I have recently become acquainted with degenerationism, or the view bandied about in the late 19th century that human beings were degenerating. It was clearly a case of psychologists’ enthusiasm getting way beyond their means. A number of thinkers assessed the current state of European culture, found it lacking, and surmised that something must be causing the minds of Europeans to decay. One prominent degenerationist, Max Nordau, hypothesized that the decay was due to the increased consumption of tobacco and alcohol, and the increased pace of life brought on by steam engines. This led to decadent artists, musicians, and philosophers, who all seemed to be trashing the cherished ideals of glorious days gone by, and celebrating the seedier aspects of life.
In his 600-page tome (Degeneration, 1895), Nordau reads the riot act to many of the prominent thinkers and artists of his day (Wagner, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Zola). And he can really dish it out against these would-be men of acute consciousness crawling out from beneath the floorboards. He has a chapter devoted to our dear friend, the severely degenerated Nietzsche (as an example of the subcategory “egomania”) — “this man whose scribbling is one single long divagation, in whose writings madness shrieks out from every line!” And here what he has to say about people like us who sort of go for what Nz wrote:
Without doubt, the real Nietzsche gang consists of born imbecile criminals, and of simpletons drunk with sonorous words. But besides these gallows birds without the courage and strength for criminal actions, and the imbeciles who allow themselves to be stupefied and, as it were, hypnotized by the roar and rush of fustian, the banner of the insane babbler is followed by others, who [blah blah blah]
That’s a taste of the thing. Pretty fun reading, really. But I really liked this parting shot, in his conclusion:
Let us imagine the drivelling Zoroaster of Nietzsche, with his cardboard lions, eagles, and serpents, from a toyshop [...], in competition with men who rise early, and are not weary before sunset, who have clear heads, solid stomachs and hard muscles: the comparison will provoke our laughter.
Old Fritz would have loved this book.
There is a path behind our house which runs alongside a canal. I often take the path to campus and it’s always a nice interlude between home and office — trees, birds, animals, water. Each spring the gates to the canal are open and water begins to flow, and I have always wanted to be on hand when the water comes. Today was my lucky day. I started on the path and noticed some water in the canal. A little ways along, I found myself abreast the small front tide of water making its way down the canal. One more item crossed off my bucket list.