Hoping to Hurt

Paul Smith

  • The Cultivation of Hatred by Peter Gay
    HarperCollins, 685 pp, £25.00, April 1994, ISBN 0 00 255218 3

Peter Gay’s The Cultivation of Hatred completes his Freudian psychoanalysis of the bourgeois 19th century by bringing aggression to bear alongside the forces of sexuality which form the subject of the preceding volumes, Education of the Senses and The Tender Passion. That aggression and sexuality are intimately associated, at once intermingled and opposed, Gay has no doubt, pointing to the ‘provocative oxymorons like “sweet cruelty”, the “voluptuousness of revenge” and “cruel tenderness” ’, in which Heine and others registered their sense of the ambiguity of the relationship. For analytical purposes, he has had to separate them in this vast undertaking. The hurt of historians is that they know that everything works together but they cannot conceive and describe everything working together: analysis wrecks the Bergsonian continuum which inspires it. Aggression and sexuality fuse here only at moments, less in the context of the treatment of gender relations than in the pages on sadism and masochism, at which Gay arrives with dreadful inevitability by way of the English public and preparatory school, or in what he calls the ‘erotic democracy’ of Second Empire caesarism. But libido must always be understood to be lurking, in the German cartoonist Wilhelm Busch’s observation of children watching a pig being slaughtered (‘Death, cruelty, voluptuousness: here they are united’) or in sports and competitions, which, Gay tells us in The Tender Passion, he might have treated there as examples of the displacement of erotic feeling, but decided to save for the next volume because in them aggression had the upper hand.

The scale of Gay’s canvas is so huge as almost to disable the critic, who can reach few parts of it with his own brush. Aggression is tracked through a galaxy of conscious and unconscious manifestations, not only in the areas of open conflict which the term immediately calls to mind, in politics, sport or the cycle of crime and punishment, but in fields where it may be found sublimated or turned into constructive channels, like science, education or entrepreneurship. The aim is less to catalogue its appearances, however, than to understand how the men and women of the 19th-century middle classes coped with it, by rationalising and justifying its expression with a variety of what Gay calls ‘alibis’ (the belief in struggle as the law of nature, fear of the ‘Other’, the cult of manliness), by licensing it in ‘legitimate’ and condemning it in unacceptable forms, and by seeking individually and collectively to restrain it by means of a philosophy of self-control and a culture of indirection and discretion, at the high price of acquiring a ‘recognisable preferred neurotic style ... obsessional-compulsive neurosis’ (aggression makes you nervous).

It would be hard to conceive a more ambitious historical undertaking, and Gay (to use the language of his subject) attacks it manfully. The range and diversity of his reading are immense. The references and the bibliographical essay alone are worth the price of the book (a modest one for nearly seven hundred pages). When Gay ambles omnivorously into an area where you think, aggressively, that you might be able to teach him a thing or two, you find he already knows it, and more. Does a remark on the role of the referee in Victorian culture suggest to you that he ought to look at the relevant passage of Gibson and Pickford’s Association Football and the Men Who Made It (four volumes, 1906)? He already has, and what is more, pursuing the controversy over the possible threat of cycling to the French birth-rate, has looked at Dr Ludovic O’Follo-well’s Bicyclette et organes génitaux (1900) as well.

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