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.

So dedicated an amassing of information, however choice some of the titbits, could have made a dull book. In fact, there is seldom a dull page, because Gay writes with lucidity, elegance and an affectionate relish for the quirks, twists, stratagems, evasions, paradoxes and ambiguities of the middle-class mind, which is at once universal and his own. The description of that mind in the terms of psychoanalytic theory could have led to the forcing of a mechanical scheme on an infinitely various, recalcitrant reality. In practice, Gay is too sensitive and subtle an observer to suppose that the complexity of things can be fully comprehended or confined by any set of conceptual categories: the sand of experience and evidence is always slipping between the fingers. Yet there is a confidence about his analysis, a sense of that mastery of an intensely difficult pursuit which he recognises as one of the most highly civilised expressions of the aggressive drive. In the most humane and liberal way possible, he has planted his knee firmly on the bourgeois 19th century’s neck.

Can you subjugate a century, even with such scholarship and acuity as this? It goes without saying that no one can hope to assimilate the whole bulk of the empirical evidence which could be brought to bear on an enquiry so general as the quality of the ‘bourgeois experience’ from the defeat of Napoleon to the outbreak of the First World War. Language alone imposes limitations. Gay’s study depends on what appears in English, French and German: in his cast of ‘Victorians’ Italians feature only occasionally, Iberians seldom, Eastern Europeans and Scandinavians rarely. So much, indeed, rests on the British, Germans and Americans that at moments the probing of the bourgeois mind resembles poking a Wasps’ nest. None of this matters much. If inability to cover everything were an excuse for attempting nothing, only the most parochial history could be written. But, accepting the essentially West European and transatlantic frame, the problem of whether, or how, the psycho-biography of a class can be constructed remains – and is gracefully side-stepped.

Gay’s sampling of forms and manifestations of aggression is eclectic, and its basis is not explained. The immense variety and gradation of the middle classes in condition and outlook is acknowledged but hardly taken into account. He does not explicitly ask how far we have to think, not of ‘the’ bourgeois experience, but of a multiplicity of experiences related to social and economic status, religion, age or country (gender is the only sociological category given distinct scrutiny). Inevitably, most of the evidence derives from the middle classes’ most articulate (one might say ‘aggressive’) and reflective members. The three quotations that stand as epigraph to this book are from Büchner, the Goncourt brothers and Mark Twain, taking over the baton from Byron, Tchaikovsky and Flaubert in the previous volume. How far the thinking, writing, chattering, teaching and preaching classes who dominate the scene spoke for or to their less intellectual and vocal fellows (even, or especially, when they professed to do so), it is hard to know. You can read the literature which some of them produced for the middle masses, notably the journalism of advice, improvement and diversion which reflected their estimate of their readers’ needs and neuroses as of their own. Gay has possibly read more of Die Gartenlaube and Godey’s Lady’s Book than most of their subscribers did, but is that equivalent to knowing what their subscribers made of them, or they of their subscribers?

Perhaps it is his treatment of Wilhelm Busch (one of the most glittering of many brilliant vignettes) that raises the problem of representativeness most acutely. Busch, with his use of humour to provide a socially acceptable outlet for ‘the buried wishes to surpass and humiliate, to maim and murder’, was, Gay casually remarks, ‘pretty much like everyone else’. Like everyone else? Busch may have been driven by universal impulses, but they were not necessarily universalised in unvarying form and degree. Gay is too sophisticated a practitioner not to be fully aware of problems of this kind. He is simply not very interested in discussing them, too much the literary artist to care to have the smooth surface of his discourse broken by the jagged edges of any formal ‘problematic’.

Most problematical is the question of whether Gay’s aggression is not so broad a concept that it explains everything and nothing. Towards the end of the book, he quotes Dr George Moore’s Man and His Motives, published in 1848:

The infant no sooner moves its limbs, and feels that they are moved at its will, than it begins to enjoy itself in the use of its own power, for power is evinced only in action, and every action is a certainty – an advance in positive knowledge ... the infantine motive is the motive of all. It is the love of power, or rather the pleasure of self-consciousness in the use of means, by which we obtain outward evidence of our own inward life and of the reality of things, in relation to ourselves.

Here in embryo, Gay notes, are Nietzsche’s will to power and Freud’s early hypothesis of a drive for mastery. On this level, the idea of aggression seems to dissolve into nothing more specific than that instinctive exertion of the faculties necessary to affirm that we are alive and to establish our identity by making on persons or things an impress in which its contours are revealed. ‘I was not always assured of my identity, or even existence, for I sometimes found it necessary to shout aloud to be sure that I lived’ – thus Disraeli’s character, Contarini Fleming.

