Monday, 12 January 2015

IS EUROPE GOING MAD?

A PATHOLOGICAL STUDY OF MODERN LITERATURE,

DOUBT as to the general sanity of modern Europe is put forward, not in any freak or caricature, but in sober, scientific earnest, by the opening article in the Quarterly Review. It is entitled 'Anarchist Literature,' but by this phrase is meant not the writings beloved of bomb-throwers so much as the leading literature of the period. Dr. Max Nordau, from whose work on Entartung (degeneration) the reviewer principally draws his material, is the author of the famous 'Conventional Lies of Civilised Humanity,' a Positivist who denies God, the soul, and Judgment to come, and regards the individual as 'but an unimportant episode in the life of the All.' In his book he approaches modern European literature from the dispassionate standpoint of the student of mental pathology. His diagnosis is gruesome reading. Of the literature which reproduces modern life he finds 'degeneration' the characteristic, and the source of that degeneration is brain fatigue. Fatigue, undoubtedly— the remit of a hundred years of living at high pressure— will ex plain the worn-out nerves, and consequent demand for unhealthy stimulus, which are the immediate causes of European decadence. ... A civilised man's environment now presses upon him with a force some twenty or twenty five times greater than it did before the age of steam. To keep the balance . . , . the present race of Europeans should have strengthened the nervous centres to a degree which would make them men of genius. Yet . . by the use of narcotics and artificial excitement, they have deliberately weakened them. ... It ought not to astonish as that such exhausted temperaments breed hysteria; or that from hysteria should result the 'intense self-consciousness.' Hysteria is the consequence of fatigued nerves; its mental equivalent is melancholy, or the state in which impulse conquers reason ; development is arrested, and atavism or second childhood frequently ensues. Bishop Butler is known to have asked whether nations could go mad. Max Nordau would not hesitate to reply in the affirmative. He believes that the 'hysteria of the masses' in Europe is an ascertained fact, evidence of which is sadly forthcoming, in the statistics of crime, insanity, and suicide. The earliest activities to waver in a diseased organism are the moral habits. Degeneracy shows itself in moral insanity.' The emotional temperament, the ' obsession' of fixed ideas, the imagination opened to every fantastic influence, the depression, the lack of perseverance in well-doing, the pessimism, and, behind all this, the confused incoherent thought which is guided by no principles and lives by imitation,— such are notes of many an artist, poet, romance-writer, but also of criminals, anarchists, and tenants of the asylum . . . These men and women have failed in adapting themselves to the stage of civilisation which we have now reached. . . They are the savages of civilisation, — the barbarians in our midst. Proceeding to classify his anarchist authors, Max Nordau divides them into two principal groups,— "first, the Mystics, among whom he reckons the Preraphaelites, the Symbolists, and the Occultists ; and second, the Egotists, to whom belong the Parnassians, the Satanic school, the Decadents, and the Realists. All these have a common element, which is impulse, or instinct.' 'He concludes that Mr. Swinburne is a 'mattoid' and that Rossetti was an 'imbecile'" "Verlaine is a 'degenerate,' resembling in some points the American tramp and idler Walt Whitman ; he is a 'circulating ' or 'periodic' case, of the obsession of ideas.' Nordau convicts Tolstoi of " all those peculiarities which are found in the degenerate.' In M. de Vogue's words, Tolstoi has the mind of an English chemist and the soul of a Hindu Buddhist,' In his teaching he is 'passive to the verge of idiocy.' The reviewer asks, would any one acquainted with the conditions of a sound mind, affirm that such were existent in Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Comte, or again in Coleridge, or at all times in Carlyle?' Wagner betrays an utter lack of creative power. ' Never, indeed, was there such borrowing. Wagner's 'drama of the future,' says Nordau mockingly, 'is all of the past.' ' Nordau refuses to regard these morbid symptoms as aberrations of genius ; the lack of creative power reveals the presence of a diseased temperament which is no part of genius. He classes among the inferior crowd of degenerates ' the adepts in ocult science, followers of the black art, dealers with spirits, theosophists Rosicrucians, whose journals circulate, and whose books find thousands of readers, in France, England, and America. . . Of the Decadents we are told that with 'their egotism, their invalid monomania and dull brain' 'they delight in the perverse because it calls forth the only strong reaction of which they are capable.' Their poetry, " when studied