Peter Gay 1923-
(Full name Peter Joachim Israel Fröhlich; later changed to Peter Jack Gay) German-born American historian, biographer, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Gay's career through 2000.
Gay is noted for his numerous volumes of cultural history—often referred to as psychohistories—as well as a major biography of Sigmund Freud and several collections of essays on Freud's life and work. The German expatriate is known for his extensive training in psychoanalysis, which he brings to bear on a wide-ranging collection of historical scholarship in such works as Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), his two-volume series on The Enlightenment (1966–1969), his five-volume series on The Bourgeois Experience (1984–1997), and numerous studies of Freudian theory and German history. Gay's writing is particularly noted for his use of rich historical detail based on extensive archival research. Despite being criticized for his unquestioning defense of Freudian theory and for occasionally failing to provide clearly defined historical arguments, Gay is widely respected for his impressive scholarship and ability to integrate many aspects of a given culture and historical epoch into a single volume.
Gay was born Peter Joachim Israel Fröhlich in Berlin, Germany, on June 20, 1923. He was the only son in a Jewish family that was supported by his father's work as a business representative in the glass and crystal industry. Gay recalls a loving and intellectually stimulating home environment, although his mother suffered from poor health due to tuberculosis. Adolf Hitler's rise to power during Gay's boyhood resulted in an oppressive range of restrictions on German-Jews and an increasingly anti-Semitic atmosphere. Gay's family was not religious and thought of themselves as German rather than Jewish, but regardless, their ethnic heritage made them a target for persecution under the Nazi regime. In his memoir, My German Question (1998), Gay recounts his teenage years in Nazi Berlin between 1933 and 1939. A turning point occurred during Kristalnacht, in November 1938, when Jewish businesses and neighborhoods in Germany were raided and looted. During the raid, approximately one hundred Jews were killed and many others were beaten over the course of one night. After Kristalnacht, Gay's family recognized the dangers facing them in Germany and arranged to emigrate to the United States in 1939. Initially, however, they fled to Cuba, where they stayed until 1941, and then finally moved to the United States. Gay's name was changed to Peter Jack Gay, and he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Gay attended the University of Denver, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1946. He attended graduate school at Colombia University, in New York City, where he received a master's degree in 1947 and a Ph.D. in 1951. Gay has also received extensive training in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. In 1959, he married Ruth Slotkin, a writer. Gay held a position as professor of government and history at Colombia University between 1951 and 1969. From 1969 to 1984, he served as a history professor at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. Gay won the National Book Award in 1967 for The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966).
Gay is perhaps best known as a biographer of Sigmund Freud, based on his celebrated Freud: A Life for Our Time. He has also produced several other volumes on Freud and analyzing Freudian theory in historical and cultural context. Freud, Jews, and Other Germans (1978) is a collection of essays covering German-Jewish intellectuals which argues that the Jewish people were more fully integrated into German culture than is generally thought. In Freud for Historians (1985), Gay argues that historians implicitly rely on theories of human behavior and that, therefore, Freudian theory is a useful tool for historical study. In A Godless Jew (1987), Gay explores Freud's views on religion and Jewish identity in relation to the development of psychoanalytic theory. Gay asserts that Freud's atheism, as well as his Jewish identity, were central to his theories of human psychology. Reading Freud (1990) is a collection of eight essays examining various aspects of Freud's life and work. The volume includes essays on such disparate topics as an analysis of Freud's choices in naming his six children, a discussion of Freud's conviction that Shakespeare was not the real author of the plays attributed to him, and a discussion of the debate over Freud's alleged relationship with his wife's sister.
Gay's reputation as an ambitious cultural historian is primarily based on his several multi-volume series. Gay's two-volume series on The Enlightenment examines the development of eighteenth-century thought, which considered man's capacity for reason to be their greatest achievement. Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism explores the development of Enlightenment thought by such major figures as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Montesquieu. Volume II: The Science of Freedom (1969) considers the social, cultural, and political context in which Enlightenment thought developed, culminating in the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Gay's The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud is a five-volume history of European middle-class culture from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, published between 1984 and 1997. The series is an ambitious project, offering an overarching psychohistory of European bourgeois culture, drawing from a vast array of sources, including diaries, letters, novels, and newspapers. Gay's primary argument is that Victorian bourgeois culture was much more complex and contradictory than the accepted stereotype of a stuffy, repressed Victorian society. Volume I: Education of the Senses (1984) and Volume II: The Tender Passion (1986) both center on the topic of middle-class sexuality. In these first two volumes, Gay works to dispel myths about Victorian attitudes regarding sex, love, and marriage, arguing that more openness and passion was expressed by Victorian men and women in their private lives than has previously been taught. In Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred (1993), Gay examines the roles that aggression, violence, punishment, and prejudice play in Victorian bourgeois culture. In this work, Gay attempts to explain the culture of hatred which erupted in Europe in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I. In Volume IV: The Naked Heart (1995), Gay focuses on the Victorian preoccupation with self-reflection and the interior, emotional life of the individual. He discusses the expression of this introspection in various primary documents, as well as in the developments of Freudian psychoanalysis, romanticism in the arts, and the cult of nature. In Volume V: Pleasure Wars (1997), Gay evaluates the emergence of modernism in the arts, focusing on aesthetic movements in literature, art, music, and architecture.
Gay has also written several works on German cultural history. Weimar Culture (1968) offers a cultural history of Germany during the period of the Weimar Republic—from the end of World War I in 1918 to the rise of Hitler in 1933. My German Question, Gay's memoir of his youth in Berlin, begins with Hitler's rise to power in 1933 and ends with the emigration of Gay's family in 1939 to escape Nazi Germany. Gay addresses the complex issue of German-Jewish identity in the 1930s, examining his own family's perception of themselves as assimilated German citizens, rather than as Jews. Gay also addresses the commonly posed question of why German-Jews did not anticipate the rise of Nazi anti-Semitism and flee Germany before the persecution began. Gay defends the choice that most German-Jews made to remain in Germany, arguing that because the Jewish people considered themselves to be thoroughly assimilated into German culture, they did not imagine that Hitler would attempt a mass extermination. In 1999, Gay published Mozart, a brief, analytical biography of the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Critics have generally applauded Gay for his ambitious, broad-ranging works of cultural history. However, while Gay has been noted for his extensive training in both history and psychoanalysis, some critics have frequently commented that his unquestioning adherence to Freudian theory tends to weaken his historical arguments. Reviewers have lauded Gay's scholarship in Freud: A Life for Our Time, complimenting his integration of biographical details, social history, and explanations of psychoanalytic theory into a well-rounded narrative. Gay has been simultaneously commended for his effective application of Freudian analysis to Freud himself, and disparaged for his unquestioning, often defensive, posture toward Freudian theory itself. For example, critics have commented that Gay's argument in Freud for Historians would have been stronger if he had included discussion of a broader range of psychological theories as applied to historical analysis, rather than limiting himself to Freudian theory. Commentators have agreed that Gay's five-volume series on The Bourgeois Experience was both ambitious and insightful in its historical and geographical range. Reviewers have noted the vast array of primary sources that Gay used to create a richly detailed picture of bourgeois society. However, several critics have concurred that each individual volume suffers from the sprawling scope of the subject, resulting in a lack of overall focus, a tendency for meandering discussion, and failure to provide a cohesive, overarching historical argument. Critics of his later volumes have commented that Gay's original aim—to dispel myths which oversimplify Victorian culture—had been effectively dispelled by the earlier volumes of the series. Thus, by the publication of the third volume, his primary argument had been generally accepted and no longer presented a fresh perspective for the reader. Critics have commended My German Question as a subtle and thoughtful work of self-reflection regarding the experience of German-Jews in Berlin in the 1930s. Mozart has received a lukewarm critical response, with several critics praising the book's brevity and clarity, but noting that Gay provided little original insight or new information on Mozart's life.
The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx (history) 1952
Voltaire's Politics: The Poet as Realist (history) 1959
The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment (history) 1964
The Age of Enlightenment (history) 1966
The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism (history) 1966
The Loss of Mastery: Puritan Historians in Colonial America (history) 1966
Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (history) 1968
The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom (history) 1969
The Bridge of Criticism: Dialogues among Lucian, Erasmus, and Voltaire—on the Enlightenment on History and Hope, Imagination and Reason, Constraint and Freedom—and on Its Meaning for Our Time (history) 1970
Eighteenth-Century Studies [editor] (history) 1972
Style in History (history) 1974
Art and Act: On Causes in History: Manet, Gropius, Mondrian (history) 1976
Freud, Jews, and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture (essays) 1978
The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses (history) 1984
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SOURCE: Weightman, John. “Cultivating the Enlightenment.” New York Review of Books 7, no. 12 (12 January 1967): 4, 6, 8.
[In the following review, Weightman argues that Gay fails to provide a wholly new historical perspective in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism, but notes that the book offers an abundance of interesting information and discussion.]
The eighteenth-century movement of thought, which is referred to seriously or ironically as the Enlightenment, set out to destroy myths, but it long ago became a myth itself. Since it immediately preceded the Revolution of 1789, it was held to be responsible for that far-reaching phenomenon, and the leading French figures of the siècle des lumières have been praised or blamed accordingly ever since by succeeding generations.
When one has had an opportunity of becoming acquainted with the writings of the period, it strikes one as odd that its many complexities should so often have been reduced to a simple pattern and that responsibility for certain parts of that pattern should frequently have been attributed to the wrong people. Voltaire, for instance, has been applauded and reviled as an apostle of Nature, when in fact he was a troubled Deist with a contempt for the facile view of Natural Man. Rousseau has been thought of as wilfully destructive, when his consuming passion was a...
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SOURCE: Plumb, J. H. “The Pursuit of Truth.” Spectator, no. 7229 (13 January 1967): 46.
[In the following review, Plumb asserts that Gay offers an important new perspective on the Enlightenment in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism.]
It is a pity. This book, [The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism] so profoundly important, will not be read by LBJ nor McNamara nor Dean Rusk. Not that they will be singular. It will not find its way to de Gaulle's table or Wilson's bedside. It is an even greater pity that Baldwin, and Mailer and Capote will pass it by: too thick, too learned, too remote for them. And yet they need to read it, almost more than anyone, for its critical attitude to thinking in myths. But worst of all, my own colleagues will read it, certainly praise it, but, alas, never comprehend for one moment the message which it carries, a message which should sear their intellects. I know such claims may seem absurd. A long and learned book on the Enlightenment makes an improbable bombshell.
We are trained now to look for our intellectual dynamite in information, economic, sociological, sexual. The dramatic fact, seized on by all modern methods of communication, is the drop in the Gallup poll, the statistical extent of homosexuality, the prevalence of bugging. Factual detail is news but...
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SOURCE: Jacobsohn, Peter. “Weimar's Dazzling Moment.” New Republic 160, no. 1 (4 January 1969): 25–26.
[In the following review, Jacobsohn offers a positive assessment of Weimar Culture, calling the work “a virtuoso performance.”]
