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Gospels of Anarchy and Other Contemporary Studies . Lee, Vernon, 1856–1935.
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“THE author of the now famous volumes on Degeneracyis himself a Degenerate”; we have all of us heard, and nearly all of us passed, that obvious criticism on Max Nordau. Eccentricity, Suspiciousness of Evil, Egotism, Idées Fixes, Obsession by the Thought of Impurity, Lack of Human Sympathy, Confusion of Categories, Unbridled Violence of Hatred, Indiscriminate Destructiveness; he has taught us to recognise all these as the stigmata of degeneracy, and we have recognised them all in himself. As a result, and following his own method towards every contemporary writer, from Tolstoi to Zola, from Ruskin to Ibsen, and from Whitman to Rossetti, we may be tempted to destroy Max Nordau’s books as pestilent rubbish, and forget his theories as insane ravings. But it is better that Nordau’s absurdities and furies should serve rather as a deterrent than an example; that our abhorrence of his ways should teach the discrimination and justice of which he is incapable; and, if we wish to be more reasonable than he, that we should examine and profit by what reasonableness there may be even in him.

As regards myself, I find that Nordau’s book has inspired me with a salutary terror, not merely of De‐ page: 74 generacy (though he is right in teaching us to be afraid of that), but of the deterioration of the soul’s faculties and habits, which is the inevitable result of all intellectual injustice. And it is because Nordau himself is so striking an example of such deterioration, that I am anxious to discuss the chief facts and conclusions of his book, and to suggest certain other facts and conclusions, which, taken together, may make us appreciate the dangers we all run, if not of mental and moral degeneracy, at all events of mental and moral debasement.


The new school of intellectual and moral pathology, besides assigning a physiological reason to a large amount of moral and mental imperfection, has put forward a hypothesis, according to which the immoral or idiotic person of mature age and modern times is the equivalent, through arrested growth or atavism, of the child or of the normal adult of more barbarous periods. This hypothesis is probably very crude on the biological plane, but it seems uncommonly correct and exceedingly suggestive on the moral one. Spiritual imperfection may be due, as I propose showing, to causes other than bodily; and the criminal or anti‐social person need not resemble in other points either a child or a savage. But the pathological psychologists, from Maudsley and Moreau to Lombroso and Nordau, have done excellent service in pointing out that criminal instincts and anti‐social behaviour are closely connected page: 75 with disease, immaturity or barbarism; and that, contrary to the picturesque views of decadent poets and of the readers of police reports, there is nothing either refined or heroic, or in fact anything save excessively vulgar, in uncleanness and bloodthirstiness. It is very good for all of us, especially in our salad days, to learn that as regards evil, rarity does not constitute distinction; that perverted instincts are universal among gaol‐birds and maniacs; that insensibility to the feelings of others is a frequent forerunner of imbecility, and excessive egotism a common result of visceral disturbances. Such coincidences, even where merely coincidences, are due to a great practical truth, which the school of moral pathology has put in the clearest light, to wit: that all instincts or forms of instinct detrimental to the social good, are, in a sense, deciduous and sterile; that the world is perfectly right in considering weakness of will, unchastity of thought and word, egotism and vanity as a contagious danger to the community; that religion and philosophy have been clairvoyant in announcing that human liberty can be attained only by controlling desire and enlarging sympathy; that, in short, the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth will be the Kingdom of the Spirit.

This much has been formulated, made clear through analysis and example, by the new science of the soul’s death and disease; the sober works of Maudsley, of Ribot, Richer, and of Janet, the extravagant though sometimes luminous books of Lombroso, particularly the two volumes of Nordau, are full of invaluable practical suggestiveness. Unluckily the general usefulness page: 76 of the science has been diminished, it seems to me, by the tendency of the more sober among mental pathologists to limit their observations and theories to cases of thorough‐paced madness, perversity, imbecility, or criminality; and the practical lessons have been largely neutralised by the eccentric hypothesis of Lombroso and Nordau, who have separated spiritual degeneracy from spiritual deterioration, and confined it to well‐defined categories of individuals. For Professor Lombroso, as everyone is aware, has developed into an elaborate system the notion of some of the earlier students of mental pathology, that special abilities are due to a disturbance of the normal psychic balance, and are therefore accompanied by intellectual or moral unsoundness; in other words that talent is a morbid production like madness or criminality, accompanied invariably by some of their stigmata, and different from either only by the accident of being, on the whole, more useful than detrimental to the community. And Professor Nordau, while explicitly rejecting Lombroso’s theory of the affinity between talent, madness, and criminality, has yet put forward the notion, and illustrated it by endless example and analysis, that during the last forty years there has been degeneracy invariably manifested among literary, artistic, and philosophic workers; while, during this period, intellectual and moral health has become the exclusive property of men of science and of mediocrities.

