There are parallels between Pick’s own theme and some of the writers he warns about, notably Nietzsche’s vitriolic early opponent Max Nordau. In his book Degeneration, Nordau attacks culture he asserts to be degenerate, sometimes ideas which consciously perceive themselves as decadent, proudly carrying the label.
Pick’s target is the ideas of degeneration themselves, both scientific theories & art which embodies them. In both cases there is perceived to be something attractive about such ideas, they have a lure, which both writers attribute to a kind of weakness, or powerlessness; degeneracy to Nordau, with all the threat to life and society envisaged by contemporary medical science; disorientation and political confusion, to Pick.
Nordau’s way of dismissing unsympathetic cultural phenomena expresses an attitude which is not without appeal even today, & which can tempt when applied to ideas we dislike. Some might want for example to apply it to much modern French philosophy.
The immediate objection to degeneration theory is the oppressive use to which it may be put, the prohibitionist mentality it promotes. Nordau induces anxiety with his physiological determinism, presenting the source of our values as something we may not even understand. This can obviously be depressing. Likewise Freud’s concept of the neurotic can sometimes come across as a value judgement directed at a discontent one disapproves of, dismissing what is conscious and explicit.
Why is it thought important to discuss or teach these things? Nordau because he seems to see them as deluding a generation. Pick perhaps because he sees them as exerting a continuing temptation, to be dealt with psychoanalytically. Some ideas being dangerous, & having dangerous consequences are also illuminating. Nordau’s degenerate ideas also have a lure, as does Wagner’s ‘corrupt civilisation’.
These themes are Biblical. What the Bible understood by sin and lewdness has a notorious attraction. Reading the Bible it is easy to side with the enemies of God. Such perversity gives a way of relating to new ideas as well as old ones. From the decadent movement of the 1890s to the pop art of the 1960s, artists have explored the allure of the negative and threatening, teaching us how to enjoy what we would normally repudiate.
Parallels have been made between Freud and Wagner, Wagner and Hegel. Adapting Pick’s metaphor, we can think in terms of an echo chamber of temptation and decadence. Wagner, writes of resisting the lure of corrupt civilisation, itself rather like an Old Testament value, Nietzsche of Wagner’s seductive decadence. Nordau writes luridly and excitingly on the fascination of Nietzsche’s degenerate and dangerous ideas, Pick decries the harmfulness of Nordau’s degeneration concept. This paper attempts a Nietzschean critique of Pick’s own decadence, his morality of the weak, his interesting sickness. From the Nietzschean angle, we see that he has built up something like a new priestly corruption. We can identify the workings of his own will to power.
All these ideas of decadence have something in common. All deplore the entertaining of beliefs and sentiments that are harmful to the subject and/or the society he lives in. Each writer has a different view of what there is to be feared. Several different layers persist in Nietzsche, who largely accepts the science of his time. Sociological, physiological, racial and political concepts of decadence all appear in his writings. Nietzsche may be prepared to accept these concepts, but they are not what primarily worries him. Pursuing his own chains of thought he sometimes outgrows and overcomes them.