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Max Nordau, Friedrich Nietzsche and Degeneration

Author(s): Steven E. Aschheim


Source: Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct., 1993), pp. 643-657
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/260858
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Steven E.Aschheim

Max Nordau,FriedrichNietzsche and


Degeneration

Max Nordau (1849-1923) was a household name to educated late


nineteenth-century Europeans. It is a telling fact that most late
twentieth-century readers will have little - or no - idea who he
was or what he represented. A famous journalist, physician, dramatist, novelist, polemicist and, later, Zionist activist, his thought and
work, so it appears today, achieved widespread popularity amongst
the middle classes precisely because it was so time-bound, tied to the
conventions and postures of a positivist outlook that ceased to be
relevant after the first world war. The hundredth anniversary of the
publication of his famous, indeed infamous, work Degeneration
(1892) - a veritable diatribe of cultural criticism that characterized
virtually every modernist fin-de-siecle current as a symptom of
exhaustion and inability to adjust to the realities of the modern
industrial age - provides an opportunity for reassessment.'This can
perhaps be most effectively done through a comparison of Nordau
with a thinker whom he despised and whose relevance to, and imprint
upon, twentieth-century intellectual sensibility could not have been
greater - Friedrich Nietzsche.
Judging by contemporary intellectual fashions and the highly antipositivist cultural tenor of the times, it appears, of course, that
Nietzsche has defeated, indeed routed, Nordau. His later Zionist
careerperhaps excepted, Nordau has been accorded a fate worse than
neglect: he is typically treated as little more than a 'symptom', a
textbook example of hopelessly outmoded and misguided cultural
and intellectual postures built upon thoroughly discredited psychophysiological premises.2 A recent historian of degeneration, for
instance, has summarilydismissed Nordau's work as 'the best-known
instance of bizarre "social diagnosis" '. The story seems to be dotted

Journal of ContemporaryHistory (SAGE, London, Newbury Park and New Delhi),


Vol. 28 (1993), 643-657.

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Journal of ContemporaryHistory

with ironies and tables turned: thus, when Nordau predicted that his
fin-de-siecle degenerates would 'rave for a season, and then perish',4
this apparently applied more to himself than it did, for instance, to the
objects of his scorn - Ibsen, Wilde, Baudelaire,Nietzsche and so on.
These perceptions notwithstanding, this paper will seek to analyse
and reassess the Nietzsche-Nordau relationship in terms of a
contemporary perspective. On one level, clearly, it is tempting to
regard both thinkers as almost archetypal figures, extreme personifications of an epochal parting of the ways, the point at which an
indignant, rather bewildered and uncomprehending yet aggressively
self-assertiveEuropean positivism confronted the incipient modernist
revolution intent on radically questioning, indeed destroying, all its
revered postulates. The clash of the Nordauian and Nietzschean
sensibilities can then be taken as historical evidence of a particular
cultural turning-point.
Nevertheless, appearances apart, there were not only differences:
there were also certain interesting - if limited - affinitiesthat need
to be identified and analysed. We shall document both the clash and
the commonalities and then attempt to evaluate the competing
legacies of these two thinkers from our own present historical
perspective. In so doing we may yet uncover some unsuspected
relevancies contained in Nordau's heritage.
At the very centre of what Max Nordau described as 'a severe mental
epidemic... a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria'5
stands the figure of Friedrich Nietzsche. In Degeneration it is
Nietzsche who, more than anyone else, provided the philosophy
behind what he described as the prevalent 'ego-mania' and who
furnished the grounds for an ongoing 'deification of filth', 'licentiousness, disease and corruption'.6 Nietzsche represented nothing
less than the quintessence of intellectual and moral degeneration.
Indeed, Nordau's definition of the ethical climate of the fin-de-siecleis
markedby what appearsto be its essentiallyNietzscheancharacteristics:
a contempt for traditional views of custom and morality... a practical
emancipation from traditional discipline ... unbridled lewdness, the unchaining of
the beast in man ... disdain of all consideration for his fellow-men, the trampling
under foot of all barriers which enclose brutal greed of lucre and lust of
pleasure ... to all, it means the end of an established order, which for thousands of
years has satisfied logic, fettered depravity, and in every art matured something of
beauty.7