These theories, whether, as with Lombroso, they accept the man of talent as a fortunate nuisance; or, as with Nordau, reject him (when a contemporary) as a dangerous attraction, these theories are not page: 77 merely scientifically questionable, but also (and this is what I wish to deal with) practically dangerous, because they seem to limit spiritual degeneracy to exceptionally inferior or exceptionally superior categories of individuals, and to reassure, quite unreasonably, the mediocre mass of mankind. According to them the immense majority need never take any thought for its psychic healthiness; all it need do is to follow its instincts, and either to profit as much (according to Lombroso) or to suffer as little (according to Nordau) as it possibly can by the useful or noxious peculiarities of degenerates. Such are the practical conclusions derivable from the too exclusive attention given by even the soberer mental pathologists to criminals and lunatics; still more from the identification by Lombroso and Nordau, of genius and degeneracy.

But fortunately these one‐sided views, these eccentric hypotheses, have been illustrated by an enormous array of facts, and these facts, whether brought forward by Lombroso or Nordau, whether exhibited in great scientific handbooks like those of Maudsley and Ribot, or huddled together in shilling dreadfuls like Cuiller’s Frontières de la Folie, these facts carry their own suggestion, to wit, that the stigmata of spiritual degeneracy are confined neither to criminals, lunatics, nor persons of unusual ability; and that the average man, the dull and decent Philistine, is equally in danger of becoming an obstacle to human improvement, a centre of moral and intellectual deterioration.

Apart from the suspicion that celebrities may have been assimilated to criminals and lunatics, because like them they have become public property, and, therefore, page: 78 the corpus vile for pathological examination and demonstration—the study of the facts accumulated by mental pathologists, even the facts brought forward to prove the very reverse by Lombroso and Nordau, must suggest very strange thoughts to any honest and intelligent, although obscure and respectable, reader. The anecdotes snipped out of biographical dictionaries by Lombroso, and the analysis of symptoms implacably carried out by Nordau, must remind the honest Philistine of other biographical details, of other strings of peculiarities, with which he has not become acquainted in books; they must become connected and compared in his memory with stories, words, gestures, expressions of face, states of feeling, which have never fallen, which can never fall, into the hands of men of science. Little by little, many things which, on the printed page, expressed in those barbarous technical terms, had affected the reader only as so much far‐fetched specialism, assume an uncomfortable air of familiarity; until at last, if he have courage to put two and two together, he must be startled, perhaps overcome, by the recognition that his neighbours, friends, family, himself, resemble Lombroso’s and Nordau’s degenerates in other things than genius.

I cast no doubts on the existence of thorough‐paced degenerates, some in prisons, some in asylums, some walking abroad, with or without talents, and more often without than with; all scientific evidence proves that they are common, and that many of them are hopelessly incurable and through and through diseased. But when scientific evidence is accumulated in even greater bulk, is put before us irrespective of any page: 79 special hypothesis like Lombroso’s or Nordau’s, and when it is, moreover, brought into relation with our previous experience of life and of men, we should learn, I think, that it is dangerous to draw a hard‐and‐fast line between ourselves and any of our fellow creatures, even when we may be obliged, for sheer self‐defence, to shut some of them up and chastise them. To make such a crude distinction does as much harm to us, who account ourselves sane, as to these whom we brand and pen up together as degenerate. For it not only vitiates our sense of likeness and unlikeness, diminishes our sympathy and justice, and wastes all that is sane and profitable, even in unsound and noxious creatures; but it makes light of that knowledge of our present imperfection, of our possible deterioration and possible improvement, which should result from all study of the soul and the soul’s diseases and dangers.


Degeneracy: I would willingly get rid of this detestable word, leave it to mad doctors or criminalogists; and, indeed, degeneracy, save as a cause, ought to be replaced in our thought by imperfection, since that alone is of practical consequence. But, in the study of this imperfection, in the search for its causes, we must come, first and foremost, to something which, for want of a better word, we must needs call degeneracy; to the result, in a minor degree, of processes which lead, on a larger scale, to disease, madness, sterility, and death. In the continuous page: 80 and arduous adaptation of mankind to its surroundings, there is, apparently, something which stands to the gradual improvement as the friction of a machine stands to its movements: the machinery is constantly being repaired, the friction is constantly being diminished, but so far it exists, and it still represents, though in ever smaller degree, an impediment and a partial destruction. This kind of friction is what specialists call degeneracy. It is a form of imperfection; it is the result of imperfection, and it results in imperfection. We may roughly divide it into two kinds, sociological and biological; the first is left unconsidered by Lombroso and Nordau; the second is limited, or apparently limited, to separate categories of persons. In this disregard of sociological deterioration, in this limitation of biological deterioration, lies to my mind the fundamental mistake of both Lombroso and Nordau, a mistake which is rectified by the very facts adduced in support of their one‐sided views.

