Thursday, 22 August 2013

Max Nordau: The Social Purist

This is an edited version from a chapter in That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and
the Great War, (Encompass Editions, 2011) that did not survive the editing process for
 reasons of space.

 Degenerates are not always criminals; they are often artists and authors. 
 Max Nordau, Degeneration     

Max Nordau
         What may be the most chilling part of Max Nordau's Degeneration is contained mainly in his conclusion; there he scapegoats the "degenerate" artist for the ills afflicting individuals and society with a harsh and censorious indictment. Incorporating medical metaphors into his discourse, he spoke of degenerate potentialities as "infectious viruses" that had spread and currently reached cataclysmic proportions. With apocalyptic language, he referred to his own time as "a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration." And what were the attributes of this "mental epidemic" that may not have reached "its culminating point" and what that is now "observed among the inmates of lunatic asylums" would be recognizable in mass numbers of the whole society? Individuals with brains ‘incapable of normal working…feebleness of will, inattention, predominance of emotion, lack of knowledge, absence of sympathy or interest in the world and humanity, atrophy of the notion of duty and morality" would represent a partial list of the pathologies present in deviant individuals. But those aberrations were evidence of a "vast fatigue" that sapped the strength and virility of individuals and rendered them and society vulnerable to disintegration.

Nordau contended that the conditions of modern life, in everything from train travel that ruined the nervous system to newspapers, contributed to a frantic pace that contributed to enervated, exhausted individuals, who had already inherited enfeebled constitutions from their own parents. Fatigue was not simply a physical condition but a morals disorder, a sign of weak will, and incapacity for hard work. This lassitude made the public susceptible to any sensation or thrill, regardless of how depraved and aesthetic that included impressionism, symbolism, and naturalism, which titillated a neurotic public with their glorification of filth and social chaos. He alternates between extreme passivity that “abhorrence of action” and over-stimulation leading to a “love of the strange, bizarre, evil loathsome, and ugly, and to sexual perversions” a condition tantamount to “moral insanity.” Also characteristic of degenerates, and is particularly relevant to the artists that he has been demonizing throughout his book, were that they were atavistic. In language that Lombroso had specially marshaled to stigmatize criminals and non-whites, Nordau employed to flay artists that did not satisfy his criteria for what he deemed normal or the healthy. Degenerates exhausted and backsliding on the evolutionary scale regressed to “the most forgotten, far–away past…they compose music like that of the yellow natives of East Asia….Every one of their qualities is atavistic, and we know, moreover that atavism is one of the constant marks of degeneracy.” With its emphasis on regression, its comparison to so-called primitive peoples and its pandering to fears and terrors that lurk within society, Degeneration could be read as one the archetypal Gothic texts of the 1890s.

         But why should a throwback to an earlier form of life but existing in the present in a cultural representation generate so much alarm? The instinctual and the unconscious were anathema to Nordau because of their associations with the primitive and the perverse that now threatened modern civilization. Since the perverted was always identified with the primitive, and the latter was allegedly endowed with an excess libido, the logic was that the pervert was equally endowed.  Specifically, Nordau was disturbed by anything that even hinted of sexual perversions in an aesthetic creation, since he believed that those of unsound mind “could perceive them under all disguises’ even when “they are ignorant of what is in certain works.” Any artistic work that he considered was sexually psychopathic could excite in ‘abnormal persons the corresponding perversion’ so that aesthetic responses became confused with sexual feelings. Whether “abnormal persons” would act upon these impulses, Nordau remained silent, but it is clear that he wanted the reader to arrive at that conclusion. He was clearly disturbed by cross–dressing and current sexual behaviour because he lamented that "modesty and restraint are dead superstitions of the past." He condemned artists because of their ability to intuit the ‘perversions’ that are instinctual, often unconscious and sometimes genuinely disturbing. Degenerate individuals: criminals, lunatics, and alcoholics could be isolated, castrated or executed, but if society were to survive, strong vigilance and censorious behaviour were imperative. That required “the expansion of consciousness and the contraction of the unconscious; the strengthening of will, and  weakening of the impulsions; the increase of self–responsibility and the repression of reckless egoism." These qualities needed to be mobilized against the degenerates who were “enemies to society.” But energy also had to be directed against the more bilious pornographers, “the filthy loving herd of swine” because they “poison the springs whence flow the life of future generations.” Sexual excess and perversion  stimulated by the pornographers destroyed the physical and mental health of individuals and nations because it rendered them “too worn out and flaccid to perform great tasks.” Much of this was hardly new; Nordau was building upon what Krafft–Ebbing had written about how moral decay was responsible for the collapse of nations: “The material and moral ruin of the community is readily brought about by debauchery, adultery and luxury, [which]…can always be traced to  psychopathological or neuropathological conditions.” In this line of reasoning, sexual excess and perversion were held accountable for the decline of a society. For a professed rationalist, he could be obsessive when he attributes degeneration to every perceived problem from urbanization, mental illness, modern art to sexual excess.

