John Weightman (review date 12 January 1967)

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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 tragic nostalgia for the ideal society. According to the changes in political fashion, the major thinkers of the time have been seen as villains or saints, as effective intellectual and social forces or as futile word-spinners, as realists or chimerical dreamers, as rationalists or irrationalists, as bold innovators or fundamentally timid conservatives. I say this is odd, but I may be mistaken. The eighteenth century happens to be the historical period I have read most about, and so I am aware of the simplifications and conflicting interpretations it gives rise to. But perhaps all history is myth and, as Voltaire said, a series of tricks we play on the past in the light of the present. If the past does not exist in itself, but only in the form of partial documentary remains that have to be revitalized by the imagination, then history is a perpetual recreation in the present, and the distinction between the mythopoeic and the factual, which has often been thought of as the main achievement of the Enlightenment, is not so absolute as one might wish, at least in the “human,” or social, sciences. Learning itself is still impregnated with myth, and when we say that our knowledge of a given historical period has greatly increased, we often mean that the various mythological treatments of it have been fortified and expanded. The most interesting thing about Professor Gay's new book [The Enlightenment: An Introduction, Volume I: The Rise of Modern Paganism] it seems to me, is that it takes two myths and combines them, with the addition perhaps of a slight condiment from a third.

Traditionally, as I have mentioned, there were two main ways of looking at the Enlightenment: you could see it as the third great outburst of human inquiry (after Ancient Greece and the Renaissance), the third major attempt to free the human mind from the trammels of dogma and superstition and to reappraise phenomena according to the strictly knowable operation of cause and effect; or you could see it as the point at which modern thinking finally went wrong, because intellect had broken away from instinct, the consciousness had split off from the unconscious, and the perpetual openness of an unappeasable curiosity had...

(This entire section contains 2745 words.)

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taken the place of the cyclical wisdom of faith. If you took the first view, you were in the tradition of Taine, Darwin, H. G. Wells, and the bulk of modern science; if you took the second view, you found yourself in the same camp as Joseph de Maistre, Léon Bloy, and T. S. Eliot.

The vast increase in academic studies of the eighteenth century during the last twenty years or so has illustrated a third approach, that of “impartial scholarship.” For a long time, eighteenth-century France was comparatively neglected in university departments, perhaps because it was thought to be too obviously controversial and did not contain enough purely literary geniuses. But after so many, more recent, upheavals, the quarrels between the philosophes and Throne and Altar no doubt began to look quaintly remote, and learned inquiry felt free to move in on this largely unexploited area, with results that have not been altogether happy. In the last decade or two, a great many bulky and unfocused volumes have been produced, and in some ways now make it difficult to see the wood for the trees. The fact is that “impartial scholarship” is another myth, a subsidiary off-shoot of the scientific method of the nineteenth century (itself a technique mediated through the Enlightenment) when applied to subjects that do not admit of fully scientific treatment. There is supposed to be some merit in accumulating historical or literary data without relating them to a metaphysical position, because all metaphysical positions, whether pro- or anti-transcendental, are unproven, and ultimately acts of faith. Unfortunately, it is still impossible to give significant order to “human” data unless one adopts some definite standpoint; all scholars whose work has any backbone have an explicit or implicit point of view, and “impartiality,” in their case, can only mean that they realize the provisional nature of any standpoint and are willing to revise their metaphysical position, if there ever appears to be good reason to do so. However, in academic circles, “impartiality” has too often had the other meaning of refusing, or being afraid, or unable, to have a genuine point of view (other than the facile and borrowed assumption that the people one is writing about are “important”), and this accounts for the hollowness of a large proportion of academic writing. When such “impartiality” occurs in eighteenth-century studies, it is doubly paradoxical, because it is both a consequence of eighteenth-century freedom of thought, and an insipid consequence, because it misses out the essential point about that freedom. Academic impartiality, what nothingnesses have been committed in thy name!

Outside the university, still another approach to the eighteenth century has developed in the last quarter of a century, and has reacted on academic studies. The Bohemians, the poètes maudits, the alienated or isolated consciousnesses of the late nineteenth century have had a large crop of successors in the twentieth, and the latter have rediscovered the curious atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary France, which produced the Marquis de Sade, Choderlos de Laclos, the Chevalier d'Eon, Beaumarchais, Restif de la Bretonne, etc. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, French society reached certain psychological extremes that did not become common again until the mid-twentieth century. If Les Liaisons dangereuses is now considered the most important novel of the eighteenth century, and a number of academic theses have been devoted to it, this is largely because André Malraux and Richard Aldington were sensitive to its erotic treatment of the power complex. The Marquis de Sade, who would have been thoroughly disapproved of by Voltaire and Rousseau, is now read with respect by many people who, politically and socially, subscribe to Enlightenment reformism rather than to sadistic nihilism. The dark, irrational, erotic, and clandestine side of the eighteenth century is fashionable in literary and theatrical circles, whereas the Enlightenment proper is looked upon as transparent and banal, even by people who normally act upon its assumptions. We have got to a strange situation—at least in England and France—in which avant-garde opinions are progressive, while the avant-garde sensibility has many of the “black” features of an inverted faith, thus echoing the imaginative peculiarities of the late eighteenth century.

To come back now to Professor Gay—he is refreshingly old-fashioned in that he is strongly and openly partisan on the side of sweetness and light. He is for the Enlightenment, although he does not explain why; he just takes it for granted that sensible men cannot accept the Christian Revelation or any supposedly privileged or dramatic relationship with God. There may be a power behind the universe, as some of the philosophes thought, but if so, it does not tell us anything about itself, and we should modestly refrain from jumping to conclusions. Although some eighteenth-century thinkers, such as D'Holbach, were aggressively atheistic, they were the extreme wing and are not to be taken as centrally representative. Professor Gay has one outstanding hero, David Hume, “the complete modern pagan,” who looked at life calmly and courageously on the human level, striking a happy balance between contempt for the inveterate mythopoeic tendency of the human mind (this tendency is perhaps the philosophes' concept of original sin) and discretion in face of the vast areas of the unknown or the unknowable. He also has one outstanding book to which he devotes a separate chapter: this is Voltaire's Candide, which he sees as a bracing parable of man's position in this world, ending with the positive conclusion: il faut cultiver son jardin. Presumably, he cannot take Voltaire as a personal hero, because that extraordinary man was too febrile and uncertain in temper. One suspects, too, that he is rather unsympathetic towards Rousseau, and understandably so, since Jean-Jacques believed in a personal relationship between himself and “his” God, and operated largely in terms of such myths as Natural Man and Utopia. Nor does he appear to attach very much importance to the weirdness at the end of the century, and he does me the honor of commending me for having criticized the extremes of the Sade cult.

This book is the first part of a two-volume study. The Rise of Modern Paganism is meant to tell how the philosophes arrived at their position; “The Pursuit of Modernity,” says Professor Gay, will show in greater detail the use they made of it. In tracing the development of eighteenth-century thought in this first volume, Professor Gay divides his material up into two sections: “The Appeal to Antiquity” and “The Tension with Christianity.” The theme of the first is, briefly, that the men of the Enlightenment, being steeped in the culture of antiquity, found in it germs of the non-religious view-point that Christianity had neglected or deliberately played down. There had been, in fact, a Greek Enlightenment and a Roman Enlightenment, and it was on these parts of classical culture, especially, that the philosophes drew to form their own thought. In the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, they were on both sides, since some of the ancients had themselves been modern. The Stoics, the Epicureans, and more particularly Lucretius were a constant inspiration to the eighteenth century. The second section recounts the running battle with Christian belief, with many back-references to the seventeenth century, the Renaissance and the Middle Ages; this battle could be very complex since the Christians were divided amongst themselves, and free-thinkers could be both in sympathy with some things inside the Church, and yet hostile to the basic philosophy of Christianity and to most aspects of the Church's role in society.

There is nothing new or controversial in these propositions, as far as I can tell, and I think the enemies of the Enlightenment would agree with them, except that they would mark with a negative sign those points that Professor Gay presents as positive. I am on Professor Gay's side, but I do not quite see how his general interpretation goes beyond what was already expressed in such traditional views of the Enlightenment as those of Ducros or Hazard. It is true that he has a far wider range of reference, since he is just as much at home in English, German, and Italian as he is in French, and that he expresses opinions on many minor questions of emphasis. He is staggeringly learned and his final chapter, entitled “Bibliographical Essay,” is a dauntingly strenuous cross-country run through varied intellectual terrain. But if I may be absolutely frank, I think he has allowed himself to be rather overwhelmed by the myth of learning. He is writing both a pamphlet and a learned work, but the pamphleteer and the academic are slightly out of step with each other, as they were in a previous book, The Party of Humanity. Or, to put it another way, the pamphleteer and the academic operate intermittently, and the material put forward by the latter frequently serves neither to strengthen nor weaken the position of the former, because it is not always rethought or re-ordered in terms of proving the rightness or wrongness of basic attitudes.

Sometimes a section has a promising title, e.g., “The Rehabilitation of Myth,” and then does not appear to live up to its program. At other times, a title may even correspond to an anti-Enlightenment point of view, as if Professor Gay had been momentarily swung over by the sources he is using. “The Treason of the Clerics” is the heading of a chapter on the malaise inside the eighteenth-century Church; the phrase is apparently borrowed from Julien Benda, a staunch upholder of the Enlightenment tradition, who, in his book La Trahison des clercs, attacked Barrès and other intellectuals, who were guilty of putting their talents at the service of limited, non-spiritual causes, such as nationalism. Professor Gay uses it in a very different sense to stigmatize those eighteenth-century churchmen who were not sufficiently aggressive in their beliefs to withstand the influence of the Enlightenment, and the style in which he writes this section would be more appropriate to a Christian historian: …

The real source of trouble (in the Church), hard to diagnose and almost impossible to eradicate, was a bland piety, a self-satisfied and prosperous reasonableness, the honest conviction that Churches must, after all, move with the times. This—the concessions to modernity, to criticism, science, and philosophy, and to good tone—this was the treason of the clerks.

These uncertainties may be inadvertent, or they may result from a desire to give the text an extra lift, so as to jolly along the reader who might tend to be bored by the obviousness of the Enlightenment. In doing this, Professor Gay may be subscribing to another myth, that of the superior attractiveness of the non-rational. I suspect there is something of this in the subtitle: The Rise of Modern Paganism. Admittedly, the word “Paganism” is ambiguous, but more often than not, it implies a belief in a multiplicity of gods connected with natural forces; it is comparatively rare in the sense of a totally secularized world-view. The appropriate phrase would have been “the rise of scientific humanism” (following on from The Party of Humanity), but this no doubt sounded uninviting, since humanism is not at the moment a numinous term, whereas paganism still is.

I do not wish to put anyone off reading this book, which bulges with interesting information and comment, nor to imply that I do not have a great admiration for Professor Gay's intellectual appetite and digestion. What I am trying to suggest is that a thoroughly new defense of the Enlightenment would not simply assume that the philosophes were on the whole “right,” but would show the stages and consequences of the process of abandoning faith to go over to the secular vision of reality. If the mythopoeic faculty is inherent in man, if the unconscious has to be catered for in the ritual of living, if there is more in heaven and earth than meets the rational eye, the philosophes both made mistakes and new discoveries, and the peculiarities of the end of the century have somehow to be related to the middle and the beginning. In my view, the philosophes themselves are sometimes mythopoeic in the good sense; as I have explained elsewhere, I see Candide, for instance, not as a reasonable fable about humanistic endeavor, but as a tragi-comic symbol of the existential problem, built up of secularized religious imagery, just as much as Sartre's La Nausée and Camus's L'Etranger or La Peste are. The “clarity” of the Enlightenment is, in many respects, a superficial impression, as indeed Professor Gay himself suggested in his first book, Voltaire's Politics. There is a structure, partly sound, partly inadequate, behind the “chaos of clear ideas” stigmatized by an opponent of the Enlightenment, and it is this that we need to have firmly stated. Of course, Professor Gay may be busy on just such a statement in his second volume.

J. H. Plumb (review date 13 January 1967)

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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 reasoned criticism of the Prime Minister's political philosophy, a discussion of man's bisexual nature or an argument distinguishing political from civil liberty will scarcely bring a call from the Sunday Times for exclusive rights. For a generation or more now, the intellectual has been in retreat, particularly the historian. As he has grown mountainous in scholarship, he has shrunk as a man. He has ceased to be a combatant in the battle for truth. Aping a non-existent Providence, his cult of objectivity has been nothing more than a treason to the intellect. By squeezing morality out of history, he is committing professional suicide, leaving the biting social and intellectual criticism which should be his milieu to the rare satirist or philosopher, the Orwells and the Russells. Where is Tacitus? Where is Plutarch? And most grievous of all, where is Voltaire?

The former may be admired as primitives so long as they are forgotten as moralists. But Voltaire? He is dismissed as shallow, petty, a witty charlatan. We no longer pursue infamy. We avert our eyes from the monstrous myths that have captivated men's emotions and shackled their minds, leading them to greed, intolerance and brutality. We no longer permit ourselves a passing sneer at the ritual dottiness of church or synagogue, although, of all men, historians are aware of the follies perpetrated in the name of God. No. We edit mountains of papers, concentrate on the growth and decay of estates, reconstruct with precision and care the ideology of an age with antiseptic indifference to what was perpetrated in its name. All of these things are done with the minimum of consideration for the pain and suffering of humanity, or of its blindness, stupidity and addiction to cant. To historians all things have become equal. Forgetting the philosophers we have come to accept Ranke's terrible dictum that all things are equidistant from God.

What historians have forgotten is that facts, either human or social, become inescapably moral facts. No historian of the Enlightenment forgot this simple truth. Then no historian of the Enlightenment pretended to be Providence. God was not to be imitated, but attacked. Diderot's ideal philosopher was one ‘who tramples underfoot prejudices, tradition, antiquity, universal assent, authority, in a word, everything that overawes the mass of minds.’ A man, indeed, committed to criticism wherever it might take him. Commitment to criticism, and its history, this is the theme of Peter Gay's erudite, witty, beautifully written book. Within the realm of ideas he perceives a duality—the critical mind that acquires the habit of truth, opposed to the myth-accepting mind that acquires the habit of faith. One doubts, the other believes.

Of course, no dichotomies are clear-cut: believers have doubts, doubters retain beliefs. In that great age of faith, of mythopoeic culture, the Middle Ages, the critical spirit was never wholly buried—Abelard wrote his Sic et Non, Roger Bacon experimented, but the intellectual climate of Christianity, by its very nature, is allergic to the critical approach. Christians require at least one miracle, one prophecy: sceptics none. By and large the myth-makers have had the best of history. In Greece, more confidently in Rome, again during the Renaissance, the critical philosophic spirit secured a number of intellectual triumphs, if few social ones. But the scientific revolution gave an impetus to criticism that seemed to open up limitless vistas; for what was experiment but a critical examination of nature. Newton, Boyle and Boerhaave justified this philosophical attitude by their experiments. Gay's dichotomy is, perhaps, too simple; for the savage mind observes, correlates and achieves even in the complexities of myth. But it remains a valuable tool of analysis for modern times.

In England, France, Germany and Italy a new intellectual era dawned from the 1690s onwards. Men subjected all belief—God, Christ, kingship—to criticism. And they used history as their major weapon. Hence institutions were analysed in human terms. God and Providence were banished from the historian's causation; and philosophers sought their intellectual heroes in men such as Lucretius or Machiavelli, who analysed humanity in terms of itself. The result was not, as so many have believed, rapid growth in uncritical optimism, in a belief that man's powers were commensurate with his destiny, that the corrupt and superstitious mythologies under which men had sheltered for so long would be exploded by the philosophers' satirical realism. The Enlightenment possessed its darker side, its pessimism, as any pagan attitude always will. Few could achieve the serenity of the dying David Hume, neither welcoming nor fearing oblivion, but meeting it with the stoicism of the humanist. Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Condorcet, Wieland, and the rest of that wonderful galaxy of restless and realistic spirits were aware of man's corruptibility, his capacity to hide his evil nature in the excuse of myth, or to shift the burden onto the shoulders of God or history.

They knew, as few since, both the necessity and the difficulty of living without belief but with hope. They longed for a world that would banish credulity, that would base its attitudes on a truthful evaluation of human necessities. The first stage in the struggle, they thought, was to combat myth. And, of course, for them, in their Christ-dominated societies, the arch-myth, whose destruction was essential, was Christianity. That may now seem naïve, crude, the response of a flat-footed atheism, but, before condemning, we should remember that we face a milk-and-water Christianity, whose tolerance has grown as its social power has declined. In the days of the philosophes the blood was still fresh on Christian hands. And their attack on miracles and on the historical inanities of religious teaching was immensely valuable in helping to create an intellectually free society.

Of course, the struggle against myth was harder, fiercer than they knew. We are still dominated by mythical explanation of the universe; myth still haunts social and sexual customs. A century that has suffered Hitler, to say nothing of Stalin and a host of other myth-makers, has need of a Voltaire; of an arch-priest whose wit and satire and burning indignations will cut through the specious sophistries by which we permit ourselves to accept evil, suffering, subjection.

But it is always easier to believe than to think, to accept than to resist, to keep silent than to speak out. And it is high time to stop decrying these historians and philosophers of the Enlightenment. Theirs was a dangerous age for intellectuals, better far than the centuries which had gone before, but still full of hazard. They were brave men, dedicated to the pursuit of truth no matter how uncomfortable or destructive its capture proved. And they had no nonsense about the use of history. Its study was essential in order that the follies of belief might be revealed and the tyrannies of man towards man exposed. Like moles, modern historians burrow in silence, making their lists of meaningless facts, spawning their blinkered offspring, and teaching nothing but repetition of their professional expertise. Whereas they should be intent to communicate to mankind at large their moral indignation as well as their ironic criticism. It is their purpose to expose the follies, cruelties and disasters of life; not in order to preach a philosophy of hopelessness, but to strengthen belief in the efficacy of criticism and reason.

As Mr Gay's admirable book shows, this task of historians and philosophers has always been exceptionally difficult to pursue. Periods of enlightenment have been rare. They have been strengthened by the growth of science, but less than Bacon and Diderot confidently expected, for it has become very easy to separate science from social comment, strengthening obscurantism at the expense of criticism. And scientists, even more than Christians, have been willing to render unto Caesar the things that belong to him. But for scientists of all kinds and for historians the tide may be turning. Education is penetrating to social depths never before plumbed. The university may become the womb of social dialectic and an intellectual revolution that will effectively criticise and change the structure of industrial society—its social and sexual morals as well as its economic organisation may be blowing up. If it does, may this New Enlightenment secure, in the fullness of time, as wise, as elegant a historian as Peter Gay.

Peter Jacobsohn (review date 4 January 1969)

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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 undeniable imprint on American life.

Weimar's cultural efflorescence is now taken for granted, and this, in part, explains the resurgence of interest in this brief period of German history. In at least equal part, however, renewed interest has arisen because of the parallels, however fragmentary, that many people find between the political situation in the Weimar Republic and the politics of the United States in the middle sixties. Though they must not be pressed too firmly, certain correspondences do exist. Weimar was a society that cried out for fundamental political change and was denied it, as, some would maintain, America was similarly denied it in this past election. As in the Weimar of the 1920's, youth in the United States is in vehement rebellion against its parents. As in Weimar, artists and intellectuals are in the vanguard of those demanding change in American life; and, again as in Weimar, their effects have been largely balked by the society at large, their energies often finding release in cynicism, despair, decadence, or empty radicalism.

Professor Gay has now given us the first chronicle and interpretation of the Weimar years. His Weimar Culture is a virtuoso performance, not least because it has captured, with the greatest possible economy, a culture whose origin and essence were closely intertwined with its politics. Although Professor Gay presents his study as an essay, it is more: a brief historical introduction to a seminal epoch, and a work exhibiting such easy mastery of its material, subtlety of exposition and elegance of style that it can only have sprung from a passionate absorption in the subject and an almost sensuous delight in writing about it.

Gay shows that the Weimar Republic was never more than “an idea seeking to become reality” because the German Revolution of 1918 had not, in fact, been a revolution. To some extent, Weimar was a repetition of the unsuccessful revolution of 1848, down to the irony of adopting its flag. The attempt to turn the Germany of Frederick the Great, Bluecher, and Bismarck into the Germany of Goethe, Humboldt, and Schlegel was aborted. Both epochs reinforce Geoffrey Barraclough's recent judgment that “The essential feature of German history after 1815 … was the revolt of the German soul against the values of the Enlightenment.”

There were, of course, other less fundamental reasons for Weimar's failure. The Social Democratic functionaries who took power in 1918, awkwardly and reluctantly, were at heart still the Emperor's subjects and only secondarily leaders of a republic. The new, progressive constitution merely obscured the fact that only the hands on the levers of power had changed—the nature and uses of that power remained intact. The pillars of the state, the civil service—including the judiciary—and the military command were left virtually untouched. Cartels flourished as never before. Political assassinations nearly became commonplace.

What provided moribund Weimar with the appearance of vitality was the sheer gusto and magnificence of its cultural rebirth. Professor Gay provides a superb account of the unfolding of this culture, rooted in the last decades of the Empire, nourished by European culture and invigorating it in turn. The movement that symbolized the early Weimar was that of the Expressionists, “who,” Professor Gay writes,

execrated militarism and propagated the ecstatic vision of a regenerated peaceful humanity. … In their search for this new humanity they offered the public many heroes: the stranger, the sufferer, the suicide, the prostitute. But there was one theme that pervaded their work: the son's revolt against the father. And here art comments quite directly on life: it would be simplistic to interpret the November Revolution as just one thing, but it was also, and significantly, a rebellion against paternal authority.

But after the bravura of the Bauhaus and Grosz's cartoons, Brecht's plays, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the relatively tranquil interlude between 1924 and 1929 saw Expressionism replaced by Neue Sachlichkeit—which literally translates as “objectivity” but is more accurately rendered as sobriety or matter-of-factness—a movement toward simplicity and clarity that was in many respects beneficial for the arts. In these “golden mid-twenties” Berlin became the undisputed cultural center of Germany; Brecht moved to Berlin, everybody moved there. The British ambassador, Lord d'Abernon, called the time after 1925 “an epoch of splendor in the Reich capital's cultural life.” Berlin, with its 120 newspapers, its hundreds of cabarets, its scores of theatres, legitimate and experimental, its many operas, its publishing houses, its art galleries, its glitter and corruption, its drug traffic, its homosexual bars, had become irresistibly cosmopolitan.

But 1929 signaled the beginning of the end. A simple balance sheet tells the story of this brief but brilliant epoch: an insufficiency of political assets. On the cultural side an abundance of names, among them: Barlach, Beckmann, Klee, Feininger, Kandinsky, Mies vander Rohe, Mendelsohn, Klemperer, Weill, Reinhardt, Brecht, Cassirer. On the political side a solitary entry: Gustav Stresemann, a reluctant, though finally stalwart, convert to the Republic. (Walther Rathenau, its only other real political leader, had been assassinated in 1922 by right-wing extremists.) “Weimar of those years,” Professor Gay says, “was like the society on [Thomas Mann's] magic mountain: ruddy cheeks concealed insidious symptoms.” With Stresemann's death in 1929, depression and unemployment and unending political crises, the end was only four years away. What now set in was a period of lessening creativity, a turn to vulgar mass culture and a sense of ineluctable doom shared by artists and politicians alike.

The subtitle of Professor Gay's book is “The Outsider as Insider.” To be sure, the cultural and political outsiders of the Wilhelminian period had become the insiders of the Weimar Republic. But many of those who had helped provide the impetus for political change during birth pangs of Weimar fared less well later, especially those scholars and intellectuals who became political activists. Many Weimar humanists were imprisoned, some were murdered. Of the three writers, Gustav Landauer, Kurt Eisner, and Ernst Toller, who had played leading roles in the brief socialist experiment in Bavaria, the first was beaten to death, the second was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic, and the third imprisoned, barely escaping with his life. The real center of power allowed the outsiders to become insiders as long as they did not overstep the line of access to the apparatus of power itself. The murders of Eisner and Landauer—and Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg—were an effective warning. After this, most of the political outsiders in Weimar, whose idealism and fraternal enthusiasm the Republic needed far more than the humdrum abilities of party-functionaries, withdrew from political life. And in due time, for all its radiance, for all the glories of its artistic and intellectual life, Weimar surrendered to the barbarians. That view of history which sees man as essentially striving towards enlightenment has not since regained its confidence.

Richard Hanser (review date 17 February 1969)

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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 Dietrich. And we think, above all, of the exiles who exported Weimar culture all over the world.

But, curiously, we learn very little about the cultural factors that combined to make exiles of so many of Weimar's artists and intellectuals. When some of us think of Weimar we are less inclined to think of The Threepenny Opera and Marlene Dietrich than of Mein Kampf and Adolf Hitler, both more potent and enduring manifestations of the culture of the time.

Gay says, “I have tried to portray Weimar culture as a whole,” a sweeping commitment he immediately cancels in the same paragraph by conceding that he has said “less than could be said” about political events and economic developments, popular culture, the church, the family, the press, science, and the structure of German society—a rather broad spectrum to be scanted or omitted in portraying a culture as a whole. He promises to take care of all that in a future book. The present volume is merely the published version of four lectures delivered at Columbia University. This may account for Gay's bland, academic approach, which so seldom gets to the heart of the matter.

Although the book is slim and the subject vast, page after page is devoted to evaluations of Friedrich Hölderlin, Heinrich von Kleist, and Stefan George, while we hear nothing at all of Hanns Johst, Will Vesper, or Erwin Guido Kolbenheyer. A professor discussing the culture of a given period will, by inclination and training, tend to stress the significance of the most gifted, most estimable writers. A highly cultivated man himself, Gay naturally finds Hölderlin, Kleist and George congenial to analyze and comment upon. But, after laboriously adumbrating their significance, he admits it is impossible to demonstrate that they had any appreciable effect on the behavior of men or the course of events.

Johst, Vesper and Kolbenheyer, on the other hand, though they belonged to the underworld of letters, did have a demonstrable effect on their readers and hence cannot reasonably be omitted from any meaningful treatment of Weimar culture: Their rabidly nationalistic articles, essays, plays, poems and books helped create the state of mind that made Nazism possible.

“One of the first necessities for the success of National Socialism,” Hitler wrote to Alfred Rosenberg shortly after he came to power, “was the intellectual destruction of the complex of ideas [Gedankenwelt] hostile to our movement in the world around us.” From this viewpoint, the Johsts, the Vespers, and the Kolbenheyers were writers to be reckoned with; only an absurd academic snobbery would ignore them and run on fruitlessly about Hölderlin, Kleist and Stefan George. (It was Johst, by the way, who coined the unforgettable slogan: “Wenn ich das Wort Kultur höre, entsichere ich meinen Browning”—“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I take the safety catch off my automatic.”)

It was one of the many paradoxes of Weimar that while Dr. Caligari's indefinable “something frightful” gradually took specific shape, infecting the whole society from the dregs to the top, the arts flourished as never before—they flourished feverishly and hectically, showing the streaks of instability and freakishness that were harbingers of horrors to come. The daffiness of Dada, which Jung called “too idiotic for any decent insanity,” set the tone for the times, and a certain wildness often tainted even the more solid achievements in theater, art and literature. The ferment of freedom and experimentation, the explosion of talent, make the period endlessly fascinating. “If anything,” Gay astutely writes, “Weimar enjoyed too many ideas.”

It was a dazzling show as long as it lasted, but most of the names that fall strictly within the Weimar days—Jessner, Toller, Bronnen, Hasen-clever—left virtually nothing that endured. Those that do survive—Mann, Kandinsky, Klee, Feininger, Grosz—had established themselves prior to the Republic, and continued to function after its demise. Perhaps only Brecht and Gropius can be considered pure products of the period, in the sense that they arrived as artists and reached their peaks under Weimar.

Historical parallels are notoriously tricky, yet some phases of the Weimar experience seem disturbingly close to what is now being lived through in this country and elsewhere. Gay rightly stresses that the alienation of son from father—the enmity between generations—was a deeply troubling factor in Weimar. The Republic was a permissive society, too, with sexual freedom veering into degeneracy, an open narcotics traffic (heroin was hawked on street corners in Berlin), and a general restlessness, aimlessness and despair that engulfed much of the nation's youth.

The Wandervogel were a pre-hippy manifestation of the young in rebellion against a society where there seemed “not a trace of honesty and rationality.” Even Jakob Wasserman, who sympathized with the “hopelessness of student youth,” was impelled to point out: “Not every 40-year-old is a criminal and an idiot for the simple reason that he is 20 years older than you are … not every father is a fool and not every son a hero and a martyr.”

A verse in the magazine Querschnitt expressed something of the prevalent disillusion and cynicism among the literate but frustrated young. It was written by an unknown American named Ernest Hemingway (“It's damn funny that Germany is the only place I can sell anything”), and Querschnitt printed it in English:

The age demanded that we sing
And cut away our tongue.
The age demanded that we flow
And hammered in the bung.
The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.
And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.

But Querschnitt gets only a glancing mention in Weimar Culture, and is not quoted.

The poor stumbling, bungling Republic—flailed by the Right, despised by the Left, shattered by inflation, paralyzed by depression—had no friends anywhere. “The intellectuals” (and how familiar this sounds!) “almost without exception opposed the government.” Weimar was, in fact, the most free and enlightened government Germany had ever known, but the intellectuals sat around the Romanisches Cafe eating stale cake, drinking bad coffee, telling each other that the Republic was a hopeless mess, and that any change would be an improvement.

The change duly came, and patrons of the Romanisches began packing their bags and fleeing Germany by night, those who were lucky enough to get away. It had turned out, to their shocked surprise, that there were worse governments than Weimar.

Perhaps Gay, in his expanded work, will tell us a little more about how all this came about. His present book, a thoroughly civilized and highly polished effort, is pitched on too lofty a level to come to grips with what the Berlin critic Herbert Ihering was talking about when he reviewed Drums in the Night in 1922—“the horror of this age … the chaos and putrid decay of the times,” as reflected in the early Brecht. And perhaps Gay will find space for another notable literary work of the period that is not so much as mentioned in Weimar Culture—the book called Mein Kampf.

Elizabeth Wiskemann (review date 23 May 1969)

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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. But Marinetti was provoked by Giolitti's Italy and the Third French Republic—it was not only the Kaiser's Germany that nourished the revolt against tradition.

Professor Gay's study deserves special praise for its emphasis upon the importance of the atmosphere of Berlin in the intellectual and artistic life of the Weimar Republic, and also for its emphasis upon the contribution of Heinrich and Thomas Mann. The evolution of the latter, reaching a climax with Der Zauberberg in 1924, was of cardinal importance. In this year of the stabilisation of the Republic its leading novelist had come to terms with it, having moved from a traditionalist position to one of genuine loyalty to the democratic regime: the five good years followed. Unemployment was not inherent in the Weimar ‘system’ and without it the chances of survival were at least as good as those of the communist government in Russia.

Professor Gay does suggest that there was something like a death-wish, something suicidal about the Weimar Republic. Is he too delicate, not outspoken enough, to say that the extraordinary prevalence of Jews among the dominant writers, artists and scientists—from Freud and Einstein to Reinhardt—was bound to provoke a reaction unless those Jews behaved with imaginative restraint in the new circumstances? They failed signally in this respect, many seeming to glory in being outsiders; this gave the Nazis resources for which they could hardly have hoped originally. This is no excuse for the Nazi crimes but a sad fact of history; it helps to explain the triumph of Hitler.

The confusion of liberty with licence is a contemporary phenomenon which makes the experience of the Weimar Republic almost intolerably relevant in certain ways. Professor Gay's account of German life in the twenties provides instructive comparisons with the problems of our own time, the conflict between generations, the application of psychiatry, and so on. Many Fascist and Nazi phrases are in current use among those who think themselves Maoist, only not those expressing the thirst for a leader. The fate of the Weimar Republic has helped to make unemployment into every government's nightmare. But it should perhaps teach fear rather of the unbridled hostility of the intellectuals, whether on the right or the left. It is not uninteresting to find Herbert Marcuse mentioned here among those working for the Institut für Sozialforschung at Frankfurt in the early 'thirties.

Corinna Adam (review date 6 June 1969)

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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.

This was no cure—this was part of the disease. Such desperate sentimentality helped to kill the Republic. It was a love of death, in the end—the kind of passion which led Stefan Zweig to proclaim Kleist's suicide ‘as much his masterpiece as Prince Frederick of Homburg.’ The infection spread through the Hoelderlin revival, the sickly worship of Stefan George, and Heidegger's theory of the Umsturzsituation in which only the overthrow of society is important, not what will follow it. Poetry was to replace thought; or rather, thought was to be elevated to a misty Parnassus where it inevitably lost its way.

The Republic did not inspire loyalty. Those who did support it were mostly Vernunftrepublikaner. The word means rational republicans, and is derogatory which tells one a lot. Their commitment was conditional and uneasy because their souls were not involved. (They were the sort of people who, when Nazi thugs broke up performances of All Quiet on the Western Front, excused their inactivity, Ossietsky tells us, by saying: ‘After all, it's a very bad film.’) Meinecke himself was a Vernunftrepublikaner, who found, in his work on raison d'état in history (Die Idee der Staatsräson) a tragic, irreconcilable duality in power. The author [of Weimar Culture] (‘Peter Gay’ is a pseudonym for Professor William R. Shepherd of Columbia University) draws an interesting parallel with another aristocrat unwillingly converted from being apolitical, Thomas Mapp, whose own confrontation with recent history, The Magic Mountain, was also published in 1924. He is perhaps too harsh here: certainly Germany could have done with more Settembrinis, but great works of art are not to be reformulated for the sake of insecure parliaments.

For a few years, however, there was a golden renaissance and Berlin was the most exciting city in the world. The movements which pre-war society had done its best to crush blossomed and grew. Artists were seized with fervour and hope:

The future of art and the seriousness of this hour forces us revolutionaries of the spirit (Expressionists, Cubists, Futurists) toward unity and close cooperation

said the Novembergruppe, in which Brecht and Weill, Alban Berg and Hindemith joined Nolde and Gropius. It seemed that the lessons of the Enlightenment had been learned at last. In the Bauhaus, which has had more influence on all our lives than anything else of the period, there was a short, happy marriage between what the author calls ‘hunger for wholeness’ and the need to dominate the modern world. This was the true spirit of Weimar, for which it ought to be remembered. But in the end it could flourish only in exile.

C. B. A. Behrens (review date 18 December 1969)

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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 comparative history many of the old labels seem a source of confusion as it becomes plain that they were used in different countries, and even by different people in the same country, to mean different things. In Germany, for example, the cameralists, or mercantilists, saw themselves throughout most of the eighteenth century as representatives of the Enlightenment and are still so described in German textbooks of economic history, notably Professor Lütge's Deutsche Sozial und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, the third edition of which was published in 1966.

In France, on the other hand, mercantilism seemed to the philosophes, and still seems, to belong to the pre-enlightened age, while its enemies the physiocrats, known to their contemporaries as the “philosophes économistes,” were, and still are, reckoned among the enlightened. The physiocrats admittedly won adherents in Germany, but only several decades after their founding father, Quesnay, had become famous in the West and inspired Adam Smith to improve on his ideas. These German converts to economic liberalism, moreover, flourished in the age of romanticism and not in that of the Enlightenment. Mercantilism reached its prime in Prussia during the reign of Frederick the Great, and in the Habsburg dominions during the reigns of Maria Theresa and Joseph II—that is, during the age of the enlightened despots.

The so-called German Enlightenment in the first three quarters of the eighteenth century was secular, in the sense of being opposed to the churches' claim to control intellectual speculation and education; it was tolerant in the sense of being opposed to persecution on religious grounds; it was socially and politically progressive in the sense that it attacked the practices and prejudices characteristic of traditional societies and did so in the name of “reason.” It shared all these attributes with the French Enlightenment. Its apostles, however, until late in the reign of Frederick the Great, were believers in autocracy, in economic dirigisme, and in a hierarchical society based on legal privilege. These were indeed the means by which Prussia—to a long and still not extinct line of thinkers the enlightened state par excellence—was raised, in Frederick the Great's words, “out of the dust,” and by which comparable transformations were effected in the Habsburg dominions.

The so-called enlightened despots were autocrats by conviction as well as by hereditary right. Most of them had no use for liberty in any of the senses in which that term was understood in France or (with the qualified exception of Joseph and Leopold) for equality either. A growing body of opinion in France in the third quarter of the eighteenth century did not in consequence find them enlightened at all “Ne me parlez pas,” Turgot once said of Joseph II, “de cet espèce de bête sauvage.”

In these circumstances, to try to define Enlightenment is like trying to define any other concept, say freedom or democracy, to which many different meanings have been attached. The task is profitless except as an exercise in semantics. To analyze, on the other hand, the revolutionary ideas of the eighteenth century and the material circumstances in which they flourished is a necessary and important task. Professor Gay is entitled to Humpty Dumpty's privilege of using words as he pleases—provided he can make sense of them. The only question is: how much sense can he make?

The answer must seem doubtful to anyone who reads the Preface to the volume here under review—the second of two, each of which, their author tells us, was designed to stand on its own.

In his first volume [The Rise of Modern Paganism] Professor Gay made it plain that by Enlightenment he meant the ideas that were held in France by the philosophes, and in other countries by people of a similar persuasion. He saw the prophets of the Enlightenment as constituting “a family of intellectuals united by a single style of thinking,” and commonly referred to them as the “little flock.” He found that they were mainly French and British, but he included among them one Italian—Beccaria—several Germans—Lessing, Wieland, Kant, Winckelmann—and one Austrian—Sonnenfels—who, however, figures among the unenlightened in volume two [The Science of Freedom].

In his first volume Professor Gay was concerned with the pagan and Christian traditions in which the members of his little flock were educated. In his second volume, as he tells us in the Preface, he is concerned with these people as representative of their age. Their enlightenment was enlightenment only in “the narrower sense.” In its “wider sense” Enlightenment means “the more comprehensive atmosphere” in which their ideas were “embedded.” The purpose of this second volume is “to write the social history of the philosophes' philosophy”; to analyze “the philosophes' environment—the economic and cultural changes that made the philosophy of the Enlightenment relevant and in fact inevitable, the position of writers and artists which gave substance to the philosophes' demands and to their expectations—and the philosophes' program, their view of progress, science, art, society and politics.”

Professor Gay calls his second volume “the science of freedom … in allusion to the philosophes' method and goal.” The two volumes together, he tells us, form a “dialectical triad” of which the thesis (the philosophes' Christian inheritance) and the antithesis (their pagan inheritance) are explained in volume one, and the synthesis (the “philosophes' philosophy,” otherwise described as “the pursuit of modernity”) in volume two.

As is plain from all this, Professor Gay is much more ambitious than earlier writers on the Enlightenment, who were concerned principally with its philosophy. He is also more obscure. Can any single person, the reader asks himself, be competent to deal with so many different branches of knowledge? How can it be possible to prove (let alone analyze) the inevitability of the Enlightenment? Does the “atmosphere of the eighteenth century” mean anything except the atmosphere in those circles which Professor Gay considers enlightened? There was plainly no one “atmosphere” throughout Europe at any time in the eighteenth century, though there were certain ideas that traveled across the frontiers and evoked varying degrees of response in their adopted countries.

What are we to understand by the philosophes' “program”? Admittedly they held a number of ideas in common, but this does not mean that they had a program. A program is a plan of action. The people who draw it up have to reach agreement. When did the philosophes as a group ever agree, on suppose that they ought to agree, on any course of action or even, if one excepts the physiocrats, who were suspect for this reason, on any body of doctrine? How can there be a “science of freedom” when it has never been possible to agree on what freedom means?

Faced with all these ambiguities on the first page, the reader starts off in a carping mood. This is not altogether warranted. Professor Gay's knowledge may be patchy and disorganized but its range is immense. No such comprehensive review of the philosophes' intellectual activities can ever have been attempted before. The work is a mine of information on a great variety of subjects from the decline in epidemic diseases to epistemology and aesthetics. Many passages are well written and illuminating. It is, however, a work of bits and pieces which the framework of ideas, such as it is, cannot hold together. There are many contradictory, obscure, and misleading judgments, and much less in the way of interpretation than the author claims.

In volume one, for example, Professor Gay asserted that “the Enlightenment was not an age of reason but a reaction against rationalism.” In volume two he asserts that the spirit of the Enlightenment was “one of reason, humanity and industry.” in the first of these sentences he seems to find “reason” and “rationalism” synonymous, but usually he sees them as opposites. Sometimes rationalism seems to him to mean what system-building meant to the Philosophes, who used this term pejoratively and understood by it the attempt to explain natural or social phenomena by means of logical deductions from hypotheses, as opposed to empirical investigation. Professor Gay apparently equates the rationalist in this sense with the doctrinaire. He also, however, describes as rationalists all those who believed that reason and passion are independent human attributes, and that reason can, and should, master passion.

As for reason itself: he commonly equates it with reasonableness, although experience shows that this is a quality which the most powerful intellects often lack. In the end we do not know what he means by reason, or what the philosophes meant by it, or whether we should continue to call the eighteenth century, or even the second half of it, “the age of reason” or not. Those of his readers who, like the present reviewer, are not professional philosophers, will be unable to suppress the doubt that Professor Gay, not a professional philosopher himself, lacks the expertise necessary to handle this sort of question.

He plainly lacks the knowledge necessary to fulfill his intention of writing “the social history of the philosophes' philosophy.” The philosophes, he tells us, for example, stood for justice and freedom. All other reformers, however, have done so too. The only question is: with what sort of justice and what sort of freedom—justice for whom, freedom from what—were the philosophes concerned? It is impossible to answer these questions adequately without a closer acquaintance than Professor Gay displays with the kind of economies, governments, and social structures that prevailed in Christian Europe in the eighteenth century.

Professor Gay rightly points out that Montesquieu's De l'Esprit des Lois was the most influential book of the century (although he does not mention the reactionary purposes it was often made to serve). Its chapters devoted to law and justice lose much of their point if read out of relation to what the Germans call the Zersplitterung des Rechts, or atomization of law, and to the paternalistic conception of justice, which distinguished pre-industrial European societies. In these societies, every order or estate, every trade and profession, every province, every town, even every village community, had its own customs or laws, for the greater part administered by members of its own hierarchy, but supplemented by royal edicts which were issued as occasion required without regard to consistency, and enforced by royal officials with legally unlimited powers.

The result was a boundless confusion and arbitrariness which increasingly obstructed the tasks of administrators, merchants, and producers, and frustrated the desire of the growing number of the well-to-do for personal and material security. In these circumstances, Montesquieu's belief, which was shared by all the philosophes, that “the laws should rule,” and that for this purpose they should be clearly and precisely formulated, and interpreted by professional judges immune from government or other interference, was a revolutionary belief. It was one of the most significant and characteristic of the beliefs of the philosophes, who borrowed it in the first instance from Britain.

This belief was intimately connected with other seminal beliefs—with a belief that the individual has inalienable rights; with a belief in equality, which however variously understood was always held to include equality before the law; with a belief in liberty—a term which was also understood in many different senses but was always held to include the civil liberties, and was commonly held to include some degree of economic liberty in the sense of freedom from the control over labor, and over trade, production, and property in general, which had hitherto been shared between the government and a variety of semi-autonomous corporate bodies.

Each of these beliefs laid an axe to the roots of the corporative, hierarchical, paternalistically governed communities of eighteenth-century Europe, all of which lived to a greater or less extent in a subsistence economy, as distinct from a market economy which postulates an equal legal status for buyers and sellers. These communities erected inequality into a principle; they recognized only the liberties, or privileges, of groups; the idea of the liberty of the citizen, indeed the very conception of citizenship for which there was then no word in the German language, was unknown to them. Because Professor Gay is always more concerned with what people thought than with how they lived or were governed, the significance of the philosophes' ideas often escapes him. He is in consequence unable to make plain the nature and magnitude of their challenge to the existing social and political order.

He nevertheless exaggerates when he speaks of the philosophes' “pursuit of modernity.” Admittedly, as he himself continually emphasizes, the ideas of the philosophes cannot be expressed in a single formula. The philosophes were the founders of the social sciences. In their thinking can be found the seeds of all the social and political creeds, apart from the specifically fascist ones, that have flourished since their day. In this sense they may justly be described as modern. On the other hand those of their ideas which were widely enough accepted to get translated into practice at the end of the eighteenth century, or in the course of the nineteenth, are no longer modern. On the contrary, they provided the ideology for a way of life and government that is now being called in question, even though the thinking of the second half of the twentieth century, like that of the second half of the eighteenth century, inevitably appropriates some of the ideas of the past.

Professor Gay's dialectic does not afford much insight into these processes of change. It is indeed useless when it comes to accounting for the progressive disintegration of the pre-industrial European societies, of which the ideas of the philosophes were both a cause and a consequence.

John Raymond (review date 24 April 1970)

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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, vertical or horizontal—though he is too early in time, and too genially disguised a pessimist at heart, to be a total militant in Gay's approving sense of the word.

Montesquieu, for all his liberal outlook, was more concerned to know than to change the world, whereas it was the aim, the glory and the boast of his successors to do both. (Yet all agree that the ex-President of the Parlement of Bordeaux ‘was far more than an ideologist for the robe nobles’). The two principles of his system—‘the uniformity of human nature and the diversity produced by environment and culture’—resulted in a whole theory of cultural relativism based on climate and physiology. He notes that operas heard in England and Italy, ‘the same pieces with the same singers,’ produce quite different effects on the two nations; ‘institutions like slavery, or polygamy, or parliamentary government arise in response to climatic requirements and some of them, like polygamy or monogamy, should actually be “left to the climate”,’ the Englishman's love of liberty ‘is the fruit of the impatience produced by disagreeable cold weather.’

Montesquieu is the happiest of philosophe father-figures and his life and writings touch this most complicated of movements at almost all points. His part-veiled, part-open onslaught on superstition, bigotry, cruelty and privilege, his feast of reason and decency mixed with curiosity, won him the lip-service of enlightened despotism—though in his bibliography Gay indicates what a hardy cliché, outside German-speaking Europe, this phrase is. Similarly, in his passion for travellers and travel literature as the school of sociological comparison—outlandish, hence un-Christian and therefore congenial, Montesquieu is very much the pioneer philosophe and the often taken-in child of his age. In this connection Gay reminds us of how Johnson, introducing Father Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia, praised the Jesuit for his plain matter-of-factness, refusing to indulge his readers with romantic absurdities. Gay wishes that Montesquieu and Voltaire had been as tough-minded as Johnson—or, he might have added startlingly, as Rousseau, according to Lévi-Strauss, the founding father of the social sciences.

Thus Montesquieu is among the sunny first, as Rousseau is the lacerating and prophetic last, of the family faces, with Buffon, calm, majestic, unhurried and non-militant; Voltaire, the optimistic triumphalist, as the theologians would say, and Diderot, the most sympathetic and archetypal of the philosophes, along with many more, in between them. In this second and concluding volume of his interpretative history of ideas, Professor Gay insists once again that

I am committed to the proposition that we can write collective history, and need not be reduced to the biography of single minds … I have used the word ‘family’ to describe the philosophes, because that word seemed to me to do justice at once to the affinities and the divergencies among the philosophes. It is certainly of importance to record that the aesthetic ideas of Diderot and of Lessing were not the same; that Hume and Voltaire differed in their political philosophy; that the philosophes' ideas on progress, science, education and other matters ranged across a fairly wide spectrum … this is one reason … why my two volumes are so long.

On the whole, this idiosyncratic method works wonderfully well. The philosophes have their education, as it were, completed in Volume I (The Rise of Modern Paganism) and their two pasts, classical and Christian, assimilated and pitted against one another to achieve ‘the organised habit of criticism,’ the Enlightenment's definition of philosophy. Now, in Vol. II (The Science of Freedom), they set about their constructive purpose. If Gibbon's ‘all that men have been, all that genius has created, all that reason has weighed, all that labour has gathered up—all this is the business of criticism,’ is the motto of Volume I, Kant's ‘let us provide for our happiness, let us go into the garden and work,’ sums up the message of the second volume.

In the nature of his dialectical survey, Gay's book is not only of great length: he cannot avoid repeating himself, and his cross-references, both to Volume I and within the context of the present 720 pages, are almost Toynbeean in their compulsive to-ing and fro-ing—though Gay himself might prefer to offer as his model Diderot's L'Encyclopédie, where the astute use of cross-reference played such a wicked and effective part in philosophe propaganda. Occasionally he becomes grandiloquent: Gibbon's brief career in the Hampshire militia, though he himself remarked that ‘it has not been useless to the historian of the Roman empire,’ hardly deserves the ponderous comment that ‘there are many roads to reality.’

In general, Gay deploys his mass of erudition in masterly and masterful fashion. The reader has no sense of a crowding-in of busts but, rather, of each philosophe's thought emerging in its integral unity or fixity against a general background of consent, criticism, frenzied opposition or polite agreement to differ. I suspect that Diderot and Kant, in their vastly different ways, are Gay's favourites—the first for his multiple interests, omnivorous reading, versatility as a writer and the sheer adventurousness of his ideas, the latter for his abstract genius, his complete integrity and the anchored wholeness of his character—his personality all of a piece, as it comes out so strikingly in De Quincey's memorable essay. Gay writes brilliantly of Kant as ‘the Jefferson of aesthetics,’ explaining how

by assigning to art its own sphere and its own logic, and by liberating it from irrelevant concerns just as scientists of his day were liberating science, Kant carried a century-old revolution to its logical conclusions.

His penultimate chapter on the three phases of Rousseau's thinking—critical, constructive and confessional (‘it was necessary that one man should paint his own portrait to show us, in this manner, the natural man’)—is a perfect introduction to Jean-Jacques, the only philosophe (or propter-philosophe) to transcend the Enlightenment's greatest single limitation—its failure to provide for the canaille.

J. H. Plumb (review date 2 May 1970)

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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 history of philosophy or Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations treated as the foundation of economic theory. But the full context of their thought; its growth, its complexity, its social impact, its intimate relationship with the whole family of the philosophers, was quite another matter.

Recently, however, interest has revived in eighteenth century thought and thinkers—one has only to turn to the two magisterial bibliographical essays in Peter Gay's two-volume The Enlightenment: An Interpretation to realise the wealth of material upon which he has drawn. And yet this material is largely technical, professional and limited, dealing with some specified aspect of the work of Diderot or Voltaire or Rousseau. Very few scholars have attempted to survey the whole of the Enlightenment. What has, alas, been absent in this plethora of books and articles on the philosophes is a sense of relevance to modern times and modern thought. We have needed a synthesis that rose beyond particular studies, one that would confirm that the philosophes were the first to proclaim the potentialities and aspirations of modern man and to offer some of the sharpest criticisms ever made of tyranny, obscurantism and infamy.

Outrageous claims? I do not think so. Better still, neither does Peter Gay. His book will be a turning point, not in the studies of the Enlightenment (which are too complex for that) but in what is more valuable still: in the appreciation of what the thinkers of the eighteenth century had to offer, not only to their own dark and troubled world, but also to ours. If this should be so, he will have made a contribution to far more than historical study. He may be instrumental in helping a new recovery of nerve amongst modern humanists. It is overdue.

In his second volume, subtitled The Science of Freedom, Peter Gay describes the reactions of the family of philosophes to aesthetics, to science, to law, to politics and to education. He draws on a wide range of works, moving with practised skill from Ferguson, Smith or Dugald Stewart to Beccaria, Winckelmann or Kant. Few men in our generation have read so widely or so deeply in the huge output of the philosophic family as has Professor Gay. No book of prime importance slips through his net. He discusses them all. But he never assumes that his readers will be so familiar with any work that he need not describe its theme and intention. In less skilled hands this could easily have led to an endless précis of books, but Gay's summaries of content are always pertinent to the underlying themes of the Enlightenment.

In essentials, the philosophes wished to explain life in purely human terms. Even though they did not abolish God, they pushed him back into a first cause or a principle of benevolence implicit in the universe as they saw it. They judged law, institutions, political philosophy and education by the touchstone of human happiness. The quality of life, however, was not the standard by which most eighteenth century governments evaluated institutions. They accepted slavery, torture, child labour, rigorous censorship, brutal laws and brutal punishments. One needs to be reminded over and over again of what a prison to spirit, mind and body was much of eighteenth century life.

The philosophes, from Voltaire to Samuel Johnson, shared a sharp realisation of the infamous ways of men entrusted with power. Furthermore, they knew that many of these horrors arose out of a blind acceptance of the authority of the past. And so they battled and fought with every literary weapon in their efficient armoury, from works of learning to light-hearted poetry. The Encyclopaedia and Emile had the same intention: to criticise society in the hope of a reformation which would enhance human life, make it freer, happier and more secure.

And they believed, the majority of them, that this could be achieved by the application of intelligence to human problems—by developing a science of living. Aware of man's tendency to persecute, subject and exploit, they were nevertheless confident that life could only improve if the areas in which intelligence could have full play could be extended. These areas were primarily religion, politics, law. The Enlightenment was, as Professor Gay demonstrates so aptly, a time of renewed confidence in man's ability to understand his world and, perhaps, improve it by pushing back the boundaries of ignorance.

This book has a richness of intention as well as of texture. It re-establishes the grandeur, the nobility and the dedication of the philosophes. No one, in the future, will be able to dismiss them as superficial. As a panorama of eighteenth century intellectual life, Gay's book is outstanding. However, like all books which cover so wide a field, it has some shortcomings.

England's intellectual life is treated as if its developments were similar to those of Europe; whereas momentous changes were taking place in England that were ominous for the further development of the Enlightenment itself. From the 1730s one can discern in England a growth of and a respect, almost a hunger, for tradition: a movement away from Locke to Burke, an idealisation (at least among the upper classes and the literary establishment) of what has been rather than an argument for what might be.

The authoritative voices of the second half of the eighteenth century—the ones to which men of power listened with reverence—were Burke, Blackstone and Johnson: each, it is true, not untouched by the liberal instincts of the Enlightenment, but their attitude to political, social and religious problems was widely different from that of Voltaire and Diderot. Again, Hume is a far more equivocal figure than Gay would allow. His attitude to politics, to society, to history is often nearer to Johnson or Burke than Voltaire or the Encyclopaedists. Some distortion is caused by Professor Gay's thematic method, which necessarily obscures chronological development. Certainly it has clouded developments in England where the attitude of the philosophes was being adopted by a different social class: the technocrats, industrialists and dissenters. This was to happen more generally throughout Europe after 1780.

And I, for one, would have welcomed a close analysis of the relationship between social movements and the ideas of the philosophic family. Treating the period of roughly 1690–1780 as a unity must lead to some distortion. The absence of consideration of those social groups for whom the works of the philosophes bore the hallmark of freshly discovered truth is, to me, unfortunate in a work of such quality.

These criticisms are not made, however, to belittle one of the most impressive feats of scholarship of the 'sixties. For the work, as a whole, I have great admiration. It will be a long time before it is surpassed.

K. M. Baker (review date June 1970)

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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 social history of the philosophes' ideas, Gay fails to clarify their fundamental concern with the immediate issues of their time. Rewarding and suggestive as a pioneering attempt to integrate much of the new work of recent years, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation does not yet provide a satisfactory synthesis.

The subject of The Science of Freedom is “the social history of the philosophes' philosophy,” their environment and their program. Gay's thesis can be simply stated. Eighteenth-century Europe experienced improved conditions and a sense of power over its environment which Gay characterizes as the “recovery of nerve,” a term chosen in counterpoint to the “failure of nerve” that Gilbert Murray ascribed to the period of the earlier Roman empire and the spread of Christianity. The philosophes shared in this general recovery of nerve, while experiencing a parallel recovery of their own in consequence of their improved status as men of letters. For them, progress was a reality, a problem, a practical program, but rarely a theory. They celebrated the general experience of progress, but were often conscious that its benefits were not unambiguous; they accepted the reality of progress as the basis for a program of humanity, decency, toleration, and political reform, seldom falling into the trap of elevating imperfect reality into a theory of inevitable advance. As a result, “the Enlightenment and its world moved toward modernity together, with the philosophes, goading and guiding, a single but decisive step ahead.” Appropriately to this conception, then, the finale of Gay's book presents the program of the Enlightenment in practice in the American Revolution.

This is an attractive and in some ways an accurate picture, but it seems to prove either too much or too little. In its most general form, Gay's definition of the eighteenth-century “recovery of nerve”—“it was a century of decline in mysticism, of growing hope for life and trust in effort, of commitment to inquiry and criticism, of interest in social reform, of increasing secularism, and a growing willingness to take risks”—comprises a list of characteristics many of which might apply with as much justification to other centuries. Much depends upon the way in which eighteenth-century flesh is imparted to these rather abstract bones. Yet here Gay's analysis is often puzzling. At a time when theories of modernization are being minted like new pennies, his conception of modernity appears to remain (perhaps deliberately) vague. One result of this vagueness is that an example can be chosen only at the risk of placing far more emphasis on it than does Gay himself. At the risk of such distortion, we may take the example of industrial development. While nowhere defined explicitly in these terms, Gay's conception of modernity seems to have much to do with industrialization (“The factory, the minute division of labor, industrial discipline for workers and managers …” were “in the Enlightenment's sense of the word, philosophical”; “the philosophes … had not shed the mentality of a pre-industrial age: modernity was still struggling to be born”). Less and less applicable the further east one moves from England, this implied definition of modernity leads to some rather strange conclusions. “As society grew more complex—one of the prices exacted by modernity—class barriers grew steeper; mines and factories were voracious for the labor of children and the respectable classes resisted the aspirations of the lower orders. Many political radicals, therefore, concerned over the labor supply and the threatened decay of deference, began to display a streak of social conservatism. It is notorious that Voltaire objected to the education of laborers' children. …” This is an odd statement, since Gay knows as well as anyone that France remained overwhelmingly rural throughout this period; that the watchmaking establishment that Voltaire set up at Ferney for refugees from Geneva was hardly “voracious for the labor of children”; that the patriarch's most telling fears of popular education involved the threat of a peasantry that might wish to rise above its station. It could hardly be otherwise in a country in which, even in 1790, there were only nine hundred spinning jennies.

What, then, has happened? I would suggest that Gay has been carried away by his own argument. The implicit logic of The Science of Freedom seems to go something like this. The philosophes believed in modernity and admired England, which in the second half of the eighteenth century was moving toward industrialization. Industrial England must therefore be the model implied in their conception of modernity, even though few of them lived to see very much of this industrial development even in England, still less elsewhere. The effect of this implied argument runs exactly counter to Gay's conception of what the social history of ideas should be. Rather than integrating them more closely into their environment, it takes the philosophes out of their world (one step ahead) by measuring them against a model that does not yet fit; it underplays the structural ambiguities and social tensions actually existing in their respective environments, which it is surely the function of their ideas to mediate; it slips unwittingly into making them heralds of an unreal logic of development to the neglect of their fundamental concern with the more immediate issues of their time.

The same tendency reveals itself in Gay's discussion of French politics, the troubled soil from which sprang the most robust specimens of the philosophe and the most radical expressions of their creed. He presents the constitutional struggle in France as an unambiguous battle between two competing positions, royal and noble, modern and traditionalist, one “largely sound” and the other “fanciful … bad history and bad law … a transparent defense of privilege in the guise of constitutional principles.” With the exception of Montesquieu, Gay suggests, most of the philosophes adhered to some version of the royal thesis, attacking the pretensions of the parlements. Logically, then, they should have applauded Maupeou's attack upon the parlements in 1771. Voltaire did, Diderot did not; Voltaire was therefore consistent, Diderot inconsistent. But Diderot was inconsistent only if the situation was unambiguous, which it is only in Gay's analysis. Many of the philosophes feared Maupeou, distrusted his motives, and were uncertain of their response to his methods: as Diaz has shown in Filosofia e politica nel Settecento francese (1962), the philosophes became increasingly disoriented and disunited in the early 1770's over this and other issues. To see the suppression of the parlements as an attack on the principle of liberty, as Diderot did, was not necessarily to see these bodies as champions of liberty, which Diderot did not. Nor, judging by the public support the parlements were able to rally throughout the century, was their defense of privilege so transparently self-interested as Gay seems to suggest. Had it been, the French constitutional crisis would have been less protracted, the questions it raised concerning the nature of man and society less fundamental, and the philosophes' attempt to come to grips with the issues in their capacity as men of letters less creative. Paradoxically, Gay's rather one-sided clarification of the battle for France seems almost to make the philosophes redundant.