by medical experts, is seen to be absolutely of the same kind as that which their insane patients compose." The reviewer warns as not to suppose that degeneration is nothing but a foreign disease. English society betrays the same deep infection .. . . . M. Zola has received the homage of London Clubs, as representing French literature ; but a more delicate sensuality than his reckons its votaries among us by thousands. ' In these latter days, the poet, dramatist, and standard-bearer of anarchy is Henrik Ibsen.' He emphatically in mind and morals betrays the marks of the degenerate. His leading motives, so far from being modern, are borrowed from the religious beliefs in which he was brought up, as a Swedenborgian or Kierkegaard Lutheran. His characteristic ideas are 'confession, redemption, and original sin in the form of a malignant heredity.' 'He is at once a plagiarist of the old and a rebel against it. In other words be denies but cannot create ; his art, with some notable exceptions, is disguised and degraded reminiscence.' The reviewer asks in alarm, ' Has degeneration grown, from merely French and national, to European ? And will it continue to grow ?' The state of things, should hysteria, decadence, nervous exhaustion, worship of the occult and the preternatural, Wagner music, and the bacillus of anarchy, flourish and prevail so as to become, in parliamentary phrase, the order of the day, Nordau has sketched in a bizarre and curious chapter, not unlike the chronicles of a lunatic asylum. Mercifully for our 'degenerate' nerves. Nordau has too much confidence in 'the deep-seated vitality of mankind' to expect Europe to sink wholesale into Bedlam. He is certain of one thing: that degeneracy will sweep away its own victims. The literary anarchist will perceive in his first encounter with the barbarians that his strength, like his intellect, was a delusion. A revolt of ├Žsthetic heroes against the army of the proletariat would not last long, If degeneration continues, the collapse of an exhausted society will soon ensue, Nordau holds out two alternatives. The masses will either accommodate themselves to the demands of the electric age, or, finding its strain too great, will grow careless of new discoveries, and surrender many of the old. That may come to pass which the medieval centuries witnessed — a people rearing their huts, in contented ignorance, on the ruins of C├Žsar's Palace, and letting the master pieces of science and literature fall into oblivion. . . It is possible, therefore, that science and literature may perish, lest the human race be sophisticated into disease and death. Science — physical or biological— has not the answer of life in itself. Nordau's hope lies in the perennial fact that men 'take an interest in thought of their fellow men. The artist, the maker in prose or verse, will be to them as a prophet.' Since 'what is lacking to the anarchist in politics, in literature, and in life is creative power,' the reviewer asks, ' What can be done to cure him?' Max Nordau would have the public attention drawn forcibly and repeatedly to the affinities which exist between these schools of art, and the kinds of insanity they body forth. He would recommend that the bacillus of unsound literature be studied by physicians, its specific differences noted, and the public put on their guard. ... He feels disposed to approve of a department, corresponding to that of Education or Religion, the business of which should be to train journalists and men of letters. . . . Societies might be established to put down the worst kinds of literature, which are now sown broadcast over Europe. The public opinion of Universities should make itself heard. And, in general, men should understand that, in publishing a bad book, the author is as much guilty, and ought to be as amenable to punishment, as if he had incited to crime or rebellion. Such is the plan of salvation which a Positivist man of science offers to a Continent daily growing more insane. The reviewer adds his own convictions :— These forces are too mighty for science to handle them alone, or subdue them as a sovereign mistress. Unless the great inspiring genius of all time, which is an embodied and objective Religion, be called in to its aid, we may question whether it will overcome the growing anarchy, and not rather, in some wild era of revolution, be trampled under its feet. Man is so made that he must believe in the Invisible and adore the Supreme ; if his God be taken from him, then to idols, witches, and the like he will have recourse, huddling up a deity out of rags and stage-properties, rather than be left alone in the universe. That is the moral of these frightful and unclean apparitions, which, as from the tomb of Faith, call aloud during the dark hours that they will rise again.— Review of Reviews.

 Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser 14 April 1894,

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