Weimar [the subject of Weimar Culture] entered the American intellectual consciousness only very late—not, in fact, till well after its demise. During the 1920's, which marked the height of Weimar's cultural and intellectual achievements, Americans looked to Paris—the Mecca of the expatriates, the adopted home of Gertrude Stein, the beachhead of the avant-garde. Yet over the long haul, Berlin—which was the epitome of Weimar—was to have a greater effect by far on American intellectual life than Paris. This began to become apparent only in the 1930's, when the first refugees to flee Hitler started to arrive in America. In terms of artistic and intellectual distinction it was an unparalleled migration, for among the emigrés (to name only some of the most brilliant) were Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Hans Hofmann, Paul Hindemith, Walter Gropius, George Grosz, Paul Tillich, Hans Morgenthau, Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Erwin Panofsky, and Erik Erikson. In literature, science, painting, architecture, music, theology, philosophy, criticism, psychoanalysis—in short, in every field of intellectual and artistic endeavor—Weimar has left its...
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SOURCE: Hanser, Richard. “Paradoxes of Weimar.” New Leader, no. 3 (17 February 1969): 24–26.
[In the following excerpt, Hanser argues that Gay neglects important elements of his subject in Weimar Culture and fails to effectively probe the heart of Weimar society.]
There was something terribly wrong with Weimar right from the start. Ben Hecht, then a foreign correspondent, observed the birth trauma of the Republic and cabled his managing editor: “Germany is having a nervous breakdown. There is nothing sane to report.” Leo Lania, another eyewitness chronicler of the period, wrote: “Days of madness had come to Germany.” Over and over, observers noted this psychotic strain in the new Republic. “There Is Something Frightful In Our Midst,” read a key subtitle in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which appeared early in 1920, before anyone had ever heard of Adolf Hitler. And, looking back, George Grosz wrote: “Those were fantastic times. … The period seems a strange dream.”
None of these quotations, and almost nothing of the atmosphere they suggest, appears in Peter Gay's Weimar Culture. “When we think of Weimar,” he writes,
we think of modernity in art, literature, and thought … of the rebellion of sons against fathers … Dadaists against art … The Threepenny Opera … the Bauhaus, Marlene...
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SOURCE: Wiskemann, Elizabeth. “Prelude to Hitler.” Spectator 222, no. 7352 (23 May 1969): 690–91.
[In the following review, Wiskemann observes that Weimar Culture functions as a “fascinating study” for those already well-read in the history of Weimar Germany.]
This book [Weimar Culture] is a fascinating study for anyone with any experience of the Weimar period, although one cannot help asking oneself what it would mean to a reader with none. Georg Grosz's odious portrait of Ebert is certainly expressive in all senses, but there is need of a reproduction of at least one of those depictions of devastating poverty by Käthe Kollwitz which one found in every exhibition wherever one went in Berlin in those days. I would have thought that Ernst Jünger was a more central figure than Professor Gay suggests and I would have thought that Hans Zehrer and the Tatkreis should have been mentioned. Otherwise this is a fair and full account. It deserves particular applause, too, for the emphasis placed upon the fact that the creative moment of modernism came under the Kaiser before 1914—what was it that happened to kill traditionalism between 1908 and the end of peace? The caste system in William II's Germany provoked the outsider into creative protest and then, as Professor Gay puts it, the Weimar Republic turned the tables and the outsider was put into command or something like it....
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SOURCE: Adam, Corinna. “Poor Weimar.” New Statesman 77, no. 1995 (6 June 1969): 807.
[In the following review of Weimar Culture, Adam provides a brief summary of Gay's history of the Weimar Republic.]
Poor Weimar: a beautiful city condemned because of one constituent assembly; a whip, now, to crack at deviant MPs or indecisive social democrats; a synonym, forever, for public violence and private despair; a word for failure.
The assembly was held there partly for security reasons. Berlin being too dangerous. But that was not all. Somehow, the Republic's founders hoped, the spirit of Goethe would preside. ‘Good’ Germany, the ‘other’ Germany, would be reborn. The Germans never tire of this dialectic, or of diagnosing schizophrenia in themselves. Many, then as now, saw the remedy in massive doses of Kultur (so much stronger than mere civilisation) symbolically administered. Even among the rubble of 1946, Friedrich Meinecke was still wistfully imagining ‘Goethe communities’ in every town, to which
would fall the task of conveying to the hearts of the listeners, through sound, the most vital evidences of the great German spirit, always offering the noblest poetry and music together … [with] regular music and poetry festal hours … perhaps weekly at a late Sunday afternoon hour, and if at all possible in a church....
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SOURCE: Behrens, C. B. A. “Shadows on the Enlightenment.” New York Review of Books 13, no. 11 (18 December 1969): 27–29.
[In the following review of The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom, Behrens discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Gay's discussion of the Enlightenment.]
David Chodowiecki, a hack illustrator of the eighteenth century, once produced a sketch to illustrate the Enlightenment which was reproduced in the Göttingen pocket calendar for the year 1792. It showed a hilly landscape, with a man on foot, a man on horseback, and a coach, all facing toward the rising sun. It was a pretty picture but suggested nothing in particular. As a German historian observed, it might equally well have borne the legend: “the mail-coach at sunrise.” This historian used it to demonstrate that though everyone in Germany at the end of the eighteenth century continually talked about Enlightenment, no one knew what Enlightenment meant. At this time many authors besides Kant wrote books on “was ist Aufklärung?” Many others have done so since.
Professor Gay [in his The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom] will doubtless not be the last, though one might perhaps wish that he should be; for what is significant is the ideas which people hold and not the labels attached to them. In this age of...
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SOURCE: Raymond, John. “Meet the Family.” New Statesman 79, no. 2041 (24 April 1970): 585–86.
[In the following review of The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom, Raymond praises Gay's work as a “masterful” study.]
In 1765 Horace Walpole, revisiting Paris after an age prolonged by the Seven Years' War, ‘to see French plays and buy French china,’ defined the philosophes in a letter to his cousin, General Conway:
Do you know who the philosophers are, or what the term means here? In the first place it comprehends almost everybody; and in the next, means men who, avowing war against popery, aim, many of them, at a subversion of all religion and, still many more, at the destruction of regal power.
Fifteen years before, in his early thirties, when he first read Montesquieu and found De l'esprit des lois ‘the best book that ever was written—at least I never learned half so much from all I ever read,’ Walpole would have been more sympathetic to the philosophes. Montesquieu, whom Peter Gay [in The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom], after long deliberation and with all his potential rivals in mind, considers ‘the most influential writer of the 18th century,’ is a fitting starting-point to any examination of the Enlightenment,...
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SOURCE: Plumb, J. H. “The Age of Optimism.” Spectator, no. 7401 (2 May 1970): 586–87.
[In the following review, Plumb argues that The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom represents an important “turning point” in historical accounts of eighteenth-century thought.]
For generations now the philosophers of the Enlightenment have suffered in public esteem because of the disrepute into which they fell during the nineteenth century. They were dismissed as superficial thinkers who could never resist a witticism; mockers who scoffed at the sacredness of belief; blind optimists who ignored the sinfulness and bestiality of man; lackeys of authority who pandered to the foibles of despots; armchair revolutionaries and sofa cynics.
At the head of the family was Voltaire, grinning toothlessly and maliciously at the follies of men, yet ignoring their grandeur. Rousseau presented difficulties, for his very obscurity seemed to hint at profundity. But his total lack of judgment, the parade of his own indecencies, the crass, unendurable sentimentality of his novels, particularly Emile, put the bulk of his work beyond consideration. Le Contrat Social, within the context of the history of political thought, could be treated as both profound and important: in the same sense that Hume's Treatise on Human Nature could be absorbed into the...
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SOURCE: Baker, K. M. Review of The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom, by Peter Gay. American Historical Review 75, no. 5 (June 1970): 1410–414.
[In the following review, Baker asserts that The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Volume II: The Science of Freedom offers impressive scholarship and engaging discussion of key issues, but fails to provide a convincing or original historical argument.]
With this second volume of The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Peter Gay completes the ambitious re-evaluation commenced with such verve in The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966). As one would expect, he again displays the features of his scholarship so impressively revealed in the earlier volume. Professor Gay writes superbly and has an enormous range; he combines a taste for generalization with a sense for the revealing byways of intellectual history; his work is a mine of insights and suggestions for further research; he has written a seductive book. Unfortunately, Gay's approach is teleological. Modernity is the yardstick against which the Enlightenment is to be measured in his interpretation, yet his work lacks an adequate definition of modernity and tends to set the philosophes against an unreal logic of development that does not altogether fit the facts of their respective environments. As a result, despite his admirable intention to write the...
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SOURCE: Strayer, Joseph R. “The Winner, Voltaire.” New Republic 162, no. 25 (20 June 1970): 29–30.
[In the following review, Strayer invents a fictional dialogue between the historical figures Lucian, Erasmus, and Voltaire, assessing Gay's treatment of their ideas in The Bridge of Criticism.]
Voltaire, I know that you taught us that historians like to play tricks on the dead, but don't you think that [in The Bridge of Criticism] Peter Gay has gone too far? He has taken advantage of a careless suggestion by Gibbon to set you and me and Erasmus into arguing about the nature of the Enlightenment. And by eavesdropping on our conversation he has produced a book that will be admired for its wit and intelligence when we were the ones who wrote all the good lines.
That is not exactly the problem, Lucian. Gay wrote some very good lines of his own, thanks, I suppose, to his reading of the classics. What is unfair is that he gave you and me some lines that are dull or out of character in order to let Voltaire shine. Your subtle satire appears only briefly in the third chapter, and throughout most of the book I am made to talk like a cardinal of the curia.
As you very nearly were!
As I might have been, if I had not had...
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SOURCE: Allen, James Sloan. “Pursuing the Elusive ‘Why?’” New Leader 60, no. 2 (17 January 1977): 20–21.
[In the following review, Allen asserts that Art and Act offers a useful new perspective on modernism and modernists.]
It is impossible to think of history and not think of causes. Do governments fail for nothing? Do people act by chance? Surely not. Yet the “imperious Why?” baffles us; as Peter Gay says, “cause is a conjurer, concealing tricks … that even the experienced student cannot wholly anticipate.” Some historians avoid coming to grips with the issue by leaving causation implicit in a sequence of developments: Ambitions precede actions, decadence precedes decline, and the like. Others search out probable causes in the complex interdependence of events. Still others, dismissing the traditional solutions as flummery, arm themselves with theories and methods from the social sciences and go after the true causes.
Into this disorder comes Peter Gay, a remarkably erudite, eloquent and prolific historian of ideas at Yale. At home with the traditionalists, he has forayed elsewhere as well. Thus in Style in History (1974) and this new companion volume, Art and Act, he has lifted strategies from allies and enemies alike to strengthen the orthodox historian without baptizing him a social scientist. Style in History showed how...
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SOURCE: Wollheim, Richard. Review of Art and Act, by Peter Gay. History and Theory 16 (October 1977): 354–60.
[In the following review of Art and Act, Wollheim comments that Gay provides a forceful contribution to the debates surrounding the modernist movement.]
In Art and Act Professor Gay has provided us with an extremely interesting, stimulating, and puzzling book. What is puzzling about the book, as well as, for that matter, what is interesting and stimulating about it, is fully foreshadowed in the subtitle, “On Causes in History: Manet, Gropius, Mondrian”; and a proper reading of that subtitle is a necessary preliminary to understanding and assessing the central project of the book.
Elsewhere,1 and in the Preface to Art and Act, Gay has written with great directness about the problem that confronts any historian of nerve and integrity when he pauses to consider the nature of his subject or craft. Naturally and rightly drawn to the view that what he deals with is fact and inference to fact, the historian is also aware that to those who come after him his findings will bear the unmistakable marks of place, time, temperament, social origin, ideological or sexual bias. Accordingly he can scarcely avoid asking himself the question: Does history constitute knowledge, or can it at best attain the status of belief, or must it abandon all such...
