Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/February 1897/Scientific Literature

Scientific Literature.

Early in 1895 the reading and thinking world was given something like a galvanic shock by the appearance of Nordau's book on Degeneration. It represented much of the genius of the later nineteenth century—genius that has produced many of the most widely admired works of art and literature—as being a variety of wholesale derangement that was developing in a considerable part of the race. Such a diagnosis could hardly pass unchallenged. The magazinists hastened to answer Nordau. An anonymous English writer put forth a volume controverting his position, and a fellow-countryman of Nordau, Dr. William Hirsch has so modified a work that he had under way as to make it also a reply.[1] Dr. Hirsch's book is first an examination, in the light of the latest advances made in neurology, of the much debated question. How closely is genius related to insanity? After briefly defining the limits of insanity he examines the psychology of genius and then compares the diseased with the supernormal mind. He holds that—

Genius in different departments is referable to the most diverse psychical conditions. Psychical faculties and characters which in one case constitute the essence of genius, in another case are inconsistent with the action of genius. In short, definite psychical characters common to all genius are not to be found. One would seek in vain any common psychological explanation of the greatness of a Paganini and a Bismarck, of a Mozart and a Napoleon.

While he refrains from fitting a definition to either genius or insanity, he does not hesitate to compare the two. He takes up the chief symptoms which other authors have found in both men of genius and the insane. Among these are hallucinations, melancholy, the lively fancy of the littérateur and the lying of the imbecile, and the fact that some great men have actually had attacks of insanity. Yet he deems all these to be mere resemblances, not real affinities. Great men are not to be measured by the same standard as ordinary beings, and the reason why they are often deemed insane by those around them is because their superior powers are not understood. Taking up the subject of degeneration, he discusses the views of Morel, Krafft-Ebing, and Lombroso as to the characteristics of degenerates, and concludes that "in consequence of its common cause in all cases—namely, mental instability, discord of the mental faculties—the cases always have something to characterize them, and they give to the competent observer no occasion to confound them with great, fully developed, and harmonious minds." In his chapter on Secular Hysteria, Dr. Hirsch first comes in conflict with Nordau. He flatly contradicts the assertion of the latter that neurasthenia and hysteria are epidemic as they have never been in former centuries and are vitiating the literature, art, and culture of the time. He says:

Had Nordau in his sharp critique of existing conditions in the fields of society, literature, and art made no pretension to any other standpoint than that of the æsthetician and art critic, his work, in spite of its many eccentricities and falsities, would undeniably not have been without service, for he lays the scourge that is their due upon many a folly and absurdity of our time. But when he wraps himself in the solemn garb of science and, assuming the position of a psychiatrist, hurls the ban of degeneracy and hysteria upon everything that does not meet his approval, he can only be called a psychiatric dilettante.

He regards as Nordau's chief error the drawing of psychiatric conclusions from his purely subjective criticism of works of art, without regard to the purpose of the artist or author. In order to make his meaning clear he takes Richard Wagner as an example, and gives quite an extended analysis of his compositions, maintaining that they give no such evidence of degeneracy as Nordau alleges. In reading Dr. Hirsch's pages one can not help being impressed with his fairness. He never fails to admit what he can agree with in his opponent's position. At the same time he is a good fighter, and his blows fall thick and heavily upon those things that he undertakes to combat.

