November 19, 1995
In Freud for Historians (1985), pleading for greater professional receptivity to psychoanalytic methods, Peter Gay observed: “Many historians have heard the music of the past but have transcribed it for penny whistle.” In The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Gay has created a symphony; or better, a symphonic cycle. But then, his subject -- the history of sensibility in the nineteenth century -- demands nothing less.
What experiences go to make up “the bourgeois experience”? Quite a range of them, in Gay’s treatment. The Education of the Senses, the first volume of the series, examined “the bourgeoisie’s sensual life, the shapes that its libidinal drives assumed under the pressures of its moral imperatives and physical possibilities.” The second, The Tender Passion, considered “theories of love; the cultural fantasies that the fiction of the age enshrined; the disguises that erotic desire could assume in the so-called higher realms of culture; the forms of loving that divines called sinful and psychiatrists perverse.” The Cultivation of Hatred (“hatred” in the technical psychoanalytic sense of self-assertion or mastery) dealt with “specialization, professionalization, social inquiry, the march of science, the writing of history humor, [modes of discipline] with children, pupils, the poor.”
The Naked Heart “seeks to chart the fascinating spectacle of nineteenth-century bourgeois struggling for inwardness.” In doing so, Gay takes on the familiar preconception of the Victorian middle classes as emotionally inhibited, conformist, and other-directed. Nowadays we are not, by and large, prepared to credit the bourgeoisie (of any period) with very much of an inner life. Sentimentality and hysteria on the female side; rigidity and sexual hypocrisy on the male side; a plethora of propriety and a dearth of individuality all round -- this is the prevailing Victorian stereotype.
There’s more to the story, according to Gay (four hefty volumes so far, in fact, with a fifth on the way). The nineteenth-century middle classes were engaged in working out -- hesitantly, tentatively, incompletely -- the consequences of one of the greatest modern innovations: the discovery of the self. Premodern people had, to a much greater extent, considered themselves the sum of their inherited conditions: religion, class, region, gender. Uniqueness and spontaneity were, comparatively speaking, neither expected nor prized; the very notions of personality and individuality were not yet common coin. It was (I’m simplifying, of course) romanticism that gave birth to these notions. Romanticism -- the counterattack of religion against scientific materialism -- relinquished the traditional belief that the world outside man was infinite and mysterious, but transferred those attributes to the world inside. Thus arose that distinctively modern conception, the self and its depths.
Like every great historical innovation, it had its forerunners: those who, through genius or (more often) privileged circumstances, had detached themselves from the universe of inherited status, form, and doctrine. In the revolutionary ferment around the turn of the nineteenth century, such escapes became more common, though still rare. Toward the middle of the century, as Europe grew wealthier, better educated, and more democratic -- in a word, more bourgeois individuality began to be, if not the rule, at least an emerging ideal. “The age was adept,” Gay remarks, “at spreading among the many what had been the privilege of the few.”
And like every momentous historical process, the evolution of individuality was both far-flung and fine-grained. As is Gay’s narrative. The Naked Heart devotes lengthy chapters to letter- writing, diary-keeping, biographies, autobiographies, portraits, and novels, among the obscure as well as the illustrious. The book is tightly packed: with character sketches, brief histories, piquant or profound epigrams, charming or poignant excerpts from diaries and love letters, descriptions and analyses of familiar or forgotten paintings and texts. Byron, Goethe, Chateaubriand, the Schlegels, Stendhal, Ranke, Renan, and Gosse are only a few of the large gallery of representative cultural figures whose contributions to nineteenth-century inwardness are assessed, each in a few sparkling pages. There is a short history of the penny postage, whose introduction was a cultural watershed. There is a discriminating discussion of Victorian privacy, that much-derided, easily misunderstood ideal. There is a thumbnail account of Germany’s early modern political history, which goes a long way toward making its peculiar later history comprehensible. There is a great deal more; and Gay touches very little that he does not illuminate.
One of the best things in the book is its twenty-five page overture, “The Art of Listening.” On Gay’s showing, the social function of music altered during the first half of the nineteenth century. Before then chamber concerts were usually “occasions for gregariousness and gallantry, often screens for seduction”; the opera house was (in Stendhal’s words) “a kind of club and general centre for conversation.” Even an influential eighteenth-century theoretician described all instrumental music as “a lively and not unpleasant noise, or a civil and entertaining chatter, but not one that engages the heart.” A few decades later, even before Schumann, Chopin, and Liszt (not to mention Wagner), music had become practically a religion and virtuosos were culture heroes. Gay documents this evolution with a rich array of sources, from paintings and memoirs to concert programs pleading for proper decorum and vexed newspaper accounts scolding noisy audiences. It was, Gay acknowledges, the early romantics who first claimed for music an exalted, quasi-religious status. “What the Victorians did with the power of music, as with inwardness in general, was to democratize it.”
There are a great many references to Freud in The Naked Heart and the other volumes of The Bourgeois Experience but for all that, Gay wields psychoanalytic terminology with a rather light hand. As he has written elsewhere, all historians are psychologists, though not all the time. There are a few observations on the psychological dynamics of trashy popular (sometimes immensely popular) fiction, and another few on the psychological functions of diaries and autobiographies. There is a plausible reading of David Copperfield as an Oedipal drama; and other, scattered comments. But for the most part, Freud hovers rather than presides.
One might have supposed that Peter Gay’s splendid two-volume The Enlightenment: An Interpretation would be the high point of his career. It is a pleasure to be proved mistaken and to salute The Bourgeois Experience as a historical masterpiece, a triumph of energy, craft, judgment, and style.