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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

“Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle-Class Culture 1815-1914”, by Peter Gay

352 pages, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN-13: 978-0393048933

Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) was an Austrian physician, author and playwright, whose works were widely read, criticized for their frank sexuality during his lifetime – and is virtually unknown today. A contemporary of Sigmund Freud, he dealt with human sexuality and the psyche at a time when such matters were taboo; indeed, Freud remarked that Schnitzler seemed to have learned more about sex through intuition than Freud had through decades of psychoanalysis. That is one of the central theses of Peter Gay's Schnitzler's Century: The Making of Middle Class Culture 1815-1914. Schnitzler's century (the 19th Century that is) roughly coincides with both the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Peter Gay's choice of Arthur Schnitzler is an interesting one. After all when we think of Victorian literary figures we usually think of the essayists Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold; poets Tennyson and Browning; and novelist Dickens. “Schnitzler” is not a name that readily comes to mind to most readers when speaking of the Victorians. He wrote plays and stories and novels which are rarely read today, but Gay is not really interested in taking a measure of Schnitzler’s literary achievements. What interests Gay about the Viennese author is not his official output but his private output as Schnitzler kept extensive diaries. For Gay these diaries’ offer a glimpse into the private life of the Victorian. Gay quotes liberally from Schnitzler’s diaries because after all it’s the unofficial history of the Victorians that Gay is really interested in. We are all familiar with the public record of the time and the clichés about the Victorian mind set but Gay wants to peel back those clichés and have a look at the Victorian with his guard down – he wants to tell us what the middle-class Victorians really thought and how they really behaved. The diary gives Gay access to the private mind and conscience behind the Victorian facade. One of Gay's points is that there is no typical "Victorian" really and that the much disparaged middle-class is really a much more diversified and conflicted group than many historians would lead you to believe. Schnitzler is not exactly a representative Victorian. In many ways he is a figure (roughly contemporary with Freud) who tells us more about the century to come than the one he was born into. Like Freud he is concerned less with the general goings-on within society than he is with the goings-on within his own and his characters minds: their hidden motivations, and whatnot.

Schnitzler's mind appeals to Gay because Gay himself is a Freudian and his history is an attempt to reveal the hidden motivations (anxieties, fears, aggressions, desires) driving the age. Gay is a consummate historian however and he never lets his Freudian interests lead him into speculative corners -- he supports every point with lively data and convincingly shows us that the Victorians are a largely misunderstood people. We assume they were overly shy about sex but Gay gathers plenty of evidence to counter this assumption. Schnitzler himself seems to have thought of little else as he moved from one conquest to another. Whether we are to assume that Schnitzler is a typical Victorian or not seems to be beside the point because what Gay wants us to see is that any generalization that we make about the Victorians will quickly be undone by evidence to the contrary. This is not a "biography" of Schnitzler and it is not a typical "history" of the Victorians or middle-class. Rather this is an interdisciplinary work which blends biography and history. Schnitzler's Century uses one discipline to challenge the other and in so doing offers fresh insight into both.

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