natural from his horizon, and surrounds himself by all that is artificial. He sleeps during the day, and only leaves his bed towards evening, in order to pass the night in reading and musing in his brightly-lit ground-floor. He never crosses the threshold of his house, but remains within his four walls. He will see no one, and even the old couple who wait on him must do their work while he is asleep, so as not to be seen by him. He receives neither letters nor papers, knows nothing of the outer world. He never has an appetite, and when by chance this is aroused, ‘he dips his roast meat, covered with some extraordinary butter, into a cup of tea [oh, the devil!], a faultless mixture of Si-a-Fayun, Mo-yu-tan and Khansky, yellow teas brought from China and Russia by special caravans’ (p. 61).

His dining-room ‘resembled a ship’s cabin,’ with ‘its little French window opening in the wainscot like a port-hole.’ It was built within a larger room pierced by two windows, one of which was exactly opposite the port-hole in the wainscot. A large aquarium occupied the whole space between the port-hole and this window. In order, then, to give light to the cabin, the daylight had to pass through the window, the panes of which had been replaced by plate glass, and then through the water. ‘Sometimes, in the afternoon, when by chance Des Esseintes was awake and up, he set in motion the play of the pipes and conduits which emptied the aquarium and filled it afresh with pure water, introducing into it drops of coloured essences, thus producing for himself at pleasure the green or muddy yellow, opalescent or silver, tones of a real river, according to the colour of the sky, the greater or less heat of the sun, the more or less decided indications of rain; in a word, according to the season and the weather. He would then imagine himself to be between-decks on a brig, and contemplated with curiosity marvellous mechanical fish, constructed with clock-work, which passed before the window of the port-hole, and clung to the sham weeds, or else, while breathing the smell of the tar with which the room had been filled before he entered, he examined the coloured engravings hung on the walls representing steamers sailing for Valparaiso and La Plata, such as are seen at steamship agencies, and at Lloyd’s’ (p. 27).

These mechanical fish are decidedly more remarkable than Baudelaire’s landscapes in tin. But this dream of an ironmonger, retired from business and become an idiot, was not the only pleasure of the Duc des Esseintes, who despised so deeply the ‘stupidity and vulgarity of men,’ although, of all his acquaintance, probably not one would have stooped to ideas so asinine as these mechanical fish with clock-work movements. When he wishes to do himself a particularly good turn, he composes and plays a gustatory symphony. He has had a cupboard constructed containing a series of little liqueur barrels. The taps of all the barrels could be opened or shut simultaneously by an engine set in motion by pressure on a knob in the wainscot, and under every tap stood an ‘imperceptible’ goblet, into which, on the turning of the cock, a drop fell. Des Esseintes called this liquor-cupboard his ‘mouth organ.’ (Notice all these ridiculous complications to mix a variety of liqueurs! As if it required all this deeply thought out mechanism!) ‘The organ was then open. The stops labelled “flute, horn, voix céleste,” were drawn out ready for action. Des Esseintes drank a drop here and there, played internal symphonies, and succeeded in procuring in the throat sensations analogous to those that music offers to the ear. Each liqueur corresponded in taste, according to him, to the[305] sound of an instrument. Dry curaçoa, for example, to the clarionet, the tone of which is acescent and velvety; kümmel brandy to the oboë, with its sonorous nasal sound; mint and anisette to the flute, which is at the same time sugary and peppery, squeaking and sweet; while, to complete the orchestra, kirsch rages with the blast of a trumpet; gin and whisky scarify the palate with their shrill outbursts of cornets and trombones; liqueur-brandy fulminates with the deafening crash of the tuba; while Chios-raki and mastic roll on to the mucous membrane like the thunder-claps of cymbals and kettledrums struck with the arm!’ Thus he plays ‘string quartettes under the vault of his palate, representing with the violin old eau-de-vie, smoky and subtle, sharp and delicate; with the tenor simulated by strong rum;’ with vespetro as violoncello, and bitters as double bass; green chartreuse was the major, and benedictine the minor key,’ etc. (p. 63).

Des Esseintes does not only hear the music of the liqueurs: he sniffs also the colour of perfumes. As he has a mouth organ, he possesses a nasal picture-gallery, i.e., a large collection of flasks containing all possible odorous substances. When his taste-symphonies no longer give him pleasure, he plays an olfactory tune. ‘Seated in his dressing-room before his table ... a little fever disturbed him, he was ready for work.... With his vaporizers he injected into the room an essence formed of ambrosia, Mitcham lavender, sweet peas, ess. bouquet, an essence which, when it is distilled by an artist, deserves the name by which it is known, viz., “extract of flowery meadow.” Then, in this meadow, he introduced an exact fusion of tuberose, of orange and almond flower, and forthwith artificially-created lilacs sprang up, while limes winnowed each other, pouring down upon the earth their pale emanations. Into this decoration, laid on in broad outlines ... he blew ... a light rain of human and quasi-feline essences, savouring of skirts, and indicating the powdered and painted woman, the stephanotis, ayapana, opoponax, cypress, champak, and sarcanthus: on which he juxtaposed a suspicion of syringa, in order to instil into the factitious atmosphere which emanated from them a natural bloom of laughter bathed in sweat (!!), and of joys which riot boisterously in full sunshine’ (pp. 154-157).

We have seen how slavishly M. Huysmans, in his drivel about tea, liqueurs and perfumes, follows to the letter the fundamental principle of the Parnassians—of ransacking technical dictionaries. He has evidently been forced to copy the catalogues of commercial travellers dealing in perfumes and soaps, teas and liqueurs, to scrape together his erudition in current prices.

That Des Esseintes should be made ill by this mode of life is not surprising. His stomach rejects all forms of food, and this[306] renders the highest triumph of his love for the artificial possible: he is obliged to be nourished by means of peptonized injections, hence, in a way, diametrically opposed to nature.

Not to be too prolix, I omit many details, e.g., an endless description of tones associated with colours (pp. 17-20); of orchids which he loves, because they have for him the appearance of eruptions, scars, scabs, ulcers and cancers, and seem covered with dressings, plastered with black mercurial axunge, green belladonna unguents (p. 120 et seq.); an exposition of the mystical aspect of precious and half-precious stones (pp. 57-60), etc. We will only acquaint ourselves with a few more peculiarities of taste in this decadent type:

‘The wild spirit, the rough, careless talent of Goya captivated him; but the universal admiration which Goya’s works had gained deterred him somewhat, and for many years he had ceased having them framed.... Indeed, if the finest tune in the world becomes vulgar, insupportable, as soon as the public hum it and barrel-organs seize upon it, the work of art to which false artists are not indifferent, which is not disputed by fools, which is not content with stirring up the enthusiasm of some, even it becomes, by this very means, for the initiated polluted, commonplace and almost repulsive’ (p. 134).

The reference to barrel-organs is a trick calculated to mislead the inattentive reader. If a beautiful tune becomes insupportable as played on barrel-organs, it is because the organs are false, noisy and expressionless, i.e., they modify the very essence of the tune and drag it down to vulgarity; but the admiration of the greatest fool himself changes absolutely nothing in a work of art, and those who have loved it for its qualities will again find all these qualities complete and intact, even when the looks of millions of impassive Philistines have crawled over it. The truth is, the decadent, bursting with silly vanity, here betrays involuntarily his inmost self. The fellow has not, in fact, the smallest comprehension of art, and is wholly inaccessible to the beautiful as to all external impressions. To know if a work of art pleases him or not, he does not look at the work of art—oh no! he turns his back and anxiously studies the demeanour of the people standing before it. Are they enthusiastic, the decadent despises the work; do they remain indifferent, or even appear displeased, he admires it with full conviction. The ordinary man always seeks to think, to feel, and to do the same as the multitude; the decadent seeks exactly the contrary. Both derive the manner of seeing and feeling, not from their internal convictions, but from what the crowd dictate to them. Both lack all individuality, and they are obliged to have their eyes constantly fixed on the crowd to find their way. The decadent is, therefore, an ordinary man with a minus sign, who, equally with the latter,[307] only in a contrary sense, follows in the wake of the crowd, and meanwhile makes things far more difficult for himself than the ordinary man; he is also constantly in a state of irritation, while the latter as constantly enjoys himself. This can be summed up in one proposition—the decadent snob is an anti-social Philistine, suffering from a mania for contradiction, without the smallest feeling for the work of art itself.

Des Esseintes reads occasionally between his gustatory and olfactory séances. The only works which please him are naturally those of the most extreme Parnassians and Symbolists. For he finds in them (p. 266) ‘the death-struggle of the old language, after it had become ever mouldier from century to century, was ending in dissolution, and in the attainment of that deliquescence of the Latin language which gave up the ghost in the mysterious concepts and enigmatical expressions of St. Boniface and St. Adhelm. Moreover, the decomposition of the French language had set in all at once. In the Latin language there was a long transition, a lapse of 400 years, between the speckled and beautiful speech of Claudian and Rutilius, and the gamy speech of the eighth century. In the French language no lapse of time, no succession in age, had taken place; the speckled (tacheté) and superb style of the brothers De Goncourt and the gamy style of Verlaine and Mallarmé rubbed elbows in Paris, existing at the same time and in the same century.’

We now know the taste of a typical decadent in all directions. Let us cast another glance at his character, morals, sentiments and political views.

He has a friend, D’Aigurande, who one day thinks of marrying. ‘Arguing from the fact that D’Aigurande possessed no fortune, and that the dowry of his wife was almost nothing, he (Des Esseintes) perceived in this simple desire an infinite perspective of ridiculous misfortunes.’ In consequence (!) he encouraged his friend to commit this folly, and what had to happen did happen: the young couple lacked money, everything became a subject for altercations and quarrels; in short, the life of both became insupportable. He amused himself out of doors; she ‘sought by the expedients of adultery to forget her rainy and dull life.’ By common consent they cancelled their contract and demanded a legal separation. ‘My plan of battle was exact, Des Esseintes then said to himself, experiencing the satisfaction of those strategists who see their long-foreseen manœuvres succeeding.’

Another time, in the Rue de Rivoli, he comes upon a boy of about sixteen years old, a ‘pale, cunning-looking’ child, smoking a bad cigarette, and who asks him for a light. Des Esseintes offers him Turkish aromatic cigarettes, enters into conversation with him, learns that his mother is dead, that his father beats him,[308] and that he works for a cardboard-box maker. ‘Des Esseintes listened thoughtfully. “Come and drink,” said he, and led him into a café, where he made him drink some very strong punch. The child drank in silence. “Come,” said Des Esseintes suddenly, “do you feel inclined for some amusement this evening? I will treat you.”’ And he leads the unfortunate boy into a disorderly house, where his youth and nervousness astonish the girls. While one of these women draws the boy away, the landlady asks Des Esseintes what was his idea in bringing them such an imp. The decadent answers (p. 95): ‘I am simply trying to train an assassin. This boy is innocent, and has reached the age when the blood grows hot; he might run after the girls in his quarter, remain honest while amusing himself.... Bringing him here, on the contrary, into the midst of a luxury of which he had no conception, and which will engrave itself forcibly on his memory, in offering him every fortnight such an unexpected treat, he will get accustomed to these pleasures from which his means debar him. Let us admit that it will require three months for them to become absolutely necessary to him.... Well, at the end of three months I discontinue the little rente which I am going to pay you in advance for this good action, and then he will steal in order to live here.... He will kill, I hope, the good gentleman who will appear inopportunely while he is attempting to break open his writing-table. Then my aim will be attained; I shall have contributed, to the extent of my resources, in creating a villain, one more enemy of that hideous society which fleeces us.’ And he leaves the poor defiled boy on this first evening with these words: ‘Return as quickly as possible to your father.... Do unto others what you would not wish them to do to you; with this rule you will go a long way. Good-evening. Above all, don’t be ungrateful. Let me hear of you as soon as possible through the police news.’

He sees the village children fighting for a piece of black bread covered with curd cheese; he immediately orders for himself a similar slice of bread, and says to his servant: ‘Throw this bread and cheese to those children who are doing for each other in the road. Let the feeblest be crippled, not manage to get a single piece, and, besides, be well whipped by their parents when they return home with torn breeches and black eyes; that will give them an idea of the life that awaits them’ (p. 226).

When he thinks of society, this cry bursts from his breast: ‘Oh, perish, society! Die, old world!’ (p. 293).

Lest the reader should feel curious as to the course of Des Esseintes’ history, let us add that a serious nervous illness attacks him in his solitude, and that his doctor imperiously orders him to return to Paris and the common life. Huysmans, in a second novel, ‘Là-bas,’ shows us what Des Esseintes eventually[309] does in Paris. He writes a history of Gilles de Rais, the wholesale murderer of the fifteenth century, to whom Moreau de Tours’ book (treating of sexual aberrations) has unmistakably called the attention of the Diabolist band, who are in general profoundly ignorant, but erudite on this special subject of erotomania. This furnishes M. Huysmans with the opportunity of burrowing and sniffing with swinish satisfaction into the most horrible filth. Besides this, he exhibits in this book the mystic side of decadentism; he shows us Des Esseintes become devout, but going at the same time to the ‘black mass’ with a hysterical woman, etc. I have no occasion to trouble myself with this book, as repulsive as it is silly. All I wished was to show the ideal man of decadentism.

We have him now, then, the ‘super-man’ (surhomme) of whom Baudelaire and his disciples dream, and whom they wish to resemble: physically, ill and feeble; morally, an arrant scoundrel; intellectually, an unspeakable idiot who passes his whole time in choosing the colours of stuffs which are to drape his room artistically, in observing the movements of mechanical fishes, in sniffing perfumes and sipping liqueurs. His raciest notion is to keep awake all night and to sleep all day, and to dip his meat into his tea. Love and friendship are unknown to him. His artistic sense consists in watching the attitude of people before some work, in order immediately to assume the opposite position. His complete inadaptability reveals itself in that every contact with the world and men causes him pain. He naturally throws the blame of his discomfort on his fellow-creatures, and rails at them like a fish-wife. He classes them all together as villains and blockheads, and he hurls at them horrible anarchical maledictions. The dunderhead considers himself infinitely superior to other people, and his inconceivable stupidity only equals his inflated adoration of himself. He possesses an income of 50,000 francs, and must also have it, for such a pitiable creature would not be in a position to draw one sou from society, or one grain of wheat from nature. A parasite of the lowest grade of atavism, a sort of human sacculus,[293] he would be condemned, if he were poor, to die miserably of hunger in so far as society, in misdirected charity, did not assure to him the necessaries of life in an idiot asylum.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:12 am

Part 2 of 3

If M. Huysmans in his Des Esseintes has shown us the Decadent with all his instincts perverted, i.e., the complete Baudelairian with his anti-naturalism, his æsthetic folly and his anti-social Diabolism, another representative of decadent literature, M. Maurice Barrès, is the incarnation of the pure ego-mania of the incapacity of adaptation in the degenerate. He has dedicated up to the present a series of four novels to the culte du moi, and has annotated, besides, an edition of the three first in a brochure much more valuable for our inquiry than the novels themselves, inasmuch as all the sophisms by which consciousness forces itself to explain a posteriori the impulsions of morbid unconscious life appear here conveniently summed up in a sort of philosophical system.

A few words on M. Maurice Barrès. He first made himself talked of by defending, in the Parisian press, his friend Chambige, the Algerian homicide, a logical cultivator of the ‘Ego.’ Then he became a Boulangist deputy, and later he canonized Marie Bashkirtseff, a degenerate girl who died of phthisis, a victim to moral madness, with a touch of the megalomania and the mania of persecution, as well as of morbid erotic exaltation. He invoked her as ‘Our Lady of the wagon-lit’ (Notre Dame du Sleeping).[294]

His novels, Sous l’[Œil des Barbares, Un Homme libre, Le Jardin de Bérénice, and L’Ennemi des Lois, are constructed after the artistic formula established by M. Huysmans. The description of a human being, with his intellectual life, and his monotonous, scarcely modulated external destinies, gives the author a pretext for expressing his own ideas on all possible subjects; on Leonardo da Vinci and Venice;[295] on a French provincial museum and the industrial art of the Middle Ages;[296] on Nero,[297] Saint Simon, Fourier, Marx, and Lassalle.[298] Formerly it was the custom to utilize these excursions into all possible fields of discussion as articles for newspapers or monthly periodicals, and afterwards to collect them in book form. But experience has taught that the public does not exhibit much interest in these collections of essays, and the Decadents have adopted the clever ruse of connecting them by means of a scarcely perceptible thread of narrative, and presenting them to their readers as a novel. The English novelists of the preceding century, then Stendhal, Jean Paul and Goethe himself, have also made use of these insertions of the author’s personal reflections in the course of the story; but with them (with the[311] exception, perhaps, of Jean Paul) these interpellations were at least subordinated to the work of art as a whole. It was reserved for M. Huysmans and his school to give them the chief place, and to transform the novel from an epic poem in prose into a hybrid mixture of Essais of Montaigne, of Parerga et Paralipomena of Schopenhauer, and the effusions in the diary of a girl at a boarding-school.

M. Barrès makes it no secret that he has described his own life in his novels, and that he considers himself a typical representative of a species. ‘These monographs ... are,’ he says,[299] ‘a communication of a type of young man already frequently met with, and which, I feel sure, will become still more numerous among the pupils who are now at the Lycée.... These books ... will eventually be consulted as documents.’

What is the nature of this type? Let us answer this question in the author’s own words. The hero of the novels is ‘somewhat literary, proud, fastidious and désarmé’ (Examen, p. 11); ‘a young bourgeois grown pale, and starving for all pleasures’ (p. 26); ‘discouraged by contact with men’ (p. 34); he is one of those ‘who find themselves in a sad state in the midst of the order of the world ... who feel themselves weak in facing life’ (p. 45). Can one imagine a more complete description of the degenerate incapable of adaptation, badly equipped for the struggle for existence, and for this reason hating and fearing the world and men, but shaken at the same time by morbid desires?

This poor shattered creature, who was necessarily rendered an ego-maniac by the weakness of will in his imperfect brain, and the perpetual turmoil of his unhealthy organs, raises his infirmities to the dignity of a system which he proudly proclaims. ‘Let us keep to our only reality, to our “I”’ (p. 18). ‘There is only one thing which we know and which really exists.... This sole tangible reality, it is the “I,” and the universe is only a fresco which it makes beautiful or ugly. Let us keep to our “I.” Let us protect it against strangers, against Barbarians’ (p. 45).

What does he mean by Barbarians? These are the ‘beings who possess a dream of life opposed to that which he (the hero of one of his books) forms of it. If they happen to be, moreover, highly cultured, they are strangers and adversaries for him.’ A young man ‘obliged by circumstances to meet persons who are not of his patrie psychique’ experiences ‘a shock.’ ‘Ah! what matters to me the quality of a soul which contradicts some sensibility? I hate these strangers who impede, or turn aside the development of such a delicate hesitating and self-searching “I,” these Barbarians through whom more than one impressionable young man will both fail in his career and not find his joy of living’ (p. 23). ‘Soldiers, magistrates,[312] moralists, teachers,’ these are the Barbarians who place obstacles in the way of the development of the “I”’ (p. 43). In one word, the ‘I’ who cannot take his bearings in the social order regards all the representatives and defenders of that order as his enemies. What he would like would be ‘to give himself up without resistance to the force of his instincts’ (p. 25), to distinguish ‘where lie his sincere curiosity, the direction of his instinct, and his truth’ (p. 47). This idea of setting instinct, passion and the unconscious life free from the superintendence of reason, judgment and consciousness recurs hundreds of times in the author’s novels. ‘Taste takes the place of morality’ (L’Ennemi des Lois, p. 3). ‘As a man, and a free man, may I accomplish my destiny, respect and favour my interior impulsion, without taking counsel of anything outside me’ (p. 22). ‘Society enclosed by a line of demarcation! You offer slavery to whoever does not conform to the definitions of the beautiful and the good adopted by the majority. In the name of humanity, as formerly in the name of God and the City, what crimes are devised against the individual!’ (p. 200). ‘The inclinations of man ought not to be forced, but the social system must be adapted to them’ (p. 97). (It would be very much more simple to adapt the inclinations of a single man to the social system which is a law to millions of men, but this does not seem to suggest itself to our philosopher!)

It is absolutely logical that M. Barrès, after having shown us in his three first novels or idéologies the development of his ‘cultivator of the moi,’ should make the latter become an anarchist and an ennemi des lois. But he feels himself that the objection will be justly raised, that society cannot exist without a law and an order of some sort, and he seeks to forestall this objection by asserting that everyone knows how to behave himself, that instinct is good and infallible: ‘Do you not feel,’ he says (p. 177), ‘that our instinct has profited by the long apprenticeship of our race amid codes and religions?’ He admits then that ‘codes and religions’ have their use and necessity, but only at a primitive period of human history. When the instincts were still wild, bad and unreasonable, they required the discipline of the law. But now they are so perfect that this guide and master is no longer necessary to them. But there are still criminals. What is to be done with them? ‘By stifling them with kisses and providing for their wants they would be prevented from doing any harm.’ I should like to see M. Barrès obliged to use his method of defence against a night attack of garrotters!

To allow one’s self to be carried away by instincts is, in other words, to make unconscious life the master of consciousness, to subordinate the highest nervous centres to the inferior[313] centres. But all progress rests on this, that the highest centres assume more and more authority over the entire organism, that judgment and will control and direct ever more strictly the instincts and passions, that consciousness encroaches ever further on the domain of the unconscious, and continually annexes new portions of the latter. Of course, instinct expresses a directly felt need, the satisfaction of which procures a direct pleasure. But this need is often that of a single organ, and its satisfaction, however agreeable to the organ which demands it, may be pernicious, and even fatal, to the total organism. Then there are anti-social instincts, the gratification of which is not directly injurious to the organism itself, it is true, but makes life in common with the race difficult or impossible, worsening consequently its vital conditions, and preparing its ruin indirectly. Judgment alone is fitted to oppose these instincts by the representation of the needs of the collective organism and of the race, and the will has the task of ensuring the victory over suicidal instinct to the rational representation. Judgment may be deceived, for it is the result of the work of a highly differentiated and delicate instrument, which, like all fine and complicated machinery, gets out of order more easily than a simpler and rougher tool. Instinct, the inherited and organized experience of the race, is as a rule more sure and reliable. This must certainly be admitted. But what harm is done if judgment does make a mistake for once in the opposition which it offers to instinct? The organism is, as a rule, only deprived of a momentary feeling of pleasure; it suffers therefore at most a negative loss; the will, on the other hand, will have made an effort, and acquired strength by the exercise, and this is for the organism a positive gain, which nearly always at least balances those negative losses.

And then all these considerations take for granted the perfect health of the organism, for in such a one only does the unconscious work as normally as consciousness. But we have seen above that the unconscious itself is subject to disease; it may be stupid, obtuse and mad, like consciousness; it then ceases completely to be dependable; then the instincts are as worthless guides as are the blind or drunken; then the organism, if it gives itself up to them, must stagger to ruin and death. The only thing which can sometimes save it in this case is the constant, anxious, tense vigilance of the judgment, and as the latter is never capable, by its own resources, of resisting a strong flood of revolted and riotous instincts, it must demand reinforcements from the judgment of the race, i.e., from some law, from some recognised morality.

Such is the foolish aberration of the ‘cultivators of the “I.”’ They fall into the same errors as the shallow psychologists of[314] the eighteenth century, who only recognised reason; they only see one portion of man’s mental life, i.e., his unconscious life; they wish to receive their law only from instinct, but wholly neglect to notice that instinct may become degenerate, diseased, exhausted, and thereby be rendered as useless for legislative purposes as a raving lunatic or an idiot.

Besides, M. Barrès contradicts his own theories at every step. While he pretends to believe that instincts are always good, he depicts many of his heroines, with the most tender expressions of admiration, as veritable moral monsters. The ‘little princess’ in L’Ennemi des Lois is a feminine Des Esseintes: she boasts of having been, as a child, ‘the scourge of the house’ (p. 146). She looks upon her parents as her ‘enemies’ (p. 149). She loves children ‘less than dogs’ (p. 284). Naturally, she gives herself at once to every man that strikes her eye, for, otherwise, where would be the use of being a ‘cultivator of the “Ego,”’ and an adept at the law of instinct? Such are the good beings of M. Barrès, who no longer need laws, because they have ‘profited by the long apprenticeship of our race.’

Yet a few more traits to complete the mental portrait of this Decadent. He makes his ‘little princess’ relate: ‘When I was twelve years old, I loved, as soon as I was alone in the country, to take off my shoes and stockings and plunge my bare feet into warm mud. I passed hours in this way, and that gave me a thrill of pleasure through all my body.’ M. Barrès resembles his heroine; he ‘experiences a thrill of pleasure through all his body’ when he ‘plunges himself into warm mud.’

‘There is not a detail in the biography of Berenice which is not shocking’—thus begins the third chapter of the Jardin de Bérénice. ‘I, however, retain of it none but very delicate sensations.’ This Berenice was a dancer at the Eden Theatre in Paris, whom her mother and elder sister had sold as a little child to some old criminals, and whom a lover took away later from the prostitution which had already stained her infancy. This lover dies and leaves her a considerable fortune. The hero of the novel, who had known her as a gutter-child, meets her at Arles, where he presents himself as the Boulangist candidate for the Chamber, and he resumes his ancient relations with her. What charms him most in their intercourse, and increases his pleasure in the highest degree, is the idea of the intense love she felt for her dead lover, and the abandonment with which she had reposed in his arms. ‘My Berenice, who still bears on her pale lips and against her dazzling teeth the kisses of M. de Transe [the lover in question].... The young man who is no more has left her as much passion as can be contained in a woman’s heart’ (p. 138). The feeling which M. Barrès seeks to crown with the help of inflated, grandiloquent[315] expressions is simply the well-known excitement that hoary sinners feel at the sight of the erotic exploits of others. All those who are conversant with Parisian life know what is meant in Paris by a voyeur, or pryer. M. Barrès reveals himself here as a metaphysical voyeur. And yet he would wish to make us believe that his little street-walker, whose dirty adventures he describes with the warmth of love and the enthusiasm of a dilettante, is in reality a symbol; it is only as a Symbolist that he claims to have formed her. ‘A young woman is seen about a young man. Is it not rather the history of a soul with its two elements, female and male?’ Or is it by the side of the ‘I’ which guards itself, wishes to know and establish itself, also the imagination in a young and sensitive person, for the taste pleasure and for vagabondage?[300] One may well ask him, where is the ‘symbolism’ in the biographical details of Petite Secousse, the name that he gives to his ‘symbol.’

Disease and corruption exercise the customary Baudelairian attraction over him. ‘When Berenice was a little girl,’ he says, in the Jardin de Bérénice (p. 72), ‘I much regretted that she had not some physical infirmity.... A blemish is what I prefer above everything ... flatters the dearest foibles of my mind.’ And in one place (p. 282) an engineer is scoffed at ‘who wishes to substitute some pond for carp for our marshes full of beautiful fevers.’

The stigmata of degeneracy known as zoöphilia, or excessive love for animals, is strongly shown in him. When he wishes particularly to edify himself he runs ‘to contemplate the beautiful eyes of the seal, and to distress himself over the mysterious sufferings of these tender-hearted animals shown in their basin, brothers of the dogs and of us.’[301] The only educator that M. Barrès admits is—the dog. ‘The education which a dog gives is indeed excellent!... Our collegians, overloaded with intellectual acquisitions, which remain in them as notions, not as methods of feeling, weighted by opinions which they are unable thoroughly to grasp, would learn beautiful ease from the dog, the gift of listening, the instinct of their “I.”’[302] And it must not be imagined that in such passages as these he is quizzing himself or mocking the Philistine who may by inadvertence have become a reader of the book. The part played by two dogs in the novel testifies that the phrases quoted are meant in bitter earnest.

Like all the truly degenerate, M. Barrès reserves for the hysterical and the demented all the admiration and fraternal love which he has not expended on seals and dogs. We have already mentioned[316] his enthusiastic regard for poor Marie Bashkirtseff. His idea of Louis II. of Bavaria is incomparable. The unfortunate King is, in his eyes, an insatisfait (L’Ennemi des Lois, p. 201); he speaks of ‘his being carried away beyond his native surroundings, his ardent desire to make his dream tangible, the wrecking of his imagination in the clumsiness of execution’ (p. 203). Louis II. is ‘a most perfect ethical problem’ (p. 200). ‘How could this brother of Parsifal, so pure, so simple, who set the prompting of his heart in opposition to all human laws—how could he suffer a foreign will to interfere in his life? And it really seems that to have drawn Dr. Gudden under water was his revenge upon a barbarian who had wished to impose his rule of life upon him’ (p. 225). It is in such phrases that M. Barrès characterizes a madman, whose mind was completely darkened, and who for years was incapable of a single reasonable idea! This impudent fashion of blinking a fact which boxed his ears on both sides; this incapacity to recognise the irrationality in the mental life of an invalid, fallen to the lowest degree of insanity; this obstinacy in explaining the craziest deeds as deliberate, intentional, philosophically justified and full of deep sense, throw a vivid light on the state of mind in the Decadent. How could a being of this kind discern the pathological disturbance of his own brain, when he does not even perceive that Louis II. was not ‘an ethical problem,’ but an ordinary mad patient, such as every lunatic asylum of any size contains by dozens?

