The Degenerating Genius

Daniel Pick looks at change, melodrama and decay in the creative work of the artists of the Fin de Siècle 1890s period.

A clearly-defined thought is an extra-ordinary rarity in this Norwegian dramatist. Everything floats and undulates, nebulous and amorphous, such as we are accustomed to see in weak-brained degenerates. And if he once succeeds, with toil and stress, in grasping anything and expressing it in a moderately intelligible manner, he unfailingly hastens, a few pages later, or in a subsequent piece, to say the exact opposite.

Thus did Dr Max Nordau, author of Degeneration, that cause celebre of the 1890s, diagnose the pathological inconsistency of the playwright Henrik Ibsen. Nordau's polemical study offered a method for understanding the cultural madness of the period. To accept his arguments was to grasp the sickness of much modern art and thought, the degeneracy underlying such controversial literary events of the moment as the first production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in 1891 or, more traumatically, the trial of Oscar Wilde four years later.

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