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Fitness, nerves, the degenerate body, and identity : radical reality and modernity in Max Nordaus aesthetics and fiction.

Saul, N. (2016) 'Fitness, nerves, the degenerate body, and identity : radical reality and modernity in Max Nordaus aesthetics and fiction.', in The early history of embodied cognition 1740-1920 : the Lebenskraft-debate and radical reality in German science, music, and literature. Leiden: Brill, pp. 211-223. Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft. (189).


This paper argues that Max Nordau’s monistic Darwinism and concept of the subject as embodied place him in the tradition of radical realism. In this context, Nordau’s literary works have hitherto been regarded as heteronomous productions, mere allegories of his Darwinian cultural criticism and so without intrinsic value. Here, however, it is argued that his aesthetic writing, which consistently thematizes life in the body, in some degree represents a counter-discourse to his critical work. First, the novella ‘Pas de chance’ (1879) is seen to reflect in literature on the relative cognitive performance of literature and scientific discourse, and ultimately to celebrate literature’s autonomous cognitive power. Second, contrary to the anti-Naturalistic, anti-neurasthenic prescriptive and proscriptive aesthetic of Entartung (1892-1893), both this novella and “Mahâ-Rôg” (1906) are shown to foreground as a kind of Wilhelminian Gothic (often extreme) physical and social ugliness. Thus paradoxically they both legitimate its representation and their characters’ attempts to come to terms with their negative embodiment. Nordau’s literary work thus includes what his theory demands to exclude and so trangresses the scientistic and medicalized normativity there propounded.

Item Type:Book chapter
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Date accepted:No date available
Date deposited:14 October 2016
Date of first online publication:28 January 2016
Date first made open access:01 January 2018

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