Max Nordau

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Nordau analyzed negative tendencies in late nineteenth century industrial society and its culture in terms understandable to the popular readers of his day. He also seconded Theodore Herzl in developing the World Zionist Organization, preparing international opinion for the rebirth of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Early Life

Max Simon Nordau was born Simon Maximilian Südfeld in 1849 in the Pest division of Budapest. He was registered in the synagogue as Simcha Meir and known in his family as Simi. His father, Gabriel Südfeld, was a private tutor and had been a rabbi in Posen, Prussia. A widower with four children, he married Rosalie Sarah, née Nelkin, of Riga, who became the mother of Max and his sister Charlotte. Raised in poverty, young Max enrolled in the Pest German-language Jewish elementary school in 1854, the Catholic Gymnasium in 1859, and the Calvinist Gymnasium in 1863. In addition, he was instructed by his father in Greek, Hebrew, Ladino, and religion.

In 1867 Max enrolled in the University of Pest premedical program. He did his military service as an army physician at Vienna in 1873, at the same time adopting Max Nordau as his legal name. He received his medical diploma at Pest in January of 1876 and proceeded to the University of Paris to study gynecology. Nordau’s first practice in Pest in 1878 did not satisfy his career plans. In 1880 he moved with his mother and sister to Paris, where he opened an office as a gynecologist and obstetrician in 1882.

Nordau’s medical studies were financed by his journalism. He began writing as a boy for school newspapers and at age eighteen was a regular contributor to Pester Lloyd. His specialty was news sidelights written to be both informative and entertaining. In 1873 Pester Lloyd sent him to cover the Vienna World Exposition and followed this with a travel assignment that took Nordau to Russia, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Scotland, England, Iceland, France, and Spain. His travel articles made him well known and provided material for two books, Aus dem Wahren Milliardenlande (1878; Paris Sketches, 1884) and Vom Kreml zur Alhambra (1879; from the Kremlin to the Alhambra). Paris unter der Dritten Republik (Paris under the Third Republic) followed in 1880. By 1881, he was a Paris correspondent for the prestigious Frankfurter Zeitung and the leading Berlin liberal paper, Vossische Zeitung, as well as Pester Lloyd. He also published short stories, plays, novels, and various articles, in addition to his growing medical practice. As Nordau’s scientific and rationalistic outlook came to supersede many of his earlier religious beliefs, his friendships grew across lines of both religion and nationality. Short statured, he cultivated a full beard that whitened prematurely and gave him a patriarchal appearance. Athletic, his hobbies included swimming and fencing. As Nordau was a bachelor for many years, his mother and sister—both religiously observant—managed his Paris household.

Life’s Work

Nordau gained a worldwide reputation with the 1883 publication of Die Conventionellen Luegen der Kulturmenschheit (The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization, 1906) which went through seven printings in seven weeks. He attacked religious promises of individual immortality as improbable, monarchism and aristocracy as relics of a dead past, democratic politics as a deceit, economics as a swindle, and marriage as materialistic. The pope denounced the book, Russia and Austria-Hungary banned it, and U.S. publishers put “prohibited in Europe” on the book’s cover. Paradoxe (1885; Paradoxes, 1885) examined the counterplay of optimism and pessimism, the social problem of love, and the baneful influence of prejudice. Nordau followed this with a few novels and plays before his next major success, Entartung (1893; Degeneration, 1895), in which he argued that art during the classical era, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment was natural and healthy, and played a positive role in society, while late nineteenth century culture was dominated by negative attitudes and pathological tendencies that reflected the nervous exhaustion of industrialized society. The Romantic movement had opened the door to mysticism, egomania, and other forms of individual escapism. Among the examples he analyzed were Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Richard Wagner, Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Nordau maintained that in varying ways and degrees, all of these people had a negative, twisted, or unnatural view of humankind and society.

Degeneration, translated into many languages, was widely read and discussed, and not always calmly. Historian Brooks Adams “enormously admired” the book, and New York Sun literary editor Mayo Hazeltine found it “brilliant.” However, Columbia University’s Nicholas Murray Butler called Nordau “a pathological type,” and psychologist William James diagnosed...

(The entire section is 2077 words.)