The kind of deterioration which I have called sociological may be illustrated presently by an analysis of some of Nordau’s own failings, their probable cause and their possible results. The other, the biological, by which I mean the deterioration accompanied by physical causes or co‐results, forms the subject of Nordau’s two volumes, and requires, I think, to be recognised as obtaining, not merely in the individuals stigmatised as degenerates, but in the whole of mankind of which they are, after all, but a production.

For the whole of mankind may be partially unsound, although the average of mankind may be page: 81 absolutely sound. The average or abstract totality of mankind is probably sound, because the imperfections of adaptation, the inability to meet the requirements of life, the hereditary, individual, or acquired biological taints are undoubtedly slight in most individuals (otherwise the individual, let alone the race, would not be there), and because the unsound portion of one individual is worked for and protected by the sound portions of other individuals; nay, because in every individual, save the lunatic, the incurable or the criminal, the sound qualities supply the deficiencies of the unsound. But the individuals composing mankind are probably all, or nearly all, imperfect or liable to become imperfect in some detail, infinitesimal, or perceptible, of their organism; were this not the case the existence of thorough‐paced degeneracy, as of downright physical disease, would scarcely be conceivable; and the contagion of degeneracy, as well as the contagion of disease, would constitute no danger. Why should this be? The reason seems to me very simple: So far as we know the world’s history or present condition, we cannot be certain of any human creature living in circumstances, material or social, to which he was, or is, perfectly adjusted; nay, leading a life which was not, in one way or another, too difficult for his organism, what we call, either on the bodily or the spiritual plane, unwholesome; and this imperfection of relations between the individual and his mode of existence would necessarily prevent his leaving behind him physical or spiritual off‐spring, human bodies, souls, habits, notions, which were otherwise than page: 82 imperfect also; imperfection dwindling for ever, but present always, and always liable to momentary increase. There is probably no one who inherits an absolutely flawless bodily constitution, or who leads a perfectly healthy bodily life; but the soul is as delicate as the body, and the soul’s life as difficult to adjust;nay, the soul’s health has more chances against it, since it depends in the first instance on the health of the body. Yet there are very few persons who are as thoughtful for their soul and its organs, as for their teeth, hair, eyes, lungs, or digestion; and most of us move recklessly among contagions, and submit to strains in the spiritual order, such as few of us would expose ourselves to in the bodily. Meanwhile the spiritual reacts on the bodily and the bodily on the spiritual. Our thoughts and feelings are vitiated by the imperfection of our bodily functions; but this imperfection of our bodily functions is nine times out of ten the result of some spiritual imperfection, some lack of forethought, self‐control, or comprehension in ourselves or our parents. Thus, even with regard to material well‐being, there is no fact more important than that of our constant danger of intellectual and moral deterioration.


It is the chief merit of Nordau’s book that his facts and analyses are likely to bring home this danger to the reader, to suggest very shrewd personal suspicions and comparisons to everybody. And it is the chief page: 83 fault of Nordau’s book (for who cares for his literary and artistic criticisms?) that his mania for limiting degeneracy to the second half of the nineteenth century and to the writers, artists and non‐scientific thinkers thereof, confines the causes of degeneracy to merely physiological disturbances, and diverts the attention from what I should call sociological causes of deterioration, namely, the undue pressure on the individual of social habits, routines, and institutions. Such sociological straining and warping of the soul has, of course, always existed, and presumably more in the barbarous Past than in the only semibarbarous Present. Now, as Professor Nordau wishes to persuade us that the spiritual degeneracy of our age is unique and unprecedented, he has not only to close his eyes to all the unwholesomeness which previous centuries displayed in their literature, or hid or half‐hid in their religious and social habits; but also to refuse to discuss any causes of unwholesomeness which other centuries have evidently shared with our own. Since, however, we have fortunately no theory to blind us, we may leave Professor Nordau to expatiate on the detrimental effects on nineteenth‐century nerves of railways and newspapers, telegraphs and telephones, large towns and colossal discoveries, rapid amassing of fortunes and rapid altering of beliefs; and let us look at a few of the totally different sort of causes which must always have tended, apart from all physiological degeneracy, to deteriorate a certain proportion of individual souls.