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SOURCE: Mosse, George L. Review of Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, by Peter Gay. New Republic 177, no. 22 (26 November 1977): 40–41.
[In the following review of Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, Mosse observes that Gay's treatment of specific historical figures is convincing, but argues that the book fails to account for the virulent anti-Semitism which persisted in Germany throughout the first half of the twentieth-century.]
The present interest in German-Jewish intellectuals has tended to distort the past. Jewish intellectuals living in Vienna, Wilhelmian Germany or in the Weimar Republic became models for some of the radicals of the 1960s—symbols for their feeling about America. Such intellectuals were thought to be outsiders, Modernists whose anti-rationalism, alienation and experimentalism reflected their own supposed marginality. Peter Gay's collection of previously published essays [Freud, Jews, and Other Germans] seeks to destroy such myths.
The first three essays (on Freud, Jews in Wilhelmian Germany and the so-called Berlin-Jewish spirit) state his thesis. Neither Modernists nor German or Austrian Jews fit the stereotype of alienation. Within its range bourgeois life styles and German culture encompassed such supposed models of rebellion as both Freud and those Jews who were experimental artists and writers. Both German and bourgeois culture were...
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SOURCE: Alter, Robert. “Modernism, the Germans, and the Jews.” Commentary 65, no. 3 (March 1978): 61–67.
[In the following essay, Alter argues that Gay provides convincing discussion of the specific figures covered in Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, but neglects to address important historical factors which do not support his thesis.]
This Jewish obstinacy! Enough to make an anti-Semite of a man! This pride of race, this feeling of solidarity! Do you believe I am ever, in any of my actions, guided by the thought that I am “German” (perhaps, qui le sait)? Do you believe that Mozart composed as an “Aryan”? I know only two types of people: those with and those without talent.
—Richard Strauss, letter to Stefan Zweig, June 17, 19351
To the love of the Jews for Germany there corresponded the emphatic distance with which the Germans encountered them. We may grant that with “distant love” the two partners could have managed more kindness, open-mindedness, and mutual understanding. But historical subjunctives are always illegitimate.
—Gershom Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis
The modern historical fate of Jews among the German-speaking peoples is a continuing source of puzzlement, wonder, and brooding reflection....
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SOURCE: Fenton, James. “Clues to the Holocaust.” New Statesman 95, no. 2461 (19 May 1978): 674–75.
[In the following review, Fenton examines the issues surrounding internalized anti-Semitism among German-Jews that are discussed in Freud, Jews, and Other Germans.]
One of the errors of the Whig interpretation of history, according to Butterfield, was a kind of retrospective modernisation of its subjects: Luther, for instance, was seen as the founder of the modern secular state—a development which Luther himself would have regarded with horror. It was the task of the historian, Butterfield argued, to show rather what divided Luther from our time, what made his assumptions and beliefs entirely different from those of later generations. This may be hard enough with Luther, but how much harder is it with a subject such as the Jews in 19th-century Germany. There the force of hindsight really does make us lose sight of the complexity of the processes at work. If we look to German history for clues to the holocaust, lo and behold, we find them in abundance—sometimes in the form of prophetic writings too. But if we search German history only for clues to the holocaust, we are yielding to a notion of predestination which most of us would never allow to infect our view of the present. We denature history, by the glib exclusion of all possibilities other than the one which was actually realised....
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SOURCE: Rosen, Robert S. “Fleeing Tradition.” New Leader 61, no. 12 (5 June 1978): 19–20.
[In the following review of Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, Rosen discusses Gay's treatment of anti-Semitism and assimilation among German-Jews.]
Peter Gay acknowledges in the Preface of [Freud, Jews, and Other Germans] that these six essays, which begin just before the Wilhelminian Empire, are “deeply personal … a piece of autobiography, part of reckoning with my origins.” Since Gay was born around the middle of the Weimar period, however, the term “autobiography” is obviously not intended in any narrow, literal sense. The author will be encountered in these pages solely as a chronicler of men and events he strongly identifies with. His real father is mentioned only once, in passing. Nevertheless, it is truly the world of his fathers that we are introduced to here—German Jews of the late 19th and early 20th century, caught in the sweep of assimilation.
The boundaries of German culture, Gay rightly contends, extended beyond the frontiers of the German Reich; they were determined by the use of the German language, “the great unifier.” Thus for the cultural historian, all of German-speaking Europe, despite many significant regional differences, is one domain, and someone like Sigmund Freud, “though doubly marginal, both as an Austrian and as a Jew,” must be...
(The entire section is 1276 words.)
SOURCE: Cannadine, David. “The Victorian Sex Wars.” New York Review of Books 31, no. 1 (2 February 1984): 19–22.
[In the following review, Cannadine offers a positive assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses, noting that the work “promises to be one of the major historical enterprises of the decade.”]
“Historically,” Karl Marx once wrote, “the bourgeoisie has played a most important part.” Indeed, there was a period in historical writing, roughly coincidental with the first half of the twentieth century, when it seemed to play virtually the only part, credited as it often was with most of the major developments in the making of the modern world: from the growth of towns, the decline of feudalism, and the waning of the Middle Ages, via the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the scientific revolution, the consolidation of absolutist states, the English civil war and the Enlightenment, the Industrial, the American, and the French Revolutions, to 1848, the new imperialism and the growth of bad taste, and beyond. No wonder the middle classes were the ever-rising soufflé of history; they had a great deal to be rising about. Having traveled hopefully and arrived punctually at some crucial time and place in the unfolding historical drama, they did what they were supposed to do, and then moved onward to the next engagement....
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SOURCE: Robinson, Paul. “Sex, Please, We're Victorians.” New Republic 190, no. 5 (6 February 1984): 28–30.
[In the following review, Robinson offers a positive assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses, praising Gay's extensive use of primary historical sources.]
Peter Gay is among the most productive and venturesome of living historians. He is best known as a student of the European Enlightenment, on which he published five books between 1959 and 1970. More recently he has written extensively on the culture of modernism. In his new book he assaults the terrain lying between these two enterprises: Education of the Senses is a study of middle-class sexuality from Victoria to Freud. It is, moreover, the first of five promised volumes that, taken together, will survey nineteenth-century bourgeois culture in its entirety.
The book covers a great deal of ground, drawing on a wide range of materials and arguing its way with remarkable inventiveness through several vexed moral and historiographical issues. Gay's mastery of the secondary literature on nineteenth-century culture is nothing short of obscene (the volume boasts a forty-six page bibliographical essay of the sort one has come to expect from him), and he traffics with equal comfort in literary works, medical treatises, and advice manuals, not to mention painting...
(The entire section is 2089 words.)
SOURCE: Solomon, Charles. “More of Mabel's Love and Victorian Affairs.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 February 1984): 4.
[In the following review, Solomon offers a negative assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses, describing the work as “fragmented, unfocused, and curiously inconclusive.”]
Gay, having written at length about Weimar Germany and the Enlightenment, turns his attention to the manners and morals of the 19th-Century middle class. Here [in The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses] he examines bourgeois sexual attitudes and mores, the first installment in a psychological-historical study of Victorian culture that will run to at least five volumes.
While a more balanced view of the 19th Century is long overdue, Gay seems a little too eager to demolish the popular image of the Victorian middle classes as smug, repressed and hypocritical—an image based at least partially on fact. He draws heavily on private letters and journals, particularly the diary of Mabel Loomis Todd to create a picture of sexual enjoyment.
The Todd diaries certainly prove that some, 19th-Century men and women enjoyed their sex honestly and unashamedly, but Gay fails to demonstrate that Mabel Todd represents anything but an aberration. The 19th-Century was also the era in...
(The entire section is 469 words.)
SOURCE: Pettingell, Phoebe. “Victorian Lust and Love.” New Leader 61, no. 5 (5 March 1984): 13–15.
[In the following excerpt, Pettingell offers a mixed assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses, calling the work a “disappointment.”]
By now you have probably heard of Peter Gay's Education of the Senses—a study of the 19th-century “bourgeoisie's sensual life, the shape that its libidinous drives assumed under the pressure of its moral imperatives.” The sensational topics of sex and hypocrisy have certainly aroused the critics. Most have concentrated on descriptions of orgasm from the diary of Mabel Loomis Todd, and statistics on female sexuality from the “Mosher survey” (a Victorian Hite Report). The pictures Gay includes have been a focus of attention, too. One nationally syndicated radio commentary took pains to evoke for listeners the voluptuous nude statues and paintings. It also graphically described an advertisement of the period for some bizarre devices said to inhibit “self-abuse”—a sensual education, indeed.
But those who have been titillated by the reviews may find the book a disappointment. It is actually the first part of an ambitious study, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Future volumes will cover such subjects as love, aggression, and “the travail of...
(The entire section is 1613 words.)
SOURCE: Johnson, Paul. “Sex and Society.” Commentary 77 (June 1984): 68–71.
[In the following mixed review, Johnson argues that The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses contains several new and interesting details, but notes that the work is presented as a collection of miscellany that lacks a defined subject, theme, and structure.]
We are promised that this [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses] is the first installment of “a project of enormous scope,” a “multivolume study of the European and American middle classes from the 1820's to the outbreak of World War I.” Actually, it is an extensive but not particularly systematic survey of sexuality in the 19th century. Peter Gay is an ambitious and unusually wide-ranging historian of culture, and no one can fail to admire the industry with which he seeks knowledge and his zest in communicating it. Peering behind the formal 19th-century attitudes to sex, he has not only read the relevant secondary authorities, and ranged very widely in the published diaries and memoirs in English, French, and German, he has also tapped the rich sources of unpublished letters and diaries deposited in American libraries. He has come up with some real plums, too, notably what he calls the “exhaustive record” which Mabel Loomis Todd, a middle-class girl who grew up in...
(The entire section is 2747 words.)
SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “Shrinking the Past.” Spectator 256, no. 8226 (8 March 1986): 30–31.
[In the following review of Freud for Historians, Storr observes that Gay appears to be a “Freudian fundamentalist” who defends Freudian theory against all criticism.]
Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History at Yale; author of Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, and other books on 19th-century history and culture which are both erudite and elegantly written. He is also a dedicated Freudian, who is convinced that psychoanalytic interpretation can fruitfully be applied, not only to the understanding of historical figures, but also to group behaviour and cultural change.
So-called ‘psychohistory’ has had a bad press. Freud himself was rightly criticised by art historians for basing his interpretation of a fantasy memory of Leonardo's upon a mistranslation; and it is generally recognised that the psychoanalytic biography of Woodrow Wilson in which Freud collaborated with William Bullitt is a disaster. Since then, a whole tribe of psychohistorians has arisen in the USA, led by such figures as Lloyd de Mause. For the most part, orthodox historians have rejected their contributions, often with ridicule.
Peter Gay is far too learned and sophisticated not to be aware of all the critical objections which can be raised against the use of psychoanalysis in...
(The entire section is 1127 words.)
SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “The Victorians in Love.” Spectator 256, no. 8240 (14 June 1986): 29–30.
[In the following review, Storr compares The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion to the first volume of the series, arguing that the second volume is “better organized and easier to grasp as a whole” than the first.]