We now understand the philosophy and moral doctrine of the Barrès type of the ‘cultivators of the “I.”’ Only one word more on their conduct in practical life. The hero of the Jardin de Bérénice, Philippe, is the happy guest of Petite Secousse, in the house which her last lover had left to her. After some time he wearies of the latter’s ‘educational influence’; he leaves her, and strongly advises her to marry his opponent in the election—which she does. ‘The enemy of the laws,’ an anarchist of the name of André Maltère, condemned to prison for several months for a newspaper article eulogizing a dynamite attempt, has become, by his trial, a celebrity of the day. A very rich orphan offers him her hand, and the ‘little princess’ her love. He marries the rich girl, whom he does not love, and continues to love the ‘little princess,’ whom he does not marry. For this is what the ‘culture of his “I”’ exacts. To satisfy his æsthetic inclinations and to ‘act’ by word and pen, he must have money, and to relieve the needs of his heart he must have the ‘little princess.’ After some months of marriage he finds it inconvenient to dissimulate his love for the ‘little princess’ before his wife. He allows her then to guess at the needs of his heart. His wife understands philosophy. She is ‘comprehensive.’ She goes herself to the ‘little princess,’ takes her to the noble[317] anarchist, and from this moment Maltère lives rich, loved, happy, and satisfied between heiress and mistress, as becomes a superior nature. M. Barrès believes he has here created ‘a rare and exquisite type.’ He deceives himself. The cultivators of the ‘I,’ like the Boulangist Philippe and the anarchist André, meet by thousands in all large towns, only the police know them under another name. They call them souteneurs. The moral law of the brave anarchist has long been that of the gilded Paris prostitutes, who from time immemorial have kept ‘l’amant de cœur,’ at the same time as the ‘other,’ or the ‘others.’

Decadentism has not been confined to France alone; it has also established a school in England. We have already mentioned, in the preceding book, one of the earliest and most servile imitators of Baudelaire—Swinburne. I had to class him among the mystics, for the degenerative stigma of mysticism predominates in all his works. He has, it is true, been train-bearer to so many models that he may be ranked among the domestic servants of a great number of masters; but, finally, he will be assigned a place where he has served longest, and that is among the pre-Raphaelites. From Baudelaire he has borrowed principally diabolism and Sadism, unnatural depravity, and a predilection for suffering, disease and crime. The ego-mania of decadentism, its love of the artificial, its aversion to nature, and to all forms of activity and movement, its megalomaniacal contempt for men and its exaggeration of the importance of art, have found their English representative among the ‘Æsthetes,’ the chief of whom is Oscar Wilde.

Wilde has done more by his personal eccentricities than by his works. Like Barbey d’Aurevilly, whose rose-coloured silk hats and gold lace cravats are well known, and like his disciple Joséphin Péladan, who walks about in lace frills and satin doublet, Wilde dresses in queer costumes which recall partly the fashions of the Middle Ages, partly the rococo modes. He pretends to have abandoned the dress of the present time because it offends his sense of the beautiful; but this is only a pretext in which probably he himself does not believe. What really determines his actions is the hysterical craving to be noticed, to occupy the attention of the world with himself, to get talked about. It is asserted that he has walked down Pall Mall in the afternoon dressed in doublet and breeches, with a picturesque biretta on his head, and a sunflower in his hand, the quasi-heraldic symbol of the Æsthetes. This anecdote has been reproduced in all the biographies of Wilde, and I have nowhere seen it denied. But is a promenade with a sunflower in the hand also inspired by a craving for the beautiful?

Phasemakers are perpetually repeating the twaddle, that it is a proof of honourable independence to follow one’s own taste[318] without being bound down to the regulation costume of the Philistine cattle, and to choose for clothes the colours, materials and cut which appear beautiful to one’s self, no matter how much they may differ from the fashion of the day. The answer to this cackle should be that it is above all a sign of anti-social ego-mania to irritate the majority unnecessarily, only to gratify vanity, or an æsthetical instinct of small importance and easy to control—such as is always done when, either by word or deed, a man places himself in opposition to this majority. He is obliged to repress many manifestations of opinions and desires out of regard for his fellow-creatures; to make him understand this is the aim of education, and he who has not learnt to impose some restraint upon himself in order not to shock others is called by malicious Philistines, not an Æsthete, but a blackguard.

It may become a duty to combat the vulgar herd in the cause of truth and knowledge; but to a serious man this duty will always be felt as a painful one. He will never fulfil it with a light heart, and he will examine strictly and cautiously if it be really a high and absolutely imperative law which forces him to be disagreeable to the majority of his fellow-creatures. Such an action is, in the eyes of a moral and sane man, a kind of martyrdom for a conviction, to carry out which constitutes a vital necessity; it is a form, and not an easy form, of self-sacrifice, for it means the renunciation of the joy which the consciousness of sympathy with one’s fellow-creatures gives, and it exacts the painful overthrow of social instincts, which, in truth, do not exist in deranged ego-maniacs, but are very strong in the normal man.

The predilection for strange costume is a pathological aberration of a racial instinct. The adornment of the exterior has its origin in the strong desire to be admired by others—primarily by the opposite sex—to be recognised by them as especially well-shaped, handsome, youthful, or rich and powerful, or as preeminent through rank or merit. It is practised, then, with the object of producing a favourable impression on others, and is a result of thought about others, of preoccupation with the race. If, now, this adornment be, not through mis-judgment but purposely, of a character to cause irritation to others, or lend itself to ridicule—in other words, if it excites disapproval instead of approbation—it then runs exactly counter to the object of the art of dress, and evinces a perversion of the instinct of vanity.

The pretence of a sense of beauty is the excuse of consciousness for a crank of the conscious. The fool who masquerades in Pall Mall does not see himself, and, therefore, does not enjoy the beautiful appearance which is supposed to be an æsthetic necessity for him. There would be some sense in his conduct if it had for its object an endeavour to cause others to dress in accordance with his taste; for them he sees, and they can[319] scandalize him by the ugliness, and charm him by the beauty, of their costume. But to take the initiative in a new artistic style in dress brings the innovator not one hair’s breadth nearer his assumed goal of æsthetic satisfaction.

When, therefore, an Oscar Wilde goes about in ‘æsthetic costume’ among gazing Philistines, exciting either their ridicule or their wrath, it is no indication of independence of character, but rather from a purely anti-socialistic, ego-maniacal recklessness and hysterical longing to make a sensation, justified by no exalted aim; nor is it from a strong desire for beauty, but from a malevolent mania for contradiction.

Be that as it may, Wilde obtained, by his buffoon mummery, a notoriety in the whole Anglo-Saxon world that his poems and dramas would never have acquired for him. I have no reason to trouble myself about these, since they are feeble imitations of Rossetti and Swinburne, and of dreary inanity. His prose essays, on the contrary, deserve attention, because they exhibit all the features which enable us to recognise in the ‘Æsthete’ the comrade in art of the Decadent.

Like his French masters, Oscar Wilde despises Nature. ‘Whatever actually occurs is spoiled for art. All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.’[303]

He is a ‘cultivator of the Ego,’ and feels deliciously indignant at the fact that Nature dares to be indifferent to his important person. ‘Nature is so indifferent, so unappreciative. Whenever I am walking in the park here, I always feel that I am no more to her than the cattle that browse on the slope’ (p. 5).

With regard to himself and the human species, he shares the opinion of Des Esseintes. ‘Ah! don’t say that you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong’ (p. 202).

His ideal of life is inactivity. ‘It is only the Philistine who seeks to estimate a personality by the vulgar test of production. This young dandy sought to be somebody rather than to do something’ (p. 65). ‘Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer. The beautiful sterile emotions that art excites in us are hateful in its eyes.... People ... are always coming shamelessly up to one ... and saying in a loud, stentorian voice, “What are you doing?” whereas, “What are you thinking?” is the only question that any civilized being should ever be allowed to whisper to another.... Contemplation ... in the opinion of the highest culture, is the proper occupation of man.... It is to do nothing that the elect exist. Action is limited and relative. Unlimited and absolute is the vision of him who sits at ease and watches, who walks in loneliness and dreams’ (pp. 166-168). ‘The sure way of knowing nothing about[320] life is to try to make one’s self useful’ (p. 175). ‘From time to time the world cries out against some charming artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has “nothing to say.” But if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. It is just because he has no new message that he can do beautiful work’ (p. 197).

Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime. In a very affectionate biographical treatise on Thomas Griffith Wainwright, designer, painter, and author, and the murderer of several people, he says: ‘He was a forger of no mean or ordinary capabilities, and as a subtle and secret poisoner almost without rival in this or any age. This remarkable man, so powerful with “pen, pencil, and poison,”’ etc. (p. 60). ‘He sought to find expression by pen or poison’ (p. 61). ‘When a friend reproached him with the murder of Helen Abercrombie, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles”’ (p. 86). ‘His crimes seem to have had an important effect upon his art. They gave a strong personality to his style, a quality that his early work certainly lacked’ (p. 88). ‘There is no sin except stupidity’ (p. 210). ‘An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all’ (p. 179).

He cultivates incidentally a slight mysticism in colours. ‘He,’ Wainwright, ‘had that curious love of green which in individuals is always the sign of a subtle, artistic temperament, and in nations is said to denote a laxity, if not a decadence of morals’ (p. 66).

But the central idea of his tortuously disdainful prattling, pursuing as its chief aim the heckling of the Philistine, and laboriously seeking the opposite pole to sound common-sense, is the glorification of art. Wilde sets forth in the following manner the system of the ‘Æsthetes’: ‘Briefly, then, their doctrines are these: Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines.... The second doctrine is this: All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals. Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before they are of any real service to Art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium [?] it surrenders everything. As a method Realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject matter.[304] To us who live in[321] the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for art except our own. The only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us.... It is exactly because Hecuba is nothing to us that her sorrows are so suitable a motive for a tragedy....’[305] (pp. 52-54). The third doctrine is that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy’ (p. 65).

On this third point—the influence of art on life—Wilde does not refer to the fact, long ago established by me, that the reciprocal relation between the work of art and the public consists in this, that the former exercises suggestion and the latter submits to it.[306] What he actually wished to say was that nature—not civilized men—develops itself in the direction of forms given it by the artist. ‘Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace, curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to this particular school of Art’ (p. 40). If he[322] simply wished to affirm that formerly fog and mist were not felt to be beautiful, and that the artistic rendering of them first drew to them the attention of the multitude, nothing could be said in contradiction; he would have propounded just a hackneyed commonplace with misplaced sententiousness. He asserts, however, that painters have changed the climate, that for the last ten years there have been fogs in London, because the Impressionists have painted fogs—a statement so silly as to require no refutation. It is sufficient to characterize it as artistic mysticism. Lastly, Wilde teaches the following: ‘Æsthetics are higher than ethics. They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of a thing is the finest point to which we can arrive. Even a colour-sense is more important in the development of the individual than a sense of right and wrong’ (pp. 210, 211).

Thus the doctrine of the ‘Æsthetes’ affirms, with the Parnassians, that the work of art is its own aim; with the Diabolists, that it need not be moral—nay, were better to be immoral; with the Decadents, that it is to avoid, and be diametrically opposed to, the natural and the true; and with all these schools of the ego-mania of degeneration, that art is the highest of all human functions.

Here is the place to demonstrate the absurdity of these propositions. This can, of course, be done only in the concisest manner. For to treat fully of the relation of the beautiful to morals and truth to Nature, of the conception of aim in artistic beauty, and of the rank held by art among mental functions, it would be necessary to expound the whole science of æsthetics, on which the somewhat exhaustive text-books amount to a considerable number of volumes; and this cannot be my purpose in this place. Hence I shall of necessity only recapitulate the latest results in a series of the clearest and most obvious deductions possible, which the attentive reader will be able without difficulty to develop by his own reflection.

The ‘bonzes’ of art, who proclaim the doctrine of ‘art for art’s sake,’ look down with contempt upon those who deny their dogma, affirming that the heretics who ascribe to works of art any aim whatsoever can be only pachydermatous Philistines, whose comprehension is limited to beans and bacon, or stock-jobbers with whom it is only a question of profit, or sanctimonious parsons making a professional pretence of virtue. They believe that they are supported in this by such men as Kant, Lessing, etc., who were likewise of the opinion that the work of art had but one task to perform—that of being beautiful. We need not be overawed by the great names of these guarantors. Their opinion cannot withstand the criticism to which it has been subjected during the last hundred years by a great number[323] of philosophers (I name only Fichte, Hegel and Vischer), and its inadequacy follows from the fact, among others, that it allows absolutely no place for the ugly as an object of artistic representation.

Let us remind ourselves how works of art and art in general originated.

That plastic art originally sprang from the imitation of Nature is a commonplace, open justly to the reproach that it does not enter deeply enough into the question. Imitation is without doubt one of the first and most general reactions of the developed living being upon the impressions it receives from the external world. This is a necessary consequence of the mechanism of the higher activity of the nervous system. Every compound movement must be preceded by the representation of this movement, and, conversely, no representation of movement can be elaborated without at least a faint and hinted accomplishment of the corresponding movement by the muscles. Upon this principle depends, for example, the well-known ‘thought-reading.’ As often, therefore, as a being (whose nervous system is developed highly enough to raise perceptions to the rank of representations) acquires knowledge, i.e., forms for itself a representation of any phenomenon whatever comprising in itself a more or less molar form of movement (molecular movements, and, a fortiori, vibrations of ether are not directly recognised as changes of position in space), it has also a tendency to transform the representation into a movement resembling it, and hence to imitate the phenomenon, in that form, naturally, which, with its means, it is capable of realizing. If every representation be not embodied in perceptible movement, the cause is to be traced to the action of the inhibitive mechanism of the brain, which does not permit every representation at once to set the muscles into activity. In a state of fatigue inhibition is relaxed, and, in fact, all sorts of unintentional imitations make their appearance, as, for example, symmetrical movements, such as the left hand involuntarily and aimlessly makes of those executed by the right hand in writing, etc. There is also a rare disease of the nerves[307] hitherto observed chiefly in Russia, and especially in Siberia, there called myriachit, in which inhibition becomes completely disorganized, so that the diseased persons are forced at once to imitate any action seen by them, even if it be disagreeable or pernicious to them. If, for example, they see someone fall, they are compelled to throw themselves also to the ground, even if they are standing in a muddy road.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:12 am

Part 3 of 3

Except in disease and fatigue, the action of inhibition is suspended only when the excitation produced in the nervous system by an impression is strong enough to vanquish it. If this impression is disagreeable, or menacing, the movements set loose by it are those of defence or flight. If, on the contrary, the impression is pleasant, or if it is surprising without being disquieting, then the reaction of the organism against it is a movement without objective aim, most frequently a movement of imitation. Hence, among healthy men possessed of well-working inhibitory mechanism in their nervous system, this movement does not appear with every phenomenon, but only with such as strike it forcibly, fix its attention, engage and stimulate it—in a word, cause an emotion. Activity of imitation (and the plastic arts are at bottom nothing but residuary traces of imitative movements) has consequently an immediate organic aim, viz., the freeing of the nervous system from an excitation set up in it by some visual cause. If the excitation is not caused by the sight of any external phenomenon, but by an internal organic state (e.g., sexual erethism), or by a representation of an abstract nature (e.g., the joy of victory, sorrow, or longing), it likewise transforms itself, it is true, into movements; but these are naturally not imitative. They embody no motor representation, but are in part such as have for their sole end the relaxing of the nerve-centres overcharged with motor impulsions, as in the dance, in outcries, song and music, and in part such as disburden the centres of ideation, like declamation, lyric and epic poetry. If artistic activity is frequently exercised and facilitated by habit, it no longer requires emotions of extraordinary strength to provoke it. As often, then, as man is excited by such external or internal impressions as demand no action (conflict, flight, adaptation), but reach his consciousness in the form of a mood, he relieves his nervous system of this excitation through some kind of artistic activity, either by means of the plastic arts or by music and poetry.

Hence imitation is not the source of the arts, but one of the media of art; the real source of art is emotion. Artistic activity is not its own end, but it is of direct utility to the artist; it satisfies the need of his organism to transform its emotions into movement. He creates the work of art, not for its own sake, but to free his nervous system from a tension. The expression, which has become a commonplace, is psycho-physiologically accurate, viz., the artist writes, paints, sings, or dances the burden of some idea or feeling off his mind.

To this primary end of art—the subjective end of the self-deliverance of the artist—a second must be added, viz., the objective end of acting upon others. Like every other animal[325] living in society and partly dependent upon it, man has, in consequence of his racial instinct, the aspiration to impart his own emotions to those of his own species, just as he himself participates in the emotions of those of his own species. This strong desire to know himself in emotional communion with the species is sympathy, that organic base of the social edifice.[308] In advanced civilization, where the original natural motives of actions are partly obscured and partly replaced by artificial motives, and the actions themselves receive an aim other than the theoretical one proper to them, the artist is, it is true, not limited to sharing his emotions with others, but creates his work of art with the accessory purpose of becoming famous—a wish springing none the less from social instincts, since it is directed towards obtaining the applause of his fellow-creatures, or even of earning money, a motive no longer social, but purely egoistic. This vulgarly egoistic motive is still the only one influencing the countless imitators who practise art, not from original strong desire, and as the natural and necessary mode of expressing their emotions, but whose artistic activity is caused by the envy with which they regard the success of others in art.

Once we have established, as a fact, that art is not practised for its own sake alone, but that it has a double aim, subjective and objective, viz., the satisfaction of an organic want of the artist, and the influencing of his fellow-creatures, then the principles by which every other human activity pursuing the same end is judged are applicable to it, i.e., the principles of law and morality.

We test every organic desire to see whether it be the outcome of a legitimate need or the consequence of an aberration; whether its satisfaction be beneficial or pernicious to the organism. We distinguish the healthy from the diseased impulse, and demand that the latter be combated. If the desire seeks its satisfaction in an activity acting upon others, then we examine to see if this activity is reconcilable with the existence and prosperity of society, or dangerous to it. The activity imperilling society offends against law and custom, which are nothing but an epitome of the temporary notions of society concerning what is beneficial and what is pernicious to it.

Notions healthy and diseased, moral and immoral, social or anti-social, are as valid for art as for every other human activity, and there is not a scintilla of reason for regarding a[326] work of art in any other light than that in which we view every other manifestation of an individuality.

It is easily conceivable that the emotion expressed by the artist in his work may proceed from a morbid aberration, may be directed, in an unnatural, sensual, cruel manner, to what is ugly or loathsome. Ought we not in this case to condemn the work and, if possible, to suppress it? How can its right to exist be justified? By claiming that the artist was sincere when he created it, that he gave back what was really existing in him, and for that reason was subjectively justified in his artistic expansion? But there is a candour which is wholly inadmissible. The dipsomaniac and clastomaniac are sincere when they respectively drink or break everything within reach. We do not, however, acknowledge their right to satisfy their desire. We prevent them by force. We put them under guardianship, although their drunkenness and destructiveness may perhaps be injurious to no one but themselves. And still more decidedly does society oppose itself to the satisfaction of those cravings which cannot be appeased without violently acting upon others. The new science of criminal anthropology admits without dispute that homicidal maniacs, certain incendiaries, many thieves and vagabonds, act under an impulsion; that through their crimes they satisfy an organic craving; that they outrage, kill, burn, idle, as others sit down to dinner, simply because they hunger to do so; but in spite of this and because of this, it demands that the appeasing of the sincere longings of these degenerate creatures be prevented by all means, and, if needs be, by their complete suppression. It never occurs to us to permit the criminal by organic disposition to ‘expand’ his individuality in crime, and just as little can it be expected of us to permit the degenerate artist to expand his individuality in immoral works of art. The artist who complacently represents what is reprehensible, vicious, criminal, approves of it, perhaps glorifies it, differs not in kind, but only in degree, from the criminal who actually commits it. It is a question of the intensity of the impulsion and the resisting power of the judgment, perhaps also of courage and cowardice; nothing else. If the actual law does not treat the criminal by intention so rigorously as the criminal in act, it is because criminal law pursues the deed, and not the purpose; the objective phenomenon, not its subjective roots. The Middle Ages had places of sanctuary where criminals could not be molested for their misdemeanours. Modern law has done away with this institution. Ought art to be at present the last asylum to which criminals may fly to escape punishment? Are they to be able to satisfy, in the so-called ‘temple’ of art, instincts which the policeman prevents them from appeasing in the street? I do[327] not see how a privilege so inimical to society can be willingly defended.

I am far from sharing Ruskin’s opinion that morality alone, and nothing else, can be demanded of a work of art. Morality alone is not sufficient. Otherwise religious tracts would be the finest literature, and the well-known coloured casts of sacred subjects turned out wholesale in Munich factories would be the choicest sculpture. Excellence of form maintains its rights in all the arts, and gives to the finest creation its artistic value. Hence the work need not be moral. More accurately, it need not be designed expressly to preach virtue and the fear of God, and to be destined for the edification of devotees. But between a work without sanctified aim and one of wilful immorality there is a world of difference. A work which is indifferent from a moral point of view will not be equally attractive or satisfying to all minds, but it will offend and repel no one. An explicitly immoral work excites in healthy persons the same feelings of displeasure and disgust as the immoral act itself, and the form of the work can change nothing of this. Most assuredly morality alone does not give beauty to a work of art. But beauty without morality is impossible.

We now come to the second argument with which the Æsthetes wish to defend the right of the artist to immorality. The work of art, they say, need only be beautiful. Beauty lies in the form. Hence the content is a matter of indifference. This may be vice and crime; but it cannot derogate from the excellences of form if these be present.

He alone can venture to advance such principles who is without the least inkling of the psycho-physiology of the æsthetic feelings. Everyone who has studied this subject in the least knows that two kinds of the beautiful are distinguished—the sensuously-beautiful and the intellectually-beautiful. We feel those phenomena to be beautiful, the sense-perception of which is accompanied by a feeling of pleasure—e.g., a particular colour, perhaps a pure red, or a harmony; nay, even a single note with its severally indistinguishable but synchronous overtones. The researches of Helmholtz[309] and Blaserna[310] have thrown light on the cause of the feeling of pleasure connected with certain acoustic perceptions, while those of Brücke[311] have led to similar results with regard to the mechanism of the feelings of pleasure following optical impressions. It is a question of discernment by[328] the sensory nerves of definite simple numerical relations in the vibrations of matter or of ether. We know less concerning the causes of the pleasures connected with smell and touch; yet here also it seems to be a question of more or less strong impressions, hence equally of quantities—i.e., of numbers. The ultimate cause of all these feelings is that certain modes of vibrations are in accord with the structure of the nerves, are easy for them and leave them in order, while other modes disturb the arrangement of the nerve particles, often costing the nerves an effort, often dangerous to their existence or at least their functioning, to restore them to their natural order. The former will be felt as pleasure, the latter as discomfort, and even as pain. With the sensuously-beautiful there can be no question of morality, for it exists as perception only, and does not rise to the rank of representation.

Above the sensuously-beautiful stands the intellectually-beautiful, no longer consisting of mere perceptions, but of representations, of concepts and judgments, with their accompanying emotions elaborated in the unconscious. The intellectually-beautiful must also awaken feelings of pleasure, to be perceived as beautiful; and, as above explained, with feelings of pleasure are united, in healthy, fully-developed human beings equipped with the social instinct (altruism), only those ideas the content whereof is conducive to the existence and prosperity of the individual being, society, or species. Now, that which is favourable to the life and prosperity of the individual and of the species is precisely that which we call moral.

From this it results by an iron necessity that a work which awakens no feelings of pleasure cannot be beautiful, and that it can awaken no feelings of pleasure if it is not moral, and we arrive at the final conclusion, that morality and beauty are in their innermost essence identical. It were not false to assert that beauty is statical repose, and morality beauty in action.

This is only apparently contradicted by the fact that what is incontestably ugly and bad may also be agreeable, and hence awaken feelings of pleasure. The mental process set up by percepts and ideas is not, in this case, so simple and direct as with respect to the beautiful and the good. Associations sometimes of a highly complex nature must first be put into activity, finally, however, to lead to the single great result, viz., the awakening of feelings of pleasure. The well-known Aristotelian catharsis, purging or purification, explains how tragedy, though it offers the spectacle of pain and ruin, finally produces an agreeable effect. The representation of deserved misfortune awakens ideas of justice, a moral, agreeable idea; and even that of unmerited misfortune gives rise to pity, in itself a feeling of pain, though, in its quality of a racial instinct, beneficial and[329] therefore not only moral, but, in its final essence, agreeable. When Valdez, in his famous picture of the Caridad de Sevilla, shows us an open coffin in which lies the corpse of an arch-bishop in full vestments, swarming with worms, this spectacle is in itself undeniably repulsive. Nevertheless it permits us at once to recognise the emotion which the painter wished to express, viz., his feeling of the nothingness of all earthly possessions and honours, the frailty of man in the face of the primeval power of Nature. It is the same emotion embodied by Holbein in his ‘Dance of Death,’ not so profoundly and passionately as by the Spaniard with his stronger feelings, but with self-mockery and bitterness. The same emotion is heard, somewhat less gloomily and with more of a melancholy resignation, in Mozart’s Requiem. In the idea of the contrast between the insignificance of individual life and the vastness and eternity of Nature, there mingles itself an element of the sublime, of which the idea, as the choicest form of activity in the highest brain-centres, is united with feelings of pleasure.

Another circumstance in the plastic arts has to be considered. In works of sculpture and painting a broad separation is possible between the form and the content, between the sensuous and the moral. A painting, a group, may represent the most immoral and most criminal incident; nevertheless, the individual constituent parts—the atmosphere, the harmonies of colour, the human figures—may be beautiful in themselves, and the connoisseur may derive enjoyment from them without dwelling on the subject of the work. The engravings in the Editions des fermiers généraux of the last century, the works in marble and bronze of the pornographic museum at Naples, are, in a measure, repulsively immoral, because they represent unnatural vice. In themselves, however, they are excellently executed, and are accessible to a mode of contemplation which disregards their idea and keeps in view only the perfection of their form. Here, therefore, the impression of the work of art is a mixture of disgust for the subject treated, and enjoyment of the beauty of the several figures and their attitudes—painted, drawn, or modelled. The feeling of pleasure may preponderate, and the work, in spite of its depravity, produce, not a repellent, but an attractive effect. It is the same in nature. If that which is pernicious and frightful is sometimes felt to be beautiful, it is because it contains certain features and elements which have no cogent reference to the frightful or pernicious character of the whole, and can hence in themselves operate æsthetically. The hammer-headed viper is beautiful on account of its metallic lustre; the tiger for its strength and suppleness; the foxglove (Digitalis) for its graceful form and rich rosy hue. The noxiousness of the snake does not lie in its copper-red dorsal bands, nor the[330] terribleness of the beast of prey in its graceful appearance, nor the danger of the poisonous plant in the form and colour of its blossoms. In these cases the sensuously-beautiful outweighs the morally-repulsive, because it is more immediately present, and, in the collective impression, allows the feelings of pleasure to predominate. The spectacle of the display of strength and resolution is equally a beautiful one, on account of the ideas of organic efficiency awakened by it. Would this, however, be thought beautiful if one could see how an assassin overpowers a victim who is resisting violently, hurls him to the ground and butchers him? Certainly not; for before such a picture it is no longer possible to separate the display of strength, beautiful in itself, from its aim, and to enjoy the former regardless of the latter.

In poetry this separation of the form from the content is far less possible than in the plastic arts. The word can hardly in itself produce an effect of sensuous beauty by its auditory or visual image, even if it presents itself rhythmically regulated and strengthened by the more expressive double sound of a rhyme. It operates almost solely by its content, by the representations which it awakens. Hence it is hardly conceivable that one can hear or read a poetical exposition of criminal or vicious facts, without having present at each word a representation of its content, and not of its form—i.e., of its sound. In this case, therefore, the impression can no longer be a composite one, as at the sight of a finely-painted portrayal of a repulsive incident, but must be purely disagreeable. The pictures of Giulio Romano, to which Pietro Aretino dedicated his Sonetti lussuriosi, may be found beautiful by the admirers of the effeminate style of that pupil of Raphael; the sonnets are only the more disgusting. Who would experience feelings of pleasure from the perusal of the writings of the Marquis de Sade, Andrea de Nercia or Liseux? Only one species of human beings—that of the degenerate with perverted instincts. Portrayals of crime and vice in art and literature have their public; that we well know. It is the public of the gaols. Besides dismally sentimental books, criminals read nothing so willingly as stories of lust and violence;[312] and the drawings and inscriptions with which they cover the walls of their cells have, for the most part, their crimes as subjects.[313] But the healthy man feels himself violently repelled by works of this kind, and it is impossible for him to receive an æsthetic impression from[331] them, be their form never so conformable to the most approved rules of art.

In yet another case it is possible for that which is most ugly and vicious in artistic portrayal to operate in the direction of the morally beautiful. This is when it allows us to recognise the moral purpose of the author and betrays his sympathetic emotion. For that which we, consciously or unconsciously, perceive behind every artistic creation is the nature of its creator and the emotion from which it sprang, and our sympathy with, or antipathy for, the emotion of the author has the lion’s share in our appreciation of the work. When Raffaelli paints shockingly degraded absinthe-drinkers in the low drinking dens of the purlieus of Paris, we clearly feel his profound pity at the sight of these fallen human beings, and this emotion we experience as a morally beautiful one. In like manner we have not a momentary doubt of the morality of the artist’s emotions when we behold Callot’s pictures of the horrors of war, or the bleeding, purulent saints of Zurbaran, or the monsters of Breughel van der Hölle, or when we read the murder scene in Dostojevsky’s Raskolnikow.[314] These emotions are beautiful. Sympathy with them gives us a feeling of pleasure. Against this feeling the displeasure caused by the repulsiveness of the work cannot prevail. When, however, the work betrays the indifference of the author to the evil or ugliness he depicts, nay, his predilection for it, then the abhorrence provoked by the work is intensified by all the disgust which the author’s aberration of instinct inspires in us, and the aggregate impression is one of keenest displeasure. Those who share the emotions of the author, and hence are with him attracted and pleasurably excited by what is repugnant, diseased and evil, are the degenerate.