The individual soul, perhaps owing to its dependence on the individual body, is rarely congenitally sound page: 84 in every part; and, even where no rudimentary morbidness can be detected, it is never gifted with the very highest powers of every description; so that it is forced, inevitably, to supply its deficiencies from the abundance of other individual souls, from that stored‐up abundance of all times and countries which we call civilisation. Apart from this common fund, accumulated by the united efforts of all men, by the special efforts of special men, and by the almost mechanical action of the great principle of “Compound for sins you have a mind to by damning those you’re not inclined to”—apart from civilisation, there is not much logic, patience, self‐restraint, gentleness or purity in the isolated individual; certainly not enough to make him endurable, let alone useful. Separate the individual, even the individual having no spiritual taint analogous to consumption or gout, isolate him from the social surroundings, the principles and prejudices, the fortunate compromises due to the rivalry of so much barbarism and wrongheadedness, set him opposite something quite new, or something about which he may talk or act quite freely; and note the brute’s acts and words! Nay, note the man when he has a class or nation to back him; and listen, for instance, to the logic, the humane speech of the individual considered as Conservative, or Socialist, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Atheist! Egotism, megalomania? Why they are kept down in the normal individual only by the tendency to egotism and megalomania of his neighbours; if small children are egotists and megalomaniacs, it is because they have been protected, so far, from other children. For the page: 85 rest, egotism and megalomania are perpetually bursting out on all sides. Listen to the ordinary, intelligent, educated man, to the superior professional man even, when off his profession. Is not his cocksureness about things outside his own walk, his contempt of arts and modes of life unlike his own, his interest in his house, his wine, his horse, his business, very nearly maniacal? Listen, on the other hand, to nations (for nations are unrestrained by shame before each other, and consider such restraint as mean‐spirited) are they not maniacs? and is not the respective national pride of the Englishman, Frenchman, German, Italian, the purest megalomania in guise of patriotism? Is not every nation, in its hopes and claims, its boasting and blustering, no better than King Picrochole awaiting the Coming of the Coqcigrues?

If, then, classes, professions, nationalities, lose their attributes of logic, justice, and gentleness, nay, of crassest good sense, whenever they are isolated from other professions, classes, nationalities, or set up in mere hostility opposite to them, how much more will not be lost by the poor individual, when, by some new or faulty adjustment, he is isolated from his fellow individuals, set up as their enemy or their leader? These things may be largely inevitable, but they are atrociously sad, and we may well stop to consider some instances thereof. Has neither Lombroso nor Nordau, glibly analysing the degeneracy of men of talent, ever considered what men not of talent would become if subjected to years of neglect, injustice, outrage, and then, perhaps, to years of most fulsome adulation? For, after all, that is what it comes to: page: 86 a process, not deliberate certainly, and for the time being quite inevitable, by which mankind calls forth all the worst qualities in those who are its benefactors, fosters their arrogance, injustice, violence, and folly; turns them into fanatics (I had first written lunatics) who tear and trample everything, and help the world in the making of fresh fanatics. Who is most responsible for Wagner’s pamphlets, for Zola’s Mes Haines, for all that most degenerate literature, the literature of blind self‐assertion? Nay, is not the most marvellous production since Renaissance humanistic warfare, Whistler’s Gentle Art of Making Enemies due to the astonishing criticisms of another man of genius, of Ruskin, himself the victim of the absurd attacks on Turner and pre‐Raphaelitism? Alas, of the energies which we poor human beings can so little afford to spare, how much do we not, by the fatality of stupidity and injustice, waste in the detestable self‐assertion and self‐defence of genius, in the production of more injustice and exaggeration, itself fruitful of exaggeration and injustice!