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Aschheim: Nordau, Nietzsche and Degeneration

645

Nordau's cultural analysis explicitly extended the Morelian and


Lombrosian analyses of psycho-physiological degeneration to an
area where, as he put it, it had not yet been applied, 'the domain of art
and literature'.8 'It is not necessary', he wrote, 'to measure the
cranium of an author, or to see the lobe of a painter's ear, in order to
recognize the fact that he belongs to the class of degenerates.'9
Authors and artists, Nordau proclaimed, as much as criminals,
prostitutes and lunatics (those classical outsiders labelled with the
condition), demonstrated all the familiar mental characteristics and
very often the somatic features that symptomized the degenerate
condition. '
Critics were, from the beginning, sceptical of - and sometimes
appalled by - Nordau's application of quasi-medical categories to
artistic and philosophical matters." Yet in the case of Nietzsche and
his well-known illness (his insanity dated from January 1889) it was
particularlyeasy and plausible to place not only the man but also his
thought within a medico-pathological frame, a connection that for
many of the others whom Nordau pilloried - Wagner, Zola and so
on -seemed forced or at best metaphorical. Linking the craziness of
Nietzsche's ideas to his (later) insanity was a general technique of
those who, in the history of Nietzsche-reception, sought to defame
the philosopher and outlaw his ideas. The fact of Nietzsche's
derangement was regularly incorporated into the philosophical
critique, explanatory of its 'perverted'contents.'2 Nordau phrased it
thus:
From the first to the last page of Nietzsche's writings the careful reader seems to
hear a madman, with flashing eyes, wild gestures, and foaming mouth, spouting
forth deafening bombast... So far as any meaning at all can be extracted from the
endless stream of phrases, it shows, as its fundamental elements, a series of
constantly reiterated delirious ideas, having their source in illusions of sense and
diseased organic processes . .. Here and there emerges a distinct idea, which, as is
always the case with the insane, assumes the form of an imperious assertion, a sort
of despotic command.13

More than his fellow 'degenerates', Nietzsche was considered not


only as insanely perverted but, as Sander Gilman has persuasively
shown, a thinker uniquely and consistently endowed with almost
supernaturalpotency, a '"dangerous thinker" - not merely that he
espouseddangerousthoughts,but that he causeddangerousacts ... '.'4
In this respect, Nordau's comments fitted into an ongoing
tradition, a strategy not only for dealing with Nietzsche himself but

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for coping with what many contemporaries regardedas an even more


disturbing phenomenon - the remarkable influence that Nietzsche
had begun to exert, the perplexing proliferation of Nietzsche cults
(often quite contradictory in nature and outlook) that increasingly
dotted the cultural landscape of the 1890s.'5 Nietzsche, wrote
Nordau, was
obviously insane from birth, and his books bear on every page the imprint of
insanity. It may be cruel to insist on this fact. It is, however, a painful, yet
unavoidable, duty to refer to it anew, because Nietzsche has become the means of
raising a mental pestilence, and the only hope of checking its propagation lies in
placing Nietzsche's insanity in the clearest light, and in branding his disciples with
the marks most suited to them, viz., as hysterical and imbecile.'6

Nordau, like other nineteenth-century liberals, had no doubts


about what constituted sanity and the nature of moral standards:
these were largely defined through the norms of bourgeois respectability. Moreover, he did not fret about the imperceptible nature of
'reality'. Survival meant quite simply adjustment to a clearly
accessible reality. That adjustment was attainable through clear
observation, rational self-discipline, a lucid sense of right and wrong
and a balanced integration of the faculties of will and judgement."7
Those who lacked these qualities were degenerates: Nietzsche was
perhaps the ultimate incarnation of its ego-maniacal form. 'The egomaniac', Nordau confidently proclaimed, 'is an invalid who does not
see things as they are, does not understand the world, and cannot take
up a right attitude towards it.'8 Inexorably, it was this incapacity to
come to terms with reality that destroyed these degenerates.19
There would not be much point rehearsing Nordau's refutation of
Nietzsche nor his almost point-by-point analysis of the way madness
entered Nietzsche's writings, his logic, thought and style. What
distinguished Nordau's analysis from other anti-Nietzsche tracts of
the day, however, was the way he integrated it into a systematic,
overarching positivist framework. It is, indeed, as exemplifiers of the
clash between nineteenth-century positivism and an emerging
twentieth-century modernist sensibility that the Nordau-Nietzsche
comparison and confrontation retain their historical interest.
Nordau was acutely and anxiously aware of the apparently
'modern' appeal of the artists and writers he attacked. Though they
presented themselves as avant-garde they were not, he sought to
persuade his readers, 'heralds of a new era. They do not direct us to
the future, but point backwards to times past.' Their spurious,

