The New Criticism of Genius

A PRACTICAL application of the teachings of physiology to the conduct of human life is the goal toward which the whole nineteenth century has been groping its way. The movement received its greatest momentum when Morel began to study cases of retrogression, or degeneration, of the human organism, in relation to their effects on actions and states of mind. His Traité des Dégénérescences, published in 1857, was the starting-point of an extensive, rapidly multiplying literature, chiefly associated with the name of Maudsley to the English lay reader, but in which the modern French and Italian schools of psycho-physiology and anthropology have distinguished themselves by the most persistent and eager research. Every psychological manifestation that departs from the norm — the conservative norm representing the total of thinking and acting determined upon by the species as best for its general interests in the long run, and therefore the mass of those individuals organically so constituted as to conform instinctively to such thinking and acting — has come to be more and more closely investigated in the light of the degeneration theory. What is degeneracy ? Atavistic reversion of offspring, in consequence of abnormal conditions in the ancestry, to types belonging to prior stages in the development of the species. Such types, in those prior stages, were normal, healthy ; found themselves in touch with their environment ; obeyed its laws. Reappearing, in isolation, at a period when the species has so far progressed as to have lost even a memory of that bygone state, the embodiment of the type is out of harmony with the external world, is conscious of impulses subversive to its laws, represents complete discord in its relations to it. Within the last twenty years the criminal class has been placed, with growing conviction, among these groups of atavistic revivals. As a consequence of this, new views of penology are gaining ground. As the pathology of insanity claims a more enlightened attention, new angles of vision are possible in the treatment of the insane, and also in the consideration of sundry acute social phenomena. Finally, following this thread, we have been drawn on to the study of the physio-psycliology of genius; for genius is a deviation from the norm just as much as criminality or idiocy. When Lombroso undertook to subject the achievements of genius, and the personality of men of genius, to the physiological method of criticism, he did a great work of popularization for the method itself. The general public is likely to he sufficiently indifferent to scientific monographs on the psychoses of criminals and madmen ; but for anything which relates to the commanding individualities of its own time, or of all time, its interest is assured. To Lonffiroso’s Man of Genius can be traced a large portion of the physiological notions that are now penetrating, in a more or less ill-digested condition, into fiction. This is to be observed in England, France, and Italy, alike. But Lombroso has recently been outstripped, in his work of popularization, by one of his disciples. The German Max Nordau has used the new method in a criticism of some of the æsthetic doctrines of the leaders of contemporary art and literature. — used it with an amount of Teutonic dogmatism that the Italian scientist would probably deprecate.

This book, Degeneracy, goes in fact so much further than any yet written, in the endeavor to make clear to the apprehension of the layman the connection between all aesthetic productions and the physical organism of the producer, that attention should be given to its general premises and conclusions. The nature and character of every work of art is, in its essence, inevitable. It is conditioned by the structure of the protoplasmic cell, by the operation of the end organs, by the perfection of the nerve apparatus, by the degree of inhibitory control possessed by the supreme mind centres. Where there are organic defects, evidences of rudimentary development, deformities of growth, or abnormalities of function, the work of art mirrors that physical circumstance, utters itself forth in conceptions, ideas, judgments, opinions, or in interpretations of sensations, conspicuously at variance with the line of growth and progress along which the species is feeling its way.

This is the ground on which Max Nordau has constructed his book. It is his contention that æsthetic works in which the reflection of a degenerate physical condition is visible are unusually numerous just now. He accounts for this by the nervous exhaustion, tending to hysteria, which modern inventions and the industrial agglomeration in great centres have brought upon us. Nature demands a suitable time wherein to adapt herself ; we have been given no time, and the strain of enormously complicated exactions has fallen upon us over night. Weakened parents have produced degenerate descendants. Where to these general causes special and local ones have been added, the result is plainer to the eye. In France, the drain of the long Napoleonic wars, seriously affecting the equilibrium of the nerve centres of the people, was followed, as one link follows another in a chain, by a predisposition to greater nerve unsteadiness in the succeeding generation. This accepted as fact, or hypothesis, many of the more startling examples of æsthetic and moral perversion we have come to associate more particularly with jin-desiècle France cease to excite surprise.

