Exile is the best school of dialectics.
Peter Gay emigrated from Germany when he was a teenager and worked his way through the American academic system, taking a doctorate at Columbia University and then setting out on his career as a historian. It has lasted more than fifty years so far–at Columbia and, eventually, Yale. (Now emeritus, Gay directs the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers.) His first book, which appeared in 1952, examined Eduard Bernstein and evolutionary socialism. From there, Gay proceeded to cultivate a long and fecund engagement with the French Enlightenment, translating, anthologizing and interpreting key texts, and in doing so establishing himself as a major figure in the field. He also wrote a history of Puritan historians in America, which only added to his reputation for being prolific and self-reflexive. Toward the end of the 1960s his interests shifted, and Gay began to study the Germany of his youth. The move resulted in an instant classic, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider.
Gay’s timing was excellent, as the zeitgeist in America had generated enthusiasm for the anti-establishment fulminations of German Expressionist art. Compact, lucid and informative, Weimar Culture had a ready audience both outside and inside academe. But while Gay admired innovators like Kandinsky and Rilke, he hardly celebrated Expressionism in general. Indeed, here is where we first see Gay’s impatience with, even disdain for, the Modernist “revolt” against bourgeois culture. He wrote about “the danger of the movement’s commitment to passion.” And Gay heaped approbation on what was so often the object of its scorn, arguing that Weimar democracy had a chance against Nazism only “because there were republicans who took the symbol of Weimar seriously and who tried, persistently and courageously, to give the ideal real content.”
Yet Gay was still years away from The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, his five-volume attempt to rehabilitate nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. He seemed to be up to something altogether different, in fact. In the mid-1970s, Gay began to use an interpretive tool that often functions as a sledgehammer in theories of Victorian society: psychoanalysis.
Of course, Freud himself was in some ways thoroughly bourgeois. He worked assiduously and enjoyed family picnics. And, unlike many of the critics who have appropriated his thought–for example, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse–Freud subscribed to moderate political values. Gay has made much of this point. In Freud, Jews and Other Germans, which appeared a decade after Weimar Culture, Gay not only employed Freudian concepts to understand history, he also discussed the founder of psychoanalysis under the heading “the bourgeois as revolutionary.” A decade later, Gay invoked this oxymoron again in his greatest scholarly achievement, a biography of Freud.