But wrong adjustment between the individual and the mass, need not attain the pitch of actual ill‐treatment, in order to produce very decided deterioration, what Nordau sees as degeneracy, of soul. All mental productivity, like all material, tends to encumber us with obsolete plant and rubbish. There is no system, no routine, no facilitation to learning or doing any particular thing, which does not become more or less of a nuisance, a mechanism for the spoiling of something. All trades, professions, administrations—nay, schools of thought—show it us daily: a man page: 87 loses much of his elasticity of mind by such means, although that loss is more than compensated, most often, by the storage of results and the saving of time. But a man, as Emerson says, is himself a method; every individual must pay for the advantage of being one. And this becomes the case more and more markedly as the man’s method is more complex, more special, more different from the method of other men. As a mere question of time and opportunity, every special study tends to exclude external influence and correction, to diminish the healthy reaction and readjustment of all things, that is to say, to make the specialist unconscious of the fine proportion between the world and his work, his fellow‐men and himself. Nay, all self‐expression creates a facility which easily turns to exaggeration, absurdity, self‐caricature. Men cannot perceive all facts and think all thoughts at once; developing their own ideas, those ideas cease to be duly controlled by the thousand million other ideas in the universe; one explanation covers everything, one fact answers all questions, one kind of physic cures all ills; and we get very near the region of fads and idées fixes. This tendency is very much increased by the result of another insufficiency of human nature: mankind is extremely limited, as yet, not merely in its power of doing, and thinking, but in its power of sympathising. The desire for prominence, for recognition, very often unjustly refused, pits men against each other, while the inability or unwillingness to share material or social advantages forces every member of the same profession into rivalry with the other: hence a tendency, which pure page: 88 devotion to truth or beauty can overcome only very slowly, a tendency to regard one’s own contribution to science or art, as supplanting those of one’s predecessors or neighbours; and a consequent loss of the faculty of comparing facts and theories, of selecting and correcting, of judging attainment impersonally and equitably; a very notable diminution in the efficiency of the individual soul.

This phenomenon becomes most obvious when it is accentuated by that neglect or persecution of which I have spoken as producing and reproducing such a fine crop of apparent monomaniacs. The consciousness of exceptional talents, especially when those talents are unnoticed or disputed by others, carries combative natures out of the domain of good sense and decorum, the almost automatic good sense and decorum of those who are comfortable; and a man of parts requires to be an unusually good keeper of himself, since he soon ceases to be the ward of the majority. The sense of being able to do what most others cannot, needs to be corrected by an appreciation of what has to be done and can be done only by others, such as is very rare as yet in our half‐grown humanity; and when there is no such corrective, the ego becomes isolated in his own eyes, and assumes to himself an importance utterly out of proportion to the reality. Hence suspicion, irreverence, animosity towards others; and that refusal to unite one’s thoughts with the thoughts of other men, that refusal of what might be called (most literally and worthily) the marriage of true minds, which dooms so much of the world’s best talent to sterility.

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Sterility; or at least production of rubbish, of something which is not intellectually vital. For we do not sufficiently realise how small a share of our spider’s web of thought, embracing and subdividing the universe, is either really spun by ourselves or spun out of the stuff secreted by our own mind; how much the thought of the individual requires to be helped out by a common thought, or to draw from a common fund the sound material for its web. Hence in all cases where certain kinds of thinking have been sporadic, the thinkers of the particular kind must be thrown quite excessively on their own resources, and must quickly exhaust them. They will become imperfect because isolated thinkers; and their very imperfection will increase their isolation, by depriving them of an internal standard of soundness of thought which might replace the external one. We notice this in the middle ages: while the artists, theologians, and jurists, the men whose activity is incorporated with that of others, keep their heads very securely on their shoulders, and their notions in sane reference to existing knowledge, we find outside these intellectual guilds, as soon as we get to the sporadic thinkers who deal with natural science or high philosophy, the eccentricity and pretentiousness of quackery. These isolated thinkers—Joachim of Flora, Raymond Lulle, Cardan, Paracelsus, are made giddy by their own height above others, by the void they feel around them: they get to think themselves paragons, possessors of universal page: 90 knowledge and power, prophets and sole spiritual legislators. And in the neglected fields of thought which correspond to what natural science and non‐theological philosophy were in the middle ages, we, too, have our sporadic thinkers, half seers and half nostrum vendors, Carlyle, Tolstoi, Nietzsche, and others; men whose splendid achievements are due to their own genius, while their blunders and exaggerations are largely caused by the stupidity of their neighbours.

