Paul Cesar Helleu

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influence in the post–world war i era

During the later nineteenth century, the term degenerate became an influential medicopsychiatric and criminological description that was often applied to inmates of prisons and mental asylums. Degeneration also came to be inflated into a general cultural epithet that was, in turn, adopted (more or less seriously) by a plethora of "naturalist" and "decadent" writers, artists, and critics. Juxtaposed with concepts of regeneration, purification, fitness, and so forth, the language of degeneration entered significantly into racial thought (most notoriously into anti-Semitism), and was also assimilated to varying degrees across the range of the human sciences. Sometimes the label degenerate was used with anti-aristocratic innuendo, but most importantly it was taken to refer to specific subgroups among the socially disadvantaged, the casual poor, or new immigrants, the "residuum" and "outcast" of the cities (or sometimes remote "uncivilized" rural hinterlands), the white or black "trash" so often conjured in American hereditarian thought.

The cluster of distinguishable but interconnected beliefs now referred to under headings such as "the new scientific racism," "eugenics," "social Darwinism," and "degenerationism" provided new positivist rationalizations of much older social anxieties, hatreds, prejudices, and hierarchies. But Victorian theories of evolution and degeneration also reshaped in powerful ways the understanding of the self and society, international relations, laws, and institutions. Increasingly the notion of "degeneration" became enmeshed with the great English naturalist Charles Darwin's famous account of how evolution occurred through natural selection. Many alarmist writings appeared during the final Victorian years to describe the reversal of evolutionary "improvement" and to predict imminent social and political collapse. Biological and social concerns converged, for instance, in a book by an English zoologist, Edwin Ray Lankester, Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism (1880). Here, the problem of thriving "parasites" was taken to be a significant sociopolitical and scientific concern. Titles such as Degeneration amongst Londoners (1885) or Evolution by Atrophy in Biology and Sociology (1899) typified significant intellectual tendencies across fin-de-siécle Europe. Labels and diagnoses of "dégénérescence" multiplied still further in Charles Samson Féré's series of works on criminality, pathological emotions, and neuropathic families, and in the Viennese physician Richard von Krafft-Ebing's frequently reissued Psychopathia Sexualis (1886).

In this extensive literature, the source of fear fluctuated: degeneration might be glimpsed in imperial overreach or excessive political timidity, in war or in peace, in population increase or decline (depending on the national context or cultural moment). Meanwhile the shadowy figure of the brute or overly sophisticated "degenerate" flitted back and forth between the peripheries of empire and the heart of the metropolis. The widely regarded founding text of degenerationism—the French doctor Bénédict Augustin Morel's Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles, et morales de l'espéce humaine (Treatise on physical, intellectual, and moral degeneracy in the human species)—appeared in 1857, prior to, and independently of, Darwin's own landmark publication, The Origin of Species (1859). Nonetheless, many readers of Darwin's work feared that he had been overoptimistic in assuming that fecundity was tantamount to fitness. This was the issue that increasingly exercised Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, who coined the term eugenics in 1883 to describe a potential science of selective breeding that would produce an improvement of "the race." Galton urged the necessity of a series of "positive" and "negative" measures to shape future human reproduction—encouraging "the fit" to have babies and discouraging or preventing "the unfit" from doing so. As Galton had contemplated the differential birthrate between the working and middle classes in Britain, he foresaw a growing biological and political crisis. Darwin considered Galton's early work on heredity "admirable," but one can only speculate on whether he would have considered equally praiseworthy Galton's successful endeavor to establishing a eugenics movement in Edwardian Britain.

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While the theme of degeneration had already found expression in ancient times and arguments for racial "decline and fall" are also culturally widespread, the specific ensemble of scientific ideas at stake in the present discussion was decisively formulated and developed in and beyond the 1850s. It is true that Enlightenment naturalists such as Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon had used the term degeneration in the eighteenth century to describe the effect upon the body of migration to distant lands and to account for racial variations, but Morel's endeavor added quite new connotations of anxiety to Buffon's relatively cool description and gave the debate an intense urgency. Morel's theory can partly be understood as an attempt to bolster the status of an emerging subspecialty of medicine—psychiatry—at a time when its authority and funding were seriously in question during the Second Empire (1852–1870) of Napoleon III. But the Traité was far more than a manifesto to promote the interests of a professional "vested interest." Rather, it pulled together into a compelling narrative diverse fears about madness, crime, political upheaval, inheritance, and death.