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647

irrational modernity had to be distinguished from his own authentic


kind:
The 'freedom' and 'modernity', the 'progress' and 'truth', of these fellows are not
ours. We have nothing in common with them. They wish for self-indulgence; we
wish for work. They wish to drown consciousness in the unconscious; we wish to
strengthen and enrich consciousness. They wish for evasive ideation and babble; we
wish for attention, observation and knowledge. The criterion by which true
moderns may be recognized and distinguished from impostors calling themselves
moderns may be this: whoever preaches absence of discipline is an enemy of
progress; and whoever worships his 'I' is an enemy to society.20

From his perspective, Nordau was quite correct to single out


Nietzsche as a key articulator of this new modernist current with its
assault on the objective foundations of reality, its radical problematization of truth and highly developed expressivist sense of
subjective consciousness. Nietzsche is today, as we know, almost
consensually, viewed as foundational to both the modernist and
postmodernist projects.21Who better symbolized the frontal attack
on those values that Nordau held to be most sacred - rationality,
discipline, science and order ('All ordered society', Nietzsche scoffed,
'puts the passions to sleep')?22
Nietzsche, of course, was instrumental in questioning the basic
premises of a widespread nineteenth-century liberal faith that
Nordau had articulated: the belief in advancement based upon
potentialities of the natural sciences. Indeed, he fundamentally
disputed the very idea of 'progress'. Even more radically, he railed
against the presupposition that there was a prior, objective reality,
'out there'. For Nordau - and the many others whose views he
mirrored - there could be no doubt about its existence: the laws of
an objective natural and social world could confidently be revealed
through clear thinking and patient observation:
Culture and command over the powers of nature are solely the result of attention;
all errors, all superstition, the consequence of defective attention. False ideas of the
connection between phenomena arise through defective observation of them, and
will be rectified by a more exact observation.

(It was owing to their 'want of attention' that degenerates produced


'false judgements respecting the objective universe'.)23
While Nordau sought to grasp and then adjust to objective reality,
Nietzsche spoke about reality as a construct of the self. It was the will
to power that created reality (a reality which, in some of his moods,

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648

Nietzsche regarded as wholly fictitious). What could have been


further removed from the Nordauian conception of knowledge than
Nietzsche's definition of his Dionysus ideal:
the force in all life that wills error;error as the precondition even of thought. Before
there is 'thought' there must have been 'invention'; the construction of identical
cases, of the appearance of sameness, is more primitive than the knowledge of
sameness.24

Nothing could have been more alien to Nordau's way of thinking


than the radical perspectivism of Nietzsche who denied the validity of
any stable, fixed viewpoint and who had written:
The world with which we are concerned is false, i.e. is not a fact but a fable and
approximation on the basis of a meagre sum of observations; it is in 'flux', as
something in a state of becoming, as a falsehood always changing but never getting
near the truth: for - there is no 'truth'.25

'Truth', he wrote elsewhere, was a 'mobile army of metaphors ...


illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they
are ... '26

In the confrontation between Nordau and Nietzsche, middle-class


sobriety, discipline and realism encountered its Dionysian opposite.
For Nietzsche the withdrawal from positivist reality became a goal,
an ideal:
To spend one's life amid delicate and absurd things; a stranger to reality; half an
artist, half a bird and metaphysician; with no care for reality, except now and then
to acknowledge it in the manner of a good dancer with the tip of one's toes . 27