Yet the greater part of this book deals not with the philosophes' environment but with their program. Here the general outlines of Gay's thesis will be already familiar to readers of The Rise of Modern Paganism. The philosophes, he argues, pursued their program for modernity by “a dialectical struggle” in which they “first pitted classical thought against their Christian heritage that they might discard the burdens of religion, and then escaped their beloved ancients by appealing to the science of nature and of man.” The Rise of Modern Paganism dealt with the dialectical interplay between Christianity and classical paganism in the consciousness of the philosophes. Gay devotes the present volume to the resolution of this dialectic through science: to the philosophes' view of the natural sciences and their pioneering attempts to establish the sciences of man. Although he does not make the meaning of his subtitle entirely clear in the text, Gay's “science of freedom” would therefore seem to be twofold in its signification. It is first the natural science that won the philosophes, as moderns, their title to freedom from the tutelage of the ancients. It is secondly, and more substantively, their science of man: the insights and endeavors in psychology and esthetics, anthropology and sociology, history, economics, and political science through which they tried to articulate and implement their newfound freedom in thought and action.

From this perspective, Gay's chapter on science is critical for his interpretation. He first points to the process by which the elaboration of Newtonian science came gradually to “transform the contours of religious belief” by eliminating Newton's God. One corollary of this process was that science became increasingly specialized, mathematical, and abstract, while facts became separated from values. The result, Gay suggests, was a tension in the philosophes' thinking. On the one hand, they had “an enormous investment in science as an ally in their war against religion.” On the other, there were those among them who were disquieted by its specialization, uneasy with its abstract neutrality, unhappy with its separation of facts from values, and inclined to look to nature as a refuge from science. This tension “created some anxiety … but no panic.” If not resolved, it was at least alleviated by the philosophes' determination to rise from facts to values in the social world by the application of the scientific method to the study of man and society, an endeavor, Gay rightly insists, that lay at the very heart of their program.

Much of Gay's book, together with many of his most stimulating interpretations, is therefore devoted to the philosophes' enterprise in the social sciences, in which “they laid the foundations and wrote the classics.” This is a valuable emphasis, one long needed in general works on the Enlightenment, and one that requires much further exploration, especially in the light of Foucault's challenging contention in Les mots et les choses (1966) that there were—and, indeed, by the very nature of eighteenth-century thought, there could be—no truly human sciences in this period. By bringing together material from the various social sciences in the eighteenth century, The Science of Freedom will doubtless stimulate such exploration. Yet the real problem in this field—one on which a more systematic statement of Gay's views would have been particularly instructive—is to know exactly how to define social science in this context. Here there seem to be a number of possible approaches, each of which is touched upon but none of which is consistently followed in this book. One such approach is to consider those writings that focus consciously on the achievement of a social science, the authors of which aim explicitly at a theory that meets eighteenth-century definitions of science. In this case, we need a more precise analysis of what the eighteenth century understood by science than Gay has given us. Not all the philosophes, for example, held a view of science that necessarily implied that the science of society was less exact than the science of nature, as Gay suggests in his discussion of Beccaria. Another possible approach is to decide upon the characteristics of social science as we know it—objectivity, secularism, and the search for general laws would be some characteristics included under this rubric by Gay—and measure the eighteenth-century classics against them. In this case, as Foucault has warned, we run the risk of misrepresenting their real meaning for the structure of thought in their time. Is Montesquieu better understood, for example, as a theorist aiming at scientific objectivity who “no doubt unconsciously, smuggled ideology into his science,” or as an ideologist whose aim was not objectivity but the objectification of a particular view of French society and its preservation in that image? If he is, in one and the same book, “a historian, political scientist, social critic, and political theorist as well as sociologist,” must we not ask in what precise sense he was any of these? Yet another approach is to take those writings that seem to offer specific methodological or interpretative insights or that deal with the classic problems of the social sciences as we know them. In this latter case, we need a more systematic statement of the criteria for inclusion in this canon and a fuller comparison of the insights of the philosophes in this respect as compared with the important nonphilosophes (Vico, for example) whose work also ranks among the classics of social science.

This brings us to the final aim of The Science of Freedom. Gay's purpose here, as in his earlier volume, is to clarify the relationship between philosophes and nonphilosophes, between the culture of the Age of Enlightenment in its widest sense and that narrower Enlightenment of the extended family of philosophes which constitutes his true subject. The philosophes, he insists, enjoyed the same general experience of progress as did nonphilosophes, shared many of the same assumptions and concerns, and were supported by enlightened nonphilosophes in many of the campaigns for decency in which they served as “the perfectionist conscience of their day” (abolition of the slave trade being perhaps the clearest example, though this is complicated by the fact that many American philosophes found themselves in a quandary over the issue). Others in the eighteenth century were, to a greater or lesser extent in individual cases, secular in their thinking, disenchanted with religion, intimate in their acquaintance with the classics, impressed by the model of science. What, then, is the precise definition of the philosophe? Gay's answer would seem to be that it is not the possession of these characteristics, as such, but their fusion in a sense of identity. What Hume and Condorcet had in common, or Holbach and Lessing, was the consciousness of modernity in a premodern society, a sense of their identity as moderns which proved more potent than any individual differences in program, politics, or philosophy. The definition of a philosophe was a self-definition and the philosophic family an elective family. But would Lessing have identified himself as a philosophe in England, or Hume in France? Why indeed did some men of letters identify themselves in this way in some environments, while others did not? If we wish to understand the sense of identity that made the philosophes what they were and marked them off from other enlightened contemporaries, we need to know far more about their respective environments and social experiences than Gay has been able to tell us in a general interpretation.

As an attempt to show what made the philosophy of the Enlightenment “relevant and in fact inevitable,” this book has many weaknesses. Yet to suggest that Gay has not achieved what he set out to do is not to minimize the significance of what he has done, its value as a pioneering attempt at synthesis, its humanity, subtlety, and power to stimulate. In the years he has devoted to the study of the Enlightenment, he has (like the philosophes) goaded and guided us toward new and fruitful concerns. He has given us a work that is rich in the brilliantly sympathetic interpretations of men and books that constitute his great strength as a writer. He has underlined and explored the philosophes' debt to the classics, and he has stressed the importance of approaching them through the social history of ideas. He has, in short, produced a work that will challenge the scholar and stimulate the layman for many years to come.

Joseph R. Strayer (review date 20 June 1970)

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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 more freedom of spirit and sense of criticism than you and your patron will admit.


You have reversed our roles. Whatever is good in the twentieth century comes from the Enlightenment, Gay and I can agree on that. And among these good things are the books that my friends and I have inspired. Even in those remote and barbarous lands beyond the Ocean Becker, Palmer, Wade, Gay and a dozen others have honored us, and, at times, have understood us.


Then they are either cleverer, or more ingenuous than I! If I had been allowed to speak freely I could have written one of my better satires on the incomprehensible contradictions of the philosophes.


In that case you would have been less clever than Gay. He knows that we were often inconsistent, as men with lively minds must be, that we were sometimes superficial, as men who write too much are apt to be, and that we were occasionally foolish, as any mortal can be. But he saw that behind these weaknesses there was a steady and admirable purpose, to set man free to seek the truth, to show him how to use the critical method, to give man (as Gay says) “the courage to understand the world in which he lives and to reject half-solutions or deceptive compromises.” We were not silly optimists; we were not cold-blooded rationalists; we were passionate believers in the dignity of man and the power of the free human spirit.


No man is a hero to his valet, but most men are heroes to their biographers. Don't you think, Voltaire, that Gay let you explain away your faults a little too easily? You were not an optimist, this I grant, but you did believe that man could improve his lot immeasurably simply by discarding false beliefs. This I doubt. You were not a rationalist, but you did think that both the world of nature and the world of man were less complicated and more comprehensible than they really are. You did believe passionately in the dignity of man but you failed to understand the real threat to that dignity. Since Gay has made me into an art critic, I will let the reviewer make me into an economist and say—


An economist! Those men whose rationalism really was arrogant and stupid, those men who were wrong in my century and who have been wrong ever since! You, Erasmus, an economist!


Let me finish. The economists at least saw a problem that you did not see, even if they could not find an answer. You attacked weak or dying institutions, a corrupt church, a decadent monarchy, a nobility half-convinced of its own guilt. You attacked all tyrannies except the tyranny of capital. How does the destruction of superstition help a man bound to the machine? How does the critical method enable one to pay a grocer's bill? How can we “cultivate our gardens” if there are no gardens, literal or figurative, to cultivate?


I have answered all this already, Erasmus, as you would know if you had read the speeches Gay put in my mouth as carefully as you seem to have read the ones written for you; my tyrants were not toothless, and many of them survived me. To attack one tyrant is to encourage attacks on all forms of tyranny. Freedom is the most contagious idea in human history; it spreads from religion and politics to all other human activities. We could not do everything, Erasmus, but men were freer at the end of the eighteenth century than at its beginning. Most especially they were free to criticize. And freedom to criticize is the one safeguard against all forms of oppression. While it exists there is hope, even for the miserable men of the twentieth century. If it vanishes, the new barbarism, the new tyrannies, the new superstitions will create a world worse than any of us have ever known.

James Sloan Allen (review date 17 January 1977)

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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 rhetoric can affect interpretations of the past; Art and Act goes farther—opposing the skeptics, who doubt the objectivity of historical knowledge, and such dogmatists as the Marxists and psychohistorians, who reduce everything with certainty to economic interests or horrid family dramas and unconscious conflicts—to present “a general scheme for causal investigation in history.”

Gay's intent being theoretical, his subjects could have been drawn from any area of human activity—all people, he says, whether poets, politicians, intellectuals, or bankers, are touched by the same forces. As it happened, he chose “those who paint pictures and design houses rather than those who lie for money or kill for glory” because he was invited to address art students at New York's Cooper Union. Disclaiming the art historian's skills and purposes, Gay sifts the lives and creations of Edouard Manet, Walter Gropius and Piet Mondrian for clues to the origins of their work.

In outline, Gay's approach is simplicity itself. There are, he says, three principal causes in history: culture, craft and privacy. Manet, Gropius and Mondrian each exemplify a different hierarchy of their importance.

Manet's distinctive art—the bold presentation of color, unconventional organization of space and unabashed portrayal of ordinary life—sprang partly from the “independence and conformity” of his character and partly from the experimental techniques he learned. But Manet “found his values, and the principal impulses for his work, in the urban industrial society growing around him.” He therefore illustrates the “primacy of culture.”

Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus in Weimar Germany, and initiator of the International Style in architecture, shared the modernists' hopes for a perfected political and material world. He pursued those hopes through his own anti-authoritarian temperament. The architectural canons he developed, though, stressing unornamented linear design, open functional spaces and the efficient use of practical materials like steel and glass, arose from the “architectural problem” of constructing “liveable space.” Consequently, Gropius exemplifies the “imperatives of craft.”

The innovative abstractionist, Mondrian, was a solitary, uncertain craftsman and a mirror to his culture—reflecting its impersonal rationality and its spiritual longings—yet he turned to abstract art mainly because he feared natural things. Denying his own sensuality, he fled women, denounced nature (and loved New York City for its abstractness), rejected matter, and ultimately banished all semblance of objects from his paintings. He was a captive of the “claims of privacy.”

Gay's theoretical intent aside, it must be noted that the three essays presenting his interpretations (with many pictures) are striking tributes to the affirming spirit in modernism. And this sets Art and Act in contrast to the familiar version of that movement as an angry and bizarre “adversary” of 20th-century culture: Like the philosophes he has championed before, Gay's modernists celebrate their time rather than assail it.

As to the causal scheme, it is deceptively difficult to fault; Gay scents weakness better than most historians and has constructed his argument with built-in protections. The most important of these is a translation of objective causes into subjective ones. Culture, craft and privacy do not produce effects directly; instead, they work through the mediation of ideology, tradition and defenses, what Gay calls “worlds of perception.” These are essential, he argues, “since it is, after all, his perceptions that the actor takes as the reality on whose prompting he acts.” Hence Manet was not moved by culture itself but by his ideological perception of it, Gropius not by craft but by his traditional obligation to it, Mondrian not by his desires but by his defenses against them.

This adroit step from the objective to the subjective gives Gay two advantages. First, it opens the idea of cause to the Freudian doctrine of “overdetermination,” which states that perceptions and motives, and by extension acts and events, have “more causes than they need.” With this “valuable word,” as Gay dubs it, the historian can justly claim that an opposing reading merely supplements his own, and does not refute it: Causes in history always act together and in abundance.

Second, because subjectivity is a murky deep, Gay is not obligated to find every link in the causal chain that passes through it. He can substantiate his argument by showing how culture, craft and privacy are causes in general.

Both of these advantages, however, mask a risk in Gay's gambit—what is too easily proved may not be proved at all. Consider culture. Gay includes within it the whole of public life: “social status, economic oscillations, administrative policies, political leadership, religious sentiments,” plus tastes, manners, ideas, and so on. To say a person's perceptions of such things cause his actions is to say little, especially if, as with Manet, the depiction of “culture” in art is what wants explaining. A more demanding interpretation would venture beyond Manet's acceptance of modernity as a primary influence to disclose the particular pressures of class, status, economics, and politics that affected him. Gay will convert no Marxists on this point.

Craft is an equally inclusive cause, incorporating the large “domain of work and habit.” And here, too, Gay's analysis stops just where the difficult problems appear. The demands of craft consist less in, say, Gropius' view of the “architect's obligation … to make buildings that one could live in,” than in the mechanisms of professional recruitment, training, discipline, rewards, pressures, and the indoctrination of architectural values—the kinds of influences that Robert K. Merton and Thomas Kuhn, for example, have studied in the sociology of science.

Privacy is also a capacious bag, containing all of family life, emotions, conscious hopes, and unconscious impulses. The psycho-historian will not be convinced that an actual cause has been found in Mondrian's (or anyone else's) twisted perceptions of himself; he will want the roots of those perceptions—drives, resistances, reinforcements, etc.—laid bare amid the circumstances that energized them. As Lloyd deMause, editor of the Journal of Psychohistory, recently wrote, “Any scientific description of the cause of adult historical events must first of all include the formation of the historical personalities involved, including their formation during childhood.” Gay discounts such a quest for “ultimate explanations” as blind to the complexity of psychological causation. Yet his own psychology, in expelling determinism, is inclined toward impressionism.

At a distance, then, Gay's portraits of his artists may seem true to life; but examined closely they blur, for the causes he presents are too large, indistinct and tangled. Indeed, he has not so much portrayed the actuality of cause in history as its plausibility. Still, if Art and Act is not the science of history the dogmatists demand, neither is it a mere dabbling in the art of history. Gay has done perhaps as much as is possible to show how erudition, trained intellect and controlled intuition can refine the discipline and at least direct it toward objective knowledge.

Richard Wollheim (review date October 1977)

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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 pretensions and confine itself to the domain of the expressive? And if the historian is prudent enough to see that he is not compelled to accept one of these options in an unqualified fashion as offering the whole truth, nevertheless he may continue to feel uneasy until he can assign to each its relative share of the truth. How far is the best possible history—for, of course, at this point in his reflections the historian is not concerned with the imperfections of the history, say, of his own day, if he can justifiably look upon these imperfections as eliminable, and not just eliminable in favor of future imperfections—the product of the objective, and how far does it simply record the subjective? To any such hypothetical process of self-investigation Gay contributes the helpful and surely altogether correct suggestion that a criterion of the objective is causal explanation. Good causal explanation is a sufficient if not a necessary condition of objectivity, and we might think of this—though I am not quite certain if Gay's mind proceeds along exactly these lines—in two different though intimately related ways. In conceding goodness to a causal explanation, we confer objectivity upon everything that the explanation presupposes, and, insofar as goodness is conceded to it, a causal explanation confers objectivity upon everything that it explains.

However, it is one thing to talk of causation in history and of all the benefits that will surely follow from exploiting it, and quite another thing to find it, and perhaps the best-known fact in the philosophy of history is that, despite all the expenditure of effort in prospecting for it, cause has never been found in anything like economical quantities. There are, of course, a number of things that this might show, and Gay is right to insist that, prima facie at any rate, it reflects as much on the methods of exploration as on the terrain, as much on historiography as on the past itself. Again, there are various ways of taking this thought, and Gay's preferred way is to draw attention to the totally unrealistic standards that have been employed by historians for establishing the presence of cause. More specifically, historians have been unprepared to accept the phenomenon of over-determination—something they have revealed in their refusal to believe that they have found the causation of an event so long as they can find more than one factor to which the event in question can putatively be causally attributed. Accordingly, one of the ultimate aims that Gay has set himself in Art and Act is to try to get his fellow historians to accept the phenomenon of over-determination, and this ultimate aim in turn gives rise to an intermediate aim, designed to take account of certain entrenched resistances, which is to reduce over-determination to what he calls a “measure of order.” Gay makes it clear that one of the reasons why he accepted the invitation from Cooper Union, the distinguished New York art school, to deliver the lectures out of which this book sprang, was the sense that the art-historical material with which he would be dealing, had, in addition to its intrinsic appeal to him, a peculiar suitability as a medium for realizing the shorter-term and probably also the longer-term aim.

Before seeing how this project forms itself, let me insert a parenthetical observation. Gay suggests that, insofar as historians themselves are at fault in failing to generate causal explanations, this is because they overlook over-determination. However, one could allow this failure and also suspect that this is not the only way in which historians have been at fault, and it is a rather surprising feature about Art and Act that nowhere in it is there any reference to a far more obvious way in which historians may set exaggeratedly high standards for causation to satisfy. I am thinking of the common equation of the cause of an event with its sufficient condition—rather than with, say, some necessary condition of that sufficient condition, which is surely a more life-like view of the matter.

To return, then, to Gay's attempt to introduce a measure of order into over-determination. The method he employs is to classify historical causes along two dimensions. The first dimension is the temporal dimension, and it produces a classification into long-range causes, short-range causes, and releasers. Nowhere in the present book does Gay elucidate this classification; and, if strictly from the point of view of the present book that is not all that important since the classification is not appreciably part of its methodology, the absence of such an elucidation is to be regretted. For it requires only a brief reflection to realize that the distinctions that Gay makes are open to ambiguity. By “long-range causes” does Gay mean temporally distant causes which are causes of the short-range or temporally near causes which in turn cause the releasers or temporally adjacent causes—or does he mean something quite different, that is to say, enduring or even underlying causes? To put it another way: is the distance of a cause from its effect a function of how long ago it ceased to operate, of how long ago it began to operate, or of how much mediates the two? Gay's few words in the text of his book, his diagram of “the hourglass of time,” and a footnote reference that he makes to Freud's early etiological schema, all appear to point, as far as this question is concerned, in different directions. The second dimension along which Gay classifies historical causes is that of their nature, and here we approach something fundamental to the methodology of Art and Act. Causes in history, according to Gay, belong to the world of culture, or to the world of craft, or to the world of privacy.

But this second dimension along which historical causes are classified has a complexity, and this complexity is immediately urged on us. A useful way of approaching this complexity is through an insight, now much with us, and which has been central to the critique of behaviorism. I shall call this insight the Intensionality thesis.2 It is to the effect that, when we try to explain causally human action or psychological states in general, we have to cite not just states of affairs as such but states of affairs as these are subsumed under the agent's or the subject's schemata or concepts. We have to do this because, contrary to the assumptions of classical behaviorism, stimulus-equivalence is not insured by nor does it even require invariance of physical or sensory property; rather it requires and is only insured by the sameness of interpretation, and, for reasons that go deep into cognitive development, stimuli that diverge considerably both in physical and in sensory character may be similarly interpreted by agents and subjects, just as stimuli that do not diverge physically or sensibly may be differently interpreted. Hence, even if, as seems convincing, we take a purely extensional view of cause itself so that, if a is the cause of b, it is the cause of b under every true description of it,3 we should, nevertheless, when we come to the formulation of causal laws, or when we come to causal explanation, always make reference, in the laws, in the explanation, to the schemata or concepts under which the cause was subsumed by the agent or subject whose action or inner state is at stake.

So far as I know there has been little attempt of recent years to accommodate the Intensionality thesis within the philosophy of history, and an initially attractive way of making sense of the complexity that Gay introduces into his classification of causes according to their nature, or along the second dimension, would be to think that this is just what he is attempting. For the complexity consists in pairing off each of the three worlds that Gay introduced in classifying causes with a counterpart world. Counterpart to the world of culture is the world of ideology, counterpart to the world of craft is the world of tradition, and counterpart to the world of privacy is the world of defenses. In each pair the first world is called a world of reality, its counterpart is called a world of perception, and the distinction between the two is to be understood in some such way as this: the counterpart world is the real world as perceived by its inhabitants, where this perception may be veridical but may also be distorted or illusory. What more natural way could there be of taking this complexity than as a move made in deference to the Intensionality thesis?

There are, however, two reasons for doubting that this is correct, but in providing reason for doubting this interpretation they unfortunately suggest no clear alternative. The first reason is that, if we take Gay's terminology at anything like its face value and do not assume any undue eccentricity in the description of the various worlds, then it certainly looks as though in each case the counterpart worlds are related to one another in far more complex ways than are called for by the Intensionality thesis. For that thesis requires that the worlds of perception are the worlds of reality schematized. But to take an obvious example, on no ordinary understanding of that term is tradition to be equated with and just with the way in which the phenomena of craft in a society are contemporaneously perceived or misperceived. The second reason why the complexity introduced by Gay into his classification of causes by their nature seems not simply an attempt to do justice to the Intensionality thesis is that Gay insists that historical causes come from both sets of worlds. They come, that is, both from the worlds of reality and from the worlds of perception, where this is taken to indicate two different sources of origin and not two different ways—one of which is ultimately superior—of describing the same source. Some historical causes belong to the worlds of reality and others belong to the worlds of perception, and this must involve a different view of the proper explanation of human agency from anything involved in the Intensionality thesis: though precisely what view is now problematic.

At this point Gay relates the whole issue to the question of psycho-history. “All history,” he writes in his Introduction, “must be in significant measure psycho-history.” Now, straight-off this would seem to involve two claims: first, the claim that all causes in history belong to some world of perception, and, second, some further claim to some such effect as that the schemata or concepts that are now seen invariably to mediate historical causation are susceptible to a certain kind of genetic explanation involving psychodynamics. Admittedly in Gay's case, some part of this second claim would be attenuated by his commitment to ego-psychology. For by its invocation of “the conflict-free ego sphere,” in Hartmann's phrase, psychohistory can to some unspecified degree dispense with the sort of explanation of how the historical actor perceives the world that to many (including the present reviewer) would seem characteristically psychoanalytic, and yet continue to make good its claim to be psychohistory. But, however that may be, it is hard to see how psychohistory can make do without the first claim.

Everything said so far has been preparatory to the task that at the beginning of this review I said was essential to any assessment of Art and Act: that is, an understanding of its subtitle, “On Causes in History: Manet, Gropius, Mondrian.” And the truth is that it turns out to have been an inadequate preparation. For the expectations aroused by a reading of this review, which in turn corresponds reasonably closely to the ideas expounded in the book's Introduction, would surely be that Manet, Gropius, Mondrian will be successively treated as all examples of one thing: the way in which causes deriving from the three different worlds—and let us, for the moment at any rate, set to one side the complexities attributable to the postulation of counterpart worlds—collude to over-determine historical reality. But this is not how things turn out. On the contrary, Gay takes each of the three artists as an example of something quite different. He takes each as an example of the way in which causal influence from one of these three worlds—in other words, a different world in each case—may be principal or dominant. Each artist represents for Gay what he calls “a different causal hierarchy.” So Manet instantiates “the primacy of culture,” Gropius “the imperatives of craft,” and Mondrian “the claims of privacy.”

Two questions immediately present themselves to the reader. What is it that evidentially determines a particular causal hierarchy? And how does one causal hierarchy get assigned to a particular artist? Self-evidently the two questions are related, and that Gay nowhere in this book answers either question directly or explicitly may be sound strategy. For it may very well be his opinion that the issue is in both cases pragmatic, and that the only justification for constructing a causal history in one form rather than another and then attributing it to a given artist is that it leads us to the fullest understanding of his work: it just sates our curiosity. Nor would it necessarily be correct at this stage to retort that this lands us in the crassest subjectivism. For everything now depends on what account is forthcoming of how understanding is achieved. If no criteria are produced, and sated curiosity is treated as a brute state, the charge of subjectivism would stick. But if an account is produced in which understanding and the termination of curiosity are successfully integrated with our other epistemic attitudes, then, though the justification for preferring an explanation that exemplifies one causal hierarchy rather than another would still be pragmatic, the pragmatism involved would be shorn of that unacceptable irrationalism that so often accompanies it.

Nevertheless, there is an objection to this way of thinking about causal hierarchies and of which kind of hierarchy is appropriate when. It is this: although Gay is undoubtedly right in maintaining that all explanation of works of art is causal, it is far from clear that understanding a work of art is or is exclusively a matter of knowing its cause. Yet if it is not the case that with art, as with nature, understanding must come through explanation, then surely it is an arbitrary or unwarranted constraint upon explanation that it should enhance to the highest degree possible our understanding of the phenomenon it explains.

An alternative to thinking that our understanding of a work of art is necessarily and exclusively causal understanding is that what is involved is something closer to semantic interpretation. It would be nice to be able to cite material from the three essays that constitute the central text of Art and Act that would bear crucially on this issue, but, of course, in the existing state of the social sciences, to call a particular explanatory nexus causal is largely promissory and therefore the explanations that Gay offers must be indeterminate between rival accounts of their overall character. However, there is one section of the rich material that this book purveys which perhaps can be made to bear more conclusively upon the issue. What I am thinking of are those passages where Gay attempts to come to grips with a problem that art historians understandably and to their ultimate cost tend to evade. We have certain unambiguous writings by an artist about the role or function of art. We have autograph works by the artist from the same period. Are we to regard the works as exemplifying the writings—or are the writings better regarded as the outcome of a concurrent but comparatively independent process? The question, it must be appreciated, is not straightforwardly an issue of evaluation, though evaluation probably comes into it. We must, in other words, be ready to admit that an artist in his work could exemplify, say, high ideals about art and yet do so quite wretchedly; the work would fall lamentably short of those standards which nevertheless it seeks to realize. Nor, of course, would further avowals from the artist do anything but multiply the problem. Surely what we have to do is something like this: we have first to get some preliminary understanding of the work in order to see whether it matches the writings; and, if the match is positive, then we can cite the writings in order to deepen our understanding of the work. And, if the second stage of this process involves causal understanding, the first stage, I submit, does not—it involves semantic understanding. Gay, for instance, thinks that Couture's work does not match those writings of his in which he poetically commended modern subjects, and he thinks that Gropius's work (or some of it) matches those writings of his in which he extols the great tradition of architecture. Now this must be because of the way in which he reads Couture or Gropius; and I, who concur with Gay in the first of these judgments and emphatically dissent from the second, do so on the basis of my readings of these artists.

To these remarks Gay might justifiably reply that it is no accident that I have taken my examples from the first and the second of his two essays, not from the third. For, he might go on, my thesis that understanding a work of art transcends causal explanation has plausibility only if we consider explanation that cites external causes—for instance, causes coming from the worlds of culture or craft. If, however, we consider causal explanation that cites internal causes—causes, that is, coming from the world of privacy—then it is not so obvious that understanding does transcend explanation, or that psychological explanation does not give us the kind of interpretation that we seek. To which I might say, with some reservations, Quite so. But then this goes to show that we do not require in our consideration of causes of history three possible patterns of explanation corresponding to the three different causal hierarchies. We need only one: that which exemplifies as principal the claims of privacy. But, of course, this is not a retort to Gay: it is a retort only to a Gay whom I have manipulated into saying what I find it convenient for him to say. Meanwhile the debate to which he has contributed so forcefully must continue.

The form that this review has taken has led me—quite perversely, one might think, but by this stage seemingly irreversibly—to ignore the sumptuous offering of art-historical material that he purveys. Let me then, with ill-mannered brevity, express my admiration for much of what he says about Manet, my wonder at his continuing admiration for mainstream modern architecture, and my suspicion that the elegant, sanitary canvases of Mondrian evince defenses that are directed as powerfully against aggression as against sexuality.


  1. Peter Gay, Style in History (New York, 1972).

  2. Cf. Charles Taylor, The Explanation of Behaviour (London, 1964); Jerry A. Fodor, Psychological Explanation (New York, 1968); J. A. Fodor, T. G. Bever, M. F. Garrett, The Psychology of Language (New York, 1974), Introduction.

  3. Donald Davidson, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes,” Journal of Philosophy 73 (1963), 685–700.

George L. Mosse (review date 26 November 1977)

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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 ecumenical and allowed for the integration of Jewish intellectuals who enlarged the permissible. This, in brief, is the thesis of the book. Unlike Peter Gay's Weimar Culture, these essays deny that outsiders wanted to be insiders because, in fact, they were insiders already. Alienated radicals had better look elsewhere.

Peter Gay seeks to “refine distinctions,” as he puts it, to capture the wide variety of human attitudes without reducing them to misleading common denominators. For example, the final essays in the book about Brahms and the Vienna music critic, Hanslick, emphasize that Modernism was not simply a polarity of alienated intellectuals opposed to complacent bourgeois. Brahms was both of these and more besides. Here history is refined through psychology: the complex human mind transcends general concepts like Modernism or anti-Semitism without abolishing them. Anti-Semitism becomes a kaleidoscope of contradictory attitudes instead of shared assumptions and directions. As a result it is not an opaque sheet of glass keeping the stranger out, but pieces of shattered glass among which Jews could play the “German game,” as Peter Gay calls it. Here psychology has served to miniaturize history. Freud is said to have lived more in his own mind than in Vienna, but inasmuch as he did live in Vienna, he was part of a middle-class world which had no single restrictive set of rules but particular attitudes that varied from city to city. Just so, in Berlin, the painter Max Liebermann was an avant-garde artist even while rooted in German culture and adopting the life style of the haute bourgeoisie. These are merely two examples of the many which Peter Gay cites. His essays are filled with brilliant vignettes of German-Jewish intellectuals, all part and parcel of German culture, who formed no special Jewish avant-garde or elite.

This is a radical denial of Gershon Scholem's thesis that no German-Jewish dialogue ever took place. For Scholem the individual dialogues which did take place between Germans and Jews never assumed suprapersonal significance, but Peter Gay has to prove his thesis through such individual examples. As a result his choices are often open to question. No one would deny that he is correct about Freud and Liebermann, as well as about many other Jewish intellectuals who fill the pages of his book. It is certainly convincing when Gay argues that the so-called “Jewish” poetess, Else Lasker-Schüler, was merely revitalizing a German poetic diction in the company of other German poets. That she used the Old Testament to do so while a non-Jew, like Gottfried Benn, went to the morgue for his imagery is irrelevant.

That German Jews considered themselves German needs no proof. But the problem of what remained Jewish about such Jews cannot be answered by attacking the myth of their alienation or avant-garde leadership. It turns out to be more complicated than that. Peter Gay himself stresses the role played by young Jews in rediscovering Kant. Is it then a mere coincidence that it was so largely Jewish socialist intellectuals who liked Kant as well, and perhaps better than, Marx? The names of Gustav Landauer, Kurt Eisner, or Ernst Toller, do not feature here, though their names appear more frequently as we pass into the period of the Great War and Weimar Republic. But generally intellectuals who were both avant-garde artists and political radicals are excluded. Perhaps it is precisely within the Marxist revival of the 20th century rather than among Modernists, that the Jewish component of German culture can be found and isolated.

Peter Gay rightly distinguishes between myth and reality. No doubt the particular intellectuals he discusses so well run counter to the myth of German-Jewish intellectuals. Yet, except indirectly in the essay on Jewish self-hate which deals with Hermann Levi, Richard Wagner's favorite conductor, Jewishness is never clearly defined. Levi, a cultivated man with a wide reputation constantly debased himself as a Jew before Richard and Cosima Wagner. The Wagners were articulate racists who liked to surround themselves with talented Jews whom they could shame and tyrannize. Gay once more resorts to psychology for an explanation of such self-hate: Levi identified with the aggressor. However, he is quick to add that such flagellation was part of a general tragedy because it inhibited critical thought. Yet was it not part of a still more general tragedy in revealing the fragile nature of a seemingly successful Jewish integration? When even the voluntary exile Thomas Mann could, for one moment, give hesitant, conditional and qualified assent to the Nazi revolt against all that was Jewish, as his newly published secret diaries reveal?

Empathy with individuals of a bygone age cannot exclude consideration of the past and the future. All Peter Gay says about his examples rings true, and yet the Jewish stereotype persisted, German culture tended to become even more exclusive. The First World War did happen, and so did the disorientation of the post-war world. Freud's thought was immediately affected: to many it seemed to change direction after the war. The social and political scene does count for something; it interacts with the individual's mind. The Wilhelmian world was, after all, the prelude to wars and revolutions: historians can enjoy the sweet melody while it lasts but they must also hear the rumblings beneath it. Fascinating vignettes of past intellectuals can illuminate the time in which they lived, but they alone cannot explain why anti-Semitism, which Peter Gay calls a disease, turned out to be cancer.

Robert Alter (essay date March 1978)

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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. It was here that the Jewish entry into modern European culture began, rapidly releasing, as has often been observed, an unprecedented torrent of creative energies, so that German and Austro-Hungarian Jews, within a generation or two of emergence from the ghetto or shtetl, became leading figures in the arts, and in intellectual and economic life, a few of them actually helping to transform prevalent conceptions of human nature and society. In many instances, of course, from Heine and Felix Mendelssohn to Marx and Georg Simmel, these signal contributions were made by Jews who had themselves converted to Christianity or who were the children of converts, and the powerful impulse to self-effacement in the most literal sense is surely one of the more dismaying themes of the German-Jewish story.

But our consciousness of this extraordinary movement outward into the expanses of the surrounding culture should not lead us to forget that the Germanic realm was also the seedbed for developments of supreme intrinsic importance to the survival of the Jewish people and the reshaping of its own culture. To be sure, these developments themselves had their “assimilatory” motives, but one could hardly refashion Jewish existence without emulating available models, and it was through such emulation that Jews acquired many of the intellectual and political tools for coping with a radically new historical predicament.

The revival of Hebrew as a secular literary language, which would eventually contribute to the emergence of a modern Jewish nationalism anchored in the Jewish past, began in 18th-century Koenigsberg and Berlin. (Over a century later, when the Hebraist movement had almost entirely migrated to Eastern Europe, its German background was still so keenly felt that proponents of the Hebrew Enlightenment were derisively referred to as “Berliners” by the defenders of tradition.) The study of Judaism as a rigorous academic discipline, the Wissenschaft des Judentums, to which we ultimately owe much of our historical self-understanding, began in 19th-century Germany, as did—at least at first, with somewhat less admirable results—the modern efforts to reform Jewish religion. By the end of the century, political Zionism was brought into being through the proddings of an Austro-Hungarian Jew working out of Vienna.

Whether we choose to focus on the Freuds and Wittgensteins or on the Graetzes and Herzls that Germanic Jewry produced, our vision of that whole richly ambiguous episode in history is bound to be enormously complicated, perhaps obfuscated, by the awareness that the systematic program for the extirpation of the Jewish people was conceived on German soil, shaped out of the authentic materials of 19th-century German ideologies and age-old German popular feeling. The danger of distorting the variegated facts of Wilhelminian Germany and late Hapsburg Austria by seeing them through the flames of the Nazi crematoria is a paramount concern of Peter Gay in his new book of essays, Freud, Jews, and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture. Gay is that rare scholar who combines immense learning with grace and lucidity, and there is something bracing about the way he reexamines with such poised reasonableness the most deeply entrenched views about the nature of modernism, the role Jews have played in it, and the relation of Jews to recent German culture. His discussions of Freud's Vienna, the Berlin-Jewish spirit, the encounter of Jews with German modernism, provide valuable correctives to many prevalent simplifications, but at least some of his lucidity, I shall argue, is achieved by neglecting features of his subject that might tend to undermine his firm conception of it.

It is common to imagine the modernist stance as characteristically marginal, disaffected, oppositional to the dominant bourgeois culture, and to see a crucial congruence between this general adversary posture of modernism and the predicament of the Europeanized Jew, who had mastered all the nuanced idioms of Gentile society and yet was condemned to remain at least partly an outsider to it. Gay questions these views on several grounds. First, he makes the simple, convincing observation that in strictly numerical terms Jews were by no means so preponderant in the various modernist avant-gardes as they are usually thought to have been. It is only a mystique of the alienated Jewish intellectual—George Steiner's lyric celebrations of that figure come to mind—that could have attributed such cultural centrality to the marginal Jew, and Gay's demystification of this notion is most welcome.

With regard to modernism itself and the position of German Jews after the so-called Emancipation, Gay stresses, against prevalent conceptions, a strong theme of conformism in both cases. That is, he sees far more frequent instances than one generally allows in which the descendants of the ghetto dwellers succeeded in being simply Germans like everyone else, socially, culturally, and even psychologically. And in the case of modernism, he argues, with tact and deference, against observers like Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe who have defined modernism as primarily an adversary phenomenon, the anguished expression of the artist as pariah. Gay reminds us that in fact one also encounters powerfully celebratory, exuberant, life-affirming elements in the spectrum of modernist expression, and that many of the modernist masters maintained an unshaken allegiance to the social and moral values of the bourgeoisie from which they derived.

The argument about modernism is, I think, the more firmly grounded of Gay's two revisionist contentions. He of course does not deny that modernism in some phases has been destructively rebellious, impelled by a kind of spirituality of radical disgust, but he has a fine awareness of how we become the captive of our own forceful formulations of historical phenomena and thus fail to see their variety and contradictions.

He makes a telling case for the presence of social conservatism among the makers of revolutionary modernism in his admirable essay on Freud. Freud may have irrevocably changed the way we think about man, but he remained a loyal member of the bourgeoisie, not only in his personal habits but also in some of his guiding intellectual principles. His commitment to the positivist assumptions of 19th-century science and his demonstration, as Gay puts it, “that it was more than possible, it was necessary, to be rational about irrationality,” set him more on the side of the gray-bearded defenders of the established order than of the anarchic adolescent rebels like Rimbaud and Jarry. And Freud, Gay argues, is a particularly striking case, but not at all a special one: “To be, as Freud was, a thoroughgoing revolutionary and a thoroughgoing bourgeois was by no means a paradox, an anomaly, or even a rarity.”

My one reservation about Gay's correction of the popular notion of the modernist enterprise is that his own picture of modernism tends to be a little blurry around the edges. There is a good deal of cogency in the accepted view of a modernist tradition that has its origins in the middle of the 19th century, most plausibly with Baudelaire, that receives a major impetus in the philosophy of Nietzsche, and that in the early years of the 20th century achieves a full sunburst of innovative expression in figures like Freud, Conrad, Joyce, Proust, Rilke, Yeats, Kafka. At times I think Gay makes his refutation of the view of Trilling and others a little too easy by writing as though virtually any important manifestation of artistic or intellectual life in the past 150 years could be called modernist. The essay here on Brahms, for example, though intelligent and informative in itself, tends to weaken the general argument by leading us to wonder what precisely modernism might be if it is to include Brahms. Trilling clearly had no one even remotely like Brahms in mind when he began Beyond Culture by speaking of a “bitter line of hostility to civilization” that runs through modernism.

In any case, it might be more helpful to shift the grounds of discussion altogether from the hostility or friendliness of the modernists to civilization—Gay is surely right that one finds both—to the question of the modernists' relation to the heritage of the past, the modernist sense of history. Gay makes some beautiful observations on Freud's fascination with archeology, though he does not generalize from these about the modernist imagination of the past, as he might well have done. One of Hugh Kenner's most suggestive perceptions about modernism in The Pound Era is that its preoccupation with actual and literary archeology signals a new relation to the past in which the fragmented physical vestiges of the past interpenetrate the present. Modernism, I would add, evinces this new fascination with the recovery of the immediacy of the archaic past at the same time that it rejects or is estranged from the past as a continuous tradition embodying normative values.

The notion of being cut off from a normative past, a condition which would make modernism a real historical watershed, is the central thesis of the Rumanian scholar, Matei Calinescu, in his useful (if somewhat repetitious) new book, Faces of Modernity: Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch.2 Modernism, as Calinescu defines it through a careful study of its intellectual antecedents beginning in the Renaissance, represents “a major cultural shift from a time-honored aesthetics of permanence, based on a belief in an unchanging and transcendent ideal of beauty, to an aesthetics of change and novelty.” Within this framework, he makes a basic distinction between two opposed ideas of modernity, the bourgeois notion, which is grounded in technology, pragmatic reason, a cult of progress, a concern with measurable time as a commodity, and the artistic notion, which is anarchic and apocalyptic, in conscious rebellion against the bourgeois version of modernity. Though the two modes of modernity may not have always been so distinct from one another as Calinescu proposes, one suspects that Peter Gay at some points in his argument blends the two more than the historical facts will allow. Be that as it may, if the defining condition of modernism is the withering of the authority of the past, it is quite conceivable that certain newly acculturated Jews, severed from their own cultural past but not quite at home with the European past, or “at home” with it perhaps to excess through a self-conscious effort of will, might have been in a specially advantaged position to articulate the radical new intellectual assumptions and aesthetic modes of modernism.

What I think leads to the most debatable consequences in Gay's portrayal of the German-Jewish experience is precisely his tendency to play down the double tension in which so many of these Jews lived, between the lingering, ambiguous claims of their own past, on the one hand, and the “emphatic distance,” on the other hand, with which they were generally encountered by Germans. This leads him repeatedly to insist that there was nothing at all distinctively Jewish about the cultural activity of German Jews, and to assume that the much discussed German-Jewish symbiosis was a reality, not an illusion. Both these claims require scrutiny.

Gay's attachment to the idea of symbiosis is particularly perplexing because it runs counter to some of the historical materials he himself discusses so well. This seeming contradiction may be the consequence of a tightrope act of historical imagination he tries to perform. Again and again, setting aside the hindsight of the Holocaust, he sympathetically identifies with the viewpoint of enthusiastically Germanizing Jews in the pre-Nazi era, but in so doing, he comes perilously close to accepting their consciously held view as a valid account of the historical reality in which they were enmeshed. He observes, for example, of the refugees from Nazism:

For most German Jews, wherever their exile, however much they had undergone, the Jewish-German symbiosis was not a mirage that had finally lifted but a reality that had been wantonly destroyed. They postulated two Germanies, one civilized and the other barbarian; Hitler's seizure of power had placed the latter in control, without therefore defining the former out of existence.

This is, of course, a report of the mentality of the refugees, not necessarily of the author's view, though the larger context reflects considerable readiness on his part to accept their outlook. Indeed, even the terms he chooses in these sentences tend to tip his hand: it is questionable whether “most” German Jews, rather than many of them, responded in this way, though one assumes this must have been the attitude of Gay's own family; the Jews who managed to escape the genocidal attentions of their German hosts are designated exiles, not refugees; and, most surprisingly, Hitler, who was democratically elected by the German people, is said to have seized power. Having identified to this extent with the Jewish devotees of Germanism, Gay can make confident assertions such as the following (it occurs two pages after the passage just quoted) about the experience of Jews in Wilhelminian Germany: “The slights that many German Jews experienced … carried far less weight than the German culture in which most of them moved as their element.” That is clearly how many Jews of the period, out of an emotional commitment to assimilation, chose to interpret their own condition of wavering distance from the Germans around them, but the strong implication of one of Gay's most instructive essays here, “Hermann Levi: A Study in Service and Self-Hatred,” is that such interpretations were ultimately painful exercises in self-delusion.

Hermann Levi was Wagner's Jewish conductor. The characterological ramifications of that startling contradiction are lucidly traced by Gay in his analysis of the German chauvinism, the auto-anti-Semitism, the abject self-abasement which Levi displayed in serving as the indispensable conductor for the rabidly anti-Semitic composer who alternately teased, tormented, and encouraged him. Gay shows, moreover, that such internalization by Jews of the contempt Germans felt for them was a widespread phenomenon. The essay on Levi is accompanied by graphic illustrations from comic pamphlets of the 1880's, written and drawn by Jews and printed by the Jewish house of Eduard Bloch, in which these “German citizens of the Mosaic persuasion” are represented more or less in the same terms of vilification they would be half a century later in the pages of Der Stürmer. One illustration, for example, shows a little boy toppling from the highest tier of balconies at the opera, the spectators all around flinging up their arms in dismay, while the child's hook-nosed, coarse-featured father calls after the tumbling figure, “Jacob, verlier' mir die Uhr nicht!” (Jacob, don't lose me the watch!). Gay fully recognizes the virulence of such self-hatred, but he is not quite prepared to draw the necessary inferences from it.

There obviously must have been marked differences in the individual encounters of different Jews with their German compatriots, depending on their social class, their profession, on whether they lived in a big city or a small town, and on plain luck. Gershom Scholem, for example, in a recent interview, recalls his boyhood in Wilhelminian Berlin with an edge of impatience that has not abated after more than six decades. Scholem's father, the owner of a printshop, was a staunchly loyal German who had shed almost all the vestiges of his ancestral faith, but the child noticed that no Christian German was willing to set foot in their house, and this contradiction made him feel something essentially hollow in his father's German affirmations, impelling him when he reached adolescence to the triple heresy of learning Hebrew, embracing Zionism, and delving into Jewish scholarship.

The perspective Scholem gained through those early choices enables him to see a crucial aspect of the German-Jewish relationship which Gay does not take into account at all: that no matter how decent or considerate individual Germans may have been to individual Jews, the culture as a whole was not prepared to tolerate Jewish existence as a collective presence, and precisely for this reason, most German Jews were encouraged to feel at least to some degree that it was wrong for them to imagine self-realization as Jews, indeed, that their real vocation was to transcend mere parochialism and merge into the nobler sphere of Deutschtum. The case of Hermann Levi, in other words, is not just an instance of one disturbing trend among German Jews but a paradigmatic illustration of the pathology suffered by German Jews as a group because of the terms of highly conditional acceptance imposed upon them by their Gentile neighbors. This posture of self-abnegation, Scholem shrewdly argues in On Jews and Judaism in Crisis, instead of achieving its conscious goal of acceptance, produced the most destructive kind of dialectic relation with Germans:

Such solutions [of self-surrender] have been offered to Jews again and again, and from various sources. They bespeak a great inner demoralization, an enthusiasm for self-sacrifice which has necessarily remained wholly without meaning for the Jewish community itself, and which no one ever took seriously except the anti-Semites, who found in them an especially nefarious trick of the Jews, an especially conspiratorial note. For it was precisely this desire on the part of the Jews to be absorbed by the Germans that hatred understood as a destructive maneuver against the life of the German people—a thesis repeated indefatigably by the metaphysicians of anti-Semitism between 1830 and 1930.

Peter Gay properly observes that the experience of World War I, with the flood of anti-Semitic feeling released by the conflict even as Jews rallied patriotically to the German cause, came as a profoundly traumatic surprise to many German Jews. “The desperate years between 1914 and 1918 converted German Jews from an easy confidence as German citizens of the Jewish faith to a defiant Zionism, to self-imposed social isolation, and more often, to sheer confusion and disheartened aimlessness.” Gay, in the momentum of his sympathetic exposition of cultural symbiosis, would himself appear to regard this turning point as something of a surprise, by no means predictable from the logic of previous relations between Germans and Jews, though his own illustrations of repellent self-hatred from the pages of Eduard Bloch's pamphlets might suggest that the “easy confidence” of those 19th-century German Jews was often more asserted than inwardly possessed.

Gay tends to set aside both Zionism and cosmopolitan socialism as purely peripheral phenomena among German Jews, but perhaps both should be seen instead as authentic reactions to the historical situation which, in opposite ways, responded to its full range of implications more adequately than the century-long Jewish romance with German culture. Certainly Jews from the Germanic sphere played essential roles in the shaping of both Zionism and socialism, and one could argue that it was the spiritual bankruptcy of Emancipation from its earliest phases that provided much of the impetus for both these movements.

If German Jews, as I have intimated, were caught in a double tension between their frequent rejection by German culture, to which they were drawn, and their intermittent attraction to Jewish antecedents, from which they were in flight, Zionism provided one viable solution to this ultimately intolerable situation by making possible a return to origins without a turning away from modernity. Peter Gay is not in a position to catch the historic resonance of the Zionist solution very well because he has no real understanding of the attraction—however ambiguous it may have been—exerted by Jewish antecedents. His lack of perception on this fundamental issue is mainly what compels him to a denial that there were any detectably Jewish elements in the cultural activity of German Jews.

Now, this denial is to a degree commendable because it exposes the facile imprecision with which certain stereotypes have been applied to Jews both by philo-Semitic sentimentalism and by anti-Semitic hostility. According to the prejudices of both, the Jew is characterized by qualities of nervous cleverness, aggressive intellectuality, daring iconoclasm, which make him the ideal avant-gardist or the perfect cultural subversive, depending on one's point of view. Against such notions, Gay helpfully points out that the great swarm of Jewish thinkers, artists, and writers in the Germanic sphere had its healthy share of old-fashioned bourgeois conservatives, and that German Jewry as a whole was by no means predominantly intellectual, and even included appreciable numbers of that rarely mentioned species, the stupid Jew. Insisting in this way on the broad variety of German-Jewish cultural stances, Gay argues vigorously against those who are constantly disposed to finding an essential component of Jewishness in any creative figure of Jewish extraction: “Just as there was no Jewish way to cut furs,” he sums up his account of the elusiveness of the Berlin-Jewish spirit, “there was no Jewish way to paint portraits, play Beethoven, produce Ibsen, or fence in the Olympics.”

The point is well-taken as a debunking of the intellectual mystique of Jewishness, but in the final analysis, it is also a little too simple. As George L. Mosse, the distinguished historian of modern Germany, has aptly noted in a New Republic review of the Gay volume: “The problem of what remained Jewish about such Jews cannot be answered by attacking the myth of their alienation or avant-garde leadership. It turns out to be more complicated than that.” Perhaps the principal complication is that in very many instances, German Jews, even without being champions of alienation, made the culture they did out of the psychological squirm of their ambiguous location between two worlds, and this meant that what they made often did exhibit certain differences, for better or for worse, from the work of their Gentile counterparts.

No one has expressed the negative side of this difference more ruthlessly, more brilliantly, than Franz Kafka, commenting in a 1921 letter to Max Brod on the Jewish wit of the Viennese satirist, Karl Kraus. (Though Gay does not include Prague in the sectors of German-speaking Jewry he means to consider, it is astonishing and symptomatic that there is not so much as a single passing reference to Kafka in his book.) “Most young Jews who began to write German,” Kafka observes,

wanted to leave Jewishness behind them, and their fathers approved of this, but vaguely (this vagueness was what was outrageous to them). But with their posterior legs they were still glued to their fathers' Jewishness and with their waving anterior legs they found no new ground. The ensuing despair became their inspiration.3

With the sharpness of immediate experience, Kafka perfectly catches the crucial element that is blurred in Peter Gay's account of German Jewry—the acute pain of contradiction of those caught between two cultures, the emotional destructiveness of the double message imparted by the fathers to the sons. Kafka goes on to argue that the literature generated out of this psychological predicament had certain sad peculiarities:

First of all, the product of their despair could not be German literature, though outwardly it seemed to be so. They existed among three impossibilities … : the impossibility of not writing, the impossibility of writing German, the impossibility of writing differently.

Gay's discussion of Freud in his lead essay strikingly illustrates how he simply does not take into consideration the whole vexed phenomenon of dual identity that Kafka describes. The essay in itself is one of the finest pieces of writing in the book. It vividly evokes Freud's home and office, his Viennese surroundings, the general tenor of his daring enterprise, and by firmly showing Freud's connections with German culture at large and with European science, it explodes still another myth: that psychoanalysis was somehow the product of a particularly Viennese spirit.

All this is admirable, and Gay is probably right in not deigning to mention the dubious interpreters of Freud's Jewishness who have derived all of his thought from the Kabbalah, on the one hand, or from his hostility to Christian society as a supposed shtetl Jew, on the other. Nevertheless, it is more than a little peculiar that in a sixty-page essay on Freud in a book entitled Freud, Jews, and Other Germans, Gay should see fit to mention Freud's Jewishness only in two brief paragraphs on Viennese anti-Semitism. I am not proposing that there has to be a “Jewish key” to Freud's originality, but there is a good deal of evidence in his letters as well as in his professional writing from The Interpretation of Dreams to Moses and Monotheism that he repeatedly experienced that psychological squirm of ambiguous cultural location to which I have referred and that, early and late, he was working out strategies to overcome or compensate for the discomfort he felt. This important aspect of Freud's life and thought has been carefully documented and judiciously analyzed by the French critic and scholar, Marthe Robert, in From Oedipus to Moses: Freud's Jewish Identity,4 and Peter Gay's suggestive but incomplete account (which shows no awareness of Marthe Robert's book) might usefully be complemented by her intelligent study.

In Freud's case, the two-sided discomfort of an acculturated Jew in the German-speaking world led, as Marthe Robert nicely shows, to an early fascination with Rome as the archetypal symbol of Christian Europe, to an odd identification with Hannibal, the Semite who aspired to be the conqueror of Rome, and ultimately to a personal absorption in the scholarly fiction of Moses as a Gentile leader of the Jewish people who is destroyed by his own recalcitrant followers. For other Jewish shapers of culture in the Germanic sphere, the contradictions of their situation generated not only the “sad peculiarities” of marginal men and women seeking to transcend their marginality, like Freud, by an assertion of imaginative will, but also a tendency to draw on their Jewish origins as intellectual resources. Precisely in this connection, it is instructive to note that in many signal instances the interest in the values, symbols, and organizing categories of classical Jewish experience was accompanied by some degree of personal involvement, or at least curiosity about involvement, in Zionism.

Thus, if one considers the Jews writing in German who came of age toward the end of the 19th century through the first two decades of our own century, the greatest writer of prose fiction is clearly Kafka, the most original literary critic, Walter Benjamin, the major historian, Scholem, the finest poet, Else Lasker-Schüler. Scholem is a convinced Zionist who chose to emigrate to Palestine in early manhood and who has dedicated his life to Jewish scholarship, though continuing to write much of his work originally in German. His friend Walter Benjamin long entertained the fantasy of following Scholem to Jerusalem, learning Hebrew, and becoming a kind of latter-day exegete, and his readings in Jewish mysticism and theology exerted a certain oblique but substantive influence on his thinking even in his adherence—always an idiosyncratic one—to Marxism.5 Else Lasker-Schüler took refuge from Nazism in Palestine toward the end of her life, although she did not do so out of Zionist conviction. But there was a congruence between her verse and her final residence in Jerusalem, for the Judean landscape, filtered through Luther's translation of the Bible, had figured importantly in her poetry, and in 1913, when she was a prominent figure among German Expressionists, she made the pointed decision to call a collection of poems on biblical motifs, Hebräische Balladen. Finally, Kafka was an avid Zionist through much of his adult life, dreaming of the idea of emigration to Palestine but imagining that the act of Zionist fulfillment was a spiritual impossibility for him just like marrying and having children. As he lay in a sanitarium the year before his death, he was arduously making his way with his newly acquired Hebrew through Yosef Haim Brenner's despairing novel, Breakdown and Bereavement. It is a haunting emblematic scene: the supreme genius of prose fiction that emerged from German-speaking Jewry turning in his last months—quite without hope of consolation—from the “impossible” native language he had made his own crystalline medium to the language of national origins long forgotten by his father and his father's father.

Peter Gay, as I have said, does not even glance at Kafka, nor does he make any passing reference to Scholem, while Benjamin is mentioned only once, briefly, as part of a list of Jewish intellectuals who committed suicide during the Hitler era. Gay devotes several pages, however, to the career of Else Lasker-Schüler, and precisely because he addresses himself chiefly to the question of whether to classify her as a Jewish poet, the case of Else Lasker-Schüler provides an apt concluding example of the problems involved in defining the German or Jewish character of German-Jewish writers and artists.

Gay quotes the famous remark Else Lasker-Schüler made to a friend in Jerusalem in the early 40's in refusing to allow her poems to be translated into Hebrew: “Aber sie sind doch hebräisch geschrieben” (But they are written in Hebrew). (In 1968 a selection of her poems at last was beautifully translated into Hebrew by the leading Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.) Peculiarly, Gay interprets this statement simply as an expression of the poet's “monumental … pride in German,” though it surely also suggests that she thought of her poetry as German but somehow not Germanic, that she felt she was imaginatively in touch with a kind of primordial Hebraic vision. Her own tendency to mystification on this subject encouraged many of her German contemporaries as well as some later commentators to adopt a mystique of Else Lasker-Schüler as die jüdische Dichterin who cast an exotic spell of “Oriental” magic in her verse, and Gay is quite right to object to the foolishness of such views, pointing out that there is very little of the real Orient but a good deal of European Romanticism in her images and her sense of poetic structure. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Gay obliterates self-evident and necessary distinctions when he asserts, “What Else Lasker-Schüler was doing when she leafed through her Old Testament was precisely what Gottfried Benn was doing when he recorded his visits to the morgue.” Else Lasker-Schüler's relation to her biblical materials, as her Hebräische Balladen abundantly illustrates, was not merely a technical one of finding, like Benn at the morgue, a source of unsentimental poetic diction. She turned to the Bible at least partly because she felt she had some special connection as a Jew with the Bible.

Gay recognizes that at various times, or often simultaneously, Else Lasker-Schüler evinced a passionate identification both with her Jewish origins and with the German culture in which she grew up, but it is characteristic of his general outlook that he should be roundly affirmative about the German allegiance and oddly concessive about the Jewish one. “Firmly, eloquently Jewish as she was, her Jewishness was drenched in poetry; it was wholly personal, profoundly unorthodox.” But how else should any modern poet be Jewish, or, for that matter, German or French or American? The iconoclastic use of biblical materials, the imaginative flirtation with the figure of Jesus, which Gay goes on to cite as evidence of a “not unproblematic” lack of orthodoxy in Else Lasker-Schüler are in fact commonplace features in the work of Yiddish and Hebrew poets whose Jewishness is usually taken for granted. The point is that modernism in general, as Matei Calinescu observes, represents a break with the normative force of the past, and it is therefore predictable that a Jewish modernist in any language, medium, or cultural setting, will exercise an unprecedented degree of freedom with the materials he or she has inherited from the Jewish past. There is no longer any other way to express Jewishness in art.

Keeping in mind this general aspect of the modern cultural condition, we may be less inclined to view Else Lasker-Schüler's decision to stress a highly personal “Hebraic” element in her work as an incidental quirk in the career of a German poet, and more prepared to see in that choice a partial but real realignment of identities, reflecting a shift in awareness of historical realities. “There are three intertwined and overlapping ways,” Gay writes, “for a poet to be Jewish—or for that matter, anything else: by choice of audience, choice of language, or choice of subject matter,” and he finds Else Lasker-Schüler ultimately German in all three categories. But the clarity of all this is a little specious, for what it omits is the elusive but essential consideration of outlook, values, tonalities, and cultural references in a poet's work. Else Lasker-Schüler was imbued with German literary ideals, and the famous symbiosis had clearly not broken down for her, but she felt the necessity to introduce into it a dialectical moment of forthright particularism that would not have occurred to her 19th-century predecessors who set out on the adventure of assimilation.

The special resonance of this German turning to the classical Hebrew past can be illustrated by juxtaposing “The Shulamite,” a 1913 poem of mystical desire by Else Lasker-Schüler with “The Lonely Say,” an analogous mystical poem written just two years later in Vienna by the Hebrew poet, Avraham Ben Yitzhak Sonne. Formally, both poems reflect trends of post-Symbolist German verse, while the expressed yearning—solemn for Sonne, sensual for Else Lasker-Schüler—to pass out of this life into an ultimate state of unending oneness, probably has its roots in German Romanticism. Yet both poets articulate their vision with biblical images, work with the potent memory of specific biblical texts, and there may be an advantage in comparing the poems in translation (both English versions are mine), for the comparison reveals a kind of cultural sub-stratum shared by the two poets beneath the pronounced differences of their linguistic surfaces. In the case of the Sonne poem, which is written in a predominantly biblical Hebrew, there is a phrase-by-phrase adherence to a particular biblical source—the great evocation at the beginning of Psalm 19 of the heavens' speechless praise of God, day and night:

Day unto day will bequeath a guttering sun
and night over night will lament
summer after summer gone into leaf-fall
the world in its sorrow exults.
Tomorrow we die reft of speech
as we leave we stand at the closing gate
and the heart God gladdened with nearness
will regret—and tremble for fear of betrayal.
Day unto day will bear a burning sun
and night after night will spill stars
on the lips of the lonely, song stops:
by seven ways we part and by one we return.