Morel's thesis was broadly Lamarckian in flavor—it assumed the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Importantly, Morel sought to demonstrate how a certain tendency to pathology might be transmitted through the family line: illnesses hitherto considered discrete were now linked together, understood as different forms of the same underlying disorder. Morel believed that degenerate families became sterile in a few generations, but some significant later commentators took issue with his reassuring expectation of extinction within degenerate lines. During the period of the Third Republic (1870–1940), the celebrated French psychiatrist Valentin Magnan further developed Morel's pioneering work, elaborating the technical vocabulary and removing the most conspicuous traces of Morel's Catholicism in which degeneration was seen in terms of sin and "the fall."

No single degenerationist text, Morel's included, produced shock waves—or a clash with orthodox religion—quite on the scale of Darwin's Origin, but the argument and themes of the Traité certainly did have enduring importance within social and scientific thought for the remainder of the century, and beyond. Ideas about degeneracy powerfully informed a new tradition of thought on crime and punishment, which challenged assumptions about free will and thus brought it into conflict with the traditional views of human responsibility deployed by lawyers and churchmen. What came to be known in the later nineteenth century as "positivist" criminology involved a rejection of so-called classical penology. The latter approach—developed by the influential Italian philosopher Cesare Beccaria (author of a famous treatise on crimes and punishments of 1764) and the great early-nineteenth-century English "utilitarian" systematizer Jeremy Bentham—was committed to viewing each subject as a potentially reasonable being, who could calculate right and wrong and the personal price to be paid in the event of social transgression.

In the work of the important Italian doctor and psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso, it seemed obvious that at least some criminals were functioning at a far lower stage of evolution and had no real understanding of their actions. Lombroso became the best-known pioneer of the new "positivist" approach, which he also described as "criminal anthropology." He referred to criminals as "atavistic" (from atavus, Latin for ancestor) and doubted that such creatures could calculate rationally for themselves; they had either regressed from, or not fully evolved to, the standards and mental capacities of the civilized and should thus be segregated or even eliminated altogether for the sake of progress in the newly unified Italian nation. If Lombroso's brigands and other assorted villains were cast as spectacularly monstrous (with handle-shaped ears, hairy faces, thick skins, etc.), others feared less visible forms of social morbidity, suspecting the presence of mutations and lesions inside the offender's body. Lombroso's works, such as L'uomo delinquente (1876; Criminal Man, 1911), were always controversial but lay at the center of international debate about the nature of the criminal for several decades. At major international congresses held in European capitals in and beyond the 1880s, the so-called Italian School and its swelling band of critics engaged in fierce and animated discussion concerning the balance of "nature and nurture" (to borrow Galton's phrase), the sources of recidivism, and the consequences of the pathological milieu.

In psychiatry, criminology, and, later, sexology, degeneration always implied a condition of attenuated will, if not total moral helplessness: degenerates were more or less enslaved by their organic state, the "tyranny of their organisation," as one specialist, the Victorian doctor Henry Maudsley, memorably declared. Not all commentators favored interpretations as pessimistic as those expressed in the later work of Maudsley (from Body and Will [1883] to Organic to Human [1916]), nor solutions to crime problems as draconian as Lombroso's, but these basic ideas and models were extensively developed on both sides of the Atlantic. Detailed genealogical case studies of families in the United States" The Jukes ": A Study in Crime, Pauperism, Disease, and Heredity (1877) was the best known—appeared to confirm the inherited nature of anti-social behavior. Readers of É mile Zola's contemporaneous cycle of novels on the degeneration of the Rougon-Macquart family would not have been surprised by such gloomy American conclusions.

Degeneration was used to comprehend a bewildering range of physical, mental, and sexual conditions. Not infrequently, medical certificates of this period would begin "dégénérescence mentale avec …" (mental degeneracy with …). But solemn claims for the scientific validity of the word sat uneasily with its actual variability of use. It was, however, this very plasticity that had made it so durable a concept, albeit one subject to an increasingly powerful critique by the 1890s. If it first implied a "falling away from an ideal type" (however defined), it quickly came to cover a multitude of inherited ailments and sins, and had the potential to implicate the loftiest prince as well as the most downtrodden pauper.

Precisely because of its discursive ambiguity, it could be deployed as a term by scientists, artists, and novelists of varying political sympathies. Excessive appetite for literature on degeneration itself sometimes led to diagnoses of moral morbidity. In criticism of the so-called Decadent literary mood of the fin de siécle, Max Nordau, the physician and Hungarian émigré to Paris (better known perhaps as a key figure in the early history of Zionism), caused a stir in 1892 by publishing his outrageous compendium, Entartung (Degeneration), in which many illustrious writers were severely condemned.