The Æsthetes affirm that artistic activity is the highest of which the human mind is capable, and must occupy the first place in the estimation of men. How do they manage to establish this assertion from their own standpoint? Why should I place a high value on the activity of a fellow who with rapture describes the colours and odours of putrid carrion; and why should I bestow my especial esteem on a painter who shows me the libidinousness of a harlot? Because the amount of artistic technique involved is difficult? If that is to be the decisive point, then, to be logical, the Æsthetes must place the acrobat higher than the artist of their species, since it is much more difficult to learn the art of the trapezist than the rhyming and daubing which constitutes the ‘art’ of the Æsthetes. Is it[332] to be on account of sensations of pleasure given by artists? First of all, those artists over whom the Æsthetes grow so enthusiastic create in the healthy man no pleasure, but loathing or boredom. But granted that they do provide sensations, the first inquiry must then be of what sort these sensations are. Every sensation, even if we for the moment find it agreeable, does not inspire us with esteem for the person to whom we are indebted for it. At the card-table, in the public-house and the brothel, a base nature may procure sensations the intensity of which those offered by any work of the Æsthetes is far from being able to rival. But even the most dissolute drunkard does not in consequence hold the keepers of these places of his pleasures in specially high esteem.

The truth is that the claim of the highest rank for art advanced by the Æsthetes involves the complete refutation of their other dogmas. The race estimates individual activities according to their utility for the whole. The higher this develops itself, the more exact and profound is the understanding it acquires of that which is really necessary and beneficial to it. The warrior, who in a low grade of civilization rightly plays the most prominent part, because society must live, and to this end must defend itself against its enemies, recedes to a more humble position as manners become more gentle, and the relations between peoples cease to resemble those between beasts of prey, and assume a human character. Once the race has attained in some degree to a clear comprehension of its relation to nature, it knows that knowledge is its most important task, and its profoundest respect is for those who cultivate and enlarge knowledge—i.e., for thinkers and investigators. Even in the monarchical state, which, conformably with its own atavistic nature, gauges the importance of the warrior by the standard of primitive men (and in the present condition of Europe, in the presence of the scarcely restrained fury for war, among a whole series of nations, the raison d’être for this atavism cannot, alas! be contested), the scholar, as professor, academician, counsellor, is a constituent part of the governmental machine, and honours and dignities fall far more to his lot than to the poet and artist. The enthusiasts of the latter are youths and women—i.e., those components of the race in whom the unconscious outweighs consciousness; for artist and poet address themselves first of all to emotion, and this is more easily excited in the woman and the adolescent than in the mature man; their accomplishments are, moreover, more accessible to the multitude than those of the scholar whom almost the best alone of his time can follow, and whose importance is in general fully appreciated only by a few specialists, even in our days of the popularization of science by the press. State and society, however, seek to compensate him for the[333] evasion of this reward, by surrounding him with official forms of high esteem.

It is true that very great artists and poets, admitted pioneers, whose influence is recognised as lasting, likewise receive their share of the official honours disposed of by the organized commonwealth as such, and these exceptional men obtain a more brilliant reward than any investigator or discoverer; for together with the common distinctions shared by them with the latter, they possess the wide popularity which the investigator and discoverer must dispense withal. And why is the artist sometimes placed, even by persons of good and serious minds, on a level with, or even above, the man of science? Because these persons value the beautiful more than the true, emotion more than knowledge? No; but because they have the right feeling that art is equally a source of knowledge.

It is so in three ways. Firstly, the emotion evoked by the work of art is itself a means of obtaining knowledge, as Edmund R. Clay, James Sully, and other psychologists have seen, without, however, dwelling on the important fact. It constrains the higher centres to attend to the causes of their excitations, and in this way necessarily induces a sharper observation and comprehension of the whole series of phenomena related to the emotion. Next, the work of art grants an insight into the laws of which the phenomenon is the expression; for the artist, in his creation, separates the essential from the accidental, neglects the latter, which in nature is wont to divert and confuse the less gifted observer, and involuntarily gives prominence to the former as that which chiefly or solely occupies his attention, and is therefore perceived and reproduced by him with especial distinctness. The artist himself divines the idea behind the structure, and its inner principle and connection, intelligible but not perceivable, in the form, and discloses it in his work to the spectator. That is what Hegel means when he calls the beautiful ‘the presence of the idea in limited phenomenon.’ By means of his own deep comprehension of natural law, the artist powerfully furthers the comprehension of it by other men.[315] Finally, art is the only glimmer of light, weak and dubious though it be, which projects itself into the future, and gives us at[334] least a dream-like idea of the outlines and direction of our further organic developments. This is not mysticism, but a very clear and comprehensible fact. We have seen above[316] that every adaptation—i.e., every change of form and function of the organs—is preceded by a representation of this change. The change must first be felt and desired as necessary; then a representation of it becomes elaborated in the higher or highest nerve-centres, and finally the organism endeavours to realize this representation. This process repeats itself in the same way in the race. Some state is disturbing to it. It experiences feelings of discomfort from this state. It suffers from it. From this results its desire to change the state. It elaborates for itself an image of the nature, direction and extent of this change. According to the older, mystic phrase, ‘it creates for itself an ideal.’ The ideal is really the formative idea of future organic development with a view to better adaptation. In the most perfect individuals of the species it exists earlier and more distinct than in the average multitude, and the artist ventures with uncertain hand to make it accessible to sense through the medium of his work of art long before it can be organically realized by the race. Thus art vouchsafes the most refined and highest knowledge, bordering on the marvellous, viz., the knowledge of the future. Not so definitely, of course, nor so unequivocally, does art express the secret natural law of being and becoming as science. Science shows the present, the positive; Art prophesies the future, the possible, though stammeringly and obscurely. To the former Nature unveils her fixed forms; to the latter she grants, amidst shudderings, a rapid, bewildered glimpse of the depths where what is yet formless is struggling to appear. The emotion from which the divining work of art springs is the birth throe of the quick and vigorous organism pregnant with the future.[317]

This art of presentiment is certainly the highest mental activity of the human being. But it is not the art of the Æsthetes. It is the most moral art, for it is the most ideal, a word only meaning that it is parallel with the paths along which the race is perfecting itself—nay, coincides with these.

By the most diverse methods we have always attained the same result, viz., it is not true that art has nothing in common[335] with morality. The work of art must be moral, for its aim is to express and excite emotions. In virtue of this aim it falls within the competence of criticism, which tests all emotions by their utility or perniciousness to the individual or the race; and if it is immoral, it must be condemned like every other organic activity opposed to this aim. The work of art must be moral, for it is intended to operate æsthetically. It can only do this if it awakens feelings of pleasure, at least ultimately; it provides such, only if it includes beauty in itself; but beauty is in its essence synonymous with morality. Finally, the highest work of art can, from its inmost nature, be none other than moral, since it is a manifestation of vital force and health, a revelation of the capacity for evolution of the race; and humanity values it so highly because it divines this circumstance.

Concerning the last doctrine of the Æsthetes, viz., that art must shun the true and the natural, this is a commonplace pushed to an absurdity, and converted into its contrary. Perfect, actual truth and naturalness need not be denied to art; they are impossible to it. For whereas the work of art makes the artist’s idea tangible, an idea is never an exact copy of a phenomenon of the external world. Before it can become an idea in a human consciousness every phenomenon experiences two very essential modifications—one in the afferent and receptive organs of sense, the other in the centres elaborating sense-perceptions into representations. These sensory nerves and centres of perception change the modes of the external stimuli conformably with their own nature; they give to these their particular colouring, as different wind-instruments played by the same person give forth different shades of sound with the same force of breath. The centres forming representations modify in their turn the actual relation of the phenomena to each other, in that they bring some into stronger relief, and neglect others of really equal value. Consciousness does not take cognizance of all the countless perceptions uninterruptedly excited in the brain, but of those only to which it is attentive. But by the simple fact of attention, consciousness selects individual phenomena, and gives them an importance they do not possess in the unceasing uniformity of universal movement.

But if the work of art never renders reality in its exact relations, it can, on the other hand (and this is both a psychological and æsthetical commonplace), never be constructed from constituents other than those supplied by reality. The mode in which these constituents are blended and united by the artist’s imagination permits the recognition of another fact, as true and natural as any that is habitually designated by us as real, to wit, the character, mode of thought, and emotion of the artist. For what is imagination? A[336] special case of the general psychological law of association. In scientific observation and judgment the play of association is most rigorously supervised by attention; the will violently inhibits the propagation of stimuli along the most convenient paths, and prevents the penetration of mere similarities, contrasts, and contiguities in space or time into consciousness, which is reserved for the images of immediate reality transmitted by the senses. In artistic creation imagination rules—that is to say, the inhibition exercised by the will is relaxed; in accordance with the laws of association a presentation is allowed to summon into consciousness representations which are similar, contrasted, or contiguous in space or time. But inhibition is not wholly inactive, and the will does not permit the union of reciprocally exclusive representations into a concept; thus it prohibits the elaboration of an intellectual absurdity, such as is yielded by purely automatic association or fugitive ideation. The emotion of the artist reveals itself in accordance with the way in which representations supplied by association are grouped into concepts, for it causes representations agreeing with it to be retained, and the indifferent or contradictory to be suppressed. Even fantastic images, as extravagant as a winged horse or a woman with lion’s paws, reveal a true emotion: the former an aspiration proceeding from the spectacle of the bird soaring light and free; the latter a horror of the power of sexuality subjugating reason and conjuring up devouring passion. It would be a grateful task for workers in the histology of psychology to trace the emotions whence the best known fantastic figures of art and the metaphors of poets have proceeded. Hence it may be said that every work of art always comprises in itself truth and reality in so far as, if it does not reflect the external world, it surely reflects the mental life of the artist.

Hence, as we have seen, not one of the sophisms of the Æsthetes withstands criticism. The work of art is not its own aim, but it has a specially organic, and a social task. It is subject to the moral law; it must obey this; it has claim to esteem only if it is morally beautiful and ideal. And it cannot be other than natural and true, in so far, at least, as it is the offprint of a personality, which is also a part of nature and reality. The entire system takes as its point of departure a few erroneous or imprudent assertions of thinkers and poets commanding respect, but developed by the Parnassians and Decadents in a way of which Lessing, Kant and Schiller never allowed themselves to dream. This is no other than the well-known attempt to explain and justify impulsions by motives more or less obvious and invented post facto. The degenerate who, in consequence of their organic aberrations, make the repulsive[337] and ugly, vice and crime, the subject-matter of plastic and literary works of art, naturally have recourse to the theory that art has nothing in common with morality, truth and beauty, since this theory has for them the value of an excuse. And must not the excessive value set upon artistic activity as such, without regard to the worth of its results, be highly welcome to the limitless crowd of imitators who practise art, not from an inner prompting, but from a foolhardy craving for the respect surrounding real artists—imitators who have nothing of their own to say, no emotion, not an idea, but who, with a superficial professional dexterity easily acquired, falsify the views and feelings of masters in all branches of art? This rabble, which claims for itself a top place in the scale of intellectual rank, and freedom from the constraint of all moral laws as its most noble privilege, is certainly baser than the lowest scavenger. These creatures are of absolutely no use to the commonwealth, and injure true art by their productions, whose multitude and importunateness shut out from most men the sight of the genuine works of art—never very numerous—of the epoch. They are weaklings in will, unfitted for any activity requiring regular uniform efforts, or else victims to vanity, wishing to be more famous than is possible to a stone-breaker or a tailor. The uncertainty of comprehension and taste among the majority of mankind, and the incompetency of most professional critics, allow these intruders to make their nest among the arts, and to dwell there as parasites their life long. The buyer soon distinguishes a good boot from a bad one, and the journeyman cobbler who cannot properly sew on a sole finds no employment. But that a book or painting void of all originality is indifferent in quality, and for that reason superfluous, is by no means so easily recognised by the Philistine, or even by the man armed with the critical pen, and the producer of such chaff can apply himself undisturbed to his assiduous waste of time. These bunglers with pen, brush and modelling spattle, strutting about in cap and doublet, naturally swear by the doctrine of the Æsthetes, carry themselves as if they were the salt of humanity, and make a parade of their contempt for the Philistine. They belong, however, to the elements of the race which are most inimical to society. Insensible to its tasks and interests, without the capacity to comprehend a serious thought or a fruitful deed, they dream only of the satisfaction of their basest instincts, and are pernicious—through the example they set as drones, as well as through the confusion they cause in minds insufficiently forewarned, by their abuse of the word ‘art’ to mean demoralization and childishness. Ego-maniacs, Decadents and Æsthetes have completely gathered under their banner this refuse of civilized peoples, and march at its head.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

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Part 1 of 4

CHAPTER IV. IBSENISM.

In the course of the last two centuries the whole civilized world has, with greater or less unanimity, repeatedly recognised a sort of intellectual royalty in some contemporary, to whom it has rendered homage as the first and greatest among living authors. For a great part of the eighteenth century Voltaire, ‘le roi Voltaire,’ was the ‘poet laureate’ of all civilized nations. During the first third of the present century this position was held by Goethe. After his death the throne remained vacant for a score of years, when Victor Hugo ascended it amidst the enthusiastic acclamations of the Latin and Slavonic races, and with a feeble opposition from those of Teutonic origin, to hold it until the end of his life.

At the present time voices have for some years been heard in all countries claiming for Henrik Ibsen the highest intellectual honours at the disposal of mankind. It is wished that the Norwegian dramatist should, in his old age, be recognised as the world-poet of the closing century. It is true that only a part of the multitude and of the critical representatives of its taste acclaims him; but the fact that it has entered anyone’s mind at all to see in him a claimant for the throne of poetry makes a minute examination of his titles to the position necessary.

That Henrik Ibsen is a poet of great verve and power is not for a moment to be denied. He is extraordinarily emotive, and has the gift of depicting in an exceptionally lifelike and impressive manner that which has excited his feelings. (We shall see that these are almost always feelings of hatred and rage, i.e., of displeasure.) A natural capacity drew him towards the stage—a capacity for imagining situations in which the characters are forced to turn inside out their inmost nature; in which abstract ideas transform themselves into deeds, and modes of opinion and of feeling, imperceptible to the senses, but potent as causes, are made patent to sight and hearing in attitudes and gestures, in the play of feature and in words. Like Richard Wagner, he knows how to group events into living frescoes possessing the charm of significant pictures; with this difference, however, that Ibsen works, not like Wagner, with strange costumes and properties, architectural splendour, mechanical magic, gods and fabulous beasts, but with penetrating vision into the backgrounds of souls and the conditions of[339] humanity. Fairy-lore is not lacking in Ibsen either, but he does not allow the imagination of the spectators to run riot in mere spectacles; he forces them into moods, and binds them by his spell in circles of ideas, through the pictures which he unrolls before them.

His strong desire to embody the thought occupying his mind in a single picture, which can be surveyed at one view, also dictated to him the set form of his drama—a form not invented, but largely perfected, by him. His pieces are, as it were, final words terminating long anterior developments. They are the sudden breaking into flame of combustible materials accumulating during years, it may be during whole human lives, or even generations, and of which the sudden flare brilliantly illumines a wide extent of time and space. The incidents of the Ibsen drama more frequently take place in a day, or at most in twice twenty-four hours, and in this short space of time there are concentred all the effects of the course of the world and of social institutions on certain characters, in such a conspectus that the destinies of the dramatis personæ become clear to us from the moment of their first appearance. The Doll’s House, Ghosts, Rosmersholm, The Pillars of Society, and Hedda Gabler comprise about twenty-four hours; An Enemy of Society, The Wild Duck, The Lady from the Sea, about thirty-six hours. It is the return to the Aristotelian doctrine of the unities of time and space with an orthodoxy compared with which the French classicists of the age of Louis XIV. are heretics. I might well term the Ibsenite technique a technique of fireworks, for it consists in preparing long in advance a staging on which the suns, Roman candles, squibs, fireballs and concluding fire-sheaves are carefully placed in proper position. When all is ready the curtain rises, and the artistically-constructed work begins to crackle, explosion following explosion uninterruptedly with thunder and lightning. This technique is certainly very effective, but hardly true. In reality events rarely lead up to a catastrophe so brilliant and succinct. In Nature all is slowly prepared, and unrolls itself gradually, and the results of human deeds covering years of time do not compress themselves into a few hours. Nature does not work epigrammatically. She cannot trouble herself about Aristotelian unities, for she has always an infinity of affairs of her own in progress at one and the same time. As a matter of handicraft, one is certainly often forced to admire the cleverness with which Ibsen guides and knots the threads of his plot. Sometimes the labour is more successful than at other times, but it always implies a great expenditure of textile skill. Whoever sets most store on truth in a poem—that is, on the natural action of the laws of life—will often enough bring away from Ibsen’s dramas[340] an impression of improbability, and of toilsome and subtle lucubrations.

The power with which Ibsen, in a few rapid strokes, sketches a situation, an emotion, a dim-lit depth of the soul, is very much higher than his skill, so much extolled, of foreshortening in time, which may be said to be the poetic counterpart of the painter’s artifice (difficult, but for the most part barren) of foreshortening in space. Each of the terse words which suffice him has something of the nature of a peep-hole, through which limitless vistas are obtained. The plays of all peoples and all ages have few situations at once so perfectly simple and so irresistibly affecting as the scenes—to cite only a few—where Nora is playing with her children,[318] where Dr. Rank relates that he is doomed to imminent death by his inexorable disease,[319] where[341] Frau Alving with horror discerns his dissolute father[320] in her only son, where the housekeeper, Frau Helseth, sees Rosmer and Rebecca die in each other’s arms,[321] etc.

Similarly, it must be acknowledged that Ibsen has created some characters possessing a truth to life and a completeness such as are not to be met with in any poet since Shakespeare. Gina (in The Wild Duck) is one of the most profound creations of world-literature—almost as great as Sancho Panza, who inspired[342] it. Ibsen has had the daring to create a female Sancho, and in his temerity has come very near to Cervantes, whom no one has equalled. If Gina is not quite so overpowering as Sancho, it is because there is wanting in her his contrast to Don Quixote. Her Don Quixote, Hjalmar, is no genuine, convinced idealist, but merely a miserable self-deluding burlesquer of the ideal. None the less, no poet since the illustrious Spanish master has succeeded in creating such an embodiment of plain, jolly, healthy common-sense, of practical tact without anxiety as to things eternal, and of honest fulfilment of all proximate, obvious duties, without a suspicion of higher moral obligations, as this Gina, e.g., in the scene where Hjalmar returns home after having spent the night out.[322] Hjalmar also is a perfect creation, in which Ibsen has not once succumbed to the cogent temptation to exaggerate, but has exercised most entrancingly that ‘self-restraint’ in every word which, as Goethe said, ‘reveals the master.’ Little Hedwig (again in The Wild Duck), the aunt Juliane Tesman (in Hedda Gabler), perhaps also the childishly egoistical consumptive Lyngstrand (in The Lady from the Sea), are not inferior to these characters. It should, however, be noticed that, with the exception of Gina, Hjalmar and Hedwig, the lifelike and artistically delightful persons in Ibsen’s dramas never play the chief parts, but move in subordinate tasks around the central figures. The latter are not human beings of flesh and blood, but abstractions such as are evoked by a morbidly-excited brain. They are attempts at the embodiment of Ibsenite doctrines, homunculi, originating not from natural procreation, but through the black art of the poet.[343] This is even admitted, although reluctantly and with reservation, by one of his most raving panegyrists, the French professor, Auguste Ehrhard.[323] Doubtless Ibsen takes immense pains to rouge and powder into a semblance of life the talking puppets who are to represent his notions. He appends to them all sorts of little peculiarities for the purpose of giving them an individual physiognomy. But this perpetually recurring imbecile ‘Eh?’ of Tesman[324] (in Hedda Gabler), this ‘dash it all!’ and stealthy nibbling of sweetmeats by Nora[325] (in A Doll’s House), this ‘smoking a large meerschaum’ and champagne-drinking of Oswald (in Ghosts), do not delude the attentive observer as to their being anything but automata. In spite of the poet’s artifices, one sees, behind the thin varnish of flesh-colour, the hinges and joints of the mechanism, and hears, above the tones of the phonographs concealed in them, the creaking and grating of the machinery.

I have endeavoured to do justice to the high poetical endowment of Ibsen, and shall sometimes be able in the course of this inquiry to recognise this gift again. Is it this, however, which alone or chiefly has gained for him his admirers in all lands? Do his retinue of fifers and bagpipers prize him for his homely emotional scenes, and for his truly lifelike accessory figures? No. They glorify something else in him. They discover in his pieces world-pictures of the greatest truth, the happiest poetic use of scientific methods, clearness and incisiveness of ideas, a fiercely revolutionary desire for freedom, and a modernity pregnant with the future. Now we will test and examine these affirmations seriatim, and see if they can be supported by[344] Ibsen’s works, or are merely the arbitrary and undemonstrable expressions of æsthetic wind-bags.

It is pretended that Ibsen is before all things exemplary in truthfulness. He has even become the model of ‘realism.’ As a matter of fact, since Alexandre Dumas père, author of The Three Musketeers and Monte Cristo, no writer has heaped up in his works so many startling improbabilities as Ibsen. (I say improbabilities, because I dare not say impossibilities; for, after all, everything is possible as the unheard-of exploit of some fool, or as the extraordinary effect of a unique accident.) Is it conceivable that (in Ghosts) the joiner Engstrand, wishing to open a tavern for sailors, should call upon his own daughter to be the odalisque of his ‘establishment’—this daughter who reminds him that she has been ‘brought up in the house of Madam Alving, widow of a lord-in-waiting,’ that she has been treated ‘almost as a child of the house’? Not that I imagine Engstrand to be possessed of any moral scruples. But a man of this stamp knows that one woman does not suffice for his house; and since he must engage others, he would certainly not turn to his daughter, bred as she was in the midst of higher habits of life, and knowing that, if she wishes to lead a life of pleasure, it would not be necessary to become straightway a prostitute for sailors. Is it conceivable that Pastor Manders (Ghosts), a liberally educated clergyman in the Norway of to-day, a country of flourishing insurance companies, banks, railways, prosperous newspapers, etc., should dissuade Madam Alving from insuring against fire the asylum she had just founded? ‘For my own part,’ he says, ‘I should not see the smallest impropriety in guarding against all contingencies.... I mean [by really responsible people] men in such independent and influential positions that one cannot help allowing some weight to their opinions.... People would be only too ready to interpret our action as a sign that neither you nor I had the right faith in a Higher Providence.’ Does Ibsen really wish to make anyone believe that in Norway there are persons who have religious scruples concerning insurance against fire? Has not this nonsensical idea come into his head simply because he wishes to have the asylum burned down and finally destroyed? For this purpose Madam Alving must have no money to rebuild the asylum, it must not be insured, and hence Ibsen thought it necessary to assign a motive for the omission of the insurance. A poet who introduces a fire into his work, as a symbol and also as an active agent—for it has the dramatic purpose of destroying the lying reputation for charity of the defunct sinner Alving—should also have the courage to leave unexplained the omission of the insurance, strange as it may seem. Oswald Alving relates to his mother (Ghosts) that a Paris doctor on[345] examining him had told him he had a ‘kind of softening of the brain.’ Now, I appeal to all the doctors of the world if they have ever said plainly to a patient, ‘You have softening of the brain.’ To the family it perhaps may be revealed, to the patient never. Chiefly because, if the diagnosis be correct, the invalid would not understand the remark, and would certainly no longer be in a fit state to go alone to the doctor. But for yet another reason these words are impossible. In any case, Oswald’s disease could not have been a softening, but a hardening, a callous, sclerotic condition of the brain.

In A Doll’s House Helmer, who is depicted as somewhat sensual, although prosaic, homely, practical, and commonplace, says to his Nora: ‘Is that my lark who is twittering outside there?... Is the little squirrel running about?... Has my little spendthrift bird been wasting more money?... Come, come; my lark must not let her wings droop immediately.... What do people call the bird who always spends everything?... My lark is the dearest little thing in the world; but she needs a very great deal of money.... And I couldn’t wish you to be anything but exactly what you are—my own true little lark....’ And it is thus that a husband, a bank director and barrister, after eight years of married life, speaks to his wife, the mother of his three children; and not in a momentary outburst of playful affection, but in the full light of an ordinary day, and in an interminable scene of seven pages (pp. 2-8), with a view to giving us an idea of the habitually prevalent tone in this ‘doll’s home!’ I should much like to know what my readers of both sexes who have been married at least eight years think of this specimen of Ibsen’s ‘realism.’

In The Pillars of Society all the characters talk about ‘society.’ ‘You are to rise and support society, brother-in-law,’ says Miss Hessel, ‘earnestly and with emphasis.’ ‘If you strike this blow, you ruin me utterly, and not only me, but also a great and blessed future for the community which was the home of your childhood.’ And a little further on: ‘See, this I have dared for the good of the community!... Don’t you see that it is society itself that forces us into these subterfuges?’ The persons thus holding forth are a wholesale merchant and consul, and a school-mistress who has long resided in America, and has broad views. Can the word ‘society’ in the mouth of cultivated people, when so used, have any other meaning than ‘social edifice?’ Well, but the characters in the piece, as it is again and again repeated, employ the word ‘society’ in reference to the well-to-do classes in a small seaside place in Norway—that is, to a clique of six or eight families! Ibsen makes the readers of his piece believe that it is a question of upholding the social edifice, and they learn with astonishment that this only concerns[346] the protection of a diminutive coterie of Philistines in a northern Gotham.

The American ship Indian Girl is undergoing repairs in Consul Bernick’s dock. Her hull is quite rotten. If she is sent to sea she will assuredly founder. Bernick, however, insists that she shall sail in two days. His foreman Aune pronounces this impossible. Then Bernick threatens Aune with dismissal, at which the latter yields, and promises that ‘in two days the Indian Girl will be ready to sail.’ Bernick knows that he is sending the Indian Girl’s crew of eighteen men to certain death. And why does he commit this wholesale murder? He gives the following explanation: ‘I have my reasons for hurrying on the affair. Have you read this morning’s paper? Ah! then you know that the Americans have been making disturbances again. The shameless pack put the whole town topsy-turvy. Not a night passes without fights in the taverns or on the street, not to speak of other abominations.... And who gets the blame for all this disturbance? It is I—yes, I—that suffer for it. These newspaper scribblers are always covertly carping at us for giving our whole attention to the Palm Tree. And I, whose mission it is to be an example to my fellow-citizens, must have such things thrown in my teeth! I cannot bear it. It won’t do for me to have my name bespattered in this way.... Not just now; precisely at this moment I need all the respect and good-will of my fellow-citizens. I have a great undertaking on hand, as you have probably heard; but if evil-disposed persons succeed in shaking people’s unqualified confidence in me, it may involve me in the greatest difficulties. So I must silence these carping and spiteful scribblers at any price, and that is why I give you till the day after to-morrow.’ This paltry motive for the coldly-planned murder of eighteen men is so ridiculous that even Ehrhard, who admires everything in Ibsen, dares not defend it, and timidly remarks that ‘the author does not very well explain why the anxiety for his reputation should require the sending to sea of a vessel which he has not had time thoroughly to repair.’[326]

At the head of a delegation of his fellow-citizens, sent to thank him for the establishment of a railway, Pastor Rörlund delivers an address to Bernick in which the following passages occur: ‘We have often expressed to you our gratitude for the broad moral foundation upon which you have, so to speak, built up our society. This time we chiefly hail in you the ... citizen, who has taken the initiative in an undertaking which, we are credibly assured, will give a powerful impetus to the temporal prosperity and well-being of the community.... You are in an eminent sense the pillar and corner-stone of this community....[347] And it is just this light of disinterestedness shining over all your actions that is so unspeakably beneficent, especially in these times. You are now on the point of procuring for us—I do not hesitate to say the word plainly and prosaically—a railway.... But you cannot reject a slight token of your grateful fellow-citizens’ appreciation, least of all on this momentous occasion, when, according to the assurances of practical men, we are standing on the threshold of a new era.’ I have not interrupted by a single remark or note of exclamation this unheard-of balderdash. It shall produce its own unaided effect upon the reader. If this nonsense appeared in a burlesque farce, it would be hardly funny enough, but otherwise acceptable. Now, this claims to be ‘realistic’! We are to take Ibsen’s word for it that Pastor Rörlund was sober when he made this speech! A more insulting demand has never been made by an author on his readers.

In An Enemy of Society the subject treats of a rather incomprehensible bathing establishment, comprising at once mineral waters, medicinal baths and sea-bathing. The doctor of the establishment has discovered that the springs are contaminated with typhoid bacilli, and insists that the water shall be taken from a place higher up in the mountains, where it would not be polluted by sewage. He is the more urgent in his demands, as without this precaution a fatal epidemic will break out among the visitors. And to this the burgomaster of the town is supposed to reply: ‘The existing supply of water for the baths is once for all a fact, and must naturally be treated as such. But probably the directors, at some future time, will not be indisposed to take into their consideration whether, by making certain pecuniary sacrifices, it may not be possible to introduce some improvements.’ This is a question of a place which, as Ibsen insists, has staked its future on the development of its youthful bathing establishment; the place is situated in Norway, in a small district where all the inhabitants are mutually acquainted, and where every case of illness and death is noticed by all. And the burgomaster will run the risk of having a number of the visitors at the establishment attacked with typhoid, when he is forewarned that this will certainly happen if the conduit pipes of the spring are not transferred. Without having an exaggeratedly high opinion of the burgomaster mind in general, I deny that any idiot such as Ibsen depicts is at the head of the local administration of any town whatsoever in Europe.

Tesman, in Hedda Gabler, expects that his publication, Domestic Industries of Brabant during the Middle Ages, will secure him a professorship in a college. But he has a dangerous competitor in Ejlert Lövborg, who has published a book on The General[348] March of Civilization. This work has already made a ‘great sensation,’ but the sequel is far to surpass this, and ‘treats of the future.’ ‘But, good gracious! we don’t know anything about that!’ someone objects. ‘No; but there are several things though can be said about it, all the same.... It is divided into two sections. The first is about the civilizing forces of the future, and the other is about the civilizing progress of the future.’ Special stress is laid upon the fact that it lies wholly outside the domain of science, and consists in mere prophecy. ‘Do you believe it impossible to reproduce such a work—that it cannot be written a second time? No.... For the inspiration, you know....’ We are acquainted, were it only through popular histories of morals such as the Democritus of Karl Julius Weber, with the strange questions with which the casuists of the Middle Ages used to occupy themselves. But that, in our century, such works as those of Tesman and Lövborg could gain for their authors a professorship of any kind in either hemisphere, or even the position of privat docent, is an infantile invention, fit to raise a laugh in all academical circles.

