What the Doctor Ordered

The Making of Modern Society

by Edward Shorter
Basic Books, 369 pp., $15.00

Edward Shorter’s book attempts to explain the transition from the “traditional” to the “modern” family in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Although most of his evidence comes from France, he tends to generalize his conclusions to all of Europe and even to America. The evidence is partly statistical, partly “literary.” Unlike those practitioners of the “new social history” who confine themselves to the study of behavior as inferred from statistics, Shorter reaches out to consider changes in thought and feeling. The recognition that these changes are central to the history of the family is the principal virtue of his work, immediately distinguishing it from studies that limit themselves to changes in family structure and household size.

Unfortunately Shorter has little understanding of the finer shades of sensibility—little feeling for feeling. In spite of his preoccupation with the quality of emotional life, he is insensitive to its nuances and ambiguities. His reading of history turns on stark contrasts between repression and “spontaneity,” publicity and privacy, instrumental and expressive approaches to experience, arranged marriage and “romantic love.” Wisely rejecting “cyclical” theories of history, which in his words take the position that “human sexual behavior, like so much else, marches historically in large cycles,” oscillating between conservatism and liberalism, freedom and constraint, he falls into the opposite error of interpreting eighteenth and nineteenth-century history as a great leap forward, an “onward march” from the emotional rigidity of “traditional society” to the sexual permissiveness and enlightenment of “our own dear modern times.”

There was, once upon a time, such a thing as traditional society, which endured relatively unaltered for a number of centuries but which was finally destroyed and replaced by something else we call ‘modern society.’ ” Shorter’s rhetoric fits his thesis—a fairy tale passing itself off as scientific history. In the “bad old days,” according to Shorter—he is addicted to coy phrases of this kind—custom prevailed over “creativity,” communal supervision over “privacy and emotional intimacy,” passivity over “empathy.” Courtship took place in full view of the neighbors; it lacked “romance.” Calculation, not “sentiment,” underlay marriage, and there was no “reciprocity” between marriage partners. Husbands, instead of helping their wives to orgasm, infected them with syphilis. Mothers treated their children with equal “indifference”

Then came modernization: a great “surge of sentiment” revolutionized the “sad little world” of traditional society In the capitalist countries of Western Europe, the creation of a national market destroyed local isolation, uprooted the peasants from their “traditional” customs, and forced them into the competitive market economy. Exposure to the market encouraged, especially in the newly created industrial proletariat, the development of individualism and an egoistic search for “self-fulfillment”—the same attitudes, according to Shorter, that Weinstein and Platt refer to as “the wish to be free.”

The rise of a market society changed not only political and economic life but the quality of “la vie intime.” It destroyed older patterns of courtship and substituted romantic love for marriages arranged by elders and supervised …

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