It is a poem surely conditioned by German influences, but it is also a strong reshaping, done with the freedom of a true modernist, of the Psalmist's vision, and as such an authentic lyric masterpiece of the modern Hebrew revival. “The Shulamite,” by contrast, does not have the same textural closeness to its biblical source, though the poem's informing sensibility is kindled by the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, which is fused in the poet's mind with the mystical-allegorical interpretation that religious tradition has given to the Song of Songs. Perhaps the heritage of Hölderlin is also detectable here, but the German poet has manifestly chosen for the moment to flaunt another heritage, has projected herself, with a terrific energy of imagination, out of her native sphere, into a landscape of ancestral remembrance:

O, from your sweet mouth I have come
to know beatitude so well!
Already I feel the lips of Gabriel
burning on my breast …
And the night-clouds drink
my deep dream of cedars.
O, how your life beckons me!
And I vanish
with flowering heartache,
I flow away into space,
into time,
to forever,
and my soul burns away in the evening colors
of Jerusalem.


  1. A Confidential Matter: The Letters of Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, translated by Max Knight, University of California Press, 122 pp.

  2. Indiana University Press, 335 pp.

  3. Franz Kafka, Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Schocken, 509 pp.

  4. Translated by Ralph Mannheim (the original French version appeared in 1974), Doubleday/Anchor Books, 229 pp.

  5. I have argued this view at length in these pages in “On Walter Benjamin,” September 1969.

James Fenton (review date 19 May 1978)

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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.

Peter Gay has an attractive cast of mind. On the one hand [in Freud, Jews, and Other Germans,] he rejects the thesis that the Nazi period is a mere aberration, an ‘alien import’ or a ‘grotesque interlude, with no substantial ties to the German past.’ On the other hand, he turns his back on that ‘false determinism, amounting to fatalism, which draws strength from the plausible but circular arguments that what happened is proof that it had to happen because, after all, it happened.’ The work of contingency is ubiquitous, often subterranean.

Most events are the vectors of competing, irreconcilable forces which might well have issued in other, far different consequences, or in no consequences at all. History is the actualisation of the potential. Compared to the mass of possibilities inherent in any situation, the number of possibilities realised is small. … In this sense, history is an implacable Darwinian battle, in which few aspirants succeed in fighting their way into the permanent record.

So, while the possibilities confronting Germany in the early Thirties were dramatically reduced, while an authoritarian regime seemed inevitable, the Nazi regime itself remained until 1932, in Gay's view, only one of several prominent possibilities.

If one adopts this kind of approach, and if one recognises hindsight to be a real problem, one is in a better position to examine the history of the German-Jewish question in all its complexity. For while it may be said of contemporary anti-Semitism that it knows what it is about (with the exception, I suppose, of the child who calls a stingy friend a Jew), the same cannot generally be said of the 19th-century varieties. There were many of them, and they were about quite different things. Most pathetic, perhaps, was the anti-Semitism of the established Jew who considered himself a good German, and who looked with a mixture of contempt and embarrassment at the new wave of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe. His attitude represented an attempt to deflect the dislike. (It has a parallel in contemporary Germany in the attitude of the Italian migrant worker, who considers himself to be a civilised man, a European, as opposed to these unspeakable Turks, who are ‘the problem.’) A part of assimilation into German-ness, it turned out, had to be the assimilation of anti-Semitism.

Such a Jewish German might, quite naturally, be a fervent supporter of his adopted traditions, and might never know how ill his support was received. When the novelist Theodor Fontane reached his 75th birthday, he found that the Prussian aristocracy appeared to have forgotten the event. Instead he received hundreds of letters of congratulation from Jews. He was surprised, and in a way pleased that he had such a devoted audience of ancient, if exotic, nobility. He even composed a poem on the subject. Yet a short while afterwards we find him writing to a friend that the Jews have failed the ‘test’ of emancipation:

They are irritants everywhere (much more than they used to be earlier), they mess up everything, obstruct the contemplation of every problem for its own sake. Even the most optimistic have had to convince themselves that baptismal water is not enough. Despite all its gifts, it is a horrible people, not a ‘sour dough’ yielding vitality and freshness but a leaven in which uglier forms of fermentation abound—a people afflicted from its very origins with a kind of conceited vulgarity, which the Aryan world cannot get along with. What a difference between the Christian and the Jewish criminal world! And all of this, ineradicable.

That kind of talk is both familiar and foreign—what does Fontane mean by the charge that they ‘obstruct the contemplation of every problem for its own sake’? And what does he have in mind as to the difference between the Jewish and Christian criminal world? The answer seems to be: nothing. He goes on: ‘I say all this (must say it), even though I have had, in my own person, nothing but good from Jews right down to this day.’

These were the private sentiments of a man known publicly for his cordial relations with Jews. They go much further than the whacky anti-Semitism of the cartoonists of the period (which, incidentally, had a parallel in England), but they could hardly be said to have reached Wagnerian proportions. It is when Gay gets anywhere near Wagner that he seems most ready for a fight. There is here a spirited defence of Eduard Hanslick, the influential music critic whom Wagner pilloried as Beckmesser in the Meistersinger, and, perhaps the best essay in this excellent collection, an account of Wagner's Parsifal conductor, Hermann Levi.

This is a classic study of Jewish self-hate. Levi was a great conductor, and a man of catholic musical tastes, who found himself forced to make the choice between Wagner and his former friends (including Brahms). He chose Wagner, and became a passionate worshipper of the Cause. He persuaded himself, and did his best to persuade his rabbi father, that Wagner's hatred of ‘Jewry’ in music and modern literature sprang from ‘the noblest of motives,’ that Wagner was wholly free of ‘petty Jew-hatred’ (presumably Jew-hatred was more excusable on a grand scale). He took it on the chin when Wagner, after hearing him conduct Lohengrin and having noted dozens of false tempi, read him a lecture on the racial origin of these errors, and continued, for good measure, with a discussion on ‘the depressing, destructive influence of Jewry on our public affairs,’ against which he warned Levi ‘emphatically.’

Life with the Wagners seems to have been like this all the time. The anguish of Levi over whether he should convert provided them with a fascinating theme—of course, Cosima Wagner told him not long before his death that while he could become a Christian, he could never become a Teuton. Naturally, she lied, she preferred the Christian to the Teuton. As it happened, Levi was necessary to the Wagners—whether because he was the only one who could conduct Parsifal, or whether because their viciousness needed victims, is unclear.

The viciousness certainly brought them admirers. As Houston Stewart Chamberlain wrote to Cosima Wagner: ‘A marvellous testimonial to your vitality, hochverehrte Meisterin, is the way you have of chastising someone, when he deserves to be chastised.’ On the one occasion when Levi, after Wagner's cruelty had pushed him to the limit, decided to leave, he was cajoled into returning, with a promise that there would now be a possibility for him really to get to know the Wagners properly. He took little persuading, and, although the Master indicated to others that there was something sinister in having the Jew around, he was honoured on his return. Eventually he received the greatest honour of all—he was a pallbearer at Wagner's funeral. As Gay writes: ‘He left the best part of himself in that grave. But the Cause lived on, and so did Hermann Levi—to serve it.’

Robert S. Rosen (review date 5 June 1978)

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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 considered “a German.”

The founder of psychoanalysis, as representative a father figure as one could possibly choose, is the subject of the initial essay, “Sigmund Freud: A German and His Discontents.” The author seeks to explode the myth that psychoanalysis is “somehow characteristically Viennese,” or even characteristically Jewish. Examining Freud's style (and we know from his Style in History that Gay believes style offers access to a writer's “private, psychological world”) for clues to influences, he finds besides Lessing, acknowledged by Freud, allusions to a whole range of literary figures, both German and Austrian. The conclusion is unmistakable: the culture at Freud's command was “German culture.”

Apart from style, what Gay admires most in Freud are a readiness to revise insights when new information so demands, an exemplary honesty, demonstrated above all in the psychoanalyst's self-analysis, and a commitment to truth. (Gay paid tribute to such qualities of mind and character, and in almost identical terms, in his first book, The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein's Challenge to Marx.) It is an intensely rational attitude toward life that we sense as well in the author of these essays.

Gay also singles out Freud's courage: “To be the destroyer of human illusions, as Freud was by intention and by results, was to make oneself the target of the anti-Semite.” True, Freud had no religious attachment to Judaism, and considered all religion “an illusion akin to neurosis.” Yet to his everlasting credit, he never denied his Jewishness. On the contrary, anti-Semitic prejudice led to his referring to himself as a Jew rather than as a German.

This stance contrasts sharply with that of Hermann Levi, the subject of an essay subtitled, “A Study in Service of Self-Hatred.” Levi, a brilliant conductor and the son of a rabbi, was much tormented by being a Jew. Under pressure, especially from the composer Richard Wagner and his wife Cosima, he displayed embarrassing obsequiousness. But the essay does not stop with Jews who renounced their heritage. It goes on to explore those who did so in virulently anti-Semitic terms—like Otto Weininger, author of Geschlecht und Charakter, who was driven to conversion and finally to suicide.

Between the pieces on Freud and Levi lie two essays central to one of the book's major concerns. “Encounter with Modernism: German Jews in Wilhelminian Culture” and “The Berlin-Jewish Spirit: A Dogma in Search of Some Doubts” assess the contributions of Jews to German culture and to Modernism. Gay holds, first, that these contributions were “German in form and substance.” Second, he asserts it is quite illogical to maintain that Jews were simultaneously wholly like Germans and “notably distinct.”

Anxious to free Jews from carrying the burden of responsibility for Modernity, he is at pains to show them as having been the same as everyone else. They were not predisposed by cultural heritage, or their social situation, to become “cultural rebels … principled Moderns.” Far from being avant-garde, many German Jews were decidedly conservative. The greatest innovators in art, for example, numbered not a single Jew among them. Neither did Jews play as dominant a role in literary culture as is generally assumed. “The charge—or boast—of presumed Jewish hunger for experiment in the arts and thirst for innovation in literature is largely myth, fostered in part by Jews themselves.”

In a final blow to supposed Jewish superiority, bound to be much quoted, Gay calls for “a historical and sociological study that desperately needs to be undertaken: that of stupid Jews. The material would be abundant, and the results would correct the widespread and untenable notion that Jews are by endowment more intelligent than other people.” I find this statement disconcerting, and not because I disagree about the existence of stupid Jews. Surely that is freely acknowledged. Every Passover, Jews read about the four sons of which the Torah speaks: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one so foolish he does not even know the right questions. There are many stories, too, especially in Yiddish, about simpletons and ignoramuses.

What I object to is Gay's tone. It brings to mind the letter Gershom Scholem wrote Hannah Arendt about her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, calling attention to the absence in her analysis of what the Jewish tradition refers to as Ahavat Yisrael (love of the Jewish people). Reluctantly, since I admire Peter Gay, I have come to sense this lack in his tone, and perhaps in some of his ideas. Thus German Jewry's loathing of Eastern European Jews is accounted for not only by the familiar explanation that German Jews feared being identified with those newcomers who were “uncouth, noisy, greedy, truly alien, and distinctly inferior,” but also by the fact that German Jews were in fact Germans and wholly shared the German attitudes.

In addition, Gay raises some rather dubious questions: “Were German-born Jews German Jews or Jewish Germans? Were German-speaking Austrians real Germans?” What was the share of “Jewishness” in the “Berlin-Jewish spirit?” and “What is typically ‘Jewish’ anyway?” Although the perspective from which these questions are raised aspires to be historically objective, it is actually that of an assimilated Jew who no doubt identifies with the “many Jews [for whom] the flight from tradition was not cowardly evasion but a flight into humanity—a flight they undertook in the company of many non-Jews.”

Gay ends Freud, Jews, and Other Germans with two essays—one on Brahms and one on Eduard Hanslick, a music critic. Both pieces are concerned with the changing perceptions of what is modern, the function of the critic and the dangers of generalization. And both offer provocative insights into the nature of the creative process—a fusion of past influences and originality—and the role of criticism in the shaping of Modernism.

Of all the essays I found the one on Freud most fascinating, perhaps because I, too, am a Jew who was born in Vienna of Eastern European descent. In that chapter we read that Freud felt “his explorations, rigorously and patiently pursued, might provide a master key to the whole range of human experience—to art, politics, and religion no less than to dreams, slips, jokes, and sexual life.” Why not to history as well? The painful subject of Jews in German lands, and indeed just about everywhere, calls out for the deep and sensitive scrutiny that a psychoanalytic interpretation can provide.

David Cannadine (review date 2 February 1984)

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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. Whenever history needed a helping hand, the middle classes were always there, ready, willing, and able to provide it.

Today it all looks rather different. Whatever the middle classes were doing in the past, there is a widespread belief that they are no longer rising now, and since their contemporary circumstances give increased cause for anxiety, so the easy certainties and confident generalizations made about their trajectory and their accomplishments in previous centuries have in turn been eroded and undermined. After two decades of intense and skeptical scholarship, it is no longer fashionable to believe that all historical change must be explained by the movements of social classes, and the middle class of Marx has been the most significant casualty of this shift in historical thinking. Figures once eagerly recruited into the burgeoning bourgeois fold, all the way from Queen Elizabeth I to Queen Victoria, are now more usefully and realistically placed in other categories. At best, many historians now maintain that the middle classes may indeed have risen, but they never really got to the top. And at worst, the once-triumphant bourgeoisie has been relegated into an inert, residual category: the history of the people with the patricians and the plebs left out, and everyone else left in. What was once the motor of historical change has now become the trash can of historical taxonomy.

For the nineteenth century, Marx's century, the picture of a triumphant bourgeoisie was painted first and challenged last. But even here, the safe citadel of middle-class supremacy has been undermined from without and eroded from within by recent scholarship. For Britain and Germany in particular, and more speculatively for Europe as a whole, it has become increasingly fashionable to argue that, however hopefully the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie was traveling, it never actually arrived. Internally divided, and insufficiently self-conscious, it failed to achieve economic preeminence as a class, social dominance as a status group, or supreme power as a political movement. A petty clerk like Mr. Pooter and a bloated financier like Augustus Melmotte might both share the designation “bourgeois,” but as the qualifications “petite” and “haute” implied, they shared very little else. Capitalist did not equal bourgeois, because the former antedated the latter; nor did entrepreneur, because many middle-class men were not in business but in the professions or government service. As Peter Gay candidly (if coyly) observes at the outset of his fascinating book [The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Volume I: Education of the Senses] there was no such thing as a typical bourgeois: the unscrupulous entrepreneur, the ingenious engineer, the timid grocer, and the pedantic bureaucrat could all be sheltered beneath the very umbrella that was itself a misleading symbol of a spuriously uniform bourgeois culture.

Such candor is an agreeable, if not altogether auspicious, way for Peter Gay to begin what promises to be one of the major historical enterprises of the decade, a five-volume history of the nineteenth-century bourgeois cultural experience. Not surprisingly, after offering these important introductory disclaimers, he adroitly sidesteps such contentious and unpromising topics as class formation, economic characteristics, and political accomplishments. For the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie that Gay seeks to put back at the center of modern history is not that of Marx, but of Freud. Drawing extensively on private diaries and family correspondence, medical texts and household manuals, religious tracts and works of art, from Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, he aims to investigate the part played by sexuality, aggression, and conflict in the middle-class experience from the early nineteenth century to the First World War.

In this particular book sexuality is at the center (with love, we are told, to follow in the second volume). Here Gay is concerned with the middle classes as dreamers rather than as doers, in bedroom and bathroom rather than in boardroom or bourse. Boldly going where (almost) no historian has gone before, he takes us on a voyage of erotic exploration, into the private world, private lives, and private parts of the nineteenth century's most private class.

The result is a book that should offend conservative historians. Those who condemn fashionable or faddish scholarship, who regard psychohistory as mega-bunk, will find much to accelerate their pulse rates here. As if to forestall such criticisms, Gay argues that this is not so much a work of psychohistory as of history informed by psychoanalysis. But this is a fine and improbable distinction: a work that seeks to explore the inaccessible domains of the nineteenth-century unconscious, and the inner recesses of bourgeois erotic fantasy, is surely psychohistory if it is anything. And it is undeniably couched in the language of the couch: “her transfigured incestuous investment had extensive cultural reverberations,” etc., etc. Beyond doubt, Gay lays bare not only the mind, but also the body of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie as never before. This is not just a history of mentalité but of sensualité as well. In more than four hundred closely packed pages, Gay takes us on a breathless, steamy tour of castration complexes, Oedipal traumas, penis envy, and wet dreams, not forgetting such allied matters as erections and excrement, ovaries and orgasms, masturbation and menstruation, prostitutes and pornography.

The serious and scholarly purpose of this book is to investigate how the Victorians—mainly English and American—went about discovering sexuality for themselves, what they knew about it and what they repressed, and how outside pressures and experiences impinged upon their erotic lives. More polemically, the book is conceived as a weighty and explicit corrective to the popular and tenacious misconceptions concerning Victorian sexuality—the “dominant, derisive, little-challenged perceptions” that have prevailed for so long. One of these is the belief that middle-class Victorian men were devious and insensitive hypocrites, who presented to the world the image of good family men, but who in private satisfied their lusts by keeping mistresses, frequenting brothels, or molesting children. Another is that middle-class Victorian wives were competent housekeepers, doting mothers, and erotic disasters who preferred saucepans to sex, and poured all their love and warmth into housekeeping and child rearing. Terrified, ignorant, and unsuspecting, they were reputedly given the advice on their wedding night to “Grit your teeth and think of England.”

Gay accepts none of this. “The nineteenth-century middle-class wife who pours all her affection into her children and denies her husband all sexual warmth,” is, he insists, “largely a myth” derived not from the experiences of women themselves, but from the writings of a few moralists, like Dr. William Acton, whose books misled many nineteenth-century readers and many twentieth-century historians. Gay, by contrast, begins with a fascinating case study, based on the late-nineteenth-century diary of Mabel Loomis Todd, who not only had a good time in bed with her husband, but also conducted (with his active connivance) an ecstatic affair for over a decade with Austin Dickinson, the treasurer of Amherst College and brother of Emily Dickinson. Nor was she alone among bourgeois women in her enjoyment of sex. Another half-dozen cases yield similar conclusions, and these are more widely corroborated by material drawn from some late-nineteenth-century surveys of female sexuality, Kinsey Reports before Kinsey.

To Gay, the conclusion seems clear: a high proportion of middle-class women enjoyed sex, took pleasure in marital sexuality, and regarded it as a healthy and wholesome pursuit. That works of nineteenth-century literature argued to the contrary merely shows the wide gap that can separate experience and expression. And of course, Gay argues, it was Freud who bridged it, by formulating the view that women were sexually as alive and passionate as men.

Viewed in this light, male blustering about nineteenth-century sex can, according to Gay, be seen at last for what it really was: not a description of female frigidity, but a symptom of male anxiety about sex and male fear of women. Throughout history, women have been depicted by men as evil, powerful, mysterious temptresses, all the way from Eve in the Garden of Eden to Alexis in the episodes of “Dynasty.” Men never recover from their early and total dependence on their mothers, or from their fear of castration by voracious vaginas. Woman as vampire, man as victim is a well-known stereotype, which was given added force in the nineteenth century as women made real and successful attempts to improve their sexual and secular circumstances by divorce-law reform, the campaign for the vote, the expansion of jobs, and the extension of educational opportunities.

In bed and out of it, Gay concludes, nineteenth-century women were a threat, and in this war of the sexes, the man had to retaliate. One riposte was to try to keep them out of higher education, ostensibly because the tensions of menstruation meant that they were not up to the physical and mental demands of university life, but in reality in the hope of keeping them in their “proper” calling, in the home. Another was to deny women any erotic desires, which effectively meant that the man was good enough in bed however well or badly he performed. In view of these reactions, the contemporary literature that claimed that women did not enjoy sex can be seen for what it really was: not as a description of women's experience, but as a buttress for threatened male egos. In bed or out of it, the man must be kept on top.

Having looked at the unconscious as an influence on middle-class sexual conduct and sexual politics, Gay turns, in the middle section of his book, to consider how the pressures of the real world liberated or limited sexual practices and attitudes. Pregnancy, for example, was an ordeal and a danger for middle-class mothers throughout the nineteenth century. Despite all the cant about the need to fulfill women's maternal urges, childbirth was always painful and often fatal, to the mother, the child, or both, and this necessarily detracted from the pleasures of sex, as that instrument of life could become an instrument of death. For much of the nineteenth century, too, the deaths of young children were commonplace in middle-class families: biology was destiny, to be accepted with submission and resignation. Only in its closing decades did the improvement in contraceptive methods bring some sense of mastery over the natural world, as the age of control superseded the age of conscience. But even this was an ambiguous gift, and Gay finds its impact on bourgeois sexuality hard to assess. In some ways, it diminished middle-class freedom, as sex became more self-conscious and guilt-ridden. But in others, it enabled middle-class couples to avoid biology's most stringent decrees while enjoying its most delicious gifts.

As all this implies, the Victorian bourgeoisie's attitude toward sex was a curious amalgam of awareness and ignorance. They actually had a great deal of carnal knowledge; but at the same time, there was much they did not know and did not choose to know. There were intimations of immorality to be found everywhere in the Victorian world which it was impossible to ignore. Gay cites lurid newspaper accounts of crimes and deaths, government reports on working-class life, Mrs. Beeton on blood and bones, free trade in pornography, smutty schoolboy jokes, and ubiquitous nude paintings and statuary. All these meant that it was unlikely that anyone would grow up in Victorian England completely ignorant of bodies or sex. Yet there coexisted with this a remarkable amount of ignorance, some of it unavoidable, much of it deliberate. Gay notes ridiculous euphemisms, evasions and circumlocutions like “the love that dare not speak its name” (homosexuality), “an interesting condition” (pregnancy), and “the birds and the bees” (the facts of life). And at a time of unprecedented progress in science and medicine, many doctors, teachers, and clergy mounted sustained and censorious campaigns against the evils of excessive sexual indulgence and masturbation, for which there was absolutely no medical support. In many ways, the bourgeoisie suppressed very well, better than it knew. As Gay puts it, “road maps to orgasm were hard to come by in the bourgeois century.”

What does all this add up to? Nineteenth-century bourgeois attitudes, Gay argues, were formed toward sexuality by the interplay of the public domain of discussion and the sheltered sphere of personal life. In public, there was indeed much reticence and circumlocution, just as in private there was much sexual pleasure and satisfaction. But this does not make the Victorians self-conscious hypocrites, saying one thing (that sex was bad for your health) and doing the other (enjoying it even so). On the contrary, Gay suggests that the “fortifications of the self” which the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie constructed were not to deny sensuality, but to provide a haven, a shelter, where sexuality might be enjoyed and where sexuality might be enjoyed and where modern romantic love could flower. For the Victorians, sex was to be between consenting adults in private. Repression, reticence, reserve, and “hypocrisy” were the means whereby space was created for the bourgeoisie to live out their private, sensual lives. The middle classes cultivated their passions, like their gardens, behind high walls.

As Gay generously acknowledges, much of this argument, especially as it concerns the sexual potentialities and performances of middle-class Victorian women, has been made before, and it is a pity that he seems more concerned to traverse this old ground than to open up new territory. Much space, for example, is lavished on analyzing women's sexuality; but the erotic lives and needs of men receive rather less attention. If, as Gay implies, the majority of middle-class men were either insecure or tender, or both, then who actually read the pornography or visited the prostitutes, both of which were such an all-pervasive part of the Victorian world? Nor are the chronological divisions as finely drawn or convincingly explained as they might be. We are told that there is a fundamental change in bourgeois attitudes during the second half of the nineteenth century. But since most of the material is culled from this later phase, it is rather difficult to see how things differed earlier, or how they changed thereafter. Nor is it clear how a bourgeois attitude came into being in the first place, or how or when middle-class women lost the ground (what ground?) that Gay claims they were trying to regain since the 1870s. And there is a sense in which this all appears as a teleological tale, showing that the history of the bourgeoisie leads inexorably to Freud and the women's movement. Perhaps it does; perhaps it should. But it all seems a little too neat for comfort. In writing about sex, it is probably better to be Whiggish than priggish; but it is arguably best to be neither.

Although this book is as fine an example of the psychohistory of a social group as I have read, this does not mean that it has avoided the pitfalls necessarily associated with the form. As Gay sensibly admits, “the reticence of the bourgeois century raises intractable questions about its erotic life,” which cannot convincingly be answered by perusing the pages of a handful of erotic diaries. They may be the best evidence available; but they are really not good enough. They are a bewildering amalgam of fantasy and candor, pride and shame, embarrassment and self-advertisement, which defy all attempts at rigorous historical analysis and make it impossible to transform what are essentially Freudian case histories of the dead into Weberian ideal types.

How typical of her time, for example, was Mabel Loomis Todd? We do not know; nor does Professor Gay. On one occasion he tells us that she was “in most respects wholly at home in the nineteenth-century middle class.” But elsewhere he is less sure: “I am not suggesting,” he later remarks, “that her erotic experience was in any way commonplace.” The most measured conclusion that can be reached is that, in the light of the evidence deployed here, it is now impossible to maintain that all Victorian middle-class women were “erotic disasters.” But it cannot be argued instead (and Gay does not try to do so) that all nineteenth-century bourgeois women were sexually passionate and fulfilled beings, happily cloistered with their husbands in some suburban love nest. All that can safely be hazarded by way of generalization is that no generalization is possible.

The real problem, as Gay wisely admits, is that in sex as in everything else, “there was no bourgeois experience in the nineteenth century or in any other: only bourgeois experiences.” And if anything, these were even more diverse and varied than Gay allows. To be bourgeois in 1789 was in many ways fundamentally different from being bourgeois in 1815 or 1848 or 1870 or 1914, and the common emotional experiences of these successive generations often cut across the bounds of class solidarity. And to be Catholic or Jewish or Protestant, or English or French or German or American only makes the category of the bourgeoisie even more chimerical. In an attempt to pull this bourgeois experience together, and to justify (one suspects) the high proportion of late-nineteenth-century American material in the book, Gay suggests that the United States was the leading influence on Western European bourgeois values. But this does not seem entirely convincing, especially when it is juxtaposed with another comment, that nineteenth-century bourgeois culture “varied markedly across time, place, rank and hence in attitudes.” It is, in short, hard to see how there could be a sexual attitude specific to the bourgeoisie when it is so hard to show that there is a specific bourgeois class. If there is no Marxian nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, there is hardly likely to be a Freudian one, either.

Nor is this the only difficulty. For while, in some ways, the bourgeois experience was diverse and fragmented, in others it was so commonplace and universal as to be virtually indistinguishable from nineteenth-century experience tout court. As Gay rightly points out, the “bourgeois century” was an age of steam, of movement, of migration, of great cities, of declining religion, of progress and optimism, upheaval and chaos. But none of this was exclusive to the bourgeoisie: to a lesser or greater extent, almost the entire population of the Western world was affected by these developments and these moods. So it is not at all clear how “under external pressure, the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie generated common styles of thinking,” about life in general or about sex in particular. For even those features of the external world that helped to educate the bourgeois sexually were a common part of the nineteenth-century experience. There was nothing specifically characteristic of a class in pornography, nude statues, birth control, or prostitution. And if, as Gay argues persuasively, some middle-class women in the nineteenth century did indeed enjoy sex while others did not, then how does this differentiate them from the women of any other class—or of any other time?

Insofar as it was defined by the external world, then, it is hard to accept that there was a homogeneous bourgeois class or a unique bourgeois experience, of sex or of anything else. But of course, there was also the inner world of the bourgeois mind, both conscious and subconscious, on which these perceptions of reality impinged, and to which it in turn responded. Perhaps there was, after all, something distinctive about this nineteenth-century bourgeois mind so that, however commonplace its perceptions, and however varied its circumstances, this still meant that there really was a specific, identifiable bourgeois attitude to sexuality.

But Professor Gay will not allow himself such a luxury. “I have constructed my volumes,” he notes, “on the fundamental building blocks of the human experience—love, aggression, and conflict.” For Gay, Freudian assumptions are not specific to the period and the class he seeks to describe, but are timeless and universal. “The essential ingredients of human nature,” he suggests, “are both very simple and very tenacious”; it is characterized by “timelessness and ultimate simplicity”; and so the bourgeoisie has shared its psychological development “with all mankind.” To try to conjure up “a distinctive bourgeois style in sexuality” out of a timeless mind exposed only to varied and commonplace experiences of reality is a daunting enterprise indeed.

Notwithstanding his title, Professor Gay is correct in his feeling that there was no such thing as the nineteenth-century bourgeois experience. There were many experiences, many conflicts, much ambivalence, and in this book Gay has succeeded in bringing some of these vividly to life, with learning and humanity, in a way that no historian has ever managed before. Of necessity, as the bourgeois experience is made more vital and varied, so the bourgeoisie whose experience it was becomes more faded and fragmented. But this is unavoidable: the more we know about the bourgeoisie, the less we know that there was a bourgeoisie. Certainly, Gay's book does much to reinforce the current view that, historically, the bourgeoisie has played a less important part than was once supposed. But it also provides ample material for reworking Marx's mistaken maxim into a more fittingly Freudian formulation: historically the bourgeoisie has most importantly played with its parts.

Paul Robinson (review date 6 February 1984)

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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 and sculpture. He has also immersed himself in the technical writings of psychoanalysis, which provide his study with its conceptual framework and over which he exercises an easy control. It is almost outrageous that he should in addition have unearthed a substantial number of primary documents—family papers, diaries, letters—that speak eloquently to his topic. In short, this is a very learned book, bringing to the subject of Victorian sexuality far richer empirical resources and greater analytic acuity than any previous study.

One is loath to reduce such a large and complex book to a single thesis. But since it tilts so provocatively at received wisdom about Victorianism, it virtually demands programmatic treatment. Fairly or not, it is destined to be known as the book that puts sex back into the nineteenth century.

Its most consistent target of criticism is the notion that women in the Victorian age were sexually anesthetic. Gay counters this idea with evidence drawn from the diaries and correspondence of the period. His favorite authority—she is in fact made the subject of an independent biographical portrait—is Mabel Loomis Todd (1857–1932), an American whose erotic journal documents that she was unashamedly orgasmic with both her husband and her lover. Gay finds further support in the only scientific survey of female sexuality conducted during the nineteenth century, Clelia Mosher's inquiry of 1892 into the sexual lives of forty-five American women. “There were many bourgeois communions in that age,” he concludes, “which produced, for wife and husband alike, that beautiful feeling of climax which Mabel Todd knew so well.” He is careful to allow for the limitations and biases of his sources, and scrupulous to include instances, such as the Swedish novelist Victoria Benedictsson, of nineteenth-century women who were manifestly frigid. But if there is a single conviction from which he won't be separated, it is that “happy marital sexual intercourse suffused with tenderness” was the rule, not the exception, and that the pleasure of such unions was shared no less by women than by men.

One might be inclined to wonder whether this conclusion was ever seriously in question. The recent scholarly literature on nineteenth-century sexuality has been concerned not so much with what women actually experienced as with what they were officially thought to experience. This literature has been much impressed (overly so, according to Gay) by Dr. William Acton's Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857), an oft-cited text, which asserts without qualification that, if not depraved, women are sexually inert. Gay shows that Acton was in error, even about the women of his own century. But surely the more interesting question is why Acton or anybody else should have entertained such an improbable idea, and to that question, although it is intermittently addressed, Gay's book offers no clear answer. Moreover, Gay himself reveals the staying power of Acton's doctrine. It became, he says, “the prevalent though, as I have noted, by no means universal view of the matter,” and it was “still very much alive” in the 1880s. As he grows impatient with its purveyors, he is inclined to argue with them, drawing attention to contradictions between their assertions and the evidence they adduce. But such contradictions simply make us more conscious of the idea's tendentiousness and thus more eager to have it explained.

On the other hand, in documenting that Mabel Loomis Todd and her sisters not only enjoyed sex but were fully aware of their enjoyment, he speaks directly to the issue of sexual ideology and offers an important corrective to received opinion. We are inclined to forget, moreover, just how impressionable the human sexual constitution can be. Sex, after all, differs from hunger in that its demands are not intractable. It is thus conceivable, if unlikely, that the William Actons of the era might have talked nineteenth-century women out of their urges. Gay, however, demonstrates conclusively that they didn't, and his demonstration is not so gratuitous as it might at first appear.

Aside from the Victorians' curious notions about female sexuality, probably no sexual topic has attracted more attention than their ferocious campaign against masturbation. Gay's treatment of this subject seems more in keeping with traditional views than is his discussion of women. He follows the rising tide of hysteria, from its origins in the anonymous tract Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (1710) right down to the early years of the twentieth century, when sexual modernists like Havelock Ellis first broke with the notion that self-abuse led to every conceivable form of physical and psychic malady, even to premature death.

Still, although he refers to the campaign against masturbation as a “craze,” he manages to soften the derisive judgment that has informed nearly all previous studies of the phenomenon. Even in this most unpromising of instances, he is eager to rehabilitate the bourgeois century. For one thing, the more draconian therapies—whether clitoridectomies or urethral rings—were, he says, a good deal less common than simple proscriptions and threats. More importantly, he believes that the Victorians' fears about masturbation were not unrelated to their positive commitment to marital sexuality: “What made physicians, in company with their patients, so apprehensive about masturbation in the nineteenth century was that it seemed a pointless and prodigal waste of limited and valuable resources leading, figuratively and often literally, to impotence.” He also implies (along with Freud) that the modern exculpation of masturbation is psychologically naive—and hence that the Victorian craze was perhaps less than entirely crazy. In effect, he refuses to patronize his subjects, insisting instead that they spoke and acted in good faith even if sometimes ignorantly. One might say that he brings a refreshing breath of historical sympathy to his topic, forgoing the cheap pleasure of sneering at our poor demented ancestors from the superior wisdom of the twentieth century. Indeed, not least among this book's virtues is its tone, which avoids any hint of the heavy-handed self-congratulation that disfigures so many studies of past sexual attitudes.

The most ingenious feature of Gay's portrait is his discussion of what he calls “carnal knowledge”: the manner in which Victorians informed themselves about human sexuality. The object of his critique here is the widespread assumption that they were willfully ignorant about sexual parts and processes—so little able to tolerate even a metaphorical contemplation of human anatomy that they covered piano “legs” with frilled trousers. By way of correction he draws our attention to the many ways in which they demonstrably familiarized themselves with the body's organs and their workings.

Much of their knowledge, it seems, came from the unavoidable routines of daily life: from childbirth, nursing, the care of the young, the sick, and the dying. The diaries of William Gladstone, for example, reflect what Gay calls the “mammalian candor” of the age: Gladstone would rub his wife's breasts when she had difficulty lactating, and he recorded his ministrations frankly. “Husbands,” writes Gay, felt “no embarrassment as they cared for their wives' physical needs or spoke of their wives' private parts.” Moreover, he suggests that women, because of their domestic responsibilities, probably enjoyed even greater familiarity with bodily functions than did men. At the other end of the cultural spectrum, the high art of the age also contributed to the Victorians' erotic education. Painters and sculptors such as Antonio Canova, Jean Auguste Ingres, William Etty, and Hiram Powers (some of whose creations are reproduced in the book's illustrations) provided them with an uninterrupted supply of naked male and female bodies to contemplate, and, however idealized, these too were, in Gay's opinion, “a vehicle for carnal knowledge.” He is quick to concede that carnal knowledge didn't necessarily lead to carnal happiness. Yet he is inclined to think that sexual puritans like the infamous Anthony Comstock were not entirely wrong when they denounced the nude in art as dangerously seductive.

Inevitably one must ask whether Gay's ambitious and vigorously argued book is likely to succeed in its object of changing our minds about the Victorians. It aims at nothing less than a major redrawing of the cultural map. Most readers will, like myself, come to the book with a general, if vague, picture of the nineteenth century as a time of heightened sexual repression, sandwiched between the libertine proclivities of the Enlightenment and the self-conscious permissiveness of our own era. They will have derived that impression not so much from the scholarly literature on the subject—from reading, say, Steven Marcus's The Other Victorians—as from the more accessible and familiar cultural artifacts of the age. I, for example, am apt to think of Richard Wagner's Parsifal, which makes such a long and beautiful fuss about the temptations of the flesh. But even if one recalls nineteenth-century documents, such as the novels of Emile Zola, that are more forthright in their treatment of sexuality, one can't escape feeling that their very brazenness pays tribute to the larger repressive reality. It is against impressions of this sort, accumulated over years of reading and listening, that Gay must do battle, and the habit of mind that equates Victorianism with sexual repression is, I suspect, too well ensconced to be routed.

Moreover, certain ambiguities in his argument have the effect of letting us off the hook. I have already mentioned that his target sometimes shifts rather too facilely from thought to behavior and back again. I was also bothered by the elastic frontiers, both chronological and geographical, of Gay's Victorian age. Americans, for example, provide more testimony than seems warranted in a balanced portrait of the period, and many of the witnesses lived rather too far into the twentieth century to count as plausible Victorians. A special difficulty is posed by Sigmund Freud, who has an uncomfortably anomalous role to play in the book. Sometimes he is just another Victorian, testifying right alongside William Gladstone or Mabel Todd. But more often he is extracted from the historical fabric and made into a timeless authority. I am not complaining about the explicitly Freudian analyses that Gay deploys throughout the book; they are skillfully done, largely plausible, and seldom interfere with the non-Freudian's ability to learn from the book's findings. But Freud is nonetheless the victim—or beneficiary—of a bothersome double standard.

Most tellingly, evidences of Victorian sexual repressiveness seem to be forever slipping through the cracks in Gay's defense. It is a credit to his honesty that he can quote an English physician, around 1905, answering a group of Oxford undergraduates about whether women enjoy sexual intercourse: “I can tell you that nine out of ten women are indifferent to or actively dislike it; the tenth, who enjoys it, will always be a harlot.” But this kind of stuff eventually undermines our ability to sustain the counterimage of the Victorians that Gay hopes to urge upon us. In the end I found that my sense of them, although grown more complicated, had not fundamentally altered. When in the future I use the word “Victorian” as shorthand for “sexually repressive,” I will do so with a certain sense of historical reserve—even a slight case of bad faith—but I doubt that I will give up the habit. Perhaps Gay will be satisfied to have disturbed our complacency, and that, I grant, his thoughtful and weighty volume certainly does.

Charles Solomon (review date 26 February 1984)

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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 which some middle-class women bathed in chemises and boasted that their doctors had never seen them naked, even in childbirth.

Gay examines in great detail the attitudes and prejudices surrounding the interesting but tangential topic of the education of women but slights more relevant subjects such as prostitution and miscegenation. For the 19th-Century bourgeoisie, dark-complexioned people, especially Jews and Gypsies, represented the embodiment of an exotic, passionate sensuality in real and fictional form: Merimee's “Carmen”; “Rachel, When From the Lord” in Proust's “Remembrance of Things Past”; Raphaelle, who “played the indispensable role of the handsome Jewess” in the house of prostitution in Maupassant's “Mme. Tellier's Journey.” Homosexuality receives only passing mention, although the Eulenberg affair in Germany and the trials of Oscar Wilde in England were two of the greatest scandals of the era.

When discussing attitudes toward pornography and censorship, Gay seems to enjoy presenting Anthony Comstock as a comic figure. He cites the attacks of critics who gleefully questioned Comstock's motives for devoting so much of his time and attention to the literature he condemned. But Comstock's reign of censorship would never have been tolerated if large numbers of people had not endorsed his judgments—even hypocritically. Censorship was not an unpopular idea during the 19th Century: Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) contemplated preparing a bowdlerized edition of Shakespeare for girls.

Perhaps when the subsequent volumes of The Bourgeois Experience are published and Education of the Senses can be studied in context, it will seem more satisfying. Read by itself, the book is fragmented, unfocused and curiously inconclusive.

Phoebe Pettingell (review date 5 March 1984)

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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 liberal culture.” Gay is anxious to disabuse us of the notion that he has tried to whet our appetites by appealing to prurience. He stresses that he decided to start with Education of the Senses because, as a Freudian, he believes that the libido is central to understanding motivation. In addition,

I have chosen to begin this inquiry with bourgeois sexuality … to dramatize, and, I trust, to complicate and correct those tenacious misconceptions that have dogged our reading of Victorian culture as a devious and insincere world in which middle-class husbands slaked their lust by keeping mistresses, frequenting prostitutes, or molesting children, while their wives, timid, dutiful, obedient, were sexually anesthetic and poured all their capacity for love into their housework and their child-rearing.

One must wonder, though, whether Gay isn't shooting fish in a barrel. Even the popular culture has long been deluged by accounts of passionate Victorian marriages. To sell us on his thesis, the author has to demonstrate that we have in fact believed that in the last century nice women were mostly frigid, and their men suffered from degradation of the erotic principle. He tends to quote novelists as the supreme authorities. George Eliot's judgments receive respectful attention, while Carlyle and Ruskin are primarily treated as cases of psychopathia sexualis. Yet readers of The Mill on the Floss or Middlemarch probably are already aware of how ardent 19th-century females could be.

It is not always easy to be sure what audience Gay has in mind. He keeps complaining that “The historian's habit of taking Flaubert's or Marx's anti-bourgeois outbursts as though they were sober reports from the front has done little to clarify” the exact nature of middle-class life. At the same time, his own approach is so doctrinaire that only those who share his Freudian perceptions will be inclined to agree with his conclusions. For instance, he examines the “castrating sisterhood” of destructive femmes fatales in 19th-century literature and art. This is, of course, a stock theme of Romanticism. A number of recent books have tried to explain why (most notably Nina Auerbach's Woman and the Demon). Here is Gay's reasoning:

The fear of women … is born of man's early dependence on his mother, and his longing, frustrated love for her, his defenseless lassitude after intercourse, and the frightening aspect and portentous implications of the female genitals: For the boy who is likely to see a woman as a castrated male, the absence of her penis reads like a threat to his own.

This may clarify a facet of the Oedipus complex; as an explanation of 19th-century artistic preoccupations it falls flat. Why did the theme not attract 18th-century writers to a similar extent?

Despite its serious faults, however, Education of the Senses has substantial virtues. Gay tells us that one of his chief objectives is to show the staggering range of bourgeois culture, and in this he succeeds admirably. He begins with the case of Mabel Loomis Todd, long famous as the woman who brought Emily Dickinson's poetry to public attention. In most respects, Mabel reflected her middle-class upbringing. She played piano, sang, painted, and lectured with more charm than genius. But men and women admired her extraordinary personal magnetism. She was the archetypal “It” girl. Her marriage to David Todd, an astronomer at Amherst, was sexually intense. They kept track of their inventive love-making in her diary, where Mabel noted that “his presence is absolutely essential to my physical health.” Her pregnancy was a mistake she took care not to repeat. Sex was play for the Todds.

Nevertheless, this did not prevent Mabel, at 25, from falling in love with Amherst's leading citizen, Emily's 53-year-old brother, Austin Dickinson. David willingly shared his wife, staying late at the observatory to allow the lovers privacy. Mabel recorded complacently, “David is large enough to see that if he does not answer to me at every point and another does, it's not his fault, nor mine, nor the other's.” Gay guesses that her adoration of Austin was a transference of her extreme attachment to her father, and observes that few women resolve their compulsions so successfully. As he portrays her, Mabel was always lucky; and Amherst was surprisingly tolerant, taking pains not to invite Austin's wife to college functions.

Gay confirms that Mabel's frank sexuality was common for her era. Journals, letters and confidences to doctors make it plain that many women took conjugal delights for granted—and felt cheated if they missed out. In many ways, Victorians were earthier than we are. Mothers nursed infants in public (a sight we are only beginning to accustom ourselves to). Babies were born at home. No less diverse fathers than William Ewart Gladstone and Richard Wagner took time out from their schedules in the masculine world to assist with the deliveries, without any coaching from Lamaze. Sickbed attendance was a necessary skill, and corpses were laid out in the parlor.

Nor was the naked body a mystery, since parks and public buildings were ornamented with realistic statues and paintings. True, they were required to be cloaked with allegorical significance. It was acceptable to represent Eve, or Helen, or the Spirit of Electricity as a nude, but to depict the artist's model as herself was obscene. One of Gay's most amusing discussions features Hiram Powers' sculpture of “The Greek Slave”—a girl dressed only in chains. It inspired an almost religious rapture among the churchly. The Reverend Orville Dewey gushed that she was “clothed all over with sentiment, sheltered and protected by it from every eye.” Writers suffered more, because censors rarely discriminated between the highest and basest motives. “A sensual lyric poem by Algernon Swinburne, a sober manual on contraception by Robert Dale Owen, and a pornographic story by Anonymous were all the same, all certain to corrupt and deprave the innocent.”

Privacy was a Victorian obsession. Lives and writings of the great were routinely bowdlerized by their relatives, not simply of embarrassing material but of every reference to family life. Although Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne apparently shared as sensual a marriage as the Todds, the widow destroyed all passages referring to it after her husband's death. Between censorship and the disinclination to discuss personal matters, information about things like birth control was hard to come by. Charles Goodyear vulcanized rubber in 1839; by 1850, he had patented several moderately reliable prophylactics. Yet many women did not learn about them and continued to resort to abortion to limit their families—especially in America.

Gay also points out that men frequently entered wedlock as fearful and inexperienced as their brides. When Effie Gray annulled her unconsummated marriage to John Ruskin, and married the painter John Everett Millais, she had to comfort his nervous tears on their wedding journey. In this instance there was a happy ending, but Ruskin's tragedy was far from unique. Doctors terrified many men by thundering against the “perilous waste of energy” expended in semen. Their reassurances were equally misplaced: They tried to buck up timorous males by maintaining that nice girls had very little interest in sex; any performance would more than satisfy them.

In general, the 19th century was an age of anxiety, its society in flux. “The world has changed less since Jesus Christ than in the last 30 years,” Charles Péguy, the French Catholic poet, declared. And Thackeray joked that “We who lived before the railways are antediluvians—we must pass away.” Time seemed to speed up as life became removed from seasonal patterns. Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents to prove that the elimination of such elemental worries as finding food and shelter only leads to more diffuse panic. He was, Gay argues, bourgeois to the core himself, otherwise he could not have spoken so eloquently for the middle-class psyche.

Perhaps the cardinal achievement of Education of the Senses is capturing the mood of a century as it tried to woo stability and progress simultaneously. Gay's study turns out to be written very much in the spirit of the great Victorian popularizers. He concludes his opening installment on a fittingly optimistic note:

The age, after all, called for largely untried responses to establish, or readjust, the relative shares of freedom and obligation and to regulate anew the relations between man's fundamental, often clashing drives. But there was … reason to hope that savagery might be tamed by civilizing Eros, ‘sensuous force,’ as George Eliot put it, ‘controlled by spiritual passion,’ lust mastered by love.

Paul Johnson (review date June 1984)

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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 Washington, D.C. in the 1860's and was later to become the wife of an Amherst astronomer and the woman responsible for bringing Emily Dickinson's poetry before the reading public, kept of her “erotic life.”1 Professor Gay has an engaging manner and a sharp eye for a telling quotation and a choice example. Even experienced students of the period will find plenty here that is new and interesting.

Nevertheless, at bottom this book is a lot of miscellaneous information chasing a subject. It lacks a pervasive theme and a solid shape. The title of the larger project, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, gives the game away. Let us take the three elements in turn: “Victoria,” “Freud,” “Bourgeois.”

I am coming to believe that the term “Victorian,” which was coined in its popular, pejorative sense by Bloomsbury intellectuals, ought to be avoided by historians, even in reference to English history. A change in tone toward religiosity and public decorum had set in long before Victoria came to the throne. Her personal impact was really limited to the period when she was under the influence of Prince Albert, that is, from the early 1840's to his death in 1861. From 1868 on, the first Gladstone government ended the Victorian consensus, if there ever was one; and the financial crisis and agricultural distress of the late 1870's introduced a new age of economic change and social strain.

In many ways Victoria herself was most un-“Victorian,” with much wider sympathies than most of her subjects, and especially the official and ruling classes. For instance, she had warm feelings toward the Jews, dating from the days when she stayed as a child in Sir Moses Montefiore's house in Ramsgate. Also, as anyone who visits the most personal of her homes, Osborne, can see, she loved her Indian subjects, whose portraits and mementos clutter the house. The prime ministers she liked best, Melbourne and Disraeli, and the servants who won her confidence, John Brown and the Munchi, were all tremendously un-“Victorian” as well. Inside that round little body there was an impulsive radical struggling to get out, and sometimes succeeding. What she was not (as Gay claims) was a bourgeoise: no bourgeoise ever ate breakfast off solid gold.

Gay's use of Freud also seems to me misleading. Most of Freud's best work was done around the turn of the century, but his impact on the wider world outside Vienna did not begin until the end of World War I. Then, in due course, it was seismic; but it is largely irrelevant in terms of Gay's period. Gay appears to be a more or less orthodox Freudian, and that is a disadvantage to a historian now that most of us have come to see Freud not as a scientist but as an imaginative writer, if an original and illuminating one. Gay is not so foolish as to buy the full psychobiography and psychohistory package, but I shudder when he tells us his purpose is “to integrate psychoanalysis with history.” How would it sound if one said one's purpose was to integrate phrenology/table-turning/mesmerism with history?

Gay, indeed, is obsessed with Freud, who pops up in his text persistently and incongruously. We have Freud on the use of Latin, on John Stuart Mill, on the spread of contraception, on Malthus, on breast-feeding, and on many other matters. Thus, discussing Mary Wood-Allen's book on what to tell children about sex, Gay cannot help noting: “Sigmund Freud intensely disliked this kind of equivocation.” Informing us that Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone had eight children in fourteen years, Gay feels bound to add: “The Freuds had six children in eight years.”

But a more fundamental objection to Gay's framework is his use of the word “bourgeois” to characterize his period. He frequently refers to it as “the bourgeois century.” The implication is that the dominant culture of the 19th century, in Europe and North America, was that of the urban business class. I believe this to be not so much a grotesque over-simplification as fundamentally invalid. Gay himself admits and dismisses at length problems of definition, conceding that some historians argue that the reality of bourgeois power in the 19th century has been much exaggerated. But after this genuflection, he hurries on to do what he had intended all along, ignoring the very substantial objections to his fundamental assumption.

But these objections cannot be ignored. The nearest approach to a bourgeois society before 1900 was the United States. Even there, the description is misleading. Until the 1860's, the South was very much a gentry society, as were for long after states like Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and even parts of California. Parts of New England, up to 1900 and beyond, were highly stratified under the leadership of commercial dynasties which had perhaps more in common with the Medicis in Florence or the Moncenigos in Venice than with Dickens's Dombeys or Veneerings. From the late 1870's, the United States was expanding with such astonishing speed, both geographically and demographically, and receiving such vast numbers of peasants, small tradesmen, craftsmen, and refugees from so many quite different backgrounds, as to defy any kind of social-cultural classification. In due course, a cultural fix was imposed, and it was middle-class of a kind; but it came only in the 1920's when immigration began to slow down. One might say, indeed, that the true bourgeois age began in the United States only during World War I, and thereafter lasted until the late 1950's.

The position in Europe was not so very different. Up to the fall of the Kaiser in 1918, Prussian Germany was ruled by Junker landowners. The Liberals and even the Social Democrats might do well in elections but they never exercised real power. Even civilian ministers addressed the Reichstag in uniform; it is difficult to imagine anything less bourgeois than that. It was precisely because the dominant German culture was so deeply militaristic that the bourgeois Weimar republic proved so feeble and was so easily overthrown by the Nazis. The Austrian empire was less homogeneous, but in all essentials court and aristocracy retained their power until the Hapsburgs left their throne: bourgeois politics was for local and occasionally regional government.

France was a more complex case. To begin with, it had four aristocracies: two Bourbon (noblesse d'épee and noblesse de robe), one Orleanist, one Napoleonic (itself divided into First and Second Empire titles). They were mutually exclusive with distinct cultural variations, not least on sexual mores. Broadly speaking, and with help from the Church and the high bourgeoisie, they governed France, except for brief intervals, until they lost effective long-term power during the struggles over the Dreyfus case in the decade from 1895 to 1905. There is something to be said for the view that the general election and Combes ministry of 1902 was the first time the French middle class took possession.

Much the same is true of the British general election of 1906. Gay's notion of the “bourgeois century” does not fit the facts of 19th-century Britain. The Reform Bill of 1832 did not hand over power to the middle classes. The commercial interest might win victories, such as the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, but for at least a generation longer the gentry were dominant in Parliament. If we look at the cabinet Gladstone formed in 1880 after an overwhelming Liberal victory, what do we find? Of fourteen members, one was a duke, one a marquess, five were earls, and one of the commoners was of Plantagenet descent. Its Conservative successor in 1885 numbered one duke, one marquess, three earls, a viscount, and a baron; of eight commoners, three were the sons of dukes and three others were closely related to the nobility. Even the famous radical cabinet of December 1905 had (of nineteen members) a marquess, three earls, two barons, and five landowners.

Gay is often baffled by European class structures. He cites Gladstone constantly, referring to his “punitive evangelical superego” and his “bourgeois conscience.” But Gladstone was not an evangelical but a High Anglican. Furthermore, although his family background was Scots-Liverpool commerce, his education was at Eton and Oxford, and his classical Anglican culture was that of the upper class; he married into one of the oldest landowning families in Wales, lived in a castle, and managed a large estate. He was a pillar of London society, and his diaries show he went on the usual summer-autumn round of country houses; when he dined alone at his club he drank an imperial pint of champagne like any other grandee.

Far from the middle classes taking over society with their culture, it was the other way around until 1914. The single most striking phenomenon of 19th-century social culture was the cult of the gentleman, the engine of which was bourgeois emulation of upper-class behavior. As the novels of Trollope repeatedly demonstrate, the decisive question in mid-19th-century England was whether a man could plausibly call himself a gentleman; that was the dividing line. The phenomenon was not confined to England or the English, as Henry James makes clear. Indeed it was everywhere. An immigrant like Karl Marx, sweating away in London at Das Kapital and so poor he was constantly in and out of the pawnshop, nevertheless forbade his daughters to work and kept them at home playing the piano and painting watercolors so that he could “prove” they were ladies.

Marx betrayed his confusions when, in the 1848 Manifesto, he and Engels referred to “the idiocy of rural life.” The bourgeoisie no longer agreed with him on this point. By mid-century they were acquiring country houses, if they were successful enough, and so aspiring to gentry status and with it absorbing an aristocratic culture of a sort. Dickens's Mr. Dombey Senior was already old-fashioned, clinging to his grand merchant's house in the City. A generation later he would have been building in the country, like Galsworthy's Soames Forsyte. The essence of the bourgeois is that he is a city dweller. He changes his status, and culture, when he acquires broad acres.

Gay quotes Stendhal: “The bourgeois has replaced the Faubourg Saint-Germain, and the bank is the aristocracy of the bourgeois class.” But by the time Stendhal wrote, English banking families like the Coutts and the Carringtons (né Smith) were already in the aristocracy proper and reflecting its culture. The Rothschilds began to lose their bourgeois status when they left Frankfurt. By mid-century they were acquiring country palaces, like Ferrières-en-Brie, Mentmore, Tring, and Waddesdon. Their culture was that of the court, the great art dealers, the fashionable jewelers and carriage-makers, Ascot, and Vincennes. Their attitude to morals reflected ruling-class habits. At Waddesdon, for instance, I have seen a staircase built so that Victoria's heir, the Prince of Wales, could communicate with the bedroom of his current mistress when both were guests of the Rothschilds.

The Rothschilds were exceptional but not unique in their upward mobility. Gay quotes Heine as an excoriator of bourgeois cultural values. But Heine's own family reflects the upward movement which confuses the line of class demarcation. One of his brothers became a baron; another married into the nobility and acquired a “von”; other members of the family became barons, duchesses, and princesses, and even a reigning prince of Monaco. The culture of many members of the Heine family was no more bourgeois than (in a different way) was Heine's own.

In short, the framework of Gay's book lacks accurate definition and, above all, chronological precision. Am I being pedantic? I don't think so. Gay's method of writing history makes large claims. It springs in part from the French Annales school of “total history” which, under its progenitor Marc Bloch, cast beams of light into remote corners of the Dark Ages but which, under Fernand Braudel and Le Roi Ladourie, and still more among their imitators, has been characterized by pretentiousness and flatulence. Its greatest weakness, issuing from the desire to avoid narrative and consequential argument at all costs, is the lack of a chronological framework. History without chronology tends to degenerate into fuzzy anecdotage.

In his multivolume study of capitalism, Braudel habitually strings together snippets of evidence from different periods and widely disparate societies to prove a specific point. Gay follows this unsatisfactory method. Thus, to show that “death provided material for heartless humor” in the “culture” he says he is anatomizing, he cites evidence from 1826, 1859, and 1885, drawn from England, France, and Germany. Both the geographical and still more the chronological span are much too wide. After all, 1826 was the morrow of Byron's death, 1885 the eve of T. S. Eliot's birth. Or, to put it another way, 1826 saw the opening of the first commercial railroad, 1885 the first automobile. To have any useful meaning, a cultural generalization requires a much sharper focus than this: often, a decade is too long.

I stress the defects of Gay's methodology because the taxonomy and presentation of evidence are even more critical than usual when the subject is as elusive as sexual behavior. Gay's book suggests that it is not possible, at any rate at present, to characterize 19th-century sexuality with any precision, and certainly not to give it a “bourgeois” label. American society, not surprisingly in view of its origins, had always set unprecedented standards of sexual propriety in public, and the 19th century brought no essential change, so far as one can see. In England, there was a marked improvement in court morals from the 1840's, and in upper-class morals, at any rate for public consumption. In both Britain and the United States, contemporaries agreed there was a falling off during and immediately after World War I.

But all this is commonplace knowledge. Gay's material shows there are exceptions to any and all generalizations. There are also great continuities. Byron went into exile in 1816 at least partly to avoid scandalous disclosures about his sexual habits. Oscar Wilde went to jail and exile in 1895. Thirty-five years later, Earl Beauchamp was forced into exile for exactly the same reason, thus providing Evelyn Waugh with his Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited. As recently as the 1950's, one of my Oxford contemporaries, Lord Montague, was jailed for this kind of offense.

The big change, it seems to me, came in the 1960's, perhaps the biggest change in sexual mores in the whole history of the West. But even then some continuities remain. In 1886, Gladstone, compiling his cabinet list, felt obliged to write “unavailable” against Sir Charles Dilke's name because that enterprising baronet was already publicly associated with a salacious divorce action. Last autumn, Cecil Parkinson was forced to leave Mrs. Thatcher's cabinet when behavior in every way less reprehensible than Dilke's was publicly disclosed. Publicity is the criterion, as it nearly always has been. There seems to be a strong and continuing popular desire that homage should be paid to virtue in public, irrespective of what happens in private. And, pace Peter Gay, that is about the only generalization it is safe to make.


  1. The correspondence of Mabel Loomis Todd and her lover Austin Dickinson (Emily's brother) has recently been published in a selection by Polly Longsworth, Austin and Mabel, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 449 pp.

Anthony Storr (review date 8 March 1986)

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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 history. How can psychoanalytic interpretation of a dead person be validated when he is not there on the couch to confirm or reject the analyst's perceptions? How can a system of thought which took origin from a particular culture, that of 19th-century Vienna, be profitably applied to the understanding of other cultures which are remote both geographically and temporally? Although Gay is historian first, psychoanalyst second, he is so convinced of the truth of the fundamental precepts of psychoanalysis that a good deal of his book [Freud for Historians] is concerned with attempting to refute these and other objections. Gay knows his Freud backwards, and his summary of psychoanalytic theory can be recommended as both accurate and succinct.

Gay points out, with reason, that professional historians are bound to operate with some theory of human nature, even if this is implicit rather than explicit. Gibbon affirmed that history is ‘little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind’: but if the historian is to give any explanation of those crimes and follies, he must subscribe to some view of human motivation. In the past, so Gay alleges, historians have been committed to the dominance of self-interest in human affairs.

If, for psychoanalysis, man is the wishing animal, he is, for the historian, the selfish animal. The two are not identical: the first struggles to reduce his tensions under the unremitting impress of the unconscious; the second lives under the sway of conscious egotism.

But straightforward self-interest hardly furnishes sufficient explanations for irrational phenomena like the Nazi holocaust, the great witch-hunts, religious fanaticism, or racial prejudice. As Gay writes: ‘Many historians have heard the music of the past but have transcribed it for penny whistle.’

