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degeneration

degeneration The idea that a nation, a ‘race’, or even human civilization is on a path of inevitable decay and decline has appeared in different guises throughout history. But from the later nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, such theories gained unprecedentedly wide circulation in European science and culture, as observers perceived alarming increases in criminality, morbidity, and mental pathology. Indeed, as Daniel Pick has shown in his thorough study of the concept, ideas of medical decline — or degeneration — were deeply intertwined with the political and scientific developments of this period, becoming the central focus of numerous social and biological investigations.

The French physician Bénédict-Augustin Morel (1809–73), traditionally seen as the first theorist of degeneration, expressed these ideas in an influential treatise entitled Traité de dégénéresence, which appeared in the same year (1857) as Baudelaire's Fleurs du mal, a volume of poetry concerned, in a sense, with similar themes. Having devoted himself to the study of ‘cretinism’, an allegedly incurable, heritable mental and moral disorder, Morel viewed the so-called cretin as a symbol of humanity's racial degeneration, which manifested itself in deteriorating physical, mental, and even cultural conditions. Though rather controversial at the time of their publication, Morel's ideas attained increasing influence in the aftermath of France's disastrous military performance in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and critically informed a growing body of medical studies on crime, prostitution, and insanity toward the end of the century.

These ideas had perhaps their greatest impact on the emerging sciences of psychiatry, anthropology, and criminology, and deeply influenced such thinkers as the Italian–Jewish criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909). Lombroso's theory of atavism posited the existence of an unevolved ‘criminal type’, a biological anachronism, which harkened back to a primitive stage of development and was detectable through morphological and physiognomic stigmata. In contrast to French thinkers, who tended to focus on the invisible, ‘internal’ signs of degeneration, Lombroso concentrated on these outward, visible characteristics, which are well encapsulated in the following litany:
… enormous jaws, high cheek bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped ears found in criminals, savages and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies

Another key theorist of degeneration was Max Nordau (1849–1923), a Hungarian-born physician and journalist, who eventually became a major Zionist leader. Nordau lamented increasing rates of hysteria and mental disorder — and their reflection in ‘degenerate’ cultural forms — in a widely read and controversial 1892 book entitled simply Degeneration (Entartung). For Nordau and numerous contemporaries, nineteenth-century technologies had exerted a deleterious effect on the mind and body, leading to a fatigue-induced hysteria, which was then passed on through the generations.

More mainstream medical figures, such as the American physician George M. Beard (1839–83), the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–93), and the British alienist Henry Maudsley (1835–1918), also saw causal connections between degeneration and nervous disease. Even Charles Darwin (1809–82) subscribed to theories of degeneration, viewing madness as closer to a primitive, animal-like state than to human civilization.

The idea that, due to centuries of ‘inbreeding’, Jews were disproportionately degenerate, or most susceptible to mental illness, was popular among many of these thinkers; such claims were most famously made by Charcot and the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856–1926), but were assumed by Nordau and other Jewish writers as well. Meanwhile, anthropologists and biologists applied these theories to non-white ‘races’, alternately viewing entire peoples as degenerate, and seeing particular individuals as having decayed (or fallen) from the true properties of their racial type through exposure to foreign cultures and climates. Similarly, turn-of-the-century sexologists and psychiatrists raced to document degenerate sexual types and the alleged degeneracy of Hottentot or African sexuality. A reaction to scientific concern with sexual degeneracy took the form of the ‘Decadence’ a cultural moment most associated with Oscar Wilde, which celebrated subversive sexual styles and challenged normative gender roles.

Thus in these late nineteenth-century formulations, degeneration connoted a kind of collective genetic decay variously plaguing a specific nationality or the entire human species, and allegedly manifested in a series of medical, moral, and cultural crises. Influenced by these ideas — and the widely bemoaned therapeutic inefficacy of psychiatric medicine against the allegedly growing incidence of mental illness — various scientists sought collective, eugenic solutions which aimed to root out genetic impurities by directly intervening in reproductive choices and processes. So-called negative eugenics — first applied in the sterilization laws of several American states — became integral to the biologistic vision of Nazi Germany and helped motivate the brutal murder of tens of thousands of psychiatric patients. Indeed, the Nazi period saw the return of degeneration in both its cultural and medical forms; the concept facilitated the simultaneous condemnation of the physical condition and the artistic expressions of Jews and other targeted groups, such as homosexuals, gypsies, and the mentally ill. To radical right-wing ideologues, modern, avantgarde art, like the degenerate body, represented an evolutionary failure, causing the pathological persistence of the primitive in the midst of the healthy and new.

Paul Lerner

Bibliography

Gilman, S. L. and and Chamberlin, J. E. (1985). Degeneration: the dark side of progress. Columbia University Press, New York.
Pick, D. (1989). Faces of degeneration: a European disorder. Cambridge University Press.


See also eugenics; criminals; racism.

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degeneration

degeneration
1. Changes in cells, tissues, or organs due to disease, etc., that result in an impairment or loss of function and possibly death and breakdown of the affected part.

2. The reduction in size or complete loss of organs during evolution. The human appendix has undergone this process and performs no obvious function in humans. Degeneration of external organs may cause animals to appear to be more primitive than they really are; for example, early zoologists believed whales were fish rather than mammals because of the degeneration of their limbs. See also vestigial organ.

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Helleu, Paul César

Paul César Helleu (pôl sāzär´ ĕlö´), 1859–1927, French drypoint etcher and painter. He is best known for his drypoint studies and portraits of fashionable women, which have the spontaneity of rapid sketches. His nearly 1,500 drypoints were often printed in two or more colors. An example of his painting, The Windows of Saint Denis, is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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degeneration

degeneration (di-jen-er-ay-shŏn) n. the deterioration and loss of specialized function of the cells of a tissue or organ. The changes may be caused by a defective blood supply or by disease. Degeneration may involve the deposition of calcium salts, of fat (see fatty degeneration), or of fibrous tissue in the affected organ or tissue. See also infiltration.

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