Lord Trouble

In Berlin in 1892, Max Nordau published his extraordinary book Entartung, or “Degeneration.” Dedicated to the pseudoscientist and (let me risk a tautology) phrenologist Cesare Lombroso, this dense and lengthy diatribe sought to lay bare the origins and effects of national and individual self-hatred and self-destructiveness. Directed at the languor and amorality of what Nordau was already terming the “fin de siècle,” it exalted the “normal,” the “manly,” and the utilitarian over the neurotic and the aesthete. Herr Nordau had some unresolved difficulties of his own—he had changed his name from Südfeld or “Southern Field” to the more bracing and valiant-sounding “Northern Meadow”—and he was the most militant deputy of Theodor Herzl in proposing a Zionist solution to the Luftmensch question; the nagging problem of the enfeebled and deracinated and feminized Jew. (The fact that the National Socialists later borrowed his book and his concept, and staged taunting exhibitions of Entartete Kunst and Entartete Musik, is not to be charged to Nordau’s account, though it would make a fascinating appendix to any study of the relationship between self-loathing and ultranationalism.)

A principal exhibit in Nordau’s gallery of the decayed and the corrupting was a man who did not yet enjoy a Continental reputation:

Decadentism has not been confined to France alone [Nordau had been railing against Baudelaire]…. The ego-mania of decadentism, its love of the artificial, its aversion to nature, and to all forms of activity and movement, its megalomaniacal contempt for men and its exaggeration of the importance of art, have found their English representative among the “Aesthetes,” the chief of whom is Oscar Wilde.

Nordau did not recognize Wilde as an Irishman, or understand his outsider relationship to Anglo-Saxondom, but he did take a strong view about the practice of parading down Pall Mall in a doublet, sunflower in hand. (“This anecdote has been reproduced in all the biographies of Wilde, and I have nowhere seen it denied,” he snorted.) Moreover:

Phrasemakers are perpetually repeating the twaddle, that it is a proof of honorable independence to follow one’s own taste without being bound down to the regulation costume of the Philistine cattle, and to choose for clothes the colors, materials and cut which appear beautiful to one’s self, no matter how much they may differ from the fashion of the day. The answer to this cackle is that it is above all a sign of anti-social ego-mania to irritate the majority unnecessarily…

Nordau identified Wilde as an enemy of Nature and an admirer of “immorality, sin and crime.” If Wilde had read the book when it was first published, he might have mocked it gently, as did George Bernard Shaw, for its heaviness or—conceivably—have felt a premonition of the odium that would engulf him when his luck ran out. In fact, he did not refer to the book until he was in Reading Gaol and composing a piteous letter in which he begged for release. In that petition, he abjectly cited Nordau as the…

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