Nevertheless, and though France seemed thus singled out to be the most critical victim of the Zeit-Krankheit, it is not there that Max Nordau detects the first outbreak, but in England, with the reactionary Tractarian movement of 1830, the mystic doctrines of Raskin, the preraphaelite creed, — three things that hang together. The high pitch to which English industrialism reached early, the great pressure which the Anglo-Saxon puts upon his capacity for hard work, are sufficient to explain the English initiative in this latter-day madness, to Max Nordau’s mind. Present economic conditions are thus insisted on by him as invariably responsible for the contemporary degeneracy in ethics and aesthetics. If an end were made of centralization. be appears to believe that greater sanity would return to the next generations. But in Maudsley’s opinion, the primal cause of degeneracy is an egotistic. narrow, unsocial nature in ancestors,

— “ absence of exercise, and, through disuse, decay of the highest social sensibilities and powers, moral and volitional ; . . . therewith lifelong exercise . . . of the egotistic passions in the conduct of life ; and consequent moral degeneration, which, by its nature, goes deeper into character than intellectual degeneration : “ 1 and this anti-social moral nature is very easily bred where men live far apart. The country has not all the health, nor all the virtue. The most shocking depravity of the moral sense can come from undue isolation as well as from undue herding. We could well — could we not ? — refer Herr Max Nordau to some of our own New England villages, practically untouched by the industrial competition, yet where the unsocial nature and strong drink (the chemical action of poisons, notably alcohol. on the blood was, in turn, in the belief of Morel, the initial source of degeneracy) have produced as flourishing a pro rate crop of mad people, or “ cranks “ of one sort or another, as exist in any of the most congested centres of industrialism. These degenerates do not supply the world with examples of the “ superior ” class of their kind ; their nerves conduct, their brain-cells discharge, sluggishly, not with over-excited intensity. But they are just as much a shining proof of what ignorance of physiological laws and indifference to the same can do as is the gifted Parisian “mattoid,” the denizen of the crowded capital, whose feverish existence has alternately drawn and relaxed his nerves until he is a mere bundle of irresponsible vibrations.

In the midst of the popular hysteria, the “ superior degenerates,” brilliant and erratic workers with pen. word, and pencil, become oracles quickly, and gather a following ; for hysterically inclined individuals respond to suggestion more easily than others. An interaction of pernicious influences takes place. Society, in its present state, produces great numbers of degenerates ; when the degenerates are great artists, they, in turn, add to the hysteria of the mass by the potent spell of artistic suggestion. To Max Nordau, almost every salient literary and artistic mind in Europe to-day is that of a “ superior degenerate.” He arrays all the familiar names : Tolstóy, Ibsen, Zola, Swinburne, William Morris, adding one, that of Nietzsche, which to Americans is still unfamiliar; all the French Neo - Catholics and Neo-Idealists ; all the Decadents and Symbolists ; all the Impressionists ; and at the head of this column he places Richard Wagner, whom he regards as having been “ charged with a greater degree of degeneracy in his own person than the whole present generation put together,” and whose influence, bolh through his music, extraordinarily exciting to the nerves, and the erotic character of his libretti, he believes to be one of the foremost upon which should be laid the burden of blame for the fin-de-siècle phenomena.