For Nordau, such withdrawal was unequivocal evidence of a clinical


condition, what he described as 'coenaestheses, or systemic sensations'.28

In Nietzsche's Dionysian world, ecstasy was transformed into a


fundamental fructifying force. Under its charm, he wrote, man
has forgotten how to walk and speak and is on the way toward flying into the air,
dancing. His very gestures express enchantment. Just as the animals now talk, and
the earth yields milk and honey, supernatural sounds emanate from him, too: he
feels himself a god, he himself now walks about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods
he saw walking in his dreams. He is no longer an artist, he has become a work of
art. ..29

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649

But for Nordau, ecstasy was regarded quite simply as 'a consequence
of the morbid irritability of special brain-centres'30and dance and art
(those most liberating and expressive of Nietzschean activities) were
dismissed as 'pure atavisms' to be practised in the future only 'by the
most emotional portion of humanity - by women, by the young,
perhaps even by children'.3 While Nietzschean man sought to
transform himself into a work of art, Nordau more or less banished
art from his future order:32'Observation... triumphs ever more and
more over imaginationand artisticsymbolism - i.e., the introduction
of erroneous personal interpretations of the universe is more and
more driven back by an understanding of the laws of Nature.'33
The alternative to Nietzsche and his ilk was quite evident to
Nordau:
The normal man with his clear mind, logical thought, sound judgement, and strong
will, sees, where the degenerate only gropes... Let us imagine the drivelling
Zoroaster of Nietzsche, with his cardboard lions, eagles, and serpents from a
toyshop in competition with men who rise early and are not weary before sunset,
who have clear heads, solid stomachs and hard muscles: the comparison will
provoke our laughter.34

Yet we need to pause here for, all the obvious differences between
Nietzsche and Nordau notwithstanding, it is precisely in their
common emphases on 'normalcy' and 'abnormalcy', 'sickness' and
'decadence' and their common advocacy of the manly ideal, their
desire for healthy, regenerated 'men with hard muscles' that certain
important underlying affinitiesmay be discovered. What united these
apparently diametrically opposed figures was the fact that they were
key participants, both as makers and beneficiaries, in a wider
nineteenth-century discourse of 'degeneration'. Here was a highly
flexible, politically adjustable tool, able simultaneously to locate,
diagnose and resolve a prevalent - if inchoate - sense of social and
cultural crisis through an exercise of eugenic labelling and a language
of bio-social pathology and potential renewal.35The rhetoric of
degeneration cut across the ideological spectrum. Linked to the
optimistic language of evolutionary naturalism but marked by a
belief in imminent breakdown and a search for ever-more drastic
corrective measures, it was employed by conservatives, liberals (like
Nordau), the incipient radical right and materialist socialists of all
kinds.
And although Nordau and others had marked him as a major
symptom and exhibit of the condition, it was also perhaps the key

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constitutive ingredient in Nietzsche's Lebensphilosophie.'Tell me, my


brothers', Zarathustra asked, 'what do we consider bad and worst of
In Nietzsche's world, the reassertion of
all? Is it not degeneration?'36
all that is natural and healthy is dependent upon the ruthless
extirpation of those anti-natural ressentimentsources of degeneration
who have thoroughly weakened and falsified the natural and
aristocratic base of life. 'The species requires', he declared in various
ways, over and over again, 'that the ill-constituted, weak, degenerate,
perish.'37
Both Nordau and Nietzsche - each in their own way - regarded
culture and civilization as under threat, both were fundamentally
concerned with the sources of decadence, a debilitating loss of energy
and vitality and the possibilities of recovery. Both constructed a
world of ideal and anti-types and looked forward to a cleansed world
purged of the lower, degenerated elements they posited. Both
envisaged new, non-decadent, forms of humanity. Both employed
naturalistic quasi-biological language. There was even something
Nietzschean in Nordau's eugenic suggestions: 'Those degenerates',
he wrote, 'whose mental derangement is too deep-seated must be
abandoned to their inexorable fate. They are past cure or amelioration. They will rave for a season, and then perish.'38What Nordau
proposed for his degenerate Nietzschean enemies did not differ
significantly from the measures Nietzsche advocated for his:
'... whoever looks upon civilization as a good, having value and
deserving to be defended, must mercilessly crush under his thumb the
anti-social vermin', wrote Nordau.
To him who, with Nietzsche, is enthusiastic over the 'freely-roving, lusting beast of
prey', we cry, 'Get you gone from civilization!' . . . There is no place among us for
the lusting beast of prey; and if you dare return to us, we will pitilessly beat you to
death with clubs.39

There were other, at times rather striking, rhetorical resemblances.


