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.
In his new book, Schnitzler’s Century, Gay asserts–to no one’s surprise–that “bourgeoisophobes,” who anathematize nineteenth-century bourgeois culture as grimly repressive, are misguided: For it was bourgeois thinkers who enabled us to penetrate into the deep structures of sexuality, meaning that there must be more to this culture than Victorian squeamishness and hypocrisy. Witness Freud. Witness also turn-of-the-century Vienna’s most successful playwright, Arthur Schnitzler.
According to Gay, Schnitzler, like Freud, recognized the ubiquity of sexual drives in psychic life; indeed, Freud himself praised Schnitzler’s psychological acumen. And, a medical doctor who often reproached himself for being slothful, Schnitzler, too, had certain bourgeois sensibilities. But Schnitzler is no Freud in Gay’s book; Gay bluntly contends that between the two, there is only one epoch-making thinker: Freud. So why did Gay call his new book Schnitzler’s Century? The fact that he had put Freud’s name in the subtitle of his multivolume history of bourgeois culture may be one reason. More important, despite his various bourgeois tendencies, Freud is too extraordinary, or not representative enough. The possessive form in Gay’s title does not suggest that Schnitzler captured the essence of Victorian culture but rather that, while not at all average, Schnitzler’s mind and lusty life are emblematic of his century. Gay’s title makes a statement about Schnitzler’s times, not about Schnitzler’s art.
But Schnitzler’s art matters. Again, it undermines the myth of bourgeois prudery. Schnitzler’s stories and plays about Vienna evoke a world of small lies and swirling concupiscence. The dark comedy La Ronde is the most familiar example. Written in 1894, the play was deemed too racy for the Viennese stage, and the first performance of it took place in Berlin more than twenty-five years later. La Ronde consists of ten one-acts. In each case there are two characters, a man and a woman; the center of the action, a sexual encounter, has been omitted, and prevaricating dominates the dialogue. One partner always moves on to the next one-act. The prostitute who is with a soldier in the first one-act rounds out the play by reappearing with a count in the final one-act. Dream Novella, whose premise Stanley Kubrick borrowed for Eyes Wide Shut, broods over similar themes, including dishonesty and too much honesty in the bedroom, and lust circulating recklessly though different social spheres.
Schnitzler’s writings abound with autobiographical references, and therefore, along with his letters and diaries (in which Schnitzler kept an exact and prodigious record of his orgasms), his art can be used to document the sexual openness of a real bourgeois experience. But Gay works with it sparingly. Schnitzler himself moves in and out of Schnitzler’s Century, helping to introduce Gay’s arguments and occasionally to illustrate them. As Gay writes in his preface, “He will appear in each of the chapters that follow, sometimes briefly as an impetus to broader investigations, sometimes as a participant.”
Gay’s main organizational conceit is that Schnitzler’s Century is the biography of a class. Yet the book is actually the biography of classes–the middle classes. Gay stresses that bourgeois culture in the nineteenth century encompassed an array of lifestyles, from the penury of struggling shopkeepers to parvenu opulence. His claim makes sense, of course, but it creates logistical difficulties. How to tell so many stories in a single book? And, in fact, Schnitzler’s Century has very little narrative development. To get that you would have to read the books that it is supposed to synthesize, The Bourgeois Experience. In Schnitzler’s Century Gay presents material from the most diverse regions of bourgeois culture. He helps us to see, for example, the variegations in Victorian sexology. However, he does not show us how sexology in the Victorian era changed, and why. Schnitzler’s Century might address a century, yet its approach is mostly synchronic. Gay fits this century into a large frame and points to its parts–Schnitzler, Dickens, theosophy, German Romanticism–as though they belonged to one complex portrait, which he sets up as a triptych. He begins with the “Fundamentals,” or basic living and working conditions. In the other two sections, “Drives and Defenses” and “The Victorian Mind,” Gay analyzes different areas of the bourgeois psyche.
Drawing on such sources as good and bad novels, the letters of famous politicians and of everyday people, newspapers, cookbooks, the writings of eminent scientists (Darwin, Rudolf Virchow), the writings of quacks and self-help manuals, Gay offers many lurid instances of sensuousness in bourgeois culture. But sometimes he goes over them too quickly. For example, he writes, “Here is a Parisian petty bourgeoise, a dressmaker, name and age unknown, writing to her lover in 1892: ‘I am compelled to acknowledge to myself, ‘I love you,’ and I won’t forget the night of love I spent with you. Dear friend, you must have noticed with what freedom I abandoned myself. I was not at all embarrassed by your presence for the first time. It must be that I am greatly taken with you, and that I’m almost convinced that I will experience happiness in your arms.'” According to Gay, the quotation bespeaks the earthy communication and relatively guilt-free legitimate pleasure among Victorians. Certainly the letter is passionate. And for just that reason the cautious phrase, “I’m almost convinced that I will experience happiness in your arms” has a jarring effect. After so much rapture, why “almost”? Why hit the brakes in an otherwise full-speed-ahead love letter? Many things could have prompted her to–including the very Victorian sexual unease that she supposedly did not feel. Gay does not stop to consider this possibility.