Throughout the whole of art and literature, at the moment it is certain that even the casual observer is struck by the prevalence of two marked characteristics : artists and writers arc stirred by a vague mysticism that at times trenches upon occultism, and they are immoderately absorbed in the noting of their sensations, iu the observation of their Ego. These two characteristics, mysticism and egotism, are precisely the great distinguishing mental traits of degeneracy. Add extravagant, unbalanced emotiveness, and you have a rough clinical picture of the state. Mysticism is the stigma of degenerates, gifted or not, because, psychologically, it is the inability to note facts clearly, to shape concepts keenly, — an inability due to infirm attention that does not check the undisciplined association of ideas, but follows it dreamily to the blurred confines of the subconscious. Egotism, what Maudsley calls “ egotistic hyperesthesia,” springs from a defective physical mechanism, that severs its possessor from active communication with things without himself, and fills his consciousness instead with impulses, sensations, hallucinatory obsessions, from within. Max Nordau is convinced that careful physical investigation of many of the men who are shining exponents of fin-de-siècle æsthetics, and study of their ancestry, would prove the presence of degeneracy among them beyond a doubt. Since such investigation is not practicable, he reminds us that science has pronounced such mental and spiritual “stigmata” as those just quoted quite as trustworthy for a diagnosis. And it is to this diagnosis that he invites us. In what he says of decadents, æsthetes, and impressionists, the general public is apt to concur. His remarks on Ibsen and Tolstóy will doubtless, on the other hand, offend many sensibilities. In Ibsen, he lays his finger chiefly on what he calls the anarchic Symptom of degeneracy. That anarchists are degenerates the specialist in modern psychiatry does not question. And it is this instinct to destroy the existing order that Nordau proclaims to be the force that animates the numerous personages of Ibsen’s plays who continually, though with no particular definiteness, preach, to whoso will listen, the doctrine of emancipation at any cost. It is the instinct of the anti-social degenerate who cannot adapt himself ; whose morbid eye is turned inward ; who is debarred from all adequate apprehension of the proper relations and proportions of events ; and whose violent emotiveness, over which the dulled higher centres have no effectual control, impels him to seek to fashion another state of affairs, in which his exceptional, because perverted, personality will feel itself more at ease. As Ibsen’s mysticism (otherwise, according to Nordau, crude, unscientific thinking) is anarchic, so Tolstóy’s is inordinately emotive, as witness his vague, impracticable altruism. (The noteworthy fact that the altruistic and anarchic feelings melt, very frequently, into one — of which we have proofs in the humanitarian outpourings of some of the militant anarchists of whom the world has recently heard so much — impresses itself, at this juncture, on the attention.) We do not commonly think of the great Russian novelist in this light. Evidences, however, of the effect exerted on some of the latest French and Italian fiction by the book which, of all he had written, appeared the least likely to have an influence. show that the German critic is not performing an unnecessary task in pointing out that the aberration of the Kreutzer Sonata has its recognized place in pathology.

But it is not the purpose of this article to dwell on the details of Max Nordau s work. We began by saying that the effort to make physiology teach the race rules, of something approximating to exactitude. for its conduct through life, was the great endeavor of this century. In Comte it is present in the embryo ; it develops under cover of the Darwinian theories of heredity, and of the survival of the fittest; in Herbert Spencer it advances, such weight does he lay upon the need of physiological knowledge in a complete and rational education, to a clearer consciousness. Any system of education fit to train men for the tasks of self-preservation, of acquisition of the means of subsistence, of social adaptation, and of intelligent propagation of the best in themselves to their offspring, Herbert Spencer has declared impossible unless it have a basis in psychology. But psychology, even within twenty years, has undergone complete transformation. It hazards nothing now without firm physiological ground beneath it. To this ever greater prominence attained by physiology we have already seen how much Morel’s degeneration theory has contributed. That we shall ever deduce a precise science of morality from all the physiological learning we can acquire, presumably even the hottest adherents of the new criticism do not believe. To read aright the fearfully and wonderfully complex workings of cells and nerves and organs, we should need to know all the mysteries of biology. Were biology and physiology exact sciences, we might have a science of sociology ; a science of ethics ; finally, a science of aesthetics. But, as a French thinker has said, the completion of the sciences has never existed save in the head of Auguste Comte. “ whose work is a prophecy.” We may doubt whether it be even a prophecy. We may question whether an ethical code can ever be made other than relative. But advanced thought is, at least, convinced that the only thing likely to be even akin to an absolute one will be built up in accordance with such measure of enlightenment as we can get regarding the quality of the stimuli that, in human beings, produce psychic reactions of the right and healthy kind ; otherwise, thoughts of the light and healthy kind. As we think, so is our life. And as these stimuli operate, as they are received by organs, transmitted by cells and fibres, interpreted by centres, so do we think.