Thus Nordau's evocation of his ideal type, of 'exceptional' man
bears a striking
written eight years before Degeneration resemblance to the heroic uebermenschlichNietzschean counterpart.
The human race rarely produces an individual who, realizinghis power, and upheld
by an exalted self-appreciation, is prepared to enter alone upon life's battle-field, on
which he must wield his sword and shield with might and skill to come out as victor
or even alive. These exceptional men ... offer the finest and most perfect types of
our race ... They look with contempt upon the beaten paths, and open new
highways for themselves.4

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These similarities notwithstanding, it should be clear that over the


years it was with Nietzsche -far more than Nordau - that the
notion of degeneration was most intimately associated and assimilated into European political culture. This applied to left as well as
radical right and racist circles. Thus, when the sexologist Magnus
Hirschfeld employed the term, he did not invoke Nordau but in an
almost taken-for-grantedway after writing 'entartete'added: 'to use a
Nietzsche-word'.4' The crucial point is that in the mediated (and at
some points horribly fateful) political history of'degeneration', it is
Nietzsche's not Nordau's impact that has been decisive. To be sure,
Nietzsche's influence - like the writings -was always multivalent
and never reducible to any single political or cultural current or
direction.42This diversity of reception should not, however, obscure
the fact that in the first half of this century various European political
circles came to regard Nietzsche as perhaps the philosopher of
degeneration.
As was his wont, he employed the concept in multiple shifting
ways: as metaphor and irony43but most often, and most crucially, as a
substantial literal danger whose overcoming through drastic measures was the precondition for the urgent recreation of a naturalized,
non-decadent humankind. As Nietzsche wrote,
Let us look ahead a century and assume that my attempt to assassinate two
millennia of anti-nature and human disfiguration has succeeded. That new party of
life which would take the greatest of all tasks into its hands, the higher breeding of
humanity, including the merciless extermination of everything degenerating and
parasitic, would make possible again that excess of life on earth from which the
Dionysian state will grow again.44

This kind of language - suitably integrated, of course, into


National Socialist ideology - was constantly repeated and
hammered home into every nook and cranny of the nazi world. There
are innumerable sources demonstrating that in formative ways the
nazi bio-political understanding of, and obsession with, degeneration
was explicitly Nietzsche-inspired.45Of course, given Nordau's background - regardlessof what he had written about degeneration
the nazis could never have acknowledged that their diagnoses (and
widely advertised exhibitions) of degenerate art and music owed
anything to this Jewish author.46But, of course, it went beyond this
merely formal consideration. There were obvious building-blocks in
Nietzsche's radically transvalued world that - suitably interpreted
and annexed - could be taken as inspirational to the nazi

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Weltanschauungin a way that Nordau's most definitively could