Moreover, some psychoanalytic ways of thinking have become so much part of our contemporary mental furniture that historians use such terms as ‘death wish,’ or ‘unconscious attitudes’ without feeling any need to explain them. Gay quotes an interesting exchange with Keith Thomas, whose Religion and the Decline of Magic, and Man and the Natural World he rightly admires. In a letter, Thomas acknowledges that, as a young man, he read a great deal of Freud, but also states that his admiration of Freud was heavily qualified and that he has never ‘self-consciously applied psychoanalytic concepts to history.’ Gay says that ‘Thomas scatters evidence of being very much at home in Freud's domain.’ I think Gay is right in supposing that no one, apart from strict behaviourists, can write about human beings today without employing concepts originally derived from psychoanalysis.

But, like so many persons who have undergone psychoanalysis in the USA, Gay seems far too much a Freudian fundamentalist. For example, he accepts that ‘The Oedipus complex appears to be the lot of humans everywhere,’ without considering that, in polygamous cultures, or even in cultures in which the ‘extended family’ is usual, the child's emotional relation with its parents is very different from that obtaining in the nuclear families of the west. Many psychoanalysts acknowledge the difficulty of treating patients from cultures other than their own because basic assumptions about human nature vary so widely.

Gay also accepts Freud's work on the interpretation of dreams, which he calls ‘magisterial.’ In spite of the fact that Freud thought his dream theory was the most valuable of all his discoveries, rather few analysts on this side of the Atlantic now accept it.

Gay draws attention to a number of historical works of which he approves which owe a debt to psychoanalysis. Among them are Maynard Solomon's biography of Beethoven, and E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational. Solomon's interpretations of Beethoven's misreading of his birthdate and of his emotional involvement with his nephew may or may not be convincing; but, to my mind, they are far from being the most interesting parts of his excellent biography. In Freud and the Humanities (1985), the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, who was both an admirer of Dodds's work and also a personal friend, calls The Greeks and the Irrational ‘a splendid book.’ But he adds: ‘The parts of it that are already showing signs of wear are just those parts in which influence of psychoanalysis and of the social anthropology that sprang from it is most perceptible.’

I entirely support Peter Gay in his contention that historians ought to be better informed about psychology and psychiatry. But Freud had only three weeks' experience as a locum tenens in a mental hospital in direct contact with insane patients, and it is the study of psychotic processes and psychotic individuals which is particularly relevant to history. That such knowledge can enrich historical studies is, to my mind, best exemplified by the work of Norman Cohn, whose scholarship is impeccable, and whose The Pursuit of the Millennium, Europe's Inner Demons, and Warrant for Genocide, remain model studies of how paranoid delusions can infect whole societies and lead to such horrors as the persecution of witches and the Holocaust. I find it odd that Gay makes no mention of Cohn's work.

I admire Peter Gay's writings, and I shall continue to read his other works with pleasure. But I wish that he had written a book on ‘psychology for historians’ which took into account other points of view than that of Freud. Freud was certainly a man of genius; but he appears to have been wrong about so much that his ultimate importance may be that of an agent provocateur rather than that of a discoverer of ultimate truths.

Anthony Storr (review date 14 June 1986)

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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, presenting a fiction of respectability. Gay, in his first volume, drew on so wide a range of letters, journals and other records that he not only persuaded one of the falsity of this myth, but left one with the feeling that no generalisations of any kind about bourgeois sexual experience were possible.

This second volume is equally rich in content, but better organised and easier to grasp as a whole. Gay's range, the width of his reading, in English, German and French, is formidably extensive. It is not surprising that these volumes have been ten years in the making. Whatever one may finally think of his conclusions, there can be no doubt about the value of what he has recorded as a source-book. Love is more interesting than sex, and the vicissitudes of the ‘tender passion’ in both the fiction and the real lives of the Victorians is an enthralling subject.

Gay is particularly good on the novel. Love, he claims, is ‘the governing preoccupation of 19th-century novelists.’ Even the nihilist, Bazarov, in Turgenev's Fathers and Children ‘falls victim, much to his astonishment, to love's sting’: while Trollope, who wrote Miss Mackenzie to prove that a novel can exist without a love interest, confessed himself defeated and has the old maid marry an old man. French novels, though thought dangerous, were acknowledged as being superior in interest to their British counterparts; but Fitzjames Stephen's review of Madame Bovary for the Saturday Review describes the character of the heroine as ‘essentially disgusting.’ Even so, Stephen was too honest a critic not to realise that some English authors, by writing only what was considered fit for young ladies to read, were in danger of emasculating themselves. In the 1850s, we are certainly a long way from a society which allows the publication of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Histoire d'O, but Gay adroitly makes it clear that Victorian conflicts over censorship were different from our own in degree, but not in kind. Although by the 1880s ‘the islands of reticence were visibly shrinking,’ ‘not even the writers uncomfortable with common constraints, including Meredith, Hardy, and Fontane, would provide physical details of love-making or adultery.’ It was not until the 19th century had given way to the 20th that more explicit description became possible. Then things appear to have moved rapidly. Gay begins a chapter called ‘Problematic Attachments’ with Proust's famous description of Mademoiselle Vinteuil's lesbian encounter and desecration of her father's photograph. It is surely remarkable that, even in 1913, this deliberately shocking episode ‘aroused no particular remark.’ Perhaps Virginia Woolf was right in supposing that ‘In or about December, 1910, human character changed.’

Gay points out that, even before the turn of the century, attitudes towards homosexuality were not always so vindictive as the trial of Oscar Wilde might suggest. When Dr. C. J. Vaughan had to resign from the headmastership of Harrow because of an affair with a pupil, he was found appointments in the Church of England and actually offered a bishopric by Palmerston. What Victorian London condemned was Wilde's flamboyance, disregard for propriety, and contempt for bourgeois reticence rather than his sexual tastes. Indeed, one might argue that the love which dares not speak its name was rather more acceptable before Freud than after him. Victorian men were able to speak more openly of loving one another than has been at all common until quite recently. Freud's insistence that all love is rooted in the body made people more uneasy about homosexual feelings rather than less. Could any professedly heterosexual poet today write an equivalent to In Memoriam? Would Gay himself have chosen this translation of his original surname, Fröhlich, if he had realised what its modern adjectival use would be?

In a book of this kind, there was bound to be a good deal about prostitution, that perennial Victorian preoccupation. According to Huysmans, the prostitutes of Hamburg were so patriotic that they invariably saluted the portrait of their Emperor ‘before performing the sensual rites.’ Syphilis was almost as much a plague as AIDS, though not so immediately lethal. Gay provides us with a vast amount of information, and amply illustrates the fact that Victorian attitudes to sex were far more various and interesting than most people suppose.

In spite of this, it is the figure of Gladstone which lowers over the whole period as its archetypal representative. From the 1840s onward, Gladstone made it his mission to roam the streets, trying to persuade ‘fallen women’ to rehabilitate themselves by submitting to the disciplines of Houses of Mercy. He was hardly ever successful in doing so, but could not keep away from those who clearly aroused his lust as well as his pity. Gladstone was plagued by a compulsion to read pornography, recorded his shame in his diary, and duly punished himself for his sins by literal self-flagellation. But even his punishment could not purge his guilt. ‘Has it been sufficiently considered, how far pain may become the ground of enjoyment?’ he wrote in his diary. The tortuous paths imposed by repression upon Victorian libido could hardly be better illustrated.

Noel Annan (review date 20 November 1986)

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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 seldom discussed. Privacy and reticence concealed passion, and the very ways in which the bourgeoisie sublimated love enriched their erotic life. Romantic literature and music heightened expectation. Poets and novelists turned love into an applied religion.

As a Freudian, Gay believes historians should explain the past by using the concepts of psychoanalysis. But he is not his master's voice. On the important matter of prostitution he contradicts him. Freud had argued that the Victorian obsession with prostitution—to say nothing of their fear of masturbation and preoccupation with adultery—was evidence of repression. Gay says they went to prostitutes because they were sexually superabundant. The sheer volume of the trade is evidence of the failure of repression. Of course they had to make excuses. The Victorian superego was so exigent that they made ostentatious reparation by redeeming fallen women in life as well as in literature. They did penance for the social evil; and took care that the penance should not be too pleasurable. When Gladstone discovered how much he was enjoying talking to prostitutes on his way home from the House of Commons he whipped himself in self-disgust.

Gay says that when in England a marriage was in the making, wealth and class were considered, but not to the exclusion of personal attraction. But he might have noted that Tolstoy put it differently. In Anna Karenina Tolstoy observed that the English custom of giving a girl complete independence could not be accepted in Russia. But neither would the French habit be accepted of the parents alone deciding their daughters' fate. It is true that in their concern for the sanctity of the family the Victorians drew up a code of respectable behavior and tried to ostracize those who broke it. But what was this but respect for the power of passion? They knew how powerful passion was from the experience of their own marriage bed. The very fact that they sublimated their passion expanded the possibilities of sensual love. Grand opera was such an expression, and Wagner “manifestly embodied … sexual longings and fulfillments that ordinary mortals keep to themselves.” So were the tastes for haute cuisine and for mountaineering. Trains, gardens, banquets, the very way in which clouds are depicted, even department stores, offer clues to the erotic symbolism of the times. Indeed one has to leave the actual record since so much of it has been destroyed and ransack the novel for evidence of “erotic desires and precipitates.”

In fact, Gay argues, it was the novel that undermined the bourgeois ideal of marriage. The yearning heroes, the pale heroines, exotic scenery, tempestuous Nature, cruel obstacles and deeply satisfying deaths inflated the ideal so grossly that the currency of love in marriage became debased. If love became so spiritualized and passion so overwhelming, how could both be sustained in marriage? Did not Schlegel say “a happy marriage stands to love as a correct poem stands to an improvised song”? Freud said that love was two currents, the tender and the sensual. But Baudelaire and Flaubert, who hated the bourgeoisie, considered the portrayal of tender wives and fulfilled husbands fraudulent. They declared that passion destroyed marriage; and finally Proust embroidered an enormous tapestry depicting happiness in love as an illusion, passion an obsession, and jealousy the inevitable destroyer of all affairs. So the reader is left with the paradox that some of the interpreters of this century of happy, sensual, middle-class marriages denied they existed. Or perhaps there is no paradox: the unhappy ending has superseded the happy ending.

Some books are written for the common reader, some for scholars, some for cranks. This book seems to have been written for reviewers. Contrary to the belief of authors, reviewers want to find things to praise; and here there is much to praise. Gay's breadth of reading is enormous. Bilingual in German, he is at ease in European literature. His energy is prodigious. He has dug out letters, journals, and biographies from obscure corners and revived forgotten novels; and his Freudian interpretation of this material is not narrow.

All the same it is strange in a book with the name of Victoria in the title not to find more references to the letters and journals of the great queen of the bourgeoisie. Queen Victoria enjoyed what was then called a cuddle, and no one who reads what she wrote can doubt that Albert aroused her sexually and she continued to be passionately in love with him: what she disliked was the product of her passion—babies. There is another source which Gay hardly uses: the law reports or at least the newspaper accounts of divorce proceedings and criminal actions. But even so we have at the least a superb sourcebook of material. No review can do justice to the richness of Gay's text and the examples he cites. Who would want to interrupt the flow of illustrations from the great nineteenth-century novelists or to miss the erotic anticipations and descriptions of their couplings which the apostle of muscular Christianity, Charles Kingsley, and his wife Fanny left?

But then the reviewers warm to their work. The book begins by comparing the Hamburg official Otto Beneke and the English man of letters Walter Bagehot. Does the comparison prove anything? It is certainly odd to choose Bagehot as a typical member of the Victorian middle class when he is often cited with Disraeli, Meredith, Pater, and Samuel Butler as being a good example of what Victorians were not. In any case are German, English, and French experiences comparable? Surely the institution of marriage in each country was subtly different, sometimes not so subtly. Some of the novels Gay chooses to make his case are not about marital happiness at all. And even if marriages began in physical delight was the passion sustained for decades? Beatrice Webb overcame her physical disgust for Sidney and both would every two hours or so break off their work for her to leap on his lap to embrace for five minutes. But long before the end of her life she was famous for explaining to whomever she was with that love was the wastepaper basket of the emotions. Can she really be cited as taking “an undisguised pleasure in physical intimacy”?

Moreover Gay's argument seems sometimes to contradict itself. For the nineteenth-century novelist, he says, love was the “governing preoccupation.” But when Gogol refuses to include any “intimations of deep erotic involvements in his fictions,” Gay declares that this was an “indirect tribute to love by his energetic exertions to evade it.” Freud may have been the first to reverse the accepted view that nervousness and hysteria were caused by sexual excess and by the pace of city life. But then Gay confesses that Freud's patients were abnormal types very different from the happy uninhibited married couples whom he declares were typical of the age. In other words Freud may have been right to diagnose repression as the cause of hysteria but he was wrong to conclude that repression governed the behavior of most middle-class couples. If Freud is so wrong about Victorian culture as a whole, why should we try to apply his concepts to that culture?

In Britain the Oxford professors have given Gay a hard time. For John Carey, Gay's book is a prime example of “Americanismus,” that “mixture of dauntless enterprise and naive optimism that alarms Europeans when they ponder the American mind.” When religious Victorians declared their love to be pure and holy, were they not in fact admitting to religious guilt, Carey asked. Saint Jerome's dictum that all ardent love for one's wife was adultery was never far from their minds. For John Bayley the central theme of Gay's book is a platitude: Who ever supposed otherwise than that husbands and wives were frank with each other about what turned them on? The middle classes were sensible to preserve appearances and never to talk or write about what excited them: people's inhibitions and society's injunctions stimulated the emotions and heightened the drama of love more than today's permissiveness. That was what made the Victorian novel so rich. Baudelaire, Flaubert, Hardy, and all those novelists who denounced the censorship that the law or public opinion imposed upon their publishers were killing the goose that laid the golden eggs. Tell “all” and all becomes banal. Henry James and Ivy Compton-Burnett were far wiser in letting the reader discover what was going on beneath the surface.

Some reviewers have not done Gay justice. The application of the human sciences to history and biography has led to marvelous illuminations; and possibly the skepticism of the British critics toward Gay's book can be explained by the fact that British culture has not been permeated by Freud to the same extent that American culture has been. To use the insights of psychoanalysis came as naturally to Hollywood as it did to the finest critics, such as Lionel Trilling. Nor is there anything wrong in using ideal types to distinguish between one form of behavior and another, whether the types are created by Freud or by Weber. Psycho-biography starts with ideal types and intends to show the subject of the biography displaying traits identical to those which research has shown to be a common pattern of behavior. We can complain, however, if the biographer acts like Procrustes and either stretches his victim's body or cuts his legs down to size in order to fit the bed of his typology. Gay does not do so. He is only too willing to show deviations from stereotypes and to remind us of the variety of ways in which human beings react to the unconscious promptings of infantile sexuality to which they are predestined. Although I am uncertain what he means when he says that Bagehot's public life and writings “exhibited a certain emotional ground tone testifying to the imperialistic ventures of libido in unsuspected places,” he is sensible and sparing in the use of Freudian terms.

Some people might complain that if the social sciences are to be summoned to explain Victorian marriages, the anthropologist would have more to offer than the psychoanalyst, because marriage is an institution in which kinship, law, property rights, dowries, and numbers of other factors condition its possibilities and its effect upon society. But Gay shows in his text and bibliography that he is acquainted with the relevant anthropological texts.

He is for example at his best in his analysis of Victorian prostitution in all its manifestations, from the famous courtesans, to the kept women, to the brothels, and then to the streetwalkers. The trade was so widespread that none in a town could fail to encounter it or in the country to hear of its effects. Yet rare were the instances when it sullied the pages of an English novel (which was why the respectable went on about the wickedness of French novels). Nevertheless, dozens of social analysts in Europe wrote articles about prostitution, and some concluded that it was the price bourgeois society was willing to pay for its repressions. It was also the price paid for the chastity and stability of the institution of marriage. In 1890 Grant Allen declared that prostitution was the safeguard of marriage: or as Dostoevsky wrote, “A certain percentage must every year go to the devil, I suppose, so that the rest may remain chaste and not be interfered with.”

The Victorians accordingly tried to make reforms that would reduce the evil. In France and Russia the prostitute merely became a figure of concern in the social novel, but in Prussia and England there were crusades to close brothels. Civic investigators such as Josephine Butler and Jane Addams, or societies such as the marvelously called New York Magdalen Society, tried to reclaim prostitutes and reintegrate them into wholesome livelihoods. Of course these palliatives were nothing new: medieval times had seen similar initiatives. But

the mixture of psychological pressures, economic opportunities and political space for maneuver had never been as favorable for the activation of remorseful fantasies, and their translation into reality as it was to be from the 1840s and 1850s on.

There was also another variant of the socialist explanation. Bernard Shaw, like August Bebel before him, thought prostitution was inevitable in a capitalist society. End capitalism and prostitution would disappear.

Yet there was one Victorian at least who knew many of the reasons why women became prostitutes in one guise or another. This was the by now famous author of My Secret Life, to whom Steven Marcus introduced us in his pioneering work The Other Victorians. That astonishing work is not quoted by Gay and in his bibliography he mentions a review of Marcus's book but not the book itself. What emerges from My Secret Life is that, while poverty and the male monopoly in many jobs drove women to become prostitutes, numbers of them enjoyed it. They preferred that way of life to a more steady one, and they liked the money. This truth astonished English intellectuals when in the 1950s, with increasing prosperity and full employment, the numbers of prostitutes increased at a staggering rate. As one prostitute told Wayland Kennet, who wrote a splendid article on the phenomenon, she realized one day that she was “sitting on a fortune.”1 In those days the Strich ran from Leicester Square to Queensway virtually without a break, a distance of four miles; and the government set up a committee to recommend how to deal with the scandal. Victorian convention had it that women who accepted money for giving sexual pleasure were either villainous harridans or forlorn and virtuous. Convention also had it that prostitutes got no sexual pleasure from their trade. Convention, as the author of My Secret Life discovered, is a liar. It was not only the reverend Charles Kingsley and his wife who enjoyed bed. Nor were all middle-class marriages or liaisons governed by middle-class custom. Bohemia was always a country to which some bourgeois decided to emigrate.

One's dissatisfaction with Gay's treatment of prostitution deepens with his chapter on homosexuality. Gay argues that homosexual behavior paradoxically was less frowned upon in the 1830s and 1840s than it was at the end of the century. By then the flamboyance of some homosexuals had provoked furious opposition. But help was at hand; the writings of continental sexologists and of Havelock Ellis, gingerly expressed though they might be, accustomed people to the notion that homosexuals could not help being what they were; and then at last Freud gave them “the stature they had been so strenuously denied, access to the prized domain of love.” Freud had the gift for synthesis that the others lacked. By relating homosexuality to his fundamental theory—that all human beings are bisexual and infantile sexuality determines how they develop—he showed that each of us, even the Don Juan or the nymphomaniac, had homosexual tendencies. Confirmed homosexuals could not be changed into heterosexuals: but they could enjoy love instead of sinking with shame provided society stopped treating them as criminals or madmen. What had been regarded as a vice came to be recognized as an aberration.

It did not become an aberration. On the contrary, homosexuality became at the turn of the century a cult. Gay's account seems to me to miss a good deal. To begin with he does not distinguish sufficiently between different kinds of homosexual behavior and society's reaction to them. It is not true that there was greater indulgence shown to active homosexuals in the early part of the century. At the beginning as at the end active homosexuality ending in intercourse and seminal emission was abhorred and in certain countries punished as a crime. It went on as it had always gone on, in secret. The habitual trade of the upper and middle classes with soldiers, footmen, telegraph boys, and rough stuff continued. Provided it was discreet, eyes were averted. But if a scandal erupted it meant imprisonment or exile on the Continent for an Englishman, trial and ruin for Kaiser Wilhelm's friend Eulenburg in Prussia, and imprisonment for Verlaine in France when he shot Rimbaud. Gay praises Proust for being the first novelist to be explicit about homosexuality and lesbianism: he got away with it, in Gay's view, because he portrayed both as joyless. But Proust treated both kinds of homosexuality not merely as joyless but as vice.

There was, however, another form of homoerotic behavior that was acceptable throughout the age, and one specially prevalent in the middle classes. That was the romantic friendship. In Germany it could take the idealized sacramental form of Stefan George's love for the gifted and beautiful boy, Maximin, whom he met in Munich and who was dead within three years. In England it was beautified by Tennyson, and eulogized in an astonishing and ardent passage by Disraeli. Dickens often alluded to it in David Copperfield's feelings for Steerforth or Jasper's for Edwin Drood; and he also drew the portrait of the sinister lesbian Miss Wade. So far from such friendships becoming more offensive to public opinion, by the end of the century they became stronger or more acceptable than ever. There was the new type of don whose delight was to be the guide, philosopher, and friend to the young, like Sligger Urqhuart at Balliol or Lowes Dickinson at King's; there were numbers like A. C. Benson who every five years or so would fall for a new charmer. Who dared to censure the greatest scholar of the lot for publishing A Shropshire Lad? There was the American Etonian Howard Sturgis, who lived at Windsor with his manly cigar-smoking companion known as the Babe and who entertained Henry James and a circle of friends old and young while he sat doing embroidery. Some were offended by the picture Sturgis drew of high society, but no one ostracized him when he referred in his novel Belchamber to a “great massacre of the innocents” at Eton leading to the expulsion of several boys.

Forest Reid and at least a dozen authors of public school novels described such friendships. In the 1830s, the Tractarians had attracted attention in their time for the warmth of their affections for one another. John Bayley suggests that neither Kingsley nor Newman realized how much their antagonism, which led Newman to write his Apologia, owed to the sexual revulsion that each felt for the other. For Kingsley, reveling in the delights of heterosexual intercourse in marriage, Newman's defense of immuring virgins in convents and praising celibate orders was effeminate blasphemy. For Newman, Kingsley was the school bully who could nevertheless be goaded and ridiculed. By the end of the century “spikes,” i.e., men who were Anglo-Catholic and Ritualists, were a byword for their equivocal relations with choir boys, and there were comparable low church movements such as the Boys Brigade and Baden Powell's Boy Scouts. Some sniffy comments were made. But so long as there was no public outrage a blind eye was turned to this kind of homosexual attachment.

The most remarkable, perhaps, of these romantic lovers was Regy Brett, the second Earl of Esher, who was successively a member of Parliament, a public servant, head of the Office of Works and hence of all royal residencies, who became the confidant of the old queen, the éminence grise and close friend of Edward VII, and the adviser of George V and Queen Mary. He had a finger in every pie, moved everywhere in society, and had what might be described as a susceptible heart. He had been a pupil of the well-known Hellenist and Eton master William Cory Johnson, and he stuck by him when Johnson was required to leave the school. It was there that Regy formed the first of a myriad of attachments. Every so often some new dazzling blade would cross his path whom he found irresistible. The most startling of his attachments was his second son, with whom he conducted a lyrical love affair long after the son married. Indeed he courted his son's wife, the actress Zena Dare, and was known for his devotion to the raffish Duchess of Sutherland.

Needless to say Esher was the friend of the Earl of Rosebery and of Lord Arthur Somerset, who had to leave the country after the Cleveland Street scandal involving liaisons with telegraph boys. Even more so of Lewis Harcourt, the notorious “Loulou” who tried without success to seduce both his son and his elder daughter. Harcourt was to commit suicide when he made advances to a thirteen-year-old Etonian, who told his mother, Mrs. Edward James (the one-time hostess of King Edward), who told everyone. Esher had far better judgment and knew how far he could go with whom. His excellent biographer, James Lees-Milne, judges that “to Regy sex was the corollary, and by no means the essential corollary to love.”2 He was, of course, careful not to accept any great state office—he refused to become the viceroy of India—but his refusal owed as much to boredom with ceremonial and official life as to the demands of prudence.

By the end of the century other strains emerged. There was another type of don totally unlike A. C. Benson. That was the austere, silent, ascetic, patriotic conservative, such as Housman, who idolized a soldier's red coat as an emblem of protection and self-sacrifice, the soldier who would die for him in battle while he sat in the shadows editing Manilius. Wittgenstein, Montherlant, Saki, and T. E. Lawrence were among those who prided themselves on not showing emotion. They admired the brave and the hardy and despised the effeminate.

And so it came about that the different shrines of homoerotic behavior—the religious, the martial, the romantic, the pathic, the Hellenist—began to attract worshipers, and their worshipers began to recognize that despite some antipathies—for instance an aversion to sissies or queens—they were celebrating the same mysteries.

The cult attracted those among the young who wanted to show their contempt for the morality of the Establishment in the same way that each in their time, young communists, hippies, or student rebels, did. The Establishment reacted. The successors to the reforming headmasters of the English public schools, who had stopped the orgies that early Victorians hinted at in their memoirs, tried to stamp out the practice. But in vain. Wilde's sentence was assumed to be a sufficient warning to the amoralists. It proved to be nothing of the sort. The cult grew even stronger, and during the inter-war years suffused European culture, especially in the performing arts. Its headquarters were in Paris, but every European capital had its own places of pilgrimage. To join the cult was to live a partly clandestine life. Not so clandestine that other adherents could not at once recognize a brother by speech or dress, movement or looks. There were passwords and phrases that proclaimed allegiance to the fraternity. But except in a few cases the differences were not so exaggerated as to divide the fraternity from the rest of society. It was a way of mocking society, not of dissociating oneself from it. Conformity to social norms, while flouting the most fundamental norm, was part of the game.

Gay should have asked himself whether the Victorian ideal of marriage was responsible for turning young men to the homosexual way of life. The growth of the cult in late Victorian times was in part a reaction against the ideal of spiritual womanhood lifting carnal man upward to a higher life. The dismay that some young Englishmen felt, when faced with the ideal of the innocent wife and child-bearing mother, was matched by their distaste for the melodrama of courting a mistress or of the saunter to the brothel, after which one became obsessed by the fear of venereal disease. They felt defrauded if a girl had to be either a plain-speaking, plain-looking bluestocking or a demure and dutiful wife. It is true that George Meredith imagined a new kind of woman in his novels; the girl of spirit, wit, sensitivity, and imagination with whom to be in love would be delight and to live with in marriage a perpetual pleasure; and perhaps Margot Asquith was an awful warning of what happened when Meredith's dream was realized. Of course there were witty and companionable women, but more often than not the mid-Victorian girl was replaced by the uneducated, conventional Edwardian girl corseted by the conventions of her class and determined come what may to impose her will on those affairs that were not entirely a masculine preserve in that male-dominated society. No wonder American girls so often made desirable matches. They were renowned for their independence, spunkiness, and ability to please; whereas young Englishmen were renowned on the Continent for their gaucherie with women.

No one could possibly blame Gay for not following the homosexual cult into the days between the two wars when it flourished most luxuriantly. Still less for not remarking on its replacement by the political movement of gay liberation when the cult disappeared and was no longer chic and daring. We need synthesizers if only to stimulate and to make new distinctions, and no one except Peter Gay has had the energy and learning to attempt the task. There will, however, be those who will shake their heads over attempts to encapsulate the experience of a social class not merely in one country but in Europe and America and not merely in one or two decades but over a period of seventy years.


  1. Wayland Young (Kennet), “Sitting on a Fortune,” Encounter (May 1959), pp. 19–31.

  2. James Lees-Milne, The Enigmatic Edwardian (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1986).

Philip Pomper (review date summer 1987)

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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 critics who find quackery in all three. For example, Gay cites recent works in psychology, anthropology, and sociology which lend support to the theory of the Oedipus complex. Although he does not deal with all of the latest critiques of philosophers of science (Grünbaum's, for example), Gay reviews Popper's early attack upon psychoanalysis—his finding that it could not pass the test of falsifiability—and shows how less original critics, such as Stannard, monotonously continue Popper's tradition. Gay's rebuttals are measured and graceful. His erudition as a Freud scholar serves him well and permits him to show, sometimes by letting Freud speak in his own voice, how the master's intellectual strenuousness and integrity brought him face-to-face with the methodological difficulties of psychoanalysis. In addition, Gay contends with those who defend themselves against psychoanalysis by misrepresenting both Freud and his science.2

Gay does not break any new ground for psychohistory, but is content mainly to exhibit what has already been achieved and points to the road from couch to culture long travelled by psychohistorians. He perpetuates one of the commonly criticized practices of psychohistory expressed in the idea that the “individual is the culture writ small, culture the individual writ large” (148). Contemporary psychohistorians thus continue a long tradition, which runs from Plato through Freud. Gay's willingness to transpose terms borrowed from individual psychology (which had itself used metaphors and terms taken from various spheres of culture) to history is a token of his acceptance of Freud's program as succinctly outlined in the autobiography: “the events of human history … are only the mirror of the dynamic conflicts between the ego, the id and the superego which psychoanalysis studies in the individual, the same events repeated on a larger stage” (180). Thus, Gay finds Freud's notion of a cultural superego still serviceable; so, too, is the notion of cultural defense mechanisms. For example, both legal codes and religious rituals can be included under cultural defense mechanisms. Gay even suggests that a history of cultural defense mechanisms is the next assignment for psychohistory and offers Thomas' Man and the Natural World as a step in that direction, although Thomas himself does not use a Freudian idiom. Among Gay's other exemplars are historians like Dodds and Demos, both of whom examined societies in transition and reinterpreted cultural expression in the light of psychoanalytic theory and symptomatology. Erikson also fared well in Gay's survey of practitioners.3

One is left with the feeling that, for all its gracefulness and good sense, this study of psychohistory lacks either a compelling thesis or novel approach. Gay does well to remind us that enlightened sociologists, anthropologists, and historians have all added psychoanalysis to their repertoire in their quest for a grasp of the totality of human experience. It is good to have a historian of Gay's stature stand up for the honest, probing work that both he and his exemplary psychohistorians do. Perhaps this is the sort of introduction to the field needed by a new generation of historians, who one hopes are interested in defenses of psychohistory and who would do well to avail themselves of the book's very good bibliography. But for those already laboring in the field, there will be no surprises.


  1. Sigmund Freud (trans. and ed. James Strachey), Totem and Taboo, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud (London, 1913), XIII; idem, “An Autobiographical Study: Postscript,” in ibid. (1925), XX, 71–75.

  2. Adolf Grünbaum, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique (Berkeley, 1984); Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (New York, 1965; 2nd ed.); David Stannard, Shrinking History: On Freud and the Failure of Psychohistory (New York, 1980).

  3. Keith Thomas, Mau and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (New York, 1983); Eric R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, 1951); John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England (New York, 1982); Eril Erikson, Young Man Luther (New York, 1958).

Philip Pomper (review date winter 1988)

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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 and historical method shows how Victorians deployed repression and other kinds of defense mechanisms in patterns which expressed the particularities and complexities of a large and varied set of experiences. Freud had suggested the correct approach by calling for a form of history describing the changing balance of power of id, ego, and superego in human civilization.

Gay tries to plot the changing cultural superego and defense mechanisms of bourgeois Europeans and North Americans. He critically surveys the various uses of the term bourgeois in the first volume of his study. Furthermore, he uses the experiences of individuals who do not really qualify as middle class, except through the notion of bourgeois cultural hegemony. In the end, the term bourgeois itself seems inadequate and overburdened.

Gay is a man of vast learning and his background as an intellectual and cultural historian shows to good advantage in this study, but it seems unlikely that he will convince scholars who want statistical method in social history that his approach is anything but impressionistic and speculative, even though impressively learned. According to Gay's credo, given the defense mechanisms surrounding sexuality, it takes the psychoanalyst's special training to extract the hidden messages in the symbols, slips, metaphors, images, allusions, and other clues in the texts. He practices such hermeneutic skills repeatedly, but if this sort of interpretation is difficult to do for a single work of a single subject, imagine it being done for dozens of important texts and cultural personages.

Gay's two volumes will undoubtedly delight readers who are already convinced Freudians, but even they may be put off by the sheer volume of psychoanalytic aha. In a massive study peopled with dozens of important characters one easily gets lost in illustrations and anecdotes. In a study of eroticism it is even easier to succumb to voyeurism. To Gay's credit, he keeps the reader on track by frequently rehearsing the central theme—the notion that true love required a fusion of tender and sensual currents and that such a tender passion was sometimes elusive. Here too, Freud is Gay's main point of reference. Freud's pessimism about the human condition issued largely from his belief that human sexuality is inherently problematic. For Gay, he was too pessimistic. Even the Victorian bourgeoisie proved to be extremely resourceful in their erotic pursuits. To be sure, in their struggle for love and enlightened eroticism the bourgeoisie fell back repeatedly, but they were far from a terminal disorder.

Gay's book is based mainly on images and ideas of bourgeois love, eroticism, and sexuality in literature, art, and the social and behavioral sciences. After examining them and personal documents such as diaries, memoirs, and love letters, he concludes that the bourgeoisie of the Victorian era were not as libidinally impoverished as Freud and a variety of critics of “black-coated Eros” had assumed. Late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century students of bourgeois society became increasingly concerned about its nervousness, but in Gay's view they probably projected their own problems onto the larger social order. Freud himself was guilty of faulty diagnosis. Victorian eroticism (keeping in mind the great variety of middle-class erotic expression) reflected “poignant compromises between drives and defenses” (422). Although this finding may no longer seem so surprising, Gay supports it lavishly and should be credited with a study both engaging and imaginative.

Antony Copley (review date February 1988)

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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 literature and not just of the novelists one might expect to find in such a study, Dickens, Flaubert, Zola, but such obscure writers as the Portuguese ‘Flaubert,’ Eca de Queiros or the Russian, Kuzmin, with his novel, Wings, on a homosexual theme. He provides excellent summaries of the views on love of authors of the standing of Stendhal and Balzac and admirably places the debate in its historical context of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. One is tempted to say that the book could not be as good as the sum of its parts, but this would be unfair.

That ‘arch-bourgeois,’ Freud, provides one connecting thread through this immensely rich material. It was Freud, after all, who laid down that love requires the fusion of ‘the tender and the sensual.’ His theories so pervade the book that it could be described as a Freudian analysis of the Victorian psyche and its ability to the demands of the libido than as a study of the Victorians and love. This is a weakness as too often the interpretation is previsioned and does not emerge from a reading of the material. Would not Freud himself have allowed the patient more self-expression? But if the debt to Freud can be heavy-handed, it can be enlightening: the Victorian response to prostitution can both be clumsily expressed as ‘the defence manoeuvre of reaction formation in play’ (p. 350) and stimulatingly as ‘the repressed fantasy of reparation’ (p. 301). But even Freud is seen to have his limitation (and surely a major one): he exaggerated the neuroses of the bourgeoisie. He ‘misread the evidence about the prudery of bourgeois culture and its baneful consequences’ (p. 351): he ‘permitted his clinical experience to throw his diagnosis off course’ (p. 352).

This is a necessary criticism if Professor Gay is to stand by his radical reinterpretation of the Victorian as sexually fulfilled rather than repressed. We have, he says, been misled by the evidence: ‘unfortunately but not unexpectedly the pathology has proved easier to document than the felicity’ (p. 119). He also suggests that there was a gap between bourgeois discourse and practise. This re-evaluation allows the author to write history with a broad brush. As ‘the age does not directly divide into decades of mindless repression followed by decades of unbuttoned tolerance’ (p. 192) this allows an overview to sweep on to 1914, setting aside not only a distinctive era of mid-Victorian repression, but also any idea of a recrudescence of such repression in the wake of moral panic in the late nineteenth century (the Wilde affairs, etc).

Foucault came up with a new synthesis to resolve that apparent paradox of repression together with an unending debate on sexuality amongst the Victorians; such knowledge itself constituted a new form of repression. Professor Gay seems merely to be presenting an antithesis; the Victorians were not repressed but sexually liberated. However he compromises: he both recognises the didactic tone of mid-Victorian writing and ‘a slow retreat from conventional moralizing’ (p. 171) and concedes, ‘in the nineteenth century many bourgeois felt and some discontented spirits openly charged that the level of tension was too high, especially among their own numbers’ (p. 397). Yet Professor Gay has sketched a new interpretative strategy towards the nineteenth century, in some ways implausible, but worth taking seriously. His theme is that reticence permitted greater privacy and happiness: discussing the debate on homosexuality in the late nineteenth century, he writes: ‘timid revelations appeared to bring not peace but further misery’ (p. 249). He ends his study with a ringing assertion of his thesis: ‘the paradoxical speculation that the century of Victoria was more profoundly erotic than ages more casual about their carnal desires and consummations’ (p. 422). One now looks forward to his volumes on how the Victorian handled aggression.

Wilfred M. McClay (review date March 1988)

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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 virtue to some imposing conquistador, out in the embarrassing publicity of the fire escape. This latest of Peter Gay's books [A Godless Jew], based upon a series of lectures he delivered in 1986 at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is a case in point. It is nothing less than a true believer's full-throated hymn to Sigmund Freud, paying tribute to the singular courage, as Gay would have it, with which Freud unflinchingly pressed the implications of the scientific Weltanschauung to their logical conclusion, and brushed aside the pathetic collective delusion called “religion” along the way. Only an atheist, Gay argues, could have liberated his consciousness sufficiently to conceive the ultimate science of psychoanalysis; and because psychoanalysis is science, its truths are absolute, universal, and superhistorical, all the way down to the most arcane cathartic detail. As for Freud's personal background, it was valuable to him only insofar as his sense of social marginality as a Viennese Jew placed him “in opposition” to the status quo; otherwise, it played an insignificant role in the origins of psychoanalysis.

Readers of Gay's previous hymns to Freud will find all this pretty familiar. But one wonders what the young theological students in his audience felt as they listened, very politely no doubt, to these thoughts. Perhaps they were thinking about going into another line of work. “The historical tension between science and religion,” Gay remarks promisingly in his preface, is “far more intricate” than most observers have realized; but in the pages that follow, under the title “Science Against Religion,” his argument could not be simpler. The relationship between science and religion is that between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, health and neurosis. To make sure we get the point, Gay crowns Freud “the last philosophe,” thus explicitly linking him, and psychoanalysis, to the debunking, anticlerical, scientistic, and wholly secular tradition he champions. In the hands of another writer, one might think that the choice of the adjective “last” reflected a historian's sense of the Enlightenment's historicity; but in Gay's case, it reflects a belief that we are now living in the age of ultimate truths. No new philosophes need apply.

There is much wrong with this unsubtle argument, which reads in places like a gloss on the Scopes trial. To begin with, it must hold out of account the many distinguished scientists who have openly professed their belief in God; apparently these poor souls do not really understand their business. And it relies upon a distinctly 19th-century view of science, a view that has become more and more problematic with each passing year; one thinks, for example, of the revolutionary implications of developments in post-Newtonian subatomic physics, implications we have barely begun to absorb. And it is, in the end, unhelpful to talk about a scientific Weltanschauung, since there is no way instrumental reason can speak to us about the ends by which we ought to live, only the means we use to achieve them. Yet even if we set aside these initial misgivings, and agree for the time being to step aboard the leaking and listing vessel of 19th-century scientism, we immediately run into other serious difficulties.

Perhaps the foremost of these is Gay's contention, reiterated again and again, without qualifications and without irony, that psychoanalysis is a science. One would never suspect from reading Gay's book that Freud and his creation have in recent years come under a withering assault emanating from such scholars as Henri Ellenberger, Adolf Grünbaum, Frank Sulloway, and Frederick Crews, the last of whom has argued that “psychoanalysis is not appreciably different in epistemic rigor from the reading of tea leaves.” Amazingly enough, the names of these authors and their books do not even appear in Gay's bibliography, let alone his text. Instead, Gay rehearses in loving detail the very same filiopietistic image of Freud that these formidable critics have discredited almost beyond repair. Perhaps he shows a certain short-term tactical savvy in ignoring challenges rather than confronting them, but one is hard put to reconcile such tactics with the candid spirit of science.

Indeed, the strategy of claiming psychoanalysis as pure and indubitable science—and doing so by loud and confident assertion—is a counterproductive one, for it raises the stakes to a point where nothing useful can survive the inevitable unmasking. It would be far better, and more honest, to put psychoanalysis forward as a valuable model, one among many that have sometimes proved useful in the hands of skilled and sensitive practitioners, but one without privileged ontological access to the tangled reality of the human soul. Otherwise, psychoanalysis should be submitted to the sort of controlled, public, and replicable testing of falsifiable hypotheses that real scientists engage in, and its therapeutic efficacy (and cost-effectiveness) judged by its record. But it will not do to perpetuate the high-handed combination of bullying and mystification by which the claim of “science” continues to be advanced—as, for example, in the self-fulfilling idea that the world's “resistance” to psychoanalysis only serves to demonstrate the doctrine's veracity.

Another troubling aspect of Gay's book involves the sort of evidence he uses as an intellectual historian. Quite simply, the ultimate authority offered for any question involving the historical origins of psychoanalysis is always Freud himself. No one else matters. Somehow questions of biography, of historical context, and of unintended consequences, questions which affect the thought of lesser mortals—questions which Gay has put to his evidence in previous writings, often with distinguished results—are irrelevant to the consideration of Freud. It is as if Freud were immaculately conceived, and stood outside of intellectual history and all its petty conditioning forces.

Again, it seems an unfortunate error to attempt a rescue of what is valuable in Freud by claiming an implausible heroism for him; in science as in politics, full disclosure is the order of the day. One need not be very psychologically inclined to recognize that there is more to a man's thought than what he himself is aware of, no matter how intelligent he is. And one need not roll in the heavy artillery of reader-response criticism to recognize that Freud's historical significance hinges on the way other people have reacted to him and used him, and not exclusively on his assorted pronouncements about himself.

None of these considerations slows down Gay. On the question of the possible “common ground” between psychological science and religion, for example, the efforts of William James, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, and others matter for naught, because Freud asserted that there could be no common ground. Case closed. On the difficult question of what Freud's Jewishness may have contributed to his thought, only Freud's testimony truly matters; the rest is idle speculation. As for the claims that psychoanalysis is pseudoscience, this is definitively resolved by Freud's assertion that he is a scientist. As for the unconscious determinants that might have helped make Freud into the figure he became, we are treated to the functional equivalent of an eighteen-and-a-half-minute tape-gap. Freud's love of science stemmed from his professed view of nature as a beneficent mother, and his inability to stop feuding with an ever-growing list of enemies reflected (as he himself observed, of course) the fact that he worked best in an atmosphere of tension. God save us from such shocking revelations.

Perhaps Gay will deal more fully and forthrightly with these questions in his forthcoming biography of Freud. Perhaps he will answer, in a point-by-point way, the damaging criticisms made by Crews, Sulloway, et al. Perhaps he will complicate this Parson Weems-like portrait of the Master who cannot abide an untruth, and explain Freud's apparently unscrupulous behavior in, for example, the Emma Eckstein case, or his cocaine—evangelism stage, to name but two complications. Perhaps he will explain why, if we are to believe everything Freud said, we should not believe his famous admission that he was “not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker,” but rather “nothing but a conquistador, an adventurer.” Perhaps. But in the meantime, good skeptics—those who believe, with Diderot, that in matters of science “everything must be examined”—would be well advised to lock their windows and keep an eye on the back stairs. Sometimes it is better to be chaste than sorry.

P. E. H. Hair (review date April 1988)

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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 a phrase torn out of context, the research and reading on show are prodigious. Gladstone and Havelock Ellis, epitomized as men ‘who read everything,’ have nothing on Gay. Acknowledgements run to a dozen pages; and it will be wise to dispose early of one of these.

The author's ‘principal intellectual obligation is obviously to Sigmund Freud’ (i. 463), and this arises partly out of recent instruction if not conversion: ‘My debt to the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis, where I have completed my seven-year stint as a Research Candidate, is very great and very obvious’ (i. 515—the latest news is ‘officially graduated,’ certificate and all, ii. 475). Gay, aiming to write ‘not psychohistory but history informed by psychoanalysis’ (i. 8), understandably complains of ‘the uneasiness of most historians with psychoanalytic propositions’ (i. 502). However, unease is relative. It is true that most sections of the bibliography begin or close with due obeisance to the Master, but the text is not grossly overburdened with castration and Oedipal references—references which may indeed convince some readers that they have gained valuable insights. For the unconvinced, it must be said that Peter Gay is unduly humble: what he writes is in line with his previous intellectual track record, and may be patronized, but not dismissed, as inspired historical common sense (to which he might retort, post-Freudian common sense). What all may agree on is that Freud in person is a suitable character to provide a terminus ad quem for a saga of Victorian grandees caught in the toils of a bisexual world (‘Victorian’ is defined, reasonably enough, as c. 1820–1914). According to Gay, ‘Freud was only summing up the accepted wisdom when he observed that “a completely normal attitude in love” requires the uniting of … the Tender and the Sensual’ (ii. 45). Hence the titles of the volumes under review, the first dealing with Victorian sexuality in its sensual aspect, the second with the same in its tender or affectionate aspect. The two volumes counterpoint the theme, which will no doubt be enriched in the remaining volumes (the next one is provisionally entitled “The Cultivation of Hatred,” ii. 328). But our editor being reluctant to accept postponement of this review until Volume 6 appears, let us see what we have got so far.

The present 900 pages are marked by passages of fine and often powerful writing, sharp turns of phrase, arresting judgements, and innumerable controversial and thought-provoking twists of argumentation, occasionally a shade tortuous, which make the work difficult to summarize. However, the author's approach to his theme is clear enough: he wishes to rescue a group of Victorians from the popularist reproach that they were repressed prudes, whose acknowledged emotional vigour and enthusiasm in other spheres did not extend to their marital sex life. In his own words, he searches for and finds ‘happy sensual marriage among the middle class in the nineteenth century’ (i. 280). To do this, Victorian marital sentiment and erotic reticence (modesty, privacy, ‘the sacred bedroom door’) are dissected and justified, causing us to consider more sympathetically such well-worn and previously mocked episodes as Coventry Patmore's celebration of his dead Angel in the House by his own instant bedding with a second angel. If the underlying conviction that these Victorians were all-rounders contains just a smack of present fashion (‘really, they were just like us’), as well as a gallant attempt to reconcile Freudian analysis of the horrors of the Id with Victorian creativity, nevertheless it was time that the historical pendulum swung away from the cheap contempt for Victorian sexuality symbolized in half a dozen tediously repeated anecdotes, such as the one about the Massachusetts piano whose legs were trousered (i. 341, 495). In explaining Victorian reticences, and above all in emphasizing ‘the tender passion,’ the relationship between affection and sexual expression, Gay does a useful and perhaps very necessary job. En route, he covers a great deal of ground, in almost separate essays on such topics as sexual ignorance and education, homosexuality, prostitution, sex texts, pornographic literature, the femme fatale, medical views on sex, female education and feminism, contraception, the physical pains of womanhood, etc., etc. But the core of the study is sexuality in marriage.

Presumably because of the novelty of subject-matter and the originality of sources, Gay begins with sensuality. The proof that sexuality was enjoyed in marriage is afforded by personal records, mainly diaries. It must be conceded immediately that such records tend to be few and far between, even probably today; and the central argument of the study is inevitably narrow-based, as the author frequently allows. He therefore leans very heavily in his first volume on the erotic experience of one Mabel Loomis Todd. Mabel is a tremendous find, not least for historical voyeurs. Her diary records, in gushing prose and cryptic symbols, the Joys of Sex when newly married, on the hearth rug or after breakfast. And all this from an educated American lady of very comfortable means, who flourished to become in time an Amherst chairperson of public good causes, not excluding the Daughters of the Revolution. But worse, or better, was to follow. When the sexual passion of her devoted husband began to encompass any other female within hand-grasp, Mrs Todd achieved a non-Platonic passion for an elderly, dour, toupee-ed married academic, the brother—no less—of the acidulous Emily Dickinson (whose poems Mabel was the first to edit); and, allegedly with the collusion of Mr Todd and the blind eye of Amherst society, Mabel enjoyed, not only more sex but, after the death of her lover, a romantic decline—at least to the extent of allegedly losing some of her zest for life (she lived to be 75). The morals Gay draws from these episodes affirm at points his thesis, but are not the only ones that might be drawn; and some independent checking of the facts, particularly as regards the tolerance of Amherst society, might be in order. In his second volume, with less novelty, emphasis, and success the author describes the sex in marriage of the Reverend and Mrs Charles Kingsley, based on the slightly pornographic self-portraits of the exhausted couple drawn by Charles (Gay coins the nice term, ‘Glandular Christianity’). Other personal records relate to American and European professional and business men, and evidence not only sex in marriage, but also the growth of affection and its relation to sexual intention during courtship. These records are, in general, either cited for the first time in print, or at least little known.

Apart from such limited personal documents, the study makes use of a very wide range of printed sources, in the form of contemporary literary material and social and medical writings. Compared with the lively and original anecdotes of the first volume, the second is more stolid, on account of its major dependence on contemporary printed references to sex and sexual affection, references which require elaborate contextual decoding, and in particular because of its lengthy and somewhat excessive examination of ‘love’ in the Great Writings of the period. Working through Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, Dickens, Thackeray, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Fontane, Eça de Queiros, Dostoevsky, Zola, Proust et al. (hands up those who know Lodewijk van Deyssel) smacks of a compulsory course in Eur. Lit. Arguably more informative is the analysis of social and medical writings, many of them obscure works, to which this study provides an informative reference guide. The illustrations to both volumes are mainly of nudes in Victorian painting and sculpture, with and without pubic hair, with and without orgasmic rictus; but the sauciness of the illustrations gives a misleading impression of both the quantity and the quality of the study's discussion (so far) of sex in Victorian art. Finally, since ‘Lives of the Great remind us …’, Gay also provides, from published and unpublished sources, vignettes of grandees unbuttoned—Bagehot and Beatrice Potter courting, Mill dreaming irrationally, the infant Freud, Gladstone tending his lactating wife (and of course raising fallen women, on which Gay is impressively understanding). By these emphases on characters of social, literary and historical status, the second volume brings to the fore a major critical issue in respect of this study, one more profitable to pursue that it would be to describe at greater length the content of these overbrimming volumes.

The extent to which imaginative literature can inform historians beyond the immediate context of the writer's own life and attitudes is, of course, controversial. Gay has written extensively about earlier writers, and it is therefore perhaps significant of his awareness of the problem of treating ‘received literature’ as a historical source that he hides away, within a bibliography, a defensive note justifying his ‘concentration on masterpieces’ (ii. 433–4), hence his comparative neglect of ‘vulgar literature.’ As he does on many other generalized issues, throughout his study he issues cautious reservations and disclaimers about his references to the Great, whether Men or Writings. ‘It is always risky to take so outsize a figure as Gladstone as representative of more ordinary mortals’ (ii. 388). Nevertheless, the point must be pressed: exactly whose sex and love life is he writing about? How wide is the social pool which even his fine net of personal records can dredge? The saga of Mabel Loomis Todd might raise in a few agnostic historians no wider generalization than the Yorkshire adage, ‘nowt as queer as fowks.’ But even if we accept the case for Amherst social tolerance of a steamy love life, and go along with the inference that this is informatively typical: of what ‘Victorians’ is it typical?

The study begins with an introduction which discusses, at considerable length, the dimensions of the bourgois experience to be subsequently invoked, and the various and diverse meanings of ‘bourgeoisie.’ Many subtle things are said in these pages, many cautions and reservations stated. ‘To write the history of the bourgeois experience, to enter, as inquisitively as I can, into the mind of the middle class, is to hazard risky generalizations.’ Or again: ‘Perhaps the most severe hurdle impeding the enterprise of defining the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie is its troubled attempts at self-definition.’ All this said, the author then charges ahead, so that it seems fair to assess his ‘bourgeoisie,’ not from his tortured attempt at definition, but by looking at his sources.

Patently, he is not writing about society as a whole. His study is not about the sex and love life of the masses. About this a fair amount can be learned from socio-demographic sources, if not from personal records; but the hasty and crude references to working-class sexual culture in the last chapter of the second volume are not much better informed than the squinting and dismissive view of that culture by the normal Victorian grandee, whether Dickens, Engels or Freud. The diaries investigated by Gay are mainly those, not even of the middle classes as commonly understood, but of an articulate, highly literate, well-heeled upper-upper middle class; and the literature cited is that of writers who, if not themselves in the Henry James social bracket but merely down-heeled artists in garrets, were nevertheless writing for an up-market audience. The characters enjoying their sex and love life are almost exclusively men and women with money and (often) time on their hands: Mabel Loomis Todd did not wash her husband's clothes, mind the shop, or keep his accounts. And she probably spent little time in the nursery.

A second limitation concerns the geographical range of this bourgeoisie. Textual instances are drawn mainly from the USA, Britain, France, and, to a lesser extent, Germany. Holland, Spain, Brazil and Vienna squeeze in with a Great Writing each; Scandinavia (astonishingly) is little mentioned (as Gay confesses, ii. 443), Italy and points East appear not at all. This suggests considerable dependence on sources made accessible because received opinion a mere century later rates highly the writers or their writings. Is that a secure basis for the objective definition of a sexual culture? It is difficult to accept that a culture can be defined other than by cross-cultural references, in this case by contrast both with the non-‘bourgeois’ sexual cultures of Western Europe and the USA, and with the gamut of global sexual cultures.

Peter Gay, being an enlightened historian of ideas, is not afraid to hunt out ideas expressed mainly in commonplace behaviour, or lurking below the everyday conscious mind. Yet, despite the width of his exposition and the range of his reservations, there are traces in this study of a bias implicit in most writings in the history of ideas, to the effect that notions communicated in writing, or evidenced by an articulate minority, so structure general social behaviour that they can be studied in abstraction, without reference to such randomizing factors as the interplay of economic-class groups, the intellectual influences of the social majority, or technological change. Granted that The Bourgeois Experience, which mentions everything remotely connected with sex, does discuss the ‘Coming of the Condom,’ nevertheless it remains rather lofty history, almost capable of being represented as New World transcendentalism extended to the bedroom, with the bearded portrait on the wall, blessing the couple, that of Freud.

Mabel Loomis Todd, of whom so much is made (and who surely deserves an immortalizing limerick, like Lizzy Borden), was distinctly untypical of Victorian womanhood in one respect. She bore only one child (and the pregnancy defied her unscientific precautions). The author notes in passing that the pains and unpleasantnesses of pregnancy and childbirth worked for some women against the joy of sex in marriage. But the affection which he sympathetically and realistically describes is limited to that of marriage partner for marriage partner—presumably a later volume will discuss the arguably more important affection of parents for their children. In the volumes under review, the products of marital duties and marital joys are glaringly missing. The reviewer possesses a copy of a coy 1880s sex text, whose central illustration is a multi-layered figure demonstrating the female anatomy. The outer flap, depicting an ample and demure crinoline, turns over, revealing a cross-section of the trunk down to the genitalia, pubic hair and all, perhaps confirming the Gay view that Victorian women had nerves below the waist; but turn over the inner flaps, showing the muscles, bones and some internal organs, and the final and most complex flap shows—Ecce Homo—a baby in the womb.

Eugene Kennedy (review date 10 April 1988)

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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 psychoanalytic institute and incorporated Freudian principles into his explorations of Victorian life, reveals the intellectual identification with his subject that is suggested by the epigraph.

Throughout the book, Gay points out revealing slips of the tongue and the pen in the conversations and correspondence of Freud and his colleagues, applying psychoanalytic insights into these seemingly random but highly revealing incidents. A reader might be excused, then, in noting that, although Gay's thesis argues for Freud as the consistent empirical scientist of the mind, the biographer has suggested something quite different by choosing signature sentences about a heroic figure who was, for all his invention, primarily a great artist. May this not be a clue left in plain sight about the unresolved thesis that the biographer is about to pursue?

It would be hard to deny that Gay works, in immensely graceful prose, toward a portrait of his own intellectual hero that is consistent with his 1986 lectures at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, recently published under the title A Godless Jew. Freud is here the great figure of our time, the utterly rational and skeptical man of science who once and for all sundered the shackles of superstition, philosophy and religion from humankind. Psychoanalysis emerges from these pages as the science par excellence whose truths are absolute and universal.

One may read and enjoy this volume for its many virtues, but one will always be aware of the biographer's quiet but enthusiastic presence, his tireless ability to shape his materials to support his conviction that Freud embodies the triumph of scientific reason, the Jew in culture only who lived and worked as an unapologetic atheist—a model, in short, for any enlightened person of our time.

The biography briskly traces the story of Freud's life and education, deftly weaving the familiar narrative with a style that makes it seem fresh and lively. The writer also devotes long sections to descriptions of the derivation, character and intellectual content of Freud's major papers and books. He seems thoroughly at home with Freud and delivers some sense of intimacy, of being in the same room, across the cafe, or in the front row of a university audience as the master wrote, conversed or lectured. The observant writer seems to be there as well, always prepared with an explanation for Freud's behavior, crouched, one finally feels, at his subject's feet, ready to prompt him with redeeming lines and dispositions even after his most questionable and contradictory behavior.

Gay seems, for example, to reveal all sides of some disputes, such as those Freud had progressively with so many of his early friends and allies in the psychoanalytic movement. So, regarding Freud's break with Jung, Gay writes, “Freud rapidly, almost rashly, invested his affections, moved toward almost unreserved cordiality, and ended in irreparable, furious estrangement.” But, as in other critical incidents, Gay picks his way carefully through the evidence, raising the most serious of possibilities only to resolve them with reassurances about Freud's scientific and personal probity. Thus he concludes the matter of shattered friendships in this manner, “Freud was exceedingly sensitive to the charge that he needed to break with his friends, so sensitive that he sought to disarm it in print.”

He cites his subject's self-exoneration in his brief 1925 autobiography, in which Freud spoke of other associates with whom he had worked “for the most part in unclouded friendship.” This is a classical example of Gay's method: Call Freud as the best witness, let him speak, and then find in his favor. He ends this section benignly, with the kind of interpretation reserved for testimonials or eulogies. Although he has documented the opposite, he quotes Freud's words to another colleague that “independent doubt is for me sacred in everything,” and makes the decision that “he meant it, even if he sometimes forgot his humane scientific precept in the passion of combat.”

This same technique of raising serious questions about Freud's medical ethics and personal judgment may also be found in his account of his consultation with Fliess, another friend doomed to estrangement, on the case of Emma Dickstein. Fliess had operated on her, failed to remove packing gauze that caused almost fatal bleeding until discovered and removed by another physician. Freud had insisted on a psychological interpretation of her bleeding and was unmanned by the discovery of what would now be termed medical negligence on Fliess' part. Still, Freud continued his argument afterward, asserting that “her bleeding was hysterical, happened from longing … wish bleedings.” But Gay smoothly handles the questions that he places before us. “It is a paradox: here was Freud, struggling toward the laws of unconscious mental operations, exculpating the guilty and maligning the innocent, all for the sake of retaining his necessary illusion.” But Gay works his way through the problem calmly, concluding by paragraph's end, “A favorite way of dealing with inconvenient complications, no matter how obtrusive, is to wish them away. This is what happened to Freud during the spring and summer of 1895.”

The biographer displays undiminished skill at integrating the mysterious, the ambivalent and the sometimes inexcusable, such as the complexities of Freud's relationship with his favorite daughter Anna, and his flouting of therapeutic rules by analyzing her. He raises the questions but comes to conclusions that, mostly on Freud's own testimony, answer them with heroic and untroubled kindness.

The author's purpose, flowing from his own commitment to the psychoanalytic ideal, is clearly to present Freud, in truth one of the greatest of history's geniuses, as the incarnation of the Enlightenment, its evolutionary product, the scientist cleansed of hobbling beliefs in anything as crude as childhood's helplessness projected by human beings onto a God whose existence depends on their inner need. Curiously, Freud himself may be better understood as a man of letters, a writer who was comfortable in the world of myth and fable, a profoundly insightful person who, in a famous quotation, claimed that he “was not at all a man of science … nothing but a conquistador, an adventurer.”

Although such evidence is all about him, Gay works relentlessly toward his goal of making his subject the founder of a clean, hard, indisputable science, a characterization that few would claim for psychoanalysis or for any of the psychologies anymore. Indeed, Freud worked more in metaphor than measurement, and his ordering of his observations of behavior was as much in the tradition of the novelist as of the man of science.

Peter Gay is a learned historian, a wonderful writer, and a man carried along by a naive enthusiasm for Freudianism that has long since dissolved as a significant social or scientific reality.

Howard L. Kaye (review date May 1988)

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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?

