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  • Degeneration Theory at the Fin de Siècle
  • Sharla Hutchison
Stephan Karschay. Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. x + 294 pp. $105.00

IN Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin de Siècle, Stephan Karschay examines the prominent questions posed by degeneration theory—what causes human deviance and how can it be detected—by tracing the complex development of degeneration theory from its early origins in French psychiatrist Bénédict Augustin Morel’s Traité des dégénérescenses physiques, intellectuelles et morals de l’espèce humaine (1857) and English biologist Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) to its later transformations in fin-de-siècle pseudoscientific publications in criminal anthropology, psychology, and sexology. As Karschay’s study illustrates, the early work of Morel and Darwin presented questions about biological determinism that subsequent degeneration theorists and Gothic writers navigated in writings that attempted to answer whether aberrations in human behavior were rooted in congenital or environmental causes. By mapping various nodes within the degeneration debate, Karschay investigates the significance of contagion as a common trope used by late-Victorian Gothic writers who readily accommodated concepts relating to degeneration in ways that transformed the locus of fear from Gothic hauntings in ancestral estates to the biologically inherited disease haunting the physical body. This study builds a thorough historical context to explore how evolution haunts the fin-de-siècle writer, and it is one that includes a wide array of scientific studies, court cases, periodicals, public lectures, pamphlets, letters, and biographical information to produce new and insightful readings of Gothic characters in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan.

Beginning with Morel, Karschay explains how the French psychiatrist painted degeneration as a pathologically menacing condition—a “deviant germ”—that could be activated via toxic environmental conditions that altered a patient’s biological and neurological system so that the patient not only began to exhibit criminal insanity, but also harbored an illness that posed a threat to future generations that could inherit the “germs” of their forefathers. Morel’s view of human degeneration, that it is an inevitable contagion and one potentially in a constant state of change, facilitated a scientific desire to deter human aberration [End Page 396] as detected by Morel’s description in any “pathological deviation from an original type.” Two years after the publication of Morel’s tome, Darwin’s concept of natural selection undermined Morel’s assumption that a deviation from a norm is necessarily detrimental, since certain deviations, even if they seem undesirable, might enable survival. In other words, evolutionary biology posed possibilities in which the norm evolves to accommodate the survival of the fittest—a frightening prospect if, as the literary analyses in this study indicate, the fitness test involves developing or reactivating violent criminal characteristics to survive inhospitable conditions.

This study pays close attention to how degeneration theorists drew on the legitimacy of psychiatry and evolutionary biology to claim the medical expertise necessary to develop diagnostic tools for detecting and labeling nonnormative individuals, a practice that generated an explosion of lengthy studies and casebooks that carefully catalogued, categorized, and detailed a seemingly endless series of pathologies. Consequently, it is not unfair to say that the concept of degeneration plagued certain cultural discourses at the fin de siècle, eventually becoming a catchphrase stigmatizing a wide array of individuals, including criminals, so-called sexual perverts, artists, foreigners, prostitutes, intellectual geniuses, Decadents, racial others, the poor, and virtually anyone suspected of harboring the atavistic impulses capable of contributing to the demise of English society.

Amongst the works of post-Darwin degenerationists such as Cesare Lombroso’s Criminal Man (1876), Henry Maudsley’s Body and Mind (1870), Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), and Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892), Karschay locates three distinct strategies that enabled the rhetoric of degeneration to flourish: “detection,” “othering,” and “normalization.” Locating such tactics in degeneration...


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pp. 396-399
Launched on MUSE
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Will Be Archived 2021
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