It is the same with moral standards as with intellectual ones; here again it is unnecessary to postulate physiological degeneracy as an explanation of mischievous theory and theoretically based action, new fangled or revived from former days. Every society undoubtedly contains a proportion of individuals who are morally less developed than the average, particularly than the average ought to be, and in whom the imperfection takes the form of indifference or rebellion towards the rules of conduct received by the majority. But is there not likewise another contingent of morally inferior persons whose inferiority, being of the sluggish, passive, as distinguished from the impulsive, kind, manifests itself on the contrary in servile acquiescence to the decisions of the majority, in automatic mimicry of the majority’s proceedings? And is the one class, which rebels against what may be good in our moral and social institutions, really more mischievous than the other, which clings heavily to what may be bad? For, after all, moral precepts, and particularly the habitual, practical, unspoken adaptations thereof, represent the worse page: 91 as well as the better portion of our very mixed mankind. And there are several kinds of outlaws; those who are too bad completely to imitate their neighbours, those who are too good, and those, again, I am tempted to think, who are comparatively free either to conform or not to conform, not from any superiority or inferiority, but from lack of imitativeness, lack of sense of congruity, partial independence of position, or absorbing interest in other matters: a class of apparent sceptics or indifferents, which keeps the others from excess, which often holds the casting vote; and to which most individuals, superior or inferior in their main characteristics, may belong by some isolated habit or notion. These three classes of nonconformity may be easily distinguished wherever men and women gather together for the promulgation of schemes of life, modes of thought, and forms of art which the majority dislikes or despises, from the Théâtre Libre to the Society for Psychical Research, and from the revivals of ritualists or evangelists to the meetings of socialists or anarchists. Looked at from the merely intellectual point of view, the meeting of these three classes, associated merely by the fact of elimination from a larger class, explains why eccentricity, faddism, even positive monomania, always forms a fringe to every centre of new and independent thought; even as the fact of individual isolation has explained, I think, the fringe of mysticism and fanaticism which surrounds the soundest thought of very solitary individual thinkers. As regards moral atmosphere and even practical habits, this inevitable herding together of outlawed persons, as of outlawed thoughts, page: 92 whatever the reason of this outlawry, explains the chief dangers of all revolutionary movements, as it explains the main degradations of highly independent characters. In any sort of revolution the highest and the lowest are always thrust together; the purest patriot and reformer is apt to find himself the associate of fanatics and criminals, rick burners and bomb throwers, for the mere reason that the powers that be, finding all disturbance equally distressing, have set their face against subversive ideas, as well as against deeds of violence. Nay, the community of persecution almost infallibly warps the judgment of even the noblest thinker; the awful strain of opposition, the lamentable dreariness of isolation, make him come in contact with, even lean against, the men and things he resembles least, because he is cut off from the men and things that he resembles most. And as with men, so with thoughts. The rational contempt for creeds and regulations which are foolish and harmful, drags with it, in most cases, the irrational contempt for creeds and regulations which are wise and useful; we know, all of us who have had free‐thinking or revolutionary grandfathers and grandmothers, that the waywardness and lawlessness of notion of a man like Shelley need not have been the result of any biological peculiarity; and that, if they were to any extent deteriorations, they were not necessarily what Nordau calls stigmata of degeneracy. Indeed, we need only search our own souls for the queer comradeship of outlawed thought. And are we not made more lenient towards the vapourings of neo‐mystics, the egotism and depravity of decadents, page: 93 the uncleanness of realists, by knowing that Professor Nordau would like, if he could, to set up a Holy Office and an Index Expurgatorius, and to commit to the flames the books, to the maison de santé the bodies, of all the writers whom, in the name of an immutable and officially consecrated psychological science, he has condemned as degenerate?


But the great undefinable thing which we call civilisation progresses despite all friction, makes improvement daily greater despite drawbacks, diminishes year by year the proportion of evil involved in its good. Spiritual degeneracy, deterioration of the man and of his thought, is still going on lustily all round, like the physical degeneracy of which it is sometimes the result, and sometimes the cause. National and class separation, professional routine and limitation, social rivalry, isolation of the exceptional individual and consequent self‐assertion; herding together of various kinds of nonconformity and consequent pollution of the superior eccentric by the inferior; all these maladjustments—these lesser of two evils which are yet evils in themselves—are filling the world with damaged thought and feeling which beget in their turn feeling and thought more damaged still. Despite all this, the maladjustments are diminishing, the inevitable evils growing less evil. And in one thing particularly, perhaps because our commercial society weighs lightly on mere opinion, perhaps also (let us hope) because our growing good page: 94 sense recognises good sense wherever it finds it—in one thing may we watch a constant diminution of intellectual damage: there is less of the particular kind of friction called intolerance.

