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Max Nordau (1849 - 1923)

Related: 1890s - decadent movement - degenerate

Degeneration (1892) - Max Simon Nordau [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Max Nordau was a famous writer, a practicing physician, a bourgeois examplar of enterprise and energy when his Degeneration appeared in Germany in 1892. He argued that the spirit of the times was characterized by enervation, exhaustion, hysteria, egotism, and inability to adjust or to act. Culture had degenerated, he said, and if criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and lunatics were degenerates, so were the authors and artists of the era. Its targets included Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Richard Wagner, Zola, and Walt Whitman. [Sept 2006]

"Hysteria and degeneration have always existed; but they formerly showed themselves sporadically, and had no importance in the life of the whole community. It was only the vast fatigue which was experienced by the generation on which the multitudes of discoveries and innovations burst abruptly, imposing on it organic exigencies greatly surpassing its strength, which created favourable conditions under which these maladies could gain ground enormously, and become a danger to civilization."

Max Norday on the fin-de-siècle mood: "It is the impotent despair of a sick man, who feels himself dying by inches in the midst of an eternally living nature blooming insolently for ever. It is the envy of a rich, hoary voluptuary, who sees a pair of lovers making for a sequestered forest nook; it is the mortification of the exhausted and impotent refugee from a Florentine plague seeking in an enchanted garden the experiences of a Decameron, but striving in vain to snatch one more pleasure of sense from the uncertain hour." -- Degeneration, 1892.

For Nordau, all forms of modern art, whether music, poetry, or visual revealed symptoms of mental disorder and nervous excitement. As a result of their corruption and feebleness, modern artists lacked the self-control to produce coherent works. Nordau attacked the Symbolist movement in French literature, describing their mysticism as a product of mental pathology, as well as Aestheticism in English literature and Impressionism in painting (he explained Impressionist painterliness as the sign of a diseased visual cortex). He insisted on the superiority of traditional German culture. [Jul 2006]


Max Nordau (July 29, 1849 - January 23, 1923), born Simon Maximilian Südfeld in Pest, Hungary, was a Zionist leader, physician, author, and social critic.

He was a co-founder of the World Zionist Organization together with Theodor Herzl, and president or vice president of several Zionist congresses.

He was also a social critic who wrote a number of controversial books, including The Conventional Lies of Our Civilisation (1883), Degeneration (1892), and Paradoxes (1896). Of these books, the one most frequently remembered is Degeneration; it was a philistine and moralistic attack on so-called degenerate art, and its arguments were adopted by the antisemitic Nazi Party in Germany.

Nordau died in Paris, France in 1923. In 1926 his remains were moved to Tel Aviv. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Nordau [Feb 2004]

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