In The Lady from the Sea the mysterious sailor returns to find that his old sweetheart has been for some years the wife of Dr. Wangel. He urges her to follow him, saying she really belongs to him. The husband is present at the interview. He shows the stranger that he is wrong in wishing to carry off Ellida. He represents to the sailor that it would be preferable if he addressed himself to him (the husband), and not to the wife. He mildly remonstrates with the stranger for addressing Ellida with the familiar ‘thou,’ and calling her by her Christian name. ‘Such a familiarity is not customary with us, sir.’ The scene is unspeakably comic, and would be worthy of reproduction in its entirety. We will limit ourselves to quoting the conclusion:—

Stranger. To-morrow night I will come again, and then I shall look for you here. You must wait for me here in the garden, for I prefer settling the matter with you alone. You understand?

Ellida (in low, trembling tone). Do you hear that, Wangel?

Wangel. Only keep calm. We shall know how to prevent this visit.

Stranger. Good-bye for the present, Ellida. So to-morrow night——

Ellida (imploringly). Oh, no, no! Do not come to-morrow night! Never come here again!

Stranger. And should you, then, have a mind to follow me over seas?

Ellida. Oh, don’t look at me like that!

Stranger. I only mean that you must then be ready to set out.

Wangel. Go up to the house, Ellida, etc.


And Ibsen depicts Wangel, not as a senile, debile old man, but in the prime of life and in full possession of all his faculties!

All these crack-brained episodes are, however, far surpassed by the scene in Rosmersholm, where Rebecca confesses to the doughty Rosmer that she is consumed by ardent passion for him:—

Rosmer. What have you felt? Speak so that I can understand you.

Rebecca. It came over me—this wild, uncontrollable desire—oh, Rosmer!

Rosmer. Desire? You! For what?

Rebecca. For you.

Rosmer (tries to spring up). What is this? [Idiot!]

Rebecca (stops him). Sit still, dear; there is more to tell.

Rosmer. And you mean to say—that you love me—in that way?

Rebecca. I thought that it should be called love. Yes, I thought it was love; but it was not. It was what I said. It was a wild, uncontrollable desire.... It came upon me like a storm on the sea. It was like one of the storms we sometimes have in the North in the winter-time. It seizes you—and sweeps you along with it—whither it will. Resistance is out of the question.’


Rosmer, the object of this burning passion, is forty-three years old, and has been a clergyman. This makes it somewhat droll, but not impossible, for erotomaniacs can love all sorts of creatures, even boots.[327] What, however, is inconceivable is the way in which the nymphomaniac sets about satisfying her ‘wild, uncontrollable desire,’ this ‘storm upon the sea’ which ‘seizes you, and sweeps you along with it.’ She had become the friend of Rosmer’s sickly wife, and had for eighteen months tormented her by hinting that Rosmer is unhappy because she has no children, that he loves her, the nymphomaniac, but has controlled his passion as long as his wife is living. By means of this poison, patiently and unceasingly dropped into her soul, she had happily driven her to suicide. After a year and a half! To appease her ‘wild, uncontrollable passion’! This is exactly as if a man driven wild by hunger should, with a view to satisfying his craving, devise a deep plan for obtaining a field by fraud, so that he might grow wheat, have it ground, and afterwards bake himself a splendid loaf, which would then be Oh, so delicious! The reader may judge for himself if this is the usual way in which famished persons, or nymphomaniacs over whom passion ‘sweeps like a storm upon the sea,’ satisfy their impulses.

Such are the presentations of the world’s realities as figured to himself by this ‘realist’! Many of his infantile or silly lucubrations are petty, superficial details, and a benevolent friend, with some experience of life and some common-sense, could easily have preserved him in advance from making himself ridiculous. Others of his inventions, however, touch the very essence of his poems and convert these into out and out grotesque moonshine. In The Pillars of Society, Bernick, the man who calmly plans the[350] murder of eighteen men to maintain his reputation as a capable dock-owner (we may remark, in passing, the absurdity of this means for attaining such an end), all at once confesses to his fellow-citizens, without any compulsion, and solely on the advice of Miss Hessel, that he has been a villain and a criminal. In A Doll’s House, the wife, who was only a moment before playing so tenderly with her children, suddenly abandons these children without a thought for them.[328] In Rosmersholm we are to believe that the nymphomaniac Rebecca, while in constant intercourse with the object of her flame, has become chaste and virtuous, etc. Many of Ibsen’s principal characters present this spectacle of impossible and incomprehensible metamorphoses, so that they look like figures composed of odd halves, which some bungling artisan has stuck together.

After the lifelike truthfulness of Ibsen, let us inquire into the scientific character of his work. This reminds us of the civilization of Liberian negroes. The constitution and laws of that West African republic read very much like those of the United States of North America, and on paper command our respect. But anyone living in Liberia very soon recognises the fact that these black republicans are savages, having no idea of the political institutions nominally existing among them, of their code of laws, etc. Ibsen likes to give himself the appearance of standing in the domain of natural science and of profiting by its latest results. In his plays Darwin is quoted. He has evidently dipped, though with a careless hand, into books on heredity, and has picked up something about medical science. But the scanty, ludicrously misunderstood stock phrases which have remained in his memory are made use of by him much as my illustrative Liberian negro uses the respectable paper collars and top-hats of Europe. The expert can never preserve his gravity when Ibsen displays his scientific and medical knowledge.

Heredity is his hobby-horse, which he mounts in every one of his pieces. There is not a single trait in his personages, a single peculiarity of character, a single disease, that he does not trace to heredity. In A Doll’s House, Dr. Rank’s ‘poor innocent spine must do penance for “his” father’s notions of amusement when he was a lieutenant in the army.’ Helmer explains to Nora that ‘a misty atmosphere of lying brings contagion into the whole family. Every breath the children draw contains[351] some germ of evil.... Nearly all men who go to ruin early have had untruthful mothers.... In most cases it comes from the mother; but the father naturally works in the same direction.’ And again: ‘Your father’s low principles you have inherited, every one of them. No religion, no morality, no sense of duty.’ In Ghosts Oswald has learned from the extraordinary doctor in Paris who told him he had softening of the brain, that he had inherited his malady from his father.[329] Regina, the natural daughter of the late Alving, exactly resembles her mother.

Regina (to herself). So mother was that kind of woman, after all.

Mrs. Alving. Your mother had many good qualities, Regina.

Regina. Yes; but she was one of that sort, all the same. Oh! I’ve often suspected it.... A poor girl must make the best of her young days.... And I, too, want to enjoy my life, Mrs. Alving.

Mrs. Alving. Yes, I see you do. But don’t throw yourself away, Regina.

Regina. Oh! what must be, must be. If Oswald takes after his father, I take after my mother, I dare say.


In Rosmersholm Rebecca’s nymphomania is explained by the fact that she is the natural daughter of a Lapland woman of doubtful morals. ‘I believe your whole conduct is determined by your origin,’ Rector Kroll says to her (p. 82). Rosmer never laughs, because ‘it is a trait of his family.’ He is ‘the descendant of the men that look down on us from these walls’ (p. 80). His ‘spirit is deeply rooted in his ancestry’ (p. 80). Hilda, the stepdaughter of the ‘Lady from the Sea,’ says: ‘I should not wonder if some fine day she went mad.... Her mother went mad, too. She died mad. I know that.’ In The Wild Duck nearly everyone has a hereditary mark. Gregers Werle, the malignant imbecile, who holds and proclaims his passion for gossip as an ardent desire for truth, inherits this craze from his mother.[330] Little Hedwig becomes blind, like her father, old Werle.[331]

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In the earlier philosophical dramas the same idea is constantly repeated. Brand gets his obstinacy, and Peer Gynt his lively, extravagant imagination, from the mother. Ibsen has evidently read Lucas’s book on the first principles of heredity, and has borrowed from it uncritically. It is true that Lucas believes in the inheritance even of notions and feelings as complex and as nearly related to specific facts as, e.g., the horror of doctors,[332] and that he does not doubt the transmission of diseased deviations from the norm, e.g., the appearance of blindness at a definite age.[333] Lucas, however, whose merits are not to be denied, did not sufficiently distinguish between that which the individual receives in its material genesis from its parents, and that which is subsequently suggested by family life and example, by continuous existence in the same conditions as its parents, etc. Ibsen is the true ‘man of one book.’ He abides by his Lucas. If he had read Weismann,[334] and, above all, Galton,[335] he would have known that nothing is more obscure and apparently more capricious, than the course of heredity. For the individual is, says Galton, the result—the arithmetic mean—of three different quantities: its father, its mother and the whole species, represented by the double series, going back to the beginnings of all terrestrial life, of its paternal and maternal progenitors. This third datum is the unknown quantity—the x—in the problem. Reversions to distant ancestors may make the individual wholly unlike its parents, and the influence of the species so far exceed, as a general rule, those of the immediate progenitors that children who are the exact cast of their father or mother, especially with respect to the most complex manifestations of personality, of character, capacities and inclinations, are the greatest rarities. But Ibsen is not at all concerned about seriously justifying his ideas on heredity in a scientific manner. As we shall see later on, these ideas have their root in his mysticism; Lucas’s work was for him only a lucky treasure-trove,[353] which he seized on with joy, because it offered him the possibility of scientifically cloaking his mystic obsession.

Ibsen’s excursions in the domain of medical science, which he hardly ever denies himself, are most delightful. In The Pillars of Society Rector Rörlund glorifies the women of his côterie as a kind of ‘sisters of mercy who pick lint.’ Pick lint! In an age of antiseptics and aseptics! Let Ibsen only take into his head to enter any surgical ward with his ‘picked lint’! He would be astonished at the reception given to him and his lint. In An Enemy of Society Dr. Stockmann declares that the water of the baths with its ‘millions of bacilli is absolutely injurious to health, whether used internally or externally.’ The only bacilli which can be referred to in this scene, as throughout the whole piece, are the typhoid bacilli of Eberth. Now, it may be true that bathing in contaminated water may produce Biskra boils, and perhaps béri-béri; but it would be difficult for Dr. Stockmann and Ibsen to instance a single case of typhoid fever contracted through bathing in water containing bacilli. In A Doll’s House Helmer’s life ‘depended on a journey abroad.’ That might be true for a European in the tropics, or for anyone living in a fever-district. But in Norway there is no such thing as an acute illness in which the life of the invalid depends on ‘a journey abroad.’ Further on Dr. Rank says (p. 60): ‘In the last few days I have had a general stock-taking of my inner man. Bankruptcy! Before a month is over I shall be food for worms in the churchyard.... There is only one more investigation to be made, and when I have made it I shall know exactly at what time dissolution will take place.’ According to his own declaration, Dr. Rank suffers from disease of the dorsal marrow (it is true that he speaks of the dorsal column, but the mistaken expression need not be taken too rigidly). Ibsen is evidently thinking of consumption of the spinal marrow. Now, there is in this disease absolutely no symptom which could with certainty authorize the prediction of death three weeks beforehand; there is no ‘general stock-taking of the inner man’ which the invalid, if he were a doctor, could carry out on himself to gain a clear knowledge of ‘when the dissolution’ was to take place; and there is no form of consumption of the spinal marrow which would allow the invalid four weeks before his death (not an accidental death, but one necessitated by his disease) to go to a ball, drink immoderately of champagne, and afterwards to take an affecting leave of his friends. Oswald Alving’s illness in Ghosts is, from a clinical standpoint, quite as childishly depicted as that of Rank. From all that is said in the piece the disease inherited by Oswald from his father can only be diagnosed either as syphilis hereditaria tarda, or dementia paralytica. The first of these diseases is out of the question,[354] for Oswald is depicted as a model of manly strength and health.[336] And even if, in exceptional and extremely rare cases, the malady does not show itself till after the victim is well on in his twenties, it yet betrays itself from the earliest childhood by certain phenomena of degeneracy which would prevent even a mother, blinded by love and pride, from glorifying her son’s ‘outer self’ in the style of Mrs. Alving. Certain minor features might perhaps indicate dementia paralytica, as, for example, Oswald’s sensual excitability, the artless freedom with which he speaks before his mother of the amours of his friends in Paris, or gives expression to his pleasure at the sight of the ‘glorious’ Regina, the levity with which, at the first sight of this girl, he makes plans for his marriage, etc.[337] But together with these exact, though subordinate, features there appear others infinitely more important, which wholly preclude the diagnosis of dementia paralytica. There is in Oswald no trace of the megalomania which is never absent in the first stage of this malady; he is anxious and depressed, while the sufferer from general paralysis feels extremely happy, and sees life through rose-coloured spectacles. Oswald forebodes and dreads an outburst of madness—a fact which I, for my part, have never observed in a paralytic, nor found indicated by any clinicist whatever. Finally, Oswald’s dementia declares itself with a suddenness and completeness found in acute mania only; but the description given of Oswald in the last scene—his immobility, his ‘dull and toneless’ voice, and his idiotic murmuring of the words ‘the sun, the sun,’ repeated half a dozen times—does not in the remotest degree correspond with the picture of acute mania.

The poet has naturally no need to understand anything of pathology. But when he pretends to describe real life, he ought to be honest. He should not get out of his depth in scientific observation and precision simply because these are demanded or preferred by the age. The more ignorant the poet is in pathology, the greater is the test of his veracity given by his clinical pictures. As he cannot, in his lay capacity, draw on his imagination for them by combining clinical experiences and reminiscences of books, it is necessary that he shall have seen with his own eyes each case represented to depict it accurately. Shakespeare was likewise no physician; and, besides, what did the physicians of his time know? Yet we can to this day still[355] diagnose without hesitation the dementia senilis of Lear, Hamlet’s weakness of will through nervous exhaustion (neurasthenic ‘aboalie’), the melancholia, accompanied with optical hallucination, of Lady Macbeth. Why? Because Shakespeare introduced into his creations things really seen. Ibsen, on the contrary, has freely invented his invalids, and that this method could, in the hands of a layman, only lead to laughable results, needs no proof. A moving or affecting situation offers itself to his imagination—that of a man who clearly foresees his near and inevitable death, and with violent self-conquest lifts himself to the stoic philosophy of renunciation; or that of a young man who adjures his mother to kill him when the madness he awaits with horror shall break out. The situation is very improbable. Perhaps it has never occurred. In any event, Ibsen has never witnessed it. But if it occurred it would possess great poetic beauty, and produce a great effect on the stage. Consequently Ibsen calmly turns out the novel and unknown maladies of a Dr. Rank or an Oswald Alving, the progress of which might make these situations possible. Such is the procedure of the poet whose realism and accurate observation are so much vaunted by his admirers.

His clearness of mind, his love of liberty, his modernity! Careful readers of Ibsen’s works will not trust their eyes when they see these words applied to him. We will at once put immediate and exhaustive tests to the clearness of his thought. His love of liberty will be revealed by analysis as anarchism; and his modernity amounts essentially to this, that in his pieces railways are constructed (The Pillars of Society), that there is a cackle about bacilli (An Enemy of the People), that the struggles of political parties play a part in them (The League of the Young, Rosmersholm)—all put on superficially with a brush, without inner dependence upon the true active forces in the poem. This ‘modern,’ this ‘apostle of liberty,’ has an idea of the press and its functions fit for a clerk in a police-station, and he pursues journalists with the hatred, droll in these days, of a tracker of demagogues in the third decade of this century. All the journalists whom he sets before us—and they are numerous in his pieces, Peter Mortensgaard in Rosmersholm, Haustad and Billing in An Enemy of the People, Bahlmann in The League of the Young—are either drunken ragamuffins or poor knock-kneed starvelings, constantly trembling at the prospect of being thrashed or kicked out, or unprincipled rascals who write for anyone who pays. He has so clear a grasp of the social question that he makes a foreman mix with the workmen and threaten a strike because machines are about to be used on the wharves (The Pillars of[356] Society)! He looks upon the masses with the fine contempt of the great feudal landlords. When he mentions them it is either with biting derision or a most aristocratic and arrogant disdain.[338]

The greater part of his notions, moreover, belong to no time, but are emanations from his personal perversity, and can, therefore, be neither modern or not modern; the least uncouth of them, however, having their root in a definite period, spring from the circle of ideas of a Gothamist of the first third of the present century. The label ‘modern’ was arbitrarily attached to Ibsen by George Brandes (Moderne Geister, Frankfurt, 1886), one of the most repulsive literary phenomena of the century. George Brandes, a sponger on the fame or name of others, has throughout his life followed the calling of a ‘human orchestra,’ who with head, mouth, hands, elbows, knees, and feet, plays ten noisy instruments at once, dancing before poets and authors, and, after the hubbub, passes his hat round among the deafened public. For a quarter of a century he has assiduously courted the favour of all who for any reason had a following, and written rhetorical and sophistical phrases about them, as long as he could find a market. Adorned with a few feathers plucked from the stately pinions of Taine’s genius, and prating of John Stuart Mill, whose treatise On Liberty he has glanced at, but hardly read, and certainly not understood, he introduced himself among the youth of Scandinavia, and, abusing their confidence, obtained by this means, has made their systematic moral poisoning the task of his life. He preached to them the gospel of passion, and, with truly diabolical zeal and obstinacy, confused all their notions, giving to whatever he extolled that was mean and reprehensible the most attractive and honourable names. It has always been thought weak and cowardly to yield to base impulses condemned by judgment, instead of combating and stifling them. If Brandes had said to the young, ‘Renounce your judgment! Sacrifice duty to your passions! Be ruled by your senses! Let your will and consciousness be as feathers before the storm of your appetites!’—the better among his hearers would have spit at him. But he said to them: ‘To obey one’s senses is to have character. He who allows himself to be guided by his passions has individuality. The man of strong will despises discipline and duty, and follows every caprice, every temptation, every movement of his stomach or his other organs’; and these[357] vulgarities, thus presented, no longer had the repulsive character which awakens distrust and serves as a warning. Proclaimed under the names of ‘liberty’ and ‘moral autonomy,’ debauchery and dissoluteness gain easy admission into the best circles, and depravity, from which all would turn if it appeared as such, seems to insufficiently informed minds attractive and desirable when disguised as ‘modernity.’ It is comprehensible that an educator who turns the schoolroom into a tavern and a brothel should have success and a crowd of followers. He certainly runs the risk of being slain by the parents, if they come to know what he is teaching their children; but the pupils will hardly complain, and will be eager to attend the lessons of so agreeable a teacher. By a similar method Brandes acquitted himself of his educational functions. This is the explanation of the influence he gained over the youth of his country, such as his writings, with their emptiness of thought and unending tattle, would certainly never have procured for him.

Brandes discovered in Ibsen a revolt against the prevailing moral law, together with a glorification of bestial instincts, and accordingly trumpeted his praises in spite of his astounding reactionary views, as a ‘modern spirit,’ recommending Ibsen’s works, with a wink of the eye, to the knowledge-craving youth, whom he served as maître de plaisir. But this ‘modern,’ this ‘realist,’ with his exact ‘scientific’ observation, is in reality a mystic and an ego-maniacal anarchist. An analysis of his intellectual peculiarities will enable us to discern a resemblance to those of Richard Wagner, which is not surprising, since a similarity in features is precisely a stigma of degeneracy, and for this reason is common to many, or to all, higher degenerates.

Ibsen is the child of a rigorously religious race, and grew up in a family of believers. The impressions of childhood have determined the course of his life. His mind has never been able to iron out the theological crease it got through nurture. The Bible and Catechism became for him the bounds beyond which he has never passed. His free-thinking diatribes against established Christianity (Brand, Rosmersholm, etc.), his derision of the shackled pietism of divines (Manders in Ghosts, Rörlund in The Pillars of Society, the dean in Brand), are an echo of his teacher, the theosophist, Sœren Kierkegaard (1815-55), a zealot certainly for quite another Christianity than that ordained by the state, and provided with powers of nomination and fixed salaries, but nevertheless an austere and exclusive Christianity, demanding the whole being of man. Perhaps even Ibsen looks upon himself as a free-thinker. Wagner did the same. But what does that prove? He is not clear with regard to his own thought.

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‘It is curious,’ writes Herbert Spencer,[339] ‘how commonly men continue to hold, in fact, doctrines which they have rejected in name, retaining the substance after they have abandoned the form. In theology an illustration is supplied by Carlyle, who, in his student days, giving up, as he thought, the creed of his fathers, rejected its shell only, keeping the contents, and was proved by his conceptions of the world, and man and conduct, to be still among the sternest of Scotch Calvinists.’ If Spencer, when he wrote this, had known Ibsen, he would perhaps have cited him as a second example. As Carlyle was always a Scotch Calvinist, so Ibsen has always remained a Norwegian Protestant of the school of Kierkegaard—that is to say, a Protestant with the earnest mysticism of a Jacob Boehme, a Swedenborg, or a Pusey, which easily passes over into the Catholicism of a St. Theresa or a Ruysbroek.

Three fundamental ideas of Christianity are ever present in his mind, and about these as round so many axes revolves the entire activity of his poetical imagination. These three unalterable central ideas, constituting genuine obsessions, reaching up from the unconscious into his intellectual life, are original sin, confession and self-sacrifice or redemption.

Æsthetic chatterers have spoken of the idea of heredity influencing all Ibsen’s works, an idea which cannot escape even the feeblest attention, as something appertaining to modern science and Darwinism. As a matter of fact, it is the ever-recurring original sin of St. Augustine, and it betrays its theological nature, firstly by the circumstance that it makes its appearance in conjunction with the two other theological ideas of confession and redemption, and secondly, by the distinguishing characteristic of hereditary transmission. As we have above seen, Ibsen’s personages always inherit a disease (blindness, consumption of the spinal marrow, madness), a vice (mendaciousness, levity, lewdness, obduracy), or some defect (incapacity for enjoyment), but never an agreeable or useful quality. Now what is good and wholesome is just as frequently inherited as what is evil and diseased—even more frequently, according to many investigators. Hence if Ibsen had really wished to exhibit the operation of the law of heredity as understood by Darwin, he would have offered us at least one example, if only one, of the inheritance of good qualities. But not a single instance is to be met with in all his dramas. What his beings possess of good, comes one knows not whence. They have always inherited nothing but evil. The gentle Hedvig in The Wild Duck becomes blind like her father, Werle. But from whom does she get her dreamy wealth of imagination, her devoted loving heart? Her father is a cold egoist, and her[359] mother a clever, practical, prosaic housewife. Thus she can never have inherited her fine qualities from either of her parents. From them she receives only her eye-disease. With Ibsen heredity is only a visitation, a punishment for the sins of the fathers; science knows of no such exclusive heredity; theology alone knows it, and it is simply original sin.

Ibsen’s second theological motif is confession; in nearly all his pieces such is the goal to which all the action tends; not, perchance, forced by circumstances upon a dissimulating offender, not the inevitable revelation of a hidden misdeed, but the voluntary outpouring of a pent-up soul, the voluptuous, self-tormenting disclosure of an ugly inner wound, the remorseful ‘My guilt, my deepest guilt!’ of the sinner breaking down under the weight of his burdened conscience, humbling himself to an avowal that he may find inward peace; in short, genuine confession as required by the Church. In A Doll’s House, Helmer informs his wife (p. 44): ‘Many a man can lift himself up again morally if he openly recognises his offence and undergoes its punishment.... Only just think how a man so conscious of guilt as that must go about everywhere lying, and a hypocrite, and an actor; how he must wear a mask towards his neighbour, and even his wife and children.’ For him not the guilt, but the dissimulation, is the great evil, and its true expiation consists in ‘public avowal’—i.e., in confession. In the same piece Mrs. Linden, without any external necessity, and simply in obedience to an inner impulse, makes the following confession (p. 87): ‘I, too, have suffered shipwreck.... I had no choice at the time’; while later on she develops the theory of confession once more (p. 90): ‘Helmer must know everything; between those two there must be the completest possible understanding, and that can never come to pass while all these excuses and concealments are going on.’

In The Pillars of Society Miss Hessel exacts a confession in these terms (p. 70):

Here you are, the first man in the town, living in wealth and pride, in power and honour—you who have set the brand of crime upon an innocent man.

Bernick. Do you think I do not feel deeply how I have wronged him? Do you think I am not prepared to make atonement?

Lona. How? By speaking out?

Bernick. Can you ask such a thing?

Lona. What else can atone for such a wrong?


And Johan also says (p. 75):

In two months I shall be back again.

Bernick. And then you will tell all?

Johan. Then the guilty one must take the guilt upon himself.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:19 am

Part 2 of 4

Bernick actually makes the confession demanded of him from pure contrition, for at the time he makes it all proofs[360] of his crime are destroyed, and he has nothing more to fear from other persons. His confession is couched in most edifying terms (p. 108):

I must begin by rejecting the panegyric with which you ... have overwhelmed me. I do not deserve it; for until to-day I have not been disinterested in my dealings.... I have no right to this homage; for ... my intention was to retain the whole myself.... My fellow-citizens must know me to the core ... that from this evening we begin a new time. The old, with its tinsel, its hypocrisy, its hollowness, its lying propriety, and its pitiful cowardice, shall lie behind us like a museum open for instruction.... My fellow-citizens, I will come out of the lie; it had almost poisoned every fibre of my being. You shall know all. Fifteen years ago I was the guilty one, etc.


In Rosmersholm there is hardly any other subject treated of than the confession of all before all. In the very first visit of Kroll (p. 15) Rebecca urges Rosmer to confess:

Rebecca (comes up close to Rosmer, and says rapidly and in a low voice, so that the Rector does not hear her). Do it now!

Rosmer (also in a low voice). Not this evening.

Rebecca (as before). Yes, this very evening.


As he does not at once obey she will speak for him (p. 19):

Rebecca. You must let me tell you frankly.

Rosmer (quickly). No, no; be quiet. Not just now!


Rosmer soon does it himself (p. 28):

Kroll. We two are in practical agreement—at any rate, on the great essential questions.

Rosmer (in a low voice). No; not now.

Kroll (tries to jump up). What is this?

Rosmer (holding him). No; you must sit still. I entreat you, Kroll.

Kroll. What can this mean? I don’t understand you. Speak plainly.

Rosmer. A new summer has blossomed in my soul. I see with eyes grown young again; and so now I stand——

Kroll. Where? where, Rosmer?

Rosmer. Where your children stand.

Kroll. You? you? Impossible! Where do you say you stand?

Rosmer. On the same side as Laurits and Hilda.

Kroll (bows his head). An apostate! Johannes Rosmer an apostate!... Is this becoming language for a priest?

Rosmer. I am no longer a priest.

Kroll. Well, but—the faith of your childhood——?

Rosmer. Is mine no longer.... I have given it up. I had to give it up.... Peace, and joy, and mutual forbearance must once more enter our souls. That is why I am stepping forward and openly avowing myself for what I am....

Rebecca. There now; he’s on his way to his great sacrifice.


(We may here note the purely theological designation given to Rosmer’s act.)

Rosmer. I feel so relieved now it is over. You see, I am quite calm Rebecca....


Like Rosmer, Rebecca also confesses to Rector Kroll (p. 86):

Rebecca. Yes, Herr Rector, Rosmer and I—we say thou to each other. The relation between us has led to that.... Come, let us sit down, dear—all three of us—and then I will tell the whole story.

Rosmer (seats himself mechanically). What has come over you, Rebecca? This unnatural calmness—what is it?

Rebecca. I have only to tell you something.... Now it must out. It was not you, Rosmer. You are innocent; it was I who lured Beata out into the paths of delusion ... that led to the mill-race. Now you know it, both of you....

Rosmer (after a pause). Have you confessed all now, Rebecca?


No, not yet all. But she hastens to complete to Rosmer the confession begun to Kroll (p. 98):

Rosmer. Have you more confessions to make?

Rebecca. The greatest of all is to come.

Rosmer. The greatest?

Rebecca. What you have never suspected. What gives light and shade to all the rest, etc.


In The Lady from the Sea, Ellida (p. 19) confesses to Arnholm the story of her insensate betrothal with the foreign sailor. Arnholm so little comprehends the need of this confession, made without rhyme or reason, that he asks with astonishment: ‘What is your object, then, in telling me that you were bound?’ ‘Because I must have someone in whom to confide,’ is Ellida’s sole—and, moreover, sufficient—answer.

In Hedda Gabler the inevitable confessions take place before the commencement of the piece. ‘Yes, Hedda,’ Lövborg says (p. 123). ‘And when I used to confess to you! Told you about myself—things that nobody else knew in those days. Sat there and admitted that I had been out on the loose for whole days and nights.... Ah, Hedda, what power was it in you that forced me to acknowledge things like that?... Had not you an idea that you could wash me clean if only I came to you in confession?’ He confesses in order to receive absolution.

In The Wild Duck confession is equally prominent, but it is deliciously ridiculed. The scene in which Gina confesses to her husband her early liaison with Werle is one of the most exquisite things in contemporary drama (Act IV.).

Hjalmar. Is it true—can it be true that—that there was an—an understanding between you and Mr. Werle, while you were in service there?

Gina. That’s not true. Not at that time. Mr. Werle did come after me, I own it; and his wife thought there was something in it ... so that I left her service.

Hjalmar. But afterwards, then!

Gina. Well, then I went home. And mother—well, she wasn’t the woman you took her for, Ekdal; she kept on worrying and worrying at me about one thing and another. For Mr. Werle was a widower by that time.

Hjalmar. Well, and then?

[362]

Gina. I suppose you must know it. He didn’t give it up until he’d had his way.

Hjalmar (striking his hands together). And this is the mother of my child! How could you hide this from me?

Gina. It was wrong of me; I ought certainly to have told you long ago.

Hjalmar. You should have told me at the very first; then I should have known what you were.

Gina. But would you have married me all the same?

Hjalmar. How can you suppose so?