Although some of these works are of little value beyond the sensational—most notably Masson's (1984), which argues that Freud's abandonment of the seduction theory in favor of childhood sexual fantasies, marking the birth of Freudian theory proper, was a despicable act of moral cowardice, and Swales' (1982), which charges that Freud had an affair with his sister-in-law Minna that was of decisive importance to the development of his theory—the relationship between the man, the context, and the work remains an important one. More than any other body of theory, Freud's is explicitly the expression of his own inner life and personal experience. A deeper knowledge of the man would thus seem to deepen our understanding of this complex theoretical perspective and make possible, as Freud himself suggests, “a more exact estimate” of its value (cited in Isbister, p. vii).

But there is another, more sociological reason to explore the relationship between individual biography and scientific theory. The Interpretation of Dreams may well document Freud's inner turmoil over his father's death and the political turmoil of a moribund and increasingly anti-Semitic Austria, but the theory of mind enunciated there resonated with, and helped order, the inner conflicts and life experiences of millions. In spite of his self-proclaimed status as “scientist” and “theorist” far removed from practical affairs (Zweig, p. 25), Freud, like Marx, actively contributed not just to our scientific knowledge, but to a cultural transformation to which our lives remain bound, however little Freud's contribution may currently be valued. To read the worshipful letters of the German-Jewish novelist Arnold Zweig to a “Father Freud,” whom he reveres as a savior who has “conquered Christianity,” “liberated the spirit of resurgent life from the ascetic ideal,” “put [human life] right,” and “made my rebirth possible” (pp. 23, 126), is to be reminded of the significance many sensitive observers found in both Freud's work and his personality.

In his study of art, Freud argued that by connecting the work to the artist's psychic life one could grasp the meaning and appeal of that creation. Might not the biographical study of Freud's creation add to our understanding of its cultural impact as well?

Although all of the works reviewed here contribute to our understanding of person, context, and theory creation, Isbister attempts to do so most systematically. Unfortunately, he does not succeed in illuminating either the theory or its cultural significance. Catholic in its criticism of Freud, Isbister, a historian of psychiatry, synthesizes the revisionist scholarship of Sulloway, Masson, and, above all, Swales not to introduce the student of social theory to Freud's life and work—as the title proclaims—but to discredit them both. Isbister's Freud is “a man obsessed with the dark aspect of his own sexual being [his latent homosexuality and sexual megalomania] who sought to justify and rationalize them by careful manipulation of evidence and by the deliberate presentation of half-truths” (p. 120). Freud's emphasis on infantile sexuality as the wellspring of the unconscious reflects his desire to conceal the truth of Jung's claim that contemporary emotional conflicts (e.g., Freud's love of Minna) dominate the psyche. Freud's therapy is dismissed as a “means whereby he could vicariously enjoy sexual gratification with women” (p. 119), while the theory itself is but a symptom of the nihilism, pessimism, and eroticism of the age (and particularly of Vienna) and the tragic experiences of Freud's later years.

Above all, however, Isbister believes that it was Freud's Jewish identity, forged by the experience of anti-Semitism, that placed the decisive stamp on his scientific work (pp. 13, 178, 208). In short, Freudian psychoanalysis is the revenge of an oversexed Jew against a Christian civilization whose “lie of salvation” he felt compelled to destroy.

Irresponsible in its use of rumor, deeply mistaken in its understanding of Freudian theory (Isbister's Freud is a sexual monocausalist attempting to “undermine the basis for guilt about social transgressions such as murder and incest” [p. 223]), this book confirms Freud's warning to Zweig: “Anyone who writes a biography is committed to lies, concealments, hypocrisy … and even to hiding his own lack of understanding” (Zweig, p. 127). Had the author studied Freud's writings more carefully, he might have discovered what even Freud knew: “the fact that a theory is psychologically determined does not in the least invalidate its scientific truth” (Freud 1955, p. 179) and may enable us to grasp its “power to drag others [along] … and to overcome the resistance of the world” (cited in Isbister, p. vii).

The distinguished intellectual historian Peter Gay, whose recent works demonstrate powerfully the value of the psychoanalytic perspective in the social sciences (Gay 1984, 1985, 1986), would certainly agree with Isbister that Freud's religious attitudes were decisive for the origins of psychoanalysis. But here the similarity between the two books ends. Gay's elegant essay [A Godless Jew] based on a series of lectures at Hebrew Union College, clears away mountains of confusion concerning Freud's religious views (belligerently atheistic), his Jewish identity (thoroughly secular, even racial), and the prospects for reconciling psychoanalysis and religion (none). Gay's Freud is “the last of the philosophes” (p. 41), who has carried forward the critical spirit of the Enlightenment and of its nineteenth-century scientific heirs for an assault on the last redoubt of metaphysics and belief: the human psyche. It is, then, not Freud's Jewishness which was decisive for his discovery of psychoanalysis—whatever the effect of a secular Jew's doubly marginal status on his receptiveness to the new theory—but his “aggressive atheism” (p. 39). Only iconoclasts like Freud and Darwin, Gay argues, could develop such radical and subversive theories.

The reference to Darwin, however, may weaken the argument here. To simply describe Darwin as an “atheist” (p. 147) fails to do justice to the complexity of Darwin's religious views and the important role which natural theology played in the development of his theory. The capacity of even the “reverent spirit” to inform fundamental, yet ultimately subversive theoretical innovations may be greater than Gay seems to allow.

Similarly, Freud's ambivalent Jewishness may have played a more substantial role than the strictly sociological one that Gay emphasizes. Freud's Moses in particular may not have been written and published solely in response to the call of science and history (p. 151), but in obedience to an inner call as well. As Freud confessed to Zweig in 1934, “The man and what I wanted to make of him pursue me everywhere” (Zweig, p. 98). Unable to explore in this book why Freud “tried to take away Moses” from the Jews (p. 148), Gay will presumably address this issue in his forthcoming biography of Freud, which, if A Godless Jew is any indication, should prove invaluable.

Fortunately, the availability of the complete letters of Freud to his closest intellectual confidant, Wilhelm Fliess, which span the crucial period of discovery from 1887 to 1904, now makes it possible to evaluate these competing accounts of Freud and his discoveries. Although much of this material was published in The Origins of Psychoanalysis (1954), the inclusion of many unpublished letters and the restoration of excised passages provides a more complete and intimate picture of Freud's intellectual and psychological processes as he traveled the long road to The Interpretation of Dreams.

When Freud initiated the correspondence in November 1887 (the two had recently met in Vienna), he was a young and newly married neurologist struggling to establish a practice and support a family, yet still yearning for the great scientific discoveries that had hitherto eluded him. Feeling isolated from the Viennese scientific community, Freud turned for stimulation to Fliess, a successful, Jewish ear, nose, and throat specialist in Berlin, two years his junior, who like Freud, had been trained in the German medical materialist tradition. In the equally ambitious Fliess, Freud hoped to find the “teacher” (p. 27) he longed for to help him place his study of neurosis on a rigorous physiological foundation. But contrary to Freud's hopes (and Sulloway's claims), Fliess' role gradually devolved from teacher, to partner (p. 51), to “alter” (p. 73), to “audience” (p. 313) as Freud's quest for simple, physical explanations of anxiety proved unsuccessful. By May 1894, Freud was stuck and even considered returning to brain anatomy. His depression lasted for several months until his letter of January 24, 1895 (which contains a veiled criticism of Fliess) announces “a new insight” (p. 106): a theory of paranoia and of neurosis in general (Draft H) which emphasized emotional conflicts and psychological processes, not physiological ones. Neurosis now appeared to Freud as a “pathological mode of defense” against intolerable ideas, an “abuse of a psychic mechanism[s] … very commonly employed in normal life”—both that of the individual and of the collectivity as well (pp. 108–110).

For the next three years, culminating in his self-analysis, Freud vacillated between the two paths before him: the physiological and quantitative, which led to a dead end, and the purely psychological, which ultimately carried Freud from psychopathology to normality and beyond, to the realm of philosophical and cultural inquiry which had always been his goal. In Draft H, Freud found what eventually became his voice and, more importantly, the theoretical problem he would grapple with for the remainder of his life and never solve: the explanation of repression and “what lies concealed behind it as well” (p. 274), an “independent source” of unpleasure that could not be biologized or sociologized away (p. 163).

Freud's pursuit of this path was the work of many factors—not the least of which was his clinical experience—but the influence of Austrian sociopolitical reality and of Fliessian theory was relatively minor. In light of the Fliess letters, Gay's emphasis on Freud's philosophical roots and interests seems more persuasive. But the “philosophy” to which he turned once free of Fliess and of their shared mechanistic materialism that was heir to the Enlightenment was a “counter-enlightenment” of his own making, “a special diet” of literature, art history, and prehistory far removed from the realm of “reason and science” (p. 404–05). The philosopher to whom Freud intuitively felt drawn was Nietzsche (p. 398).

By 1901, Freud was a man long free of the faith of his father and newly free of the political and scientific enthusiasms of his youth. Having overcome his depression, born of isolation and disillusion, to become “Sigmund Freud,” he was now ready to help others accomplish the same, and thereby render us merely “interesting” to ourselves (p. 285).

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. 1955. “The Claims of Psychoanalysis to Scientific Interest.” Standard Edition, Vol. 13. London: Hogarth Press.

Gay, Peter. 1984. Education of the Senses. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1985. Freud for Historians. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1986. The Tender Passion. New York: Oxford University Press.

McGrath, William J. 1986. Freud's Discovery of Psychoanalysis. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff. 1984. The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Schorske, Carl E. 1973. “Politics and Parricide in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams.American Historical Review 78: 328–47.

Sulloway, Frank J. 1979. Freud, Biologist of the Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Swales, Peter J. 1982. “Freud, Minna Bernays, and the Conquest of Rome: New Light on the Origins of Psychoanalysis.” The New American Review 2/3: 1–22.

Peter J. Swales (review date 8 May 1988)

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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 such a way that, at last, the relationship between his life and his work is lucidly laid bare.

In having to rehash a life story by now familiar to so many, professor Gay manages to season it with lots of fascinating new tidbits—mostly with select scraps from hundreds of unpublished letters that he has been the first to gain access to. And these documents allow him to provide the most telling accounts to date of several episodes, some controversial—for example, Freud's extended analysis of his daughter, Anna, commencing when she was just 22; his collaboration with William Bullitt on a wild psychoanalytic study intended to denigrate Woodrow Wilson, and his escalating anti-Americanism.

Gay is a graduate of a psychoanalytic institute, yet he supposes himself to be in possession of a “historian's professional distance” such as spares him from any “idealization” of his subject. And indeed, as if to demonstrate this, he would seem to delight in criticizing Freud for being variously, at times: reckless, aggressive, callous, arrogant, obstinate; in short, for having all manner of human and professional failings. However, such shortcomings, and much of what we here get to learn about the man that is significantly at odds with the received view, and treated by the biographer as isolated or occasional aberrations rather than being cashed out into any radical reappraisal of Freud's character.

Thus, according to Gay: “His decision to put his daughter Anna on the couch appears like a calculated flouting of the rules he had laid down with such force and precision—for others.” But then, three pages later—the reader by then having learned an awful lot about Freud's massive over involvement in his daughter's emotional life toward consolidating a palpably obvious, pathologically intense father-devotion that would ensure her continuing spinsterhood—we are advised: “Most of Freud's seductive maneuvers [toward Anna] were, no doubt, unconscious.” Which, naturally, leaves the reader wondering if “unconscious” amounts to an interpretation, an apology, or a plain evasion. In any event, Gay's assertion will hardly convince those more skeptically inclined toward the Freudian canon, who will feel justified in drawing a more sinister conclusion.

So this is a warts-and-all biography; the problem is that it goes only skin-deep. Moreover, Gay's is hardly the portrait of a man equipped to conceive psychoanalysis, for we are left in the dark as to how Freud's life and person inspired some of his most basic assumptions. The biographer espouses the orthodox view that Freudian theory was developed primarily in response to phenomena that spontaneously materialized on the couch. However, recent scholarship has shown that it was founded largely on a priori hypotheses inspired by Freud's reading or subjective preconceptions, while a great deal of its subsequent modifications were profoundly influenced by polemical considerations.

Gay is sharply critical of several of Freud's major case studies—also several of his other treatises—which represent the cornerstones of psychoanalytic theory and technique. And he is happy even to acknowledge the covert autobiographical inspiration behind so many of these works. But, in overview, he is little concerned with the flimsy foundations on which the doctrine rests and is content to take Freud's central assumptions as axiomatic.

Symptomatic of this credulity are the 146 pages he apportions to the first 45 years of Freud's life and work, the period when the basic tenets of psychoanalysis were conceived and laid down, as opposed to the 495 pages he devotes to the last 38 years, when Freud's principal interest was that of rounding up followers who could be induced to believe as he did. Worse still, Freudian notions are permitted to contaminate the telling of Freud's early life—little wonder, then, that the hero should ultimately arrive where he has all along been headed.

So, despite the posture, the book is far from being a critical intellectual biography. A 38-page bibliographical essay suggests that Gay is acquainted with much of the scholarship on Freud and psychoanalytic history. But this extensive literature would appear only very seldom to inform his text; when it does, it is inadequately credited; while much of it he dismisses in an almost cavalier fashion—sometimes at this reviewer's expense.

Here I can allow myself to get personal. Gay considers my own work on Freud to be “speculative.” Well, fair enough, I guess, even if he disdains to elaborate this claim. But to dismiss an essay of mine (entitled “Freud, Fliess, and Fratricide”) while disregarding the simple fact of history—amply documented therein—that Wilhelm Fliess would seriously allege Freud had planned to murder him during their penultimate meeting in 1900 is to ignore a fragment of testimony of unquestionable relevance to any meaningful discussion of the two men's impassioned relationship. Works of other historians, even the redoubtable Carl Schorske, are given similar short-shrift.

Gay shows himself no better informed on the man Fliess than previous authors. Nevertheless, he confidently advocates the standard view that Freud's very high esteem of him during his years of increasing isolation, climaxing in his so-called “self-analysis,” constituted a transference-symptom of his own psychoneurosis—here attenuated, though, inasmuch as this is also seen as compensation for the fact that his marriage was intellectually (and, as we are told elsewhere, sexually) so dry, there was little to share with his wife Martha. But then, suddenly, the reader is cursorily apprised of the, relatively speaking, extraordinary fact that, during these lonely years, Freud had one other such confidant and intellectual companion in the person of his wife's younger sister, Minna Bernays.

Gay tells us that Minna, who moved in with the family in 1896, had intelligence and interest enough to discuss with Freud his gestating theories; she offered him much-needed moral support, and often they traveled alone together on vacation trips. As we are told by one of the Freuds' maids, Minna was highly possessive and jealous—she would answer the telephone, “Frau Professor Freud.” And, as we know from a variety of published sources, among members of the family's circle, also among Freud's pupils, there persisted a rumor of an affair between the two of them. Oscar Rie, once Minna's physician and one of Freud's closest friends, is reported having declared: “For children Freud went with Martha; for pleasure he took Minna.”

According to Gay, though, Freud's “less than reliable” dissident pupil, Carl Jung, was the “first” to have “launched” this “scandalous” story, one that “lacks convincing evidence.” Not, however, that the author cares to properly address the very extensive historico-circumstantial evidence adduced in favor of there having been just such an affair. All this he simply demeans as “confident conjectures” and “clever chains of inferences” offered (by this reviewer) as “demonstrated fact” and, instead, finds it apt to report that, in his 1980 biography, Ronald Clark “has considered the evidence, notably the Jung interview (in which such an affair was alleged), and rejects it as highly improbable.” A more careful reading of Clark's text would have betrayed, however, that that writer had never actually examined the Jung interview; he preferred simply to dismiss it out of hand.

Fliess and Minna Bernays represent two of the most important relationships of Freud's adult life—yet we learn precious little of these interactions. But just such a solipsistic viewpoint pervades the biography as a whole, even when it comes to other major figures such as Jung. Moreover, rigorous scholarship is not part of Gay's agenda, as the author is more concerned with the bold statement, the sweeping assertion, and the summary judgment. As a result, the informed or alert reader cannot help but feel like a demurring tourist cajoled into a budget-tour of Freud's life and times in the charge of a smug and grandiloquent guide intent on cramming everything into a neat—and forgettable—package.

The book is highly recommended, then, for those who enjoy an easy read and care little whether what they are reading is particularly well-informed or true—in other words, for those who like their food for the mind conveniently processed and prepackaged. It is also recommended for analysts and patients content to take Freud's doctrine at face-value and disinclined to concern themselves with its shaky historical and logical foundations. Those seriously concerned with Freud history, on the other hand, will value the book for all the scraps of new material it presents until such time as these are published complete in the original; and they will continue to look forward to the day when we shall have a biography of this most complex and bizarre of geniuses that will truly enlighten us as to his person.

William J. McGrath (review date 18 August 1988)

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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 Michelangelo revealed “Freud the compulsive researcher, who was not at liberty to refuse the solicitations of a puzzle once it possessed him.” Of his efforts to unlock the secrets of hysteria, Gay observes that “judging from the cases he presented in Studies on Hysteria, he made learning from his patients a kind of program.” Freud is seen as a careful scientist who studies the evidence relentlessly until a solution becomes evident.

As his subtitle suggests, Gay puts great emphasis on Freud's life. Freud's ideas and writings are extensively discussed, but the picture of how he actually lived his life emerges in these pages with particular force. In describing the privation of the postwar years, after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Gay writes:

The condition of Freud himself, and of his immediate family, … was rather forlorn. Preoccupation with sheer survival came to dominate his life, and his correspondence, for two years and more. Food in Vienna was no less unpalatable or inadequate, heating materials were no less unobtainable, than they had been during the last two years of the war. The government tightly rationed all necessities.

He shows Freud's resourcefulness in dealing with these problems:

At one point, Freud wrote a paper for a Hungarian periodical and asked to be paid not in money but in potatoes; the editor, who lived in Vienna, carried them to Berggasse 19 on his shoulders.

Gay's portrait of Freud draws on a truly impressive accumulation of new archival materials and considerably enlarges our understanding of Freud's life. This is particularly true of Freud's middle and later years, where Gay relies on unpublished documents from the Freud Museum in London, the Freud Collection of the Library of Congress, and other important collections, in describing the establishment of the psychoanalytic movement and its subsequent stormy history. For the most part, his treatment of this highly controversial subject is even-handed, despite his clear sympathy for Freud in the various disputes with his early psychoanalytic colleagues.

Gay traces the psychoanalytic movement from its Viennese beginnings, where the Wednesday Society was founded in 1902, through its transformation in 1908 into the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society and on into the later period, when it became a truly international movement. As he proceeds, he gives brief and often sharp accounts of the early analysts and their relations with Freud. Of Sándor Ferenczi he writes:

But Ferenczi proved a problematic acquisition. His most powerful, and debatable, contributions to analysis were in technique. They were so powerful and so debatable in large part because they grew visibly from his extraordinary gift for empathy, his capacity for expressing and eliciting love. Unfortunately, Ferenczi's eagerness to give was only matched by, and the pendant to, his hunger to receive. In his relations with Freud, this meant boundless idealization and a craving for an intimacy that Freud, disillusioned after the calamitous fate of his affection for Fliess, was quite unwilling to grant.

When he deals with the followers with whom Freud eventually quarreled, such as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Wilhelm Stekel, and describes how their personal failings exacerbated these disputes, Gay does not neglect Freud's own weaknesses. Quoting a passage from one of Freud's letters in which he declared that he would “never imitate Jung's brutality,” Gay observes, “The disclaimer would have been more telling if Freud had been less savage in his own correspondence.” Gay counters the suggestion that Freud was unable to form and maintain close friendships by pointing to a number of lasting relationships—for example with Ernest Jones—but he recognizes that Freud had his own quirks of personality, among them particularly a tendency at first to form intense brotherly relations he could not sustain, which made continuing friendship difficult.

The strikingly defensive attitude characteristic of Freud and the early adherents of the psychoanalytic movement, and their tendency to form an exclusive, largely Jewish in-group, also emerge clearly in Gay's account. He writes of Ernest Jones:

Virtually the only gentile in Freud's intimate circle, Jones was at once outsider and insider. Storing up Jewish jokes and Jewish turns of phrase with his customary verve, he made himself into a kind of honorary Jew who fitted almost if not quite seamlessly into the relatively closed, defensive psychoanalytic culture in Vienna and Berlin.

Freud came to see the overwhemingly Jewish composition of his early circle as a danger to psychoanalysis, for it made the movement vulnerable to anti-Semitic attack. His attempts to guard against this danger had important repercussions for the early history of the movement. This was certainly a factor in Freud's troubled relationship with Jung. Gay writes that “Freud did not just exploit him as a respectable gentile facade behind which Jewish psychoanalysts could do their revolutionary work” (my italics), and there can be no doubt from Gay's account that Jung's Christian background was an important factor in Freud's fateful decision to make him president of the International Psychoanalytic Association.

This decision led to acrimonious disputes within the movement, and it presented Freud with serious problems when he later broke with Jung. Eugen Bleuler, another of the Swiss analysts whom Freud temporarily won over, offers eloquent testimony to the ill effects of Freud's defensiveness. When he resigned from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1911 he told Freud: “This ‘who is not for us is against us,’ … this ‘all or nothing’ is in my opinion necessary for religious communities and useful for political parties. There I can understand the principle as such, but for science I consider it harmful.” Gay does not adequately explain the origins of such defensiveness on Freud's part, but he recognizes and clearly describes the effects of Freud's “all or nothing” approach.

Gay brings to his treatment of Freud the results of his own extensive psychoanalytic training, the benefits of which are evident throughout his book, particularly in the chapter “Therapy and Technique,” where Gay examines the classic case studies of Freud's middle years, and gives instructive descriptions of such important patients as Little Hans, the Wolf Man, and the Rat Man. Since the real identities of these patients have now been discovered, we can compare the details provided in Freud's accounts with the historical information we have about their lives, and get a more realistic picture of Freud's work with his patients. In the case of the Rat Man, who was first identified as Ernst Lanzer by Patrick J, Mahony in Freud and the Rat Man (1986), Gay writes:

The case had everything in its favor. Ernst Lanzer, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer, struck Freud from the first meeting as clearheaded and shrewd. He was also entertaining; he told his analyst amusing stories and presented him with an apposite quotation from Nietzsche about the power of pride over memory which Freud happily quoted more than once.

Gay also brings his psychoanalytic training to bear on Freud himself, offering insights into important emotional relationships in his life. This is sometimes done tentatively in footnotes, but Gay also deals directly with such central and obscure issues as Freud's relationship with his strong-willed and energetic mother. Freud was much more open about his father, and Gay argues that “there is no evidence that Freud's systematic self-scrutiny touched on this weightiest of attachments, or that he ever explored, and tried to exorcise, his mother's power over him.” Gay explores some of the consequences of Freud's reticence, and he offers plausible readings of Freud's late papers on female sexuality and femininity as reflecting Freud's own unresolved feelings about his mother.

That Freud adored his mother but was reluctant to examine his ambivalent relations with her is certainly of interest in helping to explain his views about women generally. Gay notes,

By the early 1920s, Freud seemed to have adopted the position that the little girl is a failed boy, the grown woman a kind of castrated man.

He describes sympathetically the efforts of such early analysts as Karen Horney and Ernest Jones to challenge this view, and he tries to explain Freud's stubborn adherence to his position by tracing the evolution of his theory. His views of women, Gay writes, “followed from his puzzling through of theoretical difficulties, in particular from new complications he introduced into his account of the Oedipus complex, its emergence, flowering, and decay.” Here one feels that Gay might have had more to say about how Freud's relation to his mother helps to explain his concentration on the Oedipus complex and his relative neglect of the earlier development of infants in relation to their mothers.

Gay's knowledge of psychoanalysis is also valuable as he attempts to sort out the long and complex development of Freud's theory, particularly in his treatment of Freud's “late psychoanalytic system, with its stress on aggression and death.” Referring to Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Gay writes:

This slim volume, and its two successors [Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and The Ego and the Id], demonstrate why he could not publish [his] much-announced, much-postponed book on metapsychology. He had complicated and modified his ideas too much. Not least of all, they had not had enough about death in them—or, more precisely, he had not integrated what they had to say about death into his theory.

Gay takes note of the old theory that the emphasis on death in Beyond the Pleasure Principle reflected the death of Freud's daughter Sophie in 1920, and he reaffirms Freud's own position that the work was completed in 1919 when she was still healthy. Gay traces the origins of Freud's idea of the death instinct to his own early “death wishes against his little brother, his hostile oedipal feelings against his father,” and other early experiences. He also considers the possible impact of World War I on this shift in Freud's theory, but following Freud's own statements he concludes that its influence was minor:

The war, he insisted with some justice over and over, had not created the interest of psychoanalysis in aggression; rather, it had only confirmed what analysts had been saying about aggression all along.

Why then did Freud take so long to give the forces of aggression the place they eventually had in his system? Here Gay's answer seems inadequate. Before that time, “Freud had simply not been ready.” Gay's attempt to show that the theory of a death instinct had been anticipated in Freud's earlier work is convincing, but he is much less plausible in dismissing the possible effects of historical circumstances. “While the appalling daily display of human beastliness sharpened Freud's reformulations,” he writes, “his reclassification of the drives owed far more to problems internal to psychoanalytic theory.”

Indeed the treatment of the relationship between psychoanalysis and history is one of Gay's most serious weaknesses. For all the historical detail he provides, history remains a largely neutral backdrop to the developments that take place. In describing the setting of Freud's life and work, Gay borrows from his own previous study, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud.1 Situating Freud in a broadly conceived European bourgeois society, Gay describes how he grew up, married, and pursued his profession according to middle-class values and expectations, and much is made of his being “bourgeois.” Of Freud's reservations about the enfranchisement of women, Gay writes, “Like other conventional bourgeois of his day, Freud made much of the difference between the sexes.” His relationship with his wife reflected this view: “Martha Freud was the complete bourgeoise. Loving and efficient with her family, she was weighed down by an unremitting sense of her calling to domestic duty.” Freud's bourgeois mentality is also invoked, without any direct evidence, to explain his hesitation about espousing his early seduction theory, the belief that hysteria could always be traced back to actual incidents of sexual molestation in early life. Gay writes, “To be sure, the conviction had been hard-won; as a good bourgeois, Freud had adopted it only after overcoming strong inner resistances to such a notion.”

While Gay's emphasis on the cosmopolitan, bourgeois character of Freud's life seems a plausible reading of his later years, it neglects the important emotional and intellectual legacy of the German nationalism of his youth. Gay does not mention it, but Freud became politically committed to nationalist views during his adolescence, and he retained this outlook as a student at the University of Vienna, where he belonged for many years to a German nationalist student society that espoused radical views. The young Freud's enthusiasm for German politics and culture during a key period of his intellectual development has no place, however, in Gay's essentially ahistorical thesis that “Freud could have developed his ideas in any city endowed with a first-rate medical school and an educated public large and affluent enough to furnish him with patients.” Gay tends to discount not only Freud's early political views and his Viennese background, but, as we shall see, also his Jewish heritage and his early philosophical interests in the psychology of religion, in favor of a narrow emphasis on the more purely scientific aspects of his education and world view.

Gay recognizes that the scientific status of psychoanalysis has often been challenged, and this is one of the many controversies regarding Freud's life and work to which he draws attention in his preface:

Was Freud the scientific positivist he claimed to be, or was he, rather, principally indebted to the cloudy speculations of the romantics or to Jewish mysticism?

Gay believes he was a scientific positivist. He discusses many other controversies involving Freud's personal and professional life: his supposed middle-aged love affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays (which Gay tends to doubt took place); the question of his addiction to cocaine; what he called his “homosexual” feelings for Wilhelm Fliess; his abandonment of the seduction theory, among others. Perhaps because he wants to avoid intimidating readers with the thicket of controversy surrounding Freud, Gay chooses not to discuss views on such issues that differ from his own. He writes,

In the text itself, I do not argue with anyone: I have taken positions on the contentious issues that continue to divide commentators on Freud and on psychoanalysis, but have not sketched the itinerary leading to my conclusions.

Readers who wish to pursue the controversies over Freud can consult an appended “extensive and argumentative bibliographical essay, which should enable them to discover the reasons for the stands I have taken, and to find materials presenting rival opinions.”

While this strategy may seem responsible and evenhanded, it has serious disadvantages. In giving his opinion on various controversial issues Gay refuses to confront the evidence presented by opposing positions, whether in his text or in his long and often useful bibliographical essay. There he cites rival views and briefly mentions his points of agreement or disagreement with each, but rarely considers specific questions. In discussing the extensive literature on the scientific status of Freud's theories, for example, Gay writes,

The most formidable among the skeptics, who has made the credibility of Freudian science (or lack of it) into an obsessive concern for a decade, is the philosopher Adolf Grünbaum; he has summed up his researches in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique (1984).

Gay then provides a series of references to works that attempt to counter Grünbaum's arguments, and notes that one benefit of Grünbaum's “polemic is that it disposes of Karl Popper's argument, long thought (by many) irrefutable, that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience, since its propositions cannot be disconfirmed.” But the reader is given no sense whatever of Grünbaum's own extensive arguments against the claims of psychoanalysis to be a science. If Grünbaum is the most formidable opponent of psychoanalysis on an issue central to Gay's view of Freud, his arguments call for more explicit and objective discussion by Gay himself.

Gay's reluctance to deal directly with the evidence and arguments of opposing positions is troubling. When he writes, for example, that Freud and Martha took cocaine together during their engagement, he immediately adds, “There is no evidence, though, that she (or, for that matter, her fiancé) ever acquired the habit.” Yet on the following page he says that Freud continued to use cocaine and to dream about it for more than a decade (between the mid-1880s and the late 1890s). Some might see that statement as the very evidence that Gay has just said did not exist, but he does not address it.


Gay seems intent on presenting Freud's development of psychoanalysis as the result of a purely scientific pursuit of truth, isolated from any external influences: he declares that “the origins of psychoanalysis … are untouched by his historical situation” (his italics), and he holds this extreme opinion against strong contrary evidence. Since his essays collected in A Godless Jew concentrate on this issue, their more argumentative style provides an opportunity for testing Gay's evidence and logic on an issue of fundamental importance to both books.

Gay's title is taken from a question Freud put to his friend, the Swiss pastor Oskar Pfister, in a 1918 letter: “Quite by the way, why did none of the devout create psychoanalysis? Why did one have to wait for a completely godless Jew?” Freud's question suggests that both his rejection of religion and his Jewishness had a part in his creation of psychoanalysis, but Gay attempts to prove the former while contesting the latter. Gay can accept Freud's religious skepticism as part of his commitment to a scientific approach, but to admit that Jewishness had a part would tie psychoanalysis to the historical situation of its founder.

To support his position, Gay tries to deal with a great many different opinions regarding the place of religion and of Jewishness in Freud's life and work. Notwithstanding Freud's direct opposition of psychoanalytic theory to religious belief, believers such as Pfister attempted to find common ground between religion and psychoanalysis. Gay convincingly shows that Freud was impatient with such efforts: “For Freud …, the common ground that some had discovered between psychoanalysis and faith was a swampy, treacherous bog in which both must sink.”

More troublesome to Gay are arguments that psychoanalysis itself is a kind of religion or that it was significantly influenced by religion, two very different issues that are sometimes confounded. Of the argument that psychoanalysis was a surrogate religion, Gay observes,

It is only too tempting to describe Freud as the pontiff of psychoanalysis, … the fundamental principles informing psychoanalysis as its articles of faith, Freud's disputes with Jung and Adler as heresy trials, and the defectors themselves as apostates. Indeed, Freud's critics have applied these metaphors with barely suppressed smiles of triumph.

Gay cites a number of hostile critics as examples, among them Camilla M. Anderson and H. C. Philip, and he has no difficulty showing they were unfair to Freud.

But Gay's task is complicated by Freud's own frequent use of religious language or metaphors to describe his work.

Freud was trapped by his gift for vivid metaphor. He appealed to his “god logos” and scattered other terms borrowed from theology through his voluminous writings. As a medical student, he glorified “our most modern saints, like Darwin, Haeckel, etc.”

In fact Freud's allusive language is frequently revealing and helps to fill out the meaning and the emotional mood of his statements; and a “secret message,” as Gay puts it, is often made apparent by the context of the images he used. For example, Freud's comment about “our most modern saints” came from his description of a lecture on Feuerbach, to whom he referred as “this man whom I honor and admire more than any other philosopher,” and he went on to praise the lecturer, as well, expressing his joy “at having such a staunch fighter for our truths.”2

To Gay, however, these are only “metaphors,” although he concedes, “it is admittedly risky to suggest that Freud's energetic and effective similes—Freud's of all people's—have no secret message to convey.”

Ludwig Feuerbach, one of the most radical thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century, was famous for a view of religion that anticipated in its essentials Freud's later treatment of religious belief as a projection of inner emotional needs. Freud's image of “our most modern saints” appropriately plays on the parallel between the religious and the secular so central to Feuerbach's thought, and the reference to Feuerbach as a fighter for “our” truths conveys the mood of enthusiasm associated with Freud's sense of himself as part of a movement that was self-consciously substituting secular meaning for religious meaning. Gay discusses Freud's early interest in Feuerbach elsewhere, but his failure to mention the specifically Feuerbachian context of this passage obscures the fact that Freud's use of a religious image reflects the struggle with religion that was so important to him.

Unfortunately, Gay follows Jones and Siegfried Bernfeld, the early Freud scholar on whom Jones often relied, in playing down the significance of Freud's strong interest in philosophy during his college years. Gay mentions but makes little use of the new evidence provided by Freud's still unpublished letters to his high school friend, Eduard Silberstein, which show Freud's lively and continuing interest in the issues raised by his teacher, the philosopher Franz Brentano. Freud took no fewer than five courses from this charismatic professor, whose dualistic approach to psychological investigation emphasized the importance of combining the evidence of external physical phenomena with evidence gained from the investigating scientist's perceptions of his own inner psychological processes. Freud employed this dualistic approach in much of his most important work, most notably in his self-analysis, and although Gay notes that Brentano's “psychological writings left significant deposits in Freud's mind,” he then goes on to treat this philosophical interest as a passing phase which soon became irrelevant.

Freud's work with Brentano, which concentrated on the relationship between psychology and religion, pointed directly toward issues of central importance to his later discovers. In one of Freud's college letters to Silberstein he describes the powerful impact on him of Brentano's thought in opening up new fields of psychological investigation, mentioning among other examples of exotic mental phenomena the case of a certain Louise Lateau. This devout young Belgian woman seemed to be a living example of a Christian miracle; while experiencing mystic visions of the Crucifixion, she herself displayed stigmata, bleeding from the places on the body where Christ was wounded.

The miraculous interpretation of these events was challenged by D. M. Bourneville, a close associate of the famous French psychiatrist J. M. Charcot. Bourneville argued that Louise Lateau was actually a hysteric whose strange symptoms could be explained scientifically. Freud's comment of 1875, ten years before he went to Paris to study hysteria under Charcot, thus represents the first evidence of his interest in hysteria. That he wrote about this interest in connection with Brentano suggests the importance of the philosopher in Freud's development, and it also provides an example of the way Freud's sense of being in competition with religion could impel him to concentrate on particular psychological phenomena. The belief in the miraculous seemed to be a weak point in the religious mentality, and subjects like hysteria offered an opportunity for science to strike at the foundations of religion. Gay fully appreciates Freud's antagonism to religion, but he fails to show how it could have shaped his specific psychological interests.

By isolating the development of psychoanalysis from the historical situation of its founder, Gay tries to clear the way for seeing it as pure science, and in discounting philosophical or religious influences he serves the same aim. Unfortunately, he does so at the cost of ignoring important evidence about the intellectual environment within which Freud's interest in the psychological first emerged. For example, when Gay describes Freud and his teachers Ernst Brücke and Theodor Meynert as hard-headed scientific positivists, he neglects an important part of their thinking. In the Vienna medical school of this period, scientific positivism was often combined with elements of the German idealist tradition, as in the case of Meynert, who frequently drew on Kant and Schopenhauer in introducing his lectures on brain anatomy. Gay rightly emphasizes Freud's debt to the French Enlightenment and its positivist heritage, but this needs to be balanced by a consideration of his debt to the culture of the late German Enlightenment, with its deep interest in the interrelationship of religion, philosophy, and psychology.

One of Gay's hardest problems in arguing for a purely scientific pedigree for psychoanalysis is to explain why Freud, and many of those closest to him, so often linked psychoanalysis to Jewishness in their comments or images. The question Freud put to Pfister about why psychoanalysis was discovered by a godless Jew implies such a link. Moreover there is the awkward fact that Anna Freud not only accepted the description of psychoanalysis as a “Jewish science” but indeed proclaimed it to be “a title of honor.” Gay's attempt to explain away this statement is not at all convincing, and even if one puts her comment aside as a rhetorical flourish, there are other examples showing the importance of Freud's relation to Judaism, not least the comments of Freud himself in his preface to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo, in which he refers to

the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion—and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: “Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?” He would reply: “A very great deal, and probably its very essence.” He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but someday, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.

Gay fails to appreciate the importance of this comment and he does not take adequate account of the work of such scholars as Dennis Klein, whose well-documented book, Jewish Origins of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1981), contains important evidence that Gay never confronts. Klein shows, for example, how the establishment of the Wednesday Psychological Society was in certain ways prefigured by Freud's participation in the Vienna B'nai B'rith lodge from 1897 to 1902. Freud used the lodge as a forum for presenting and discussing his psychological theories, and several of the lodge members whom he had recruited later went on to join the Society. Freud's involvement in a Jewish cultural organization that grew considerably in size in response to the spread of anti-Semitism, moreover, seems highly relevant to the defensiveness of the early psychoanalytic movement and to the issue of its Jewishness. In his bibliography Gay declares, “Though I find Klein's thesis, summarized in the title, unacceptable, I have found much of value in his material.” Gay frequently offers this sort of summary evaluation of opposing scholarly opinions without making any attempt to evaluate the specific evidence of the studies he discusses; and this has the appearance of being an arbitrary rejection of inconvenient evidence.

Those who see a relationship between Freud's early religious background and his ideas have an unambiguous statement by Freud himself to back them up. In his Autobiographical Study, Freud writes, “My deep engrossment in the Bible story (at a time almost before I had learnt the art of reading) had as I recognized much later, an enduring effect upon the direction of my interest.”3 In the assimilationist atmosphere of Jacob Freud's household, the Jewish religious tradition took on an aspect highly congenial to what we think of as Freud's later interests. The religious teacher to whom he was sent thought it important to make the biblical figures come alive in the minds of the young, so that they could provide models for life, and Freud's enduring fascination with such figures as Joseph and Moses reflects the success of this approach.

Moreover, the editor of the Bible he read as a child, Ludwig Philippson, was steeped in the culture of the late German Enlightenment, and in his commentary he drew heavily on this tradition. Philippson regularly put forward anthropological or psychological insights to explain the miraculous elements of the story and render them acceptable to rational understanding. This commentary provided the young Freud with the first impetus toward what proved to be a lifelong interest in the psychology of religion, and it introduced him to a psychological mode of analysis on which he built in his later enthusiasm for Feuerbach.

Gay dismisses the importance of the young Freud's religious instruction, arguing that Freud's father Jacob,

who did know Hebrew, was no more religious for all that. He had married … in a Reform ceremony and had, in the course of years, shed virtually all traces of religious observance. He continued to celebrate Passover and to read the Bible—in Hebrew—but that was all. He had his son circumcised, yet there is no evidence that Freud had even a trace of religious instruction at home.”

Gay considers the issue too narrowly, and he exaggerates the secular atmosphere of the young Freud's home. For example, in an 1873 letter, Freud wrote that he and his sisters performed at home a theatrical piece for Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from massacre by Haman. Freud was almost seventeen at the time. He told his friend that Purim “fell on the—to all of us holy—13th of March, on which of course Caesar was also murdered.”4 Freud was in error about the date, but the Ides of March was a “holy” day to the aspiring political radical, who felt it appropriate to proclaim his belief in freedom and opposition to tyranny on a day devoted to the suffering of the Jews under a tyrant, Haman. That Freud took part in observing Purim does not mean that he was still religious during his final year of Gymnasium, but it does show the continuing relevance of religious tradition to his thoughts and feelings. Similarly, the religious language Freud sometimes used in association with psychoanalysis, and the biblical images found in his writings and his dreams, are not evidence that Freud founded a substitute religion, but they do reflect the religious background of Freud's earliest psychological interests.

The forces of history crashed in on Freud's life with shattering effect during his final years, when Hitler returned to Vienna, and Gay provides vivid descriptions of these terrible events. But history otherwise almost never emerges from the background of Gay's book, and the vitally important historical forces at work on Freud during his early formative period do not receive sufficient attention. Gay's work on Freud has many strengths, and offers much that contributes to a deepened understanding of his life and personality, but this achievement is diminished by his failure to deal convincingly either with deep controversies over his thought or with the relation of his ideas to the history of his time.


  1. Oxford University Press, Volume I (1984), Volume II (1986).

  2. Cited in my Freud's Discovery of Psychoanalysis: The Politics of Hysteria (Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 104.

  3. Sigmund Freud, An Autobiographical Study, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey et al., Vol. XX (London: Hogarth, 1953–1974; Norton, 1963), pp. 7–8.

  4. Cited in McGrath, Freud's Discovery, p. 84.

Samuel B. Thielman (review date 29 September 1988)

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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 disregard for religious faith and his not-so-thinly veiled disdain for the faith of others. Gay further argues that Freud was a special kind of atheist, a Jewish atheist, and that psychoanalysis could not have been discovered by anyone other than a “godless Jew.” This point is certainly provocative, but Gay does not develop the idea sufficiently to be convincing.

The second recent assessment of Freud's religion is Vitz's book on Freud's response to Christianity. Unlike Gay, Vitz believes that Freud was in profound conflict about religion, specifically the stern Roman Catholicism of Czechoslovakia and Austria during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vitz, himself Roman Catholic, observes that Freud's immediate family had only nominal connections with Judaism, and that his nanny, a devout believer, instructed Freud in the essentials of the Christian faith. Although Freud was attracted briefly to the theism of his professor Franz Brentano during his student days, Freud devoted much of his effort in later life to attacking religion. Freud's was not the approach of one indifferent to religion. He suffered, Vitz argues, from a profound disappointment that “someone he had hoped to meet was not there.”

Much of what Vitz says has been said before. Ernest Jones, Freud's friend and biographer, first told how the two-year-old Freud preached Christian sermons to his family after attending church with his nanny. The observation that Freud was unnaturally preoccupied with being in Rome at Easter was observed by Peter J. R. Dempsey in Freud, Psychoanalysis, and Catholicism (1956) many years ago. Gregory Zilboorg, author of a well-known history of psychiatry, had noted the suspicious omission of religious themes from Freud's interpretation of his own inability to remember a fresco of the Last Judgment. Vitz, however, is very frank about his debt to these authors. His contribution has been to recast and synthesize previously obscure arguments about Freud's personal religion and to produce an argument that is, as a whole, very difficult to dismiss. Even if one discounts some of the more speculative suggestions of the book, there is sufficient evidence here to demonstrate that Freud was deeply concerned with religious issues, and though an atheist, was hardly at peace with himself in the area of religion.

Despite the divergence of opinion between Gay and Vitz, these two works both take the problem of the conflict between psychoanalytic thought and theism very seriously, and they both view Freud as a human being, struggling to make sense of the human condition, rather than as a savior or a devil. Although Vitz's open Catholic commitment gets in the way at certain points in his book, both books offer careful assessments of Freud's attitude toward religion. Any reader who wants to understand Freud's approach to religious experience more fully would benefit from reading both these books.

Anthony Storr (review date 1989)

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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 theory, though somewhat flawed by Jones's partisanship and intolerance of dissenters. Ronald W. Clark's Freud: The Man and the Cause failed to show sufficient grasp of psychoanalysis itself, but thoroughly explored what was then known of Freud's life. Gay has had access to a good deal of hitherto unavailable material, and also has a first-rate, insider understanding of psychoanalytic theory, of which he is an excellent exponent. This new biography is therefore superior to its major predecessors, although, as Gay ruefully points out, research into Freud's life can never be complete until the dragons who guard the Freud Archives release the whole of Freud's correspondence. In a preface, Gay lists many areas of Freud's life which still elude detailed scrutiny, including the vexed question of his relations with his sister-in-law, his unorthodoxy in analyzing his own daughter Anna, his use of cocaine, and his indebtedness to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, with whose ideas he was familiar when he was a student, but whose works he claimed not to have read until late in his life.

As one might expect of a cultural historian, Gay gives a good picture of the urban milieu in which Freud developed his ideas. Freud's family, which moved from Freiberg to Leipzig and then, in 1860, to Vienna, was only one unit amongst a vast number of Jewish immigrants who entered the city during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. “By the 1880s, at least half of all Viennese journalists, physicians, and lawyers were Jews.” Freud, although he never practiced the Jewish religion, was very conscious of being a Jew, regularly attended the meetings of his local Jewish society, and made few friends who were not Jewish. He first encountered anti-Semitism at the University of Vienna, and reacted militantly, later claiming that his lack of acceptance fostered his originality and independence of mind. Freud repeatedly alleged that he hated Vienna; but he refused to leave it until forced to do so in 1938 after the Nazi Anschluss. Although psychoanalysis has often been specifically labelled as both Viennese and Jewish, Gay thinks that Freud could have developed his ideas in any city with a first-rate medical school and a sufficiency of private patients.

One puzzle which Gay fails to solve is Freud's relation to, and understanding of, science. As a young man, Freud worked in the laboratories of men like Ernst Brücke who were entirely committed to explaining all vital processes, both physical and mental, in terms of physics and chemistry. Freud remained a determinist in theory, and always affirmed that psychoanalysis was a science. In 1896, Freud claimed that premature sexual experience was the cause of hysteria, and quoted eighteen cases to support his theory. But this was Freud's last attempt to give figures concerning aetiology, and even then there were no controls. We are still far from understanding how it came about that so rigorous an anatomist and physiologist could continue to believe that psychoanalytic procedures and theories were scientific.

September 23, 1989 will constitute the fiftieth anniversary of Freud's death. It should surely now be possible to estimate his achievements objectively. But difficulties still remain. There is something in the old complaint that no one who has not been analyzed can really understand psychoanalysis. But those who have been analyzed, like Peter Gay, tend to accept psychoanalytic theory as if it were proven truth rather than what it is: a hotchpotch of techniques and hypotheses of varying validity. Gay is less adulatory than Ernest Jones: but he is still too little critical of Freud in many areas.

For example, consider Freud's famous case histories. There are only six extended accounts of individual patients in Freud's writings. These include the case of Judge Schreber, whom Freud analyzed from his autobiography but never saw; and the child “Little Hans,” whose father acted as an intermediary. Freud used Judge Schreber's memoirs of his own insanity to construct a psychopathology of paranoia, based upon repression and projection of homosexual impulses which he assumed were originally directed toward the patient's father. Because Schreber's father was a well-known physician and pedagogue, Freud assumed that he was a benign figure who would be especially likely to evoke a son's admiration. In fact, Dr. Daniel Schreber was an authoritarian monster who imposed a variety of physical restraints upon his children designed to straighten their bodies and prevent masturbation. Freud's failure to discover the true nature of Schreber's father prevented him from understanding the Judge's delusions, some of which were based upon the horrific appliances which he had had to endure in early childhood. In any case, Freud's interpretation of paranoia is questionable. Freud had virtually no clinical experience with psychotic cases.

Four cases were personally analyzed by Freud: “Dora,” the “Rat Man,” an unnamed young female homosexual, and the “Wolf Man.” Peter Gay is rightly critical of Freud's handling of “Dora.” She was the daughter of an unhappily married couple who were close friends of another couple, Herr and Frau K. Dora's father was having an affair with Frau K. Herr K. had made sexual advances to Dora when she was fourteen. Four years later, he renewed his advances, proposing to divorce his wife and then marry Dora. She repudiated him; but, according to her father, developed hysterical symptoms on this account. Freud was convinced that, in spite of her repeated denials, Dora was in love with Herr K. He overwhelmed her with interpretations, and finally bullied her into agreeing with him, although only after she had decided to terminate her treatment. Gay writes: “What is astonishing about the case history of Dora is not that Freud delayed it for four years, but that he published it at all.” It is certainly an example which demonstrates Freud's impatience and absolute conviction of his own rightness, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

However, Gay is far less critical than he might have been about Freud's other cases. For example, he does not mention John Bowlby's reinterpretation of the case of “Little Hans,” in which Bowlby argues that the child's phobia of horses was more likely to have been provoked by Hans's mother threatening to abandon him than by the child's fear of castration for incestuous wishes toward her, as Freud supposed. Nor does he discuss Freud's treatment of the eighteen-year-old girl whose parents were concerned about her homosexual preferences. Today, no analyst would attempt to treat her, for, as Freud wrote: “she was not in any way ill (she did not suffer from anything in herself, nor did she complain of her condition).” It is clear that Freud took her into treatment in order to satisfy his own curiosity; and it is small wonder that his efforts were unsuccessful.

Gay is also inclined to be too kind to Freud's therapeutic achievements with his most famous patient, the “Wolf Man.” He does not shirk the fact that, after an initial improvement, the “Wolf Man” relapsed and had further analysis from other analysts. But he skates over the “Wolf Man”'s own report that what had helped him were not Freud's interpretations, which he regarded as far-fetched, but Freud's kindness, interest in his case, and fatherly concern for him.

It will surprise some readers to realize that, of the cases described by Freud in detail, only one was an undoubted therapeutic success. The “Rat Man,” a lawyer who complained of horrifying obsessional thoughts of which he could not rid himself, was treated by Freud for eleven months, beginning in October 1907. He made an excellent recovery. There must have been other good outcomes; but therapeutic results were never Freud's principal interest. The paucity of his data bears witness to the fact that what interested him was theory rather than therapy. His cases were designed to illustrate his ideas about the functions of the mental apparatus rather than to demonstrate the cure of neurosis.

The more one re-reads Freud's papers on art and artists, the less illuminating they seem. Gay quotes Freud's view that “play and fantasy alike reflect states of dissatisfaction,” and quotes his remark: “One may say, the happy person never fantasizes; only the unsatisfied one does.” Freud's view of the imagination as escapist rather than as innovative does not stand up to scrutiny. Gay writes: “He was no romantic celebrating the artist as the nearly divine maker; his reluctance to acknowledge the purely creative aspects of the writer's and painter's work is palpable.”

Even so, Gay underplays one of Freud's grosser errors in this field by relegating discussion of his paper “Dostoevsky and Parricide” to brief mention by way of a footnote and an appended bibliographical essay. Joseph Frank, in his definitive biography of the novelist, demonstrates conclusively that Freud's interpretation of Dostoevsky's psychopathology is based upon a misconceived notion that Dostoevsky's father was a violent man; an idea which itself is derived from Freud's faulty recall of a footnote in a biography which he had read some time previously. “Dostoevsky and Parricide” is guesswork based upon inaccurate information.

The same strictures apply to Freud's unfortunate excursions into anthropology. In Totem and Taboo, Freud postulated that the origins of morality and religion could be traced back to an actual event in the history of mankind: the primal slaughter of the father. He considered that this horrific happening had left “ineradicable traces in the history of humanity.” In spite of his admiration for, and debt to, Darwin, Freud remained an unashamed Lamarckian who believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Even Gay finds it hard to defend Freud's anthropological fantasies.

Gay's biography has many merits. Although unwieldily long, it remains readable. It is packed with information, and the interface between life and works is skillfully managed. Yet many questions about Freud and psychoanalysis which one would have expected a cultural historian to address remain unanswered. How is it that a technique of treating the neurotic symptoms of the Viennese upper-middle classes developed into a worldwide movement; a system of ideas which so radically altered the way in which twentieth-century man thinks about himself that Freud has been compared with Marx and Darwin? How much part did Freud's own personality play in the promulgation of his theories, and how much depended upon the happy accident of their appearing at the right time in history? Gay and other Freudians might argue that psychoanalysis won such wide acceptance because, in essence, if not in detail, its theories are true. Yet many would dispute this. Nearly fifty years after the death of its founder, psychoanalysis is still debated territory.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Darwin's ideas on evolution had won acceptance. The time was ripe for a psychology which was based upon “instinct”; that is, upon drives which man could be seen to share with other animals. Darwin not only dispelled the notion of man as a special creation, but also attempted to reduce complex behavior to simple biological origins. Freud tried to do the same thing. It seems probable that one reason why psychoanalysis was so widely accepted was that it appeared to fit in with the new biology.

Moreover, psychoanalysis appeared at a time when conventional religious belief was declining. Freud always denied that psychoanalysis provided a Weltanschauung, and claimed that he looked at the world through the eyes of a scientist. Yet all except a few fundamentalists agree that psychoanalysis is far from being a science, since its theories cannot be used for prediction and are difficult to validate by scientific methods. By taking psychoanalysis outside the physician's office, Freud himself contributed to making it into a system which not only explained the various forms of mental illness, but also applied to art, literature, humor, religion, and social structure. In an age in which many found themselves feeling rootless and insecure, psychoanalysis offered a secular belief system which was bound to appeal to those who had abandoned the old faiths. Exactly the same is true of Marxism.

Freud's own personality greatly contributed to the widespread acceptance of psychoanalysis. Freud was a wonderfully persuasive writer, who dealt with opposition by inventing imaginary opponents, marshalling their arguments for them, and then demolishing them. He appeared austere, dedicated, and serious. Moreover, he was absolutely convinced that he was right. Although Freud himself altered his theories as psychoanalysis grew and developed, no one else was allowed to do so. Gay's book bears witness to Freud's intolerance of opposition, but fails to emphasize the powerful effect of absolute conviction on winning adherents and converting doubters. Sir Peter Medawar dismissed psychoanalysis as “a stupendous intellectual confidence trick.” This pejorative appraisal is clearly wrong, since it fails to recognize the undoubted heuristic value of many psychoanalytic interpretations. Even if every hypothesis which Freud advanced could be shown to be wrong, we should still be greatly in his debt. His fertile, ingenious mind did cause a revolution in the way we think. As Karl Popper claims for science, refutation of existing hypotheses leads to progress.

Although psychoanalysis in its original form has not proved more effective than other forms of psychotherapy in the treatment of neurosis, Freud's technique of listening to distressed people over long periods has had a strikingly beneficial effect upon all forms of psychotherapy. Even those who do not lose all their symptoms gain a sense of being accepted as persons and an increased understanding of themselves. Freud's passion for investigation and his lack of therapeutic enthusiasm led, ironically, to his most important legacy. Anyone can give advice to people in distress. It was Freud who taught us how to listen.

Gay's biography is a step on the way to understanding Freud's importance. There is still a long way to go.

Benjamin Goodnick (essay date winter 1989)

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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. His time was not squandered; he has utilized these analytical tools to enhance his later historical writings, which have brought him wider recognition.

In view of Gay's apparently strong bonds to Freud, it might be of more than academic interest to explore aspects that they share: their common roots, their ancestry. This seems especially appropriate since Gay (e.g., in A Godless Jew) bares his views of the roles of Judaism and Jewishness in Freud's development of psychoanalysis. Indeed, a comparison of Freud's and Gay's approaches to their origins would be timely and edifying. Coincidentally, 1987 also commemorated the ninetieth anniversary of Freud's first opportunity to present his “Dream Interpretation” before the Vienna B'nai B'rith lodge, since the academic leadership had denied him a platform to speak on his novel psychoanalytical theories.

Historical perspectives, with or without the use of psychoanalysis, can be manipulated like a kaleidoscope, shifting their pattern and coloration with a swift twist of the historian's wrist. Since no one, no scholar, has all the facts or all of the identical facts, portrayals of any period can, and do, differ widely, depending on whose hand is pushing the pen. The mind, moreover—should we say the heart?—is deliberately or unconsciously selective, choosing those data, those facts and figures that blend smoothly with the individual's make-up and weltanschauung to form his/her historical gestalt. As the Psalmist put it: “The heart is deceitful above all; who can know it?”

Gay, however, in his Style in History (1974), claims that “private perspectives can be, in the right hands, a pathway to historical knowledge …” In other words, subjective judgments can lead to objective findings; but even this is a subjective evaluation. Yet, he also states that “… it is the nature of men's mental sets to see what they seek.” The question remains: “Who, which historian, has the “right hands”?

Peter Gay himself gives us an excellent example of the “wrong hands.” In Freud, Jews, and Other Germans (1978), he points to Ernest Nolte, author of Germany and the Cold War (1974), as a “… prominent, even famous … modern German historian” who whitewashes, almost justifies, the concentration camps of the Nazis, offering an apologia rather than an apology for the Holocaust. Describing Nolte's writing, Gay notes that it is “a bit of reality with a mass of prejudice and morass of cliches …” held together “by a thin trickle of facts.”

Freud himself could be considered the first psychobiographer in his attempts to interpret the acts and thoughts of, among others, Leonardo da Vinci and Moses. At first he considered his analyses of these men imaginative; note that one of his titles was The Man Moses, A Historical Fiction. Only later was he convinced that his portrayals were correct. Yet, in doing so, he set aside, or remained oblivious of, facts that seemed to contradict his own basic premises.

His approach to such writing seems inconsistent. In a letter to Fliess he says: “… we must also take hold of biography (in addition to mythology).”1 Later, he told Ernest Jones that there is “too much slippery ground in many applications of psychoanalysis to biography and literature.”2

Evidently, the Jewish (Hebraic) maxim, “Respect him and suspect him,” can be applied to historians as well as to “average” people. We cannot, we must not, dissociate the character of the chronicler from his/her pronouncements. This forewarning, then, applies with equal force to the works of Freud and Gay. Brief sketches of their lives may help us understand the direction of their thinking and writing.

Both men were born (about 70 years apart) into families having, by happenstance, surnames with a similar, positive ring: Freud (“joy”) and Fröhlich (“happy”), later changed to Gay. They spent their formative years at home in favorable positions, Peter Jack apparently alone and Sigismund (later Sigmund) as the oldest of seven siblings.

During this period their respective fathers were engaged in business ventures, though Jacob Freud's circumstances were probably more modest and less stable. By the time Sigmund was three, the family had departed for Vienna, whereas the Frölichs were established in Berlin. Thus, both lads were educated primarily within the major urban centers of German culture.

Then World War II played its part. Freud had spent almost all of his life in the same environment, mainly the same apartment, leaving for England almost on the brink of the war. At about the same time, the Frölichs, while Peter was still young, had to leave for the United States, where they faced the immigrants' struggles before achieving financial security.

Fortunately, both protagonists, despite modest living conditions, found others who recognized their outstanding abilities. Amalia Freud might be expected to call her first-born son “my golden Zigi” and see him as destined for greatness, but others, too, perceived his brilliance. For seven years he was first in his class at school, freed of tuition payments and of final examinations. He received grants for neurological research and prepared outstanding papers on his findings. It was his impending marriage and need for funds that forced Freud into private practice, which led, eventually, to his discovery of psychoanalysis.

Peter Gay had to leave high school before his graduation and to work in order to augment the family income. Yet, he, too, found others, especially teachers, who recognized his talent, insisted on working with him and, aided by his own driving spirit and self-assurance, helped him succeed. We have here a variant of the Joseph story; descent from status and riches to degradation and poverty, and a subsequent rise to fame and fortune.

Gay, who is presently Sterling Professor at Yale, has received an award for The Enlightenment (I, 1966; II, 1969), an outstanding work on European culture of the eighteenth century, and was highly acclaimed for his recent The Bourgeois Experience (I, 1984; II, 1986; with four more projected volumes), an awesome venture and one highly flavored with Freudianism. His most recent books on Freud were preceded by others on pre-war Germany (e.g., Weimar Culture [1968] and Freud, Jews, and Other Germans [1978]).

What about the Jewish aspects of their lives? To grasp their significance we must turn back to their original environment, earliest upbringing, the source of lifetime attitudes. Here we are confronted by contrasts.

Jacob Freud, a descendant of a hassidic, learned family, and his wife, Amalia, from the hassidic center of Brody, maintained a traditional household in Freiberg, Moravia, where Sigmund was born. This Jewishly-steeped home pattern apparently continued in Vienna, for Freud freely acknowledges that he learned the biblical stories before he could read and was taught the Pentateuch from a text with German translation and commentary. He was attached to his Hebrew teacher, a Samuel Hammerschlag, a dear friend in time of need. Indeed, most of the close friends of his family, as well as of his future bride's family, seem to have had a measure of Jewish observance and strong Jewish interests.

