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Freud for Historians by Peter Gay (Oxford: $13; 202 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Peter Loewenberg | Loewenberg is author of "Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach" (Knopf / University California Press). and

Peter Gay is a distinguished cultural historian of the Enlightenment and the 19th Century who vigorously proposes that historians turn to and use Freud and psychoanalysis to inform their history. He is committed to the classical Freud. He does not play with varied psychoanalytic schools and modifications of clinical theory. Rather, he finds the versatility and the awareness of social context that historians require in the original works of the master.

Gay's strategy of argument is rhetorical--he constructs the historian's defenses against listening to the unconscious as six Dantean concentric rings of intellectual fortifications. He then penetrates and beats down one by one the objections to employing psychodynamic insights in history. The arguments of common sense, technical difficulty, static ahistoricity, culture specificity, or irrelevancy for social and group behavior, are taken up, worked over, and laid to rest, largely from Freud's own writings.

The reservations about psychoanalysis among the historical guild are many and vigorously argued. The world of the unconscious is subversive of reason and at home with contradictions, ambivalences and omnipresent conflicts. As Gay proposes: "Yielding to the persuasions of Freud will necessarily force historians to change, then drastically, the way they do history, force them to dispense with prized convictions and to revise favorite conclusions."

Gay persuades, polemicizes, cajoles his profession of the efficacy and benefits of Freudian insights to whatever species of history they do. "The historian who persists in stressing the causal impact of economic motives, technological innovations, or class struggles need not yield up these objective influences on action. . . . Psychoanalysis should inform other auxiliary sciences, other techniques; it should enrich, without disturbing, paleography, diplomatics, statistics, family reconstruction."

Gay gives short shrifts to the bowdlerizers of Freud and the psychoanalytic reductionists who force all phenomena into preconceived mold or see only the child in the sun. Gay is at his best when he takes on and polemicizes against such doyens of the historical profession as J. H. Hexter, G. R. Elton, A. J. P. Taylor, Jacques Barzun, Page Smith and Lawrence Stone, pointing out the slipshod and ill-informed quality of their dismissals of Freud. Always Gay returns to the original text to demonstrate that Freud was circumspect in his claims, cognizant of the limitations of his vision, and provided due place for cultural, social and historical realities. When Gay deals with Frederick Crews, the apostate Freudian literary critic, Gay cleverly uses Crews' own book on Nathaniel Hawthorne as an example of the insights to be gained when an author brings to bear psychoanalytically informed questions in his research.

Gay sees psychoanalysis as a tool to get beneath and beyond surface experiences. Underlying the pious "rescue" work of 19th-Century do-gooders, such as William E. Gladstone, who brought home young prostitutes to moralistically harangue them with injunctions to sexual purity, lay the unconscious wish to restore the purity of the mother. The Oedipus complex, Gay stresses, is no simple matter. It is just that: a "complex," as wide in its range of expressions and social dimensions as are the world's varieties of families and cultures.

"Many historians," says Gay, "have heard the music of the past but have transcribed it for penny whistle." The broadly textured history now being taught is more engaging and relevant than the kinds of date- and "fact"- oriented stuff that passed for history and spoiled its pleasure for generations.

Gay's book is incisive, persuasive, a delight to read. It is a brilliant polemic on the value of psychoanalytic clinical and theoretical sophistication for historians and should spark wide controversy for a long time to come.

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