Max Nordau: a case study

Cartoon of Oscar Wilde as Narcissus wearing the flower of Notoriety by Thomas Nast, from The Fortnightly Review, July 1894

Cartoon of Oscar Wilde as Narcissus wearing the flower of Notoriety by Thomas Nast, from The Fortnightly Review, July 1894

In the lonely footnotes of history, catalogued obscurely under ‘Oscar Wilde: critics of’; ‘cheque-book journalism’; ‘pseudo-science (see Lombroso)’; ‘social Darwinism’; and ‘eugenics’, one may find a sad and curious specimen called Max Nordau.

“Such is the spectacle presented by the doings of men in the reddened light of the Dusk of Nations. … Over the earth the shadows creep with deepening gloom, wrapping all objects in mysterious dimness, in which all certainty is destroyed and any guess seems plausible.” Max Nordau, Degeneration (originally published in German as Entartung)

With an opening like that, we could be forgiven for thinking that this Max Nordau chap will tell us a delightful Gothic tale, and prepare ourselves for ghostly fingers scratching on the window pane just as an unexplained draught blows out all the candles. This purple prose of doom turns out to be, however, not a story by Edgar Allan Poe or Ann Radcliffe, but the introduction to Nordau’s ‘scientific’ account of how to diagnose ‘Degeneration’ in artistic types who are weakening the human race. How disappointing! Just when we were settling in for a frightfully good fright!

Apparently, Degenerates can be identified by the “asymmetry of face and cranium” which is reflected in a corresponding imbalance in their “mental faculties”. “These male specimens”, Nordau tells us, can be found at “the varnishing day at the Paris Champs de Mars salon, or the opening of the Exhibition of the Royal Academy in London.”

“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and pronounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists. These, however, manifest the same mental characteristics, and for the most part the same somatic features, as the members of the above-mentioned anthropological family …” Max Nordau, Degeneration

To help us identify this dangerous sub-species, Nordau tells us that “another mental stigma of degenerates is their emotionalism. …[A] commonplace line of poetry or of prose sends a shudder down his back; he falls into raptures before indifferent pictures or statues … [He] boasts that where the Philistine remains completely cold, he feels his inner self confounded, the depths of this being broken up, and the bliss of the Beautiful possessing him to the tips of his fingers.”

Nordau goes on to identify Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Wagner, Zola, Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and Tolstoy as ‘Degenerates’, singling Ibsen and Wilde out for particular attention.

Nordau writes that “Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime. In a very affectionate biographical treatise on Thomas Griffith Wainewright, [Wilde’s Pen, Pencil and Poison] 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.’”

Poor Nordau treats Wilde’s satirical essay as a straightforward biographical piece, confused by the way that Wilde plays with form. Nordau, it seems, was also unaware that Hazlitt, Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton had all found Wainewright’s story worthy of study and fictional retelling, although these writers were not associated with Decadence or diagnosed by Nordau as suffering from ‘degeneration’.

When Wilde credits the Impressionists with creating fogs and mists, Nordau takes this statement at face value, instead of understanding that Wilde meant that artists make us examine the world afresh. “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.”

By now, dear reader, you will have diagnosed the malaise from which Nordau suffers. Nordau’s genetic fault is this: he suffers from irony deficiency.

Nordau is one of those unfortunate creatures who would take Swift’s A Modest Proposal and Thomas De Quincey’s On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts at face value, and really believe that their authors recommended eating children or establishing a Royal Academy for murder.

We can detect Nordau’s symptoms. Laughter makes him foam at the mouth. He believes that mockery should be a punishable offence. He would dress up any book in ‘scientific’ garb to extract profit from the credulous. People who are different fill him with abject terror. He is so unconscious of his affliction that he becomes hysterical in talking about hysteria.