Average men and women will always, probably, object to diving into the depths of the machinery of consciousness, and it is by no means needful that they should have a taste for that occupation. A strictly empirical idea of the natural sequence of diseased physiological conditions and bad psychical states is quite enough. This, precisely, may he vividly awakened by such studies of the constitution of men of great talent or genius as scientists and vulgarizers of scientific truths are now attempting. When this much has been said for the work of Lombroso and Nordau, we come to a halt. He who should suppose that these labors bring us any nearer to an understanding of what genius is, and of the part it plays, the progress of the species, would make a great mistake. Yet Nordau claims the last, at least. In his estimation, genius may be a terrible curse to the race as well as a blessing, and it is always a curse when it is unhealthy. Every part, then, played by a degenerate genius lures our kind into byways of folly that keep it, for long spans of time, from the highroad of advancement. Now, who shall decide what is and what is not healthy genius ? True it is that we have, in a very general, rough way, an idea of the matter that makes us class some great minds — Homer, Goethe, Shakespeare, ’Lessing, Cervantes, Racine, Tennyson, Raphael, Mozart — among the healthy; and some other minds — Schopenhauer, Leopardi, Shelley, Tasso, Rousseau, Dostoïevsky, Dante Gabriel Rossetti — among the unhealthy. But it is a classification that will never stand a rigorously scientific inspection. It amounts to this, speaking loosely : that we divide genius into objective and subjective, and hold the objective to be healthier than the subjective, which, in the widest sense, it is. If Nordau wishes, with support of facts, to prove, however, that every influence exerted by a subjective or (from his point of view) an unsane genius has eventually brought harm to the world, he will find himself embarrassed. Rousseau exhibited in his mental make-up and in his life all the perversions, abnormalities, and extremes of a “ superior degenerate.” He was, from a clinical point of view, a “ beautiful case.” Can it be said that the spirit he brought into modern life is therefore void of all good ? Goethe had no sympathy with the Reformation. He thought it a reactionary blunder that threw the growing rationalism of enfranchised mind back into the fetters of theological superstition. Max Nordau would doubtless share this feeling, and lay stress, moreover, on the fact that Luther was a neuropath, subject to visual hallucinations. The liberty of conscience, the free expansion of individual judgment, which Nordau would celebrate, nevertheless, as the greatest gain of modern times, it might be as easy to show as flowing forth, in one of its sources, from the fanatical work of the neurotic monk. Influences, good and evil, are inextricably interwoven in the tissue of life. The threads cross and recross, and they are light or dark according to the standpoint of the onlooker, and to the changing shadow that falls upon the web. It is idle to maintain that the scientific student of history can point to this man of genius as having pushed on, to this other as having retarded, the race. At most, he can make a clear case of directly helpful genius for a Columbus, a Newton, a Galileo, a Gutenberg ; for the explorers and discoverers who have widened the circle of man’s knowledge of the external world, or placed within his hands the instruments for extending such knowledge farther. Once, however, he turns to the realm of abstract thought, and how shall he say what great mind has been the benefactor, what the disturber and destroyer there ? If scientific study of history teaches anything, it teaches that we learn from our mistakes as much as from our acts of wisdom. This wild scheme of a political genius, that crazy doctrine of a religious reformer, though productive of nothing immediately but confusion and obscurantism, may turn out, through some alchemy we know nothing of, to be as helpful as the calmly luminous inspiration of a Harvey discovering the circulation of the blood. Many old philosophies are childish, and we have outlived them; we should not have come to our better ones had we not gone through them; and it is not possible to assert that the work of the “ mattoid ” genius invariably throws the race backward and delays its progress. Psycho-physiology cannot prove that yet, because it knows nothing definite of the mysterious operations of the emotions; how they are started, how they stimulate volition or determine cognition. While, in the broadest way, it is certain that a man s work is a reflection of himself, and that the emotion it awakens in others will be decided by his own moral status, the matter is not always so simple. Werther predisposed more minds to suicidal mania than the works of the sickliest Romantics. The vigorous genius of Shakespeare produced, in Hamlet, a type which has become the ideal of half the neuropaths of to-day. Again, the influence exercised by the unwholesome genius may work harm to the weak, while it may steel the stronger, by arousing emotions of disgust and repulsion, to firmer resistance. And finally, there is in the really beautiful an unfathomed quality that elevates, and can do nothing else, no matter what its source. The perfect craftsman, when he brings forth a thing of perfect beauty, will always stand a chance of doing good, even though, as a man, his companionship would not be improving. A Benvenuto Cellini, vagabond and criminal, “ superior degenerate,” may chisel a cup that will mould the thoughts of thousands to honesty in work, to conscientious endeavor, to harmony, purity, nobility of life.

