Review- Gay, “The Education of the Senses”

Peter Gay, “The Education of the Senses” (1984) – When you think “psychoanalytic history of the Victorian period” you think “let’s get a load of these repressed freaks,” right? Well, that’s not what Peter Gay provides in this, the first of his five volume psychoanalysis-inspired cultural history of the “bourgeois century.” Instead of Victorians having freakouts because table legs were too sexy, we have Gay excavating the diaries and letters of bourgeois Europeans and Americans and finding them surprisingly frank about sexual matters- euphemistic, “proper,” but not neurotically avoidant… in private, anyway.

Gay emphasizes that many of the insistences of the bourgeois at that time were coping mechanisms directed towards anxiety over rapid social change. The ideology of separate gendered spheres of activity, as both a societal and a medical necessity, was the keystone of these. Along with it came the divide between the public and private sphere. So did idealism- Gay discusses pornography (in classic Freudian fashion dismissing it as essentially immature) but doesn’t touch on sex work extensively, or really any kind of sexuality that doesn’t have love attached to it, even where it’s extra-marital. His Victorians are forever searching out a higher, perfect love, which is expressed physically as well as emotionally.

In short, Gay’s Victorians are good Freudian patients, with plenty of issues to chew on analytically but essentially in agreement with what I understand to be the psychoanalytic definition of what makes a whole person. There’s an overdetermined quality to Gay’s portrait here. For one thing, focusing solely on the bourgeoisie robs us of the perspective of that class’ interaction with those outside, which I think would make things look altogether different and cleaner than the picture of sensuality Gay gives us. Maybe that comes in later volumes? But it also seems like a weakness of “inner history.” Where does the inner end and the navel begin, as far as the gaze goes?

I came to this several years after reading Gay’s two-volume history of the Enlightenment, which is considered pretty dodgy these days but is a classic of its type and much less psychoanalytic than his Victorian work. I appreciate Gay’s historical spadework and sympathetic depth analyses of cultural figures. That said, this took a lot to get through, in part due to stuff going on in my own life, unlike the Enlightenment books which I remember enjoying more. I don’t think he’s quite knocked Lytton Strachey off of his pedestal as guy who defines the inner history of the Victorian upper/middle classes, though I guess I’ve only seen a fifth of Gay’s attempt. ***

Review- Gay, “The Education of the Senses”

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