This [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion] is the second volume of a massive enterprise. Professor Gay has as his object the delineation of middle-class culture from the beginning of the 19th century to the outbreak of the first world war. Since Gay is a convinced Freudian, his first two volumes are largely, though not exclusively, concerned with attitudes towards sex and love. He asks
What, in short, was the bourgeois experience in the university, in the marketplace, in the polling booth, in the museum, in bed? It is Sigmund Freud who has impelled me to ask these questions, and left his mark on my answers.
Gay's first step is to destroy the stereotype of Victorian marriage which is lodged in conventional imagination: the ‘innocent’ wife, dutiful, perpetually pregnant, but hardly responsive sexually; the middle-class, money-conscious husband, surreptitiously resorting to prostitutes, spending most of his leisure at the club,...
(The entire section is 1057 words.)
SOURCE: Annan, Noel. “In Bed with the Victorians.” New York Review of Books 33, no. 18 (20 November 1986): 8–9, 12, 14.
[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion, Annan praises Gay's wide range of primary source materials, insightful psychological analyses, and richly detailed examples.]
[In The Bourgeois Experience] Peter Gay has set himself the monumental task of reinterpreting Victorian middle-class life. In this volume [The Tender Passion] he has chosen the ever interesting topic: What did the Victorians do in bed? Was bourgeois marriage—that institution which demanded virginity before marriage monogamy after it, and, within it, abstemious intercourse for procreation and not for pleasure—was this repressive norm responsible for producing that familiar Victorian ailment, “nervousness?” Did it drive men to prostitutes for sexual satisfaction? Certainly not, retorts Gay. It was not the norm. The stereotype of the innocent dutiful wife continually pregnant and the money-conscious husband resorting to prostitutes on the way home from the club is false. In fact Victorian diaries, journals, letters, and biographies show that both men and women enjoyed fucking, yearned for it during their long engagements, and continued to enjoy each other's bodies for years after marriage. Lovers practiced and relished what they...
(The entire section is 4482 words.)
SOURCE: Pomper, Philip. Review of Freud for Historians, by Peter Gay. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 1 (summer 1987): 150–52.
[In the following negative review of Freud for Historians, Pomper asserts that Gay's work “lacks either a compelling thesis or a novel approach.”]
Gay's book [Freud for Historians] serves several purposes. In it he completes his trilogy of works on the historian's craft; continues the interminable struggle against detractors of Freud, psychoanalysis, and psychohistory; and shows how psychoanalysis augments several areas of historical inquiry. Gay's central concern is to bring to the forefront an important social psychology implicit in Freud's work and, with the aid of history, to work toward a psychohistorical theory of culture. To put it another way, Gay aims to elaborate Freud's own program of wedding psychoanalysis to anthropology, sociology, and history, a program already adumbrated in Totem and Taboo and affirmed in Freud's autobiography. In sum, this is a kind of handbook for historians or historically inclined social scientists who are uncertain about the validity or applicability of psychoanalytic concepts, but who wish to enrich their craft with an additional dimension.1
Much of the first part of the book is dedicated to a defense of Freud, psychoanalysis, and psychohistory against a variety of...
(The entire section is 855 words.)
SOURCE: Pomper, Philip. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion, by Peter Gay. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 3 (winter 1988): 519–20.
[In the following review, Pomper offers a mixed assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion.]
In Education of the Senses, the first volume of his ambitious project, Gay studied the vicissitudes of the instincts, particularly libido, in the shifting cultural environments of the bourgeois nineteenth century. In The Tender Passion he continues what promises to be a massive study, the later volumes of which will portray the bourgeoisie and liberalism under attack from several quarters. In the present volume, Gay revises the traditional view of Victorian middle-class eroticism. He applies Sigmund Freud to his subject, but not dogmatically. In Gay's view, Freud posed the problem confronting all civilized human beings—that of satisfying their instincts in cultural and social contexts which produced stronger or weaker superegos and defense mechanisms. Although he recognizes that Freud could not escape several distortions of perspective issuing from a particular kind of cultural experience within the vastness of bourgeois culture, Gay bows often to Freud's genius. Freudian texts provide a kind of diapason to his own text. A combination of psychoanalysis...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
SOURCE: Copley, Antony. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion, by Peter Gay. History 73, no. 237 (February 1988): 95–97.
[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion, Copley comments that the volume is impressive for its rich detail, but that it is ultimately unsatisfactory as a work of historical scholarship.]
In his first volume [of The Bourgeois Experience] (reviewed ante lxxxi, 1986, pp. 93–95), Peter Gay took sex as his theme, in this his second, love, but as love is defined as ‘the conjunction of concupiscence with affection’ there is overlap and the project is in danger of sprawling around and becoming over long. This is both a deeply impressive and yet dissatisfactory work. There are marvellous cameo portraits of the Victorians. [Volume II: Tender Passion] begins with a description of two Victorian courtships, those of Walter Bagehot and of an unknown Hamburg archivist, Otto Beneke: one of the unresolved debates of the book is whether we have more to learn from the love of the unknown or the known, but maybe inevitably the latter predominate. There are pen portraits of, amongst others, Schopenhauer, the Kingsleys, Beatrice Webb (excellent), Edward Carpenter (rather too severe), Havelock Ellis. The author displays an enviable grasp of European...
(The entire section is 835 words.)
SOURCE: McClay, Wilfred M. “Hymn to Freud.” Commentary 85, no. 3 (March 1988): 77–79.
[In the following negative review, McClay describes A Godless Jew as a “hymn to Sigmund Freud.”]
As anyone acquainted with his work knows, Peter Gay is an enthusiastic partisan of the Enlightenment. From earliest writings, he has consistently championed the rational disenchantment of the world, and looked to the likes of Voltaire and Diderot, Feuerbach and Marx, and above all, Sigmund Freud, as his ancestral heroes. And there is something to be said for this stance, when it is taken in moderation and modesty, for it can foster a healthy resistance to the fashionable irrationalisms that periodically afflict even advanced minds. As a refugee (albeit a very young one) from the Nazis, Gay has been understandably preoccupied with the dangers that can result from the wanton abandonment of reason. Skepticism, as Santayana once remarked, is the chastity of the intellect; and chastity, as we are now rediscovering, is not always a bad thing. If the skeptic must forgo, for a time, the sweet pleasures of surrender, he can at least protect himself from a host of unforeseen and untoward consequences.
Yet the heart too has its reasons, and a wise skepticism must also be skeptical of itself. Otherwise it is liable to be unaware of dogmas creeping up the back stairway, and may end up yielding its...
(The entire section is 1612 words.)
SOURCE: Hair, P. E. H. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses and Volume II: The Tender Passion, by Peter Gay. English Historical Review 103, no. 407 (April 1988): 443–47.
[In the following positive review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses and Volume II: The Tender Passion, Hair comments that Gay's series is “on the whole as sensible and well-balanced as it is good-hearted and thoughtful.”]
As the gamekeeper mounted Lady Chatterley, he had momentary doubts: was it a transcendental exercise or a cosmic joke on humanity? The candid reviewer of Professor Gay's first two volumes of [The Bourgeois Experience] a projected six-volume study of Victorian sexuality must confess to an occasional urge to giggle. But, as one would expect from so distinguished an author, this is a deeply serious study, on the whole as sensible and well-balanced as it is good-hearted and thoughtful, yet not without wit and perhaps the odd deliberate self-parody. The first two volumes [Volume I: Education of the Senses and Volume II: The Tender Passion] include ninety pages of annotated bibliography, with many lapidary judgements; and even although the author was backed up by a team of research assistants, and although very occasionally a work known to this reviewer is cited merely for...
(The entire section is 2597 words.)
SOURCE: Kennedy, Eugene. “Sigmund Freud: Was He Enlightenment Incarnate or an Artist of the Trompe L'Oeil?” Chicago Tribune Books (10 April 1988): 1, 5, 9.
[In the following review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, Kennedy praises Gay's biography in its application of Freudian analysis to Freud himself, but criticizes Gay for attempting to defend Freudian theory against all of its detractors.]
The distinguished cultural historian Peter Gay begins this remarkable biography of Sigmund Freud [Freud: A Life for Our Time] with a quotation that captures well the mood and spirit of the entire work. The words are those of Freud himself about Leonardo da Vinci: “There is no one so great that it would be a disgrace for him to be subject to the laws did govern normal and pathological activity with equal severity.”
If the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis came to this humane but knowing judgment about a towering figure with whom he at times identified himself, Gay reaches similar conclusions about Freud in this understanding and immensely sympathetic account of his life and work. Gay sees Freud as “the heir of the 18th Century Enlightenment,” the extraordinary period about which the biographer has written extensively and whose positivism he sees as triumphant in his subject's life and work. The biographer, now a professor of history at Yale who graduated from a...
(The entire section is 1327 words.)
SOURCE: Kaye, Howard L. “Becoming Sigmund Freud.” Contemporary Sociology 17, no. 3 (May 1988): 372–75.
[In the following positive review, Kaye describes A Godless Jew as an “elegant essay” which helps to clarify questions regarding Freud's attitudes about religion and Jewish identity in relation to his theories of psychology.]
Writing in 1951, Parsons and Shils claimed that along with Weber and Durkheim, it was Freud who was the most significant theorist for the discipline of sociology. How times have changed! Even a cursory glance at contemporary sociological scholarship suggests that Freud has now fallen from the ranks of the living social theorists, whose works continue to animate the theoretical enterprise, and has apparently become largely of historical interest—an appropriate subject for the history of science or the sociology of knowledge and culture, but no longer a source of insight. Accordingly, much of the recent writing on Freud has come to focus on the origins and development of psychoanalysis and the various factors—scientific (Sulloway 1979), political (Schorske 1973, McGrath 1986), and personal (Swales 1982, Masson 1984, Isbister 1985, Gay 1987)—that shaped its creation. In short, the question has now become: how did the neurologist Sigmund Freud, son of Jacob, become Freud, the psychoanalytic theorist, Joseph to the twentieth century?
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SOURCE: Swales, Peter J. “Protecting Freud's Image from Sigmund.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (8 May 1988): 1, 13.
[In the following negative review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, Swales criticizes Gay for his largely unquestioning assessment of Freudian theory.]
In the interest of promulgating his controversial theories, Sigmund Freud saw fit to report and interpret myriad events from his own life, mind and dreams. But he was exceedingly selective when doing so and, later in life, was sharply averse to submitting to a candid biography. Hence, even now, almost half a century after his death—and despite the fact so much is known about the events of his life as a whole—major facets of his mind, character, and personal life remain opaque and subject to much contention. And such matters are critical to any final evaluation of psychoanalysis.
Two attempts have been made at a definitive biography of Freud—by Ernest Jones, with his three-volume study of 1953–57, and by Ronald Clark, with his tome of 1980. Now comes a third such attempt by the distinguished American cultural historian, Peter Gay, in the form of a slick, eloquently written, and elegantly designed volume [Freud: A Life for Our Time], which the publisher heralds as comprehensive, trenchant, and “brilliantly argued”—indeed, as the first successful attempt at “unraveling the mind” of Freud in...
(The entire section is 1640 words.)
SOURCE: McGrath, William J. “Oedipus at Berggasse 19.” New York Review of Books 35, no. 13 (18 August 1988): 25–29.