Although vehemently antagonistic to the New Women and the suffragettes, Nordau’s language against the pornographers was remarkably similar to those who understandably pilloried the libidinous males
for blighting the lives of generations yet unborn. His “condemnation of works trading on unchastity” foreshadows Stoker’s essay on censorship. Just as Bram Stoker would write, “the only emotions which in the long run harm are those arising from sex impulses,” in 1892 Nordau wrote that “the systematic incitation to lasciviousness causes the greatest gravest injury to the bodily and mental health of individuals.” He offers no hope to the degenerates because “their mental derangement is too deep seated; [they] must be abandoned to their inexorable fate.” And what is that fate? 

His prescient words were to echo and be wrenched into a different and dangerous context throughout totalitarian states in the twentieth century: “whoever looks upon civilization as a good, deserving to be defended, must mercilessly crush under his thumb the anti–social vermin.” And what constituted for both Nordau and Stoker the "anti-social vermin"? Anything that was not normal, manly or utilitarian
was anathema to a civilized society. Nordau and Stoker’s analysis may be similar, but their conclusions on how this “vermin” should be excised were different. Likely reflecting their different cultural backgrounds, Nordau, whose experience was Central European and who worked in Paris as a correspondent, dismissed the idea that the state could be effective in imposing censorship because the police often operated on their behalf of the privileged classes rather than against them. Only men of good character, including members of Parliament, judges and professors, could determine the boundary between healthy and degenerate by constituting a voluntary “Society for Ethical Culture.” Although a modern reader might differ, he asserted that it was not his prudishness but his profound fear of the primitive in man that imperiled the very existence of a civilized society that needed to be restrained, and artists had a responsibility not to unleash those passions. If they did place their own egotistic impulses before the security of a very fragile society, they should be denounced as criminal and their work “a disgrace to the nation,” therefore, the “work and the man would be annihilated.” His conclusions, if not his targets, were similar to those advocated by the social purity movement in England and by pressure groups everywhere who in their denunciation of a work of art often impugned the character and integrity of the artist himself. 

Nordau dedicated Degeneration to Cesare Lombroso
Nordau’s call for social vigilantism founders under a flawed often-contradictory analysis. It never occurred to him or his mentor Cesare Lombrososcientists committed to reason, observation, self-discipline and the ability to make rational connectionswas that each was erecting an ideological construct.  Committed above all to adaptation to the environment and the maintenance of the status quo, he believed that anything that smacked of rebellion against established norms, that stressed the subjective, the intuitive and imaginative over the objective and scientific was dangerous mysticism or egomania that borders on criminality and insanity. But those degenerates, who cannot adapt to reality and have exhausted themselves, will perish on their own accord through sterility or dysfunctionality. This musing suggested that degeneration was reversible, and is rendered more explicit with his optimistic observation that “the hysteria of the present day will not last.” At the same time, he regarded them as “possessing a terrible energy and being hell–bent on disintegrating and perverting the social, psychic and sexual orders.” Equally inconsistent was his belief that in an urban context, it was not the enfeebled and unhealthy who demonstrated disgusting fertility, that were at great risk of surviving, but the non degenerates who might not be able to adapt and survive. Finally, what is most astonishing is his concession that that “there exists no activity and no state of the living organism, which can in itself be designated as ‘health or disease.’ But it becomes one or the other in respect to the circumstances and purposes of the organism.” In other words, it is relative as to what is classified as healthy or degenerate. What at one time was healthy on the evolutionary scale may not be now. And what of those artists who exhibit the attributes of degeneration? Their pathology has been downgraded to "a slight deviation of perfect health."  He obviously has different artists in mind than the ones he has reviled, but that is never clear.   