Although prepared chiefly for certain professional and business men, the little book on Theater Fires, recently published by Mr. Gerhard, deals with a matter which often becomes of wide and painful interest.[2] From the statistical pages, with which the author introduces his subject, we learn that before 1878 five hundred and sixteen theaters had been completely destroyed by fire. Theaters are in most danger from fire when they are new and their apparatus may not be in perfect working order, and again when forty to fifty years old and much of the apparatus has become worn out. The causes of theater fires are many and various, but most of them arise, naturally, on the stage or in the dressing rooms. Panics in theaters also have a number of causes besides the actual appearance of fire. One may be started by a false alarm, by an alarm of fire in the neighborhood, by the unannounced darkening of the house, by the plunging of a frightened horse on the stage, etc. As measures for preventing outbreaks of fire Mr. Gerhard recommends the isolation of the building' so far as practicable, fireproof construction, using brick and terra cotta in preference to stone and avoiding exposed ironwork, the use of incandescent electric lights, proper storing of scenery, removal of rubbish, etc. If a fire does start, the building should be so divided as to localize it. The stage should be separated from the auditorium by a fire wall. The proscenium opening should be fitted with a fire-resisting curtain, closing as nearly as possible hermetically. There should be as few other openings in this wall as possible, and all of them kept closed by fire doors. The safety of the spectators and stage people can be best provided for by having adequate exits. All other devices Mr. Gerhard ranks as subordinate. The exits, he says, should be arranged so as to widen as they approach the outside of the building. There should be no stinting of exits for the occupants of the galleries, who have often been suffocated in large numbers by the rising smoke and hot gases of combustion. Many other measures for preventing or restricting the damage done by fires are named by Mr. Gerhard, and he describes with considerable detail what he deems the best appliances for putting out theater fires before they have gained much headway. The volume is made up of three papers prepared for different occasions, hence there are some repetitions in it. This not very serious fault doubtless could have been wholly or largely removed by a moderate amount of editing. A list of books and magazine articles on theater construction and protection is appended. Every theatergoer should read the volume, so that he may know when he is in a safe house, and should never again allow the most seductive bill to tempt him into a death-trap.

It is a strong presumptive recommendation of Mr. Parry's Evolution of the Art of Music[3] that it was nine years in preparation. The examination of the book reveals throughout evidences of the thorough study and careful work implied by that term of years, and of effort to go to the bottom of the subject. The author seems to have found a firm basis for his deductions, and expresses them clearly and distinctly, without any of the hazy uncertainty and vague indefiniteness that mark the majority of attempts to analyze music and make them far from satisfactory. The origin of music is found in natural or spontaneous vocal expressions of feeling and sensibility, such as are common to all sentient beings. Man has developed and extended them and formulated them according to his stage of culture, and the purpose in this book is to point out how and by what steps he has done this and brought musical expression to its present high condition. These utterances pass within the range of art when they take any definite form, just as speech begins when vague signals of sound give place to words. When these musical figures become definite enough to be remembered, scales are formed, or series of notes which stand in some recognizable relation to one another in respect of pitch. The connection of music, or vocal, with dancing or muscular expression of feeling gives rise to rhythm, and we have all the elements of the art. The scales, ancient and modern, and of various races, are described and analyzed. A step higher than the primitive fragments of tune and rhythm of savage music—the first stages of musical development—is folk music, in which an appearance of orderliness and completeness is given; and we have the folk music of various tribes and nations, described and illustrated with specimens, in its different degrees of development. Next, the religious aspect of music is referred to, and the beginning of harmony is discussed in connection with the appearance of Christian church music. The era of pure choral music succeeding this is followed by the rise of secular music, with the history of opera swaying to and fro in the struggle between the musical and dramatic elements for predominance. Instrumental music is next studied in its early and middle stage; the sonata; and finally the modern developments, with all their varieties of style and form. In these discussions the typical works of each age. form, and style are described and analyzed, the work done by the composers who have made epochs in the progress of the art or established new forms is examined into, and each point is illustrated by the introduction of scores. Wagner is the latest master who has left a distinct mark in the growth of music, and the nature and effect of the most characteristic features of his compositions are inquired into in what seems to us a truly judicial spirit.

  1. Genius and Degeneration. By Dr. William Hirsch. New York: D. Appleton & Co. Pp. 333, 8vo. Price, $3.50.
  2. Theater Fires and Panics. By William Paul Gerhard. New York: John Wiley & Sons. Pp. 175, 12mo. Price, $1.50.
  3. The Evolution of the Art of Music. By C. Hubert Parry. New York: D. Appleton & Co. (International Scientific Series.) Pp. 312. Price, $1.75.