Gina. That’s just why I didn’t dare to tell you anything then. I’d come to care for you so much, you know; and I couldn’t go and make myself utterly miserable....

Hjalmar. Haven’t you every day, every hour, repented of the spider’s web of deceit you had spun around me? Answer me that! How could you help writhing with penitence and remorse?

Gina. My dear Ekdal, I’ve plenty to do looking after the house, and all the daily business——


Further on the idea of self-deliverance and purification through confession is pitilessly travestied.

Gregers. Haven’t you done it yet?

Hjalmar (aloud). It is done.

Gregers. It is?... After so great a crisis—a crisis that’s to be the starting-point of an entirely new life—of a communion founded on truth, and free from falsehood of any kind.... Surely you feel a new consecration after the great crisis.

Hjalmar. Yes, of course I do—that is, in a sort of way.

Gregers. For I’m sure there’s nothing in the world to compare with the joy of forgiving one who has erred, and raising her up to one’s self in love, etc.


On his way to the guillotine, Avinain, the French assassin, condensed the experience of his life in the pithy saying, ‘Never confess.’ But this is advice which only those of strong will and healthy minds can follow. A lively idea vehemently demands to be transformed into movement. The movement exacting the least effort is that of the small muscles of the larynx, tongue, and lips, i.e., the organs of speech. Anyone, therefore, having a specially lively idea experiences a strong desire to relax those cell-groups of his brain in which this idea is elaborated by allowing the transmission of their stimulus to the organs of speech. In a word, he desires to speak out. And if he is weak, if the inhibitive power of the will is not greater than the motor impulse proceeding from the ideational centre, he will burst out into speech, be the consequences what they may. That this psychological law has always been known is proved by all literature, from the fable of King Midas to Dostojewski’s Raskolnikow; and the Catholic Church furnished one more proof of her profound knowledge of human nature which she transformed the primitive Christian custom of confession before the assembled congregation, which was to be a self-humiliation and expiation, into auricular confession, which serves the purpose of a safe and blissful alleviation and relaxation,[363] and constitutes for ordinary men a primary psychic need of the first order. It was this sort of confession which Ibsen, probably unconsciously, had in view. (‘Because I must have someone in whom I can confide,’ as Ellida says.) Himself a degenerate, Ibsen can picture to himself only the intellectual life of degenerates, in whom the mechanism of inhibition is always disordered, and who, therefore, cannot escape from the impulse to confess, when anything of an absorbing or exciting character exists in their consciousness.

The third and most important theological obsession of Ibsen is the saving act of Christ, the redemption of the guilty by a voluntary acceptance of their guilt. This devolution of sin upon a lamb of sacrifice occupies the same position in Ibsen’s drama as in Richard Wagner’s. The motif of the sacrificial lamb and of redemption is constantly present in his mind, certainly not always clear and comprehensible, but, conformably with the confusion of his thought, diversely distorted, obscured, and, so to speak, in contrapuntal inversion. Now Ibsen’s personages voluntarily and joyfully bear the cross, in keeping with the Christ-idea; now it is put upon their shoulders by force or artifice, which is, as theologians would say, a diabolical mockery of this idea; now the sacrifice for another is sincere, now mere hypocrisy; the effects Ibsen draws from the incessantly recurring motif are, agreeably with its form, now moral and affecting, now comically base and repulsive.

In The Pillars of Society there is a talk of some ‘scandal’ which occurred years before the commencement of the piece. The husband of the actress Dorf, on returning home one evening, found her with a stranger, who, on his entrance, sprang out of the window. The affair caused great excitement and indignation in the Norwegian Gotham. Immediately afterwards Johan Tönnesen fled to America. Everyone looked upon him as the ‘culprit.’ In reality, however, it was his brother-in-law, Bernick. Johan had voluntarily incurred the blame of Bernick’s fault. On his return from America the sinner and the sacrificial lamb discuss the circumstance (p. 45):

Bernick. Johan, now we are alone, you must give me leave to thank you.

Johan. Oh, nonsense!

Bernick. My house and home, my domestic happiness, my whole position as a citizen in society—all these I owe to you.

Johan. Well, I am glad of it....

Bernick. Thanks, thanks all the same. Not one in ten thousand would have done what you then did for me.

Johan. Oh, nonsense!... One of us had to take the blame upon him.

Bernick. But to whom did it lie nearer than to the guilty one?

Johan. Stop! Then it lay nearer to the innocent one. I was alone, free, an orphan.... You, on the other hand, had your old mother in life; and, besides, you had just become secretly engaged to Betty, and she was very [364]fond of you. What would have become of her if she had come to know——?

Bernick. True, true, true; but ... but yet, that you should turn appearances against yourself, and go away——

Johan. Have no scruples, my dear Karsten ... you had to be saved, and you were my friend.


Here the idea of the sacrificial lamb is normal and rational. But it is soon afterwards introduced into the same piece in a distorted shape. Bernick sends the rotten-keeled Indian Girl to sea, to her certain destruction, in spite of his foreman Aune’s opposition. While, however, planning this wholesale murder, he also schemes for laying the burden of his crime on the innocent Aune (p. 65):

Krap. ... There is rascality at work, Consul.

Bernick. I cannot believe it, Krap. I cannot, and will not believe such a thing of Aune.

Krap. I am sorry for it, but it is the plain truth.... All bogus! The Indian Girl will never get to New York....

Bernick. But this is horrible! What do you think can be his motive?

Krap. He probably wants to bring the machines into discredit....

Bernick. And for that he would sacrifice all these lives?... But such a piece of villainy as this! Listen, Krap; this affair must be examined into again. Not a word of it to anyone.... During the dinner-hour you must go down there again; I must have perfect certainty.... We cannot make ourselves accomplices in a crime. I must keep my conscience unspotted, etc.


In Ghosts the idea of the lamb of sacrifice is equally travestied. The asylum founded by Mrs. Alving has been burnt. The joiner, Engstrand, that theatrical villain, succeeds in persuading the idiotic pastor, Manders, that he—Manders—was the cause of the fire. And as the pastor is made desperate by the possible legal consequences, Engstrand goes to him and says (p. 184):

Jacob Engstrand isn’t the man to desert a noble benefactor in the hour of need, as the saying is [!].

Manders. Yes; but, my good fellow, how——?

Engstrand. Jacob Engstrand may be likened to a guardian angel—he may, your reverence.

Manders. No, no; I can’t accept that.

Engstrand. Oh, you will though, all the same. I know a man that’s taken others’ sins upon himself before now, I do.

Manders. Jacob (wrings his hand). You are a rare character.


In A Doll’s House the idea develops itself with great beauty. Nora confidently expects that her husband, on hearing of her forgery, will assume the blame, and she is resolved not to accept his sacrifice (p. 76):

Nora. I only wanted to tell you that, Christina; you shall be my witness.... In case there were to be anybody who wanted to take the ... the whole blame, I mean ... then you will be able to bear witness that it is not true, Christina. I know very well what I am saying; I am in full possession of my senses, and I say to you, Nobody else knew anything about it; I alone have done everything.... But a miracle will come to pass even yet ... but it is so terrible, Christina! It must not happen for anything in the world!


In the deepest excitement she looks for the expected miracle, the renewal of Christ’s act of salvation in the narrow circumstances of a small village—‘I am the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world.’ And, since the miracle does not come to pass, there takes place the immense transformation in her nature which forms the real subject of the piece. Nora explains this to her husband with the greatest clearness (p. 116):

...The thought never once occurred to me that you could allow yourself to submit to the conditions of such a man. I was so firmly convinced that you would say to him, ‘Pray make the affair known to all the world’; and when that had been done ... then you would, as I firmly believed, stand before the world, take everything upon yourself, and say, ‘I am the guilty person.’ ... That was the miracle that I hoped and feared. And it was to hinder that that I wanted to put an end to my life.


In The Wild Duck the idea of the sacrificial lamb recurs no less than three times, and is the moving force of the whole piece. The infringement of the forest laws, of which the elder Ekdal was convicted, was not committed by him, but by Werle:

Werle. ... I was quite in the dark as to what Lieutenant Ekdal was doing.

Gregers. Lieutenant Ekdal seems to have been in the dark as to what he was doing.

Werle. That may be. But the fact remains that he was found guilty, and I acquitted.

Gregers. Yes, of course I know that nothing was proved against you.

Werle. Acquittal is acquittal. Why do you rake up old troubles?... I’ve done all I could without positively exposing myself, and giving rise to all sorts of suspicion and gossip.... I’ve given Ekdal copying to do from the office, and I pay him far, far more for it than his work is worth.


Werle thus shuffles his fault on Ekdal, and the latter breaks down under the weight of the cross. Afterwards, when Hjalmar learns that little Hedwig is not his child, and disowns her, the idiot Gregers Werle goes to the despairing maiden, and says:

But suppose you were to sacrifice the wild duck, of your own free will, for his sake?

Hedwig (rising). The wild duck!

Gregers. Suppose you were to sacrifice, for his sake, the dearest treasure you have in the world?

Hedwig. Do you think that would do any good?

Gregers. Try it, Hedwig.

Hedwig (softly, with flashing eyes). Yes, I will try it.


Here, then, Hedwig is not to offer herself in sacrifice, but a pet animal, thus abasing the idea from Christianity to paganism. Finally, it crops up a third time. At the last moment Hedwig cannot make up her mind to kill the duck, and prefers turning the pistol against her own breast, thus purchasing with her own life that of the bird. This dismal dénouement is worrying and foolish, because useless; the poetical effect would have been[366] fully attained if Hedwig, instead of dying, had only slightly wounded herself; for in this way she would have furnished equally strong proof that she was seriously determined to bear witness to her love for her father by the sacrifice of her young life, and to restore peace between him and her mother. But æsthetic criticism is not my function; I willingly yield that to phrase-makers. All that I have to indicate is the triple recurrence in The Wild Duck of the idea of the sacrificial lamb.

At its third appearance this idea suffers a significant transformation. Hedwig sacrifices herself, not in expiation of an offence—for she is ignorant of her mother’s guilt—but to accomplish a work of love. Here the mystico-theological element of redemption recedes into the background so far as to be almost imperceptible, and there remains hardly more than the purely human element of the joy felt in self-sacrifice for others—an impulse not rare among good women, and which is a manifestation of the unsatisfied yearning for maternity (often unknown to themselves), and at the same time one of the noblest and holiest forms of altruism. Ibsen shows this impulse in many of his female characters, the source of which in the religious mysticism of the poet would not be at once noticed, if from the numerous other conjugations of the root-idea of the sacrificial lamb we had not already acquired the sure habit of recognising it even in its obscurations. Hedwig constitutes a transition from the theological to the purely human form of voluntary self-sacrifice. The over-strung child carries renunciation to the orthodox extreme of yielding up her life; Ibsen’s other women, to whose character Hedwig supplies the key, go only to the point of lovingly active self-denial. They do not die for others, but they live for others. In A Doll’s House Mrs. Linden has this hunger for self-sacrifice.

I must work in order to endure life [she says to Krogstad—p. 87]. I have worked from my youth up, and work has been my one best friend. But now I am quite alone in the world—so terribly empty and forsaken. There is no happiness in working for one’s self. Nils, give me somebody and something to work for....

Krogstad. What! you really could? Tell me, do you know my past?

Mrs. Linden. Yes.

Krogstad. And do you know my reputation?

Mrs. Linden. Did you not hint it just now, when you said that with me you could have been another man?

Krogstad. I am perfectly certain of it.

Mrs. Linden. Could it not yet be so?

Krogstad. Christina, do you say this after full deliberation?...

Mrs. Linden. I need somebody to mother, and your children need a mother.


Here the idea is not so disguised as to be unrecognisable. Krogstad is a culprit and an outlaw. If Mrs. Linden offers to[367] live for him, it is certainly chiefly from the instinct of maternity. But in this natural feeling there is also a tinge of the mystic idea of the sinner’s redemption through disinterested love. In The Lady from the Sea, Ellida wishes to return to her birthplace on the sea, Skjoldvik, because she believes there is nothing for her to do in Wangel’s house. At the announcement of her resolution her stepdaughter, Hilda, evinces a profound despair. Then for the first time Ellida learns that Hilda loves her; there is then born in her the thought that she has someone to live for, and she says dreamily: ‘Oh, if there should be something for me to do here!’ In Rosmersholm Rebecca says to Kroll (p. 8):

So long as Mr. Rosmer thinks I am of any use or comfort to him, why, so long, I suppose, I shall stay here.

Kroll (looks at her with emotion). Do you know, it’s really fine for a woman to sacrifice her whole youth to others, as you have done.

Rebecca. Oh, what else should I have had to live for?


In The Pillars of Society there are two of these touching self-sacrificing souls—Miss Martha Bernick and Miss Hessel. Miss Bernick has reared the illegitimate child Dina, and has consecrated her own life to her (p. 52):

Martha. I have been a mother to that much-wronged child—have brought her up as well as I could.

Johan. And sacrificed your whole life in so doing.

Martha. It has not been thrown away.


She loves Johan, but as she sees that he is attracted by Dina she unites the two. She explains herself in regard to the incident in an exceedingly affecting scene with Johan’s half-sister (p. 95):

Lona. Now we are alone, Martha. You have lost her, and I him.

Martha. You him?

Lona. Oh, I had half lost him already over there. The boy longed to stand on his own feet, so I made him think I was longing for home.

Martha. That was it? Now I understand why you came. But he will want you back again, Lona.

Lona. An old stepsister—what can he want with her now? Men snap many bonds to arrive at happiness.

Martha. It is so, sometimes.

Lona. But now we two must hold together, Martha.

Martha. Can I be anything to you?

Lona. Who more? We two foster-mothers—have we not both lost our children? Now we are alone.

Martha. Yes, alone. And therefore I will tell you—I have loved him more than all the world.

Lona. Martha! (seizes her arm). Is this the truth?

Martha. My whole life lies in the words. I have loved him, and waited for him. From summer to summer I have looked for his coming. And then he came, but he did not see me.

Lona. Loved him! and it was you that gave his happiness into his hands.

Martha. Should I not have given him his happiness, since I loved him?[368] Yes, I have loved him. My whole life has been for him.... He did not see me.

Lona. It was Dina that overshadowed you, Martha.

Martha. It is well that she did! When he went away we were of the same age. When I saw him again—oh, that horrible moment!—it seemed to me that I was ten years older than he. He had lived in the bright, quivering sunshine, and drunk in youth and health at every breath; and here sat I, the while, spinning and spinning——

Lona. The thread of his happiness, Martha.

Martha. Yes, it was gold I spun. No bitterness! Is it not true, Lona, we have been two good sisters to him?


In Hedda Gabler it is Miss Tesman, aunt of the imbecile Tesman, who plays the pathetic part of the sacrificial mother. She has brought him up, and when he marries gives him the largest part of her modest income. ‘Oh, aunt,’ bleats the poor idiot (p. 18), ‘you will never be tired of sacrificing yourself for me!’ ‘Do you think,’ replies the good creature, ‘I have any other joy in this world than to smooth the way for you, my dear boy—you who have never had a father or a mother to look after you?’ And when subsequently the paralytic sister of Miss Tesman is dead, Hedda and she hold this conversation (p. 196):

Hedda. It will be lonesome for you now, Miss Tesman.

Miss Tesman. The first few days, yes. But that won’t last very long. Dear Rina’s little room will not always be empty, that I know.

Hedda. Indeed! Who is going to move into it, eh?

Miss Tesman. Oh, there is always some poor invalid or other who needs to be looked after and tended, unfortunately.

Hedda. Will you really take such a burden upon you again?

Miss Tesman. Burden! God forgive you, child! that has never been a burden to me.

Hedda. But now, if a stranger should come, then surely——

Miss Tesman. Oh, one soon becomes friends with sick people. And I must positively have someone to live for, too.


The three Christo-dogmatic obsessions of original sin, confession, and self-sacrifice, filling Ibsen’s dramas, as we have seen, from the first line to the last, are not the only tokens of his mysticism. This betrays itself by a whole series of other peculiarities, which shall be briefly indicated.

At the head of these stands the astoundingly chaotic nature of his thought. One cannot believe one’s eyes while reading how his fulsome flatterers have had the audacity to extol him for the ‘clearness’ and ‘precision’ of his thought. Do these individuals, then, imagine that no one capable of forming a judgment will ever read a line of Ibsen? A clearly-defined thought is an extraordinary rarity in this Norwegian dramatist. Everything floats and undulates, nebulous and amorphous, such as we are accustomed to see in weak-brained degenerates. And if he once succeeds, with toil and stress, in grasping anything and expressing it in a moderately intelligible manner,[369] he unfailingly hastens, a few pages later, or in a subsequent piece, to say the exact opposite. A talk is made of Ibsen’s ‘ideas on morality’ and of his ‘philosophy.’ He has not formulated a single proposition on morality, a single conception of the world and life, that he has not himself either refuted or fittingly ridiculed.

He seems to preach free love, and his eulogy of a licentiousness unchecked by any self-control, regardless of contracts, laws, and morality, has made of him a ‘modern spirit’ in the eyes of Georg Brandes and similar protectors of those ‘youths who wish to amuse themselves a little.’ Mrs. Alving (Ghosts, p. 158), calls a ‘crime’ the act of Pastor Manders in repulsing her, after she has quitted her husband and thrown herself on the pastor’s neck. This highly-strung dame pushes Regina into the arms of Oswald, her son, when in shameless speech he informs her that it would give him pleasure to possess the girl. And this very same Mrs. Alving speaks in terms of the deepest indignation of her dead husband as ‘profligate’ (p. 146), and again designates him in the presence of her son as a ‘broken-down man’ (in the original it is ‘et forfaldent Menneske,’ an epithet usually bestowed on fallen women), and why? Because he had had wanton relations with women! Well, but is it in Ibsen’s opinion permissible, or not permissible, to gratify carnal lust as often as it is awakened? If it is permissible, how does Mrs. Alving come to speak with scorn of her husband? If it is not permissible, how dared she offer herself to Pastor Manders, and be the procuress between Regina and her own half-brother? Or does the moral law hold good for man only, and not for woman? An English proverb says, ‘What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.’ Ibsen evidently does not share the opinion of popular lore. A woman who runs away from her legal husband and pursues a lover (Mrs. Elvsted and Ejlert Lövborg, in Hedda Gabler), or who offers to form an illicit connection with a man, although nothing prevents their marrying without further ado like other rational ratepayers (Mrs. Linden and Krogstad in A Doll’s House)—such women have Ibsen’s entire approbation and sympathy. But if a man seduces a maiden and liberally provides for her subsequent maintenance (Werle and Gina in The Wild Duck), or, again, if he has illicit relations with a married woman (Consul Bernick and the actress Dorf in The Pillars of Society), then it is so heinous a crime that the culprit remains branded his whole life, and is nailed by the poet to the pillory with the cruelty of a mediæval executioner.

The same contradiction finds its expression in another and more general form. At one time Ibsen contends with ferocious, impetuosity that everyone is ‘a law unto himself’ alone, i.e., that[370] he should obey every one of his caprices, nay, even of his diseased impulsions; that, as his commentators idiotically put it, he should (sich auslebe) ‘live out his life.’ In The Pillars of Society Miss Bernick says to Dina (p. 94):

Promise me to make him [her betrothed] happy.

Dina. I will not promise anything. I hate this promising; things must come as they can [i.e., as the circumstances of the moment may suggest to the wayward brain].

Martha. Yes, yes; so they must. You need only remain as you are, true and faithful to yourself.

Dina. That I will, Aunt Martha.


In Rosmersholm, Rosmer says admiringly of the scoundrel Brendel (p. 28): ‘At least he has had the courage to live his life his own way. I don’t think that’s such a small matter after all.’ In the same piece Rebecca complains (p. 97): ‘Rosmersholm has broken me.... Broken me utterly and hopelessly. I had a fresh, undaunted will when I came here. Now I have bent my neck under a strange law.’ And further on (p. 102): ‘It is the Rosmer view of life ... that has infected my will.... and made it sick, enslaved it to laws that had no power over me before.’ Ejlert Lövborg laments in like fashion in Hedda Gabler. ‘But it is this—that I don’t want to live that kind of life either. Not now, over again. It is the courage of life and the defiance of life that she’ (Thea Elvested, with her sweet, loving constraint) ‘has snapped in me.’ Quite in opposition to these views, Ibsen, in his Ghosts, makes Regina proclaim her ‘right to live out her life’ in these words (p. 189): ‘Oh! I really can’t stop out here in the country and wear myself out nursing sick people ... a poor girl must make the best of her young days.... I, too, want to enjoy my life, Mrs. Alving.’ Mrs. Alving replies: ‘Alas! yes.’ This ‘alas’ is bewildering. Alas? Why ‘alas’? Does she not obey her ‘law’ if she satisfies her ‘joy in living,’ and, as she forthwith explains, enters the house of ill-fame for sailors set up by the joiner Engstrand? How can Mrs. Alving utter this ‘alas,’ when she also was ‘obeying her law’ in offering herself as the mistress of Pastor Manders, and since she wished to aid her son in ‘obeying his law,’ when he had set his eyes on Regina? It is because Ibsen, in his lucid moments, feels that there may be something of danger in ‘obeying one’s law,’ and this ‘alas’ of Mrs. Alving escapes him as a confession. In The Wild Duck he ridicules his own dogma in the most liberal style. In that piece there is one Molvig, a candidate for a University degree, who also ‘obeys his law.’ This law prescribes that he shall learn nothing, evade his examinations, and pass his nights in taverns. The scoffer, Relling, asserts (p. 317) that it ‘comes over him like a sort of possession; and then I have to go out on the loose with[371] him. Molvig is a demoniac, you see, ... and demoniac natures are not made to walk straight through the world; they must meander now and then. And in order that there shall be no doubt as to what Relling means by this, he subsequently explains (p. 361): ‘“What the devil do you mean by demoniac?” “It’s only a piece of hocus-pocus I’ve invented to keep up a spark of life in him. But for that the poor harmless creature would have succumbed to self-contempt and despair many a long year ago.”’

That is true. Molvig is a pitiable weakling, unable to conquer his indolence and passion for drink; abandoned to his own devices, he would recognise himself for the miserable creature he is, and despise himself as profoundly as he deserves; but Relling arrives on the scene, and gives his lack of character the title ‘demoniac,’ and now ‘the child has a fine name,’ which Molvig can make a parade of to himself and others. Ibsen does exactly the same thing as his Relling. The weakness of will, incapable of resisting base and pitiable instincts, he praises as the ‘will to live out one’s life,’ as the ‘freedom of a spirit who obeys his own law only,’ and recommends it as the sole rule of life. But, unlike Relling, he is for the most part ignorant of the fact that he is practising a deception (which I by no means regard in Relling’s light as pious and charitable), and believes in his own humbug. That is, for the most part; not always. Here and there, as in The Wild Duck, he recognises his error and scourges it severely; and his inmost feeling is so little influenced by his self-deceptive phrase, fit for a weak-willed degenerate, that he involuntarily and unconsciously betrays, in all his productions, his deep abhorrence of men who ‘obey their own law in order to live out their life.’ He punishes Chamberlain Alving in his son, and makes him cursed by his widow because he has ‘lived out his life.’ He imputes it as a crime to Consul Bernick and the merchant Werle that they have ‘lived out their life,’ the former in sacrificing his brother-in-law Johan to protect himself, and for his intrigue with Mrs. Dorf, the actress; and the latter for allowing Ekdal to bear the blame of his fault, and for seducing Gina. He surrounds with an aureole the glorified heads of Rosmer and Rebecca, because they did not ‘live out their life,’ but, on the contrary, ‘died their death,’ if I may put it so; because they obeyed, not ‘their own law,’ but that of others, the universal moral law that annihilated them. Whenever one of his characters acts in accordance with Ibsen’s doctrine, and does what is agreeable to himself regardless of morals and law, he experiences such contrition and self-torment that he is unable to find calm and joy until he has disburdened his conscience by confession and expiation.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:22 am

Part 3 of 4

‘This living out one’s life’ makes its appearance in Ibsen in the form also of a rigid individualism. The ‘self’ is the only real thing; the ‘I’ must be cherished and developed, as, indeed, Barrès preaches independently of Ibsen. The first duty of every human being is to be just to his ‘I,’ to satisfy its demands, to sacrifice to it every consideration for others. When Nora wishes to abandon her husband, he cries (p. 112):

Only think what people will say about it!

Nora. I cannot take that into consideration. I only know that to go is necessary for me.

Helmer. Oh, it drives one wild! Is this the way you can evade your holiest duties?

Nora. What do you consider my holiest duties?

Helmer. ... Are they not your duties to your husband and your children?

Nora. I have other duties equally sacred.

Helmer. ... What duties do you mean?

Nora. Duties towards myself.

Helmer. Before all else you are a wife and a mother.

Nora. I no longer think so. I think that before all else I am a human being just as you are, or, at least, I will try to become one.


In Ghosts Oswald says to his mother with triumphant brutality (p. 192): ‘I can’t be much taken up with other people. I have enough to do thinking about myself.’ How in the same piece Regina emphasizes her ‘I’ and its rights, we have already seen. In An Enemy of the People, Stockmann proclaims the right of the ‘I’ in face of the majority, and even the race, in these words (p. 283): ‘It is a hideous lie: the doctrine that the multitude, the vulgar herd, the masses, are the pith of the people—that, indeed, they are the people—that the common man, that this ignorant, undeveloped member of society, has the same right to condemn or to sanction, to govern and to rule, as the few people of intellectual power.’ And (p. 312): ‘I only want to drive into the heads of these curs that the Liberals are the worst foes of free men ... that the considerations of expediency turn morality and righteousness upside down until life is simply hideous.... Now I am one of the strongest men upon earth.... You see the fact is that the strongest man upon earth is he who stands most alone.’ But this very Stockmann, who will hear nothing of ‘the multitude, the vulgar herd, the masses,’ as he reiterates with insufferable tautology, who feels, his ‘I’ powerful only in a majestic solitude, calls his fellow-citizens ‘old women who think only of their families,[340] and not of the general good.’ And in the very same piece (A Doll’s House), in which Ibsen evidently bestows loud applause on Nora for declaring that ‘her only duties were to herself,’ and that she ‘could have no consideration for anyone else,’ he stigmatizes her husband as a pitiable, low-spirited weakling, because on his[373] wife’s confession of forgery he first of all thinks of his own reputation only, and hence of his ‘duty to himself,’ his only consideration being for himself, and not for his wife. Here there recurs the same phenomenon as in Ibsen’s notions concerning sexual morality. Unchastity in a man is a crime, but in a woman is permissible. In the same way the rude emphasizing of the ‘I’ is a merit only in the woman. The man has no right to be an egoist. How, for example, Ibsen rails at egoism through Bernick (in The Pillars of Society), whom he makes say naïvely, in reference to his sister Martha, that she ‘is quite insignificant’ (p. 49), and that he does not wish to have her otherwise!

You know, in a large house like ours, it is always well to have some steady-going person like her, whom one can put to anything that may turn up.

Johan. Yes, but she herself?

Bernick. She herself? Why, of course she has enough to interest herself in—Betty and Olaf, and me, you know. People should not think of themselves first, and women least of all.


And how severely Ibsen condemns the egoism of Mrs. Elvsted’s husband (Hedda Gabler), when he puts these bitter words into her mouth (p. 52): ‘He is not really fond of anybody but himself. Perhaps of the children a little!’

But the most remarkable thing about this philosopher of individualism is that he not only expressly condemns egoism in the man as a low vice, but unconsciously also admires disinterestedness in the woman as an angelic perfection. In A Doll’s House (p. 113) he brags that ‘my most sacred duties are towards myself.’ And yet the only touching and charming characters in his pieces with whom this inflexible individualist is successful are the saintly women who live and die for others only—these Hedwigs, Miss Bernicks, Miss Hessels, Aunt Tesmans, etc., who never think of their ‘I,’ but make the sacrifice of all their impulses and wishes to the welfare of others their sole task on earth. This contradiction, violent to the point of absurdity, is very well explained by the nature of Ibsen’s mind. His mystico-religious obsession of voluntary self-sacrifice for others is necessarily stronger than his pseudo-philosophic lucubration on individualism.

Among the ‘moral ideas’ of Ibsen are counted his professed thirst for truth. At least enough has been said and written on this subject. ‘Only just think,’ Helmer says to Nora (A Doll’s House, pp. 44, 45), ‘how a man so conscious of guilt as that must go about everywhere lying, and a hypocrite, and an actor; how he must wear a mask towards his neighbour, and even his wife and children, his own children. That’s the worst, Nora.... Because such a misty atmosphere of lying brings contagion into the whole family.’ ‘Is there no voice in your[374] mother’s heart that forbids you to destroy your son’s ideals?’ asks Pastor Manders in Ghosts (p. 155), when Mrs. Alving has revealed to her son her defunct husband’s ‘immorality.’ To which Mrs. Alving magniloquently replies, ‘But what about the truth?’ In The Pillars of Society, Lona Hessel thus preaches to Consul Bernick (p. 57):

Is it for the sake of the community, then, that for these fifteen years you have stood upon a lie?

Bernick. A lie?... You call that——

Lona. I call it the lie—the threefold lie. First the lie towards me; then the lie towards Betty; then the lie towards Johan.... Is there not something within you that asks you to get clear of the lie?

Bernick. You would have me voluntarily sacrifice my domestic happiness, and my position in society?

Lona. What right have you to stand where you are standing?


And subsequently (p. 70):

Lona. A lie, then, has made you the man you now are?

Bernick. Whom did it hurt, then?...

Lona. You ask whom it hurt? Look into yourself, and see if it has not hurt you.


Bernick then examines himself, and shortly before his confession there takes place a highly edifying dialogue between him and the severe guardian of his conscience (p. 98):

Bernick. Yes, yes, yes; it all comes of the lie....

Lona. Then, why do you not break with all this lying?... What satisfaction does this show and deception give you?

Bernick. ... It is my son I am working for.... There will come a time when truth shall spread through the life of our society, and upon it he shall found a happier life than his father’s.