Lombroso is more in the right when he refuses to determine which are the sane, and which the unsane, or the insane, geniuses. The predominant development of one faculty presupposes lapses, fissures, in the others. They are always found. He is more apt to be near the truth when he gives the brilliant degenerates among geniuses equal credit with the great men of more balanced faculties for advancing the species. They bring new elements into thought; they prepare changes, and change is our greatest means of cognition. German deduction may carry its votaries very far. It once carried Nordau 2 into classifying men of genius according to the predominance of the cogitational faculties over the emotional. A musician, a devotee of the art the most emotional, was at the bottom of the scale of geniuses. A ruler, a conqueror, one who handles men, in whom the will, the judgment, that which most separates a man from an animal, has unfolded most strongly, was at the top. But history, read by the physiological knowledge of to-day, does not uphold such arbitrary theories. The Alexanders, Cæsars, Mahomets, Napoleons, belonged mostly to the epileptoid family, as demonstrated by Lombroso, Bianchi, Tonnini. Their will and judgment were not, then, the proud freemen that they seemed, but often irresponsible slaves that obeyed the obscure impulses sent out by disordered organs. They could combine, foresee, strategize magnificently, once the impulse given, but. that impulse eluded their control; they were under its emotional dominion, just as the hypnotized, subject or the anarchist degenerate is under the spell of his “ fixed idea.”

We return to what we remarked before. The new criticism of genius does not lead us to understand the nature of genius, or its function, any better. It has another use. Great men are shining marks that rivet the eye; therefore excellent object lessons for that which Maudsley so urges, a close and rigid study of individual psychology.” By studying their psychosis, as it is, move or less successfully, laid bare, we may find our desire sharpened to study that of our ordinary selves. For this psycho-physiology of our ordinary selves is the great matter ; is what the world needs, and is now in the way of getting, as never before. Close and rigid study of individual psychology is not alone indispensable to the criminologist, the specialist in nervous diseases, who aims at a thorough understanding of some particular case before him. The “ psychology of crowds,” which has recently begun to enlist the attention of Italian and French psyeliophysiologists, is destined, haply, to throw a great deal of light on the far-reaching results of every personal state of mind; on the manner in which we all, morally, hang together. The whole practical importance of the physiology of the day lies in this: that each one of us may he led to see that he may have contributed, that he may be contributing, to form a psychic atmosphere in which crimes or misdemeanors be abhors can take root and flourish. A French writer3 lias pointed this out clearly, in treating of one of the great psychic diseases of the time:

“ One may reasonably ask one’s self if anarchy, or the absence of all rule, lie not proclaimed by a few because it crops out of our entire organization, out of the contradictions of our public conscience ; and if it be not manifested in the latter because each one of us first bears it about within himself. . . . We may have arrived at the recognition that anarchy is socially unrealizable, . . . an outright malady of the judgment. But it will not be trouble taken in vain to bring some few minds, and those particularly who talk of summarily cutting this noxious growth away, to ask themselves if its living roots are not being nourished within themselves.”

What "tone,” stable or unstable, of the organization characterized those members of their ancestry whose influence is nearest, what corresponding tone they personally were liable to have been born with, what effect on this tone a given environment is found to have had,— these are questions which parents and teachers are unmistakably now called upon to consider. The pattern upon which they model the growing human material in their charge will be conditioned by the intelligence or unintelligence of the view they have acquired of their own personality. What applies to parents and teachers applies with but little less directness to every member of society, whose thoughts, whose actions, orderly and governed by knowledge, or chaotic, anarchic, are carried farther, transmitted on every side, transformed infinitely according to the media through which they pass.

This empirical application, then, of a few physiological and psychological data, ascertainable about ourselves, to our conduct and our attitude toward society, is what the new criticism of genius helps us to. We may hope, perhaps, that the physiological dilutions of fashionable current fiction may help the mass of readers, who are void of curiosity for scientific inquiry, to a semblance of the same thing.

Aline Gorren.

  1. Henry Maudsley, Body and Will, 1884.
  2. Paradoxes. Leipsic, 1885.
  3. Paul Desjardins, L’Idée Anarchiste, Revue Bleue, December 23, 1893.