No doubt he avoids involved analysis because he wants to make his book readable. And it is that. It is also admirably balanced. While Gay celebrates the polychromatic side of Victorian society, he also acknowledges its industrialized grayness. He discusses other nineteenth-century ills as well, such as imperialism and the emergence of racist anti-Semitism. Here his debt to Freud is at its most obvious: Gay views these problems as effects of our aggressive drives. Yet elsewhere Gay distances himself from Freud, arguing that Freud generalized unduly about the links between common neuroses and sexual restrictions in bourgeois culture.
Freud is not the hero of Schnitzler’s Century. If the book has a guiding spirit it is Freud’s American colleague, the psychologist and philosopher William James. In Gay’s brief account of James his tone becomes effusive. He calls James the noblest exemplar of the Victorians’ spiritual needs and states that James takes pride of place in these pages. Second, and more important, Gay focuses on the part of James’s career that bears an affinity with his own project: James’s will to believe. Just as James worked his way through modern doubt to a considered religious faith, Gay seems to be attempting to achieve a kind of erudite belief in the bourgeois world of yesterday, and in its transformation of the world. Gay adverts to many of Victorian society’s horrific moments–like ritual-murder trials and cheering at executions. But he resolutely underlines what he sees as its humane successes, such as labor and voting reforms and the spread of cultural literacy. Indeed, although Gay does not sketch the development of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture, he leaves us with images of progress. For example, a section of Schnitzler’s Century that begins by enumerating the casualties of capitalism ends with the sentence: “More than ever before, the middle classes could spend money and time in pursuits more elevated than chasing wealth and make room in their daily schedules for listening to music, looking at art, and attending the theatre.” Gay thinks, or rather, has decided to think, that things got better.
This generally sanguine attitude plays a greater role here than it did in the various volumes of The Bourgeois Experience, which, notwithstanding its much larger size, deals more narrowly with the question of bourgeois sexuality. In fact, Schnitzler’s Century might connect more profoundly with My German Question, the memoir that Gay wrote several years ago, than it does with its explicit antecedents. My German Question defends the bourgeois Berlin milieu in which Gay grew up. It was, Gay insists, a vital culture, whose demise was far from inevitable. And by professing his belief in the overall value of Victorian culture and its possibilities, Gay extends this defense. Read My German Question and Schnitzler’s Century together, and Schnitzler’s Century will read that much more like a vastly learned existential reckoning. This is what makes it a powerful book, not its pummeling of tired ideas about middle-class prissiness.
Still, Schnitzler’s Century would be stronger if Gay had taken on more formidable opponents. He could have found them among his fellow refugees from Nazi Germany. Consider just a few examples. During the West Coast stage of their exile, in the mid-1940s, Horkheimer and Adorno traced the rise of Nazism to blind spots in Enlightenment rationality. Years later Hannah Arendt saw Eichmann’s neat, bureaucratic countenance, rather than Hitler’s psychotic gaze, as the real face of fascism. Meanwhile, Marcuse had been exploring the connections between the libidinal demands of bourgeois culture and the orgy of Nazi violence that almost destroyed it. And with his studies on the interplay of bourgeois sexuality and nationalism, George Mosse did more than anyone else to perpetuate this kind of analysis.
In doing more than anyone else to defend bourgeois culture, Gay attacks the sort of criticisms that Steven Marcus raised in his famous study The Other Victorians. Leaning on a small body of sources, Marcus made far-reaching claims about the tortured character of Victorian sexuality. Gay easily piles up texts and facts that militate against them. He rejects Freud’s arguments about bourgeois repression on the same grounds: insufficient evidence. But for the most part Freud articulates these views in essays on culture, theoretical speculations that he did not try to prove empirically. Needless to say, elsewhere Gay does not hold Freud to the same positivistic standard.
Furthermore, Gay ignores the rich literature on the cultural construction of sexuality, much of which is inspired by Foucault’s unfinished History of Sexuality. Such works–Thomas Laqueur’s well-researched book Making Sex is a persuasive example–challenge Gay’s basic assumption about sexuality: that it exists, more or less as we understand it, beyond our invented world of concepts. After all, Gay presupposes as much in asking whether the Victorians gave their sexuality room to breathe. The more critical approach to sexuality, which has led to readings of Victorian society that differ dramatically from Gay’s, should have received at least some attention. And the same goes for the writings of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. Obviously, Gay could not have taken into account every influential antibourgeois utterance. But engaging with such vigorous arguments would have given his own historiographical inversion just the sort of resistance it lacks–or would need in order to be satisfying. On numerous other levels, however, Schnitzler’s Century remains impressive. Anyone interested in Victorian culture should appreciate the colorful sources Gay has gathered together; anyone interested in the writing of history should appreciate the elegance with which he arranges them. Writing about one of Schnitzler’s early plays, a Viennese reviewer exclaimed, “How well everything is set up! How gracefully the characters are handled!” He could have been describing Schnitzler’s Century.