By contrast, Moritz Peter Fröhlich is described by his son as being “wholly assimilated, ‘Jewish’ only by Nazi edict, content in his business …” His “neutral” name and acceptable physical appearance, the son relates, made him seem more Aryan than his non-Jewish business partner. Actually, he was able, in 1936, to obtain tickets to attend the World Olympics where he and his son cheered the American winners.3

Obviously, from these disparate backgrounds, differences in outlook would be expected, towards both Jewish as well as German culture. Thus, in his latest works, Peter Gay focuses on Freud's theories and experiences. In A Godless Jew he first recounts the well-worn theme, the battle of “Science Against Religion,” in which he describes how religion—read clericalism—resisted tenaciously the scientific assault on its sacred towers or absorbed scientific methods to achieve its own goals.

His main objective, however, seems to be the transformation of Freud into the last philosophe, an appendage to eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This period, idealized by Gay, is characterized by rationalistic methods and skepticism toward established dogma. Proferring extensive sources from the Enlightenment, Gay asserts that Freud was a true atheist and further asserts that a search for “common ground” between theology and psychoanalysis can only be doomed to “failure,” concluding, finally, that Jewishness has no claim whatsoever on the science of psychoanalysis—despite Freud's emphatic affirmation to the contrary.

At the same time, Gay, the Enlightenment scholar, fully knows that “it was the anti-Christian, neo-pagan philosophers of the Enlightenment, led by Voltaire, and the ‘romantic’ reaction that they provoked who are the true fathers of the modern anti-semitism,” an association that Freud would vehemently denounce.4

In Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), Gay concludes that “Freud the conventional bourgeois battled Freud the scientific conquistador every step of the way.” True. However, this battle might be better understood as a lifelong contest between the strong imprint of Freud's early Jewish moral training and a powerful native drive for independence and leadership. To attain fame, he had to become an iconoclast; to establish his own new “faith” he felt impelled to renounce Judaism. He remained so conflicted all of his life.

Compared with this monumental work, A Godless Jew (1987) seems a triviality blown into a trumpet. But the specific issues discussed therein must have long distressed the author. What is Gay trying to prove? “… I am devoting the rest of this book to demonstrating this argument—that if Freud had been a believer like James, he would not have developed psychoanalysis.” Put simply, Gay believes that psychoanalysis must be godless. Apparently eschewing Marxism, deism, and Judaism, Gay seems to have found his faith by following Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and has been attempting to mold him into his own (i.e., Gay's) image. But he does not succeed. The weight of words—adding reference to reference, quotation to quotation, expression to expression—may overwhelm, but it does not convince.

He acknowledges that Freud “advertised his unbelief every time he could find …” and reminds us of Freud's oft-repeated comment: “Why did psychoanalysis have to wait for a completely godless Jew?” But this question is more rhetorical than real. We might as well ask: Why did genetics, a more thoroughly grounded science, have to wait for a monk, Gregor Mendel? Or the laws of gravity for the mind of Newton, a believer? Indeed, Gay himself refers to “the kind of pious scientist with which eighteenth-century England was richly endowed.”5

But perhaps another, deeper intent, a muffled yet anguished cry, lies imprisoned within this query. Perhaps Freud is inquiring of his people: Why did this knowledge of psychoanalysis have to delay so long? Why could not earlier a believing Jew—or I, while still believing—have made this discovery? Why could not my original faith have encompassed this new discovery—so that I would not have had to cast it aside?

The question as to whether psychoanalysis is a Jewish science is double-pronged: 1. Is psychoanalysis a science? and 2. Is psychoanalysis Jewish?

As to the first, a science is commonly defined as a logical, systematized structure of laws that are verifiable and replicable. Psychoanalysis does not seem to have such laws. Like the theories found within an academic discipline such as history, for example, it does contain a body of organized knowledge. But, despite its many years of productivity and expansion, it still remains one theory of personality development among others and one therapeutic method among others. Indeed, Dr. Ernest Jones reported Freud himself as saying:

“I always envy the physicists and mathematicians who can stand on firm ground. I hover, so to speak, in the air. Mental events seem to be immeasurable and probably always will be so.”6

On the other hand, there is no doubt as to the profound, revolutionary influence of psychoanalysis on psychological thinking, and the fecundity of its underlying principles, which have been applied to other fields of endeavor, such as art, history, and literature. By the same token, however, science, as such, cannot be Jewish, for the laws of nature are objective and available for everyone to discover.

Is psychoanalysis Jewish?

Here Gay deplores Freud's view of kindred Jewish traits and of Jews as being “exceptionally equipped to do psychoanalysis.” He further rejects the “dubious notion” of E. Jones that Jews have an “aptitude for psychological intuition.” Yet he quotes Roback who sees the origin of psychoanalysis in the

peculiar make-up of the Jew, who is analytical in a psychological sense, and who is constantly reflecting on the why and wherefore of everything, as exemplified in Ecclesiastes.7

Gay accepts external forces, a sociological basis only. Freud's alienation and freedom from majority prejudices provided the thrust for challenging old ideas, exploring new concepts, pounding on academe's door with novel psychological theories, all culminating in the development of psychoanalysis. Could he not have discovered some internal factor, some value or virtue in Freud's Jewishness that helped plant, sprout, or nourish the blossoming and fruition of psychoanalytical sensitivities?

One tends to wonder why Gay belabors and belittles the issue of Jewishness. He seems deeply disturbed that Jews might be different from others and resists forcefully “… the untenable notion that Jews are by endowment more intelligent than other people.” His view is strange, especially since he recognizes that “history is a Darwinian battle.” A brief survey of Jewish history would have suggested that the persecutions and decimations of the Jewish people over the millennia inevitably led to the survival of the fittest. It would appear that Gay did not take the opportunity to note, for example, the disproportionate number of Jewish Nobel prize winners—unless, in his egalitarian stance, he perceives their unique contributions as belonging to Germany, France, America and Russia rather than to the Jewish people.

We find other paradoxes in Gay's writing, some of them quite glaring. He is infatuated with les philosophes because of their denunciation of orthodoxies and rigidities, and their rational approach to the study of nature, even attributing to them a foreknowledge of Freudian concepts (e.g., “intimations of the unconscious, the superego, rationalization, and sublimation.”) Yet, in A Godless Jew he proves to be most fixed and unchanging in his adherence to orthodox Freudianism while remaining oblivious to the psychoanalytical developments of the last fifty or more years.

A comparison between Gay's Freud, Jews, and Other Germans (1978) and his 1987 volume seems appropriate. If the former volume, in part “painful” (though “a prolonged pleasure”) for the author to have written after decades in America, is considered as expiation for his long-standing negative feelings regarding Germany, then, certainly, A Godless Jew appears to serve as a vehicle for self-justification of his own asthenic, indifferent Jewishness.

Likewise, we might perceive Moses and Monotheism as a desperate attempt by Freud to lay at rest the ghost that tormented him all of his life, his forsaking active Jewish loyalty. Without probing deeply into Freud's psyche, we can say with a measure of assurance that his original strong objections as a youth dealt with the imposition of Judaic customs and rites, “the yoke of the law,” and not the principles of his faith. As Ernest Jones reports, Freud “detested all ceremonies, especially religious ones …”8 Of course, this aversion applied only to those seen as forced upon him, not to those rigid patterns and compulsive behaviors of his own making.

How can we best portray and perceive these two men as to their Jewish outlooks?

Freud, raised in a traditional home in modest circumstances and feeling forced to cast aside Judaism, sought a new faith in his “scientific” psychoanalysis with—as he claimed—its attendant atheism. Yet, he exposes his underlying, renounced yet conflictual, Judaic attachments: using divine terminology (e.g., “our god Logos”); insatiably collecting antiquities and statuettes of divinities; forbidding Jewish practices as “superstition” (e.g., lighting of Friday night candles) while condoning Christian customs (e.g., lit-up Christmas trees and painted Easter eggs); writing of … “strange secret yearnings perhaps from my ancestral heritage … wishes from late childhood never to be fulfilled …”; frequently quoting biblical passages; subscribing to “mysterious bonds” with his fellow-Jews and extolling Zionism.

We might assert that his acquiescence, as an adult, to having Christmas gifts and Easter eggs, would probably appear to him as an innocuous indulgence of his children in the patterns of the general community and as a family celebration. How could he refuse them when his adjoining office was replete with pagan deities? In fact, we may see here his recognition of the power of Jewish faith and practice over those of Christianity, for the latter never troubled him.

For Gay, atheism emerged out of a liberal, comfortable, sports-minded jüdischkeit-rein household. “… I had been at home in Germany,” he says, and was quite contented until, as he acknowledges, Hitler's edict made a Jew out of him. His enduring attachment to Germany is exposed by the very speed with which, as he claims, he became “At Home in America.”9 He directly absorbed American culture and anglicized his name. Moreover, though he was speaking of his father, Gay reveals his own deep, enduring German antipathy towards Ostjuden. He accuses Jews from Poland and Galicia—even those born in the United States—of being unable to adapt as readily as he did to a new environment, while he is capable of “… seeing all gentiles as … friends.” Yet, it took him more than thirty years to overcome his bitterness toward Hitler and the German people for making him into a pariah, hardly a sign of a prompt adjustment. Indeed, he does protest too strongly, after tarring all German culture with the same Nazi brush. His loss was personal, not Jewish.

Apparently, his clear view holds that wherever Jews retained their sense of distinctiveness they remained uncomfortable and anxious Only where they were fully assimilated were they comfortable and well adjusted—Jewish minds and hearts without Jewishness. Freud, obviously, belongs in the first group.

The name change is a most interesting phenomenon. After all, there were many thousands of German Jewish refugees who suffered more at the hands of the Nazis and never thought of altering their names and yet they aided the war effort in various capacities. Gay's case is analogous to a loving woman who is rejected by a lover and flees pellmell into the arms of another. It was probably a swing of the pendulum, hatred for Germany rather than love for America, that made him cling to his new home so quickly, his protestations to the contrary notwith-standing, Gay has been happy in America, not because here every group can freely maintain its own culture and live by it, but precisely because the open opportunity exists for the individual to discard these diversities. Significant in this connection is his apparent pride in banishing from his vocabulary “that ugly word goy,” “a word my father taught me to detest,” presumably as an act of humanitarianism. In his view, a “flight from tradition” becomes a “flight into humanity.”10

Probably he never consciously considered both of his acts (i.e. choice of “Gay” and removal of “goy”) as having anti-Jewish aspects serving to efface the last vestige of Jewishness from his life. Peter Gay seems to be asking to obliterate differences between Jew and non-Jew, whereas Freud sought to enhance and to illuminate these distinctions. Did Gay not realize that “goy” is not intended as a pejorative term? In our own liturgy and literature, Israel is designated as goy ehad, “one nation.”11 Significantly, too, “goy” occurs twice in the oft-recited passage from Isaiah 2:4, “Nation shall not take up sword against nation.”

True, Gay and Freud do have traits in common: they are brilliant, energetic, daring, self-confident, self-motivating individuals, proud, resourceful, skilled writers, conscious of their abilities, struggling for greatness, and reacting strongly to early adolescent traumas. Despite differences in early personal history, their psychological response to their youthful crises was similar. Neither could forsake or forfeit his original allegiance; both were continually striving to fill the void of a lost, idyllic childhood as revealed through the defense mechanism of displacement, rationalization, denial and reversal-formation.

Their differences also endure. There are strong indications that Freud was deeply “tormented” by the unique phenomenon of the existence of a Moses, leader and law giver. Further, he avoided mentioning the name of Theodor Herzl, another leader, and the founder of modern Zionism. It seems that Freud visualized himself, rather, as the true leader of his people Israel, bringing them into a new land of freedom and self-understanding. This yearning is a far cry from the goals of Peter Gay.

Sigmund Freud always retained and cherished within himself “das pintele Yid”; Peter Gay seems never to have had any. Freud believed in the uniqueness of the Jewish people; Gay rejected that idea. Freud was concerned with Jewish survival; Gay never was. Both of these believers in orthodox psychoanalysis claim to have no faith—but, Jewishly, they remain worlds apart. No mighty bridge of words can traverse that abyss.

Ultimately, we must return to Gay's revision of Sigmund Freud's dictum that “anatomy is destiny” into “culture is destiny.” Dr. Gay's simple yet profound statement is correct; his Jewish perspective proves it.


  1. Ronald W. Clark, Freud: The Man and the Cause (1980), p. 344.

  2. Ibid, p. 361.

  3. “At Home In America,” The American Scholar (Winter 1977): 31–42.

  4. Samuel Schafler, “Enemies or Jew-Haters? Reflections on the History of Anti-Semitism,” JUDAISM (Summer 1988): 137.

  5. The Enlightenment, p. 186.

  6. Clark, Op. cit., p. 470.

  7. A. A. Roback, Jewish Influences in Modern Thought (1929), pp. 166–167.

  8. Ernest Jones, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1953), vol. I., p. 140.

  9. American Scholar (Winter 1977): 41–2.

  10. Peter Gay, Style in History, p. 188.

  11. e. g., II Samuel, 7:23.

Thomas H. Thompson (review date March 1989)

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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 psychoanalysis is a science, as Freud and Gay repeatedly assert, then it is a science which is uniquely part and parcel of the life of its creator.

The problems of ordinary biography are daunting enough. But the biographer of Freud—who is himself a Freudian—may be presumed to have long since yielded up his civilian innocence, along with any usual shield of historical objectivity. Biographies have an agenda. Authors, analyzed or not, have purposes to fulfill, scores to settle, even claims of “objectivity” to celebrate. Idealization of the subject not less than muck-raking hostility toward him contribute a slant that penetrates to the core of the project. If we are Freudians, we should not trust the author's expressed motives, for he can hardly avoid depositing the residue of his unresolved neurotic attachment to the subject in his biography. Like analysis, terminable and interminable, the biographical worker yearns for finality and closure while having to make do with a botched and incomplete limning of a vanished persona.

It is no surprise that Freud's best-known dictum on the biographical task, found in his Leonardo, states the problematic position of the biographer with typical terse ferocity:

Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and, even if one had it, one could not use it.

Yet, in spite of all difficulties, the life of Freud is just too fascinating and compelling a project to abandon. Nor is the matter merely one of voyeuristic curiosity, for Freud's psychology is so laden with the implications of his life that it is quite impossible to deal with one without assuming some position about the other. The field is already quite well-populated and it is overflowing with contention and disagreement. While Ernest Jones's three-volume work is probably irreplaceable, taken as a whole, it is also inevitable that the life of Freud will continue to attract reinterpretation. There is an important sense in which the life of a famous deceased like Freud “keeps on living.” The documentary memorabilia, at least in Freud's case, appear to be inexhaustible, with the deconstruction and reconstruction of the texts extending the life of the principal beyond the grave as every serious reader and subsequent biographer participates in the half-life of the famous subject.

A starting place in assessing the approach of Gay to the Freudian materials is with the structure and divisions of his book. The end-matter, excluding the index, comes to a bulky 133 pages out of a total of 810. Besides copious end-notes for each chapter, the most unusual aspect, something not found in other Freudian biographies, is the 38-page Bibliographical Essay. Opening with a general section that lists and annotates the sources and comments on the extant biographical sources, it proceeds chapter by chapter to lay out secondary sources in profusion that have been employed to build the superstructure of the main text. As the word “essay” implies, the annotations are more than merely informative. They are editorial and occasionally briefly polemical, suggesting Gay's considered judgments on the accuracy and fairness of the work of his predecessors' approaches to the biography of Freud and the content of his psychoanalysis.

Why has Gay chosen this lengthy, discursive monograph format instead of supplying the usual starkly presented book list? Some part of his motive is attributable to the good historical scholar's duty to buttress the text so that serious readers can judge the soundness of the sources and evaluate the derivatives in the main text. An equal motive must be that of style as adjusted to audience. A choice has been made to free the text from the annoying fine print of professorial qualification and attribution in order to let the narrative flow without pettifogging interruptions from the scholarly apparatus. Yet these motives, are, I think, insufficient to justify the length and the ideational content of the Bibliographical Essay. It is as if Gay had before his mind two quite different books ambivalently contesting for birth in print, and decided to allow only one to come to term.

Gay's “main” book, saved from footnotes by the end-apparatus, though much briefer than Ernest Jones's massive contribution, is nevertheless somewhat reminiscent of it. Like Jones, Gay is an insider, though hardly to the extent that Jones was. Gay is prepared to differ with Freud on at least some matters and is, of course, a professional historian. Gay, too, like Jones, writes both about Freud's life and times and gives an account of his major works, showing the relation—or lack of relation—of the works to the man and the times. In this, there can be seen some relation to the “man and his times” tradition of the old German textbook, though the treatment is far from stodgily pedagogical.

We follow Freud from his birthplace in Czechoslovakia to Vienna, and at the end we see him reluctantly emigrating to London, “to die in freedom.” In between, Freud carries on his rather unusual education at the University of Vienna, writes The Interpretation of Dreams, marries Martha Bernays, invents psychoanalysis and almost single-handedly establishes it and himself in the face of never-ending hostility and misunderstanding.

Gay introduces some new materials from Freud's university years, particularly from the letters to Silberstein from which Gay liberally quotes. Freud, like many undergraduates, was unsure about his focus in university work. His interests were broad and cultural as well as narrowly scientific and it appears that he became a physician for practical reasons rather than from an attraction to the role of healer. The great influence of his favorite professor Ernst Brücke is documented, as is the important role of Franz Brentano. Brücke belonged to the anti-vitalistic Helmholtzian school of scientific empiricism, a view that limited the realm of legitimate science solely to material causes. On the other hand, Brentano (from whom Freud took five courses) was a philosopher and psychologist who was a theist as well as an empiricist. From what Gay tells us of the influences working on Freud to produce psychoanalysis, it is hardly clear that the result was to be scientific. True, Freud's early university career was that of a budding zoologist and brain physiologist, but always, it seems, there were reservations that prevented his full dedication to a life as a scientist. Most obvious, of course, is the advice he received from his mentor Brücke to leave the laboratory and become a physician. This choice emerged from Freud's poverty and his desire to marry, more than from his unforced intellectual interests. Those interests, according to Freud, ranged over the whole of culture and were more philosophical than they were scientific. Gay tells us, in fact, that Freud contemplated at one time electing a double major in zoology and philosophy. At the same time, Freud insists that he suppressed such breadth of interest in favor of a sterner science, once he became the founder of psychoanalysis. He told Jones: “… I felt a strong attraction toward speculation and ruthlessly checked it.” It finally becomes quite impossible, at least by parsing Freudian quotations, to determine what Freud's true intellectual loyalties were. He needed to be on both sides of the fence.

Gay, however, takes another view of the matter. He finds Freud settling the issue of science versus philosophy in the following way:

In true Enlightenment fashion, he denigrated the philosophizing of metaphysicians as unhelpful abstractions. He was equally hostile to those philosophers who equate the reach of the mind with consciousness. His philosophy was scientific empiricism as embodied in a scientific theory of the mind.

On the contrary—or so it seems to me—Freud, though influenced by the Enlightenment and the positivist ideal, was never the kind of empirical scientist he strenuously claimed he was. I believe that Gay should in this instance have been more skeptical of Freud's judgment about the meaning of his own psychoanalytic enterprise. Freud was himself a “metaphysician” more than he was a scientist. This was already apparent in The Interpretation of Dreams. The major evidence was introspective rather than observational or even clinical. By the time Freud writes Totem and Taboo,The Future of an Illusion,Civilization and Its Discontents, and Moses and Monotheism it seems apparent that the “scientific” character of psychoanalysis has practically disappeared. Totem and Taboo produces a story of the brothers slaying the father for love of the mother and finding that out of their guilt a conscience emerged. The Future of an Illusion, the most Enlightenment-inspired Freudian work, owes more to Feuerbach than it does to Brücke. That religion is the unconscious reinstatement of the overestimated father may be true, but that truth is hardly a scientific statement. And Civilization and Its Discontents—the two great forces contending against one another and the outcome in doubt as the book dramatically concludes—is hardly the product of scientific work. It is the product of observation, no doubt, but the observation is laden with theory, specifically the Freudian metapsychology, and it celebrates the incapacity of Freud to think of the matter without the assumption of dual, contending instinctual forces, Eros and Thanatos. Again, with all due respect, Freud's inner compulsions are alleged as the key to the nature of the universe. Scientific empiricism, even if we were to admit the “evidence” of the consulting couch, has been abandoned—except for formal statements that insist on the scientific character of psychoanalysis. We are entitled to suspect repression of what Freud unconsciously “knew” about the character of his own enterprise and the denial of that knowledge in order to keep the repressed awareness from surfacing.

Psychoanalysis and Freud's biography get entangled with one another in the most direct and dramatic way in the course of Freud's famous self-analysis. The self-analysis is a turning-point in the development of psychoanalysis, an event that, if it had not occurred, would have denied psychoanalysis existence. The self-analysis was ushered in by two events closely connected in time—Freud's freeing himself from the seduction theory of the neuroses, and the death of Jakob Freud, the father. Freud's patients had repeatedly told him incredible tales of seduction and rape by their fathers and by father-surrogates. Freud had lectured on the conviction founded on those stories, the view that all neurosis had its source in actual, real sexual trauma in childhood. Gradually, it dawned on Freud that he no longer believed his “neurotica,” as he wrote to Fliess. Implying as it did that Freud's own father must have sexually abused him, it became obvious to Freud that fantasies rather than reality (in most cases) had been recounted. However, something was gained from the error. Freud learned the importance of fantasy, particularly since in the unconscious, distinctions between reality and fancy were, after all, absent. And these fantasies of his patients directed to the parents were destined to support what Freud himself was to discover in his own analytic excavations—that fundamental base of psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex. Then, in 1896, Freud's father died, an event which Freud came to describe as “the most significant event, the most decisive loss of a man's life.” From the protracted and difficult self-analysis came not only the Oedipus complex, but the analysis of dreams as wish-fulfillments, the discovery of the meaning of slips of the pen and tongue—discoveries that culminated with the completion around the turn of the century of The Interpretation of Dreams.

The basis of psychoanalytic therapy emerged as well. Freud discovered, in his own resistance to the bringing of unconscious contents into consciousness, the root of the resistance that he had encountered in asking his patients to freely associate on the couch. And in his friend Fliess he was serendipitously furnished with a surrogate of the analyst, the Other that listens without judging, leading the patient to insight that is more than intellectual understanding.

Gay describes the self-analysis in these glowing terms:

… this act of patient heroism, to be admired and palely imitated but never repeated, is the founding act of psychoanalysis.

He quotes Ernest Jones:

It is hard for us nowadays to imagine how momentous this achievement was, that difficulty being the fate of most pioneering exploits. Yet the uniqueness of the feat remains. Once done it is done forever. For no one can again be first to explore those depths.

Yet, as Freud himself realizes and Gay admits, this revelatory founding act of psychoanalysis, described in language that verges on religious reverence, is a resounding oxymoron.

It is not so much that Freud's self-analysis took Herculean effort, or supreme dedication, or even heroism and pioneering spirit. We can admit all of these, while yet denying the very name of “analysis” to this first and presumably exemplary instance of it. As expected, Freud said it economically and said it well: “True self-analysis is impossible, else there would be no illness.” Gay agrees, pointing out that “Self-analysis would be a contradiction in terms.” Then, peculiarly enough for the rational scientist, Freud, and the careful historian, Gay, the self-analysis is taken to be the “cherished centerpiece of psychoanalytic mythology (emphasis mine),” as labeled by Gay's text. Gay repeatedly describes Freud as a child of the Enlightenment whose anti-philosophy is ordinary scientific empiricism. Such a self-analysis as a foundation for “science” would have made “old Brücke” turn over in his grave!

In his Preface, Gay sifts through some of the contested and conflicting conjectures and alleged facts about Freud the person. He asks whether Freud's father was married twice or three times, whether Freud borrowed from others without crediting their contributions, whether he had an affair with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays as Peter Swales contends, whether he was actually addicted to cocaine, and many others. Some of these loose ends are taken up in the text or mentioned again in the Bibliographical Essay. It is frustrating, however, to find Gay sticking to his resolve not to reveal to the reader, aside from annotated references, the “itinerary” that led him to the positions he adopts.

In the midst of this review of controverted biographical facts, Gay asks: “Was Freud the scientific positivist he claimed to be, or was he, rather, principally indebted to the cloudy speculations of the romantics or to Jewish mysticism?” And a little later, he adds that these biographical controversies “impinge on the largest question that his [Freud's] work raises: Is psychoanalysis a science, an art, or an imposture? (emphasis mine)” I find it odd that, having given the question of the disciplinary identity of psychoanalysis as the “largest question” raised by Freudian psychology, he follows Freud's own insistence that psychoanalysis is nothing more or less than an empirical science. In a biographical introduction Gay contributed to the Engelman picture book in 1976, he had already stated the position he later repeated in Freud:

[Freud] lived far less in Vienna than in his own mind—with the positivist scientists of the late nineteenth century … and with the infinitely instructive surprises of systematic introspection. Freud was, first and last, the scientist, bravely listening to the evidence, wherever it led.

Why, when Gay is willing to criticize Freud's judgment of his own work as defective, was he so willing in this instance merely to repeat, without analyzing, the insistent claim of the founder? If the reader turns to the Bibliographical Essay, it is clear that Gay is aware of the weighty evidence that Adolf Grünbaum brings to his criticism of the faulty scientific credentials of Freudianism. But, aside from some additional references in criticism of Grünbaum's work, he sets aside—cavalierly, in my judgment—the Grünbaum attack as merely an “obsession.” But this is not a useful comment, shifting the focus irrelevantly from the probity of Grünbaum's criticism to a casual ad hominem.

If, in fact, Grünbaum succeeds in totally undermining the claim of psychoanalysis to be good empirical science, the “large question” that Gay believes so readily answered must be recognized instead as a controverted issue that drives to the heart of the Freudian enterprise. But, if not science, then is psychoanalysis a farrago of murky borrowings that comes down, using Gay's term, to “imposture”? Not necessarily. There are clues in abundance and they are ready at hand. Freud has had many interpreters of a non-scientific bent. Paul Ricoeur is one, who like Jürgen Habermas, finds hermeneutics the key to understanding the Freudian enterprise. Jacques Lacan, the notoriously obscure French psychoanalyst, finds the meaning of Freud in a form of post-structuralist semiotic analysis. William J. McGrath finds Freudian psychoanalysis, while showing Enlightenment features, also prominently displaying influences of the German romantic-historical Geisteswissenschaft as contrasted to the narrower Wissenschaft of the empirical scientist. While much remains to be done in an effort definitively to capture the identity of psychoanalysis, it seems clear already that psychoanalysis is not, Freud himself to the contrary, science, but a discipline of the humanities. Psychoanalysis is a speculative philosophy of the human that is a work of the culture that it attempts to epitomize and whose hidden framework of reality it purports to reveal. Such a characterization, it must be admitted, fits the later works of Freudian psychoanalysis better than its early manifestations. But some of the same evidence that Gay uses in his biography would plausibly suggest that this same character pervades psychoanalysis as a whole.

Whether scientific or not, psychoanalysis is, like the religion attributed to Moses, a theory shaped almost exclusively by one person. To this day it shows the stigmata of Freud's insistence that he alone would define and defend its essential character. The psychoanalytic fraternity has inherited some of the defensiveness that reflects the founder's resentment of isolation and non-acceptance. Gay is excellent in depicting Freud's perceived isolation from his colleagues in the beginning of his career and his lifelong struggle to maintain the pure essence of psychoanalysis as it was launched into the wider world. Certainly it can be argued that Freud was justified in his almost-paranoid posture of defense. The sexual character of libidinal energy and the “scandal” of the Oedipus complex, not to mention the imputation of sexual precocity to innocent babes, did mean that psychoanalysis was liable to resistance and rejection even before it could be understood. On the other hand, the protection of the basic dogmas of psychoanalysis against all comers contributed to some of the many ironies and contradictions of the Freudian career. Freud thought he needed “Aryans” like Carl Jung and Eugen Bleuler to protect the fledgling psychoanalysis against the charge of its Jewishness and its Viennese provincialism. It is unfortunate that psychoanalysis has not enjoyed the kind of development that might have made it more science than art just because Freudian protectiveness shielded the new science from critical attack and revision.

Instead, in the case of many, if not most, of Freud's close friendships that involved associates in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis, there was classic ambivalence. Freud needed Jung as the hope of the future; yet Freud could not really tolerate him as a competitor and hallucinated father-Freud slayer. Of course, Jung himself was a strong figure who both needed Freud as “father” and could not tolerate playing second-fiddle to anyone. The ironic result, instead of the preservation of the psychoanalytic “faith,” was the spread of heresy. The resemblance between psychoanalysis and religion, denied by Freud and declared in American lectures by Jung, was indisputable. How deep the analogy cut was another matter. While Henri Ellenberger, who says that the “school” aspect of psychoanalysis was its most prominent characteristic, may exaggerate, it is not by much. Freud could feel very uncomfortable as the “pope” of Vienna, even as he found it necessary to excommunicate more and more of his erring associates and murdering “children.” The result was a “school philosophy” and competing negated schools, rather than a plurally enriched unified science.

Again, Gay, like Jones before him, finds Freud's own account of his isolation and his defensiveness an acceptable description rather than a problem for a biographer's analysis. Is, for example, Frank Sulloway correct or not in finding Freud not only unoriginal but also a maker of the myth of isolation that created the necessity of a defense? Gay's Freud does not address the issue. An important reason derives from Gay's conviction that Freud is basically an Enlightenment intellectual and scientist working independently of the historical and environmental forces that impinged on him. Given the amount of historical background included in Freud, it is strange to read the following statement, particularly strange to hear it from a cultural historian. Gay cites Freud's own denial of the importance of Vienna to his work as the authority on this matter:

… Freud could have developed his ideas in any city endowed with a first-rate medical school and an educated public large and affluent enough to furnish him with patients.

Freud's judgment in this matter is highly suspect. He wanted to deny any influence that would suggest that psychoanalysis was less than an abstract, universal science, but such a denial hardly can be taken at face value. For my part, it seems that it is close to tautologically obvious that the culture of Vienna, particularly the special character of its university faculty and its anti-Semitic outbreaks and its Roman Catholic clericalism, had a great deal to do with Freud's attitudes and the way he defended his creation, psychoanalysis. It was in order to defend psychoanalysis against those who would claim that it was merely a Jewish-mystical mesmerism of some superstitious sort that Freud was so anxious to prove that it was not “Jewish” and that it was scientific. From the psychoanalytic point of view, the impassioned strength of the defensive strategy derives from the double-sided nature of the claim. Psychoanalysis was, to a degree, speculative and philosophical, but it had some empirical and scientific elements as well. Freud, with all the strength at his command, overaffirmed the science components and, by implication, negated the components that clearly were non-scientific. Given Freud's upbringing, his education, and his genuine respect for the scientific world-view, he could hardly call psychoanalysis anything other than “science,” just as he had named his first-born son Ernest, out of respect for his beloved professor, Ernst Brücke. To name his new discipline as anything less objective would have aligned it with the (hated) Roman Catholicism or with the discredited “occult” mysticisms. For Freud, a serious discipline had to be scientific if it was to be serious rather than fanciful and speculative. There seemed to be, at the time, no other choice.

By following Freud in this matter, a matter where Freud cannot be trusted, Gay has been less than true to the Freudian heritage, which is a heritage of suspicious probing beneath the surface in order to bring up the truth from the depths. It is with respect to questions like these that Gay's “insider” status has led him astray. Instead of doing some psychoanalytic detective work on his elusive subject, he gives sympathetic credence where he should have taken the role of the critical Other. If he had, Freud would have been a far different book.

One of the serious defects that Gay does discern in Freud's self-analysis is the inquiry into the psychoanalytic significance of gender difference. Freud was surrounded with women as he grew up, and he was a close personal and professional associate of a good many others. Some of such famous case-histories as those of Bertha von Pappenheim and Dora come to mind. The psychoanalytic circle was, for its time, open to women who had become psychoanalysts—like Ruth Brunswick, Helene Deutsch, Joan Riviere, Anna Freud, and, Freud's special friend and confidante, Lou Andreas Salomé. Nevertheless, Gay titles the section on feminine psychology, “Woman, the Dark Continent,” after a remark of Freud's to Ernest Jones, and he quotes the now-familiar question that Freud helplessly put to Marie Bonaparte, “Was will das Weib?,” “What does woman want?” Freud's self-analysis was replete with references to the fateful influence of the father upon the son, but was strangely reserved about the dynamics of the developing child's relation to the mother. While we know that Freud had an experience on a train trip that awakened sexual desire for his young mother, and that he dreamed about her—experiences that were to be universalized after confirmation on the couch—we learn little more about Freud's maternal involvement. And yet Gay tells us that Amalia Freud's “hold over Freud's inner life was as secure as that of his wife … perhaps more decisive.”

While some of Freud's lack of knowledge about the female role can be attributed to Victorian reticence, Gay suspects that Freud conceals an unconscious wish not to know what a full analysis might reveal. Freud did describe the relation between mother and son as uniquely unflawed by concealed hostile wishes—in his words, “the most perfect, easily the most amibivalence-free of all human relationships.” Not remarkably, Gay suggests that such a sentiment has more resemblance to the buried wish than to a sober report of clinical experience.

Freud's theory of the feminine, on the other hand, is almost deliberately calculated to arouse the antipathy of the feminists. Karen Horney, a Freudian revisionist, contested the analysis in Freud's presence, ascribing the role assigned to the feminine as a result of male narcissism. Even the faithful Jones tried to argue Freud out of his position on the matter, but unsuccessfully. Freud never changed. To begin with, he saw the force of libido itself as masculine (though he wavered on this point), already determining a dilution of the erotic life of the female. In the course of psychosexual development, male libidinal force becomes the model. The boy, attracted to the mother, is put off by the threat of castration. His adjustment to reality comes through identification, rivalry with the father being consolidated into the male super-ego's strength. The girl, already “castrated,” hostile to the mother as responsible for this inferiority, compensates for the absence of a penis by substituting the wish for a child. Her superego is founded on the fear of loss of love and therefore lacks the powerful residues derived from the breakup of the male Oedipus complex. The boy's superego, having “incorporated” the father, is strong and authoritative, with the capacity to feel justice and injustice with passion and dedication. The Oedipus complex in the female is just “reversed.” Freud puts it economically: “While the Oedipus complex of the boy is destroyed by the castration complex, that of the girl is made possible and introduced by the castration complex.”

In a memorable phrase, Gay tells us that Freud “exiled mothers to the margins of his case histories.” It does seem likely that Freud's studied neglect of the role of the female in the family setting is, to use his own phrase, “over-determined.” His hostile feelings toward his mother were firmly repressed and his sentimental notion of the purity of mother-love suggests a reaction formation rather than a report. His very theory of instincts, being “masculine” in the acculturated sense of that term, already implied the derivative and inferior status of the female erotic. Theory and Victorian sensibility may have conspired to move Freud to the conservative side of feminine psychology.

At any rate, when Gay takes his stand on the side of Horney and Jones, rather than Freud, the reader is likely to find his revisionism plausible, not just trendy. With a different starting point, it is clearly sensible to find femininity not a derivative of a diluted maleness, but rather a psychological reality of its own irreducible kind. Given a dualism of sexual orientations, it is no longer so convincing that “Anatomy is destiny.” As Gay reasonably avers, culture is also destiny.

On the biographical side of the feminine, Gay's book provides some new and welcome insights on Freud's relation to his wife, Martha, and to his most necessary aid and comfort in his later years, Anna Freud. The enigmatic character of Freud's tumultuous courtship and his anticlimactic marriage, however, still remain. Those who have read the (incomplete) published letters of Freud to his fiancée Martha Bernays will have been impressed by Freud's huge ardor and insistence, as well as his impressive displays of romantic rhetoric. Once married, the Freuds are found to have transformed themselves into the very model of the late nineteenth century bourgeois family. Martha takes on the role of the perfect Hausfrau and, after—even during—the rapid production of six children, has little of the appearance or the personality of the girl that Freud fiercely courted and won.

We are left to conjecture that Freud's need for intellectual companionship became foremost, once the marriage was consummated and his professional concerns became dominant. Freud had found a new, however sublimated, erotic attachment: psychology. He had found a new and necessary intellectual companion in Wilhelm Fliess, a companion who stood in for the missing Other in the self-analysis and who, according to some biographers, contributed more than the principle of bisexuality to Freudian theory. Freud confided to Ferenczi that there was some “unruly” homosexual component of the friendship to be dealt with.

Freud's cancer, discovered in 1923, made him more and more dependent on professional assistance and even on nursing care. It was not Martha Freud who took on the responsibility of becoming Freud's physical and intellectual alter ego, nor even Aunt Minna, but his last daughter, Anna. Anna was at Freud's side almost constantly as nurse, secretary, and professional double when the progress of the cancer meant that Freud was no longer able to address an audience or even appear in public. Freud was concerned about Anna's psychological development being arrested by this father-fixation and he tried fitfully to set her free while at the same time he could hardly abide to live and work without her presence. For a second time, Freud exempted himself from the rules he had established to bind the psychoanalytic faithful. While not claiming the “special position” he asked for in the case of his self-analysis, he did undertake to psychoanalyze his own daughter. The results of this second highly unorthodox procedure were certainly mixed. Anna did not, in spite of her father's therapy, manage to construct a “normal” life for herself in the sense that Freud would have defined it—namely, a marriage and family. She did, however, become a distinguished analyst in her own right. Gay does an admirable job of describing both of these relationships. When it comes to explaining why Martha Freud fell out of Freud's romantic and intellectual life and how Anna managed to succeed in life in spite of (and probably because of, too) her father fixation, Freud is less than satisfying.

Much of the content of Freud is so very familiar—familiar, that is, to those who have read the full-length biographies of Jones and Clark, as well as the many partial, more specialized biographies, like those of Roazen, Ellenberger and Sulloway. That repetition is hardly escapable in a full-scale biography. To Gay's credit, even those parts which are recast versions of what one finds elsewhere make a “good read.” The reader does come away with an image of Freud that has been enhanced by added detail and by telling and instructive anecdotal material.

Moreover, the reader—especially the reader relatively familiar with the Freudian sources—has to admire the expert job Peter Gay has done in summarizing the essentials of the great Freudian books and essays. The dream book, the books on psychosexual development, the famous case-histories, the later works, and especially The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents are all recaptured and their vital content reprised. The historical context is summoned up as well. Particularly memorable is the picture given of Freud and his family in wartime, of Anna Freud held by the Gestapo, of the coming of the Anschluss and the fateful winding down of Freud's hopes as fascism destroys the Vienna he knew. The intervention of Ernest Jones, of William Bullitt, Marie Bonaparte and others that made it possible for the Freuds to emigrate to England, “to die in freedom,” is movingly recounted.

What is missing is the showing of relationships between the historical and political events of Freud's time and the development of his psychoanalysis. Strangely enough, given Gay's perfect preparation for the task, as both practiced historian and careful student of psychoanalysis, the mixture does not fuse; the two strands, the historical background and the professional life and work of Sigmund Freud, stay separate and side-by-side rather than coming together in an explanatory ensemble.

I have not been able to grasp just why the history and the life and work seem to act like oil and water in Gay's treatment. The best explanation I can devise goes back to Gay's version of Freud as an Enlightenment figure and as a scientist in the Enlightenment framework of ideas. “His”—that is, Gay's—Freud is not, as we noted earlier, the Freud of Frank Sulloway, of Paul Ricoeur, of Jacques Lacan, of Roazen, and of others who see a Freud more complex in ideology, more overdetermined by a host of influences coming together to produce the enigmatic and contradictory figure that Freud was and is still. Gay, true to his promise, does not argue the issue of Freud's identity as a scientist; he simply asserts it throughout his text. While he is aware (as is Freud himself) of some of the oddities and contradictions of Freudian “science,” his certainty is undiminished. But Gay has not convinced me that Freud was a scientist or that psychoanalysis is a science. Taken as science, it is very poor science, as Adolf Grünbaum has so convincingly shown. Taken as a unique amalgam of philosophy along the lines of Brentano and German idealism, psychologically-interpreted nineteenth century biology, and a pioneering intuitive exploration of the human soul, Freudian psychoanalysis seems to defy categorization, just as Freud's character defies definitive biographical reconstruction.

While I risk absurdity to say that Gay's big book is too brief and his Bibliographical Essay too sparse to do justice to his subject, that, I believe, is the situation in which we find ourselves. It is not merely that a considerable amount of the surviving documentary evidence for Freud's life and work is still locked away in The Sigmund Freud Archives of New York, though that is a weighty consideration to be overcome in some future biography. The definitive biography of Freud will be one that rivals and surpasses Freud's own self-analysis, only now carried out in a manner that includes his full maturity and the entire complement of Freud's psychological work. It will be a biography that penetrates once and for all Freud's defenses and denials. Such an intellectual biography is almost beyond mortal comprehension, and it would require a scholar of such catholic ability—and long life!—that the task takes on the lineaments of the Labors of Hercules. Until that work is done, the mystery of Freud will be revealed only piecemeal and in partial insights, often in conflict with one another. While Gay's biography is one respectable piece of that envisaged work, it is not the definitive account.

Steven Weiland (review date spring 1989)

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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 not compiled but composed like novels. And by identifying the choices available to biographers she also underlines the personal, social, and scholarly uses of the form. “All good biography, like good art,” she says, “depends upon a subversive effect: showing the truth, the beauty, the interest or importance of something which before would have seemed blank space, negative, trivial, something for the mind to skim rather than to dwell upon in detail” (“Biography as Fiction,” Triquarterly [April 1982]).

This statement also suggests problems in the relations between biography and psychoanalysis, the methodological innovation that has done much to prompt the kinds of texts Rose approves. Psychoanalysis is certainly intended to be subversive: it uncovers hidden motives and meanings in everyday living, thinking, and feeling, and in significant events and creative work. Biographies written with this method in mind, but not slavishly beholden to it, are revealing in the ways Rose favors. Jean Strouse's Alice James (1980) is an outstanding example. Hence the study of pioneering psychoanalysts themselves as objects of their own theorizing should be similarly fertile ground. Yet so familiar, for example, is the story of Freud's own life, that there appears to be little chance to achieve a subversive effect in retelling it. The widely publicized efforts of Jeffrey Masson in The Assault on Truth (1984)—called a “Watergate of the psyche” by the New York Times—were more damaging to his reputation than to his subject's.

With the publication of Ernest Jones's biography the basic structure of Freud's life was set out for the psychoanalytic and other scholarly communities, and for the public as well; The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1953–57) deservedly achieved a wide audience. Yet Jones's desire to protect Freud's reputation—he had the approval of Anna Freud who was even more cautious about biography—meant that important subjects would not get the treatment they merited despite the space available in the traditional three-volume format. Jones's Freud is more than ample in its documentary aspect but less so in others. As the psychoanalyst and art historian (and analysand of Anna Freud) Ernst Kris said of it, “Everything human and personal is treated wisely and almost with tenderness. Only the thinker Freud, the man in battle with his task, was not sufficiently done.” Kris himself had turned down the opportunity to write Freud's biography and Anna Freud too had spurned the appeals of publishers.

In the past thirty years an enormous literature on Freud's life and work has appeared, some of it subversive in intention though most loyal to the authorized Freud. The distinguished historian Peter Gay appears to have read nearly all of it—and the primary sources on which it is based—for Freud: A Life for Our Time. Accordingly, the lengthy and discursive bibliographic essay at the end of his book is the best of its kind, resembling as a rhetorical strategy Freud's own bibliographic survey in The Interpretation of Dreams. Each adds to the authority of its main text: in Freud's case for purposes of a radical departure and in Gay's for what may be called a stabilization of psychoanalytic history and theory, now bewilderingly pluralistic to analysts and others.

The scale of Freud is determined by the significance and complexity of its subject and by many questions about Freud's life still difficult to answer however great the documentation now available. Indeed, Gay joins other recent writers in noting how the niggardly habits of some of Freud's executors tend to prompt subversive effects of the kind they imagine themselves to be preventing. Gay readily admits to including much familiar material from Freud's professional and personal writings. “I have tried,” he says, “to be accurate rather than startling.”

Having already startled the community of academic historians recently with Freud for Historians (1985), a text that appears, he now says ruefully, to have “fallen on stony ground,” Gay also prepared for his biography with a less partial view. In an essay in Freud, Jews, and Other Germans (1978) he noted Freud's habits of candor and of concealment. He proposed therefore that faced with Freud's “selective discretion” there are these choices for a biographer to pursue among the materials that survive:

He can interrogate Freud's writings, noting his deliberate stylistic strategies and unconscious literary habits; he can profitably juxtapose the radicalism of Freud's ideas with the conservatism of his social posture; he can pursue Freud's commitment to science to its intellectual and emotional roots.

Freud reflects mastery of the materials in all three areas. Gay's gift to psychoanalytic scholarship is the seamless way in which he weaves together an account of Freud's life and the social and political environment of his time with astute critical readings (rarely mere summaries) of his work. Gay's principle is plain: “Freud's personal needs, strategic calculations, and scientific excitement overlapped and reinforced one another” and he was “always prepared to translate private turmoil into analytic theory.”

And though Gay appears to believe that his efforts as a biographer can be sorted out from his responsibilities as a historian, I think that the work of narrative-making in Freud allows him to mingle these roles effectively. For example, he displays the extraordinary counterpoint of the hardships of Freud's life and his family's during World War I in Vienna (including having two sons in uniform) against the composition of a group of essays on psychoanalytic technique, according to Gay “as brilliant as anything he ever wrote.” And the work of the immediate postwar years (especially Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Group Psychology and The Analysis of the Ego) reflect in Gay's account the developmental logic of his theories, the aggression Freud had observed in European society, and the grief he felt at the loss of his daughter Sophie. Finally, Freud's controversial views on women are presented in Freud as “overdetermined” in the same way: representing many complementary and conflicting interests and motives. The limits of Freud's understanding here reflect, in Gay's view, his unwillingness to apply the usual relentless self-scrutiny to his relations with his mother, to whom he was the “golden son.”

No period in Freud's life was unproductive. According to Gay the young Freud already had the point of view of the unique kind of scientist he would become, devoted to positivism and to imaginative speculation. When he was seventeen (in 1883) Freud wrote to a boyhood friend of his dissatisfaction with an international exhibition in Vienna: “I fail to find a large, coherent picture of human activity, as little as I can discover the traits of a landscape in a herbarium.” The taste for large ideas, however, was only one characteristic that Gay takes to be observable even in Freud's early years. “From his childhood days on, an assertive display of intellectual independence, controlled rage, physical bravery, and self-respect as a Jew coalesced into a highly personal, indestructible amalgam in Freud's character.”

Indeed, Gay presents the making of Freud's scientific and intellectual vocations as the essential developmental feature of his youth and their maintenance as the goal of his most compelling unconscious conflicts as an adult. He is not unaware, however, of the meaning of such a choice, which appears to favor intellectual history in biography to the clinically-oriented psychoanalytic life history. “What must matter to the student of psychoanalysis,” Gay asserts, “is ultimately not whether Freud had (or imagined) an Oedipus complex, but whether his claim that it is the complex through which everyone must pass, can be substantiated by independent observation or ingenious experiments.” In other words, biography need not carry the burden of clinical demonstration though it can indeed be organized according to psychoanalytic principles. Hence Freud's relations with his father Jacob are subordinated to his relations with the psychiatrist Charcot and physiologist Brucke, termed by Gay Freud's “intellectual fathers” who also might be admired and emulated.

So too of course were Freud's early career as physician and his middle years as the first psychoanalyst shaped by intense professional relationships, first with Wilhelm Fliess and then with Jung and other psychoanalytic intimates. Gay suggests that what animated Freud's “affective economy” was a functional blend of personal and professional motives. The nineties were the years of Freud's arduous self-analysis in gaining clinical material for The Interpretation of Dreams. But the first decade of this century was also a period of great innovation, of Three Essays on the Theory of Sex and most of the famous case studies. Both periods required scientific versions of the psychoanalytic dialogue where Freud could pursue his ideas against a trusted colleague, as it were, even as he had the benefits of friendship. In the case of relations with Fliess at least, Gay claims that Freud found indispensable a form of the transference relation so critical to the therapeutic strategy of psychoanalysis: “How could Freud, no matter how bold or original, become his own Other?”

Jung's role as Other was different, a non-Jewish counterpart to Freud who would lead the second generation in the international psychoanalytic movement. When they came to a bitter parting over psychoanalytic doctrine Freud reminded his antagonist that “I lose nothing by this; for a long time, I have been tied to you emotionally by a thin thread, the lingering effect of disappointments experienced earlier.” Gay understands this bit of rationale to reflect the residue of Freud's relations with Fliess and others, unifying as it were the question of professional relations. Did Freud, he asks, suffer from an obscure repetition compulsion that prompted him to make his friends into his enemies? Freud once said that “independent doubt is for me sacred in everyone” and Gay himself displays enough to do justice to Freud's rivals. Hence if Freud could forget this humane precept it was on behalf of scientific ideals. And his ominous-looking habits in personal relations can be presented as a professional rather than developmental theme.

In any event, Gay believes that Freud's inner struggles were more important to his work than his “pugilistic” professional disputes. Cautious about building a case from Freud's childhood, Gay waits until midway through his story to offer this analysis of the origins and durability of the psychoanalyst's motives:

A conundrum emerging in Freud's mind was like an alien irritant, the grain of sand in the oyster that could not be ignored and might in the end produce a pearl. Freud's view was that an adult's scientific curiosity is the belated elaboration of the child's search for the truth about the difference between the sexes and the mysteries of conception and birth. If so, Freud's own urgent inquisitiveness reflects an usually strong need for illumination on these secrets. They baffled him all the more as he brooded on the noticeable disparity in his parents' ages and on the presence of brothers as old as his mother, to say nothing of a nephew older than himself.

Critics of psychoanalytic biography are skeptical of just this kind of proposal which frames an uncertainty in a qualification. But it is the kind of analysis that is indispensable to the claims such work makes for moving behind the documentary record. Gay, in effect, relies on Freud's developmental theory and the principles that inform their application to other fields like literature, history, anthropology and biography, where, as Gay puts it in considering Freud's cultural criticism of many kinds, “All is lawful, all is disguised, and all is connected.”

Nonetheless, whatever confidence such an approach inspires it needs again to be qualified on Freud's own terms (and Gay's). Hence, near the end of Freud, in an extensive treatment of the composition and reception of the controversial Moses and Monotheism, Gay recalls Freud's youthful identification with bold figures of opposition who felt themselves to embody historic missions. To be sure, there was posturing in claims of fearlessness and obstinate devotion to ideals. But there was truth in them also that is essential to the biographical study of Freud though within limits he himself both represented and theorized about. Hence Gay comments on Freud's self-image:

Freud was like that, and remained like that always. His exposed position as a Jew gave him ample opportunity to cultivate this stance; his even more exposed position as a psychoanalyst tested and hardened it across the years. But Freud was unique in his endowment no less than in the particular form of his family constellation and his mental development. In the end, unsatisfactory as it sounds, one comes back to Freud's own disclaimer that before creativity the psychoanalyst must put down his arms. Freud was Freud.

Some readers of Freud will find such a conclusion perhaps a bit too cautious, especially from an historian eager to install psychoanalytic technique in historiography. Indeed, Gay's characterization of his Freud as “a man engaged in a titanic subterranean struggle between the urge to speculate and the need for self-discipline” suggests a gap between the identification of the psychological themes of Freud's life and what can actually be represented in a biography.

Gay says of Freud's relations with his mother, for example, that they have “almost unfathomable biographical implications” even as he proposes that the rapid arrival of siblings made Freud unusually intolerant of rivals and perhaps even caused him to feel threatened by the ethos of maternal nurturing if not in some obscure way by women generally. Near the end of his life, in a paper on “Femininity” (1933), he describes a child who appears to resemble the young Freud enduring the “shock” of siblings and developing “a grudge against the faithless mother.” Gay's treatment of this theme—reluctant as he is to startle—reflects the urgency of feminism today as a problem in orthodox psychoanalytic thought. Yet if Freud is generally cautious (prudent is probably the word Gay would prefer) in its “subterranean” proposals it is still “titanic” in its critical methods and results.

Indeed, it is the ambition of Freud, I think, to define Freudian biography within the history of psychoanalysis both as a form of inquiry and as a therapeutic profession. Gay means to give us a life of Freud, as his subtitle says, for our time, when clinical theories and practices, and psychoanalytic applications in the humanities and social sciences, compete against one another and among themselves (that is, when they do not simply ignore one another). So Robert Wallerstein put it recently in the title of his candid presidential address—“One Psychoanalysis or Many?”—to the International Psychoanalytic Association, where he also suggested a compelling biographical problem. “For so many of us,” he admitted, “Freud still remains our lost object, our unreachable genius” (International Journal of Psychoanalysis 69 [1988]).

Because it is still felt to be in many ways the doctrine of a single man even as it continues to struggle for recognition as a science of the mind and behavior, psychoanalysis must rely on the biography of Freud to represent both the historical and personal drama of its origins and the integrity, utility, and durability of the founder's scientific project. Hence, amidst the proliferation of psychoanalytic styles, a life of Freud for our time would be one that represents the subversive effects of his theories as the expression of an historic but still in some ways conventional creative dilemma, the one presented so effectively in Freud. Pluralistic developments in psychoanalysis can be seen as variations on its origins rather than “post-Freudian” innovations or even deviations. Freud's genius is made reachable by presentation in all of its related aspects as an object of historical inquiry deriving its authority (contra Jones and other partisans) from independent and comprehensive scholarship. Accordingly, Gay's credentials as a psychoanalyst are nearly concealed by his identity as an historian and biographer.

Freud himself, in “Mourning and Melancholia” (1915), noted that the withdrawal of attention from the lost object must be “piecemeal,” as memories and expectations of it are finally subordinated to the “command of reality.” A realistic view now may mean abandoning some Freudian essentials and consigning his biography to the history of psychology. But for many of the clinicians, theorists, and scholars who succeeded him the example of Freud himself is part of the power and uses of his ideas. As Lionel Trilling put it in 1955: [Having the history of psychoanalysis in mind,]

made actual and dramatic in the person of Freud himself, must give the members of the profession a lively belief in intellectual possibility, and in the personal nature of cultural achievement, a wondering happy awareness of what a person can do toward the renovation of a culture.

Freud is written in this spirit but with due regard for the “command of reality”: unanswered questions about Freud's personal life and old and new problems in psychoanalytic theory and practice such as feminism. Yet Freud is also written without direct treatment of the meaning of Freud's personal impact on the varied kinds of professionals devoted to his ideas and to different versions of his calling. For Gay is barely “present” in his biography, to use Leon Edel's term to describe the scholarly results of the therapeutic transference. Of course, so too is Edel himself barely present in Henry James or Richard Ellmann in James Joyce (the model, Gay says, for his work). Indeed, shortly before he died Ellmann managed but grudging recognition of Freud's impact on biography (“Freud and Literary Biography,” The American Scholar 55 [1985]).

But more may be needed, to invoke Gay's standard, in our time. That is, better understanding of personal and professional dimensions in scholarship, the “social construction of meaning” as it is sometimes called, to help guide students of Freudian biography toward even more complete relations with the first psychoanalyst and his unique science. In Writing Lives: Principia Biographia (1984), Edel refers to the transference to describe relations between the analyst and patient and the biographer and subject. Psychoanalytic use of the term identifies movement in one direction, to account for the patient's transfer onto the analyst of feelings and ideas originally associated with another or perhaps several other people.

Freud insisted, and there is widespread agreement today, that the action of the transference is one of psychoanalysis's therapeutic essentials. So Edel is correct, I think, in suggesting some relation between psychoanalysis and biography in terms of this principle. But what Edel is after in his analogy between the psychoanalyst and the biographer may be more accurately termed the “countertransference” that describes what unconscious material is activated in the analyst himself in therapeutic relations with a patient. The difference is crucial in Freud where Gay sternly invokes Freud as proof that his presence is not required in his biography. Gay says that the “countertransference does to the psychoanalyst what unacknowledged bias does to the historian,” as if each was equally and easily accessible as part of professional habits.

Yet scholarship in nearly every field of the human sciences has made this a significant theme today and its recognition in Freud would have fortified Gay's intentions even if it would have made his biography appear less objective. After all, his wish for a biography for our time suggests that he was not seeking to write the definitive life of Freud but one that was timely and functional for today's readers, many of whom are less certain than Gay is about the need to define absolutely the borders between their lives as scholars and citizens, professionals and partisans.

Mindful of the danger of criticizing the biography Gay did not write instead of the one he did, I think that Freud is in a sense incomplete. Yet there is endorsement for its unintended strategy in Freud himself who in “Mourning and Melancholia” noted that “As we already know, the interdependence of the complicated problems of the mind forces us to break off every enquiry before it is completed—till the outcome of some other enquiry can come to its assistance.” Freud would have been better, I think, and indeed even more of a biography for our time, had Gay exploited his narrative skills and risked even a modest gesture of presence by accounting, for example, for his own recent psychoanalytic training and relations with the “lost object” of Freud within the pathmaking intellectual tradition Trilling identifies and Freud represents.

In her award-winning Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (1982) Elizabeth Young-Bruehl proposed an even more austere method than Gay's:

Biographies, in their nature, concentrate on one bios. But they presuppose that this one life, though only a part of a larger history, should be given to future generations. Posterity may judge the life too; the biographer need only judge that the story should be told.

Yet in writing the life story of Freud's youngest child Anna (1895–1982), Elizabeth Young-Bruehl had favorable prospects for the subversive effects which challenge olympian objectivity as the chief goal of biography. For Anna Freud's achievement as an analytic theorist (if not a clinician) has been inevitably obscured by her relation to her father. And the story of her family and much of her professional life—objects of considerable speculation—could only be told when her voluminous papers, including the correspondence with Freud and his colleagues in the first generation of analysts, were made available for an authorized biography.

Gay's Freud presents Anna as the family's “emotional anchor” beginning in the 1920s with the onset of Freud's cancer. Young-Bruehl's portrait of her youth, including her interest in reading poetry (especially Rilke) and writing some as well, shows her as an adventurous and in some ways even precocious adolescent who only gradually moved to the center of her father's interest. Her creative habits continued after her training as a teacher. A poem she wrote for an infant nephew (“Encouragement”) mingles the style of a nursery rhyme with advice that can also be understood as autobiographical:

Don't look too much—I counsel you—
At how your wishes get fulfilled.
And if some longing goes unmet, don't
Be astonished. We call that Life.

The year of this poem, 1918, was also the one in which she began her analysis with her father, which Gay judges to be a technical mistake despite the fact that intrafamilial analyses were not uncommon in the early decades of the psychoanalytical movement. Young-Bruehl is less troubled by the procedure but in describing the results, which included Anna Freud's acceptance of the masculinity and asceticism in her nature and her decision to become an analyst, she says of daughter and father that “they could never be unambivalently pleased.” Yet whatever Freud's disappointment in Anna's failure to achieve a conventional marriage and family, he became a zealous supporter of her professional and intellectual ambitions. The mutuality of their relations shows through Young-Bruehl's account even as Anna's self-effacing altruism is fully represented.

Anna Freud had entered her father's professional domain as a teenager when she asked that he not be horrified that she had just read some of his books, “for I am already grown up and so it is no surprise that I am interested.” By her thirtieth birthday she was an active member of the Vienna Society whose organizational problems she sometimes found exasperating. But as she acknowledged to Max Eitingon, a member of Freud's famous “Committee” of seven trusted colleagues, her personal and professional ideals were shaped by the unique circumstances of the psychoanalytic movement:

I already know … why I always have a bad conscience when I am irrational. Because Papa always makes it clear that he would like to know me as much more rational and lucid than the girls and women he gets to know during his analytic hours, with all their moods, dissatisfactions and passionate idiosyncrasies. Thus, I, too, would really like to be as he sees fit, first out of love for him, and second because I myself know that it is the only chance that one has to be somewhat useful and not a burden and a concern for others.

According to Young-Bruehl, usefulness became one of the key themes of her personal and professional life. The role she played in supporting her father in his last decades is now well-known though Jones, out of respect for her modesty, had understated it in his biography. And Anna Freud, as Young-Bruehl shows, played a key organizational role in the politics of the psychoanalytic movement before and after her father's death.