not.47
Nordau's views were, in many ways, an articulation of the
conventional opinions of his class and time - indeed their
typicality and respectability constituted the source of their
attraction.48 Nowhere had Nordau preached a healthy barbarism 'beyond good and evil', nor was his New Man to be unfettered
by the chains of traditional morality and an anti-life rationalist
intellect. If both men thought in generalized terms of socio-political
hygiene and heavily employed the language of degeneration, they
placed such concerns into radically opposed epistemological and
ethical frames.
Nordau, like Nietzsche, thought in naturalistic terms and, like the
author of The Antichrist, was an outspoken critic of all established
religion (he was, indeed, considered so subversive that his ConventionalLies of Mankind[1883] was banned by the Imperial Council
of Vienna).49 Not only, like Nietzsche, did he propose taking
exceedingly tough steps against those he regarded as the agents of
degeneration, he also advocated a hierarchical 'aristocratic' society
consisting 'of the best and most highly qualified human material'.50
But all these harsh emphases fitted into a wider philosophy of a
positivist evolutionary humanism characteristic of a nineteenthcentury European liberalism that valued order, traditional discipline,
progress, respectability and rationality - all of which Nietzsche
openly despised and attacked.51
But above all, Nordau's toughness was softened by his ultimate
aims. He was indubitably (like so many other liberals of the time) an
elitist yet, quite unlike Nietzsche, the avowed purpose of his elitism was
humanitarian. Elites and leaders had to act for the betterment of all
mankind. This formed part of Nordau's concept of human solidarity,
a notion which, needless to say, was entirely absent from Nietzsche.52
Similarly, for all Nordau's disdain for organized religion, and quite
unlike the author of The Antichrist, his critique was enunciated as
part of an affirmation of the progressive nature of European
civilization, not its overall denial. His positivist vision represented
itself as part of a direct continuity, an advanced stage, furthering the
classical humanizing axioms of Western morality, rationalist Enlightenment and liberal notions of progress. These were, one by one,
Nietzsche's announced enemies, the sources of European life-denying
slave-morality, its nihilism, decadence and degeneration. While
Nordau ultimately sought to defend the Western rational and moral

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tradition, Nietzsche's post-nihilist goal was to demolish or, at least,


radically problematize and transvalue it.
Ultimately, the prophet of The Birth of Tragedy longed for the
Dionysian condition, 'a passionate-painful overflowing into darker,
more fuller, more floating states',53while Nordau sought to 'abolish
all laws which cannot stand the criticism of natural science, and to
have reason and logic govern all the relations between man and
man'.54If Nordau's morality, like Nietzsche's, was immanent not
transcendental, its content constantly in flux, unlike Zarathustra's
asocial, even anti-social, bias, its essence lay in its communal speciesnature whose aim was the overcoming of selfishness and 'consideration for one's neighbour'.55While Nietzsche insisted that 'not
the corruption of man but the extent to which he has become
moralized is his curse', Nordau proclaimed the aim of morality to be
'the humanization of the animal, the spiritualization of the man, the
exaltation and enrichment of the individual by means of sympathy,
neighbourly kindness, a sense of joint responsibility, and the
subjection of Instinct to Reason, which ... is the noblest product of
Nature'.56

Perhaps, in the end, Nordau does not come out quite as grotesquely
anachronistic as at first sight he may have appeared. To be sure, his
monochromatic positivism and aesthetic traditionalism narrowed his
vision and openness to the point where he had no capacity to absorb
vital new developments of a nascent modernist culture. Nietzsche's
playful perspectivismand indeterminateepistemology were indeed to
become the wave of the intellectual future (though even here Nordau
more faithfully reflected the ongoing tenor and more conservative
tastes of popular culture). For all that, even if, together with
Nietzsche, Nordau wrote from within what today we consider the
highly dubious presuppositions of the discourse of degeneration, he
was determinedly sceptical of moral relativism and integrated his
naturalism into an evolving progressive social morality. Nietzsche's
immoralist vitalist ethics 'beyond good and evil' may have been more
exciting and experimental, but they played a part in unthinkable
political developments the nature of which should reawaken us, in
our own species-threatened fin-de-siecle situation, to the importance
of Nordau's message of universal human solidarity.