Lona. With a lie for its groundwork? Reflect what it is you are giving your son for an inheritance.


In An Enemy of the People, words of truth are ever coming from the mouths of the Stockmann family: ‘There’s so much falseness both at home and at school,’ declaims their daughter, Petra. ‘At home you mustn’t speak, and at school you have to stand there and lie to the children.... We have to teach many and many a thing we don’t believe ourselves.... If only I could afford it I’d start a school myself, and things should be very different there.’ The courageous maiden quarrels with an editor who wished to marry her about his want of veracity (p. 255): ‘What I am angry with you for is that you have not acted honestly towards my father. You told him it was only the truth and the good of the community you cared about.... You are not the man you pretend to be. And I shall never forgive you—never!’ ‘The whole of our developing social life,’ cries the father Stockmann in his turn (p. 242), ‘is rooted in a lie.’ And later on (p. 287) ‘Yes, I love my native town so well I would rather ruin it than see it flourishing upon a lie.... All men who live upon lies must be exterminated like vermin. You’ll poison the whole country in time; you’ll bring it to such[375] a pass that the whole country will deserve to perish.’ Now, all this would certainly be very fine, if we did not know that this fervent worship of truth is only one of the forms under which there appears in Ibsen’s consciousness the mystico-religious obsession of the sacrament of confession, and also, if he were not careful, conformably with his habit, to destroy any too hasty belief in the sincerity of his phraseology by himself ridiculing it. In Gregers Werle he has created the best caricature of his men of truth. Gregers speaks in exactly the same terms as Lona Hessel, Petra Stockmann, and her father, but in his mouth the words are intended to excite laughter: ‘And look at this confiding nature, this great child,’ he says of his friend Hjalmar (p. 41). ‘See him enveloped in a net of perfidy, living under the same roof as a woman of that kind, not suspecting that his home, as he calls it, rests upon a lie.... At length I see an object in life.’ This object consists in operating on Hjalmar’s moral cataract. And he does it, too. ‘You are sunk in a poisoned quagmire, Hjalmar,’ Gregers says to him (p. 101). ‘You have an insidious disease within you, and you’ve sunk down to die in the dark.... Don’t be afraid; I will try to help you up again. I, too, have a mission in life now.’ And shortly afterwards he says to the father: ‘But Hjalmar I can rescue from all the falsehood and deception that are bringing him to ruin.’ The scoffer Relling treats no worse than he deserves the idiot who, in fulfilling his ‘mission in life’ disturbs the peace between Hjalmar and his wife, destroys their comfortable home, and drives Hedwig to her death.

Yours is a complicated case ... that troublesome integrity-fever [he says to him—p. 360]....

I’m fostering the life-illusion [literally ‘the life-lie’] in him.

Gregers. Life-illusion? Is that what you said?

Relling. Yes, I said illusion. For illusion, you know, is the stimulating principle.... Rob the average man of his life-illusion, and you rob him of his happiness at the same time.


Now, what is Ibsen’s real opinion? Is a man to strive for truth, or to swelter in deceit? Is Ibsen with Stockmann or with Relling? Ibsen owes us an answer to these questions, or, rather, he replies to them affirmatively and negatively with equal ardour and equal poetic power.

Another ‘moral idea’ of Ibsen, about which his choristers chatter most loudly, is that of ‘true marriage.’ It is certainly not easy to discover what his mystic brain conceives by these mysterious words, but it is nevertheless possible to guess it from the hundred obscure notions in his plays. He does not seem to approve of the idea that the woman should regard marriage as merely a means of maintenance. In nearly all his pieces he comes to this conclusion with the monotony peculiar to him. In Ghosts, Mrs. Alving ascribes her whole life’s unhappiness[376] to the fact that she married the chamberlain for his money—that she sold herself. ‘The sums which I have spent upon the orphanage year by year make up the amount—I have reckoned it up precisely—the amount which made Lieutenant Alving a good match in his day.... It was the purchase-money. I do not choose that money should pass into Oswald’s hands’ (p. 149). In The Lady from the Sea, Ellida sings the same song (p. 139): ‘It could bring nothing but unhappiness, after the way in which we came together.... Yes, we are (doing so), or, at least, we suppress the truth. For the truth ... is, that you came out there and bought me.... I was not a bit better than you. I accepted the bargain—sold myself to you. I was so helpless and bewildered, and so absolutely alone. Oh, it was so natural I should accept the bargain when you came and proposed to provide for me all my life.’ In almost the same words Hedda says (Hedda Gabler, p. 86): ‘And then he would go and make such a tremendous fuss about being allowed to provide for me. I did not know why I should not accept it.’ She did not know why; but her inner feverishness and restlessness, her final suicide, are the consequence of her having allowed herself to be ‘provided for.’ The regard paid to the ‘being provided for’ became also the lifelong misery of another woman in the same piece—Mrs. Elvsted. She went originally as ‘governess in the house of her future husband.’ She subsequently undertook the management of the household. Then she allowed herself to be married, although ‘everything around him is distasteful to me,’ and ‘we do not possess a thought in common.’ Ibsen condemns the man who marries for money not less than the woman who allows herself to be ‘provided for.’ The cause of Bernick’s moral downfall (The Pillars of Society, p. 56), is chiefly that he did not marry Lona Hessel, whom he loved, but another. ‘It was for no new fancy that I broke with you; it was entirely for the sake of the money.’

Hence one should not marry for gain. That is a principle to which every rational and moral man will subscribe. But why should one marry? The most reasonable answer can only be, ‘From inclination.’ But Ibsen will have none of this either. The marriage of Nora and Helmer is purely a love-match. It leads to a sudden rupture. Wangel (The Lady from the Sea) has married Ellida from inclination. She expressly affirms it (p. 108): ‘You had only seen me and spoken to me a few times. Then you wanted me, and so....’ And then she feels herself a stranger to him, and wishes to leave him. So Mrs. Alving, Ellida, Wangel, Hedda Gabler, Mrs. Elvsted, marry from self-interest, and atone for it by the happiness of their life. Nora marries for love, and becomes profoundly[377] unhappy. Consul Bernick marries a girl because she is rich, and pays for this fault with his moral downfall. Dr. Wangel marries a girl because she pleases him, and as a reward she wishes to quit him and her home. What conclusion is to be drawn from all this? That marriage from prudence is bad, and marriage from love no better? That marriage in general is worth nothing, and should be abolished? That would be at least an inference and a solution. It is not there that Ibsen arrives. Inclination does not suffice, even if, as in the case of Nora, it is reciprocal. Something else is still necessary—the man must become the educator of his wife. He must help her intellectually. He must let her participate in all his concerns, make of her a companion possessing equal rights, and have unlimited confidence in her. Otherwise she always remains a stranger in her house. Otherwise the marriage is no ‘true marriage.’ ‘I have no right to claim my husband wholly and solely for myself,’ Ellida confesses (The Lady from the Sea, P. 57). ‘Why, I, too, live in something from which others are shut out.’ In the same piece Wangel blames himself in this way (p. 130): ‘I ought to have been at once a father to her and a guide; I ought to have done my best to develop and enlighten her mind. Unfortunately, nothing ever came of that.... I preferred her just as she was.’ In The Pillars of Society Mrs. Bernick bemoans (p. 141): ‘For many years I believed that I had at one time possessed you and lost you again. Now I know that I have never possessed you.’ And Lona Hessel draws the moral from this story (p. 97):

And do you never think what she might have been to you—she, whom you chose in my stead?

Bernick. I know, at any rate, that she has been to me nothing of what I required.

Lona. Because you have never shared your life-work with her; because you have never placed her in a free and true relation to you.


In Rosmersholm Rector Kroll has treated his wife in the same way; he has intellectually suppressed her, and is painfully surprised when she finally revolts against the domestic tyrant who has extinguished her mental light (p. 14). ‘My wife, who all her life long has shared my opinions and concurred in my views both in great things and small, is actually inclined to side with the children on many points. And she blames me for what has happened. She says I tyrannize over the children. As if it weren’t necessary to. Well, you see how my house is divided against itself. But, of course, I say as little about it as possible. It’s best to keep such things quiet.’

Upon this point also there may be complete agreement. Most assuredly should marriage be not merely a union of bodies, but also a community of minds; most assuredly should[378] the man help and educate the wife intellectually, although it is to be remarked that this rôle of teacher and guardian assigned with justice by Ibsen to the man, decisively excludes the full intellectual equality of the two married parties equally claimed by him. But how can one reconcile with these notions about the true relation between the man and his wife Nora’s words to her husband (A Doll’s House, p. 111): ‘I must first try to educate myself. In that you are not the man to help me. I must set to work alone. And that is why I am going away from you now.... I must be thrown entirely upon myself’? We rub our eyes and ask ourselves if we have read aright. What, then, is the duty of the husband in ‘true marriage’? Shall he help his wife intellectually? Wangel, Mrs. Bernick, Lona, Mrs. Kroll, say so. But Nora furiously denies it, and repels all assistance. Farà da se! She will educate and form herself. As though this contradiction were not already sufficiently bewildering, Ibsen still further mocks those pitiable souls, who would fain obtain rules of morality from him, when, in The Wild Duck, he derides, as he is wont, all that he has preached on the subject of ‘true marriage’ in all the rest of his pieces. In that production a delicious dialogue is brought about between the malevolent idiot Gregers and the scoffer Relling (p. 337):

Gregers. [I want] to lay the foundations of a true marriage.

Relling. So you don’t find Ekdal’s marriage good enough as it is?

Gregers. No doubt it’s as good a marriage as most others, worse luck. But a true marriage it has never been.

Hjalmar. You have never had eyes for the claims of the ideal, Relling.

Relling. All rubbish, my boy! But, excuse me, Mr. Werle, how many ... true marriages have you seen in the course of your life?

Gregers. Scarcely a single one.

Relling. Nor I, either.


And still more incisive is the mockery contained in Hjalmar’s words (p. 345): ‘Well, then, isn’t it exasperating to think that it’s not I, but he (Werle, senior), who will realize the true marriage?... Isn’t the marriage between your father and Mrs. Sœrby founded upon complete confidence, upon entire and unreserved candour on both sides? They hide nothing from each other. Their relation is based, if I may put it so’ (!) ‘on mutual confession and absolution.’ Hence no one has yet seen a ‘true marriage’; and when by chance this miracle does happen it is fulfilled in the case of Mr. Werle and Mrs. Sœrby—Mr. Werle, who confesses to his wife that he has seduced young girls and sent old friends to prison in his place—Mrs. Sœrby, who confides to her husband that she has had illicit relations with every imaginable sort of man. It is a tame imitation of the scene in Raskolnikow by Dostojewski, where the assassin and the prostitute, after a contrite confession, unite their soiled[379] and broken lives; except that in Ibsen the scene is stripped of its sombre grandeur and lowered to the ridiculous and vulgar.

With Ibsen, when women discover that they are not living in ‘true marriage,’ their husband suddenly becomes ‘a strange man,’ and, without further ceremony, they abandon their home and their children, some, like Nora, ‘to return to their birthplace,’ where ‘it will be easier for me to get something to do of one sort or another’; others, like Ellida, without giving a thought to what will become of them; others, again, like Mrs. Alving and Hedda Gabler, to rush full speed to a lover and throw themselves on his neck. Ibsen has even deliciously parodied this last departure, and in a doubly grotesque fashion, for he assigns the laughable rôle of the tragic runaway to a man. ‘I must out into the snow and tempest,’ declaims Hjalmar (The Wild Duck, p. 166), ‘and seek from house to house a shelter for my old father and myself.’ And he really goes, but naturally only to return home the next day, crestfallen, but stout-hearted, to breakfast. Truly nothing more need be said against the idiocy of Nora’s high-flown leave-taking, which has become the gospel for the hysterical of both sexes, since Ibsen spared us this trouble in creating his Hjalmar.

We have not yet done with Ibsen’s drivel on the subject of marriage. He seems to exact that no girl should marry before she is fully matured, and possesses an experience of life and a knowledge of the world and of men (A Dolls House, p. 111):

Nora. And I—how have I been prepared to educate the children?... For that task I am not ready.... I must first try to educate myself.... I cannot be satisfied any longer with what most people say, and with what is in books.

Helmer. You don’t understand the society in which you live.

Nora. No, no more I do. But now I will set to work and learn it.


This necessary maturity the young girl best acquires by going in quest of adventures, by becoming closely acquainted with the largest possible number of persons, to make a trial, if possible, of a few men before binding herself definitely. A young girl is thoroughly prepared for marriage when she has attained to a respectable age, managed a few households, perhaps also given birth to sundry children, and in this way proved to herself and others that she understands the duties of a housewife and a mother. Ibsen does not expressly say this, but it is the only reasonable conclusion which can be deduced from the whole series of his plays. The great reformer has no suspicion that he is here preaching something long ago tried by mankind and rejected as unsuitable, or not more suitable. Experimental marriage for a longer or shorter period, the preference for brides endowed with a rich experience in love-affairs and sundry children, all this has already existed. Ibsen may learn[380] all that he needs on this subject from his half-compatriot, Professor Westermarck.[341] But he would be no degenerate if he did not regard as progress the return to conditions of the most primitive character long since gone by, and if he did not mistake the far-away past for the future.

Let us recapitulate his marriage-canon as gained from his dramas. There should be no marriage from interest (Hedda, Mrs. Alving, Bernick, etc.). There should be no marriage from love (Nora, Wangel). A marriage of prudence is not a true marriage. But to marry because each pleases the other is equally good for nothing. To enter into matrimony with the full approbation of reason, there should be first of all a thorough knowledge of each other by the contracting parties (Ellida). The man should be the woman’s instructor and educator (Wangel, Bernick). The wife should not allow herself to be instructed and educated by the husband, but acquire the necessary knowledge quite alone (Nora). If the wife discovers that her marriage is not a ‘true marriage,’ she leaves the husband, for he is a stranger (Nora, Ellida). She also abandons her children, for children which she has had by a stranger are naturally strangers also. She must, however, at the same time remain with the husband, and endeavour to transform him from a stranger into her own husband (Mrs. Bernick). Marriage is not intended permanently to unite two beings. When anything in the one is not agreeable to the other, they return the ring and go their respective ways (Nora, Mr. Alving, Ellida, Mrs. Elvsted). If a man abandons his wife he commits a heinous crime (Bernick, Werle). And, to sum up, there is no true marriage (Relling). This is Ibsen’s doctrine concerning marriage. It leaves nothing to be desired in the matter of clearness. It amply suffices for the diagnosis of the state of the Norwegian poet’s intellect.

Independently of his religious obsessions and his bewildering contradictions, Ibsen’s mysticism reveals itself, step by step, in absurdities of which a healthy intellect would be incapable. We have seen in The Lady from the Sea that Ellida wishes to abandon her husband, because her marriage is not a true one, and because her husband has become a stranger to her. Why is he a stranger to her? Because he has married her without mutual close acquaintance. ‘You had only seen me and spoken a few words to me.’ She ought not to have let herself be provided for. ‘Rather the meanest labour, rather the most wretched surroundings, so long as they were the result of free will, of free choice.’ From this one can only reasonably conclude that Ellida is of the opinion no true marriage is possible, unless the[381] woman possesses a thorough knowledge of her suitor and has had full freedom in her choice. She is convinced that these conditions existed in the case of the first claimant for her hand. ‘The first—that might have been a complete and real marriage.’ Now, the same Ellida, a few pages before (78), says that she knew absolutely nothing concerning her lover; she did not even know his name, and, as a matter of fact, he is spoken of throughout the piece only as ‘the stranger.’

Wangel. What else do you know about him?

Ellida. Only that he went to sea very young; and that he had been on long voyages.

Wangel. Is there nothing more?

Ellida. No; we never spoke of such things.

Wangel. Of what did you speak, then?

Ellida. About the sea!


And she betrothed herself to him

Because he said I must.

Wangel. You must? Had you no will of your own, then?

Ellida. Not when he was near.


So, then, Ellida is forced to abandon Wangel for the reason that, previously to her marriage with him, she did not thoroughly know him, and she must go to ‘the stranger,’ of whom she knows nothing. Her marriage with Wangel is no marriage, because she did not enter into it with perfect freedom of will, but the marriage with ‘the stranger’ will be ‘perfect and pure,’ although when she betrothed herself to him she had ‘no will of her own.’ After this example of his mental maze, it is truly humiliating to be obliged to waste more words concerning the intellectual state of such a man. But since this man is foisted by fools and fanatics to the rank of a great moralist and poet of the future, the psychiatrical observer must not spare himself the labour of referring to his other absurdities.

In this same Lady from the Sea, Ellida renounces her project of leaving her husband Wangel, and going away with the ‘stranger,’ as soon as Wangel says ‘with aching heart’: ‘Now you can choose your own path in perfect freedom.’ She remains with Wangel. She chooses him. ‘Whence came the change?’ asks Wangel and the reader with him. ‘Ah, don’t you understand,’ Ellida gushingly replies, ‘that the change came—was bound to come—when I could choose in freedom!’ (p. 141). This second choice, then, is intended to form a complete contrast to the first, in which Ellida plighted her troth to Wangel. But all the conditions, without a single exception, have remained the same. Ellida is now free because Wangel expressly gives her her freedom; but she was still freer on the first occasion, because Wangel had as yet no rights over her, and did not need to begin by setting her free. As little was external coercion exercised on her at the betrothal as subsequently after[382] marriage. Her resolution depended then, as now, entirely on herself. If at the betrothal she felt herself fettered, it was, as she herself explains, because she was at that time poor, and allowed herself to be enticed by the alluring prospect of being provided for. But in this respect nothing has changed. She has come into no property since her marriage, so far as we know from Ibsen. She is just as poor as she ever was. If she quits Wangel, she will sink once more into the penury she found insupportable when a young girl. If she remains with him, she is quite as much provided for as she hoped to be when she betrothed herself to him. Wherein, then, lies the contrast between her former want of liberty and her present freedom to explain the change? There is none. It exists in the confused thought of Ibsen alone. If the whole of this piratical story about Ellida, Wangel, and the stranger is intended to mean, or to prove, anything, it can only be that a woman must first live a few years with her husband on trial before she can bind herself definitively; and that her decision may be valid, she is to be free at the end of the period of probation to go or to stay. The only meaning of the piece is, therefore, pure idiocy—experimental marriage.

We find the same absurdity repeated, in the fundamental idea, in the premises and deductions of nearly all his plays. In Ghosts Oswald Alving’s disease is represented as a chastisement for the sins of his father, and for the moral weakness of his mother in marrying for self-interest a man she did not love. Now, Oswald’s state is the consequence of a complaint which may be contracted without any depravity whatsoever. It is a silly antiquated idea of the bigoted members of societies for the suppression of immorality that a contagious disease is the consequence and punishment of licentiousness. Doctors know better than that. They know hundreds—nay, thousands—of cases where a young man is infected for his whole life, for no other act than one which, with the views now prevailing, is looked upon as venial. Even holy matrimony is no protection against such a misfortune, to say nothing of the cases where doctors, nurses, etc., have contracted the malady in the discharge of their duties, and without carnal transgression. Ibsen’s drivel proves nothing of that which, according to him, it should prove. Chamberlain Alving might be a monster of immorality without for that reason falling ill, or having an insane son; and his son could be insane without more culpability on the part of the father than is the case with all men who have been unchaste before marriage. Ibsen, however, gives obtrusive evidence of having had no wish to write a tract in praise of continence, by making Mrs. Alving throw herself into the arms of Pastor Manders, and by making the mother the[383] intermediary of an illicit union out of wedlock between the son and his own sister, putting, moreover, into the mouth of Oswald a panegyric on concubinage—one of the most incredible things met with in the incredible Ibsen. ‘What are they to do?’ replies Oswald Alving to the horrified pastor. ‘A poor young artist—a poor young girl. It costs a lot of money to get married.’ I can only suppose that the innocent Norwegian villager has never with his own bodily eyes seen a ‘free union,’ and that he has drawn his idea of one from the depths of a nature filled with anarchistic rage against the existing order of things. An inhabitant of any large town, having daily opportunities for getting insight into dozens and hundreds of free unions, will burst into hearty laughter over Ibsen’s infantine fantasies, worthy of a lascivious schoolboy. In no country in the world does civil marriage cost more than a trifling sum, very much less than the first repast offered by a young fellow to the girl he has persuaded to live with him; and religious marriage, far from costing anything, brings to the bridal couple a donation in money, clothes, and household articles, if they are indelicate enough to accept them. Pious societies, which expend large sums of money in legalizing free unions, exist everywhere. When persons form unions without the aid of the civil law or of priests, it is probably never for the purpose of saving the expense of marriage, but either from culpable levity, or because either one or other of them makes a mental reservation not to bind him or herself, but to enjoy something agreeable without undertaking any serious duties; or, finally, in the few cases which a moral man may approve, or, at least, excuse, because on one side or the other there exists some legal obstacle above which they raise themselves, strong in love, and justified in their own eyes by the earnestness of their intention to be faithful to each other unto death.

But to return from this subordinate absurdity to the capital absurdity of the piece. Chamberlain Alving is punished for his illicit indulgence in carnal pleasure, in his own body, and in his children Oswald and Regina. That is very edifying, and would, doubtless, meet with approbation at a conference of clergymen, although nonsensical and inaccurate to the highest degree. We will only mention in passing that Ibsen constantly recommends and glorifies unchastity, the ‘living out one’s life.’ But what inference does Mrs. Alving draw from the case of her husband? That all should remain chaste and pure, an idea worked out by Bjornson in his Glove? No. She is led by it to the conclusion that the existing order of morals and the law are bad. ‘Oh, that perpetual law and order!’ she exclaims (p. 154); ‘I often think it is that which does all the mischief here in the world.... I can endure all this constraint[384] and cowardice no longer. It is too much for me. I must work my way out to freedom.’ What in the world has Alving’s story to do with ‘law and order?’ and how does ‘freedom’ enter into this Credo? What connection with the piece have the silly speeches of this woman, unless it be that they are lugged in to tickle the radical patrons of the gallery into applause. In Tahiti neither ‘order’ nor ‘morals’ reign in the sense given them by Mrs. Alving. There the brown beauties have all the ‘freedom’ to which Mrs. Alving wishes to ‘work her way out,’ and the men so ‘live out their lives’ that ships’ officers, not otherwise modest, avert their eyes with shame. And in that very region Chamberlain Alving’s disease is so widespread that, according to Ibsen’s medical theory, all the young Tahitians must be Oswalds.

But this is a constant habit of Ibsen’s, evidenced in all his pieces. He puts into the mouth of his characters phrases used for effect by orators in popular meetings of the lowest class, having nothing in the least to do with the piece. ‘I don’t know what religion is,’ Nora says in the well-known scene where she leaves her husband (p. 114). ‘... I know nothing but what our clergyman told me when I was confirmed. He explained that religion was this and that. When I have got quite away from here and am all by myself, then I will examine that matter too. I will see whether what our clergyman taught is true.... I have now learnt, too, that the laws are different from what I thought they were; but I can’t convince myself that they are right.’ Now her case has no relation to the religious doctrine of Pastor Hansen and the excellence or badness of the laws. No law in the world concedes the right to a child to sign her father’s name to a cheque without his knowledge, and all the laws of the world not only permit but compel a judge to inquire into the motives of every misdemeanour, although Ibsen makes Krogstad the mouthpiece of this idiocy (p. 39): ‘The laws inquire little into motives.’ The whole of this scene, in view of which, however, the piece was written, is foreign to the play, and does not originally spring from it. If Nora wishes to abandon her husband, it can only be on the supposition that she has discovered he does not love her so devotedly as she had wished and hoped. The hysterical fool, however, utters an inflammatory diatribe against religion, law, and society (which are profoundly innocent of the weakness of character and absence of love in her husband), and departs like a feminine Coriolanus shaking her fist at her fatherland. In The Pillars of Society Bernick, wishing to confess his own baseness, introduces his avowal with the words (p. 110): ‘Let everyone examine himself, and let us realize the prediction that from this evening we begin a new time. The old, with its tinsel, its hypocrisy, its[385] hollowness, its lying propriety, and its pitiful cowardice, shall lie behind us like a museum,’ etc. ‘Speak for yourself, Bernick, speak for yourself,’ one might well call out to the old wind-bag, who in this sermonizing tone thus generalizes his own individual case. ‘I wish to speak of the great discovery that I have made within the last few days,’ exclaims Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, ‘the discovery that all our spiritual sources of life are poisoned, and that our whole bourgeois society rests upon a soil teeming with the pestilence of lies.’ That may in itself be true; but nothing in the piece gives Stockmann the right to arrive reasonably at this conclusion. Even in Plato’s republic it might happen that a ragamuffin, more foolish for that matter than wicked, should refuse to cleanse an infected spring, and only a fool could deduce from this single fact, and from the conduct of a clique of Philistines in an impossible Norwegian village, the general proposition that ‘our whole bourgeois society rests upon a soil teeming with the pestilence of lies.’ In Rosmersholm, Brendel says in an obscurely profound prophetic tone, which shudders with foreboding (p. 23): ‘We live in a tempestuous, an equinoctial age.’ This expression also, true enough in itself, strikes one like a blow in the eye in the place where it occurs, for Rosmersholm has no connection with any definite period of time; and it is not necessary to change a single essential word in the piece, in order to transport it at pleasure to the Middle Ages, or the age of the Roman emperors, to China, or the land of the Incas—to any age or any land where there are hysterical women and idiotic men.

We are familiar with the method pursued by brawlers who wish to pick a quarrel: ‘Sir, why did you look at me in that way?’ ‘Pardon me, I did not look at you.’ ‘What! you say, then, that I lie?’ ‘I said nothing of the sort.’ ‘You give me the lie a second time. You must give me satisfaction.’ This is Ibsen’s method. What he wishes is to denounce society, the state, religion, law, and morals in anarchistic phrases. Instead, however, of publishing them like Nietzsche, in brochures, he sticks them into his pieces at haphazard, where they appear as unexpectedly as the couplets sung in the naïve farces of our fathers. Cleanse Ibsen’s dramas of these pasted-on phrases, and even a Brandes will no longer be able to trumpet them as ‘modern’ productions; there will remain only a tissue of absurdities, belonging to no time or place, in which here and there emerge single poetically fine scenes and accessory figures, not changing in the least the atrociousness of the whole. In fact, Ibsen always begins by finding some thesis—i.e., some anarchist phrase. Then he tries to find out beings and events which embody and prove his thesis, for which task, however, his poetical power, and, above all, his knowledge of life and men, are insufficient. For he goes through the world without[386] seeing it, and his glance is always turned inward on himself. In contradiction to the saying of the poet, ‘All that is human is alien to him,’ and his own ‘I’ alone occupies him and absorbs his attention. He himself proclaims this in a well-known poem wherein he says, ‘Life is a battle with the ghost in the vaults of the heart and brain. To be a poet is to hold judgment day over one’s own self.’[342]

The ‘ghost in the heart and brain’ is the obsessions and impulses in conflict with which the life of the higher degenerate is certainly spent. It is as clear as day that a poem, which is nothing but a ‘judgment day’ of the poet over himself, cannot be a mirror of universal human life, freely and broadly flowing, but simply the intricate arabesques adorning the walls of a distorted, isolated existence. He sees the image of the world with the eye of an insect; a diminutive single feature which shows itself to one of the polished facets of such a discoidal eye, and which he perchance perceives, he firmly seizes, and renders with distinctness. But he does not comprehend its connection with the whole phenomenon, and his organ of vision is not able to span a large comprehensive picture. This explains the fidelity to nature in petty details and quite accessory figures, while the chief events and central characters are always astonishingly absurd and alien to all the realities of the world.

It is in Brand that Ibsen’s absurdity apparently achieves its greatest triumph. Northern critics have reiterated ad nauseam that this silly piece is a dramatic translation of Kierkegaard’s crazy ‘Either-Or.’ Ibsen shows a fool who wishes to be ‘all or nothing,’ and who preaches the same to his fellow-citizens. What he especially understands by these high-sounding words the piece nowhere reveals by a single syllable. Brand, however, succeeds in infecting his fellow-citizens with his madness, and one fine day they sally forth from the village and are led by him into impassable mountain solitudes. What his purpose is no one knows or suspects. The sexton, who seems to be somewhat less crazy than the others, finally becomes uneasy concerning this wholly senseless mountain climbing, and asks whither Brand is really leading them, and what may be the object of this scramble. Whereupon Brand gives him the following wonderful information (p. 151): ‘How long will the struggle last?’ (viz., the climbing, for there is no other struggle in this Act). ‘It lasts until life’s end. Until you have sacrificed all; until you are freed from your compact; until that which you may wish for you shall wish for unswervingly.’ (What[387] this is which is to be wished for is not explained.) ‘Until every doubt shall have vanished and nothing separates you from the All or Nothing. And your sacrifices? All the gods which with you take the place of the eternal God; the shining golden chains of slavery, together with the beds of your languid slothfulness. The reward of victory? Unity of will, activity of faith, pureness of soul.’ Naturally on listening to this ranting the good people ‘come to their senses and go home,’ but the lunatic Brand is offended because his fellow-citizens do not want to pant uphill in order to ‘wish for something unswervingly,’ to attain to ‘all or nothing,’ and to arrive at ‘unity of will.’ For it is ‘the all’ which seems to inhabit mountains; not merely freedom, which an early poet sought for there. (‘Liberty dwells in the mountains,’ Schiller has said.)

And yet Brand is a remarkable figure. In him Ibsen has unconsciously created a very instructive type of those deranged beings who run, speak, and act at the bidding of a ruling impulse,[343] who with furious passion are continually and reiteratingly talking of ‘the goal’ which they wish to attain, but who neither themselves have a suspicion of what this goal really is, nor are in a position to indicate it to others in an intelligible way. Brand thinks the power which impels him is his inflexible iron will. It is in reality his inflexible iron impulsion which his consciousness in vain seeks to grasp and to interpret by the aid of a flood of unintelligible words.