Since Nordau praised the philistine middle class for their immunity to the avant-garde, he received favorable reviews in the conservative press. Still, because of the unsettling and mean-spirited messages of Degeneration, it was reviled as a windy, cranky, often muddled, journalistic monograph by contemporary artists such as Shaw and largely unread after 1914. Whether intended or not, Nordau encouraged a persecutory mindset by delineating sharper boundaries between what he deemed healthy and unhealthy, normal and deviant in individuals and society. Consider this snippet that largely focuses on the salubrious physically robust individual:

    The normal man, with his clear mind, logical thought, sound judgement, and strong will, sees, 
     where the degenerate only gropes; he plans and acts where the degenerate only gropes….Let us 
     imagine these beings in competition with men who rise early, and who are not weary at sunset, 
     who have clear heads, solid stomachs and hard muscles: the comparison will provoke our

Nordau condemned Oscar Wilde for cross dressing
It is speculative to wonder whether it ever occurred to him that a strapping vigorous individual might also be endowed with a powerful libido. Recall that these men (never women) would comprise the “Society for Ethical Culture” who would “distinguish the thoughtlessness of a morally healthy artist from the vile speculation of a scribbling ruffian.” Although he specifically did not include doctors in this group, he clearly wanted them to exercise a more active role by taking up their pens and capitalizing on their status to “restrain many healthy spirits from affiliating themselves with degenerate tendencies.” Would physicians be endowed with ‘solid stomachs and hard muscles’? The physician could exhort, but the individual must exercise some responsibility through work, focus, self-discipline each in of themselves desirable qualitiesbut they must be supplemented with will power. Krafft–Ebbing, one of Nordau’s favorite authorities believed that “‘will-power and strong character’ could cure all but the most depraved and congenitally defective.” If an individual cannot exercise self-control by warding off temptations, that would be evidence of tainted heredity. Strengthening the consciousness means weakening access to the unconscious (as if that were possible) by exercising self-restraint by presumably avoiding artistic works, restraining the imagination and any free associations that might encourage entry to it because of the danger of ‘drowning’ in it and going mad. He maligns what he calls mysticism for seeing anything beyond the surface and to conclude some mysterious significance beyond the plainest facts. Will power meant resisting the temptation to dwell on the morbid; as a physician, he would have endorsed what the British psychiatrists recommended for depressed patientsindulge in a diverting pleasure and “healthy” action.

Degenerate Art Exhibition in 1937
Behind Nordau’s condemnations of artists and their work, lies the vast power of positivist or empirical science and medicine, which continued to exercise strong influence in the twentieth century even after alternatives such as psychoanalysis, challenged its hegemony. The anxiety around degeneration made an already deeply entrenched fear of serious art legitimate; its appeal “was to render ‘art’ profoundly suspect since art was itself deemed to be a source of instability and disorientation in the modern world.” The physician T. B. Hyslop, who had been the doctor of Virginia Waugh, pursued a long and sustained campaign against degenerate art echoing Nordau’s views in 1911 when he lectured on a Post-Impressionist exhibition in London. In his words, as recorded by Waugh in her diary, the paintings were “the work of madmen. Degenerates…often turn their unhealthy impulses toward art…and the success had to be explained away as deplorable symptoms of a child like regressive public.” Although Nordau confidently asserts that “art cannot take any side in politics,” the twentieth century has proved him completely wrong as art has been an indispensable instrument in the promotion of Nazi and Stalinist ideologies. The Nazis in particular co-opted the very language and message of Nordau. It is a sad irony that Nordau, who as a committed Zionist, spouted the same rubbish against avant-garde artists that was used later against the Jews. If serious art were deemed subversive or disturbing, the message for the potential artist was to avoid unsettling his audience with anything innovative or challenging and provide something wholesome, pleasing or even mediocre.

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