[In the following review of Freud: A Life for Our Time and A Godless Jew, McGrath argues that Gay's works on Freud expand our understanding of Freud's life, but fail to address criticism of Freudian theory or to adequately discuss the historical context in which Freud worked and lived.]
On the title page of Peter Gay's Freud is a drawing of Oedipus contemplating the riddle of the Sphinx, an appropriate emblem for the biography of a man bent on understanding life's great enigmas. Gay sees this characteristic as a unifying thread in Freud's life: “The only thing that gave him peace when he was in the grip of a riddle was to find its solution.” He emphasizes, as did Ernest Jones, the importance of Freud's own puzzling family constellation, with half brothers the age of his mother and a nephew who was a year older than himself. “Such childhood conundrums left deposits that Freud repressed for years and would only recapture through dreams and laborious self-analysis.”
Within Gay's book, the drawing of Oedipus and the Sphinx reappears as a kind of logo marking the separate parts of each chapter, leading the way as this quality led the way in Freud's development. The many hours spent studying the Moses of...
(The entire section is 5443 words.)
SOURCE: Thielman, Samuel B. Review of A Godless Jew, by Peter Gay. New England Journal of Medicine 319, no. 13 (29 September 1988): 877.
[In the following review, Thielman offers a positive assessment of A Godless Jew, describing it as “a careful assessment of Freud's attitude toward religion.”]
Within the past decade, the literature on Freud and religion has become more objective, sophisticated, and thoughtful. Early works on Freud's attitude toward religion often sought either to defend religion against psychoanalysis by attacking Freud, or to deflect criticism of psychoanalysis by assuming that differences between the devout and the analysts were really only the result of misunderstanding. Hans Kung's Freud and the Problem of God (1980) and W. W. Meissner's Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (1984) have in some measure corrected this imbalance. Now, within several months of each other, have appeared two new assessments of Freud and religion.
The first of these, A Godless Jew, is just one of several books that the author has written on Freud and psychoanalysis during the past few years. Gay, who is most widely known for his authoritative studies of the Enlightenment, believes that Freud is best understood as a latter-day philosophe, who used the power of reason to battle the forces of superstition. Gay documents clearly Freud's...
(The entire section is 669 words.)
SOURCE: Storr, Anthony. “Freud Revisited.” Hudson Review 41, no. 4 (1989): 723–27.
[In the following review, Storr argues that Freud: A Life for Our Time is superior to previous biographies of Sigmund Freud, but is still not a definitive work.]
The appetite for books about Freud shows no sign of diminishing, and Gay's massive biography [Freud: A Life for Our Time] is a notable addition to the literature. Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History at Yale; a graduate of the Western New England Institute of Psychoanalysis, an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the indefatigable author of some sixteen books on cultural history including The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, of which two large volumes have so far appeared. Gay is not only industrious, but has an unrivalled capacity for assimilating information, reducing it to order, and presenting it in readable form. Potential readers should not be deterred by the length of this biography. Gay wears his learning lightly; and, although a formidable apparatus of notes and bibliographical essays attest his scholarship, this is never allowed to disturb the smooth flow of his narrative.
Amongst the many previous biographies and reminiscences of Freud the man, Ernest Jones's three-volume account Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, remains a classic, excellent on psychoanalytic...
(The entire section is 2478 words.)
SOURCE: Goodnick, Benjamin. “Two Jews—Freud and Gay.” Judaism 38, no. 1 (winter 1989): 103–11.
[In the following essay, Goodnick discusses the works of Gay and Sigmund Freud in relation to Jewish identity.]
Sigmund Freud continues to be a spring of living waters where writers still quench their psychological thirst and fructify their intellectual fields. Whether because of the fascinating features of his history and personality, the vast impact of his creativity on our culture, the hidden depth to which he has exposed and touched our individual, sensitive psyches, or the novel applications of his hypotheses, any new Freudian work excites our interest.
In recent days Freud has been the major stimulus for psycho-historians to apply the clarifying light of psychoanalysis to the lives of nations and their leaders. Foremost among these is Dr. Peter Gay, who has maintained his jet-pace of researching and writing with the publication of two books on Freud, A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis (1987) and Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988).
Dr. Gay probably has more right than his colleagues to examine Freud's outlooks. He is unique in having undertaken an intensive seven-year study (c. 1977–84) of psychoanalytical research at the Western New England Institute of Psychoanalysis and has remained an active member of the institute....
(The entire section is 3789 words.)
SOURCE: Thompson, Thomas H. “Gay's Freud.” North American Review 274, no. 1 (March 1989): 63–69.
[In the following review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, Thompson argues that, while Gay's biography is impressive, it fails to provide a well-rounded account of Freud's life.]
Peter Gay, in the Preface to his new book [Freud: A Life for Our Time], wistfully wonders why Sigmund Freud seems to be held to a higher standard of thought and conduct than other heroes of culture equally learned and famous. As he says, “… unlike other great figures in the history of Western culture, Freud seems to stand under the obligation to be perfect.” In the case of other well-known scientists and artists, he says, it seems obvious that their neurotic failings have nothing to do with the reliability of their productions and discoveries. But elsewhere Gay is quite aware that Freud's case is very different from the case of Newton or of Galileo. For Freudian psychoanalysis the biography of its founder and the true significance of the new psychology were inextricably intermingled. That intermingling makes the task of the biographer of Freud a particularly difficult one. Because Freudian psychology is itself centered on a special kind of biographical reclamation, the biographer of Freud finds himself immersed willy-nilly in the maelstrom of controversy over the legitimacy of the claims of psychoanalysis. If...
(The entire section is 6089 words.)
SOURCE: Weiland, Steven. “Psychoanalytic Biography: Lost Objects and Subversive Effects.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28, no. 2 (spring 1989): 270–82.
[In the following review of Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's Anna Freud: A Biography and Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time, Weiland praises Gay for smoothly integrating biographical detail, historical context, and discussion of Freudian theory into a single narrative.]
As a form of historical inquiry the primary goal of biography has been accuracy and the primary problem inclusiveness. The question for a biographer with a sure grasp of the facts is what principles of proportion should guide their use in a life history. The massive nineteenth-century biography lost favor because its great detail did not guarantee that its subject was convincingly represented. Hence the arts of biography—experiments in point of view and in narrative organization, for example—are now as highly valued as the scholarly habits needed to discover and assemble the record of a life.
Phyllis Rose, whose own study of famous Victorian marriages in Parallel Lives (1984) demonstrates the biographical arts, has even called for more fictional technique in the putative domain of historical fact. Convinced that biography is on the verge of a “mimetic shift” resembling the one made in fiction early in this century, she hopes for biographies that are...
(The entire section is 5422 words.)
SOURCE: Lewis, Thomas T. Review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, by Peter Gay. Humanist 49, no. 3 (May–June 1989): 44.
[In the following review, Lewis offers a positive assessment of Freud: A Life for Our Time, commenting that the work is “probably the most scholarly one-volume biography of Freud in any language.”]
A distinguished Yale historian as well as a trained psychoanalyst, Peter Gay has written what is probably the most scholarly one-volume biography of Freud in any language. In addition to fascinating material on Freud's personal life, the book [Freud: A Life for Our Time] includes analysis of Freud's writings and ideas. Gay has done exhaustive research, and the bibliographical essay is full of cogent and perceptive comments about the relevant literature.
The main weakness of the book is that Gay has such a commitment to the Freudian paradigm that he fails to maintain a critical stance. Frequently referring to the “discoveries” of Freud, he appears to have little skepticism about questionable theories such as the Oedipal complex and generally endorses Freud's often bizarre interpretations in cases such as those of little Hans and Daniel Schreber. Even while agreeing with many feminist criticisms of the Dora analysis, Gay never really questions the premise that Dora was suffering from conversion hysteria. Gay writes with the assumption that a trained...
(The entire section is 298 words.)
SOURCE: Kurzweil, Edith. “Contextualizing Freud.” Partisan Review 56, no. 3 (summer 1989): 486–89.
[In the following positive review, Kurzweil praises Freud: A Life for Our Time, complimenting Gay's clear explanations of Freud's theories and the wealth of new information presented.]
Reviewers of this brilliant book [Freud: A Life for Our Time] who accept psychoanalysis, such as Richard Wollheim, appreciate Mr. Gay's ability “to conjure up a scene, a panorama, a story line by using some telling detail” of Freud's life and work. But detractors of psychoanalysis, such as Thomas Szasz (writing in The Wall Street Journal,) have used the book to savage Freud and the Freudians once again, to compare them to “our gurus and televangelists with whom American analysts must now compete.” Proponents of feminist and deconstructionist criticism, such as Jill Johnston, who believe, for instance, in Mary Balmary's speculations about Freud's father's “hidden fault” (which, if analyzed, allegedly would make Freudians abandon the Oedipus complex) tend to disparage Gay's approach as old-fashioned. Gay's immediate colleagues, the historians, vote in line with their own methodological prejudices. Thus Peter Loewenberg, who favors the sort of psychohistory Gay employs, is bound to praise him. William McGrath, whose own book stresses the influence of Freud's intellectual milieu, inevitably...
(The entire section is 1231 words.)
SOURCE: Girgus, Sam B. “Oedipus Texts: Freud, Feminism and American Studies.” American Quarterly 43, no. 2 (June 1991): 347–57.
[In the following excerpt, Girgus offers a positive assessment of Reading Freud.]
It is an apocryphal story, filled with subtle ironies and nuances for the student of Freud. With the Statue of Liberty in view as their ship approaches New York, Freud turns to Jung and says: “They don't realize we're bringing them the plague.”1 Ironically, Freud himself was, in a sense, plagued by the reception of his work and ideas in America. Psychoanalysis found in the United States an environment that proved conducive to its growth in ways that Freud considered disturbing. Not just writers, artists, and academics became followers, but the general public also was receptive to popularized and simplistic notions of Freud's insights into the relationships among sexuality, repression, and culture. Equally distressing to Freud, American medicine accelerated the trend that he resisted toward the medicalization and institutionalization of various schools of Freudian theory and therapy. Freud, who sometimes saw himself as a Hannibal invading the inner recesses of the human mind, dreaded the possibility of triumphing over the prejudices against psychoanalysis only to lose the war to an ever-growing phalanx of zealous revisionists and innovators. Nevertheless, the prescience of his...
(The entire section is 1187 words.)
SOURCE: Taylor, Eugene. “Dr. Freud or Dr. Fraud?” Commonweal, no. 11 (1 June 1991): 379–80.
[In the following review of Reading Freud, Taylor praises Gay's volume of essays for its fine scholarship and skillful prose.]
Why more Freud? After all, Professor Gay has already brought us five different works either about or including the Inventor of Psychoanalysis, and then topped that with his award winning biography Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), which he followed with an anthology of readings. By his own direct statement, and by reading between the lines, the author of this little text [Reading Freud] gives us three reasons for yet an additional dose of the Psychoanalytic Wizard of Vienna. The first is for the love of fine scholarship as an end in itself. The second is to put a few finishing touches on the study of a life the way lives have been classically studied. The third, inferred more by what is not stated, is the subtle art of rebuttal.
Gay, himself, describes these eight essays as falling within the genre of serious fun. Some are lighthearted, even tongue-in-cheek, others more somberly reflective and conjectural. Justified by an artist's rather than a pedant's sense of order, they include Freud's view on the real identity of Shakespeare, an interpretation of names Freud gave his children, Freud on free will and determinism, Freud's list of “ten good...
(The entire section is 971 words.)
