Baltimore Evening Sun/August 8, 1910
A great deal is heard, in these gay days of pseudo-scientific flapdoodle, of neurasthenia. It is at once the pestilence and the favorite pastime of the age. All of us, we are informed, harbor the dread bacilli in our systems; all of us show at least a few hundred of its 20,000 hideous symptoms; not one of us, however sturdy, sneaks through life without yielding, in some fashion or other, to the infection. The trouble with us, of course, is that we live too fast. The dizzy speed of modern life, and particularly of city life, is fatal to our nerves. The human race, already unanimously neurasthenic, trembles upon the brink of hysteria, and a bit further on is the brink of downright mania. Unless we slacken our frightful pace, turn to the Simple Life, chew our food to the fineness of an emulsion, practice deep breathing, devote an hour or two a day to meditation in the Silence, drink plenty of buttermilk, stop worrying, abandon the mad rush for gain, and swallow the bile beans or magic formulas of this or that wonder-worker, the race will be reduced, in a few generations, to a mere frazzle. We are burning the candle at both ends. We are all getting what the vaudevillains call the willies.
Bosh! In all this there is just as much truth as one finds in the average mine prospectus—and no more. It is not true that human existence is more difficult and hazardous today than it was in earlier ages. It is not true that the human race is suffering from a general breakdown of the nerves. It is not true that hysteria is more prevalent than it used to e. It is not true that the span of life is shortening. It is not true that the race is degenerating.
The Happy Middle Ages
Even a slight reading of history, indeed, must convince any sane observer that the man of today is chiefly differentiated from the man of 500 years ago by his firmer grip upon his emotions, his sturdier common sense, his more eager seeking for comfort, his greater repose, his steadier nerves. The average man of the fifteenth century worked from dawn to dark—12, 14, 16 or even 18 hours a day. The average man of the twentieth century devotes fully half of his waking hours to rest and recreation. The man of the fifteenth century was incessantly beset and tortured by witches, spooks, sending, premonitions and devils. The man of the twentieth century fears devils a good deal less than he fears mosquitoes. The man of the fifteenth century was overworked, underfed, diseased, ignorant and emotional and lived in a constant state of turmoil and terror. The man of the twentieth century is a healthy animal and lives in peace.
The appalling hardships and hazards of the medieval man kept him constantly on the verge of a nervous hurricane. He was jumpy, flighty, suggestible and excitable. He was incessantly crossing the border line of hysteria, incessantly running amuck. From the beginning of authentic records in western Europe down to the age of Elizabeth, the people of the so-called civilized nations passed through one emotional storm after another. One year they abandoned their homes by the hundred thousand and went galloping away upon mad journeys to the Holy Land; the next year they fell prey to an epidemic of flagellation; the year following they yielded to the dancing mania; the year after that they slaughtered one another in crazy wars, the cause and object of which no man could name. Bogus messiahs, without number raged among them, swindling them, inflaming them and leading them upon insane crusades. Staggering pestilences assaulted them; necromancers tortured them with grisly prophecies; witches harassed and terrified them; they saw signs in the heavens by day and ghosts in every dark corner at night; life, in those days, was one long round of alarms, tortures, panics and manias.
A Confusion of Ideas
Compared to the medieval man, the man of today is a creature of decidedly phlegmatic nature. It is extremely difficult to arouse his emotions; he is ease-loving and of steady nerves; his chief endeavor is to increase his leisure, to lighten the burden of life. The fact that he moves about more rapidly than the medieval man is a proof, not that motion is more exhausting to him, but that it is less exhausting. Compare the journey from London to Rome in 1450 to that same journey today! The prophets of universal neurasthenia, following the fashion of all other loose and childish thinkers, assume that two things denominated by the same name are identical. The word “fast” is the rock upon which they stick. “Fast,” applied to locomotion, to enterprise, to the performance of a task, means rapid; “fast,” applied to a course of life, means wasteful, extravagant, nerve-wracking, suicidal. Out of the confusion of the two meanings, out of the faulty ratiocination which is the parent of such confusions, arises most of the current talk of exhausted nerves, or universal hysteria, of impending paralysis.
Nordau and His Blunder
Max Nordau, that prince of pseudo-scientists, gave the Simple Life crusaders their Bible when he wrote “Degeneration.” In that absurd work, it will be recalled, he argues that the human race, at last in its higher castes, is suffering from mental and physical fatigue, that it has exhausted its mind and wrecked its nerves, that the burning of the candle at both ends has reduced it to valetudinarian vagaries and inefficiency. Apparently no critic has ever noticed the astonishing fact that Nordau naively hales into court, to prove the effects of the fatigue he talks about, such men as Paul Verlaine, Henrik Ibsen and Charles Baudelaire, who were chiefly notable, while they lived, for their exaggerated indolence, their infinite antipathy to labor, their lives of lolling ease!
The chief prophets of universal neurasthenia, naturally enough, are the psychotherapeutists, those fantastic fellows! Neurasthenia is the malady against which they perform their most surprising feats of magic. They alone can cure it. It refuses to yield to ordinary medication. Well, why should it? The man in the moon, if I make no mistake, is utterly resistant to quinine and bullets. the brand of neurasthenia discussed, with such bombast, by the psychotherapeutists is similarly transcendental. An entirely imaginary malady, it yields only to entirely imaginary remedies.
(Source: University of North Texas Microfilm Collection)
The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.