The long debate with Melanie Klein, and the bitter (or bizarre) institutional disputes in the London Psychoanalytic Society in the 1940s, get the consideration they merit in this biography. But the essential Other in Anna Freud's life was her longtime colleague and companion Dorothy Burlingham. Young-Bruehl writes of this complex relationship with great care and states categorically (perhaps because she has in mind the expectation among readers of a certain kind of subversive effect) that Anna Freud had no sexual relationships at all in her adulthood. She was a “vestal” also in her role as the “chief keeper of her father's person and his science.”

With Dorothy Burlingham and a host of second and third generation analysts—like Kris, Heinz Hartmann, and Erik H. Erikson—she stood at the head of important innovations. In psychoanalytic theory it was the development of child analysis and of ego psychology with its uses in studying the whole of the life cycle. And in clinical applications it was the Hampstead War Nursery and then the Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic (now the Anna Freud Center). The last quarter of Anna Freud shows its subject to be a tireless psychoanalytic theorist, clinician, and organizer who relied on the sense of calling for which her father was indeed a model but who also found new ways to realize the social uses of psychoanalysis.

In Hannah Arendt Young-Bruehl struggled with the problem of discovering autobiographical themes in writing with very different purposes. Anna Freud also benefits from this method, practiced as it is with exemplary discipline. Thus Anna Freud's most enduring contribution to psychoanalytic theory, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (1936), is found to have its submerged autobiographical aspect in the chapter devoted to “altruistic surrender,” that is, the form of altruism that allows one creative person to dedicate her own intellectual and professional ambitions to the service of another's.

So too is a neglected essay, “On Losing and Being Lost,” given high priority in Anna Freud. Young-Bruehl's chapter on this theme is the centerpiece of her biography, the place where she most successfully realizes this goal: “In a biography, a life is held as it were in suspension, to be contemplated as a whole, with any records that might remain of the subject's self-understanding giving the only clues to what the life might have been like in the living, moment by moment.” Becoming Anna Freud in the first half of her life was a matter of living within the orbit of her father's consolidation of psychoanalytic theory in the second half of his. Being Anna Freud after his death in 1939 meant that even as she dedicated herself to innovative wartime and postwar psychoanalytic applications she had to manage a loss that was uniquely intimate and professional.

Access to Anna Freud's papers stands behind Young-Bruehl's phenomenological intentions in her biography. In the period from 1945 through the appearance of the Freud-Fliess letters (1950 in German; 1954 in English) and the first volume of Jones's biography (1953), Anna Freud experienced, in Young-Bruehl's view, the central development crisis of her adult life. Brought on by a long bout of physical illness the crisis became one of self-analysis, presented in Anna Freud as equally important in its way as her father's half a century before. Lengthy extracts from notebook accounts of her dreams—and her own interpretations of them—reveal her to have struggled mightily with the loss of her father. Young-Bruehl's account demonstrates how “On Losing and Being Lost” emerged as a central theme in Anna Freud's life (culminating with the essay she published in 1967). The work of mourning gave way to the making of a professional identity which was at once conservative and innovative. Critics of psychoanalysis have stressed the former, the habit of succeeding generations of analysts of protecting Freud's image at all costs. And the archival history of the movement—in which Anna Freud has played a large role—can be read this way. But Young-Bruehl understands the dynamic element in Anna Freud's life, the ways in which id battled with ego, past with present, privacy with public responsibility.

The chief subversive effect of Anna Freud—perhaps in the sense that it tames speculation—is the account of how its subject's intimate history also became part of the history of psychoanalytic theory and practice. In Young-Bruehl's discussion of how her analysis with her father likely redirected compulsive masturbation into creative work we also see the origins of what turned out to be a pathmaking theory of the ego and its defenses in its own right.

The processes of sublimating and surrendering did not, of course, mean that [Anna Freud's] drives were depleted—she had the awesome, somewhat compulsive energy that is characteristic of chaste people with burning faith or compelling causes.

Without a sex life herself Anna Freud managed to be scientifically interested in sexuality. “The crucial fact of her creative life,” Young-Bruehl says, “was that that her main defense was sublimation—and this also means: not repression.”

In an ironic challenge to biographers Freud once said that his own life might be “disposed of with a few dates.” The more serious demand that Freud has made on his biographers and others was a union of theory and practice which set high standards for self-scrutiny and candor as part of its interpretive strategy. In an important essay on the work of empathy and identification in biography Bell Gale Chevigny uses her own studies of Margaret Fuller to gather timely themes in biographies by women of female subjects, including the tendency of the first to reconceive the second as mothers. But while she recommends biography informed by autobiography (the biographer's), Chevigny is admirably cautious about what might be made of her proposals in isolation from formal traditions: “We must work for a knowledge of all relevant aspects of history as intimate as our knowledge of ourselves” (“Daughters Writing: Toward a Theory of Women's Biography,” Feminist Studies 9 [Spring 1983]).

“Anna F'eud, stawberry, wild stawberry, om'let, puddin” is what Freud reported, in The Interpretation of Dreams, his nineteen-month-old daughter called out in a nighttime dream (illness had made it necessary to keep food from her some of that day). Father and daughter were lifelong collaborators in a project of inestimable consequences. One is the fate of biography itself, as habits of objectivity and detachment adapt to new roles for empathy and identification as well. Anna Freud believed, in Elizabeth Young-Bruehl's view, that the story of her father's life “would work—as it were—therapeutically upon worthy authors.” There is no sign in Peter Gay's Freud of such an effect as there is little hint in Anna Freud of its consequences for the author. Nonetheless, both biographies are now indispensable in the literature of psychoanalysis and the history of ideas. Even if biography only very slowly comes to resemble fiction, it will nevertheless realize one of Freud's own pronouncements. “In the realm of fiction,” he said midway in his career, “we find the plurality of lives we need.” Without the freedom to literally invent its characters, a biography can still make of one life many sites of historical interest, dramatic (if not always subversive) effect, and of timely intellectual inquiry.

Thomas T. Lewis (review date May–June 1989)

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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 analyst has the ability to determine the unconscious motives of clients, and, when venturing outside the psychoanalytic tradition, he is not very informed about other schools of modern psychology.

Whatever one thinks about the ideas of Freud, there is no denying that his ideas have been extremely influential in the twentieth century. Too often, both critics and supporters have demonstrated little knowledge and understanding of the field, and Gay's impressive account should go a long way toward improving the situation.

Edith Kurzweil (review date summer 1989)

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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 cannot but chide Gay for focusing on Freud rather than on his environment until it “crashed in” on him. Still, Gay does weave in, for instance, a section on the First World War he calls “The End of Europe” and some pages on the Weimar Republic. He also provides an overview of the accepted role of women, of the conditions influencing the American Freudians' decisions against lay analysis, and of the circumstances that allowed for the Nazi takeover. In sum, the only thing all the reviewers agree upon is the fact that Freud was a great man.

Gay's book is impressive because it presents theoretical complexities simply without simplifying them and explains them in the context of Freud's evolving thinking. Gay had access to hitherto unavailable archival material (mostly correspondence), and thus is able to fill us in on delicate details surrounding Freud's death, on intimate routines of his family life, on Anna Freud's analysis. That the keepers of the archives, primarily Kurt Eissler and Harold Blum, did not make all records available led Gay to attack them in his otherwise generous bibliographical essay. This has not endeared him to the classical Freudians. Still, their criticisms are different from those accusing him of hagiography. In fact, Gay has successfully dealt with what Freud pointed to as the hazards of the biographer and has not “committed himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding.” By subjecting Freud to the psychoanalytic scrutiny he taught his followers, by focusing on Freud's most minute motivations—whether in reviewing the breaks with Adler and Jung, in noting Freud's inability to enter his patient Dora's sensibilities, or in stopping short of fully investigating the Schreber case—Gay has been critical of Freud in the way Ernest Jones in his biography was not.

Although as Freud's analyst, Gay accepts Freud's shortcomings and foibles, he does point out that “the psychoanalysts of the first generation employed an intrusive style that would have been wholly out of place in the discourse of other mortals.” Gay criticizes Freud for having turned so many of his erstwhile friends into his enemies. For instance, he saw “Wilhelm Fliess everywhere, incorporated in others.” Moreover, “Freud's most powerful interests suspiciously resembled exigent pressures, unresolved tensions”; Totem and Taboo “productively translated” his most intimate conflicts and his most private quarrels into material for scientific investigation; and his Leonardo is a severely flawed performance. He also was cool and detached, without real sympathy for “poor Tausk's death.”

Perhaps Gay could have been even more critical of Freud's cooperation with William Bullitt on the writing of the biography, Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Yet he does state that the book is scornful, narrow, almost a caricature of applied psychoanalysis; that “Freud's ideas are grossly simplified, pugnaciously stated, and coarsened out of all recognition.” However, this is not enough for Szasz, who faults Gay for suggesting that the Wilson book, which was finished in 1932 and published in 1966 (shortly after the death of Wilson's widow and twenty-seven years after Freud's death), might have been primarily Bullitt's work. Gay informs us that Freud took on this project because he thought it might infuse the financially failing psychoanalytic Verlag with needed funds; and that it was motivated also by his irrational anti-American sentiments—which “run through Freud's correspondence like an unpleasant monotonous theme.” In my opinion, these are severe criticisms, yet they apparently are not severe enough for Mr. Szasz—who finds that “Mr. Gay has abandoned all historical objectivity” in this “amateurish and boring” book.

Gay points out that Freud always was surrounded by women: in childhood by his beautiful, dominant young mother, his Catholic, mysterious nurse, his niece Pauline, and the five younger sisters—born before he was eight years old. He had exceedingly attractive analysands, Lou Andreas-Salomé and Hilda Doolittle, and admiring female disciples such as Helene Deutsch, Joan Riviere, Jeanne Lampl-de Groot, Ruth Mack Brunswick, Marie Bonaparte, and his daughter, Anna. At home, his wife Martha and her sister Minna saw to his comfort. Gay states too that his mother—who lived to be ninety-five—not only worshipped her first-born “golden son” but continued to exert her power over him. Therefore, Gay observes, he “almost deliberately … exiled mothers to the margins of his case histories,” and he “had good reason to find the subject of woman somewhat mysterious, even a little threatening.” Gay concludes, after presenting the major theoretical arguments among Freud and his women disciples, that his explorations of this “dark continent of women” produced “a map that had many white, empty spots and was misdrawn in ways researchers have come to recognize after his death.”

Next to his view of women, Freud's attitudes toward his Jewishness have led to the strongest disagreements. Just as in his earlier book A Godless Jew, Gay once again emphasizes Freud's atheism. He does not omit the significance of Freud's membership in B'nai Brith and he does justice to the discussions surrounding Freud's Moses and Monotheism (Moses was said to be Egyptian). Gay recognizes that Freud identified himself as a Jew, but he gives more weight to Freud's insistence that psychoanalysis is not a “Jewish science” and to the many expressions and proofs of his irreligiosity. Here, I believe, Gay plays down the fact that Freud was a totally cultured Viennese, a bourgeois as well as a Jew. Like Goethe's Faust, this type of Jew was riddled with ambivalence, by the fact that “two souls dwell[ed], alas! in [his] breast.” Like his less gifted fellow Jews, Freud too had incarnated “the spirit that always denies.” And like them he was “far more Jewish in the face of anti-Semites than at home.” Freud did not reject his roots, and his quest for truth was relentless. That it did not lead him to foresee the danger to the physical survival of every Viennese Jew does not detract from his stature and indicates only that politics, as Gay also shows, was not his forte.

In any event, Gay's assessment of the total Freud is lucid enough to initiate the novice into psychoanalysis, and it provides enough new information to satisfy the sophisticated reader.

Sam B. Girgus (essay date June 1991)

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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 heady expectation of importing a plague that would be capable of subverting endemic innocence, moral certitude, and breezy self-confidence has proven true. From the first decade of the century to the present, Freudianism has offered, at least in part, a vision of darkness, the hidden and unknown. Although successive generations have interpreted Freud according to their specific interests and circumstances, at the core remains “the blindness of the seeing eye,” Freud's phrase in Studies in Hysteria that suggests the unknown that thrives in the unconscious.2

Freud's “plague,” a creeping contagion that infects an entire environment, anticipates the attitude of Freud's critics and opponents, who bristle over the continuing dominance of his work in so many fields. Indeed, some of the most vitriolic and persuasive attacks upon Freudian approaches have been made by people whose work and influence fall within the broad scope of American Studies, such as Frederick Crews and David Stannard. Crews explains his conversion from advocacy to radical opposition of psychoanalysis partly by emphasizing his dissent from Freud's pervasive influence upon contemporary cultural and critical discussion.3 Oppugning the philosophical and therapeutic grounding of Freudian theory, both Crews and Stannard brilliantly articulate doubts about the scientific and medical validity of psychoanalysis. In so doing, their iconoclasm speaks for a number of scholars and critics in American Studies who vote no through their silence and indifference, if not through their outright opposition to psychoanalysis. In general, recent scholarship in American Studies has seemed immune to the commonplace acceptance of Freud in the humanities and social sciences.

However, a case for the importance of psychoanalysis to culture studies, including American Studies, may come from the strangest of all places in which to look for allies for Fruedianism—feminist studies; strange, of course, because psychoanalysis has been anathema to many feminists since Freud's delineation of female sexuality and character sixty to seventy years ago. What should have been framed as tentative and provisional findings and questions about sexual difference and development quickly solidified into conclusions that were far more ideological in nature than Freud ever fully recognized or appreciated. Nevertheless, recent works dealing with Freud and feminism suggest the importance of psychoanalysis and Freud's theories of the unconscious to any study of the formation and construction of the individual in culture.

Peter Gay provides an interesting entrée into a discussion of Freud, feminism, and culture studies in one of the essays in his most recent book. In addition to his work on intellectual history and art, Gay has become the most devoted and prolific student of Freud, and has produced seven books in the past dozen years elucidating, analyzing, and celebrating Freud. These works include an indispensable, authoritative biography of Freud; brilliant psychohistorical examinations of bourgeois social and sexual life; treatises on psychoanalysis and history; and incisive studies of Freud, Jews, and their relationship to modernism. Thus, for most of us, the pieces comprising Reading Freud: Explorations and Entertainments probably would be regarded as major efforts of scholarly and academic research. However, in the context of the canon of Gay's extraordinary achievements, the essays are generally what he dubs them, “explorations and entertainments,” important nevertheless for the light they shed upon various aspects of Freud's way of thinking and working. Gay demonstrates that Freud's obsession with finding the identity of the real author of Shakespeare's plays suggests much about his intellectual method of operation and reveals his fascination with the mysterious and unknown. Gay shows us that the names of Freud's children are connected to father figures in Freud's life. He says, “the names Freud gave his six children record his heroic and historic bid for inner freedom, a freedom that was the essential condition for his discoveries” (73). Gay also presents some lighter pieces whose intended humor concerning the pretended discovery of new work related to Freud and psychoanalysis was misconstrued by some readers and thereby aroused considerable controversy at the time of initial publication.

However, of these essays, “Freud and Freedom” examines the issues that are most important to any effort to revive interest in Freud and cultural studies. While many contemporary thinkers tend to write about causality in Marxist and Althusserian terms as mechanical, expressive, and structural, Gay concentrates on choice, chance, freedom, and determinism. Moreover, he advances this discussion within the context of psychoanalytical terminology and discourse. Proffering a complex but persuasive view of Freud's commitment to freedom based on the unconscious as both a wild domain for freedom and a potential prison of anxieties and controls, Gay responds to superficial attacks on psychoanalysis as an ideology and methodology of reductive determinism. “Freud was a determinist, yet his psychology is a psychology of freedom” (74). Thus, his argument counters fears of Freud as a repressive force and sets the stage for understanding Freud as a resource in feminism's struggle for liberation.


  1. Quoted in Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca, 1985), 58.

  2. Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies in Hysteria, trans. and ed. James Strachey in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works (London, 1955), 2: 117, n. 1.

  3. Frederick Crews, “Analysis Terminable,” Commentary 79 (July 1980): 25 says:

    Freud's name, along with those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, has never evoked more automatic reverence than it does today, and the Continental thinkers, from Jurgen Habermas and Paul Ricoeur to Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan and the late Roland Barthes, who for the moment strike literary commentators as most advanced, are all Freudians in their various ways. Partisans of psychoanalysis can take comfort, furthermore, from an unabated outpouring of “applied psychoanalysis” in the form of psycholiterary, psychobiological, and psychohistorical studies which, if not always a credit to the tradition, attest to the continuing seductiveness of Freud's ideas.

    See also Crews, “The Future of an Illusion,” The New Republic 192, 21 Jan. 1985, 28–33, and Skeptical Engagements (New York, 1986); David E. Stannard, Shrinking History: On Freud and the Failure of Psychohistory (New York, 1980); and idem, “Grand Illusions,” Reviews in American History 14 (June 1986): 298–308.

Eugene Taylor (review date 1 June 1991)

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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 books,” Freud's jokes, a fictitious review of The Interpretation of Dreams, a spoof on what if the inventor of psychoanalysis had been a German instead of a Jew, and a peek at letters between Freud and Minna Bernays, Freud's sister-in-law and alleged paramour.

As for scholarship, all but two are specimens in their own way of critical thinking, expert use of the laws of evidence, and a high command of the English language—three dying arts in the present days of advertising double-speak, media hype, and therapeutic psychobabble.

As for the study of a life, we observe that no one does so any more. In the art of biography in times past, Johnson had his Boswell, Henry James his Leon Edel, Freud his Ernest Jones and now his Peter Gay. Rare is the savant today who devotes his entire life to the study of another life. Instead, we have the study of lives, where someone rushes in to do a book on Proust, then runs off to write one on James Joyce, then Edith Wharton. Almost no one thinks it worthy to embark for any long period upon an in-depth study of a single person, largely, we suppose, for economic reasons and the press of time.

Gay, however, has courted his subject for decades, and then given it his concentrated attention for the past fifteen years. This eighth volume, a collection of allegedly minor papers, shows the author's sustained interest in an unsolved question, or a document overlooked, which he presents because he hopes that others will be interested also. And while he has promised us that, henceforth, he intends to leave the person of Freud behind, Gay, convinced that psychoanalytic insights are indispensable to the practicing historian, assures us that Freud's ideas will indeed surface in his future works.

As for the subtle rebuttal, the reader must rely merely on the present reviewer's conjecture, for the two pieces that are not straightforward scholarship are presented as “wholly frivolous,” hardly deserving of even the name “papers,” Gay says. Nevertheless, they are included because Gay believes they have become “historical documents, with a life of their own.” One, in particular, is Gay's “discovery” of a turn-of-the-century review of Freud's book on dreams, which, since Gay's alleged “translation” was published in 1981, has set the journalistic pot boiling over more than once.

Informed readers must certainly be familiar with this recent Freud flap. In 1981 Gay published his “newly discovered” review of Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, done by an anonymous Austrian physician at the turn of the century and published in an obscure medical journal, the Grazer Medizinische Vierteljahresschrift. Several Freud scholars, and not a few orthodox psychoanalysts, subsequently acknowledged Gay's discovery in the professional literature.

One of these was the parapetetic and keen-witted Freud historian, Peter Swales. After a time, however, Swales, suspecting that the review might be a complete hoax, set off on an unsuccessful international search for the obscure medical journal. Finally, Swales consulted with the Freud scholar, Frank Sulloway, on the matter. Sulloway was able to cool Swales's ardor for battle long enough to have the psychoanalyst, Rosemarie Sand, write to Gay with a discreet inquiry. Would he confess that the anonymous review was a hoax? Gay said that the piece had been published just for fun in collusion with the editor of Harper's, Lewis Lapham, that there was no deliberate deception intended, and that there was nothing to confess.

Believing that outright fraud had been perpetrated, Swales called the New York Times, which sent one of its science writers, Daniel Goleman, to investigate. Goleman called Gay, and, according to the Swales group, was not given all the true facts or, according to Gay, simply got parts of the account wrong. In any case Goleman eventually published a piece in the Times titled “A Freudian Spoof is Slipped Past Many Freud Scholars.” Soon newspapers as far away as England and Yugoslavia were abuzz with the story. Sixteen signatories, including Sophie Freud and Adolph Grunebaum, wrote a letter to Times protesting Gay's explanation. Gay thought his interlocutors rude—after all, he had told the truth when questioned—while Gay's harshest critics—annoyed that he had never formally admitted to his insider's joke and infuriated that he would not acknowledge their names in print directly—thought him arrogant.

Here, then, in Reading Freud: Explorations and Entertainments, is Gay's long-awaited side of what he called a non-story, told in full, especially for the benefit of all his detractors.

John E. Toews (essay date September 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 21579

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 of the unconscious mind in all of us.1 Without obvious irony Gay can introduce his life as a history of Freud's “conquests,” of which the most dramatic was “that of himself” (p. xx). But Gay clearly intends his phrase “a life for our time” to be read in another way as well—as a description of his own project in composing a biography of Freud from the historical perspective and for the historical consciousness of our specific time, a half century after Freud's death. From this perspective Freud's struggles and projects, his pursuit of truth and self-mastery, appear to Gay not so much culturally alien or historically outdated as simply unfinished. The critical perspective from which Gay reconstitutes Freud's life as a life “for our time” pertains primarily to those “continents” (and especially that “dark continent”—woman) which Freud was unable or unwilling to explore within the world of unconscious mental life that he discovered, but it does not affect his confidence in the validity of the maps Freud drew for the continents he did explore or of the general principles informing his exploratory procedures.

Gay's Freud thus provides an example of a particular kind of historical approach to Freud's life and work. It is based on a number of significant and arguable assumptions that are more explicitly formulated in some of his earlier books, especially the polemical Freud for Historians,2 but that also obviously inform the selection, interpretation, and organization of this biography. Gay insists that psychoanalysis as originally presented in Freud's writings and developed by his legitimate students is a “science” of “human nature,” of the permanent dispositions, motivations, and structures that underlie the enormous phenomenal variety of human speech and behavior in history. Although the empirical evidence of this science may be more slippery and obscure, its procedures more complex and subjective, its hypothetical laws and models more speculative than one expects in a natural science like biology or physics, Gay insists that Freud's writings should be read as making verifiable or falsifiable claims about empirical evidence available to any adequately trained investigator. The theories of psychoanalysis, like the oedipus complex or anal eroticism, are conceived as testable hypotheses open to constant revision, addition, and subtraction. By asserting that Freud's texts must be read as presentations of empirically testable scientific propositions, Gay simply dismisses alternative ways of reading the texts as attacks on, resistances to, or denigrations of psychoanalysis. The rhetorical questions with which Gay introduces contemporary arguments about Freud's intellectual stature are revealing: “Was Freud the scientific positivist he claimed to be, or was he, rather, principally indebted to the cloudy speculations of the Romantics or Jewish Mysticism? … Is psychoanalysis a science, an art, or an imposture?” (p. xviii). In other passages, Gay implies that the only alternative to viewing Freud as a scientific positivist is to see him as a pope or a fabulist and that the only alternative to treating psychoanalysis as a science is to treat it as a surrogate religion or poetic myth. By construing the debate over how Freud's texts should be read in this simplistic and obviously loaded fashion, Gay simply avoids serious confrontation with the debate over the nature of psychoanalytic theory and the Freudian texts that constitute such a significant element in what Freud has become for our time. Readers of Gay will find no serious consideration of the view that treats psychoanalysis as an interpretative or hermeneutic discipline (which, after all, can also legitimately assume the title of science [Wissenschaft] within Freud's own German disciplinary context)—a discipline concerned more with deciphering the complexity of polyvalent symbols and decoding the meaning of signs in their semiotic contexts than with the testing of empirical generalizations. Nor will they encounter any attempt to read the Freudian texts as complex linguistic actions in their own right—as constructions of meaning operating in a symptomatic or creative way within specific disciplinary discourses or semiotic structures. Most surprisingly (considering its cultural prominence and visibility), Gay has little to say about the reading of Freud's work as a critical social and cultural theory, as an analysis of the dynamics of enculturation or cultural formation in the psyche, of the transition from nature to culture as it is lived within the bodies of human beings. For anyone aware of the wide-ranging conflicting discourses that constitute what Freud has become for our time, Gay's reading must appear disappointingly one-dimensional. In a revealing aside contained in his concluding (and characteristically long) bibliographical essay, Gay notes the existence of a hermeneutic Freud in Paul Ricoeur's Freud and Philosophy. But he responds to this “challenging (as they say) reading” with the simple statement: “Ricoeur's Freud is not my Freud” (p. 745), thus unwittingly admitting that his Freud for our time is actually his own personal Freud projected into our time.3

Of course Gay does not merely assert that Freud's writings should be read as a series of scientific propositions; he also insists that these propositions remain, by and large, valid: “The house that Freud built still stands.”4 In many ways his biography can be read as an updated version of Ernest Jones's three-volume official biography from the 1950s.5 Gay's historical and personal distance from Freud, Freud's family, and the personalities involved in the early years of the psychoanalytic movement allow him to appear more frank and less defensive than Jones about the continuing conflicts that fueled Freud's never-completed quest for self-mastery in the years after 1900 and more willing to admit the unfinished and occasionally speculative character of Freudian scientific claims. But Jones himself was not completely uncritical in these areas, and Gay's revision of Jones is quite limited and muted. The similarities in their positions are certainly more striking than the differences. Like Jones, Gay focuses the bulk of his work on Freud's middle and later period (1900–1938), arriving at a picture of the mature fifty-year-old Freud after only 150 pages of a 650-page text. Moreover, the Jones and Gay biographies are animated by the same theme—the portrayal of the heroic founder of psychoanalysis as a positivist scientist—and the same purpose—the defense of the scientific legitimacy of psychoanalytic theory.6

Gay's unwillingness to move beyond the established conventions of the standard insider's biography is especially striking for two reasons. First, the bulk of new historical documentation and the intensity of controversy pertaining to the long gestation period of psychoanalysis have increased enormously since the publication of Jones's biography. Any serious, systematic consideration of this new evidence and these new arguments would entail a shift in emphasis in a biography of Freud “for our time.” Second, Gay, unlike Jones, is a historian, and he explicitly presents his professional perspective and contextual sensitivities as a distinctive aspect of his biographical reconstruction. Indeed, Gay's Freud does contain occasional passages “filling in” historical background that are written with his characteristic verve and eye for the telling detail, but the historical context affects Gay's general argument only in a severely limited and usually negative sense. Like Jones, Gay is willing to attach significance to those environmental influences that liberated Freud from the narrow perspectives of his particular time and culture and that placed his work within a universal tradition of western science and rational humanism. In many ways Gay's book is profoundly ahistorical, even antihistorical, history of Freud's life. In one striking sentence he claims: “In truth Freud could have developed his ideas in any city endowed with a first-rate medical school and an educated public large and affluent enough to furnish him with patients” (p. 10). To borrow one of Gay's own phrases, this history seems to have been written “against the historicists.”7

Gay's principled opposition to historicist, contextualist “reductions” of Freud's scientific achievements brings the central issues of any historical interpretation of psychoanalysis and its founder into clearer focus. All historical investigations of psychoanalysis and its founder begin in the present, in contemporary debates over the nature and implications of psychoanalytic theory and practice. The historian's particular task qua historian is to confront such contemporary readings of the Freudian texts (including his own) with a reconstruction of what those texts meant in the temporal moment and cultural situation of their original production. Gay avoids such a confrontation or dialogue by assuming that “his” Freud conforms to the true historical Freud, thus erasing the temporal and cultural distance between them. Alternative present readings of Freud are dismissed as speculative constructions which violate the integrity of the historical Freud, even when—perhaps especially when—those readings are historicist or contextualist in character. Some of the paradoxical character of Gay's book derives from this attempt to demonstrate that the historical Freud can only be reconstructed by liberating him from the contextual determinants of his historical situation.

Fortunately, the general question of how Freud should be read in the context of “his time” can be reformulated into a more specific and manageable set of questions. When and how was psychoanalysis “born,” “created,” or “discovered”? What are the essential differences that mark the transition in Freud's development from a prepsychoanalytic to a psychoanalytic phase? How was this transition related to the disciplinary discourses and cultural idioms within which Freud's writing was produced, or to the experiences for which these writings attempted to provide a satisfactory meaning? Most current historical accounts of the development of psychoanalysis agree (this following Freud's own generally, but not totally, consistent statements)8 in dating the origins of psychoanalysis in the late 1890s; in viewing The Interpretation of Dreams (1899–1900) as psychoanalysis's founding text, the first fully psychoanalytic work; and in defining the necessary condition of the perspective articulated in this work as the “abandonment” of the “seduction theory” of the etiology of the psychoneuroses in 1897. The question of how Freud's texts should be read in “his” temporal and cultural context thus can be focused on the historical question of the meaning of the break with the past marked by the abandonment of the seduction theory. This question is not the only important question in the historical interpretation of psychoanalysis, but the way in which it is answered invariably sets the framework for the way in which the reception of psychoanalysis, the origin, evolution, and conflicts of the psychoanalytic movement, the revisions in Freudian theory after the war, and other important questions are handled. Using Gay's views as a foil, and the abandonment of the seduction theory as a starting point, therefore, I will reexamine the problem of the possible contextual determinations of the origins of psychoanalysis in Freud's writings of the late 1890s.


In a lecture delivered to the Viennese Psychiatric and Neurological Association on April 21, 1896, Freud dramatically and somewhat belligerently announced his discovery of the caput Nili (source of the Nile) of neuropathology. Comparing himself to an archaeologist whose skills of interpretation and reconstruction finally made the dumb stones speak and thus reveal the stories of their forgotten past, Freud described how his own pursuit of the “anamnestic method” of memory reconstruction had forced the dumb symptoms of his hysterical patients to bear witness to the stories of their historical formation and reveal the time and place of their birth. All the complex paths of association uncovered in the investigation of the origins of neurotic symptoms ultimately converged at a single point of origin, the repressed memory of a traumatic childhood experience. The denied, buried, “forgotten” event which Freud presented as the secret key to the “many-thousand-year-old” problem of the origin, nature, and cure of the psychoneuroses was simple, stark, and brutal: “Sexual experiences in childhood consisting in the stimulation of the genitals, coitus-like acts and so on … must be recognized in the last analysis as being the traumas which lead to the hysterical reaction to events at puberty and to the development of hysterical symptoms.”9 Once the repressed, unconscious memory of this event was excavated, reconstructed, and consciously integrated into the narrative of the patient's life, its symptom-producing, pathological emotional charge would be released and a healthy equilibrium reestablished in the psychic organism. A radical cure of neurotic suffering was possible, but only if the shameful and humiliating events of the past were courageously unveiled and publicly acknowledged.

Freud certainly expected his claim that the specific, determining cause of neurotic suffering was the repressed memory of prepubertal shock or “seduction” (Verführung) to be met with disbelief, perhaps even derision, by his medical colleagues. The seduction theory was, after all, defiantly scandalous, tracing the suffering of the younger generation to the secret sexual perversions of their hypocritical elders, the betrayal of trust by the adults in whose care they had been placed. Yet Freud also clearly believed that his theory was constructed and articulated within the context of a code of logical and empirical procedures that he shared with his enemies and doubters. However much they disliked or distrusted his truth, they would have to recognize it eventually, for Freud was supremely confident that he could meet all scientific objections to his theory. Regardless of the preliminary official distaste for his theory, it would eventually bring him the scientific immortality he had been pursuing so long and intensely.10

Less than a year and a half after this momentous revelation of the seduction theory to his scientific peers, Freud had a new revelation to confess, although this time he had no desire to “tell it in Gath, or publish it in the streets of Askalon, in the land of the Philistines.” Only his fellow Jew and equally defiant scientific revolutionary, Wilhelm Fliess, was allowed to hear his admission: “I no longer believe in my neurotica.11 The memories he had excavated and reconstructed with such archaeological skill had suddenly lost their credibility as representations of real events. In later years he admitted that he might have induced his patients to produce the evidence he needed for his reconstructions in his excessive desire to pin the blame for neuropathological suffering on the sins of the older generation.12 With the collapse of his faith in the credibility of his accounts of the past, however, he also lost his confidence in his ability to understand or cure the neuroses. As the caput Nili of neuropathology once again receded into obscurity his hopes for “eternal fame” and “certain wealth” vanished as well.13 In retrospect, however, Freud claimed that it was precisely the collapse of the seduction theory that made the discovery of the essential principles of psychoanalysis possible and thus assured his “eternal fame,” if not certain wealth. The construction, elaboration, and collapse of the seduction theory between the summer of 1895 and the fall of 1897 was not simply one episode among many in Freud's development but a critical turning point, the crisis from which the uniquely Freudian perspective on human nature and historical existence first emerged in distinctively recognizable form. It possessed this epochal significance because the collapse of this particular theory about the etiology of hysteria involved the remaking of the whole framework of theoretical assumptions in which it had seemed to be true.

Freud's public presentation of the seduction theory had emphasized the empirical basis of his etiological claims. In all of the eighteen cases that he had investigated in detail, the disciplined labor of analysis had culminated in the discovery of evidence that allowed him to reconstruct memory traces of infantile sexual traumas. However, it was also obvious that Freud's belief in the authenticity of the reconstructed memories was tied to the inner logic of his explanatory scheme. It was “the logical structure of the neurotic manifestation,” he claimed, “which made it impossible to reject those faithfully preserved memories which emerge from childhood life.” The originating traumatic event had left its “indelible imprint” on the whole case history. Its existence was “peremptorily called for” by the symptoms and the associative connections branching out from them. In the end one had the choice of rejecting or believing “the whole.” Freud compared his discovery of the seduction scenes to the insertion of the final piece in a picture puzzle. The reconstructed contents of the infantile scenes, like the final pieces of a puzzle that were “called for” by the shape and size of the remaining gap and the pictorial elements required to complete the picture, were “indispensable supplements to the associations and logical framework of the neurosis, whose insertion makes the course of development evident for the first time, or even, as we might often say, self-evident.”14

When Freud lost confidence in the authenticity of the final piece of his puzzle, therefore, it was not simply a matter of making a few theoretical adjustments but rather of reconceiving the whole picture. As he stated in a retrospective account of this “crisis”: “The foundation of reality had disappeared (Mann hatte also den Boden der Realität verloren).”15 The disintegration of the reality on which Freud had oriented his scientific puzzle solving and psychic archaeology, however, also opened up the possibility of discovering a new reality in which material that had appeared to be false and mystifying could reemerge as true and revelatory. Freud had in fact experienced increasing uneasiness with the general contours of the reality in which his work was situated in the months immediately preceding the crisis of September 1897.16 Disillusionment with the credibility of his reconstructed accounts of the seduction scenes turned nagging doubts into open confession and thus was greeted with relief as well as dismay. “Between ourselves,” he admitted to Fliess, “I have a feeling more of triumph than defeat (which cannot be right).”17 Within weeks Freud was rearranging his scattered puzzle fragments into a new, more complex, and multidimensional picture that included the dimension of “psychic reality” in addition to “physical,” “practical,” or “material” reality.18 He emerged from apparent defeat within the context of the conventional “old” science and its reality to become the creator of a new knowledge or “science” with its own constituted or “discovered” reality. Precisely what Freud meant by his cryptic contrasts of physical and psychical realities, and thus what significance should be attributed to this apparently critical shift in his theoretical position, are crucial questions for any adequate comprehension of the historical origins and implications of psychoanalysis and the subject of intense controversy. Gay does not engage this controversy in any direct or systematic fashion. He sees the seduction theory as an overly ambitious, inherently implausible generalization that Freud abandoned when his evidence failed to support it. Recognition of his error encouraged Freud to listen more attentively to his patients and to discover the importance of unconscious fantasy in their accounts, but it did not affect the principles of psychoanalytic theory in any significant way. In order to sustain this view Gay reads the evidence in a peculiarly isolated and selective fashion. He disassociates the seduction theory from other elements in Freud's puzzle, like the theory of sexuality, that underwent drastic changes at the same time. And this disassociation also leads to a very narrow reading of the import of Freud's new conception of unconscious fantasy (pp. 95–96).

Freud's attentiveness to the evidence of fantasies as well as dreams clearly preceded the collapse of the seduction theory; in fact, it evolved together with that theory. What changed in 1897 was the way in which Freud read his evidence. In the period between 1895 and the fall of 1897, he increasingly tended to regard his investigative and therapeutic activity as that of a historical detective seeking to reconstruct the associative and causal links between the factual elements of each case. Explanation of the phenomena (the symptoms) that confronted the observer/investigator was assumed to lie in a causally connected sequence of objective processes or events that were ultimately set in motion by a first cause—the originating sexual trauma. A complete, totally convincing and thus therapeutically effective explanation would entail reconstructing the complex, interlocking series of causal sequences that tied the original event to every aspect of the present symptomatology. Although the events that proceeded from the repressed memory were “internal” or “psychic,” they were imagined on the model of a series of external, objective events that could be reconstructed by an outside observer. Freud was aware that such a total reconstruction was not easily achieved. The evidence provided by the patient was fragmented and distorted because of resistances to any return into consciousness of memories of events that had originally been “forgotten” because of their ego-threatening character. Although Freud was not a particularly credulous historian, he was convinced during these years that it was possible to squeeze the kernel of objective historical truth out of the deceptive reports gleaned from applying various means of “pressure” to his patients.19 In the spring and summer of 1897 Freud's investigations focused particularly on the defensive fantasies that many of his patients constructed as “psychical outworks” barring the path to the authentic memories from which their symptoms originated.20 Recognition that much of the material extracted from his patients was “fictional” did not immediately discourage Freud in his historical task. Fantasies, he claimed, were “sublimations and embellishments of the facts.”21 With critical acuity and ingenuity the therapist might still salvage the pure ore of objective fact from the subjectively constructed dross of imagination.

The collapse of the seduction theory in the fall of 1897 was marked by a collapse of Freud's confidence in his ability to use evidence from his patients' fantasies in reconstructing the real history of event sequences. Unable to differentiate fact from fiction in his patients' reports, he felt the reality reference of his investigations dissolving under his feet. But this collapse was transformed into a “triumph” by his recognition that fantasies might be read in a different way, as signs of the unconscious intentions that produced them rather than as the forgotten events to which they referred. From this perspective the “embellishments” and “sublimations” of fantasy were not so much outworks to be demolished as obscure revelations of a different kind of truth, the truth of unconscious psychical activity. They were openings into a hidden world of “psychic reality” that was not passive and objective but active and subjective, a world of unconscious psychosexual desire. By interpreting the manifest texts of fantasies, dreams, or symptoms in terms of the unconscious intentions that produced them, their meaning as distorted self-representations could be reconstructed. But this shift marked a radical change in Freud's attitude toward the task of historical reconstruction. His aim was now to excavate the inner history of psychosexual desire through an interpretation of the signs—images, gestures, words, symptomatic actions—through which this desire both revealed and hid itself. A true and complete life or case history would therefore no longer describe an externally observable sequence of events but would bring into consciousness—or, more aptly, “make conscious”—the repressed unconscious process of the representation, displacement, and alienation of psychosexual desire.

Freud never denied that the texts that the patient provided for the interpretative and reconstructive activity of the historian/analyst might refer to external events actually experienced by the analysand.22 He did insist with increasing confidence after 1897, however, that the decisive factor for explaining and transforming the present condition of the analysand was the way in which unconscious sexual desire had transformed “external” experiences into specific “internal” structures of meaning. The core of curable suffering involved the psychosexual subject's active complicity in the making of its own history. This shift in perspective was dramatically presented in Freud's first major psychoanalytic case study—“Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria” (or “Dora”)—completed in 1900 and finally published in 1905. In this study, the model of explanation which envisioned the patient's present symptomatology as the product of a sequence of objective events originating in an external trauma was interpreted as an expression of individual pathology—that is, as a sign of the subject's refusal to accept responsibility for its own self-formation and thus its unwillingness to take possession of its own history and liberate itself from unconsciously self-imposed suffering. Although Freud did not deny the factual accuracy of Dora's descriptions of her external traumas and betrayals (her “seduction”), he insisted that it was the inner psychic conflict produced by the history of her own active unconscious desires that lay at the root of her illness. By defining herself as a victim of external events, she remained a victim of internal unconscious forces. By refusing to undertake the discipline of self-reflection that could bring her into possession of her own history, she remained determined by her past, and thus unfree.23

Recognition of the significance of sexuality and early childhood development in the genesis of neurotic disorders also preceded Freud's “abandonment” of the seduction theory. However, in this area as well, contrary to Gay's account, the collapse of the erroneous theory produced a wide-ranging reorientation in Freud's conceptions. First, Freud shifted his investigative focus from the passive sexual experiences of the prepubertal child to childhood sexual activity. The key to the meaning of fantasies and screen memories of sexual seduction was unveiled as the ubiquity of infantile sexual desire. Children were not just sexual objects (though often they were that as well) but also sexual subjects “capable of every psychical sexual activity.”24 Neurotic symptoms were not obscured reports of forgotten events but revelations of “the most secret and repressed wishes” of infantile life.25 “Sexuality does not simply intervene like a deus ex machina on one single occasion at some point in the working of the processes which characterize hysteria,” Freud wrote in 1905, “but … it provides the motive power of every single manifestation of a symptom. The symptoms of the disease are nothing less than the patient's sexual activity.”26 Second, the recognition of infantile sexual desire led Freud to downplay the significance of “accidental” factors in the origins of psychopathology and to take a renewed interest in universal “constitutional and hereditary” factors. It did not lead to a move away from the biological bases of psychic activity but to a revision of his conception of that basis, supplementing his view of the body as a mechanism for processing excitation entering from outside with a perspective on the body as the source of instinctual activity.27 As Freud's theory of the sexual “constitution” evolved after 1897, however, it soon became evident that it was not just a theory of biochemical forces but also a theory of the ways in which quantifiable forces seeking discharge or satisfaction were represented in psychosexual desire, with its qualitative aims and objects, and of the ways in which quantifiable forces seeking discharge or satisfaction were represented in psychosexual desire, with its qualitative aims and objects, and of the ways in which this desire was formed, repressed, transformed, and organized in the process of development. Psychosexual conflict, whether resolved “normally” or pathologically, was ultimately traceable not to particular events but to the sexual subject's response to the universal, inhibiting, natural, and sociocultural conditions in which desire was structured during the first stages of every life history. Third, and finally, the increased use of the term “repression” (Verdrängung) rather than “defense” (Abwehr) to conceptualize the dynamic aspects of sexual experience was also, as Freud noted, a consequence of the collapse of the seduction theory.28 “Defense” was an other-related term representing sexuality as the foreign intrusion of excessive stimuli into the infantile psychic mechanism. “Repression” was a self-relating term representing the active inhibition, denial, and forgetting of desire in response to the external exigencies of natural scarcity and sociocultural order.

These three revisions of Freud's sexual theory all came together in his “discovery” of the new caput Nili of psychopathology (as well as normal psychology)—the Oedipus complex. On October 15, 1897, he wrote to Fliess:

I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood. … If that is the case the gripping power of Oedipus Rex, in spite of all the rational objections to the inexorable fate that the story presupposes, becomes intelligible. … The Greek myth seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognizes.29

In contrast to the seduction theory, the reality reference of the oedipal theory was not to sequences of external events but to the contextually structured formation of unconscious, “subjective” desire. Although it presupposed a material, biological substratum of bisexuality, erotogenic zones, organ development, and differentiation, its specific focus was on the ways in which the body was actively lived from the “inside,” how it represented itself to itself in desire, and how it organized and transformed this desire in the process of becoming an encultured subject. The critical, originating source of human suffering and unfreedom was now defined as the repression of desire at the entry into culture and as the internalization of symbolic identifications and meanings through which the psyche disguised its desire from itself. Through this shift in perspective psychoanalysis emerged as a critical theory of enculturation, a conceptualization (or story) of the process of repression, forgetting, and deception through which the psychosexual subject alienated its “natural” freedom by imposing on itself the compulsive “fate” or “second nature” of cultural meaning, and as a therapy or practice of “liberation” through the achievement of self-consciousness and the rational management of the inevitable conflict between desire and the “self-forged manacles” that gave desire its encultured human shape and definition.

The wide-ranging ramifications of Freud's elaboration and eventual abandonment of the seduction theory in 1895–97 briefly suggested in this synopsis of his intellectual reorientation after 1897 are not brought into focus or adequately addressed in Gay's account. By failing to pursue the interconnections between the seduction theory and the theory of sexuality, Gay avoids confronting the shift in the theoretical assumptions Freud brought to his evidence. By insisting on reading the development of Freudian theory through the 1890s as a gradual evolution of a series of testable scientific hypotheses constructed in response to the growing mass of courageously uncovered and carefully observed clinical evidence, Gay simply ignores the critical problem of the radical change in Freud's method of reading or interpreting his evidence and thus of the ways in which psychoanalysis emerged as a “construction” of meaning and not just a “discovery” of truth. But if psychoanalysis is seen as a construction of meaning, the explanations of its origins must turn to the contextual determinants of this construction. The central issue is not to determine the evidence Freud observed but to reconstruct the experiential and sociocultural contexts that may have been decisive in changing the perspective from which he made those observations. Gay's apparent mastery or at least awareness of the growing mass of contextualizing historical scholarship relevant to this question obscures his general unwillingness to confront the ways in which this scholarship has made increasingly problematic the relationship between Freud for our time and Freud in his own time. In the following sections I will examine four interconnected areas in which the process of contextualizing Freud and historicizing psychoanalysis has illuminated the historical emergence of psychoanalysis as a construction of meaning. In each case the analysis will be focused on the historical contexts of Freud's shift from the story of seduction to the story of oedipal desire as the primary, meaning-giving narrative of human experience.


The contextual issue Gay is most willing to address—and can hardly avoid in his role as psychoanalytic biographer—is the relation between Freud's personal psychological conflicts, especially as they came to a head in the neurotic and creative crisis at the time of his father's death in 1896, and the formation of the fundamental propositions of psychoanalytic theory, especially as they were articulated as a product of Freud's self-analysis in The Interpretation of Dreams. It has been a traditional dogma of the psychoanalytic insiders' interpretation of the formation of Freudian theory that psychoanalysis was created through an almost miraculous act of auto-emancipation and immaculate conception; that it emerged as the product of a heroic act of self-analysis in which Freud turned himself into the object of his own analytical dissection, overcame inner resistances, undid unconscious repressions, and, by uncovering and reconstituting his own buried and forgotten life history, discovered a general truth about mankind.30 Although Gay acknowledges that the formation of psychoanalysis involves an unusually intimate relationship between autobiography and science, he has become much more skeptical than he had been in his earlier work about the validity of this “cherished centerpiece of psychoanalytic mythology” (p. 96).31 The reasons for such caution are fairly obvious. What Gay fears and opposes is a reductive reading of the Freudian texts as expressions or resolutions of, or escapes from, “merely” personal psychological conflicts and sufferings. Gay does not want to portray Freud as driven in his “scientific” endeavors by the need to assuage his psychic suffering, to find meaning for his agonizing personal dilemmas, and to create a story that would make sense of his experience. Rather, Gay would like us to see the relationship between Freud's personal experience and his written narratives and theories as homologous to the relationship pertaining between any relevant evidence and a testable hypothesis. Freud simply “exploited himself freely as a witness and made himself into the most informative of his patients.” He did not, Gay insists, assume that his own experiences were “automatically valid for all humanity”: they were “simply one more source of material” to be tested against the “experience of patients and, later, against the psychoanalytic literature” (p. 90).

The particular personal experience that Freud presented publicly as the center of the psychological tensions resolved though his self-analysis was the generational conflict between parents and children—and, more specifically, between fathers and sons. The seduction theory had attributed the sufferings of children to the perverse acts of their elders. The collapse of that theory revealed the accusations of the apparent victim to be expressions of its own archaic, repressed, ambivalent feelings toward the accused. Freud achieved this transition from victim of an externally imposed fate to maker of his own fate at the personal level in working through the emotional trauma that accompanied the death of his father, Jakob Freud, in October 1896. In the preface to the second edition (1908) of The Interpretation of Dreams he noted that the “subjective significance” of the book was that it embodied “a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father's death—that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man's life.”32 Dissecting his unconscious desires through an analysis of their objectification in the enigmatic messages of dream texts, fantasies, and neurotic symptoms, Freud traced the genesis of his current discontents—his frustrations, anxieties, and depressions, his phobias and death fears, his irrational jealousies and pathological ambitions, his love/hate relations to colleagues, mentors, friends, and other figures of authority—to the infantile oedipal relationship. Once the repressed infantile desires that fueled his fantasies and dreams were made conscious, the real Jakob Freud was released from their tyranny, and Freud was finally able to bury his father's ghost and take responsibility for his own judgments and actions.33

Taking their cues from Freud's writings, many scholars have sought the experiential sources of psychoanalytic theory in Freud's actual relationship with his father, either repeating or revising the story Freud himself constructed as the true meaning of that relationship. Critics of orthodox oedipal theory, like Marianne Krüll and Marie Balmary, have tried to show that Freud abandoned the seduction theory and constructed a peculiarly personal version of the Oedipus story in order to avoid confronting the father's fault in the origin of neurotic suffering, including his own. Through ingenious reconstructions of Freud's “covered-up” childhood, they assert that the oedipal story was created to hide the actuality of the father's sin, an actuality that would have justified hostility toward and rebellion against paternal authority, and to replace this fact with a myth absolving the father of guilt and thus justifying filial piety. Krüll and Balmary do not claim that Jakob Freud actually sexually abused his infant son but that he subjected young Freud to a traumatizing situation through his actions toward others (his secret wife, his father, his God) and then placed his son under an implicit mandate to forget his knowledge of the father's sin and thus maintain paternal authority unsullied.34 The evidence presented by Krüll and Balmary is circumstantial and the interpretations built on it highly speculative. Gay is justified in dismissing their reconstructions of the experiential logic behind Freud's response to his father's death as fictional rather than historical. However, Gay might have paid closer attention to the premise (and the empirical materials and lengthy exegetical accounts used to ground it) for their speculative flights of historical re-creation: the lack of any convincing empirical or logical justification for Freud's switch from seduction to oedipal stories after his father's death.35

Gay is obviously more comfortable with accounts of Freud's father-relationship which assume that the move from the seduction to the oedipal theory marked an advance in psychological understanding and a deeper penetration into universal dimensions of psychic reality, rather than an evasion of the disturbing facts of experienced reality. But because of his desire to avoid the snares of psychological reductionism, Gay barely scratches the surface of interpretive possibilities offered by the psychoanalytic theory of the child's fundamental ambivalence toward the father, the simultaneous identification with and hostility toward the possessor of the original object of desire. Some of these possibilities have been developed recently in interesting ways by William McGrath in an attempt to illuminate Freud's personal crisis during the 1890s. Through a reexamination of the fantasies and dreams in which Freud symbolized his relationship to figures of authority, McGrath unveils a complex process of displacement in which filial ambivalence was transferred not only on to surrogate father figures (real and imaginary) but also, and more confusingly, on to brother figures—that is, potential allies or rivals in the struggle with established paternal authority. McGrath discerns a repetitive pattern, going back to Freud's confusing family constellation during his early childhood (in which he lived together with brothers from his father's first marriage who were the same age as his mother), that was characterized by the internal conflicts of an ambivalent project. On the one hand, Freud tried to identify himself (both in fantasy and reality) with rebellious sons engaged in a battle against oppressive paternal authority. This type of identification, however, was countered by an equally powerful desire to outdo the other sons in competition for the father's love and approval. Moreover, such conflicts between fraternal solidarity and fraternal rivalry were complicated by Freud's perception of his own father as an impotent victim of oppressive authority. The “mandate” implicitly imposed by such a father seemed inherently ambiguous. The son's task was, first of all, to control the shame and anger aroused by his father's apparent weakness, to understand that weakness as a victimization by conditions the father could not control, and to affirm the values and traditions that had allowed the father to survive his suffering and maintain a modicum of dignity. At the same time the son was presented with the task of overthrowing the oppressive conditions that had made his father into a victim and of becoming a master and potent father in his own right.36

The intertwining and conflicting fraternal and filial currents that McGrath discerns in Freud's real and imagined father/son relationships are important for understanding the personal psychic conflicts that accompanied Freud's theoretical shift in perspective in 1896–97, especially the intense and tense friendship with his primary scientific colleague and collaborator during the mid- and late 1890s, the Berlin sexual biologist Wilhelm Fliess. Like most Freud biographers, Gay uses the Fliess friendship as the general biographical frame for his chapter on the 1890s. As Freud distanced himself from older mentors in the medical establishment and embarked on the path-breaking investigations that would eventually produce the governing principles of psychoanalysis, Gay claims that “Fliess was precisely the intimate he needed: audience, confidant, stimulus, cheerleader, fellow speculator shocked at nothing” (p. 56). In fulfilling these various roles for Freud, Fliess functioned as the “midwife” of psychoanalysis. Because of his need to sustain the psychological supports of the Fliess friendship during his period of isolation and creative gestation, Gay suggests, Freud overvalued and idealized Fliess's theoretical and therapeutic capabilities. Only when Freud achieved his own independent theoretical perspective and therapeutic confidence was he able to perceive Fliess's intellectual limitations realistically. McGrath's analysis, however, involves the Fliess friendship much more intimately in the personal psychological crisis that the “discovery” of the oedipal complex appeared to resolve.37 In fact, all of the filial and fraternal conflicts that characterized the repeated patterns of Freud's relations to brother and father figures since childhood were crystallized and brought to a head in the Freud/Fliess relationship between 1895 and 1897.

The friendship between Freud and Fliess began as an alliance of rebellious brothers confident that their mutually supportive biological and clinico-psychological investigations of the sexual origins of human suffering would eventually produce irrefutable truths capable of conquering the conventional dogmas and myopic perspectives of a hostile, defensive scientific establishment. For Freud, moreover, this alliance emerged from a growing disillusionment with, and critical distancing from, his older mentor and collaborator, Josef Breuer, whose unwillingness to commit himself wholeheartedly to the theory of the sexual etiology of neuroses appeared to Freud as a sign of intellectual cowardice and conformity to conventional inhibitions.38 As the friendship between Freud and Fliess became more intense and exclusive in the mid-1890s, however, its fraternal dimension was increasingly subordinated to an implicit filial dimension in which Freud played the role of the loyal, submissive son, seeking to ground and legitimate his psychological investigations on the foundations of Fliessian biology and placing himself as a patient under Fliess's therapeutic care (much as he had done earlier with Breuer). For a number of years Freud perceived his own neurotic suffering through Fliess's eyes, as a product of current disturbances in biosexual functions, and he diagnosed and treated his symptoms on the basis of Fliess's theories of periodic biological cycles (which could be calculated with mathematical precision) and the reflex relations between the nose and the genitals.39 Freud's intellectual and emotional subservience to Fliess came to a head in 1895 when he handed over one of his own neurotic patients to Fliess for nasal surgery. The disastrous consequences of this action (the patient almost bled to death because of Fliess's incompetence) at first aroused Freud to engage in desperate measures to protect his idealized image of Fliess as a medical and scientific authority figure. But in the process of defending Fliess's surgical competence and blaming the patient's bleeding on unconscious neurotic desires rather than surgical malpractice, Freud also began to undermine Fliess's authority and to distance himself from the irrational compulsions that marked the friendship. In Freud's eyes Fliess may have been innocent of a specific act of medical malpractice, but he had also misdiagnosed the etiology of the patient's symptoms. As Freud repossessed his patient, he also began to repossess himself, seeking the cure for his neurosis in his own theories of the psychic rather than biophysical etiology of neuroses.40

Freud's self-analysis was, in an important sense, a working through of the filial dimension of the irrational compulsions that characterized his relationship to Fliess. As he came to understand this relationship in terms of the neurotic displacement of filial ambivalence on to his colleague and friend, he was able to liberate himself from Fliess's thrall and assert an independent position as the theoretical possessor not only of his own case history but also of his own scientific realm—the inner reality of unconscious psychic life (the body as lived from the inside) which was equal in status to the external biological reality that was Fliess's domain—and to assume the position of ancestor rather than heir, father rather than son. However, as McGrath reveals in some detail, this “resolution” of the unconscious filial component in the Fliess relationship did not in itself resolve the tensions of fraternal rivalry, of competition for priority among the rebel brothers. The continuing tensions at this level were expressed in Freud's equivocations, even occasionally in neurotic “forgettings,” about the ways in which Fliessian sexual biology remained an important presupposition of his new psychological theories.41 Frank Sulloway's Freud: Biologist of the Mind argues, with polemical exaggeration fueled by its author's prior commitment to the truths of psychobiological reductionism, that Freud's “liberation” from Fliess was in fact a repression or “cover-up” of his continuing dependence on a Fliessian and more broadly Darwinian sexual biology.42 Even if one rejects Sulloway's specific accusations, however, the evidence he presents with such massive overkill does indicate some of Freud's continuing difficulties in perceiving himself in the fraternal role of colleague and collaborator and demonstrates his tendency to conceive his relations to male figures in terms of the dichotomy between filial submission and patriarchal control.

The problem of establishing satisfactory forms of solidarity and mutuality evident in Freud's “fraternal” relations with Breuer and Fliess during the 1890s was also evident in his more specifically sexual, especially heterosexual, relationships. The collapse of the seduction theory seemed, at first, to rescue from amnesia the child's libidinal relationship to the mother. In the letter in which Freud first adumbrated the oedipal theory he also recalled his infantile sexual relations and desires as they related to his mother and the Czech nanny in whose care he had been placed during the years before the Freud family moved to Vienna.43 However, in the parts of Freud's self-analysis eventually published in The Interpretation of Dreams, the sexual, and particularly heterosexual, element of Freud's inner life was hardly touched upon. In a letter sent to Fliess during the writing of the Interpretation Freud noted that he had avoided discussion of that dimension of his personal Dreck (filth) which concerned the intimate details of his sexual desires because it would have been too embarrassing and compromising for both himself and his family. The result was an analysis of Freud's inner life as driven by the “secondary” desires of patricidal hostility, vicious rivalry, and unscrupulous ambition.44 In a footnote added later, Freud confessed that he had not given full treatment to the sexual content of his dreams because this would have involved him in “still unsolved problems of perversion and bisexuality,”45 thus hinting at a disguised homosexual component in his conflicted relations with brother and father figures. Whatever its motivation, however, Freud's act of self-censorship obscured a critical dimension of his personal psychological crisis and the self-analysis that partially “resolved” it after 1897.

Gay is quite willing to admit the existence of an unresolved problem in Freud's relationship to women and feminine psychology and connects this to his inability to work through his childhood relationship to his mother, but he sees this problem as typical, limited, and persistent throughout Freud's life. Gay does not address the evidence which indicates that Freud's relationship to the feminine “other” was moving toward a discernible crisis in the 1890s and thus may have been intimately involved in the formation of psychoanalytic theory. There is some direct (from comments to Fliess) and considerable indirect (from descriptions of his struggle with prophylactics, masturbation, and sexual abstinence) evidence that Freud connected his neurotic symptoms during the 1890s to the sexual frustrations in his marriage brought on by the attempt to put a halt to Martha Freud's incessant pregnancies.46 Passages in the new unexpurgated edition of the Freud-Fliess letters also suggest that Freud's tendency to take vacations in the mountains or in Italy apart from his wife was not grounded in Martha's reluctance to join him (as has often been alleged) but rather in Freud's desire to escape from the sexual frustrations of his marriage.47 Yet Gay goes out of his way to paint an idyllic picture of Freud's “domestic tranquillity” during the 1890s. “His private life,” he writes, “was as settled and serene as he would let it be” (p. 74).