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Notes

1. This paper is based upon a presentation given at a conference sponsored by the


University of Paris in July 1992 on 'Max Nordau: Parisian Writer, German
Philosopher, Zionist Activist'.
2. For a typical example of this see the various mentions of Nordau in the
collection of essays edited by J. Edward Chamberlin and Sander L. Gilman,
Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress (New York 1985).
3. Daniel Pick, Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848-1918
(Cambridge 1989), 23.
4. See Max Nordau, Degeneration, with an introduction by George L. Mosse
(New York 1968), 551.
5. Ibid., 537.
6. Ibid., 415.
7. Ibid., 5.
8. Nordau differed in one important respect from Lombroso. He did not accept
that geniuses were insane; rather, the fact that these artists were degenerate was an
indication that they could not have been geniuses! Nevertheless, based on precisely this
misunderstanding of his position, one of Nordau's degenerates, Oscar Wilde,
produced a characteristic witticism: 'I quite agree with Dr Nordau's assertion that all
men of genius are insane, but Dr Nordau forgets that all sane men are idiots.' See
Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde (London 1988), 517.
9. Degeneration, op. cit., 17.
10. See Nordau's dedication to Professor Caesar Lombroso, ibid., especially vii.
11. The best-known rebuttal is by George Bernard Shaw, The Sanity of Art. An
Exposure of the CurrentNonsense about Artists being Degenerate (London 1908).
12. Dr Hermann Tuerck described the way in which Nietzsche's mental condition
was translated into his moral and philosophical system as follows: 'Thus, it may
happen that an intellectual and highly gifted man, born with perverted instincts, and
feeling as torment . . the non-satisfaction of instinct, will hit upon the idea of
justifying the passion for murder, the extremest egosim... as something good,
beautiful, and according to Nature, and to characterizeas morbid aberration the better
opposing moral instincts...'. See Hermann Tuerck, Friedrich Nietzsche und seine
philosophische Irrwege (Dresden 1891), 7. Nordau liberally quoted this work. See, in
addition, the stamp of medical-professional authority given to these notions in Paul
Julius Moebius, Ueber das Pathologische bei Nietzsche (Wiesbaden 1902).
13. Degeneration, op. cit., 416.
14. Gilman's incisive essay, 'The Nietzsche Murder Case; or, What Makes
Dangerous Philosophies Dangerous' appears in his Difference and Pathology.
Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness (Ithaca 1985). See especially p. 59.
15. Whole books - pro and contra - were written about the phenomenon of
Nietzsche cults. For examples and an analysis of the cultural significance of this new
influence see my The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 (Berkeley and Los
Angeles 1992), especially chapter 2.
16. Degeneration, op. cit., 453.
17. For a good outline of Nordau's system of thinking see George L. Mosse's
'Introduction' to Degeneration, op. cit. See especially p. xxi.

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18. Ibid., 243.


19. Ibid., 540.
20. Ibid., 560.
21. For some examples of such treatments see David B. Allison, TheNew Nietzsche:
ContemporaryStyles of Interpretation(Cambridge, MA 1985); Nancy S. Love, Marx,
Nietzsche and Modernity (New York 1986); Clayton Koelb (ed.), Nietzsche as
Postmodernist:Essays Pro and Contra (Albany NY 1990).
22. The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York 1974), Book One,
79.
23. Degeneration, op. cit., 55-6. 'The consciousness of a healthy, strong-minded,
and consequently attentive man', Nordau wrote, 'resembles a room in the full light of
day, in which the eye sees all objects distinctly, in which all outlines are sharp, and
wherein no indefinite shadows are floating.'
24. See The Will to Power, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York 1968), no. 544
(1885-7; rev. 1888), 293.
25. Ibid., no. 616 (1885-6), 330.
26. 'On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense' (1873), a fragment published
posthumously. See The Portable Nietzsche, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York
1968), 46-7.
27. Ibid., 1039 (March-June 1888), 535.
28. Degeneration, op. cit., 458.
29. The Birth of Tragedy, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York 1967),
section I, 37.
30. Degeneration, op. cit., 64.
31. Ibid., 543.
32. For some interesting comments on Nordau's views on art see P.M. Baldwin,
'Liberalism, Nationalism, and Degeneration: The Case of Max Nordau', Central
EuropeanHistory, XII, 2 (June 1980), 102.
33. Degeneration, op. cit., 543.
34. Ibid., 541.
35. The most systematic analysis of the nature and wide dissemination of this
discourse is to be found in Pick, Faces of Degeneration, op. cit.
36. 'On the Gift-giving Virtue' 1, 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra' in The Portable
Nietzsche, op. cit., 187. Italics in the original.
37. The Will to Power, op. cit., 246 (Jan.-Fall 1888), 142.
38. Degeneration, op. cit., 551.
39. Ibid., 557.
40. See The ConventionalLies of Mankind (Chicago 1884), 51.
41. Magnus Hirschfeld, Geschlechtskunde III. Band. Einblicke und Ausblicke
(Stuttgart 1930), 257.
42. The entire thrust of The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany,1890-1990, op. cit., is to
establish the multiple, often contradictory nature of Nietzsche's influence and the
impossibility of reducing it to an 'essential' political direction or position. Clearly, this
should be kept in mind here, but little would be served by rehearsingall this again. This
paper, obviously, deals with only one strand of influence.
43. For instance, he wrote: 'Good nature is in a woman a form of degeneration.'
The degree of metaphor, irony and literality in such statements was clearly open to
interpretation. 'Why I Write Such Good Books', in Ecce Homo, edited by Walter
Kaufmann (New York 1969), 5, p. 266.

