Review- Gay, “Weimar Culture”

Peter Gay, “Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider” (1968) – Peter Gay promoted a psychoanalytic history that I look at with mixed feelings, but he had a good eye for where to deploy his method. He wrote five volumes on the “inner experience” of bourgeois civilization during the Victorian period, which was Freud’s whole thing, and he wrote this book on Weimar Germany, a time and place caught up in psychodrama if ever there was one. He knew better than to try to analyze individual actors- it’s more he applied the ideas to a “spirit of the age,” which sounds gauzy because it is, but works better than one might think (especially given his aforementioned canniness about subjects). In a sense, Gay was the last of the old-school cultural historians ala Burckhardt or Huizinga, interrogating times and places and their “spirits” via their cultural artifacts, before the newer cultural history in its Foucault-inflected sense arose in subsequent decades.

For what it is, “Weimar Culture” is excellent, and I would argue transcends both psychoanalytic history and old-school cultural history to deserve its place as an enduring classic. Gay goes beyond stereotypes of decadence and cabarets (though giving them their due) to play on a few themes as he delineates what was distinct about the culture of those brief Weimar years from the rest of German history. As the subtitle promises, there’s the idea of the “outsider as insider,” the “revolt of the son” in the arts and in politics that challenged prevailing bourgeois norms, and the eventual “revenge of the father,” a return to a spurious version of “order” under the Nazis. Gay incorporates numerous instances of the “Weimar spirit” from the liberals and social democrats who attempted to practice a new (and precarious, and in the end failed) type of German politics, to the Bauhaus and expressionists in painting and film, to the more-than-once-cited legs of Marlene Dietrich (a psychoanalyst might have fun with Gay for that) into his schema in what is a short (fewer than 200 pages) book.

Probably my favorite part of the book is his discussion of the politics of poetics in Weimar, where poets and writers played an uncharacteristically outsized role in the definition of political space and action within it. This is exemplified in all of its glory and ineptitude by the person of Stefan George and his circle. In better times, George would just have been a popular poet surrounded by his groupie dudes and having a good old time. But times being what they were in the Weimar era, the George Circle and its concept of a “Secret Germany,” both beneath and far above the hoi polloi hue and cry of republican politics, became an important feature undermining the stability of democracy. Figures like Thomas Mann, his less-known brother Heinrich, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others take center stage in turn as they attempt to come to grips with the time… as the time soon enough came to grip them. All in all, a historical masterpiece, even if it’s far from a methodology I would pursue. *****

Review- Gay, “Weimar Culture”

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