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Fictions of Fear – Degeneration, Fiction, Identity and the Transmission of Ideas in Fin de Siècle Austria-Hungary, Britain, and Germany

Natalie Eller

This research project has sought to understand the role that transcultural ties played in the exchange of thoughts on degeneration among European literates during the fin de siècle with special regard to Austria-Hungary, Britain, and Germany. In doing so I have analysed in how far these ideas, which originated in the great ambiguous expectations of the future among the European middle class, were taken up in the works of writers. These national discourses were transmitted through various ways across national borders where they influenced, penetrated and transformed each other. 

This proposed PhD thesis was based on the presumption that during the fin the siècle feelings of uneasiness and doom resulted from rapid changes in the way of life. The original connection between melancholy and degeneration had to be abandoned, due to lack of sufficient source material. In addition the focus was narrowed to Austria-Hungary, Britain, and Germany – mainly due to the availability of sources and the exemplary nature of the respective national discourses.

During the course of this project it has become quite evident that transnational ties between the European intellectuals were a rule rather than an exception: This transmission of thoughts was not only limited to classical fields such as medicine and literature but also included newly established sciences such as criminal anthropology and psychiatry. The first international congresses regarding these various fields fell into the time of the fin de siècle and led up to the outbreak of the First World War. These posed the preconditions for a transmission of thought across national borders and were underlined by intellectual discourses in the European countries themselves. Literature and medicine in particular formed a close connection and new developments in each of these fields had a great influence on the other. This thirst of knowledge stemmed on the one side from the growing interest of an educated middle class and on the other from the rising accessibility of a wider public to new developments in literature and science through rapidly growing mass-media such as journals, newspapers and less costly books. The exchange between intellectuals and the middle class in general was highly important regarding the transmission of thoughts on degeneration and controversial subjects of the time, such as the question of identity in an age of rapid change and the subsequent fears concerning the future of one’s own society. These fears prevailed mostly among the European middle classes and having already been mixed with scientific explanations they were mirrored in the writings of literates who thus reproduced but also transformed the national discourse. The term “fictions of fear” refers to a catalogue of specific late nineteenth century fears which were thus established in an almost literary canon. This project has been able to show that at least some of these “fictions of fear” although resulting in one particular society where not bound to its national discourse. Indeed, through the transmission of thoughts of fin de siècle writers there seems to have remained a certain basic canon of “fictions of fear” which (although adapted to the particular anxieties of a European society) essentially prevailed despite national borders.

So far this research project has identified the British discourse on degeneration and determined the various “fictions of fears” in exemplary texts of H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker and H.G. Wells. It has also found links to the Austro-Hungarian and German debate on degeneration and its subsequent adaption in literary works. Further studies however need to be undertaken in order to understand the respective national discourses in Austria-Hungary and Germany and thus determine the extent of how far specific categories of “fictions of fear” found in British literature prevailed outside this national discourse.