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656

Journal of ContemporaryHistory

44. Ibid., 'The Birth of Tragedy', 4, p. 274. My translation differs somewhat from
Kaufmann's here.
45. For various examples see chapters 8 and 9 and Afterword of The Nietzsche
Legacy, op. cit. While there were always those who opposed this alliance, these forces
were never decisive.
46. On this point see the generally informative article by Jens Malte Fischer,
'"Entarte Kunst": Zur Geschichte eines Begriffs', Merkur, 38, 1 (January 1984).
47. All the differences between Nietzsche and nazism notwithstanding, as Jacques
Derrida has pointed out, there 'is nothing absolutely contingent about the fact that the
only political regimen to have effectively brandished his name as a major and official
banner was nazi'. See The Ear of the Other (New York 1985), 31. And, as Martin Jay
has written: 'while it may be questionable to saddle Marx with responsibility for the
Gulag Archipelago or blame Nietzche for Auschwitz, it is nonetheless true that their
writings could be misread as justifications for these horrors in a way that, say, those of
John Stuart Mill or Alexis de Tocqueville could not.' See 'Should Intellectual History
Take a Linguistic Turn? Reflections on the Habermas-Gadamer Debate' in Martin
Jay, Fin-de-Siecle Socialism (New York and London 1988), 33.
48. See George L. Mosse, 'Max Nordau, Liberalism and the New Jew', Journal of
ContemporaryHistory, 27, 4 (October 1992), 565.
49. See The ConventionalLies of Mankind, op. cit. and also Paradoxes, translated
by J.R. Mcllraith (London 1906).
50. The ConventionalLies of Mankind, op. cit., 132-3.
51. 'Introduction', Degeneration, op. cit., xix-xx. Mosse points out that this tough,
disciplined liberalism was quite different from the open and permissive twentiethcentury version.
52. Ibid., xxi. Nordau's conception of human solidarity was based upon his view of
the interdependence of all living matter within a scientifically determined universe.
53. The Will to Power, op. cit., 1050 (March-June 1888), 539.
54. The ConventionalLies of Mankind, op. cit., 353.
55. Morals and the Evolution of Man (translation of Biologie der Ethik (London,
New York 1992), 82. The work was first published in 1916. See, too, 276 for an example
of how Nordau's hero differs from the Nietzschean version: 'Heroism is the noblest
victory of a thinking and volitional personality over selfishness; it is altruism which
rises to self-sacrifice, the proud subjugation by Reason of the most primitive ... of all
instincts, . . . self-preservation .. heroic conduct liberates [the hero] from the
trammels of his individuality and enlarges this to represent a community, its longings,
its resolutions . . .
56. The Will to Power, op. cit., 98 (Spring-Fall 1887), 61; Morals and the Evolution
of Man, op. cit., 278.

Steven E.Aschheim
is an Associate Professor in the Department
of History at the Hebrew University,
Jerusalem. He is the author of numerous
articles on German and German-Jewish
cultural history and of Brothers and
Strangers. The East EuropeanJew in German

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Aschheim: Nordau, Nietzsche and Degeneration

657

and German-JewishConsciousness, 18001923 (Madison 1982) and The Nietzsche


Legacy in Germany,1890-1990 (Berkeley
1992). He is currently preparing a volume on
the links between culture and catastrophe.

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