The Shock of the Old

Arthur Schnitzler
Arthur Schnitzler; drawing by David Levine

For some time now, the cultural historian Peter Gay has been one of the most prolific and most convincing apologists for that remote, maligned age, the nineteenth century. His approach is practical rather than theoretical, corrective rather than revisionist. He has a refreshing ability to separate insights—especially Freud’s—from the systems of thought that produced them. In his five-volume history of the Victorian middle classes, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud (1984–1998), he relegates local, academic debate to bibliographical essays that generously ignore the small-minded and the tendentious. This leaves more room for historical information. It enables him to convey with unusual efficiency what we hope to find in cultural history: the romance of the commonplace and the shock of the old, not to mention the ordinariness of romance and the tedium of daily life, even in an age of rapid change.

His latest book, Schnitzler’s Century, is a synthesis and, in some respects, a revision of The Bourgeois Experience. It is also a pleasantly unpedantic lesson in writing a short, coherent history of a long and confusing period. Gay’s bald use in the preface to Schnitzler’s Century of that eminently Victorian word “fact” has a challenging ring: “There were, in short, a great many facts in my pages.” The pages in question are the five volumes of The Bourgeois Experience. Gay has given each volume a title that puts emphasis not on academic interpretations but on the lives of the Victorians themselves (a term that Gay applies broadly to nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans): Education of the Senses (1984), The Tender Passion (1986), The Cultivation of Hatred (1993), The Naked Heart (1995), and Pleasure Wars (1998).

The Tender Passion, for instance, was devoted to that vast and slippery subject: the nineteenth-century bourgeois experience of love. Yet it contained more precise and concrete information on subsidiary topics like homosexuality and the literary treatment of passion than many specialized monographs. Schnitzler’s Century may be a summary, but the proportion of fact to general conclusion is about the same as in The Bourgeois Experience. Instead of simply lining up his conclusions for a curtain call, Gay has staged a new production by using the sexually and artistically prolific Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931) as a guide to the whole century.

Schnitzler pops up from time to time to exemplify a general trend or to contradict it. He proves to be, as Gay suggests, “a credible and resourceful witness to the middle-class world,” partly because of his cosmopolitan tastes but also because of his apparently un-Victorian traits. He was, so to speak, typically untypical. He was a qualified medical doctor, the son of an eminent laryngologist, but medicine interested him mainly as a means of seducing pretty women. His scandalously erotic plays combined Freudian analysis with light comedy. Sex, for Schnitzler, was not just a consuming pastime, it was a key to the human mind, or at…

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