Some of Nordau's critics flippantly accused him of being degenerate himself, but the arcane nomenclature showed no sign of abating. The stories of, among others, Guy de Maupassant, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Zola, and Joseph Conrad; the paintings of James Ensor; the racial commentaries and grand musical ambitions of Richard Wagner; the dramas of Henrik Ibsen; the philosophy of William James and Friedrich Nietzsche—all these works cannot be explained away through "degenerationism," but they were nonetheless powerfully informed by these concerns, as were many of the works of early-twentieth-century modernism.

The pioneer of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was also deeply intrigued by—and increasingly skeptical of—such hereditarian models, particularly as associated with the "Napoleon of the Neuroses" who had initially so inspired him, the great French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. But perhaps no fin-de-siècle appropriation of degenerationist classifications has more poignancy than Oscar Wilde's reference to the theme in a letter to the English home secretary. Jailed in England in 1895 as a homosexual, under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of the previous decade, Wilde sought clemency on the declared grounds that he was indeed a degenerate and therefore worthy of treatment rather than punishment. He cited Nordau's and Lombroso's views of "the petitioner" himself and remarked of his own sexual behavior: "Such offences are forms of sexual madness."

More important than the sheer quantity of degenerationist jeremiads was their shared acceptance of natural scientific authority. In this approach, the fate of the individual and/or the ups and downs of Western society at large were no longer discussed primarily as religious, philosophical, or ethical problems, but as the precise outcome of physical conditions and organic processes.

influence in the post–world war i era

During World War I (1914–1918), propagandists on each side of the conflict accused the other nation of suffering from racial degeneracy. The theme of degeneration can be traced beyond 1918, not only with regard to psychiatric and cultural diagnosis but also in terms of national self-definitions and the concern with eugenic purity. The Nazi sterilization laws of the 1930s were in part shaped by much earlier debates in German eugenics, but also, crucially, reflected and grotesquely extended broader European thought on race and degeneration, not to mention specific legislation introduced in various American states during the early decades of the twentieth century. Nowhere was the inseparability of such cant medicomoral terminology more ominously portrayed in the twentieth century than in Nazi cultural political rhetoric itself, even before the full horrors of Nazi racial policy had emerged. The "Degenerate Art" exhibition in Munich in 1937 was, among other things, a gruesome legacy of the form of cultural criticism pioneered in different circumstances at the fin de siécle. The display was paralleled by an exhibition of approved German work. Although the history of the Third Reich and the "final solution" inevitably shadows one's reading of the nineteenth-century literature, it is important to recognize the quite different contexts in which degenerationist thought had originally been formulated, as well as the political and scientific ambiguity of this field of investigation, at least until World War I and well into the 1930s. It is only in the light of the Holocaust that the language of degeneration and eugenics has come to be so widely excoriated in Western culture, and exorcised from mainstream political discourse, although not so completely even then, as has sometimes been supposed. To assume that it is extinct, or that it has always been a function of an exclusively German tradition, would involve a powerful and dangerous cultural amnesia.

See alsoBody; Civilization, Concept of; Eugenics; Imperialism; Public Health.


Ascheim, Steven E. "Max Nordau, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Degeneration." Journal of Contemporary History 28, no. 4 (1993): 643–657.

Barron, Stephanie, ed. Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Los Angeles and New York, 1991.

Chamberlin, J. Edward, and Sander L. Gilman, eds. Degeneration: The Dark Side of Progress. New York, 1985.

Childs, Donald J. Modernism and Eugenics: Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, and the Culture of Degeneration. Cambridge, U.K., 2001.

Greenslade, William. Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel, 1880–1940. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body, Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siécle. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Kevles, Daniel. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York, 1985.

Neve, Michael R. "The Influence of Degenerationist Categories in Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry, with Special Reference to Great Britain." In The History of Psychiatric Diagnoses: Proceedings of the 16th International Symposium on the Comparative History of Medicine—East and West, edited by Yosio Kawakita, Shizu Sakai, and Yasuo Otsuka. Tokyo, 1997.

Nordau, Max. Degeneration. 1895. Reprint, translated from the second edition of the German work, with an introduction by George L. Mosse. Lincoln, Nebr., 1993.

Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c. 1848–c. 1918. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Traverso, Enzo. The Origins of Nazi Violence. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New York, 2003. Translation of La violence nazie: Une généalogie européene.

Daniel Pick

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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


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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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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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.