SOURCE: Toews, John E. “Historicizing Psychoanalysis: Freud in His Time and for Our Time.” Journal of Modern History 63, no. 3 (September 1991): 504–45.
[In the following essay, Toews discusses the development of psychoanalytic theory in its historical and cultural context, and addresses the strengths and weaknesses of Gay's Freud: A Life for Our Time in conveying this context.]
[Freud: A Life for Our Time,] Peter Gay's massive new biography of Freud is subtitled: “A Life for Our Time.” Although Gay does not discuss the intended meaning of the subtitle, even a casual reader of his text will soon become aware of at least two ways in which Freud's life is to be perceived as a life for “our time.” First, Gay presents Freud's life as an exemplary ideal, as the historical embodiment of intellectual and moral virtues relevant to an “our time” defined broadly enough to encompass Freud's own time and perhaps even “all” time, or at least modern times. Readers of Gay's earlier work will find few surprises in this richly detailed, elegantly written portrait of Freud as both the indefatigable, tough-minded investigator of life's riddles who succeeded in making the pursuit of “truth” a full-time, lifelong profession and the courageous self-overcomer whose triumphs over his own irrational wishes and illusions grounded his objective, “scientific” description of the workings...
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SOURCE: Sennett, Richard. “The Passions of Polite Society.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 November 1993): 3, 12.
[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred, Sennett maintains that Gay's work “provides a magisterial portrait,” but comments that the work's theme is unfocused.]
During the last decade Peter Gay has given us an entirely new picture of our great-grandparents. While we may have envisioned them as living in the soft-focus gentility of a Merchant-Ivory film, the Yale historian has shown them to have been far more open to erotic and violent experience. Gay has done so in three volumes which began, in 1984, with a study of Victorian sensuality; two years later Gay published a book on the ways of love in the 19th Century. This new book [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred] concerns the opposite side of the coin: hatred.
Gay's history ranges from the development of dueling clubs in Germany to aggressive political rhetoric in the Dreyfus Affair, from the compulsive ferocity of President Theodore Roosevelt to the crafty brutality of the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, from the distortion of Darwin's notion of the survival of the fittest to the construction of dangerous “Others”—Jews, homosexuals, Indians—in order to justify Victorian...
(The entire section is 1315 words.)
SOURCE: McDonald, Forrest. “Victoria's Secrets.” National Review 45, no. 22 (15 November 1993): 56–57.
[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred, McDonald addresses a number of alleged weaknesses in Gay's historical scholarship.]
To the educated middle class in the nineteenth century, it was a commonplace that virtue must be taught and learned—that “natural” man, contrary to the Rousseauean myth, was a savage and not a noble one. So assuming, vast numbers of writers, preachers, philosophers, and scientists devised theories and rules of conduct and social conventions that would tame the beast in man. In The Cultivation of Hatred, the third of a projected seven volumes on bourgeois culture in the Victorian era, Peter Gay attempts to describe one broad aspect of the undertaking, that aimed at controlling man's presumed natural inclination toward violence. Mr. Gay unnecessarily compounds the difficulties of his task by using words in a somewhat muddled fashion. The word “hatred” in his title, for instance, is too strong. He means, rather, aggressiveness; and at midpoint in the work, he calmly declares that “the aggressive drive, we know, is not synonymous with hostility.” Again, he writes of “alibis” for aggression, only to soften the tone by using the word interchangeably with “rationales” and...
(The entire section is 1345 words.)
SOURCE: Annan, Noel. “The Age of Aggression.” New York Review of Books 41, no. 1–2 (13 January 1994): 42–44.
[In the following excerpt, Annan questions the value of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred as a work of historical scholarship.]
Was the nineteenth-century bourgeois citizen a staid, buttoned-up, law-abiding creature? Not according to Peter Gay [in The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred]. One emotion above all others, he claims, governed the behavior of the middle classes in America, Britain, France, and Germany: aggression. Whether it was politics, trade, competition in industry, snobbery, boasting, self-advertisement, or gossip, the object was to score off one's adversary and put him down. The thwarted felt frustrated and worked it off in further aggression. Even those who did not express aggression in their actions felt it in their hearts; and it spilled over into their diaries.
To the bourgeois it was axiomatic that the white race was superior to all others. The French felt superior to Germans, the Germans to Russians, and the British to everyone. They asserted their superiority by aggression. What could be more aggressive than the way men emphasized their superiority to women? They multiplied instances of feminine inferiority to justify the violence of their...
(The entire section is 2650 words.)
SOURCE: Porter, Roy. “The Times' Ire.” New Statesman & Society 7, no. 299 (22 April 1994): 37, 39.
[In the following review, Porter offers a mixed assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred.]
There's a temptation to say of this book: this made me real mad! That wouldn't be quite right, but there's something deeply frustrating about it all the same. Written by one of America's top historians, it contains a mass of fascinating material yet fails to form a satisfying whole.
The trouble stems in part from the larger and wildly ambitious enterprise of which The Cultivation of Hatred is just a fragment. Back in the early 1980s, the Yale professor conceived the brilliant idea of surveying the emotional life of the “Victorians” (not just in Britain, but on the Continent and in America too). Instead of another dreary analysis of “public opinion,” Gay would probe Victorian experiences of love, wrath, greed and so on, perhaps encompassing all the deadly sins and their close relatives.
Since a persistent stereotype presented the Victorians as buttoned-up, all duty and discipline, there was an obvious appeal in exploring what was seething behind the stiff upper-lip or the blushing cheek. And who better to undertake this than Peter Gay, a scholar who had undergone psychoanalytic training and had embarked on...
(The entire section is 1182 words.)
SOURCE: Taylor, Tom. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred, by Peter Gay. Historian 57, no. 1 (autumn 1995): 165–66.
[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred, Taylor praises the breadth of Gay's subject and engaging treatment of his topic, but criticizes the volume for its diffuse focus and lack of cohesive argument.]
Starting with a lengthy description of the duelling rituals of German students and continuing through the bullying of Theodore Roosevelt, the debates about capital punishment, the political satire of Gilbert and Sullivan's show tunes, and the violent cartoons of Wilhelm Busch, Peter Gay's latest excursion into a Freudian interpretation of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie [in The Cultivation of Hatred] once again challenges us to reconsider the traditional image of staid and respectable Victorian society. Overall, Gay concludes that much of the civility associated with Victorian society resulted from efforts by the bourgeoisie to legitimize their hatreds and aggressions and to channel them into more acceptable behaviors. Ultimately, Victorians did not overcome their animal nature, but they did succeed, at least partially, in taming and repackaging it. Thus the elaborate rituals of student duels became expressions of manliness, and democracy...
(The entire section is 597 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Paul. “Hoping to Hurt.” London Review of Books (9 February 1995): 13.
[In the following review, Smith describes The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume III: The Cultivation of Hatred as “an ambitious undertaking,” praising the volume's vast array of primary sources and detailed information.]
Peter Gay's The Cultivation of Hatred completes his Freudian psychoanalysis of the bourgeois 19th century by bringing aggression to bear alongside the forces of sexuality which form the subject of the preceding volumes, Education of the Senses and The Tender Passion. That aggression and sexuality are intimately associated, at once intermingled and opposed, Gay has no doubt, pointing to the ‘provocative oxymorons like “sweet cruelty,” the “voluptuousness of revenge” and “cruel tenderness”,’ in which Heine and others registered their sense of the ambiguity of the relationship. For analytical purposes, he has had to separate them in this vast undertaking. The hurt of historians is that they know that everything works together but they cannot conceive and describe everything working together: analysis wrecks the Bergsonian continuum which inspires it. Aggression and sexuality fuse here only at moments, less in the context of the treatment of gender relations than in the pages on sadism and masochism, at which Gay arrives with dreadful...
(The entire section is 2605 words.)
SOURCE: Jenkyns, Richard. “Victoria's Secret.” New York Review of Books 42, no. 19 (30 November 1995): 19–21.
[In the following review of Patricia Anderson's When Passions Reigned and The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, Jenkyns comments on the vast scope and wealth of interesting details in Gay's work.]
Sixty or seventy years ago the word “Victorian” was used by many cultivated people as a term of abuse: it seemed self-evident that the Victorians' art was either hideous or odiously sentimental, and their prudishness a moral deformity. Walking through Kensington Gardens, the philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood had a revelation: as he looked at the Albert Memorial, he decided that ugliness could be a spiritual evil; not to be disgusted by this monstrosity was to be stunted as a human being. Yet in the 1960s it was being used on posters to lure tourists to London. The superior persons who sneered at the Victorians may have suspected, at moments, that time would exercise its usual softening effect, and that as the years went by, the Victorian ghastliness would join ducking stools and Jacobean screens and the six wives of Henry VIII among the jumble of the past—things not admirable or beautiful, but stored up as quaint parts of the national memory.
But they would have been astounded to learn that the Victorians were to...
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SOURCE: Binion, Rudolph. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, by Peter Gay. Journal of Social History 30, no. 2 (winter 1996): 556–57.
[In the following mixed review, Binion describes Gay's treatment of his topic in The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart as “rummaging through cultural history.”]
The Naked Heart is the fourth volume of a continuing series by Peter Gay named The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Both titles are misleading. The Naked Heart is about cultural trends and personalities far more than experience, let alone experience specifically or typically bourgeois. Its time frame extends back half a century before Victoria mounted the throne. Even adjectivally Victoria evokes Britain, less Germany, and still less France; Gay deals with the three equally, however, and almost exclusively though his series title rings universal. His phrase “the naked heart” (adapted from Baudelaire) announces a candid disclosure of feelings such as Victorianism in fact disallowed. Finally, “to Freud” signals not the cutoff it suggests, but only the author's sense of Western culture as a buildup to Freud.
The contents of The Naked Heart overflow whatever its title can be stretched to mean. On Gay's own introductory say-so, its purview encompasses...
(The entire section is 1663 words.)
SOURCE: Gibson, Boyd. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, by Peter Gay. Christian Century 113, no. 27 (25 September 1996): 909–10.
[In the following positive review, Gibson describes The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart as a creative interdisciplinary study.]
Peter Gay characterizes his five-volume study of the 19th-century bourgeoisie as a “symphonic treatment.” His fourth volume [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart] is an engaging and creatively orchestrated interdisciplinary movement of that symphony. As a historian he follows his own advice to view the 19th century first from the perspective of how it pictured and judged itself before offering one's own conclusions.
What was the “naked heart” of these bourgeois? It was Innerlichkeit: introspection and self-evaluation. The Victorians often were in the grip of polarities—love and hate, pleasures and traumas, openness and guarded privacy, and freedom and orderliness. However, what set members of the middle class apart from the romantics was their manifestation of a responsible public and private self.
Yes, the bourgeois were overbearing in their ideological commitment to thrift, punctuality, self-restraint and the search for peace and oneness with “Nature”...
(The entire section is 516 words.)
SOURCE: Lang, Timothy. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, by Peter Gay. Victorian Studies 40, no. 1 (autumn 1996): 158–60.
[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, Lang comments on the “panoramic vision” Gay brings to his subject matter.]
