The Dedalus Book of German Decadence

BOOK: The Dedalus Book of German Decadence




From Austro-Hungary

    Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Venus in Furs

  *Herman Bahr

The School of Love

    Arthur Holitscher

The Poisoned Well

    Georg Trakl


  *Paul Leppin


From Imperial Germany

  *Peter Hille


    Stanislaus Przybyszewski


    Kurt Martens

A Novel from the Age of Decadence

  *Georg Heym

The Autopsy

    Hanns Heinz Ewers


    Thomas Mann

Blood of the Wälsungs

About the Authors



The passages indicated by an asterisk were translated by Mike Mitchell, the others were translated by the editor (except for the Thomas Mann). I am grateful to Reed Book Services for permission to include Thomas Mann’s
Blood of the Wälsungs
and to Langen-Müller Verlag for permission to translate Paul Leppin’s
Every attempt was made to seek permission to include a translation of a section of Kurt Martens’s
Novel from the Age of Decadence
(published by F. Fontane and Co., Berlin-West 1898).

I have grouped the translations into two sections, the first consisting of writers from Austro-Hungary, the second from Imperial Germany.


Ray Furness is Professor of German at the University of St Andrews. He has published a large number of books and articles on Expressionism, Wagner, Romanticism, Nietsche and fin de siècle German Literature.

His translations include the poetry of George Trakl, a study of Mozart and Posterity and
Die Alraune
by Hans Ewers (to be published by Dedalus in 1996).


Mike Mitchell is a lecturer in German at Stirling University. His publications include a book on Peter Hacks, the East German playwright, and numerous studies on aspects of modern Austrian Literature; he is the co-author of
Harrap’s German Grammar
and the editor of
The Dedalus Book of Austrian Fantasy: the Meyrink Years 1890–1930.

Mike Mitchell’s translations include
The Architect of Ruins
by Herbert Rosendorfer, and Gustav Meyrink’s novels
The Angel of the West Window, The Green Face, Walpurgisnacht, The White Dominican
The Golem.

‘There is an energy which springs from sickness and debility: it has a more powerful effect than the real, but, sadly, expires in an even greater infirmity.’


If an educated middle-class German of a century ago had sought clarification of the term
(a term which he may have come across in periodicals and newspapers) he might well have taken down the appropriate volume of his Brockhaus encyclopaedia of 1896 and found the following:
(French: pronounced “Dekadangss”) – decay, decline, deterioration. Recently the term has been applied in France to an artistic movement which is a reaction against Naturalism; it is a symptom of today’s nervous, senile, fragmented society which is impervious to anything which is healthy and natural, and which seeks to whip up its blasé, jaded attitudes through extravagant stimuli. The practitioners of this school of writing are called decadents.’ Had he sought elsewhere for further information he would have discovered that the most decisive formulation of decadence had been given by Baudelaire in his essay on Edgar Allan Poe of 1867: the French poet has accepted the term – hitherto purely pejorative – and welcomed it with approval. Those critics who had rejected Poe for being morbid and bizarre had failed to realise, Baudelaire had explained, that Poe’s works had aimed at being ‘unnatural’, for the natural and the normal had lost their charms (if, indeed, they had ever possessed any). Gautier had, in the following year, admirably summed up Baudelaire’s position – the refined, the ultra sophisticated, the
the subtle, the neurotic, the knowledge of being somehow explorers, or manifestations, of a terminal cultural sickness: these qualities Gautier had extolled in Baudelaire, as Baudelaire had extolled them in Poe. And that which had been adumbrated in Paris in the 1860s had become the literary watchword of the 1880s, especially in Verlaine, who had overtly proclaimed his love for the word ‘decadence’, going so far as to announce that he was ‘L’Empire à la fin de la decadence’. Our German, if he had browsed further in his Brockhaus, would finally have found references to Stéphane Mallarmé and Jean Moréas (the term ‘déliquescents’ was also used to define modern French writers, also, confusingly, ‘symbolistes’), and references to ‘artifice’ and, indeed ‘idiocy’, abounded. The impression our reader might have gained was that ‘decadence’ was a symptom of French degeneration, typical of a nation defeated in war, a country nervously strained and somehow predestined to morbid derangement.