“We stand now in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria, and it is natural that we should ask anxiously on all sides: ‘What is to come next?’” Max Nordau, Degeneration

Nordau was right on one point: Wilde was indeed subversive, something that is most evident in his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (which would be more accurately titled The Soul of the Individual Under Anarchism). “Disobedience,” Wilde wrote, “in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.”

When Wilde insisted that “all art is quite useless” and championed art-for-art’s sake, Nordau mistook this for frivolousness. I think that Wilde was actually insisting that art must resist being used by the powerful. Too often, ‘useful’ art is a tool in the hand of propagandists, or used, in the case of realism, to make the current state of man-made systems seem so ‘natural’ that injustice, inequality and suffering are accepted as inevitable, God-given and unquestionable.

Nordau overlooked the fact that the Aesthetic Movement was in part a reaction against industrialisation, a protest against the way that workers and other citizens were being poisoned, demeaned, alienated, starved, maimed, worked to death and crowded into polluted and unsanitary conditions in the names of Empire, Progress and Profit. Far from being immoral or amoral, thinkers such as John Ruskin, William Morris and Oscar Wilde championed hand-crafted objects made by artisans not just for the sake of aesthetic beauty but for the sake of ethical beauty.

“Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.” Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Unfortunately for Wilde, Degeneration was published in English in 1895, shortly before Wilde was arrested and turned, by the courts and the press, into a monster. A popular success that generated much journalistic coverage, seven editions of Degeneration were printed in six months.

Reviewers such as George Bernard Shaw put Degeneration in its place, laughing at Nordau’s self-contradictory arguments and money-making opportunism. “The book is a very amusing one. Somehow or other books of lamentation and mourning and woe of this kind generally are,” George Saintsbury wrote in the Bookman.

Now Nordau can retire to the specimen case, and obscurity.


  • The cartoon at the top, presumably by the same James Edward Kelly who produced the bas-relief in bronze and sketch of Wilde in 1882:


  • Agreed about Nordau’s pseudo-science. But are you aware of Ashley H. Robins’ book “Oscar Wilde — The Great Drama of His Life: How His Tragedy Reflected His Personality”?

    In it there is a section that dispenses with Nordau as a starting point to define possibly a more believable, certainly more interesting, diagnosis of Wilde’s psychology as Histrionic Personality Disorder. It’s quite a cogent argument and Wilde checks a lot of boxes.


    • Robins’ book sounds interesting. Thank you for alerting me to it. I have conflicting thoughts about books such as this and Knox’s Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide.

      It is tempting to think that Wilde willingly fashioned his life into a Greek tragedy of such terrible pain and beauty that it threatens to eclipse his other works. Perhaps he was re-enacting the trauma of his father’s sex scandal. Perhaps popular success and playing to the crowd was such a bore that he needed the drama of ruin. Perhaps we should be disecting society, not Wilde. He was a gay or bisexual man in a world that remains intolerant. Wilde knew he should hide his true self, but he resented the need. Why should society enjoy his talents and simultaneously stifle him?

      Wilde wanted to shield Bosie from the Marquess. He wouldn’t stand up to Bosie, or back down to the English. Wilde was also disrupting the class system by sleeping with the aristocracy and the working classes. He was punished not just for being gay but for being middle class and suing a Marquess.

      Wilde made a mistake, but it’s society that should be on the couch, not Wilde. In a dysfunctional society, why should individuals be punished for inconsistent behaviour?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like much of what you say—and say some the same myself.

        Individuals should not, of course, be punished for being inconsistent with a dysfunctional society; but as society is difficult and slow to change, most people try to adapt to acceptability. It is the habit of psychoanalyzing the people who wish to fit and fail, that we mistakenly try to examine people like Oscar who have no wish to fit in and succeed.


  • I’ve contacted the British Library to enquire about the identification of the artist.


  • Clearly by Nast, even from the style. ‘Enquiry’ seems a little polite; the BL should be told the error of their ways and be corrected.


  • The British Library have not responded to my feedback about the incorrect identification of this cartoon on their website, which is disappointing.


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