Gay also skirts the problem of a possible personal origin of the psychoanalytic conceptualization of gender relations by focusing the question on a particular issue: whether or not Freud had a sexually consummated affair with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays, who had moved into the Freud household in 1896. Gay may be correct in insisting that the available evidence does not indubitably demonstrate sexual infidelity on Freud's part, but the evidence does suggest that at a time when Freud's relationship with his wife was becoming more tense and less intimate he was intellectually and emotionally attracted by a woman who, in his own words, possessed a “passionate nature” equal to his own (in stark contrast to Martha's extreme reserve) and whom he had described in 1893 as his “closest confidante.”48 The attraction to Minna, as well as Freud's occasional visions of a mother-figure who was not merely the object but also the active, seductive subject of desire, suggest the possibility that in 1896 and the immediately ensuing years Freud was tempted and perhaps threatened by a vision of heterosexual relations as a complicated, reciprocal, and androgynous partnership. From the perspective of this possibility the discovery of psychoanalysis could be seen as a negative resolution of a personal dilemma, an act of control or repression which reasserted the place of the feminine as the passive object of masculine libido, restricted in its active role to maternal love.49

The question of whether the creation of psychoanalysis in the late 1890s involved a specific, repressive “ideological” resolution of the tensions between men and women or between the masculine and feminine dimensions of everyone's individual bisexuality can be addressed through an examination of the “Dora” case study, which Freud himself considered a continuation and supplement of the Interpretation and thus an integral part of the founding text of psychoanalytic theory.50 Gay does not treat this text in the context of the “theory in the making,” however, but discusses it in a later chapter devoted to the therapeutic application and technical elaboration of psychoanalytic principles. The focus of his reading of “Dora,” which is quite critical, is Freud's technical mishandling of the case, the insensitivity and arrogance that resulted in therapeutic failure but also led to a recognition (after the fact) of the importance of transference and countertransference in the analytic process. However, Gay interprets the countertransference at work in the Dora case—Freud's insertion of his own unconscious fantasies and desires into his description of the patient's history—not as pertaining to Freud's psychosexual conflicts but as an expression of his intellectual and scientific desire to force Dora to prove the correctness of his interpretations. The case provided a critical lesson for Freud about the dangers of theoretical impatience and overconfidence and the need for disciplined objectivity (pp. 246–55). By restricting Freud's “unsettling” involvement in the case history to this single dimension, Gay simply passes over the large and growing body of scholarship that has read Freud's struggle to control and write Dora's history as a revelation that an asymmetrical, patriarchal resolution of psychosexual gender difference was at the basis of psychoanalytic theory from its inception. The issue is not whether Freud displayed a conventional “Victorian” or nineteenth-century bourgeois male bias in his interpretations of women's psychology, but whether his theory marked an attempt to resolve the experience of gender difference and conflict in a recognizably ideological fashion, whether the autonomy and self-knowledge produced by Freud's self-analysis entailed a repudiation or forgetting of the feminine other as a subject and not just a passive object of desire. By ignoring this debate Gay ignores one of the major dimensions of what Freud and psychoanalysis have come to be “for our time.”51

The personal psychological context of the emergence of psychoanalysis in the late 1890s might most succinctly be described as a complex struggle for autonomy. It was marked most obviously by Freud's struggle with his irrational compulsion to submit or surrender his personal identity to idealized figures of authority and with the accompanying patricidal rages that such self-abasement produced. This aspect of Freud's crisis was brought to a climactic impasse by the combined effect of his abasement before and uncontrollable hatred for Fliess and the emotional trauma and memory flood released by the death of his father. Freud “resolved” this crisis and cured himself by comprehending his current compulsions and projections as a product of his infantile ambivalence toward the oedipal father. This “liberation” to autonomous fatherhood, however, involved a repudiation of the passive, submissive, “feminine” dimension of his psyche and led to continuing difficulty in perceiving intersubjective relations with either men or women in terms other than those of domination and submission.


Even a cursory reading of the fragments of self-analysis contained in the Fliess letters or in the autobiographical dream reconstructions of The Interpretation of Dreams reveals that the personal/psychological dimension of Freud's crisis in the late 1890s, which he attempted to grasp and resolve in oedipal terms, was intimately associated with the problem of achieving a satisfactory definition of his Jewish identity. This seems to be the most obvious starting point for drawing connections between the emergence of psychoanalytic theory and its broader social and cultural context. It is a path which has been taken more than once and almost invariably with disappointing results.52 The dilemma is how to recognize the obvious ties between Freud's creation of psychoanalysis and his Jewish experience and self-consciousness without reducing his work to the status of an exclusively Jewish science or Jewish ideology. Although the crude polemics and innuendo of the 1920s and the 1930s have given way recently to more sympathetic and sophisticated analyses of the Jewish context of psychoanalysis, the upshot still seems to have been what Freud feared most—the reduction of psychoanalysis to a “Jewish national affair.”53 In the influential studies of David Bakan, Marthe Robert, John Murray Cuddihy, and others, Freud is merged into Jewish history as the cleverly dissimulating closet rabbi reproducing ancient Judaic wisdom in modern form or as the exemplary commentator on the living text of the experiential dilemmas of that generation of central European Jewry for whom assimilation and integration suddenly turned into dissimulation and exclusion.54 Gay clearly believes that the only way to avoid such reductionism is to maintain “a decisive distinction between personal identity and scientific allegiance,”55 a disassociation consistently practiced in his own description of the formative period of psychoanalysis. In an earlier work, however, A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis, Gay tried to justify this practice through a systematic criticism of what he saw as the four major paths that might be followed in the ultimately futile project of connecting Freud the Jew to Freud the discoverer of psychoanalytic science.56

First, Gay dismisses the claim that the empirical data—the “material”—that Freud analyzed and interpreted in coming to his conclusions was exclusively or primarily drawn from Jewish sources, for example, Jewish patients, Jewish anecdotes, Jewish jokes. However, the grounds for this dismissal are extremely weak. The non-Jewish patients Gay brings up as counterexamples are all from the period after the formation of the major psychoanalytic principles, and he ignores the most important patient of all—Freud himself. Moreover, Gay's claim that even when his material was Jewish Freud always focused his attention on the universal dimensions of particular experiences or linguistic constructions begs the question: the problem is precisely the legitimacy of this transition from the particular to the universal. At any rate the Jewish interpretation of the origins of psychoanalysis has always focused on the perspective Freud brought to his material rather than on the nature of the material itself.

Gay addressed this question of perspective in his second refutation: a critique of the thesis that the theoretical models, methodological strategies, and assumed values with which Freud approached his data were derived from a specifically Jewish religious/cultural tradition. Gay is most convincing in pointing out the speculative nature of the ingenious analogies that have sometimes been drawn between Freud's theories and Jewish traditions of mystical theology and Talmudic scholarship. But he is too hasty in equating the lack of convincing evidence of any impact of traditional Jewish culture on Freud's intellectual development with the absence of any distinctively Jewish cultural inheritance. As McGrath, Robert, Dennis Klein, and others have recounted in some detail, Freud's early intellectual development was shaped by his absorption of the cultural worldview, the ethical and historical perspective, of an integrationist German/Jewish tradition in which the distinctive contributions of Jewish culture (especially the Old Testament) to the universal humanistic ethos of western culture were stressed and Jewish theology and ethics were reinterpreted through the neoclassical humanist and idealist categories of German poets and philosophers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.57 It is true that the central texts of this inheritance (including, of course, the Old Testament) were not exclusively Jewish, but the interpretive tradition through which they were mediated to the young Freud by his father and his Jewish teacher Samuel Hammerschlag was shaped by the distinctively Jewish quest for emancipation from the oppressions and restrictions of the ghetto and the desire for integration on terms of equality into the world of universal human culture. From this tradition Freud absorbed a rich inventory of stories and images that he could exploit to provide meaning for the quandaries, resentments, desires, and hopes produced by his experience as a Jew seeking both individual autonomy and communal integration in a non-Jewish world.58

As Gay knows, however, the keystone of the Jewish interpretation of the formation of psychoanalysis is the attempt to define not only Freud's intellectual inheritance but also his individual experience as distinctively Jewish. Following up on Freud's own occasional remarks, Gay perceives two forms of this claim. The first is the “tribal” model in which psychoanalysis is conceived as the expression of some ineffable Jewish essence, a product of common racial constitution or shared phylogenetic inheritance going back to the formation of the Jewish people in the time of Moses. Aside from its questionable assumptions, this theory has little explanatory value and certainly does not help to illuminate the reasons why Sigmund Freud created or discovered psychoanalysis in Vienna in the 1890s.59 The second form of the “Jewish-experience” thesis, described by Gay as the “sociological” theory, refers to Freud's belief that his marginal sociocultural status as a double outsider, an atheistic Jew alienated from both traditional Judaism and the anti-Semitic national and religious culture that refused to accept him, provided him with an unusual ability to see through the veneer of cultural rationalization and ideological obfuscation and thus allowed him to discover the universal, unconscious sources of human thought and behavior.60 But Gay rejects this marginality argument because it fails to address the specific content of Freud's intellectual positions. Although Freud's marginality may have influenced the bellicosity with which he defended his creation against a hostile world in the 1920s and 1930s, Gay insists that “the origins of psychoanalysis are untouched by his historical situation.”61

To bring some order into this controversial question, the particular ways in which changes in Freud's experiences as a Jew can be matched up with shifts in his theoretical positions first must be specified. The critical issue is the possible conjuncture of experience and theoretical innovation at the moment of the birth of psychoanalysis in 1896–97. First, we know that in the months immediately preceding the September 1897 crisis Freud had become increasingly depressed and anxious about the ominous signs of the growing prevalence and power of anti-Semitism in various dimensions of his cultural world—the Dreyfus affair, the threatening devolution of the Austro-Hungarian Rechtsstaat into a cauldron of exclusive, national-linguistic communities, the confirmation of Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna, the intrusion of “confessional” considerations into the debates among scholars in local professional associations and into the process of professional advancement at state institutions like the university.62 At the same time he was increasingly troubled by the emergence and growing prevalence of two unacceptable responses to this anti-Semitism, both involving an apparent betrayal of his universalist conception of cultural integration on the foundations of individual autonomy—submission or conversion to one of the competing, alternative national or religious identities and retreat to an exclusively Jewish national identity. Second, we know that one of Freud's first public actions after the collapse of the seduction theory was to become an active member (immediately assuming recruitment and leadership responsibilities) of the recently established B'nai B'rith Lodge in Vienna. What is the significance of, and relationship between, his particularly acute perception of anti-Semitism and the decision to join this particular association at this critical moment? The materials presented by Dennis Klein have opened up a way to answer this question. From the time he left the haven of Ernst Brücke's physiological laboratory at the university in 1882 until the crisis of 1897, Freud's disillusionment with the possibility of actualizing the promise of cultural assimilation, his defiance of anti-Semitic persecution, and his consciousness of Jewish pride and ethnic identity increased steadily and fed off one another. Remaining inwardly committed to the secular, humanist, liberal ideal that had informed his quest for assimilation, Freud blamed the pain of exclusion and isolation on the destructive actions of the nationalist and religious opponents of his ideal and faulted the older generation for neither securing the ideal nor providing its children with adequate means of defense against the forces of destruction.63 Freud's association with B'nai B'rith marked a significant revision of this perspective. As a member of the lodge he focused his attention on the privileged insight which the inner history of his generation of Jews provided into the deceiving, illusory character and psychopathological corruption of the cultural ideal around which they had constructed their historical identities and hopes for the future. By assuming responsibility for their own history, rejecting the role of passive victim, and controlling the irrational desire to submerge themselves in the alien maternal nation or to submit themselves to the protection of authoritarian fathers, the Jews of the postassimilationist generation might not only liberate themselves but also form the core of an emancipatory movement which would achieve the regeneration of the ideal of a free community of rational egos obeying only self-imposed laws. That Freud perceived an inner connection between his discovery of the psychic unconscious and the oedipal theory and his commitment to the response to anti-Semitic pressure represented by B'nai B'rith is evident from the fact that he first presented his new postseduction, oedipal theories and dream interpretations to meetings of his lodge brothers. For a number of years (1897–1902) the lodge replaced professional medical and academic associations as the primary forum for Freud's “fraternal” relations.64

B'nai B'rith was not the only Jewish organization or fraternity that emerged in Vienna in response to growing anti-Semitism and the apparent collapse of the conditions of social and cultural integration in the 1890s. It would certainly be misleading to construe Freud's experience or response as somehow typical of central European, Austrian, or even Viennese Jews. Generational, social, and cultural factors, in addition to purely personal ones, shaped and particularized Freud's experience as a Jew. First, his experience presupposed an estrangement from traditional pre-emancipation Jewish religion and culture. Although the languages, beliefs, and customs of this tradition maintained a significant hold on the Jewish self-consciousness of his parents, they were not passed on to Freud as a significant part of his inheritance.65 In this sense Freud's experience was substantially different from that of the large number of East European Jews who emigrated to Vienna in the 1880s and 1890s. Second, Freud's experience was decisively formed by the values and aspirations of the era of Austrian liberalism, both the “old” bureaucratic, paternalistic liberalism of the Schmerling ministry (1859–65) and the “new” constitutional, parliamentary, and laissez-faire liberalism of the Dual Monarchy from 1867 to 1879. The political context in which Jewish youths of Freud's generation formed their projects of individual freedom, social status, and cultural integration was experienced and imaginatively idealized as the liberal utopia of an Austrian Rechtsstaat in which status would be the reward of individual merit and interpersonal relations would be regulated by universal, secular, rational, self-imposed laws.66 Finally, an important condition of Freud's Jewish experience was the merger of this liberal politico-legal ideal with the language and culture of the Austro-German bourgeoisie. The alliance between liberal/bourgeois society and politics, on the one hand, and German language and culture, on the other, possessed a long pedigree in Austria, dating back to the Josephine reforms of the eighteenth century, but it produced a problematic association for Freud's generation between the universalistic dimension in their hopes for sociocultural integration and the fate of a national minority in a multinational empire and a social minority in a still predominantly traditional society.

Although such conditioning factors made Freud's Jewish experience particular, this particularity was not eccentric or unique. It was widely shared by members of his generation. Recent studies by Marsha Rozenblit, Ivar Oxaal, Steven Beller, Michael Pollak, and others have tended to validate the impressionistic and often polemical judgments of contemporaries that Jews were disproportionately represented in those socioeconomic groups which comprised the modern segment of the Austrian liberal bourgeoisie and overwhelmingly predominant among its university-educated, professional, and intellectual elites.67 Freud's theory and therapy represented one response among a spectrum of responses constructed by members of his generational cohort of assimilating, university-educated German-Jewish intellectuals to the problem of the increasingly virulent, public, and racially defined anti-Semitism of the 1890s. Although Gay and others have made much of Freud's apparent isolation from other intellectual innovators of Jewish background who helped make turn-of-the-century Vienna a hothouse of cultural modernism, Freud was intensely involved, psychically if not always socially (both in terms of identification and rivalry), with the proponents of alternative theories and therapies within his generational group-including Theodor Herzl, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Viktor Adler, and Heinrich Friedjung.68

If psychoanalysis was not the exclusive or even the predominant expression and resolution of the identity crisis of his generation of Austro-German Jews, it was much more than simply a response to a narrowly defined Jewish identity crisis. For Freud and other members of his generational cohort, the issue of a satisfactory Jewish identity arose only when it was forced upon them by the disintegration of liberal/bourgeois society, politics, and culture. The threatening collapse of the liberal order and the apparent invalidation of the intellectual traditions that had sustained the illusion of that order's metaphysical solidity and historical necessity were inscribed in an especially acute and traumatic way on the bodies and psyches of suffering Jews. The theoretical comprehension and practical cure of Freud's suffering as a Jew was thus inextricably bound up with the analysis and possible cure of liberal politics and culture. The path-breaking work of McGrath and Carl Schorske, which situates the birth of psychoanalysis in the context of the crisis of liberal society and politics, is thus surely on the right track.


Gay is quite willing to attach the labels “liberal” and “bourgeois” to Freud. But he uses these designations in a general, cosmopolitan, and essentially static sense which ultimately makes them irrelevant for an analysis of the specific, dynamic factors that conditioned the formation of psychoanalytic theory. Freud is described as adopting the liberal “world view” of his parents' generation during his youth and remaining loyal to it throughout his life, because “it was congenial to him, and because, as the saying goes, it was good for the Jews” (p. 17). Gay also describes Freud throughout his text as an exemplary or “good” bourgeois in terms of his personal habits and tastes, his sense of propriety and decency in matters of personal privacy and individual morals, his commitment to disciplined work as the primary foundation of individual morals, his commitment to disciplined work as the primary foundation of individual worth, and his unquestioning assumption of the universality of patriarchical relations in marriage and the family. In Gay's massive, multivolume study of the nineteenth-century bourgeois experience (conceived in a cosmopolitan though generally western context) Freud appears constantly as an authoritative commentator on and synthetic theorist and representative of the bourgeois psyche.69 Since Gay is personally committed to the universality of the values embodied in the liberal worldview and the bourgeois way of life, however, he does not perceive his descriptions of Freud as a liberal bourgeois as limiting or historicizing Freud's perspective. In fact, at one point in his earlier study, Gay criticizes Freud for exaggerating the extent and the consequences of instinctual repression in bourgeois culture. It is this momentary lapse into disloyalty to the bourgeois dispensation that appears to Gay as eccentric, personal, and merely “historical.”70 A growing mass of evidence and scholarly analysis in four connected areas of Freud's sociopolitical experience, however, reveals the tenuous defensiveness in Gay's assessment of the relationship between Freud and his liberal/bourgeois context. These areas are (1) the dynamic, changing, “historical” character of Freud's political commitments, (2) the specific historical form of Freud's bourgeois experience and status, (3) the peculiar fate of liberal politics in Austria and Vienna, and (4) the intimate connections between Jewishness and liberalism in Vienna. In each of these areas the evidence seems to suggest a much closer association between Freud's sociopolitical experience and the formation of psychoanalytic theory than Gay is prepared to allow.

McGrath has provided the most convincing and suggestive reconstruction of the dynamic historical character of Freud's relationship to liberal politics. Basing his analysis on recently discovered materials relating to Freud's youth and adolescence, as well as on an intricate reinterpretation of Freud's dreams from the late 1890s, McGrath tells a story not of persistent loyalty to a static position but of defiant generational rebellion, disillusionment, defensive retreat, and inner conflict. The keystone of this account is his reconstruction of the moment of that rebellion during Freud's last years at the Gymnasium and first years at the university (1871–75).71 This revolt against the older generation of liberal fathers had a complex, dual nature: it was directed both against the failure of the liberal fathers to overcome their dependence on state paternalism and deference to aristocratic privilege and against the paternalism and exclusionary elitism of the liberal fathers themselves. The rebellion took public form as a commitment to a populist German nationalism. Evidence that Freud was not a mere fellow traveler but an energetic participant in the nationalist student movement is overwhelming. Gay ignores it completely in his account. Such scholarly amnesia makes it impossible for him to explain or even perceive the problematic aspects of Freud's political consciousness that were produced by his disillusionment with the nationalist position as it became increasingly obvious, especially after 1875, that is was assuming an anti-Semitic component. By the early 1880s, Freud had consciously repressed his German nationalist enthusiasm and retreated—defensively, partially, and tentatively—to the protective paternalism of the “old” liberalism. But the original patricidal and subsequent fratricidal conflicts that emerged from Freud's generational induction into the political world were not resolved. As McGrath reveals in convincing, painstaking chronological detail, the political events of 1897 and 1898 at both the state and municipal levels reactivated Freud's inner conflicts and merged them into his personal filial and fraternal tensions. Freud's self-analysis was thus also an analysis of his history as a political being and his resolution a resolution of his political identity. McGrath argues, following Schorske, that Freud's resolution was in fact “counter-political,” that psychoanalysis reduced the cognitive task of grasping the world of public power and social relations to the psychological knowledge of inner conflicts and transposed the task of creating public order and intersubjective community into the personal therapeutic task of establishing self-mastery and intrasubjective integration—that is, it resolved Freud's political dilemmas by dissolving them into psychological dilemmas.72 However, one could as easily claim that Freud's resolution signified a reconstruction of the foundations of public order and intersubjective community as conceptualized in the German neohumanist tradition of moral and cultural Bildung, in which self-knowledge and self-mastery were not seen as alternatives to order and community but as their necessary conditions.73

The problem of evaluating the political implications of psychoanalysis is connected to the second area of research and controversy concerning the liberal/bourgeois context of Freud's work—the representativeness of his political experience and political conflicts. Aside from his personal habits, private morals, and work ethic, in what sense was Freud a typical bourgeois? How were his particular political itinerary and political dilemmas connected to the social experience of a particular class or significant segment of a class? The agenda for the discussion of these issues has been set to a large extent by Schorske's claim that the marginality and sense of alienation of the modernist cultural innovators (including Freud) in turn-of-the-century Vienna was not defined in negative relation to the bourgeoisie but in identification with it.74 Schorske assumes an inherent connection between the bourgeoisie and liberal politics: separation of church and state, rational public law, constitutional government, free market economy. Only such an assumption could justify the claim that the collapse of liberal politics implied the bourgeoisie's loss of control of its civic or public destiny. The work of John Boyer and Steven Beller, however, has emphasized the need for a complex, inwardly differentiated conceptualization of the Viennese bourgeoisie in order to grasp the trajectory of liberal politics in Freud's environment.75 The first and most obvious distinction that needs to be made is between a modern capitalist bourgeoisie composed of merchants, industrialists, bankers, insurance brokers, investors, and the free professional groups of medical doctors, lawyers, journalists, and writers, on the one hand, and the more traditional bourgeoisie or Mittelstand of urban property holders, state-dependent professionals and civil servants, and the complex congeries of occupational groups engaged in pre- or noncapitalist modes of production, on the other. Moreover, within each of these groups it is useful to distinguish those whose social status was determined primarily by educational qualifications and certification (the Bildungsbürgertum) from those whose status and occupation was connected to the ownership of mobile or immobile property. Although Jakob Freud was not a notably successful merchant or financial speculator, it is clear that Freud's family of origin and his kinship ties place him in the category of the modern capitalist bourgeoisie. His education and career trajectory, however, moved him into the realm of the Bildungsbürgertum and then, when he finally hung out his shingle in 1886, into its “free” professional component. But this general categorization requires some qualification. In his early university years, while he was a member of the German nationalist student organization, Freud clearly distanced himself critically from the capitalist world of his father, joining enthusiastically in the moral critique of the financial wheeling and dealing that accompanied the economic crash of 1873.76 Moreover, Freud originally conceived his future within the traditional definitions of the Bildungsbürgertum, as a teacher and research scientist in the state-dependent system of education and research institutions.77 Even after 1886 an important dimension of his professional life was connected to these institutions. The specificity of Freud's “bourgeois” experience was contextually framed by the transformations and tensions within the Austrian Bildungsbürgertum and its major institutions, especially the university.

When Freud enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1873 the university had just gone through an extended process of liberalizing reform that changed both its sociocultural function and its inner structure. At the center of these changes was the transformation of the university from a corporate collegial body whose primary cultural function was pedagogical—the training of new generations of judges, civil servants, teachers, pastors, and medical doctors, primarily for careers in state-dependent institutions—into a greatly expanded, and increasingly decentralized, research institution in which the general focus (due to governmental policy, social prestige, and financial clout) shifted from training for practical vocations within a classroom setting to specialized scholarly research in seminars, laboratories, and specialized institutes.78 During the 1860s and 1870s the expansion of university faculty and plant was almost exclusively determined by the needs of specialized research in proliferating academic subdisciplines. Parallel to this change was a transformation of the social relations within the university—among students, among faculty, and between students and faculty—which were defined more and more in terms of the competitive individualism and impersonal achievement criteria of an ideal liberal society. The ideal of “freedom of teaching and learning” (Lern- und Lehrfreiheit), an important issue in the 1848 revolutions, had finally been actualized at the University of Vienna in 1872, and it brought noticeable changes in university life.79 The number of students seeking professional certification and the number of untenured faculty pursuing the dream of a full professorship increased enormously during the 1870s (virtually doubling in both cases), and this helped produce an almost immediate backlash by some members of the traditional elites in the Bildungsbürgertum (both faculty and students) who felt threatened by the new competition from previously excluded social and ethnic groups and hoped to limit enrollments and professional certifications.80 It was in this context that Freud had his first decisive encounters with anti-Semitism—not as an irrational action of the vulgar mob, but as a regressive reaction by groups within the traditional liberal educated classes and as a betrayal of liberal ideals within the institutions of science and humanistic learning.81 The tensions produced by this encounter were to fester in Freud's psyche for years and were constantly reenforced by his experiences in the public institutions of the Austro-German educated bourgeoisie throughout the 1880s and 1890s, coming to a head in 1897 over the issue of his promotion to a full professorship at the university.82

The specificity of Freud's bourgeois experience in the context of the transformation of the Austro-German Bildungsbürgertum, however, did not isolate him from the broader transformation and collapse of Viennese liberalism in the 1890s. On the contrary, Freud's particular experiences mirrored and recapitulated the general social, political, and ethnic tensions that impelled liberalism's collapse—at least this seems to be the implication of John Boyer's doggedly detailed explication of Viennese municipal politics in the 1890s. Three aspects of Boyer's analysis are especially relevant for an understanding of Freud's political context. First, he reveals that the social groups that sustained the Liberal Era at the state level as well as the Liberal hegemony in Vienna into the 1890s were drawn from the traditional Bürgertum of Bildung and Besitz—that is, state-dependent civil servants and teachers and property-owning urban notables. While some of the liberal leaders and most of their cultural spokesmen (especially in the press) were socially situated within, or in close alliance with, the new capitalist and free professional groups, these groups did not have a significant role in the actual voting constituencies of liberal politics, a problem exaggerated by the traditionalist voting qualifications of the three electoral colleges or curia that decided the fate of municipal politics.83 Second, Boyer recounts in convincing detail how the collapse of Liberal hegemony in Vienna in the 1890s was produced through the mobilization of the interests and fears of the traditional bourgeoisie by the anti-Liberal program of the Christian Social Party under the leadership of Karl Lueger. “Liberalism was not so much destroyed from without,” he insists, “as it was undermined from within by social groups who … had formerly belonged to its most loyal and trusted cadres.”84 The critical moment in this inner erosion occurred in the municipal elections of the mid-1890s, when Lueger's Christian Socials gained the decisive support of the civil servants and teachers of the second curia and finally even that of the property-owning Hausherren of the first curia. Lueger was able to draw these traditionally liberal groups into an antiliberal alliance with the discontented artisans of the third curia through an antisocialist program that redirected the anticapitalist sentiments of the traditional Bürgertum into clerical and anti-Semitic ideology. Boyer contends that this new coalition of the old “unitary Bürgertum” of the early nineteenth century was not a modern mass party on the fascist model but a regression, at least in part, to a patriarchal and paternalistic political style. Lueger was not a Führer but a Vater, even when he manipulated the unconscious fears and anxieties of his constituents in order to sustain his patriarchal power.85

Third, Boyer argues that the Liberal leadership failed to maintain its hold on its traditional constituencies because of its own internal weaknesses and self-serving illusions. The Liberal leaders betrayed their own ideals by resisting the extension of political power beyond the circle of traditional notables and by depending on the support of the dynastic ruler to maintain their privileged position. Their moment of truth came when their own “father” figure—Emperor Franz Josef—finally (in 1896) ignored their pleas and confirmed Lueger's election. Boyer's account thus suggests that Freud's experience of the inner collapse of Liberalism within the institutions and associations of the Viennese Bildungsbürgertum (especially in medicine and science) conformed to a general pattern of disintegration within his broader political context. The liberal ideal of a society of free individuals bound together by conscious affirmation of self-imposed rational law was never securely grounded, but it was sustained as an illusion under paternal protection. It was thus open to erosion from within—from fears, anxieties, and dependencies that had never been mastered. Freud's psychoanalytic breakthrough of 1897 thus also takes on a new light. It appears not so much as an escape from the public world as an insight into the sources of the collapse of that world into infantile dependencies on father figures and into regressive, symptomatic behavior fueled by repressed but never mastered unconscious desires.

However, Boyer's analysis also seems to counter the widespread contemporary belief in a close association between Viennese liberal-bourgeois politics and Jewish ethnicity. The Viennese liberal party during its years of political dominance, he insists, was never a “party of the Jews.” Because of the curial voting system and control of governing institutions by traditional notables, “the Jewish vote and Jewish candidates were not a major force in Viennese liberalism.”86 However, Stephen Beller's analysis of a particular segment of the Viennese liberal bourgeoisie provides a rather different picture of the relationship between class and ethnicity and political commitments. Within the modern capitalist sector of the bourgeoisie, Jews were disproportionately represented. Although constituting only 10 percent of the population during the last decades of the nineteenth century, Jews constituted more than a third of those engaged in trade, industry, and transport, and by the end of the century Jews were in the majority in the free professions of law, medicine, and journalism. Through a statistical analysis of the social origins and career trajectories of Gymnasium graduates between 1870 and 1910, Beller has constructed a convincing case for virtually identifying as an ethnically homogeneous Jewish group those members of the liberal bourgeoisie whose family origins were in the capitalist sector and who themselves chose the educational route to sociocultural assimilation, establishing their careers in the non-state-dependent sector of the educated Bürgertum. Freud's experience was thus typical of a particular segment of the liberal bourgeoisie—the German-speaking educated professionals—but in the Viennese context this social experience was “shared to an almost exclusive degree by persons of Jewish background.”87 The fate not only of political liberalism but of German neohumanist culture and its universalist ethical and scientific claims thus seemed for Freud inextricably entangled with his particular fate as an emancipated, “atheistic” Jew. The broader intellectual context for Freud's turn in 1897 was that of the philosophical/scientific traditions of this German Bildungselite.


Paralleling his treatment of the possible Jewish and liberal/bourgeois contexts of Freud's intellectual development, Gay conceives Freud's primary intellectual or theoretical context in terms of a life-long, persistent, and consistent commitment to the assumptions, procedures, and goals of empirical and analytically rational, or “positivist,” science. Although Gay traces the origins of this scientific tradition back to the Anglo-French Enlightenment, he presents it as essentially static, cosmopolitan, and universal. Freud's commitment to this scientific tradition, which he inherited in systematic and self-conscious form from his teachers at the Vienna Medical School, defined his root-and-branch, life-long opposition to all forms of religious belief, metaphysical speculation, and mythopoeic thinking.88 In order to sustain this view, however, Gay, as in his treatment of other possible contextual determinants of the origins of psychoanalysis, must ignore or dismiss a large and growing body of evidence which indicates (1) that Freud's scientific inheritance was historically particular and culture-bound, grounded in specific philosophical assumptions and possessing specific ethical and/or ideological implications; (2) that during the time of Freud's scientific apprenticeship this tradition was both inwardly troubled by contradictions and unresolved questions and outwardly threatened in its hegemonic, normative status by alternative perspectives; (3) that Freud's relationship to his scientific inheritance was dynamic, inwardly conflicted, and informed by his need and/or desire to resolve its problematic or contradictory aspects; and finally (4) that the breakthrough to the psychoanalytic perspective in 1897 entailed a transformative remaking of Freud's scientific inheritance with significant philosophical and ethical implications. Reading Freud as a thinker grappling with “philosophical” problems like the relationship between nature and culture, objective process and subjective meaning, experience and language, material force and psychological desire, or as a moralist intensely concerned with both the critical analysis of the limiting conditions and the practical search for the enabling conditions of human autonomy and self-mastery, is not particularly novel, and such readings have become more numerous and influential in recent decades as Freud is emancipated more and more from the confines of the psychoanalytic “movement.”89 What is novel in some of the current scholarship, although I must admit this trend is still in its rudimentary stages, is the accumulation of evidence that such readings of Freud's texts need not necessarily be construed as speculative constructions based on current perspectives Freud did not and could not have shared, as Gay seems to think, but can be connected to the actual historical formation of Freudian theory and integrated into a reconstruction of Freud's intellectual development.

It has become conventional in Freudian scholarship, since the research into Freud's scientific education by Sigmund Bernfeld in the 1940s and the incorporation of the results of this research into Jones's authoritative biography in the 1950s, to introduce discussion of Freud's scientific context with a description of the “biophysical reductionism” he absorbed from his most revered teacher and scientific mentor, the physiologist Ernst Brücke. Brücke, a Prussian Protestant who had emigrated to Vienna in the 1850s, had originally developed the biophysical reductionist perspective in the 1840s in association with his north German contemporaries Hermann Helmholtz, Carl Ludwig, and Emil Dubois-Reymond.90 By the time Freud entered the university in 1873 the perspective of what is sometimes called the “Helmholtz School” had become the scientific orthodoxy taught and practiced in major universities and research institutes throughout German-speaking central Europe.91 Biophysical reductionism began as a critique of the vitalism, holism, and teleology of a Romantic biology grounded in the idealist metaphysics of Schelling's Naturphilosophie, and it claimed that organic as well as inorganic nature could be scientifically comprehended only in terms of the mechanical relations of attraction and repulsion between material particles, as masses in motion. It is misleading to assimilate this tradition to the empiricism and positivism of the Anglo-American tradition deriving from Locke, Hume, and Mill. As even a cursory reading of the reductionists' writings makes obvious, they grounded their claims on philosophical arguments derived from Kant about the a priori conditions for the comprehensibility of nature.92 A number of implications follow from recognition of this Kantian framework, a framework consistently and publicly articulated by the leading reductionists and one of which Freud was certainly cognizant.93 First, Freud's scientific inheritance was clearly not materialist, as Gay occasionally claims (pp. 34–35). The reductionists defined matter and force as mental representations of the ultimately unknowable and unexperienced “things-in-themselves.” Although they did not perceive the world of masses and forces as created by the conscious subject of knowledge, they did understand the formation, synthesis, and shaping of the signs of things into an organized world as an act of consciousness. Real materialists (like Ludwig Büchner, Jacob Moleschott, and Karl Vogt) were quite ready to denounce members of the Helmholtz School as Kantian idealists because of their insistence that reality was subjectively constituted, and the reductionists in turn attacked materialism as an ethically pernicious metaphysical ideology which undermined the foundations of human freedom and cultural values.94 It is important to keep in mind that the reductionists' reductionism was limited to nature; the scientific comprehensibility and thus mechanical determination of acts of consciousness was not at issue. They remained “polar” thinkers in the Kantian tradition whose attempts to dissolve the distinction between organic and inorganic nature seemed only to make the distinction between nature and consciousness more radical and complete.

It would also be misleading to describe Freud's scientific inheritance as “positivist” if positivism is defined as the restriction of scientific investigation to the description, categorization, and lawful ordering of the phenomena present in experience. The reductionists saw their principle task as the explanation of phenomena on the basis of the masses in motion that made these phenomena possible but that were not themselves present in experience. The world of facts was not coherent or comprehensible in itself, and it became so only when it could be brought into relation to the represented forces and masses that were posited as existing behind or beyond it. Descriptions of the hidden reality of things in themselves, however, had to remain hypothetical, open to continual testing, to ensure that they retained their capacity to make phenomena intelligible.95

The general principles of biophysical reductionism were not the product of empirical discoveries but were derived from a philosophical commitment to the Kantian model of the relationship between appearance and reality, fact and value, object and subject, necessity and freedom. It makes no sense to say, as Jones did and Gay still does, that Freud's theoretical creativity consisted in applying biophysical principles to psychical phenomena, to an expansion of positivist scientific principles to a new field of experience.96 The neo-Kantian principles of the reductionists had in fact already been applied to the phenomena of inner perception long before Freud began his studies.97 In the Kantian framework it was not of great moment whether or not the reality behind appearances was an “inner” or an “outer” reality. But the psychological dimension within the neo-Kantian framework did present some peculiar difficulties and tensions. It was easy enough to conceive the facts of inner perception as “appearances” of psychic processes whose explanation required a representation of the hidden reality of forces and masses that made them possible, but how was one to grasp the knowing subject to which appearances were present or given and which undertook the acts of representation? Did the existence of a constituting, active subject of knowledge and voluntary action also imply the existence of a transcendent, supernatural world in which it was somehow grounded? Or was it possible to somehow “naturalize” the Kantian transcendental ego, to investigate the knowing, acting subject as a part or product of the natural, objective world? During the period of Freud's scientific apprenticeship in the 1870s and 1880s, such questions were a source of debate and tension within both the scientific and the broader academic world.98 Some of the original reductionists like Helmholtz and Brücke had extended their investigation of “nature” to the processes of perception through which the world was spatially constituted—that is, to an attempt to naturalize Kant's transcendental aesthetic.99 To go beyond this, however, to naturalize the transcendental analytic as well, seemed to threaten the autonomy and universality of both theoretical reason (science) and practical reason (morals). Yet some of the reductionists' contemporaries were clearly ready to test the limits of the reductionists' reductionism, especially in the wake of the Darwinian revolution that appeared to provide a scientific basis for conceiving the subjective, “spiritual,” cultural dimension of human existence as a part or product of nature.100 Attempts to naturalize completely the human subject of scientific knowledge, moral action, or cultural meaning remained on the fringes of academic life and official science. However, during Freud's student years two rather divergent philosophical positions critical of orthodox Kantian transcendental philosophy attained a visible presence at the university. Arthur Schopenhauer's post-Kantian metaphysics—his theory of the Kantian thing-in-itself as a universal, dynamic, unconscious will for which individual moral autonomy, the categories of rational thought, and the whole world of cultural forms and values were merely ephemeral objectifications in an eternal natural cosmic process—gained a number of significant adherents among academic insiders, including Freud's revered teacher, the neurologist and brain anatomist Theodor Meynert.101 Moreover, the arrival in Vienna in early 1874 of the German philosophical psychologist and lapsed Catholic priest Franz Brentano gave immediate vitality to a rather different alternative to orthodox neo-Kantianism. Brentano certainly had no intention of “naturalizing” the Kantian subject of knowledge and morals, but he did reject the Kantian notion of a priori forms of thought and of the transcendental ego that sustained and synthesized these forms. Instead he proffered a neo-Aristotelian conception of the scientifically comprehensible, empirically investigable reality of the spiritual subject. Empirical “scientific” knowledge of the intentional acts of consciousness was to replace Kant's transcendental analytics as the secure ground for belief in the immortality of the spirit, the existence of God, and an ordered totality in nature and history.102

The extent of Freud's youthful interest and personal involvement in such “philosophical” questions has only recently come to light, although there has long existed enough scattered, fragmentary evidence to encourage speculation.103 It is now possible to reconstruct Freud's relationship to the philosophical/scientific currents in his intellectual environment, and especially to the controversy over the naturalization of the Kantian transcendental subject, according to a number of distinct phases. During his first years at the university, Freud, in the company of his radical student peers in the nationalist student movement, was drawn to a “materialist” position, a form of monistic naturalism derived from a merger of the Left Hegelian humanistic naturalism of Ludwig Feuerbach with contemporary trends in Darwinian evolutionary biology. The reading in Feuerbach, whom he described to a friend in 1875 as the thinker whom he honored and admired “more than any other philosopher,” seems particularly to have fueled his antireligious radicalism and set the framework for his life-long tendency to interpret religious beliefs as psychological projections of the tensions and conflicts of natural human subjectivity into an illusory world of “supernatural” beings.104 Freud's commitment to philosophical naturalism was reenforced by his absorption in comparative zoology under the guidance of Carl Claus, an enthusiastic popularizer and elaborator of the theories of Darwin and Haeckel (whom Freud counted among his “modern saints”),105 who had come to Vienna from Göttingen in 1873. During his second year at the university, however, Freud also came under the intellectual influence of Brentano. Between 1874 and 1876 Freud enrolled in five courses with Brentano, including seminars in logic, philosophical psychology, and metaphysics, and he even considered switching out of the medical faculty in order to complete a dual doctorate in zoology and philosophy as a basis for a career in academic teaching.106 Clearly Freud was greatly attracted not only by Brentano's charismatic, prophetic personal presence (an attraction undoubtedly enhanced by Brentano's spectacular public confrontations with the Catholic church) but also by his philosophical project—the transformation of the philosophy of the active, conscious subject of knowledge and morals into an empirical science of acts of consciousness. But Freud was also wary of Brentano's science of the soul—of his attempts to define the spirit as a legitimate object of scientific investigation—because of some of the consequences, like the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, that Brentano derived from his empirical observations of the subject's conscious acts. However, Freud's confidence in the ability of a monistic naturalism to explain all aspects of human experience was shaken by consideration of alternative explanatory perspectives. Once he admitted the possibility of an autonomous spiritual reality and the existence of God, he wrote to a friend, he quickly found himself on a “slippery slope” that might easily lead to the acceptance of spiritual causes for a whole variety of psychic phenomena.107 During his first years at the university, therefore, Freud saw himself as inwardly wavering between “materialist” and “theistic” resolutions of the Kantian dualism between appearances and things-in-themselves and between naturalist and spiritualist “sciences” of the constituting subject. His dilemma was intensified by the ethical and ideological implications that appeared, at least in the eyes of many of his contemporaries, to be connected to such metaphysical choices, that is, commitments to either a collective racial subject or a supernatural divine subject as the foundation for communal order and ethical norms.

Instead of choosing between the simultaneously threatening and seductive resolutions of materialism and theism, however, Freud chose to take a moratorium and retreat to the refuge of the orthodox neo-Kantianism of the older generation of Brücke and the Helmholtz School, in which the autonomy of the subject of rational thought and moral action was assumed but not placed under scrutiny. In 1876 Freud abandoned his plans for a double doctorate in zoology and philosophy and for the next six years found a second home in Brücke's physiological laboratory and a second father in this strict proponent of Kantian duty and self-discipline.108 In Brücke's institute Freud found “peace and complete satisfaction” among men “whom I could respect and take as models.”109 Here he felt “emancipated from all other desires” and experienced the “happiest hours” of his university years.110 But this sense of peace and emancipation was illusory and ephemeral, as he later admitted. The dilemmas that had drawn him toward philosophy and pushed him to pursue the materialist and theist alternatives to neo-Kantianism had not been resolved. His impulse toward metaphysical speculation was “ruthlessly checked,”111 but the questions that had driven him toward metaphysics had not been answered. Even during his six-year stint in Brücke's institute he continued to find himself drawn toward philosophical readings and discussions which addressed the issue of the relationship between the subjective reality of conscious activity and the objective world of “masses in motion.” In 1882 he purchased and extensively annotated a copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and as he entered into medical practice after 1882 he found himself irresistibly drawn to precisely those aspects of human pathology in which his philosophical dilemmas seemed most obviously illustrated or embodied—the psychoneuroses. Years later he described his long period of neurological and psychiatric practice in the 1880s and early 1890s as a “detour” and a “long and roundabout journey” which led him back to his “earliest path” and “original ambition”: the philosophical understanding of “the riddles of the world in which we live.”112 This philosophical understanding was articulated in what Freud after 1895 came to call his “metapsychology”—the theory of the invisible “deeper” reality, the “in-itself” of the phenomenal psyche, the hidden structure and energies which provided the explanatory framework for his clinical interpretations.

During the months of the fall and winter of 1895–96 in which Freud developed and elaborated the seduction theory he also worked on a metapsychology that would provide the theoretical frame for his clinical descriptions. In October of 1895 he sent off an ambitious, but fragmentary and unfinished, “Project for a Scientific Psychology” to Fliess. Since the discovery and publication of this “Project” in 1950 it has become a major source of misconceptions concerning Freud's scientific aims and background as well as the continuity and discontinuity in his intellectual development. Although the “project” contains an ingenious adaptation of contemporary neuron theory to the mechanistic model of psychic functioning, it remains, as Freud admitted, firmly embedded within the framework of scientific explanation inherited from his teachers. Freud's loyalty to Brücke's neo-Kantian biophysical reductionism was clearly expressed in his opening claim that for psychology to attain the status of a natural science it would have to “represent psychical processes as quantitatively determined states of specifiable material particles.”113

The reality to which the statements of the “Project” referred was not the manifest, “positive” flow of phenomena given to consciousness, but a hidden reality of quantifiable energies and material particles which was posited or inferred as the necessary explanatory ground for experienced phenomena. Following Brücke's lead, Freud inferred that the representation of reality in terms of particles and forces in mechanical relations was the necessary condition for the intelligibility of nature, and thus of any theoretical activity claiming the status of a natural science. In 1895–96 Freud did not differentiate phenomena of inner and outer experience or the inner and outer reality that made these phenomena possible. There was only one reality worthy of being the object of science. The operations of the psychical apparatus described in the “Project” were all explained within this framework. The psyche was presented as an energy-processing mechanism composed of systems of particles whose aim was to maintain energetic equilibrium and that evolved from a simple reflex function to a complex secondary process capable of inhibition, attention, thought, etc., in response to the demands of inner and outer excitation. The reality that was the object of these descriptions, Freud insisted, was “unconscious”:

A postulate by which we have all along been guided at once becomes explicit. We have been treating psychical processes as something that can dispense with being known by consciousness, something that exists independently of it. … The whole of these processes are to be regarded in the first instance as unconscious and are to be inferred in the same way as other natural phenomena.114

The problem that ultimately forced Freud to abandon the model of the “Project,” at least in its all-inclusive form, was the difficulty of describing the emergence of conscious memory, language, and self-consciousness in terms of “unconscious” psychic processes defined as objective mechanical relations.115

After the collapse of the seduction theory Freud returned to the problems of metapsychological construction from a new, broader perspective, and in the last chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams he presented a complex model of the structure and dynamics of the psychical apparatus which articulated his recent discovery of the two-dimensional character of “reality.” At one level of analysis Freud continued to conceptualize psychic operations as part of the objective event-processes of “nature”—as energy-processing mechanisms—and thus repeated many of the formulations of the “Project.” This apparent residue of his prepsychoanalytic model expressed what was in fact his permanent conviction that the origin and ultimate substratum of all psychic operations was the physical process of energy accumulation and discharge, most simply articulated in the model of the reflex arc.116 The psyche as subjective activity, as wish or desire with specific aims and intended objects, emerged from and was grounded in the psyche as object, and thus the model of the psychical apparatus as a piece of nature continued to maintain its relevance. The predominant and novel foci of Freud's metapsychological constructions in The Interpretation of Dreams, however, were the attempts to provide a theoretical framework (a complex amalgam of topographical, temporal/genetic, and dynamic models) for the interpretation of certain psychic phenomena as the disguised representations of unconscious wishes or desires—of what we might call “unconscious subjectivity”—and the reconstruction of the “rhetorical” operations or “work” (figural representation, displacement, condensation, secondary revision) through which unconscious desire produced the phenomenal text given to consciousness. Like the objective unconscious “reality” of the “Project,” the unconscious subjective “reality” of the Interpretation was a constructed, posited reality, inferred in the latter case from the interpreted meanings rather than the observed “external” motions of manifest phenomena.117 Although not fully articulated until the “Metapsychological Papers” of 1912–15, the notion of the dynamic, subjective unconscious was clearly present in the Interpretation, whose metapsychology thus conformed to the transformation expressed in the move from the seduction to the oedipal theories. What this metapsychology attempted was a theoretical construction of the structure and dynamics of the hidden psychic reality of unconscious desire in order to illuminate the sufferings and self-deceptions of the conscious enculturated human psyche that had lost possession of its own history and failed to achieve mastery in its own house—that is, to provide a meaningful interpretation and causal explanation of the manifest phenomenal content of Freud's personal and historical/cultural world.

The revisions of Freud's metapsychology between 1895 and 1900 can be described within the general framework of his neo-Kantian inheritance as a shift in focus from the psyche as an object in the world present to conscious experience to the nature and genesis of the constituting subject of experience (what Kant had called the transcendental ego), which provides order and value to the phenomenal world and is the originating center of moral judgement and action within that world. Freud's new science of the psychic reality of unconscious subjectivity “naturalized” the Kantian transcendental subject by providing what he described as the “intermediary between biology and psychology” or the “missing link” between the body and conscious mental activity or “spirit.”118 It thus seemed to make possible an immanent account of the genesis of meaningful, symbolically mediated, encultured human activity and consciousness from the objective processes of “nature.” Like Kant's analysis of the a priori structures of pure reason, Freud's analysis of the genesis and structure of subjective desire is a critique, revealing the repressive limitations within which human beings must subjectively live their desire in a world (both natural and cultural) that ultimately denies its satisfaction. But, as in Kant's case, Freud's analysis has a practical, therapeutic, and moral intent: to recognize and establish the conditions for mastering, or at least managing, ourselves as desiring human beings without self-deceiving illusion; to recognize the limits but also create the enabling conditions of rational autonomy.

Before I am accused of reducing Freud's intellectual achievements to a chapter in post-Kantian German philosophy, let me add a few qualifications. Freud himself was clearly convinced (a conviction that intensified as he grew older) that philosophy as a professional discipline was hopelessly culturally conservative—because of both its narrow definition of psychic life as consciousness and its inveterate tendency to fabricate consoling and deceptive visions of meaningful totalities. It was thus incapable of addressing, much less resolving, the pressing issues of human existence. Like Marx and Nietzsche, Freud denigrated philosophy as a diluted secular theology and saw philosophers as self-deceived believers or idol worshipers who abased themselves before their own mental projections. Even the most “up-to-date” metaphysical systems, Freud insisted, were “nothing but attempts to find a substitute for the ancient, useful and all-sufficient church catechism.”119 His perception of metaphysics as an “abuse of thinking,” he noted, alienated him from the mainstream of “German cultural life.”120 At the same time, however, Freud, again like Marx and Nietzsche, believed that his science grasped the immanent, natural human truth of religious and metaphysical illusions, that it appropriated their content while dissolving their form. In 1901 he wrote:

I believe that a large part of the mythological view of the world, which extends a long way into modern religions, is nothing but psychology projected into the external world. The obscure recognition … of psychical factors and relations in the unconscious is mirrored … in the construction of a supernatural reality which is destined to be changed back once more by science into the psychology of the unconscious. One could venture to explain in this way the myths of paradise and the fall of man, of God, of good and evil, of immortality and so on, and to transform metaphysics into metapsychology.121

The Feuerbachian echoes in this reduction of metaphysics to metapsychology indicate how much the formulation of Freud's psychoanalytic project in the late 1890s remained indebted to the general framework of the post-Kantian German intellectual tradition. Reading Freud's texts in terms of the problematic of the “subject,” of the natural and historical genesis as well as the conflicted and constructed nature of encultured human subjectivity, is thus not an anachronistic imposition of present concerns on the historical Freud but a return to the historical problematic and intellectual/cultural context in which and from which those texts were created. Historicizing psychoanalysis does not necessarily entail a reductive antiquarianism but can broaden the range of discourse and the framework of dialogue connecting us with the historical Freud so that it can encompass philosophical phenomenologists from Ludwig Binswanger to Paul Ricoeur, critical theorists from Theodor Adorno to Juergen Habermas, French structuralists and poststructuralists from Jacques Lacan to Jacques Derrida, anthropological, linguistic, feminist, and many other Freudianisms whose analyses and concerns often seem more in touch with the dilemmas that instigated psychoanalysis historically than do the narrow scientific and psychiatric concerns of those whom Gay would like to recognize as Freud's legitimate heirs. In this sense the historian of psychoanalysis can open rather than close the dialogue between past and present. Moreover, reconstructing the historical context of psychoanalysis's origins also reveals that the issues it addressed were as much practical as intellectual, ethical as medical, political as purely personal. From this perspective our dialogue with the historical Freud may also instigate a process of self-reflection, revealing the experiential origins and practical implications of readings of Freud for “our time” and perhaps even aiding us in the task of constructing a world in which the pathology of self-seduction will no longer determine our search for the seducer.


  1. In many ways the portrait of Freud in the new biography (as distinct from the description of the psychoanalytic movement) is an elaboration of positions set out in summary form in Peter Gay's “Sigmund Freud: A German and His Discontents,” in Gay's Freud, Jews, and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture (Oxford and New York, 1978), pp. 29–92, which is itself a revised version of “Introduction: Freud: For the Marble Tablet,” in Berggasse 19: Sigmund Freud's Home and Offices, Vienna 1938: The Photographs of Edmund Engelman (New York, 1976). Gay's conception of Freud as the “last philosophe,” however, was already present in his earlier studies of the Enlightenment. See, e.g., Peter Gay, The Party of Humanity: Essays in the French Enlightenment (New York, 1964), p. 270, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, vol. 2, The Science of Freedom (New York, 1969), p. 166. In the acknowledgments to Freud for Historians (Oxford and New York, 1985), Gay traces his interest in rehabilitating Freud's scientific stature to the mid-1960s (p. 239).

  2. See esp. chaps. 2 (“The Claims of Freud”) and 3 (“Human Nature in History,” pp. 42–115). In this work, as in Freud, Gay appeals especially to Paul Kline, Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory (1972; 2d ed., London, 1981) to justify his confidence in the empirical verifiability of Freud's claims. His dismissal of the hermeneutic interpretation of Freud may be grounded on the detailed critique of Ricoeur and Habermas in Adolf Grünbaum, The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984), although Gay clearly cannot follow Grünbaum in his curt dismissal of Kline's attempts to provide empirical grounding for Freud's theories (pp. 188–89).

  3. The broad and complex range of hermeneutic interpretations of Freudian theory, including an important wing within the psychoanalytic establishment, is hardly addressed with this personalized comment. For an insider's position, see George Klein, Psychoanalytic Theory (New York, 1976). A very clear, jargon-free, convincing reading (by a historian) of the Freudian texts as presenting a theory of historical hermeneutics has recently been provided by Michael Roth, Psychoanalysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud (Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1987), esp, pp. 33–95.

  4. Gay, Freud for Historians, p. 49.

  5. Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 3 vols. (New York and London, 1953–57). Aside from his claim that Jones overrated Freud's mature serenity and misread his relationship to his mother, Gay criticizes the Jones biography for separating the man from the work (pp. 743–44). But such separation is also a critical aspect of Gay's attempts to decontextualize Freud.

  6. Jones's importance in the construction of the “scientific” Freud whom Gay hopes to reconstruct has become the object of recent attention. See esp. the revealing essays by Malcolm Pines, Riccardo Steiner, and Darius Gray Ornston, Jr., on Jones's standardization of Freudian language in Edward Timms and Naomi Segal, eds., Freud in Exile: Psychoanalysis and Its Vicissitudes (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1988), pp. 177–209.

  7. Gay, Freud for Historians, p. 78.

  8. Freud, “Kurzer Abriss der Psychoanalyse,” in Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke (GW), 19 vols. (London, 1940–87), 13:404, “Ueber Psychoanalyse,” in GW, 8:3 ff., and “Zur Geschichte der Psychoanalytische Bewegung,” in GW, 10:44–45.

  9. Freud, “Zur Aetiologie der Hysterie,” in GW, 1:439, 443 (Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey, 24 vols. [London, 1953–74], 3:203, 206–7). Although I have used the German edition throughout, I have often consulted the Standard Edition (SE) for translated passages. Such passages will hereafter be cited in both editions. The seduction theory was also stated in two of Freud's other articles from the same time period: “Weitere Bernerkungen über die Abwehrpsychosen,” and “L'hérédité et l'étiologie des névroses,” in GW, 1:377–422. The phrase “mehrtausendjaehriges Problem” is from a letter to W. Fliess from April 26/28, published in The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887–1904, trans. and ed. Jeffrey M. Masson (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1985), p. 184, hereafter Freud/Fliess, in which Freud also complained of the icy reception his lectures has received from the “asses” of the psychiatric establishment, including Krafft-Ebing, who had stated that “es klingt wie ein wissenschaftliches Märchen.” Interestingly enough, Freud himself presented his theory to Fliess on January 1, 1896, as “a Christmas Fairy Tale” (Freud/Fliess, p. 162). Freud's first clear articulations of the seduction theory occurred in letters to Fliess of October 8 and 15, 1895 (Freud/Fliess, pp. 141, 144).

  10. Freud/Fliess, pp. 172, 180.

  11. Ibid., pp. 264–65.

  12. Freud, “Selbstdarstellung” (1925), in GW, 14:59–60. Two significant differences between Freud's later accounts and his contemporary statements about the seduction theory are noteworthy. In 1895–96 he did not focus on the father as the seducer (in fact, the father was never specifically named as the seducer in Freud's published essays of 1896–97). The view of the seduction theory as an account that blamed the father evolved only after the father began to loom large in the incipient oedipal theory in the summer/fall of 1897. Second, Freud did not state that his patients actually told him stories of seduction. The seduction scenes were laboriously constructed from indirect and fragmentary evidence and usually rejected by the patients themselves. In 1895 Freud considered the patients' resistance to the story an important confirmation of its truth.

  13. Freud/Fliess, p. 266.

  14. Freud, “Zur Aetiologie der Hysterie,” pp. 441–42 (SE, 3:205). See also “Weitere Bemerkungen,” p. 383.

  15. Freud, “Zur Geschiechte der psychoanalytische Bewegung,” p. 55.

  16. Freud/Fliess, p. 230 (February 8), pp. 243–44 (May 16), p. 249 (May 25).

  17. Ibid., p. 265.

  18. Various terms used by Freud in his retrospective accounts: “Zur Geschichte der psychoanalytische Bewegung,” p. 56; “Selbstdarstellung,” p. 60; “Psychoanalyse und Libidotheorie,” in GW, 13:220.

  19. The method of encouraging recall of unconscious memories by placing hands on the patient's forehead and asking for total concentration was developed simultaneously with the construction of the seduction theory. The ability of this method to overcome resistances and evasions in uncovering the truth was confidently proclaimed in Freud's 1896 lecture:

    Doubts about the genuineness of the infantile sexual scenes can, however, be deprived of their force. … The behavior of patients while they are reproducing these infantile experiences is in every respect incompatible with the assumption that the scenes are anything else than a reality which is being felt with distress and reproduced with the greatest reluctance. Before they come for analysis the patients know nothing about these scenes. They are indignant as a rule if we warns them that such scenes are going to emerge. Only the strongest compulsion of the treatment can induce them to embark on a reproduction of them.

    (“Zur Aetiologie der Hysterie,” p. 440; SE. 3:204)

  20. Freud/Fliess, p. 240.

  21. Ibid., pp. 239, 247.

  22. This point is emphasized with profuse examples in Robert A. Paul “Freud and the Seduction Theory: A Critical Examination of Masson's The Assault on Truth,”Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 8 (1985): 161–87.

  23. Freud, “Bruchstück einer Hysterie-Analyse,” in GW, 5:161 ff.

  24. Freud, “Die Sexualität in der Aetiologie der Neurosen,” in GW, 1:511 (SE, 3:280).

  25. Freud, “Bruchstück,” p. 164. Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. Philip Rieff (New York, 1963), p. 22.

  26. Ibid., p. 278; Freud, Dora, p. 136.

  27. Freud, “Meine Absichten über die Rolle der Sexualität in der Aetiologie der Neurosen,” in GW, 5:154–55. The theory of sexuality as libido with a history was first articulated in systematic detail in Freud's “Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie,” in GW, 5:27 ff., published in 1905. Freud's shift from a physicalist, mechanistic conception of the body to a biogenetic, dynamic Darwinian conception is chronicled at great length in Frank Sulloway, Freud: Biologist of the Mind (New York, 1979)—unfortunately, in the context of an extremely one-sided, reductionist account of Freudian theory as a crypto-biology.

  28. Freud, “Meine Absichten,” p. 156.

  29. Freud/Fliess (n. 9 above), p. 272.

  30. Jones describes it as a virtually unimaginable, “Heroic” achievement in his Life (n. 5 above), 1:319.

  31. In “Sigmund Freud: A German and His Discontents” (n. 1 above), Gay's account was still very much in the style of the “cherished” piece of psychoanalytic myth; see esp. p. 83.

  32. Freud, “Die Traumdeutung,” in GW, 2–3:x (SE, 4–5:xxvi).

  33. Freud had begun the diagnosis of his own symptoms as an expression of psychoneuroses in the spring of 1897. By August he wrote Fliess: “The chief patient I am preoccupied with is myself” (Freud/Fliess, p. 261). Accounts of Freud's analysis as a self cure can be found in Jones, 1:319–27; Didier Anzieu, L'Autoanalyse (Paris, 1959); Max Schur, Freud, Living and Dying (New York, 1966), pp. 93–222.

  34. Marianne Krüll, Freud and His Father, trans. A. J. Pomerans (New York and London, 1986); Marie Balmary, Psychoanalyzing Psychoanalysis: Freud and the Hidden Fault of the Father, trans. N. Lukacher (Baltimore and London, 1982). Both books were originally published, in German and French respectively, in 1979.

  35. See esp. Krüll, pp. 54 ff.

  36. William J. McGrath, Freud's Discovery of Psychoanalysis: The Politics of Hysteria (Ithaca, N.Y., and London, 1986), pp. 60 ff., 207 ff.

  37. McGrath, Discovery, pp. 188–89, 205–7.

  38. There is a lengthy critical analysis of the Breuer/Freud estrangement in Sulloway, pp. 70–100. The materials for this partial vindication of Breuer are presented in Albrecht Hirschmüller, Physiologie und Psychoanalyse im Leben und Werk Josef Breuers (Bern, 1978).

  39. An extended and sympathetic treatment of Fliess's theory constitutes a major component of Sulloway's argument, pp. 135–237.

  40. This case was first critically analyzed by Schur, pp. 79–84, and became the centerpiece of the attack on Freud's motives for abandoning the seduction theory in Jeffrey M. Masson, The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory (New York, 1985), pp. 55–106.

  41. McGrath, Discovery, pp.