Ibsen’s absurdity is not always so clearly apparent as in the examples cited. It frequently manifests itself in a blurred and indefinite phrase, plainly expressing the state of a mind which endeavours to formulate in words a nebulous representation springing up in it, but which lacks the necessary power and loses itself in mechanical mutterings void of sense. There are three sorts of phrases of this kind to be distinguished in Ibsen. One kind say absolutely nothing, and contain no more of an idea than the ‘tra-la-la’ sung to a song of which one has forgotten the words. They are a symptom of a temporary arrest of function[344] in the cerebral centres of ideation, and appear in healthy persons also in a state of extreme fatigue, under the form of incidental embarrassment, causing hesitation in speech. In persons suffering from hereditary exhaustion they are continuously present. Another kind affect an appearance of profundity and significant allusions, but exact observation recognises[388] them as an empty jingle of words devoid of all import. Finally, the third kind are such evident and unequivocal idiocy that even unprofessional listeners regard each other in consternation, and would feel it to be their duty to give his family a gentle hint if they heard anything of the kind from one of their table companions at the habitual café. I will give some illustrations of each of these three kinds of phraseology.

Firstly, phrases saying absolutely nothing, interpolated between intelligible words, and indicating a temporary paralysis of the centres of ideation.

In The Lady from the Sea (p. 25) Lyngstrand says: ‘I am to a certain extent a little infirm.’[345] This ‘to a certain extent’ is admirable! Lyngstrand, a sculptor, is speaking of his artistic projects (p. 51):

As soon as I can set about it, I am going to try if I can produce a great work—a group, as they call it.

Arnholm. Is there anything else?

Lyngstrand. Yes, there is to be another figure—a sort of apparition, as they say.


As Ibsen makes Lyngstrand a fool, it might be believed that he intentionally put these idiotic turns of expression into the sculptor’s mouth. But in Hedda Gabler, Brack, a sharp and clever bon vivant, says (p. 87): ‘But as far as regards myself, you know very well that I have always entertained a—a certain respect for the marriage tie, generally speaking, Mrs. Hedda.’ In Rosmersholm Brendel says (p. 24): ‘So you see when golden dreams descended and enwrapped me ... I fashioned them into poems, into visions, into pictures—in the rough, as it were, you understand. Oh, what pleasures, what intoxications I have enjoyed in my time! The mysterious bliss of creation—in the rough, as I said.’ Rector Kroll says (p. 18): ‘A family that now soon for some centuries has held its place as the first in the land.’[346] ‘Now soon for some centuries’! That means that it is not yet ‘some centuries,’ but ‘soon’ will be ‘some centuries.’ Hence ‘soon’ must include in itself ‘some centuries.’ By what miracle? In The Wild Duck we have the intentionally, but, in their exaggeration impossibly, idiotic conversations of the ‘fat,’ ‘bald,’ and ‘short-sighted’ gentlemen in the first act, but also this remark by Gina, who is in no way depicted as an idiot (p. 270):

Are you glad when you have some good news to tell father when he comes home in the evening?

Hedwig. Yes, for then we have a pleasanter time.

Gina. Yes, there is something [true][347] in that!!


In the conversation about the wild duck between Ekdal, Gregers and Hjalmar we read (p. 289):

Ekdal. He was out in a boat, you see, and he shot her. But father’s sight is pretty bad now. H’m; he only wounded her.

Gregers. Ah! she got a couple of shot in her body, I suppose.

Hjalmar. Yes, two or three....

Gregers. And she thrives all right in the garret there?

Hjalmar. Yes, wonderfully well. She’s got fat. She’s been in there so long now that she’s forgotten her natural wild life, and it all depends on that.

Gregers. You’re right there, Hjalmar.


And in a dialogue between Hedwig and Gregers Werle (p. 305):

Hedwig. ... If I had learnt basket-making, I could have made the new basket for the wild duck.

Gregers. So you could; and it was, strictly speaking, your business, wasn’t it?

Hedwig. Yes, for she’s my wild duck.

Gregers. Of course she is!


Now for some examples of phrases which sound excessively profound, but in reality express nothing, or mere foolishness.

In A Doll’s House (p. 25) Mrs. Linden expresses the opinion: ‘Well, after all, it is better to open the door to the sick, and get them safe in;’ to which Rank significantly replies: ‘Yes, so people say. And it is that very consideration which turns society into a hospital.’ What does this meditative and oracular speech mean? Is it Rank’s opinion that society is a hospital because it cares for its sick, and that it would be healthy if its sick were not cared for? Would the untended sick be any less sick? If he believes that he believes an idiocy. Or are the sick to be left to die uncared for, and in this manner got rid of? If he preaches that, he preaches a barbarism and a crime, and that is not in accordance with Rank’s character as Ibsen depicts him. We may turn and twist the vague, mysterious words as we will, we shall always find either stupidity or want of meaning.

In Rosmersholm, Rosmer (p. 30) wishes to ‘devote all his life and all his energies to this one thing—the creation of a true democracy in this country.’ And, wonderful to relate, the persons to whom Rosmer says these words all seem to comprehend what the ‘true democracy’ is. Without being asked, Rosmer offers, besides, some explanation of his Pythian utterance: ‘I want to awaken the democracy to its true task—that of making all the people of this country noblemen ... by setting free their minds and purifying their wills.... I will only try to arouse them to their task. They themselves must accomplish it ... by their own strength. There is no other.... Peace and joy and mutual forbearance must once more enter[390] into their souls.’ Rebecca repeats to him his programme (p. 62):

You were to set resolutely to work in the world—the living world of to-day, as you said. You were to go as a messenger of emancipation from home to home; to win over minds and wills; to create noble men around you in wider and wider circles. Noblemen.

Rosmer. Joyful noblemen.

Rebecca. Yes, joyful.

Rosmer. For it is joy that ennobles the mind.


It is impossible to avoid calling up a comic picture of Rosmer going ‘from home to home’ ‘in wider and wider circles,’ and making the persons before whom he talks into ‘joyful noblemen,’ while he ‘awakens’ them and ‘purifies their wills,’ and thus ‘creates a true democracy.’ This rigmarole is, it is true, incomprehensible; but, at all events, it must be something agreeable, for Rosmer expressly says that he needs ‘joy’ to create ‘noblemen.’ And in spite of this Rebecca suddenly discovers (p. 102): ‘The Rosmer view of life ennobles, but it kills happiness.’ What! Rosmer kill happiness when he ‘goes from home to home,’ awakening, winning, making people free, etc., and creating joyful noblemen? The word ‘joyful’ includes, at least, something of happiness, and yet the education of men to ‘joyful noblemen’ is to kill happiness? Rosmer finds (p. 97) ‘the work of ennobling men’s minds is not for him. And, besides, it is so hopeless in itself.’ This is in a measure intelligible, though it is not stated from what experience Rosmer has been led to such a change in his views. But quite beyond comprehension is Rebecca’s speech about the fatal influence of ‘the Rosmer view of life.’ In Ghosts, Mrs. Alving endeavours to explain her defunct husband’s vagaries in this balderdash (p. 187): ‘When he was a young lieutenant, he was brimming over with the joy of life. It was like a breezy day only to look at him. And what exuberant strength and vitality there was in him! And then, child of joy as he was—for he was like a child at the time—he had to live here at home in a half-grown town, which had no joys to offer him, but only amusements. He had no object in life, but only an office. He had no work into which he could throw himself heart and soul; he had only business. He had not a single comrade that knew what the joy of life meant, only loungers and boon companions.’ These antitheses seem to have something in them; but if we seriously set about hunting for a definite idea in them, they vanish in smoke. ‘Object in life—office’—‘work—business’—‘comrades—boon companions,’ are not in themselves oppositions, but become such through the individual. With a decent man they are perfectly coincident; with a base man they fall into opposition. A large or a small[391] town has nothing to do with it. For Kant in the small town of Kœnigsberg, in the last century, the ‘office’ was ‘the object in life,’ ‘work’ was ‘business,’ and he so chose his ‘boon companions’ that they were at the same time his ‘comrades,’ as far, indeed, as he could have such. And, on the other hand, there is, in the largest metropolis, no occupation and no circle of men in which a degenerate, burdened with his disorder, could feel at ease and in inward harmony.

In Hedda Gabler we find quite a multitude of such words, apparently saying much, but in reality saying nothing. ‘It was the passion for life in you!’ exclaims Lövborg to Hedda (p. 128), with the seeming conviction that he has, in this utterance, explained something to her. And Hedda says (p. 142): ‘I see him before me. With vine-leaves in his hair. Hot and bold’ (p. 151). ‘And Ejlert Lövborg, he is sitting with vine-leaves in his hair, and reading aloud’ (p. 157). ‘Had he vine-leaves in his hair?’ (p. 171). ‘So that is how it all happened. Then he did not have vine-leaves in his hair’ (p. 188).

Hedda. Could you not contrive that it should be done gracefully?

Lövborg. Gracefully? With vine-leaves in my hair?


‘With vine-leaves in his hair;’ ‘the passion for life’—these are words meaning, in the connection assigned to them, absolutely nothing, but giving scope for dreaming. In a few instances Ibsen employs these dreamily-nebulous, shadowy expressions with poetic licence, e.g., when we read in The Pillars of Society (p. 19):

Rörlund. Tell me, Dina, why you do like so much to be with me?

Dina. Because you teach me so much that is beautiful.

Rörlund. Beautiful? Do you call what I can teach you beautiful?

Dina. Yes; or, rather, you teach me nothing; but when I hear you speak, it makes me think of so much that is beautiful.

Rörlund. What do you understand, then, by a beautiful thing?

Dina. I have never thought of that.

Rörlund. Then think of it now. What do you understand by a beautiful thing?

Dina. A beautiful thing is something great and far away.


Dina is a young girl living under sad and painful conditions. It is psychologically accurate that she should condense all her longing for a new and happy existence in a word of emotional colouring, such as ‘beautiful.’ It is the same with the dialogue between Gregers and Hedwig in The Wild Duck (p. 53):

Gregers. And she [the wild duck] has been down in the depths of the sea.

Hedwig. Why do you say ‘in the depths of the sea’?

Gregers. What else could I say?

Hedwig. You could say ‘the bottom of the sea’ [or ‘at the bottom of the water’].[348]

Gregers. Oh, mayn’t I just as well say the depths of the sea?

Hedwig. Yes; but it sounds so strange to me when other people speak of the depths of the sea.

Gregers. Why so?...

Hedwig. ... It always seems to me that the whole room and everything in it should be called the depths of the sea. But that’s so stupid.... Because it’s only a garret [the place where the wild duck lives, the old Christmas-trees are put, where old Ekdal chases the rabbit, etc.].


Hedwig is a highly excitable child at the age of puberty (Ibsen thinks it necessary expressly to affirm that her voice is changing, and that she willingly plays with fire); hence it is natural that she should be thrilled with presentiments, dreams, and obscure instincts, and invest poetical expressions denoting something far away and wild, such as ‘in the depths of the sea,’ with the secret significance of all the mysterious and marvellous surging in her. But when expressions of this sort are used, not by little growing girls, but by full-grown persons depicted as rational beings, it is no longer a question of dreaming explicable on pathological grounds, but of diseased cerebral centres.

These words often assume the nature of an obsession. Ibsen obstinately repeats them, at the same time imparting to them a mysterious significance. It is thus, for example, that the words ‘joy of life’ appear in Ghosts (p. 176):

Oswald. ... She was full of the joy of life (p. 177).

Mrs. Alving. What were you saying about the joy of life?

Oswald. Have you noticed that everything I have painted has turned upon the joy of life?—always, always upon the joy of life? (p. 187).

Mrs. Alving. You spoke of the joy of life; and at that word a new light burst for me over my life and all it has contained.... You ought to have known your father.... He was brimming over with the joy of life.


In Hedda Gabler the word ‘beauty’ plays a similar part (p. 190):

Hedda (to Lövborg). You use it [the pistol] now.... And do it beautifully (p. 214).

Hedda. I say that there is something beautiful in this [Lövborg’s suicide] (p. 219).

Hedda. A relief to know that it is still possible for an act of voluntary courage to take place in the world. Something over which there falls a veil of unintentional beauty.... And then now—the great act! That over which the sense of beauty falls!


The ‘vine-leaves in the hair,’ in the same piece, belongs with equal exactness to this category of words, amounting to an obsession. The use of expressions full of mystery, incomprehensible to the hearer, and either freely coined by the speaker, or endowed by him with a peculiar sense, deviating from that usually assigned them in speech, is one of the most frequent phenomena among the mentally deranged. Griesinger[349] often[393] lays stress on this, and A. Marie[350] adduces some characteristic examples of words and phrases, either newly invented or employed in a sense differing from the customary one, which have been repeated by the insane.
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Re: Degeneration, by Max Nordau

Postby admin » Thu Nov 15, 2018 1:26 am

Part 4 of 4

Ibsen is certainly not wholly diseased in mind, but only a dweller on the borderland—a ‘mattoid.’ His use of formalized expressions does not therefore go so far as the invention of new words, as cited by Dr. Marie. But that he ascribes a mysterious meaning to the expressions ‘beauty,’ ‘joy of life,’ ‘courage of life,’ etc., and one which they do not possess when rationally used, follows clearly enough from the examples quoted.

Finally let us adduce a few specimens of sheer nonsense, corresponding to conversations held in dreams, and the silly rambling speech of persons suffering from fever or acute mania. In The Lady from the Sea, Ellida says (p. 39): ‘The water in the fjord here is sick, ... yes, sick. And I believe it makes one sick, too’ (p. 79). ‘We’ (Ellida and the ‘stranger’) ‘spoke of the gulls and the eagles, and all the other sea-birds. I think—isn’t it wonderful?—when we talked of such things it seemed to me as if both the sea-beasts and sea-birds were one with him.... I almost thought I belonged to them all, too’ (p. 100).

I don’t think the dry land is really our home.... I think that if only men had from the beginning accustomed themselves to live on the sea, or in the sea, perhaps, we should be more perfect than we are—with better and happier....

Arnholm (jestingly). Well, perhaps! But it can’t be helped. We’ve once for all entered upon the wrong path, and have become land-beasts instead of sea-beasts. Anyhow, I suppose it’s too late to make good the mistake now.

Ellida. Yes, you’ve spoken a sad truth. And I think men instinctively feel something of this themselves. And they bear it about with them as a secret regret and sorrow. Believe me, herein lies the deepest cause for the sadness of men.


And Dr. Wangel, who is depicted as a rational man, says (p. 129):

And then she is so changeable, so capricious—she varies so suddenly.

Arnholm. No doubt that is the result of her morbid state of mind.

Wangel. Not altogether. Ellida belongs to the sea-folk. That is the matter(!!).


We must insist that precisely the absurdities, the nugatory, blurred, deep-sounding phrases, the formalized words, and the dream-like drivel, have essentially conduced to obtain for Ibsen his particular admirers. Over them hysterical mystics can dream, like Dina and Hedwig, over the words ‘beautiful’ and ‘in the depths of the sea.’ As they mean absolutely nothing, an inattentive and vagrant mind can impart to them whatever significance may be suggested by the play of association under the influence of momentary emotion. They are, moreover, exceedingly grateful material for the (so-called) ‘comprehensives,’ for whom nothing is ever obscure. ‘Comprehensives’ always explain everything. The greater the idiocy, the more involved, the richer in import, the more exhaustive is its interpretation, and the greater the arrogance with which these beings of ‘perfect comprehension’ look down upon the barbarian, who stoutly refuses to see in fustian anything but fustian.

In an exceedingly amusing French farce, Le Homard, a husband suddenly returning home one evening surprises a stranger with his wife. The latter does not lose her presence of mind, and says to the husband that, having suddenly been seized with illness, she had sent her maid for the first available doctor, and that this gentleman was the doctor. The husband thanks the gallant for his speedy appearance, and asks if he has already prescribed anything. The gallant, who, of course, is not a doctor, tries to make himself scarce; but the anxious husband insists on having a prescription, so that the Galen, bathed in cold perspiration, is compelled to give one. The husband casts a glance at it; it consists of wholly illegible marks. ‘And will the chemist be able to read that?’ asks the husband, shaking his head. ‘As if it were print,’ asseverates the false physician, again trying to make his escape. The husband, however, adjures him to remain, and holds him fast until the maid returns from the chemist. In a few minutes she makes her appearance. The Galen prepares himself for a catastrophe. No. The maid brings a phial of medicine, a box of pills, and some powders. ‘Did the chemist give you those?’ demands the Galen in bewilderment. ‘Certainly.’ ‘On my prescription?’ ‘Of course it was on your prescription,’ replies the astonished maid. ‘Has the chemist made some mistake?’ interposes the troubled husband. ‘No, no,’ our Galen hastens to reply; but he contemplates the medicines for a long time, and becomes lost in reverie.

These ‘comprehensives’ are like the chemist in Le Homard. They read with fluency all Ibsen’s prescriptions, and especially those containing absolutely no written characters, but simply crow’s feet devoid of all meaning. It is also their trade to supply critical pills and electuaries when a piece of paper is brought to them bearing the signature of a self-styled doctor,[395] and they dispense them without wincing, be there anything of any sort, or even nothing, on the slip of paper. Is it not significant that the sole thing in Ibsen which the French mystic De Vogué, one of these ‘comprehensives,’ finds to praise is one of the meaningless phrases above cited?[351]

A final stigma of Ibsen’s mysticism must be considered—his symbolism. In The Wild Duck, this bird is the symbol of Hjalmar’s destiny, and the garret next the photographic studio a symbol of the ‘living lie,’ of which, according to Relling, everyone stands in need. In The Lady from the Sea, Lyngstrand wishes to make a group which shall be the symbol of Ellida, as the ‘stranger’ with the changing eyes of a fish is of the sea and the latter again of freedom, so that the ‘stranger’ is really the symbol of a symbol. In Ghosts, the burning of the asylum is the symbol of the annihilation of Alving’s ‘living lie,’ and the rainy weather prevailing throughout the whole piece the symbol of the depressed and sullen frame of mind of the personages in action. Ibsen’s earlier pieces, Emperor and Galilean, Brand, Peer Gynt, literally swarm with symbols. A mysterious collateral significance is given to every figure and every stage accessory, and every word includes a double meaning. From the ‘Psychology of Mysticism’ we already know this peculiarity of the mystic mind to divine obscure relations between phenomena. It seeks so to explain the nexus of the wholly unconnected representations springing up in consciousness through the play of automatic association, that it attributes hidden but essential reference to each other in these representations. The ‘comprehensives’ believe they have said all when, with an extremely consequential and self-satisfied air, they demonstrate that the ‘stranger’ in The Lady from the Sea signifies the sea, and the sea freedom. They quite overlook the fact that the thing to be explained is not what the poet intended by his symbol, but, firstly, and in particular, why he hit upon the idea of making use of a symbol at all. In the well-known words of the French satirist, a clear-headed poet calls ‘a cat a cat.’ That to express so sober an idea as that persons of fine feelings, living in narrow conditions, have a deep longing for a free, expanded, unrestrained existence, one should have the whim to invent a ‘stranger with fish-like eyes,’ presupposes[396] a diseased mental activity. In imbeciles, the tendency to allegory and symbolism is very common. ‘Intricate arabesques, symbolical figures, cabalistic gestures and attitudes, strange interpretations of natural events, punning, word-coining, and peculiar modes of expression, frequently occurring in paranoia, give the delirium a lively and grotesque colouring.’ Thus writes Tanzi,[352] and in the symbolism of the insane he saw, as Meynert had previously seen, a form of atavism. Among men low in the grade of civilization symbolism is, in fact, the habitual form of thought. We know the reason—their brain is not yet trained to attention; it is too weak to suppress irrational associations, and refers all that shoots through its consciousness to some chance phenomenon either just perceived, or else remembered.

After all the mental stigmata of Ibsen with which we have become acquainted—his theological obsessions of original sin, of confession and redemption, the absurdities of his invention, the constant contradiction in his uncertain opinions, his vague or senseless modes of expression, his onomatomania and his symbolism—he might be numbered among the mystic degenerates with which I have concerned myself in the previous chapters. We are, however, justified in assigning him his place among the ego-maniacs, because the diseased intensification of his ego-consciousness is even more striking and characteristic than his mysticism. His ego-mania assumes the form of anarchism. He is in a state of constant revolt against all that exists. He never exercises rational criticism with regard to this; he never shows what is bad, why it is bad, and how it could be made better. No; he only reproaches it with its existence, and has only one longing—to destroy it. ‘The ruin of everything’ was the programme of certain destructives in 1848, and has remained that of Ibsen. He condenses it with a clearness which leaves nothing to be desired in his well-known poem, To my Friend the Destructive Orator. In this he glorifies the deluge as the ‘sole revolution not made by a half-and-half dabbler’ (Halohedsfusker); but even it was not radically ruinous enough. ‘We want to make it still more radical, but for that end we need men and orators. You charge yourselves with flooding the terrestrial garden. I place blissfully a torpedo under the ark.’[353] In a series of letters offered by elephant-driver Brandes[397] for the edification of the adorers of Ibsen, the poet gives conspicuous specimens of his theories.[354] The state must be destroyed. Unfortunately the Paris Communists bungled this beautiful and fertile idea by clumsy execution. The fight for freedom has not for its end the conquest of liberty, but is its own end. As soon as we believe liberty to be attained, and cease to fight for it, we prove it to be lost to us. The meritorious thing in the fight for liberty is the state of permanent revolt against all existing things which it presupposes. There is nothing fixed and permanent. ‘Who warrants me that in the planet Jupiter twice two are not five?’ (This remark is an unmistakable manifestation of the insanity of doubt,[355] which in recent years has been deeply studied.) There is no true marriage. Friends are a costly luxury. ‘They have long hindered me from being myself.’ The care of the ‘I’ is the sole task of man. He ought not to allow himself to be diverted from it by any law or any consideration.

These thoughts, expressed by himself in his letters, he also puts into the mouth of his dramatic characters. I have already cited some of Mrs. Alving’s and Nora’s ego-maniacal and anarchical phrases. In The Pillars of Society, Dina says (p. 19): ‘If only the people I lived amongst weren’t so proper and moral. Every day Hilda and Netta come here that I may take example by them. I can never be as well behaved as they are, and I won’t be’ (p. 44).

But I wanted to know, too, if people over there [in America] are very—very moral ... if they are so—so proper and well-behaved as here.

Johan. Well, at any rate, they’re not so bad as people here think.

Dina. You don’t understand me. What I want is just that they should not be so very proper and moral (p. 92). I am sick of all this goodness.

Martha Bernick. Oh, how we writhe under this tyranny of custom and convention! Rebel against it, Dina. Do something to defy all this use-and-wont!


In An Enemy of the People (p. 278) Stockmann declares: ‘I detest leading men ... they stand in the path of a free man wherever he turns—and I should be glad if we could exterminate them like other noxious animals.’ (p. 280) ‘The most dangerous enemies of truth and freedom in our midst are the[398] compact majority. Yes, this execrable compact, Liberal majority—they it is.... The majority is never right.... The minority is always right.’ Where Ibsen does not seriously attack the majority he derides it—e.g., when he entrusts the maintenance of society to grotesque Philistines, or makes self-styled Radicals betray the hypocrisy of their Liberal views. In An Enemy of the People (p. 238):

Burgomaster. You want to fly in the face of your superiors; and that’s an old habit of yours. You can’t endure any authority over you


In Rosmersholm (p. 53):

Mortensgaard [the journalist who poses as a Freethinker]. We have plenty of Freethinkers already, Pastor Rosmer—I almost might say too many. What the party requires is a Christian element—something that everyone must respect. That’s what we’re sadly in need of.


With the same purpose of anarchistic ridicule he always personifies the sense of duty in idiots or contemptible Pharisees only. In Ghosts the blockhead, Pastor Manders, thus preaches (p. 142): ‘What right have we human beings to happiness? No, we have to do our duty! And your duty was to hold firmly to the man you had once chosen, and to whom you are bound by a holy tie.’ In The Pillars of Society it is the rogue Bernick who is made to proclaim the necessity of the subordination of the individual to the community (p. 58): ‘People must learn to moderate their personal claims if they are to fulfil their duties in the community in which they are placed.’ In An Enemy of the People the not less pitiable burgomaster sermonizes his brother Stockmann in this fashion (p. 209): ‘Anyhow, you’ve an ingrained propensity for going your own way. And that in a well-ordered community is almost always dangerous. The individual must submit himself to the whole community.’

The trick is evident: to make the conception of the necessary subordination of the individual ridiculous and contemptible, Ibsen appoints as its mouthpieces ridiculous and contemptible beings. On the other hand, it is the characters on whom he lavishes all the wealth of his affection to whom he entrusts the duty of defending rebellion against duty, the aspersion or derision of laws, morals, institutions, self-discipline, and the proclaiming of unscrupulous ego-mania as the sole guide of life.

The psychological roots of Ibsen’s anti-social impulses are well known. They are the degenerate’s incapacity for self-adaptation, and the resulting discomfort in the midst of circumstances to which, in consequence of his organic deficiencies, he cannot accommodate himself. ‘The criminal,’ Lombroso[356][399] says, ‘in consequence of his neurotic and impulsive nature, and his hatred of the institutions which have punished or imprisoned him, is a perpetual latent political rebel, who finds in insurrection the means not only of satisfying his passions, but of even having them countenanced for the first time by a numerous public.’ This utterance is exactly applicable to Ibsen, with the slight change, that he is merely a theoretic criminal, his motor centres not being powerful enough to transmute his anarchically criminal ideas into deeds, and that he finds the satisfaction of his destructive impulses not in the insurrection, but in the activity of dramatic composition.

His incapacity for self-adaptation makes him not only an anarchist, but also a misanthrope, and fills him with a profound weariness of life. The doctrine of An Enemy of the People is contained in Stockmann’s exclamation (p. 315): ‘The strongest man on earth is he who stands most alone’; and in Rosmersholm (p. 24), Brendel says: ‘I like to take my pleasures in solitude, for then I enjoy them doubly.’ The same Brendel subsequently laments (p. 105): ‘I am going homewards; I am home-sick for the mighty Void.... Peter Mortensgaard never wills more than he can do. Peter Mortensgaard is capable of living his life without ideals. And that, do you see, that is just the mighty secret of action and of victory. It is the sum of the whole world’s wisdom.... The dark night is best. Peace be with you!’ Brendel’s words have a peculiar significance, for, on the evidence of Ehrhard,[357] Ibsen wished to portray himself in that personage. That which is expressed in these passages is the dégoût des gens and the tedium vitæ of alienists, phenomena never absent in depressed forms of mental alienation.

In addition to his mysticism and ego-mania, Ibsen’s extraordinary poverty of ideas indicates another stigma of degeneracy. Superficial or ignorant judges, who appraise an artist’s intellectual wealth by the number of volumes he has produced, believe that when they point at the high pile of a degenerate’s works they have victoriously refuted the accusation of his infecundity. The well-informed are of course not entrapped by this paltry method of proof. The history of insane literature knows of a large number of cases in which fools have written and published dozens of thick volumes. For tens of years and in feverish haste they must have driven the pen, almost continuously, night and day; but since all[400] these bulky tomes contain not a single idea of any utility, this restless activity is not to be termed fruitful, in spite of the abundant typographical results. We have seen that Richard Wagner never invented a tale, a figure, a situation; but that he sponged on ancient poems or the Bible. Ibsen has almost as little genuine original creative power as his intellectual relative, and as he, in his beggar’s pride, disdains for the most part to borrow from other poets of procreative capacity, or from popular traditions exuberant with life, his poems reveal, when closely and keenly examined, an even greater poverty than those of Wagner. If we do not allow ourselves to be dazzled by the art of variation in a contrapuntist extraordinarily clever in dramatic technique, and follow the themes he so adroitly elaborates, we at once recognise their dreary monotony.

At the central point of all his pieces (with the exception of those of a romantic character, written by him in his first period of pure imitation) stand two figures, always the same and fundamentally one, but having now a negative and now a positive sign, a thesis and antithesis in the Hegelian sense. They are, on the one hand, the human being who obeys his inner law only (that is, his ego-mania), and dauntlessly and defiantly makes a parade of it; and, on the other, the individual who, it is true, really acts in obedience to his ego-mania only, but has not the courage to display it, feigning respect for the law of others and for the notions of the majority—in other words, the avowed and violent anarchist, and his opposite, the crafty and timorously deceitful anarchist.

The avowed ego-maniac is, with one single exception, always embodied in a woman. The exception is Brand. On the contrary, the hypocrite is always a man—again with a single exception, viz., that of Hedda Gabler, who does not personify the idea in its purity, frank anarchism in her nature being mingled with something of hypocrisy. Nora (A Doll’s House), Mrs. Alving (Ghosts), Selma Malsberg (The League of the Young), Dina, Martha Hessel, Mrs. Bernick (The Pillars of Society), Hedda Gabler, Ellida Wangel (The Lady from the Sea), Rebecca (Rosmersholm), are one and the same figure, but seen, as it were, at different hours of the day, and consequently in different lights. Some are in the major, others in the minor, key; some are more, others less hysterically deranged; but essentially they are not only similar, but identical. Selma Malsberg (p. 60) cries: ‘Bear our unhappiness in common? Am I yet good enough? No. I can no longer keep silent, be a hypocrite and a liar. Now you shall know.... O, how you have wronged me! Infamously, all of you!... How I have thirsted for a drop of your care! But when I begged for it[401] you repulsed me with a polite joke. You dressed me like a doll. You played with me as with a child.... I want to go away from you.... Let me, let me.’ And Nora (p. 110): ‘I lived by performing tricks for you, Torvald.... You and your father have sinned greatly against me. It is the fault of you two that nothing has been made of me. I was never happy, only merry.... Our house has been nothing but a nursery. Here I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I used to be papa’s doll-child.... That is why I am going away from you now.... I shall now leave your house at once.’ Ellida (The Lady from the Sea): ‘What I want is that we should, of our own free will, release each other.... I am not what you took me for. Now you see it yourself. Now we can separate as friends, and freely.... Here there is no single thing that attracts me and binds me. I am so absolutely rootless in your house, Wangel.’ Selma threatens to leave, Ellida resolves to leave, Nora does leave, Mrs. Alving did leave. (Ghosts, p. 144) Pastor Manders: ‘All your efforts have been bent towards emancipation and lawlessness. You have never been willing to endure any bond. Everything that has weighed upon you in life you have cast away without care or conscience, like a burden you could throw off at will. It did not please you to be a wife any longer, and you left your husband. You found it troublesome to be a mother, and you sent your child forth among strangers.’ Mrs. Bernick was, equally with her double, Mrs. Alving, a stranger in her own house. She, however, does not wish to leave, but to remain and endeavour to win over her husband (p. 112): ‘For many years I believed that you had once been mine, and I had lost you again. Now I know that you never were mine; but I shall win you.’ Dina (The Pillars of Society) cannot leave because she is not yet married, but as becomes her state of maidenhood, she gives her rebellious thoughts this form (p. 93): ‘I will be your wife; but first I will work, and become something for myself, just as you are. I will give myself; I will not be taken.’ Rebecca (Rosmersholm) is also unmarried, yet she runs away (p. 96):

I am going.

