FREUD FOR HISTORIANS. By Peter Gay. Oxford University Press. 290 pp. $13.
FREUD ONCE remarked that the biographer is bound to fall in love with his subject. The autobiographer, adds Peter Gay, seems to be only rarely exempt from the same infatuation. This wry admission does not, alas, take the curse off the extraordinary display of self- love in the autobiographical passages of his frenziedly polemical new book, Freud for Historians.
In 1976 Gay, a historian by training, enrolled as a research candidate at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis. From the experience of taking the Institute's full complement of courses and of undergoing a didactic analysis, he learned more than he can say. It taught him, he nevertheless goes on to tell us, "new, more instructive ways" of reading dries, dreams, letters, paintings, novels and medical texts and "sharpened my sensitivity" to the unconscious shared fantasies underlying cultural styles.
The proof of his enhanced capacities, he repeatedly implies, lies in the "large-scale historical enterprise on which I am now engaged: a study of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture from a psychoanalytic perspective. Its first volume, dealing with sexuality, has already appeared; companion volumes on love, on aggression, mastery, and cultural conflict, are in preparation." If he has paused in the midst of this massive task to offer us Freud for Historians, this is for the purpose of "commending" both his "method" and his "ambition" to fellow laborers in the historical vineyard, whose largely negative stance toward psychohistory rests on what he is certain is their ignorance of Freud's ideas, or their habitual misreading of them, or their excessive intellectual caution. Like a Professor Higgins to his profession's exasperating air lady, Gay asks in effect why other historians can't be more like him.
Jacques Barzun, G.R. Elton, J.H. Hexter, David Hackett Fischer, David E. Stannard and, it is only fair to point out, the present reviewer are among the skeptical commentators on psychohistorical theory and practice who come in for chastisement in Freud for Historians. But Gay's most energetic criticism is directed at the historian of English family life, Lawrence Stone, for Stone has argued at some length -- and in the opinion of many historians, quite powerfully -- that the Freudian vision of the sex drive, by dint of being universalistic, is ahistorical, and that its application to the study of family history has been highly unfortunate. In reply, Gay begins by admitting that, "If Stone were right to assert that Freud treated the sexual instinct as unchanged from individual to individual, class to class, age to age, then psychoanalytic theories would have no relevanceo the historian." But Stone is wrong, he says flatly. "As a physician who in his psychoanalytic practice treated a wide variety of patients -- men and women, Russians and Americans, princesses and housewives -- Freud does not need to be told that the sexual drive varies enormously from individul to individual."
The most interesting aspect of this scornful refutation is its silences. Gay does not say that Freud does not need to be told that the sex drive varied from class to class or age to age; he simply allows us to assume from the momentum of his sentence that he is saying these things too. And the reason words fail him is that psychoanalytic theory has failed him. Yes, it is true that Freud believed in instinctual differences between individuals. Yet he also believed that the sex drives of men and women were innate, and he did not differentiate them by class or age. Civilization, in his view, could tame the drives and cause differences in their expression, but civilization could not change the drivesselves.
In a further expression of disbelief in the historical utility of Freudianism, Stone has observed that four traumas -- weaning, toilet training, masturbation and the adolescent conflict between generations -- were regarded by Freud as decisive for all mankind, always and everywhere. But in Stone's opinion Freud's formulations of these traumas were actually "'dependent on particular experiences which did not happen to the vast majority of people in most of the recorded past, but which were peculiar to middle-class urban culture of late Victorian Europe.'" Gay's rejoinder consists of one sentence: "The lust to teach Freud what he already knows seems to be hard to contain." Although he intends his sarcasm to be definitively dismissive, it raises questions. Does Gay mean, for example, to imply that the Oedipus complex -- i.e., the adolescent conflict between generations -- is not the eternal source of neurosis in the Freudian schema, but a time-ound phenomenon? It seems almost incredible that he would place such a gloss on his master's work. Yet if it is not his intention to do so, then what is the basis for his claim that Stone has been teaching Freud historical facts that he already knows?
MOVING ON from strictures against the nay-sayers to glowing pictures of historiographical possibility, Gay asserts that historians could now be writing "total history," if only they would dare to learn from the example of a handful of elegant practitioners of the psychoanalytical dispensation. Historians of literature could vastly enrich their discipline if they would consent to follow the lead of Frederick Crews' study of Hawthorne, The Sins of the Fathers, which is "psychoanalytic biography at its most felicitous." (To the contrary, Crews' Oedipus-complex reductionism impoverishes Hawthorne's life and work alike, and in the aftermath of his book's failure to endure Crews has gone on to become one of our most articulate commentators onthe hazards of Freudian criticism.) Gay also believes that John Demos' discussion in Entertaining Satan, a study of witchcraft in 17th-century Massachusetts, of affects and defenses, of anality and orality, of narcissism and projection, could likewise inspire social historians to use "the Freudian armamentarium" to penetrate to the heart of the psychological dynamics of mass hysteria. Finally, though, the historian whom Gay clearly believes is setting the most stirring example for his profession these days is the one who is the hero of so many of his footnotes. To wit, himself.