This is some way from the common acceptance of aggression; still further from anything immediately recognisable as the cultivation of hatred. It is hard to decide whether the manifestation of energy inseparable from self-recognition and development is simply part of a continuum with what we normally describe as violence, brutality, derision, forcible domination, deliberate humiliation and hatred. In the fascinating appendix (which should perhaps have been a prolegomenon), in which he sketches modern theories of aggression and the inconclusive state of psychoanalytic opinion, Gay cites, neutrally, Otto Fenichel: ‘It seems rather as if aggressiveness were originally no instinctual aim of its own, characterising one category of instincts in contradistinction to others, but rather a mode in which instinctual aims sometimes are striven for, in response to frustrations or even spontaneously.’ In line with this hint, it seems more profitable to historical understanding to characterise as aggression not the innate impulse to self-realisation, forcible in a certain sense and degree though its working-out must always be, but those eruptions of it which are produced and shaped by the frustration engendered by encounter with powerfully resistant force or mass, whether internal or external. Writing the social history of aggression in the 19th or any century means writing the social history of frustration, and that of expectation which is often frustration’s parent. These are large projects – for a fourth volume?

Gay sweeps up under the head of aggression – logically enough on his Freudian premises – almost any instance of making one’s mark or one’s way, to the extent that aggression and hatred become in their concrete expression as often constructive and benevolent as destructive and malevolent. Fulfilment and release come as readily for the bourgeoisie in business as in battle, in science as in satire: you can make money instead of mayhem, crack a problem instead of a skull, dominate your subject rather than your subordinates. Whether you see this as creative sublimation, transference or displacement of aggression, or as a demonstration that the middle-class life-force flows as naturally and frequently into non-aggressive as aggressive channels, depends on your choice of psycho-historical analyst (or perhaps just of metaphor). Certainly it has something to do with what emerges here as the function, distinctive to the middle classes or the intelligentsia, of disciplining and canalising instinctual drives of whatever kind and origin through the systematic pursuit of self-awareness and social purpose.

Nowhere does that function emerge more strongly than in the passionate debate over aggression itself. Gay’s discussion of what he sees as the major contemporary alibis for aggression – the principle of competition and hostility to the alien other, off both of which sectarianism, nationalism and imperialism feed – is a tour de force of potted intellectual history, but it perhaps under-emphasises what it candidly acknowledges: the degree to which these alibis were challenged in theory and discarded in practice. Social Darwinism may have furnished a widely diffused set of ‘Victorian’ commonplaces, but just what it rationalised or legitimised was constantly debated in ways which involved fundamental questioning of the natural priority or social utility of aggressive drives. If competition was a constant of human behaviour, so, as Adam Smith famously pointed out, was the rational, self-serving impulse to restrain it. If the survival and progress of the species was the goal, it was not difficult to argue that competition among individuals was dysfunctional: success depended on co-operation. Darwin’s precursor, A. R. Wallace, had found it hard to see how natural selection could benefit the group except by selecting the capacity for ‘mutual association’ as an advantageous quality. Karl Pearson’s observation that the efficiency of the group in competition with others required the mitigation of internal struggle was generalised by polemicists like J. A. Hobson and Norman Angell in order to argue that the progress of the human race required a collective concentration of force on the struggle, not of group with group but of ‘man’ with the environment.

These were intellectuals, but practical men and women trod the same pragmatic path. Carnegie and Rockefeller ended, Gay notes, by stifling cut-throat competition and launching into spectacular philanthropy. Theodore Roosevelt, here given more attention than anyone except Wilhelm Busch as a type of aggressive personality, concluded in the end: ‘In civilised societies the rivalry of natural selection works against progress.’ Of course, these repudiations or canalisations of aggression paid tribute obliquely to its power, but, in castigating it as unproductive and anti-evolutionary, they tended to place it as the prime perversion rather than the fundamental essence of the human life-force.

That they were naive to do so, the outbreak of the First World War is sometimes taken to prove. For a connoisseur of aggression, Gay says remarkably little about war, but he ends with an epilogue on 1914, described as ‘the most signal defeat the bourgeois world suffered in modern times’. Perhaps that goes too far in the direction of Dick Diver’s familiar but facile threnody over the middle-class world supposedly consumed by Armageddon, a world whose ‘whole-souled sentimental equipment’ went back ‘further than you could remember ... Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers’. The war represented no more profound a loss of control over aggression than other wars. That it was spectacularly more destructive was a backhanded compliment to the achievement of the bourgeoisie in industrial orgainsation and technological innovation. The states which survived it best were those where bourgeois political organisation had taken firmest root: it was the empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Turkey that collapsed, not the liberal parliamentary regimes of France, Britain and America. The social and political power of the bourgeoisie was arguably enhanced rather than diminished. The cafés in Valence stayed in business if the Crown Prince did not. The 19th-century bourgeoisie was a tough bird. Whether or not aggression in the catch-all sense of the term employed by Peter Gay was what made it run, he has traversed a brilliant searchlight over the intricate entwining of its instincts, thoughts and emotions.