Cocksureness, infallibility, readiness to defend the universe from our private adversaries, is ceasing to be identified with honesty, sincerity, magnanimity; it is beginning to skulk and mask itself in garments of tolerance and reasonable scepticism. The ardour of reformation is at length, thank Heaven, beginning to turn a little upon ourselves, our ideas and associates; or to restrain at least its readiness to clear the world of other people’s faults and errors. That things are really moving in this direction is proved, I think, by our general astonishment at Professor Nordau’s book. His absolute self‐confidence, his unsuspecting readiness to apply his own standards and judge all men and things on his own responsibility, his prophetic violence of vituperation and fury of destruction, his outspoken willingness to undertake the saving of society; all these are things which would scarcely have surprised us in the not very far‐off days when Ruskin was writing Modern Painters and Karl Marx On Capital; they were the accompaniment of the highest philosophic discrimination a century ago, as we can verify by re‐reading our Voltaire, Rousseau, or Diderot. But now, thank Heaven again, they surprise us beyond measure in a populariser of scientific notions, and even lead to the suspicion that Professor Nordau may belong to his own vast tribe of degenerates. I do not think, therefore, that unless the world become socialistically organised, and the care of men’s souls become once page: 95 more a matter of state‐jobbery, I do not think we need be really alarmed at the prospect of a committee of spiritual public safety, examining all literature, and art and philosophy, and, by an efficient organisation of lay‐confraternities, lay‐inquisitions, and lay‐excommunications, sweeping off the face of the earth all heretics guilty of offending the ways of Nature or Nordau. People will remember that improvement, as well as deterioration, is often found disagreeable and dangerous; they will reflect that Nature herself is the greatest of all innovators; they may even be morbid enough (in Nordau’s opinion) to think with profit on the symbol of the Son of God crucified between thieves, while the High Priest and Pilate sit at meat with the very best people. So we need waste no more words against the proposed new Inquisition.

But Professor Nordau’s book, as I have tried to suggest throughout these criticisms, should furnish us nevertheless with food for exceedingly salutary and needful thought; and this as much through its shortcomings as its merits, its practical absurdities as its scientific wisdom.

We are all of us liable to becoming if not degenerate, then at least undesirable: faulty, poor of stuff, and scant of measure in the very things we most insist upon; and we all require, in our families, friends, neighbours, but first and foremost in ourselves, to keep a sharp look‐out, to fight against these faultinesses and shortcomings. It is difficult to guess whether, in freeing ourselves from the many enervations of the confessional, we have or have not lost something which made, in other ways, for spiritual health. At any rate page: 96 no one can deny that indifference to the soul’s hygiene is one of the drawbacks of our present accidental, helter‐skelter, unintelligent form of individualism. No one goes nowadays to the doctor for a spiritual diagnosis, and perhaps it is better there should be no such doctor to go to; but no one even asks his friend metaphorically to feel his pulse or look at his tongue, or has a friend to whom either pulse or tongue, in the spiritual order, could reveal anything; nobody knows anything about the symptoms of his soul’s health or disease, or supposes anything to be of the nature of such symptoms. Hence most of us—all of us who have received no strong religious bias—prepare to go through life on the supposition that we are sound because we are we; what we feel in ourselves we take to be normal; our preferences and aversions seem the only possible ones under the circumstances, simply and merely because we know of no others and institute no comparisons. Meanwhile—and here comes in the great utility of books like Nordau’s, including a large proportion of Nordau’s own book—it is just as likely as not that we may be developing, in our innermost self, tendencies and habits destructive, if not to others directly, then indirectly through the impairing of our own physical and spiritual efficiency; we may be allowing ourselves to become, through the pressure of external circumstances, semi‐maniacs and semi‐criminals, where we might, had we known, have remained sane and harmless. Nay, the general opinion on this subject, so far as there is any, tends to consider it safest that we should go on blindly among dangers of this sort, and avoid madness by not knowing which page: 97 way madness lies. It is of course possible that the knowledge of danger may create panic; that the reading of books like Nordau’s may lead to egotistic self‐analysis, scared self‐diagnosis, and in a measure, perhaps, self‐suggestion of avoidable peculiarities. But, after all, how many of us have not already suffered in ignorance, tortured and damaged ourselves, as Renan did in his childhood with the notion of simony, and Bunyan with the possibility of sin against the Holy Ghost; merely to return, because of our ignorance, to the same bad ways we have been torturing ourselves about. Surely it is not merely more safe, but in the long run more comfortable, for the spiritual valetudinarian to know once for all what he had better do and better avoid, what forms of infection he is likely to catch, what kinds of strain he is least able to endure, what rules of exercise and diet he must observe; what, in the domain of the soul, are, to all men or to him individually, tonics or poisons.