Peter Gay is best known today for rethinking the cultural history of the bourgeoisie and for his firmly held conviction that psychoanalytically informed history is both desirable and feasible. For almost two decades, Gay has been engaged in a project of truly Victorian proportions aimed at rescuing the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie from its detractors. Our present preoccupation with writing the history of the working class has done the middle class a disservice. In our well-intentioned effort to do justice to workers, we have created an image of the bourgeoisie that is based more on caricature than understanding. It is this misreading of the past that Gay hopes to correct. Drawing on a solid grounding in psychoanalysis, he has organized his research along broad Freudian lines. The first three installments of The Bourgeois Experience explored the important themes of Eros and Thanatos, with volumes on bourgeois sexuality, love, and aggression.
The Naked Heart, the fourth volume in this series, takes as its theme...
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SOURCE: Pratt, Michael D. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, by Peter Gay. Historian 59, no. 2 (winter 1997): 463.
[In the following review, Pratt offers a positive assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart.]
This book [The Naked Heart] is the fourth volume of the author's projected five-volume study of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. In this volume, Peter Gay seeks to reveal the inner life of a people whose consciousness, for all appearances, was focused steadily on the external world. This was, after all, the age of expansion and progress, with its new modes of transportation and communication, its burgeoning industry, its nation building, and that monument to materialism—the Crystal Palace. The author demonstrates that beneath the hustle-bustle, the bourgeois were at pains to cultivate their inner lives and, through many forms of expression—autobiographies, self-portraits, letters, diaries, and fiction—to bare their naked hearts.
Gay traces this passion to the romantics, who “felt an urgent need to restore the sense of wonder and mystery that eighteenth-century deists, skeptics, and atheists … had attempted to erase with their bloodless scientism, impious insults, and shallow witticisms” (37). In order to “re-enchant” the world, the leading...
(The entire section is 551 words.)
SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “The Self is Always with Us.” Spectator 278, no. 8807 (17 May 1997): 35–36.
[In the following review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume IV: The Naked Heart, Hensher argues that although Gay brings together a huge range of disparate historical material, the volume leaves out important topics and lacks a coherent overall argument.]
Peter Gay's multi-volume history, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, has a great deal in common with the all-inclusive intellectual edifices which his subjects so keenly produced. The 19th century produced uncountable numbers of huge books, summarising the whole of history, the whole of a language's vocabulary, everything that was known or could be known about a subject. The intellectual equivalent of Harrod's, they set a standard for ambitious inquiry which is still very much with us. Peter Gay's history, of which The Naked Heart is the fourth volume, has a very Victorian ambition; to summarise the interior life, the mentality of an era by bringing together a huge range of disparate material. It aims to show the fundamental underlying coherence which unites, let us say, Swedish romantic poets and German historians of the renaissance; it pursues a single subject—in this volume the construction of the idea of the self—through a very wide range of European and American literature. Most writers on...
(The entire section is 1331 words.)
SOURCE: Auerbach, Nina. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars, by Peter Gay. American Scholar 67, no. 2 (spring 1998): 168–70.
[In the following review, Auerbach asserts that Gay's five volumes of The Bourgeois Experience admirably explain the complexity of Victorian culture, although she observes that Pleasure Wars, the fifth in the series, is less focused and less detailed than the earlier volumes.]
On the jacket of this fifth and final volume of Peter Gay's The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, the publisher assures us that: “No one reading this concluding volume of Peter Gay's magnificent revaluation of the nineteenth century will ever again use the term Victorian as a synonym for dull.” Since I am one of the many who never did use the term Victorian as a synonym for dull, but who see, as Peter Gay does, conflict and passionate resistance within the once popular image of complacent Victorianism, I have never been thunderstruck by the originality of Gay's mission: to restore emotional and erotic depth to the despised Victorian middle class. I do, however, admire the vigor and style with which these five volumes demonstrate the complexity of an age whose complexity has long been widely appreciated.
This final volume [Pleasure Wars] is less racy than Education of the Senses, the well-known...
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SOURCE: Schaub, Diana. Review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars, by Peter Gay. Commentary 105, no. 6 (June 1998): 71–73.
[In the following review, Schaub criticizes The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars for failing to provide a cohesive picture of bourgeois culture.]
“Victorian” and “bourgeois” have become distinctly less acceptable as synonyms for hypocritical and philistine in the wake of the Yale historian Peter Gay's monumental reexamination of 19th-century European and American culture. His revisionist history has taken shape in five volumes bearing the collective title The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. The burden of the whole has been to show the variety and complexity of bourgeois life through a focus on certain fundamental human passions.
Gay's researches into the inner life of the bourgeoisie have yielded volumes on sex and love (Education of the Senses and The Tender Passion), the inclination to aggression (The Cultivation of Hatred), and strategies for ennobling the bourgeois self (The Naked Heart). In this fifth and final volume, Pleasure Wars, he takes up the formation of taste and the emergence of modernism in the arts. The memorable verdict of the first volume—“Bourgeois eros ranged from extreme repression to unabashed...
(The entire section is 1387 words.)
SOURCE: Grigg, John. “A Class Performance.” Spectator 280, no. 8863 (20 June 1998): 32–33.
[In the following review, Grigg offers a mixed assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars.]
There are few sillier notions than that the bourgeoisie is a bastion of philistinism and the supreme obstacle to human progress. Anyone who looks at the evidence can see that the idea is absurd. The word bourgeois is linked, etymologically, with the words city and civilisation, and it is no coincidence that in modern times the advance of humanity has owed far more to the middling sort of people—citizens—than to monarchs, patricians or proletarians. Of course many bourgeois are philistine and resistant to change, because originality and innovation will always be largely confined to an elite. But for at least two centuries the bourgeoisie has been the dynamic element in society and the principal source of creative talent.
This is the argument of Peter Gay's major work on The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, of which the fifth and final volume has now appeared. Pleasure Wars deals with literary and artistic movements, and shows that most of those involved in them, both as creators and as patrons, have been members of the bourgeoisie. Gay is an emeritus professor of history at Yale, and his numerous other works include two books about...
(The entire section is 881 words.)
SOURCE: Craig, Gordon A. “The Good, the Bad, and the Bourgeois.” New York Review of Books 45, no. 13 (13 August 1998): 8–20.
[In the following review, Craig praises Gay's five-volume series on The Bourgeois Experience and applauds his scholarship in both Volume V: Pleasure Wars and his memoir, My German Question.]
In the first half of the nineteenth century, the curriculum of Rugby School in England was dominated, as was true of other public schools, by instruction in Greek and Latin. In addition, however, all students from the first to the sixth grade read history, both ancient and modern, which was interlarded with generous portions of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Livy. Dr. Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby, once gave the rationale for this by saying, “The history of Greece and Rome is not an idle inquiry about remote ages and forgotten institutions but a living picture of things present, fitted not so much for the curiosity of the scholar, as for the instruction of the statesman and citizen.”1
History was central to Victorian education as a means of forming character and preparing students for the challenges of the times, and this was not the only field in which it was accorded a respect that has no equal in our own age. Because it seemed to express and validate the hopes and ambitions of the rising...
(The entire section is 5482 words.)
SOURCE: Schwartz, Amy E. Review of My German Question, by Peter Gay. Wilson Quarterly 22, no. 4 (autumn 1998): 100.
[In the following review of My German Question, Schwartz praises Gay's memoir for its focus on the psychological effects of Nazism on both Gay's personal development and on the population of German-Jews in Berlin.]
Historian Peter Gay introduces this memoir [My German Question] of his youth in Nazi Berlin and his family's forced emigration with an epigraph from Christopher Marlowe's Tragical History of Dr. Faustus: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.” In adding to the sky-high stack of Holocaust-related memoirs of recent years, the eminent chronicler of the Victorian era seeks to create something more complex and subtle than merely another tale of suffering. Gay wants to sketch two essentially interior landscapes: first, the psychological and behavioral effects of what he experienced during those years of ceaseless Nazi propaganda and gathering threat; second, the terrifying pressures and obstacles that allowed so many German Jews to wait in seeming passivity for disaster to strike.
The image of lambs-to-the-slaughter paralysis still angers him—although his father in fact mustered his nerve and got the family out in 1939. “‘It was all in Mein Kampf’ has long been the litany of our detractors, who, without an inkling of...
(The entire section is 640 words.)
SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Alvin H. “The Story of a Poisoning.” New Leader 81, no. 13 (30 November 1998): 15–16.
[In the following review, Rosenfeld offers a positive assessment of My German Question, describing it as “gripping reading.”]
When the eminent American historian Peter Gay left his native Berlin in 1939, his name was Peter Joachim Israel Fröhlich. “Israel” was a gift from the Nazis, a symbolic brand imposed on Jewish males under the racial laws that singled out the Jews and set them apart. If not for those laws and the ultimate repudiation they represented, the Fröhlich family would have been content to blend into the mainstream of German society. “My parents were modern liberals,” Gay tells us [in My German Question]. They manifested an “uncompromising rejection of any tribal identification,” he explains. “The idea of attachment to a social community or a common heritage was virtually meaningless. … Jewish awareness? Jewish identity? These were empty slogans to them—and hence to me. … They were Germans.”
Hitler had other ideas about people like the Fröhlichs, however, and, as the author notes, in 1933 “we had suddenly become Jews.” Gay's story of this transformation and the many ordeals that accompanied it—“the story of a poisoning”—makes for gripping reading.
The “German Question” in the title has...
(The entire section is 1280 words.)
SOURCE: Kuehn, Heinz R. “A Separation of Spheres.” Sewanee Review 107, no. 3 (summer 1999): R80–R85.
[In the following review of My German Question, Kuehn praises Gay for his intense self-reflection expressed in the memoir and the discussion of his psychological survival strategies as a youth in Nazi Germany.]
This is not an autobiography; it is a memoir that focuses on the six years, 1933 to 1939, I spent as a boy in Nazi Berlin. … This book records one man's story, the story of a poisoning and how I dealt with it.
These are the first sentences in Gay's preface to My German Question. He wrote them in 1997, at the age of seventy-four, when he could look back at a distinguished career as a cultural historian and author of numerous books that include a five-volume work on the bourgeois experience, several works on Freud, and a biography of Voltaire. By mentioning these accomplishments only in reference to the theme of his book, he is certainly correct in saying that My German Question is not an autobiography. Yet I have rarely come across a “real” autobiography in which the author reflects as intensely on his deepest self as does Mr. Gay.
One of the reasons for the author's engrossing self-analysis may be his knowledge of Freud—Freudian terminology is much in evidence throughout the book. Perhaps I...
(The entire section is 1307 words.)
SOURCE: Kaye, Howard L. “Peter Gay's The Bourgeois Experience: The Return of the Repressed.” Society 36, no. 5 (July–August 1999): 90–93.
[In the following review, Kaye describes the five volumes of Gay's The Bourgeois Experience as “sprawling and fascinating,” but argues that the series as a whole lacks cohesion.]
With the recent publication of Pleasure Wars, Peter Gay has brought to completion his remarkable attempt to recapture the complex inner lives of the much maligned middle classes during the extended nineteenth century from the end of the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War. When the project began over a quarter-century ago, the Victorian bourgeoisie throughout the Western world were essentially objects of mockery and scorn. Little more than cardboard figures, they were routinely denounced for their materialism and shallowness, their sexual anesthesia and hypocrisy, their sanctimonious moralizing and smug self-satisfaction. But with these five sprawling and fascinating volumes, built upon an imaginative reading of the diaries, letters, and memoirs of the prominent and the insignificant, the art and literature of the famous and the long-forgotten, and entire libraries of secondary materials, Gay has helped to restore the Western bourgeoisie to their full humanity.
Thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Gay, and aided by...
(The entire section is 3103 words.)
SOURCE: Amsel, Anja. Review of My German Question, by Peter Gay. Political Quarterly 70, no. 3 (July–September 1999): 355–56.
[In the following review, Amsel offers a negative assessment of My German Question, asserting that the memoir offers little new information to the existing body of Holocaust literature and fails in “touching the heart” of the reader.]
A subtext to the official histories of Germany in the thirties is the considerable collection of personal memoirs, autobiographies and diaries of survivors of the Nazi regime. The gamut embraces people who were in opposition to the system, those who admit to Nazism at the time and who have now reviewed their past and, more poignantly, the accounts by the true survivors, obviously predominantly Jews: some from the most extreme excesses of the camps, others who were in Germany up to 1939 and then managed to escape. My German Question falls into the last group. This is Berlin lived in and through from 1933 to 1939, as the subtitle Growing Up in Nazi Berlin conveys. Gay's aim is to tell a tale which he classifies as ‘the story of a poisoning’ and how he dealt with it. The exploration has clearly been a disturbing assignment.
Born Peter Fröhlich (Gay being a direct translation of the name), the author came from a lower-middle-class family of assimilated, anti-religious Jews who identified as...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)
SOURCE: Kurzweil, Edith. “The Crack-Up.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (1 August 1999): 7.
[In the following review, Kurzweil argues that The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars is a “superb and exhaustive tableau” of the development of modernism in the arts.]
No one reading this last of Peter Gay's five volumes on the 19th century middle classes [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume V: Pleasure Wars] (just now making its appearance in bookstores in paperback) will be inclined to bash the bourgeoisie any longer, at least not much. This superb and exhaustive tableau of the tortured highways and byways that gradually led to modernism—in painting, sculpture, music, architecture and literature—documents the ambiguities and ambivalences of Victorian culture all over Europe. Gay shows incontrovertibly that modernism could not have come into being without the bourgeoisie. He details the profusion of interlocking motives that enticed some wealthy men to buy innovative art and others to resist it, the various relations that developed between patrons and artists, and the growing influence of critics. His history is in the details, as he substantiates how specific creative endeavors caught the imagination—and subsequent support—of one or another member of the upper bourgeoisie. Despite some of its philistinism, the bourgeoisie ultimately...
(The entire section is 1675 words.)
SOURCE: Winder, Robert. “A Perfect Music.” New Statesman 128, no. 4458 (18 October 1999): 53–54.
[In the following review, Winder offers a positive assessment of Mozart, praising its brevity and clarity.]
In recent years our biography machine has been calibrated to extra large, turning out fat works which sought to suggest, through sheer weight of words, both the magisterial stature of the subject and the insatiable curiosity of the author. Dickens, Tolstoy, Woolf, Lawson, Jenkins, Shaw, Botham—if they couldn't run to 600 pages, they weren't cutting the mustard. They seemed almost modelled on those roomy 19th-century novels that no one wrote any more—compendious family sagas taking us from the cradle to the grave—and they swaggered in the bookshops. But fashions change. Someone has twiddled a knob on the machine, and the brief life can once more be glimpsed on the production line. It would no doubt be too much to attribute this to a fin-de-siècle reflex, though it does recall Lytton Strachey's concise essays on eminent Victorians, but perhaps there is some summarising impulse in the air, a hunger for brief histories of times past.
Weidenfeld certainly seems to think so. In a series of trim “Lives” it is energetically reviving the attractive idea that life can be a short story. As assignments, the books do not require endless years of labour, so they have...
(The entire section is 1226 words.)
SOURCE: Cowley, Jason. “Stolen Identity.” New Statesman 129, no. 4470 (24 January 2000): 57–58.
[In the following review, Cowley praises My German Question as a “dignified memoir” which convincingly addresses the question of why German-Jews didn't foresee the dangers facing them in Nazi Germany.]
Who, at some time, perhaps on catching a glimpse of themselves in a shop window, has not thought: who on earth is that? Who has then not gone on to wonder about the person they might have become, perhaps wanted to become, the person who occupies the shadowy margins of another, imaginary life. Peter Gay, the distinguished American cultural historian, has long been haunted by thoughts of a shadow life, a life that was wrenched from him when his family belatedly escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939. More accurately, he has been haunted by the very “Germanness” that was taken from him. “Two dates frame this initial exploration,” he writes at the beginning of his sombre memoir of a Berlin childhood [My German Question], “June 20, 1923, when I was born, and January 30, 1933, when Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. The first expelled me into life, the second gave my life an ineradicable undertone of mourning.”
Gay grew up an only child in a middle-class family. His parents were assimilated Jews, relaxed in the city, hopeful for their son and largely...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
SOURCE: Ahr, Johan. Review of My German Question, by Peter Gay. Modern Judaism 20, no. 1 (February 2000): 116–23.
[In the following review, Ahr offers a positive assessment of My German Question, describing it as “an eloquent memoir whose strengths far outnumber its weaknesses.”]
The prolific Peter Gay, long Professor of History at Yale University, currently Director of the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, usually points his readers in the direction of the heroic, where civilization can be exalted. With the publication of My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin, an eloquent memoir whose strengths far outnumber its weaknesses, all of us have now been invited to understand this academic's appealing if at times also limiting bonhomie, his fascination with the likes of Voltaire and Sigmund Freud as champions of progressive reform.1 Although a worthy, profound interpreter of Enlightenment thought, Gay nevertheless has tended to forego the analysis that unobstructedly exposes the philosopher's anti-Jewish animus and the psychoanalyst's misogyny. So it is in Gay's present study of his childhood, where he also negotiates, not always easily, critical appreciation and respectful admiration.
An American citizen since 1946, Gay investigates in My German Question his traumatic coming of age...
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SOURCE: Kerman, Joseph. “The Miracle Worker.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 5 (23 March 2000): 32–35.
[In the following review, Kerman compares Gay's Mozart with three other recent biographies of Mozart.]
Peter Gay's Penguin Life of Mozart [Mozart,] tells the story with grace and organizes it with dexterity. It is not pitched at a very high level, and the author has not found anything very distinctive to say about his subject. Gay is a distinguished historian of the Enlightenment, but his remarks on social or intellectual forces that might illuminate the life and works of Mozart are familiar and strike no sparks.
Thus Gay calls the third of Mozart's operas with Lorenzo da Ponte, Così fan tutte, “a belated valentine to the Old Regime”; appearing as it did in 1790, only a few months after the storming of the Bastille, “there was still time for audiences to be frivolous, especially when frivolity was being served up by a genius.” The English historian John Rosselli, in his equally concise Musical Life [The Life of Mozart], says it better:
Mozart's most perfect dramatic work enshrines a society where men and women need concern themselves only with delectable follies, and where reconciliation mends all in the name of sense. Music of ideal beauty lifts the ironies of the tale onto a...
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SOURCE: Berger, Doris L. “Poisonings.” Review of Politics 62, no. 2 (spring 2000): 365.
[In the following review, Berger offers a positive assessment of My German Question.]
Peter Gay's memoir [My German Question] will be welcomed by all who have admired his work over the past forty years. From his early studies of Eduard Bernstein (1958) and Voltaire (1959), to his essay on Weimar Culture (1968), his textbook on Modern Europe (1973, with R. K. Webb), and his many volumes on Freud and on The Bourgeois Experience (published from 1978 to 1998), Gay has had an enormous impact on how North Americans understand central and western Europe. This personal account offers a glimpse into some of the influences that shaped his own development, especially during his formative years in Germany. “This is not an autobiography,” Gay insists in the first line of the Preface: “it is a memoir that focuses on the six years, 1933 to 1939, I spent as a boy in Nazi Berlin” (p. ix).
Gay structures his book chronologically, although his knowledge of history and psychoanalysis inform and enrich that organization. From his sequential base Gay flashes forward as well as back and reflects on the frailty and sometimes deceptiveness of memory Chapter 1, “Return of the Native,” recounts impressions from Gay's first trip to Germany in 1961 after an absence of 22 years. Here...
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SOURCE: Isenberg, Noah. “Thanks for All the Memories.” Salmagundi 126–27, (spring–summer 2000): 285–97.
[In the following excerpt, Isenberg praises My German Question for addressing the difficult and complex issues faced by Jews in Nazi Germany.]
Between 1933 and 1945, as National Socialism ran its course in Germany, Austria, and beyond, approximately half a million German-speaking émigrés found their way out of the fascist storm that engulfed Europe. Some fled immediately after Hitler's stunning ascent to power, in January 1933, or after the ominous burning of the Reichstag a mere four weeks later. Others waited, hoping that the Third Reich would soon fail to live up to its thousand-year aspirations, and managed only to leave, if at all, at the last possible moment. Still others never secured the necessary documents to leave—due to inadequate resources to cover the increasingly expensive emigration fees, lack of influential contacts, or entrapment by the Nazi bureaucratic machinery that made emigration an uphill battle—and were thus deported to one of the many labor and death camps throughout the continent.
Of those who were able to escape, a clear majority were Jews, at least by definition, even if they themselves did not rate their Jewishness above their Germanness. Of course there were also political refugees and people who saw emigration as a moral...
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SOURCE: Feuchtwanger, Edgar. Review of My German Question, by Peter Gay. Journal of Jewish Studies 51, no. 2 (autumn 2000): 366.
[In the following review, Feuchtwanger argues that My German Question adds an insightful personal narrative to the existing body of historical studies on Berlin in the 1930s.]
Peter Gay's account of his boyhood in Nazi Germany [My German Question] is written with the sensitivity for hidden meanings and implications one would expect of him. His motive in writing his autobiographical reminiscences was, however, not only to recall and analyse his experiences, but to put on record his views on two central and connected problems. One of them is encompassed in the title of the book: an account of how he arrived at his later, relatively positive, but by no means unambiguous feelings towards Germany and Germans. The second is to reply to those who accuse assimilated German Jews of self-delusion in believing in a German-Jewish symbiosis, in fact to rebut the argument classically made from a Zionist perspective by Gershom Scholem in the 1920s.
Gay's memories of his life in Berlin as Peter Fröhlich gain in poignancy by describing so much that was ordinary in times that were extraordinary to the point of insanity. His father was a businessman, who, ironically, became more affluent with the rise of the Third Reich. Unusually, Peter's parents were...
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Brock, Michael. “Forbidden Fruits.” History Today 37 (January 1987): 55–56.
Brock argues that Gay's ambitious project tends to meander and lacks a clearly structured, overarching argument in this review of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume II: The Tender Passion.
Collins, Anne. “The Sex Lives of Proper Victorians.” Macleans 97, no. 10 (5 March 1984): 54–55.
Collins offers a positive assessment of The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses.
Heinegg, Peter. “Downhill since Victoria.” America 186, no. 15 (6 May 2002): 27.
Heinegg offers a positive assessment of Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815–1914, noting that Gay's choice of physician and writer Arthur Schnitzler as the focus of his work is “more than a little quixotic.”
Howard, Helen. Review of Freud: A Life for Our Time, by Peter Gay. Clinical Social Work Journal 18, no. 1 (spring 1990): 105–06.
Howard praises Freud: A Life for Our Time for its “rich” array of details about Freud's life, extensive use of archival sources, and clear explanations of Freudian theory.
Ingleby, David. “Analysing the Master.” Times Literary Supplement,...
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