Rosmer. Where are you going, Rebecca?

Rebecca. North, by the steamer. It was there I came from.

Rosmer. But you have no ties there now.

Rebecca. I have none here either.

Rosmer. What do you think of doing?

Rebecca. I don’t know. I only want to have done with it all.


Now for the antithesis, the hypocritical egoist who satisfies his ego-mania without giving offence to society. This personage presents himself under the names successively of[402] Torvald Helmer, Consul Bernick, Curate Rörlund, Rector Kroll, Pastor Manders, Burgomaster Stockmann, Werle, and once, to a certain extent, Hedda Gabler, always with the same ideas and the same words. In A Doll’s House (p. 104, et seq.), after his wife’s confession, Helmer cries: ‘Oh, what an awful awakening!... No religion, no morality, no sense of duty.... He can publish the whole story; and if he does publish it, perhaps I should be suspected of having been a party to your criminal transactions.... I must try to pacify him in one way or the other. The story must be kept secret, cost what it may.’ In Ghosts Pastor Manders on different occasions expresses himself thus: ‘One is certainly not bound to account to everybody for what one reads and thinks within one’s own four walls.... We must not expose ourselves to false interpretations, and we have no right whatever to give offence to our neighbours.... You go and risk your good name and reputation, and nearly succeed in ruining other people’s reputation into the bargain. It was unspeakably reckless of you to seek refuge with me.... Yes, that is the only thing possible’ (to ‘hush the matter up’) ‘... yes, family life is certainly not always so pure as it ought to be. But in such a case as you point to’ (an incestuous union), ‘one can never know.’ Rörlund (The Pillars of Society): ‘See how the family is undermined over there! how a brazen spirit of destruction is attacking the most vital truths!... Of course, a tare now and then springs up among the wheat, alas! but we honestly do our best to weed it out.... Oh, Dina, you can form no conception of the thousand considerations! When a man is placed as a moral pillar of the society he lives in, why—he cannot be too careful.... Oh, Dina, you are so dear to me! Hush! someone is coming. Dina, for my sake, go out to the others.... A good book forms a refreshing contrast to what we unhappily see every day in newspapers and magazines.’ Consul Bernick, in the same piece: ‘Just at this time, when I depend so much on unmixed good feeling, both in the press and in the town. There will be paragraphs in the papers all over the country-side.... These newspaper scribblers are always covertly carping at us.... I whose mission it is to be an example to my fellow-citizens, must have such things thrown in my teeth! I cannot bear it. It won’t do for me to have my name bespattered in this way.... I must keep my conscience unspotted. Besides, it will make a good impression on both the press and the public at large when they see that I set aside all personal considerations, and let justice take its course.’ Kroll, in Rosmersholm: ‘Do you ever see the Radical papers?... But you’ve seen, then, I suppose, how these gentlemen of “the people” have been pleased to treat me?[403] what infamous abuse they’ve dared to heap upon me?’ Werle, in The Wild Duck: ‘Even if, out of attachment to me, she were to disregard gossip and scandal and all that——?’ The Burgomaster, in An Enemy of the People: ‘If, perhaps, I do watch over my reputation with some anxiety, I do it for the good of the town.... Your statement ... must be kept back for the good of all ... we will do the best we can quietly; but nothing whatever, not a single word, of this unfortunate business must be made public.... And then you have an unhappy propensity for rushing into print upon every possible and impossible matter. You no sooner hit upon an idea than you must write at once some newspaper article or a whole pamphlet about it.’ Finally, Hedda Gabler: ‘And so you went off perfectly openly?... But what do you suppose that people will say about you, then?... I so dread a scandal! You should accept for your own sake, or, better still, for the world’s sake.’

If all the Nora-like and all the Helmer-like utterances are read successively, an impression must be formed that they are part of the same rôle; and this impression is correct, for under all the different names there is only one rôle. The same is true of the women who, in contrast to the ego-maniac Nora, unselfishly sacrifice themselves. Martha Bernick, Miss Hessel, Hedwig, Miss Tesman, etc., are always the same figure in different guises. The monotony, moreover, extends to minutest details. Rank’s inherited disease is in Oswald’s case only carried further. Nora’s flight is repeated in almost every piece, and in The Wild Duck is travestied in Hjalmar’s departure from his house. One feature of this scene appears word for word in all the réchauffés of it:

Nora. Here I lay the keys down. The maids know how to manage everything in the house far better than I do.

Ellida. If I do go ... I haven’t a key to give up, an order to give.... I am absolutely rootless in your house, etc.


In A Doll’s House, the heroine, who has settled her account with life and is filled with dread of the impending catastrophe, makes Rank play a wild tarantella on the piano, while she dances to it. In Hedda Gabler, the heroine is heard ‘suddenly playing a wild dance’ before she shoots herself. Rosmer says to Rebecca, when the latter makes known her wish to die: ‘No; you recoil. You have not the heart to do what she dared.’ The extortioner Krogstad says to Nora, who threatens to commit suicide: ‘Oh, you don’t frighten me! An elegant spoilt lady like you.... People don’t do things of that sort.’ Brack says, in response to Hedda Gabler’s outburst: ‘Rather die! That’s what people say, but nobody does it!’ In much[404] the same words Helmer reproaches his wife Nora with having sacrificed her honour by the forgery, and Pastor Manders upbraids Mrs. Alving for wishing to sacrifice her honour to him. Lona Hessel demands confession from Consul Bernick, and Rebecca from Rosmer, in the same terms. Werle’s crime was the seduction of the maidservant Gina. Alving’s crime was the seduction of his own maidservant. This pitiable and imbecile self-repetition in Ibsen, this impotence of his indolent brain to wash out the imprint of an idea once painfully elaborated, goes so far that, even in the invention of names for his characters, he is, consciously or unconsciously, under the influence of a reminiscence. In A Doll’s House we have Helmer; in The Wild Duck, Hjalmar; in The Pillars of Society, Hilmar, Mrs. Bernick’s brother.

Thus Ibsen’s drama is like a kaleidoscope in a sixpenny bazaar. When one looks through the peep-hole, one sees, at each shaking of the cardboard tube, new and parti-coloured combinations. Children are amused at this toy. But adults know that it contains only splinters of coloured glass, always the same, inserted haphazard, and united into symmetrical figures by three bits of looking-glass, and they soon tire of the expressionless arabesques. My simile applies not only to Ibsen’s plays, but to the author himself. In reality, he is the kaleidoscope. The few paltry bits of glass which for thirty years he has rattled and thrown into cheap mosaic patterns, these are his obsessions. These have existed in his own diseased mind, and have not sprung from observation of the world’s drama. The pretended ‘realist’ knows nothing of real life. He does not comprehend it; he does not even see it, and cannot, therefore, renew from it his store of impressions, ideas, and judgments. The well-known method of manufacturing cannon is to take a tube and pour molten metal round it. Ibsen proceeds in a similar way with his poems. He has a thesis—more accurately, some anarchistic folly; this is the tube. It is now only a question of enveloping this tube with the metal of life’s realities. But that lies beyond Ibsen’s power. At best he occasionally finds some bits of worn-down horseshoe-nails, or castaway sardine-box, by rummaging among dust-heaps; but this small quantity of metal does not suffice for a cannon. Where Ibsen makes strenuous efforts to produce a picture of actual contemporaneous events, he astounds us with the niggardliness in incidents and human beings evinced by the range of his experience.

Philistine, ultra-provincial, these are no fit words for this. It sinks below the level of the human. The naturalist Huber and Sir John Lubbock have recorded incidents of this sort[405] in their observations of colonies of ants. The small features pinned by Ibsen to his two-legged theses, to give them, at least, as much resemblance to humanity as is possessed by a scarecrow, are borrowed from the society of a hideous hole on the Norwegian coast, composed of drunkards and silly louts, of idiots and crazed hysterical geese, who in their whole life have never formed a clearer thought than: ‘How can I get hold of a bottle of brandy?’ or ‘How can I make myself interesting to men?’ The sole characteristic distinguishing these Lövborgs, Ekdals, Oswald Alvings, etc., from beasts is that they are given to drink. The Noras, Heddas, Ellidas, do not tipple, but make up for that by raving so wildly as to require strait-jackets. The great events of their lives are the obtaining of a position in a bank (A Doll’s House); their catastrophes, that one no longer believes in the articles of their creed (Rosmersholm); the loss of an appointment as physician at a watering-place (An Enemy of the People); the raked-up rumours of an amorous nocturnal péché de jeunesse (The Pillars of Society); the frightful crimes darkening, like a thunder-cloud, the lives of these beings and their social circle are an intrigue with a maidservant (Ghosts, The Wild Duck); a liaison with an itinerant music-hall singer (An Enemy of the People); the felling, by mistake, of wood in a state-forest (The Wild Duck); the visit to a house of ill-fame after a good dinner (Hedda Gabler). It sometimes happens to me to pass a half-hour in the nursery, amusing myself with the chatter and play of the little ones. One day the children by accident saw the arrest of someone in the street. Although their attendant hurried them away from the unpleasant spectacle, they had seen enough of the tumult to be violently excited by it. Some days afterwards on entering the nursery I found them full of the great event, and I became the auditor of the following dialogue:

Matilda (aged three years). Why did they put the gentleman in prison?

Richard (five years old, very dignified and sententious). It wasn’t a gentleman; it was a bad man. They put him in prison because he was wicked.

Matilda. What had he done then?

Richard (after reflecting a little). His mamma had said he wasn’t to take chocolate; but he did take chocolate. That’s why his mamma had him put in prison.


This childish conversation always came into my mind when I lighted, in Ibsen’s plays, upon one of his crimes treated with such overawing importance.

We have now made the complete tour of Ibsen. At the risk of being prolix and tedious, I have made copious quotations from his writings, in order that the reader might himself see the matter from which I have formed my judgments.[406] Ibsen stands before us as a mystic and an ego-maniac, who would willingly prove the world and mankind not worth powder and shot, but who only proves that he has not the faintest inkling of one or the other. Incapable of adapting himself to any state of things whatsoever, he first abuses the state of things in Norway, then that of Europe generally. In no one of his productions is a single thought to be met with belonging to, or having an active influence on, the present age, unless we bestow this honour on his anarchism, which is explained by the diseased constitution of his mind, and his travesties of the least certain results of investigations in hypnotism and telepathy. He is a skilful dramatic technician, and knows how to represent with great poetic power personages in the background, and situations out of the chief current of the piece. This, however, is all that a conscientious and lucid analysis can really find in him. He has dared to speak of his ‘moral ideas,’ and his admirers glibly repeat the expression. Ibsen’s moral ideas! Any reader of the Ibsen drama, who finds in them no food for laughter, has truly no sense of humour. He seems to preach apostacy, yet cannot free himself from the religious ideas of confession, original sin, and the Saviour’s act of redemption. He sets up egoism and the freedom of the individual from all scruples as an ideal, yet hardly has anyone acted somewhat unscrupulously, but he begins to whimper contritely, and continues until his heart, full to suffocation, has poured itself out in confession; while the only persons with whom he succeeds are women, who sacrifice their individuality to the point of annihilation for the sake of others. He extols every offence against morality as heroism, while he punishes, with nothing less than death, the smallest and stupidest love affair. He uses the words freedom, progress, etc., as a gargle, and in his best works honours lying and stagnation. And all these contradictions appear forsooth not successively as stations on the road of his development, but at one and the same time, and side by side. His French admirer, Ehrhard,[358] sees this disconcerting fact, and endeavours as best he can to excuse it. His Norwegian interpreter, Henrik Jaeger, on the contrary, asserts with the utmost placidity[359] that the most prominent characteristic of Ibsen’s works is their unity[407] (Enhed). The Frenchman and the Norwegian were most incautious in not preconcerting, prior to praising their great man in manners so divergent. The single discoverable unity in Ibsen is his faculty of distortion. The point in which he always resembles himself is his entire incapacity to elaborate a single clear thought, to comprehend a single one of the watchwords daubed here and there on to his works, or to deduce the true conclusions from a single one of his premises.

And this malignant, anti-social simpleton, highly gifted, it must be admitted, in the technique of the stage, they have had the audacity to try to raise upon the shield as the great world-poet of the closing century. His partizans have continued to shout, ‘Ibsen is a great poet!’ until all stronger judgments have become at least hesitating, and feebler ones wholly subjugated. In a recent book on Simon Magus,[360] there occurs this pretty story: ‘Apsethus, the Libyan, wished to become a god. In spite, however, of his most strenuous efforts he could not succeed in satisfying his longing. But, at any rate, he would make the people believe that he had become a god. He therefore collected a large number of parrots, in which Libya abounds, and shut them all in a cage. He kept them so for some time, and taught them to say, “Apsethus is a god.” When the birds had learnt this, he opened the cage and set them free. And the birds spread themselves throughout Libya, so that the words penetrated to the Greek settlements. And the Libyans, astonished at the voice of the birds, and not suspecting the trick Apsethus had played, looked upon him as a god.’ In imitation of the ingenious Apsethus, Ibsen has taught a few ‘comprehensives’—the Brandes, Ehrhards, Jaegers, etc.—the words: ‘Ibsen is a modern! Ibsen is a poet of the future!’ and the parrots have spread over all the lands, and are chattering with deafening din in books and papers, ‘Ibsen is great! Ibsen is a modern spirit!’ and imbeciles among the public murmur the cry after them, because they hear it frequently repeated, and because, on such as they, every word uttered with emphasis and assurance makes an impression.

It would certainly be a proof of superficiality to believe that the audacity of his Corybantes alone explains the high place to which Ibsen has been fraudulently elevated. Without question he possesses characteristics by which he could not but act upon his contemporaries.

Firstly, we have his vague phrases and indefinite incidental hints concerning ‘the great epoch in which we live,’ ‘the new era about to dawn,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘progress,’ etc. These phrases were bound to please all dreamers and drivellers, for they[408] give free scope to any interpretation, and, in particular, allow the presumption that their author is possessed of modernity and a bold spirit of progress. They are not discouraged by the fact that Ibsen himself makes cruel sport of these ‘comprehensives,’ when, in The Wild Duck, he makes Relling (p. 361) use the word ‘demoniac,’ while admitting it to be wholly meaningless, just as the poet himself employs his own bunkum about progress and freedom. They are ‘comprehensives’ precisely because they interpret every passage according to their own sweet will.

Then there is Ibsen’s doctrine of the right of the individual to live in accordance with his own law. Is this really his doctrine? This must be denied when, after struggling through his countless contradictions and self-refutations, we see that he treats with peculiar affection the sacrificial lambs, who are all negation of their own ‘I,’ all suppression of their most natural impulses, all neighbourly love and consideration for others. In any case, his apostles have brought forward anarchistic individualism as the central doctrine of his drama. Ehrhard[361] sums up this doctrine in these words: ‘The revolt of the individual against society. In other words, Ibsen is the apostle of moral autonomy (autonomie morale).’ Now such a doctrine is surely well fitted to cause ravages among the intellectually indolent or intellectually incapable.

Ehrhard dares to use the expression ‘moral autonomy.’ In the name of this fine principle Ibsen’s critical heralds persuade the youth who gather round him that they have the right to ‘live out their lives,’ and they smile approvingly when their auditors understand by this term the right to yield to their basest instincts and to free themselves from all discipline. As the scoundrels in Mediterranean ports do with well-dressed travellers, they whisper in the ear of their public, ‘Amuse yourselves! Enjoy yourselves! Come with me; I will show you the way!’ But to confound ‘moral autonomy’ with absence of restraint is, on the part of their faith, a monstrous error, and in the corrupters of youth, hoping for the pay of procuration, an infamous deception.

These two notions are not only not synonymous, they are diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive. Liberty of the individual! The right to autonomy! The Ego its own legislator! Who is this ‘I’ that is to make laws for itself? Who is this ‘Self’ for whom Ibsen demands the right of autonomy? Who is this free individual? That the entire notion of a Self opposed to the rest of the world as something alien and exclusive is an illusion of consciousness, we have already seen in the chapter on the ‘Psychology of Ego-mania,’ and I need[409] not, therefore, dwell again on the subject in this place. We know that man, like every other complex and highly developed living being, is a society or state, of simpler, and of simplest, living beings, of cells and cell-systems, or organs, all having their own functions and wants. In the course of the development of life on earth they have become associated, and have undergone changes, in order to be able to perform higher functions than are possible to the simple cell and primitive agglomeration of cells. The highest function of life yet known to us is clear consciousness; the most elevated content of consciousness is knowledge; and the most obvious and immediate aim of knowledge is constantly to procure better conditions of life for the organism, hence to preserve its existence as long as possible, and to fill it with the greatest possible number of pleasurable sensations. In order that the collective organism may be able to perform its task, its constituent parts are bound to submit to a severe hierarchical order. Anarchy in its interior is disease, and leads rapidly to death. The single cell executes its chemical work of decomposition and of integration without troubling itself about aught else. It labours almost for itself alone. Its consciousness is the most limited conceivable; it has hardly any prevision; its own power of adaptation is so minute that if a cell is in the smallest degree less well nourished than its neighbour, it cannot hold its ground against the latter, and is immediately devoured by it.[362] The differentiated cell-group, or organ, already possesses a wider consciousness, whose seat is its own nerve-ganglia; its function is more complex, and no longer operates wholly, or even chiefly, for its own benefit, but for that of the collective organism; it also has already, I might say, a constitutional influence on the direction of the affairs of the whole organism, asserting itself in the power of the organ to suggest to consciousness presentations prompting the will to acts. The most exalted organ, however, the condensation of all the other organs, is the gray cerebral cortex. It is the seat of clear consciousness. It works least of all for itself, most of all for the commonwealth—i.e., for the whole organism. It is the government of the State. To it come all reports from the interior as well as the exterior; it has to find its way in the midst of all complications; it has to exercise foresight, and to take into consideration not only the immediate effect of an act,[410] but also the more remote consequences for the commonwealth. When, therefore, it is a question of the ‘I,’ the ‘Self,’ the ‘Individual,’ it cannot be any subordinate part of the organism which is meant, such as the little toe or the rectum, but only the gray cerebral cortex. To it certainly belongs the right and duty of directing the individual and of prescribing its law. It is consciousness itself. But how does consciousness form its judgments and its decisions? It forms them from representations awakened in it by excitations proceeding from the internal organs and from the senses. If consciousness allows itself to be directed solely by the organic excitations, it seeks to gratify its momentary appetites, on the spot, at the cost of well-being, it injures an organ by favouring the need of another, and it neglects to take into consideration circumstances of the external world which must be dealt with in the interest of the whole organism. Let me give some quite simple illustrations. A man is swimming under water. His cells know nothing of it, and do not trouble themselves about it. They quietly absorb from the blood the oxygen which they need at the moment, and set free, in exchange, carbonic dioxide. The decomposed blood excites the medulla oblongata, and the latter impetuously demands a movement of inspiration. Were the gray cerebral cortex to yield to the perfectly justifiable demand of one organ, and allow an impulse to inspire to proceed to the muscles concerned, the consequence would be the filling of the lungs with water, and death of the entire organism in consequence. Hence consciousness does not obey the demand of the medulla oblongata, and, instead of sending motor impulses to the intercostal muscles and those of the diaphragm, communicates them to the muscles of the arms and legs; instead of breathing under water, the swimmer emerges at the surface. Another instance. A typhoid convalescent feels ragingly hungry. Were he to yield to this desire, he might give himself a momentary satisfaction, but twenty-four hours later he would probably die from perforation of the intestines. Hence his consciousness resists the desire of his organs for the benefit of the whole organism. The cases are, of course, generally much more complex. But it is always the task of consciousness to test the stimuli which it receives from the depths of the organs, to comprise in the motor images which they excite all its earlier experiences, its knowledge, the directions given by the external world, and to disregard the stimuli if the judgments opposed to them are more powerful than they.

Even a perfectly healthy organism quickly goes to rack and ruin if the inhibitive activity of consciousness is not exercised, and if, through this want of exercise, its inhibitive strength[411] becomes atrophied. Cæsarian madness[363] is nothing but the consequence of the systematic indulgence by consciousness of every demand of the organs. If, however, the organism is not perfectly healthy; if it is degenerate, its ruin is much more speedy and certain when it obeys the urging of its organs, for in such a case these organs are suffering from perversions; they exact satisfactions, not only pernicious in their remote consequences to the whole organism, but immediately so to the organs themselves.

When, therefore, the ‘I’ is spoken of, which is to have the right to dispose of itself, only the conscious ‘Ego’ can be meant, the pondering, remembering, observing, comparing intellect, not, however, the sub-’Egos’—unconnected, and for the most part at strife with each other—which are included in subconsciousness.[364] The individual is the judging, not the instinctive, human being. Liberty is the capacity of consciousness to derive excitations, not only from the stimuli of the organs, but from those of the senses, and from original memory-images. Ibsen’s liberty is the most abject, and always suicidal,[365] slavery. It is the subjugation of judgment to instinct, and the revolt of some single organ against the domination of that power, which has to watch over the well-being of the whole organism. Even so individualistic a philosopher as Herbert Spencer[366] says: ‘To become fitted for the social state, it is necessary that the man ... should possess the energy capable of renouncing a small enjoyment of the moment, in order to obtain a greater one in the future.’ A healthy man in the full vigour of intellect cannot sacrifice his judgment. The sacrifizio dell’ intelletto is the only one he cannot afford. If law and custom impose upon him acts which he recognises as absurd because they defeat their end, not only will he have the right, but it will be his duty, to defend reason against nonsense, and knowledge against error.[412] But his revolt will always be in the name of judgment, not in the name of instinct.

All this philosophy of self-restraint can, it is true, be preached to healthy human beings only. It has no application to degenerates. Their defective brain and nervous system are not in a state to respond to its demands. The processes within their organs are morbidly intensified. Hence the latter send particularly powerful stimuli to consciousness. The sensory nerves conduct badly. The memory-images in the brain are faint. Perceptions of the external world, representations of anterior experiences, are, therefore, non-existent or too feeble to subdue the stimulus originating in the organs. Such persons can do nought else but follow their desires and impulsions. They are the ‘instinctivists’ and ‘impulsivists’ of mental therapeutics. To this species belong the Noras, Ellidas, Rebeccas, Stockmanns, Brands, etc. This company, being dangerous to themselves and to others, require to be put under the guardianship of rational men, or, better still, in lunatic asylums. Such must be the answer to those fools or charlatans who vaunt Ibsen’s figures as ‘free men’ and ‘strong personalities,’ and with the sweet-sounding tones of a Pied Piper’s air on ‘self-disposal,’ ‘moral independence,’ and ‘living life out,’ attract children devoid of judgment heaven knows whither, but in any case to their ruin.

The third feature of Ibsen’s drama accounting for his success is the light in which he shows woman. ‘Women are the pillars of society,’ he makes Bernick say (in The Pillars of Society, p. 114). With Ibsen woman has no duties and all rights. The tie of marriage does not bind her. She runs away when she longs for liberty, or when she believes she has cause of complaint against her husband, or when he pleases her a little less than another man. The man who plays the Joseph, and does not comply with the will of Madame Potiphar, does not draw on himself the customary ridicule; he is roundly pronounced a criminal (Ghosts, p. 158):

Pastor Manders. It was my greatest victory, Helen—the victory over myself.

Mrs. Alving. It was a crime against us both.


Woman is always the clever, strong, courageous being; man always the simpleton and coward. In every encounter the wife is victorious, and the man flattened out like a pancake. Woman need live for herself alone. With Ibsen she has even overcome her most primitive instinct—that of motherhood—and abandons her brood without twitching an eyelid when the caprice seizes her to seek satisfactions elsewhere. Such abject adoration of woman—a pendant to Wagner’s woman-idolatry—such unqualified approval of all feminine depravities,[413] was bound to secure the applause of those women who in the viragoes of Ibsen’s drama—hysterical, nymphomaniacal, perverted in maternal instinct[367]—recognise either their own portrait or the ideal of development of their degenerate imagination. Women of this species find, as a matter of fact, all discipline intolerable. They are by birth les femmes de ruisseau of Dumas fils. They are not fit for marriage—for European marriage with one man only. Promiscuous sexual intercourse and prostitution are their most deeply-seated instincts, according to Ferrero[368] the atavistic form of degeneration in women, and they are grateful to Ibsen for having catalogued, under the fine designations of ‘The struggle of woman for moral independence’ and ‘The right of woman to assert her own personality,’ those propensities to which opprobrious names are usually given.

In his fiercely travestied exaggerations of Ibsen’s doctrines, entitled Der Vater, Gräfin Julie, Gläubiger, etc., poor Grindberg, whose brain is equally deranged, but who possesses great creative power, goes to the greatest pains to show the absurdity of Ibsen’s notions on the nature of woman, her rights, her relations to man. His method, however, is a false one. He will never convince Ibsen by rational arguments that his doctrines are foolish, for they do not spring from his reason, but from his unconscious instincts. His figures of women and their destinies are the poetical expression of that sexual perversion of degenerates called by Krafft-Ebing ‘masochism.’[369][414] Masochism is a sub-species of ‘contrary sexual sensation.’ The man affected by this perversion feels himself, as regards woman, to be the weaker party; as the one standing in need of protection; as the slave who rolls on the ground, compelled to obey the behests of his mistress, and finding his happiness in obedience. It is the inversion of the healthy and natural relation between the sexes. In Sacher-Masoch imperious and triumphant woman wields the knout; in Ibsen she exacts confessions, inflicts inflammatory reprimands, and leaves in a flare of Bengal lights. In essence, Ibsen’s heroines are the same as Sacher-Masoch’s, though the expression of feminine superiority is a little less brutal. It is remarkable that the women who exult over Ibsen’s Nora-types are not shocked by the Hedwigs, Miss Tesmans, and other womanly embodiments of sacrifice, in whom the highly contradictory thoughts and feelings of the confused mystic come to light. But it has been psychologically established that human beings overlook what is in dissonance with their own propinquities, and dwell on that only which is in harmony with them.

Ibsen’s feminine clientèle is, moreover, not composed merely of hysterical and degenerate characters, but includes also those women who are leading an unhappy married life, or believe themselves misunderstood, or suffer from the discontent and inner void resulting from insufficient occupation. Clear thinking is not the most prominent quality of this species of woman. Otherwise they would not have found their advocate in Ibsen. Ibsen is not their friend. No one is who, as long as the present order of society exists, attacks the institution of marriage.

A serious and healthy reformer will contend for the principle that marriage should acquire a moral and emotional import, and not remain a lying form. He will condemn the marriage for interest, a dowry or business marriage; he will brand as a crime the action of married couples who feel for some other human being a strong, true love, tested by time and struggle, and yet remain together in a cowardly pseudo-union, deceiving and contaminating each other, instead of honourably separating and contracting genuine connections elsewhere; he will demand that marriage be based on reciprocal inclination, maintained by confidence, respect, and gratitude, consolidated by consideration for the offspring; but he will guard himself from saying anything against marriage itself, this bulwark of the relations between the sexes afforded by definite, permanent duty. Marriage is a high advance from the free copulation of savages. To abandon it and return to primitive promiscuity would be the most profound atavism of degeneracy. Marriage, moreover, was not instituted for the man, but for[415] the woman and the child. It is a protective social institution for the benefit of the weaker part. Man has not yet conquered and humanized his polygamous animal instincts to the same extent as woman. It would for the most part be quite agreeable to him to exchange the woman he possesses for a new one. Departures à la Nora are as a rule not of a nature to frighten him. He could open the door very wide for Nora, and bestow on her his parting benediction with much pleasure. Were it once the law and custom in a society where each was forced to care for himself alone (and needed only to trouble himself about the offspring of others, when it was a question of orphan, abandoned, or begging children) that man and wife should separate as soon as they ceased to be agreeable to each other, it would be the men and not the women who would first make use of the new liberty. Departures à la Nora are perhaps without danger for rich wives, or those eminently capable of acquiring means of support, and hence pecuniarily independent. Such, however, in present society constitute a minute minority. Under Ibsen’s code of morals the vast majority of wives would have everything to lose. The severe discipline of matrimony is their bulwark. It obliges the man to take care of the children and of the wife as she declines in years. Hence it should be the true duty of rational wives to declare Ibsen infamous, and to revolt against Ibsenism, which criminally threatens them and their rights. Only through error can women of spirit and indisputable morality join the ranks of Ibsen’s followers. It is necessary to enlighten them concerning the range of his doctrines, and in particular concerning their effect on the position of woman, so that they may abandon a company which can never be their own. May he remain surrounded by those only who are spirit of his spirit, that is to say, by hysterical women and masculine masochists, who, with Ehrhard,[370] believe that ‘sound common-sense and optimism are the two destructive principles of all poetry’!
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