But let us move to a more sophisticated level and see what the German-speaking literary critics have to tell us. Hermann Bahr, the Austrian
and essayist, visited Munich in 1888 and moved from there to Paris: with acute sensitivity and remarkable openness to the literary scene in that city Bahr saw that the Naturalist watchwords and slogans had had their day and that something new was in the air. Naturalism, that short-lived attempt to reproduce the surface texture of reality as faithfully as possible was now superseded by the cultivation of inner visions and the search for the
and the artificial. Bahr’s collection of essays,
Studien zur Kritik der Moderne
(1894), contains a section on ‘Die decadence’ which succinctly and with considerable insight formulates the preoccupations of the new generation of writers: they wished, Bahr explains, to flee from the trivial superficialities of Naturalism, wishing instead to ‘modeler notre univers intérieur’. They despised the taste of the mob and sought the bizarre and the extraordinary. They demanded artifice and were characterised by a febrile mysticism. They wished to express the inexpressible and to grasp the impalpable; they sought dark, sultry images. They entertained above all the insatiable desire to portray the monstrous and the boundless – it was no coincidence that they were Wagnerians. They detested the banal, the banausic and the quotidian; they sought with assiduity the exceptional and the outlandish. With unfailing acumen Bahr saw the importance of Wagner for the new mentality – Wagner as purveyor of unheard-of delights and sensations, the hierophant and magus for impoverished souls who sought that fearful ravishing of which Baudelaire had spoken some thirty years earlier. And decadence did not simply mean sterile decline, for the literary scene in Paris brought forth fascinating blooms which sprang as asphodels from fetid waters.

Bahr established himself in the Café Griensteidl in Vienna and acted as intermediary between Paris and Vienna in terms of ideas and manifestoes: his novel
Die gute Schule
The School of Love
), published in 1890 when Bahr was twenty-seven portrays the Parisian
vie de bohême
in a lurid and sensational manner, particularly the contorted relationship between the hero and Fifi (Bahr’s father rejected it out of hand). But a man who achieved a greater notoriety (and a much wider readership) for his writings on decadence was Max Nordau, whose
) appeared in two volumes in Berlin 1892/3. Nordau had moved to Paris in 1880 and keenly observed the latest literary and medical developments in France: he had studied with Charcot at the Salpêtrière at the same time as Freud. It seemed to Nordau that he was surrounded by symptoms of general decline, seeing in the decadents, symbolists and mystics unmistakable symptoms of degeneracy. ‘We stand now’, he wrote ‘ in the midst of a severe mental epidemic, a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria’. Nordau’s pseudo-scientific, journalistic survey of the contemporary literary scene, interspersed with peevish broadsides against the chief exponents of modernism, was widely read: there are references to him in works as divergent as Bram Stoker’s
and Andrey Bely’s
The Dramatic Symphony.
Although Nordau had first-hand experience of Paris (he commented on Verlaine’s asymmetrical skull and ‘Mongolian physiognomy’, symptoms, apparently, of degeneration, as were Mallarmé’s long, ‘faun-like’ ears) he also singled out Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites for scathing attack: imbecility, mysticism and incomprehensibility seemed to be rampant. Of interest here is Nordau’s furious attack on Richard Wagner. ‘Richard Wagner is in himself alone charged with a greater abundance of degeneration than all the degenerates put together with whom we have hitherto become acquainted  …’ For Nordau the German composer was the paradigm of decadence, an artist both degenerate and harmful whose grandiose visions were but histrionic gestures poised above incandescent decay and which sprang from ‘a pathological over-excitement of the genitals’. Seeing a link between decadence and Romanticism, this guardian of cultural standards and public morals could not refrain from condemning Wagner’s art as a lurid and dying manifestations of that earlier efflorescence, with the composer himself representing ‘the last fungoid growth on the dunghill of Romanticism’. But a much greater intellect had already launched his dazzling attack on the Master of Bayreuth, on the ageing and perfumed voluptuary of
above all, and
polemic lifts the discussion of decadence to a considerably higher level.

