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 :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).
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