All these possibilities and probabilities are most usefully brought before us in Professor Nordau’s analyses of degeneracy in general, and even in those criticisms of living authors which, however far‐fetched and unjust in their particular application, are nevertheless correct as accounts of the more subtle and latent forms of spiritual disease. On the other hand, Professor Nordau, if we analyse his most glaring faults, is a good warning of what we might all come to if we did not resist the deteriorating effects of social mechanisms, the tendency to produce apparent degeneracy inherent in most of our social difficulties and discomforts, and in many of our facilitations and page: 98 advantages. For Professor Nordau is the type of the specialist, highly valuable in his own speciality, but acquiring in its exercise a faith in his own infallibility, a blindness to all qualities save those treated by his own study or required for its prosecution, which allow him to approach all other fields without perception of their requirements and his incompetence; the very adaptation of thought to his own line preventing his understanding the different thought of others. While, to make the typical warning complete, his own rashness and injustice rousing against him all the thoughtless, unscrupulous combativeness of others, surrounds him with what appears a world of imbecility and wickedness, against which he feels justified in venting all his own least intelligent brutality. Until, to those who can resist the contagion of absurdity and injustice, Nordau becomes, as I have said, a typical warning, filling one with a holy terror (“Alios age incitatos alios age rabidos”) of being run away with by any idea however excellent, of letting one’s self be fuddled or made uproarious by the very best intellectual wine.

One word more. The reader will lay down Nordau’s volume, and perhaps my criticism thereof, with a vague notion that whatever may be the truth about degeneracy, the Philistine (and we are all Philistines in most of our capacities) is safe, neither dangerous nor in danger. Now this, in the name and in the face of all the Philistines of Creation, is what I desire to protest against. In the first place, as I have just remarked, every man and woman is in some things a Philistine, born of Philistines and brought up in the air of Philistia. In the second place, the Philistine, taken as an indivi‐ page: 99 dual, is far from necessarily wholesome or social, as distinguished from anti‐social and morbid. His ungenial defects (taking genial in the psychologist’s sense as well as the other) are none the less dangerous because they are shared by ten thousand others more or less like himself; nor are his anti‐social ways, his habits of vanity, lust, rapacity, and sloth less detrimental because they are confined within the limits of laws and customs which he himself has made or levelled up to. He is not a degenerate, very likely; but he is an imperfect being, and every one pays for his imperfections. Are religious bigotry, social snobbishness, official corruption, industrial grabbingness, tolerated vice, parental and conjugal tyranny, due to exceptional degenerate individuals or to the normal mass? What if the standard, the norm is low? Nay, are not degenerates themselves due to the normals’ wretched inefficiency? Does not the selfishness and shortsightedness of the normal mass foster every form of cussedness, exaggeration, fanaticism, that is to say, wrong individual attitude, either by its assistance or the opposition? Inquire into cases of infraction of social laws: have those who infringe them been dealt with wisely? are the laws they break (however foolishly and selfishly) unselfish, allwise laws, particularly framed in view to their happiness? In a word, does society not produce its own degenerates and criminals, even as the body produces its own diseases, or at least fosters them?

This is no anti‐social tirade; neither anarchy nor egotism is my special form of degeneracy. The individual, it seems to me, becomes weak and limited page: 100 in proportion as he is isolated and self‐centred. But we must not count too much upon the soundness of the majority, nor imagine that it is necessarily more complete than the individual. All class prejudice, half of what we call national feeling, is merely accumulated and inveterate spiritual degeneracy; and so far from the majority being able, in such matters, to protect the individual, it is only the individual, the eccentric, nonconforming, rebellious individual, who can, in the long run, save the majority. We are always, and always have been (pace Professor Nordau), surrounded by causes of degeneracy, and perhaps the one we need most guard against nowadays is the notion that society can relieve the individual from his spiritual difficulties and defend him from his spiritual dangers. Most dangers are not the same to all individuals, but bigotry and fanaticism are dangers to every individual; and to the community, they are greater dangers than morbid peculiarities of a less spreading kind. The worst kind of spiritual degeneracy is surely that which is gregarious, and which, for that reason, is unsuspecting of its own existence. To combat it we require to hear every one, to allow every variety of human being to express itself; we require to compare opinion with opinion, to correct bias by bias, to level exaggeration by exaggeration, to taste of all that we may select in everything. For the rule of life is selection; not merely of us by nature and fate, but by us of fate and nature. Our souls are beset by dangerous tendencies, notions, and examples: let every individual, therefore, scrutinise and select among the tendencies and notions of others; scrutinise and select more carefully still among the page: 101 tendencies and notions he may find in himself. Against degeneracy of soul there is, after all, but one sweeping remedy: the determination to alter continually for the better; the determination to become, rather than to remain, absolutely sane.