Friedrich Nietzsche, shortly before his mental collapse, felt compelled once again to come to terms with his erstwhile mentor and idol, that man who, for good or ill, had had the most profound effect upon his stricken life. In
Der Fall Wagner
(1888) Nietzsche sought to single out those cultural manifestations of his age which he considered to be diseased – and Wagner is their paradigm. ‘Wagner’s art is sick. The problems that he deals with on the stage – they are without exception the problems of hysteria. The convulsive nature of his emotions, his overheated sensibility, his taste which demands ever stronger stimuli, his instability, which he raises to the status of a principle, and last but not least his choice of heroes and heroines, if you look at them as physiological specimens (a gallery of degenerates!) – all of this provides a case-history that leaves no doubt:
Wagner est une névrose.
’ He continues: ‘Yes, if you look at it closely, Wagner doesn’t seem to be interested in any other problems than those that interest the little Parisian décadents today. Just a few steps away from the hospital!’ Unaware of the existence of the
Revue Wagnérienne
and knowing of the ‘little Parisian décadents’ only by hearsay, Nietzsche nevertheless sensed the peculiar affinity which existed between the German musician and the new literary tendency in France; the expression ‘névrose’, a possible borrowing from Paul Bourget, is an appropriate one. The thinker who suffered most under Wagner, who felt intense relief at the latter’s death in 1883 but who was drawn time and time again to re-define his own intellectual position vis à vis the Master (and Thomas Mann goes as far as to claim that Nietzsche’s polemic against Wagner was the most important aspect of his entire work) – this man knew that Wagner’s grandiloquence and imperiousness concealed fascinating uncertainties, vagaries, even perversions; it was the French capital which, interestingly enough, received his dubious and prodigious offering most readily.

The ‘last fungoid growth on the dunghill of Romanticism’? A ‘neurosis’? Thomas Mann, like Nietzsche, never failed to be enthralled by Wagner and the composer’s presence may be found in the earlier stories, the great essays, the later novels, in countless letters and diary entries; it is also Thomas Mann who openly insisted that he, Mann, was a ‘chronicler and analyst of decadence, a lover of the pathological and of death, an aesthete with a tendency towards the abyss  …’ That sickly connoisseurship of sensation which Nietzsche had detected in Wagner, as well as the brutality of many of his effects, provided Mann with many an insight into the nature of decadence. The proximity of love and death in
Tristan und Isolde
(prefiguring Freud’s writing on Eros and Thanotos by decades), the glorification of incest in
Die Walküre,
the heady fusion of sexuality and religion in
(the holy grail and gaping wound, the omnipresence of blood, the spear and chalice, flower maidens, castration and incense) – appropriate indeed that Wagner should be High Priest of an age characterised by a guilt-ridden eroticism, a morbid inflation of the ego and the cultivation of recondite worlds. Did we ever, Thomas Mann was later to muse, truly ‘overcome’ decadence? – or did we simply play with the idea that it was to be superseded? As a young writer he was able to observe closely the bohemian atmosphere of Munich, that city where Stefan George reigned as hierophant and
Grand Maître
in matters relating to poetry (his
poems, dedicated to King Ludwig the Second, continued the ‘Heli-ogabalic’ cult of beauty, cruelty and degeneracy which was adumbrated by Gautier in the famous preface to
Mademoiselle de Maupin
and referred to by des Esseintes in
A rebours,
that bible of French
). Munich was the city of Richard Wagner and that king who worshipped him and escaped finally into death by drowning: Nordeau would make mocking references to the ‘madman’ who, appropriately, ‘marched at the head of the Wagnerites’. There will be much of Wagner in Thomas Mann’s
Der Tod in Venedig
Death in Venice
), also of George and the cult of male beauty: Aschenbach moves from Munich to that city where Wagner had composed much of
and where he was to die. Other Thomas Mann stories with a Munich setting include
Beim Propheten
At the Prophet’s
) where the narrator describes a visit to an attic to listen to the overheated perorations of a manic visionary, and
Gladius Dei,
a delightful portrayal of Munich as a city of art which an overwrought and censorious student condemns for its frivolity and wickedness.

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