Originally written in German between 1892-93, this book appeared in English translation two months before Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison for homosexual acts. It caused a huge sensation, offering spurious medical reasons for considering Wilde’s character and work as ‘degenerate’.
Max Nordau (1849-1923) was a German doctor and writer, living in Paris. As the dedication of this book acknowledges, he was influenced by the work of the Italian psychiatrist and founder of criminal anthropology Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), who argued that criminality was inherited, and was later caught up in the fashion for Spiritualism. Both men’s theories have since been discredited.
After having attacked the ‘predilection for suffering, disease and crime’ in influences such as Swinburne, Nordau argues that Wilde ‘has done more by his personal eccentricities than by his works.’ Denouncing his dress sense as the ‘pathological aberration of a racial instinct’, Nordau adds that ‘what really determines his actions is the hysterical craving to be noticed’; ‘it is above all a sign of anti-social ego-mania to irritate the majority unnecessarily’. Dismissing Wilde’s poetry as derivative, and focusing instead on his prose essays, Nordau concludes that ‘Oscar Wilde apparently admires immorality, sin and crime’.
Running to seven editions in six months, the book clearly appealed to a wide audience, the English sections of which were searching for explanations for the social decline suggested by imperial failures, for example, in the recent Boer War (1880-81). A decadent cult degenerating English manliness was an appropriate scapegoat. As Nordau argued in the dedicatory letter to Lombroso which starts his book:
Books and works of art exercise a powerful suggestion on the masses. It is from these productions that an age derives its ideals of morality and beauty. If they are absurd and anti-social, they exert a disturbing and corrupting influence on the views of a whole generation.
In his 1895 book Regeneration, the English writer and social philosopher Alfred Egmont Hake (1849-1916) argued against these ideas, making a more liberal argument for the moral and civilizing achievements of English culture against what he perceived as Nordau’s defence of a dangerously militaristic German state. Nordau’s suggested conformism, he thought, was repressive, and ultimately demoralizing to society.
While in prison in 1896, Wilde referred to Degeneration in a petition for clemency from the Home Secretary, appearing to accept himself as afflicted by psychological diseases ‘to be cured by a physician, rather than crimes to be punished by a judge.’ Yet this seems to have been more a sign of desperation than anything else; on release, he told friends ‘the fact that I am […] a pathological problem in the eyes of German scientists is only interesting to German scientists’, and ‘I quite agree with Dr Nordau’s assertion that all men of genius are insane, but Dr Nordau forgets that all sane people are idiots’.