'A dark / Inscrutable workmanship:' Shining a ‘scientific’ light on emotion and poiesis

Takolander, Maria 2016, 'A dark / Inscrutable workmanship:' Shining a ‘scientific’ light on emotion and poiesis, AXON: Creative Explorations, no. C1, pp. 1-1.

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Title 'A dark / Inscrutable workmanship:' Shining a ‘scientific’ light on emotion and poiesis
Author(s) Takolander, MariaORCID iD for Takolander, Maria orcid.org/0000-0003-0698-1594
Journal name AXON: Creative Explorations
Issue number C1
Start page 1
End page 1
Total pages 1
Publisher University of Canberra
Place of publication Canberra, A. C. T.
Publication date 2016-09-15
Keyword(s) poetry
theorising creativity
embodied cognition
Summary Max Nordau’s physiognomic study of criminality, Degeneration (1895), notably dedicated to the Italian pioneer of criminal anthropology Cesare Lombroso, labels poets and other artists—alongside criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, and lunatics—as ‘degenerates’. The Symbolist poets come under particular scrutiny in Nordau’s pseudo-scientific study. Paul Verlaine is described as ‘a repulsive degenerate subject with asymmetric skull and Mongolian face’ (1920 [1895]:128), while Stéphane Mallarmé is said to have ‘long, pointed, faun-like ears’ (131). The emotional and metaphorical intensity of their poetry, for Nordau, is another reflection of their alleged degeneracy. These poets write ‘twaddle’ (116), engaging in a ‘babbling and stammering’ (119) resonant of children and animals, which only ‘imbeciles and idiots’ profess to understand. While the Symbolists are viewed as avant-garde, Nordau is at pains to demonstrate that their irrational use of language actually exposes them as atavistic. Nordau proclaims: ‘clear speech serves the purpose of communication of the actual’ (118). By contrast, the Symbolists, ‘so far as they are honestly degenerate and imbecile, can think only in a mystical, that is, in a confused way… their emotions override their ideas.’

Identified by Nordau as one of the fin de siècle’s degenerates, Oscar Wilde evoked Nordau’s book in a petition for clemency when he was imprisoned in 1896, arguing that Nordau’s findings proved he required medical rather than punitive intervention. His plea was not successful, with Wilde later quipping: ‘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’ (cited in Hitchens 2000: 18).
Language eng
Field of Research 190402 Creative Writing (incl Playwriting)
Socio Economic Objective 950203 Languages and Literature
HERDC Research category C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal
ERA Research output type X Not reportable
Copyright notice ©2016, University of Canberra
Persistent URL http://hdl.handle.net/10536/DRO/DU:30085978

Document type: Journal Article
Collections: Faculty of Arts and Education
School of Communication and Creative Arts
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