Manliness, hatred and other Victorian mores

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The Independent Online
Imagine how original and surprising it would be if someone wrote a book showing that the Victorians, behind that notorious facade of hypocrisy and greed, were actually (once you dug behind the dour stereotype) easy-going, sunny people with uninhibited sensual appetites and carefree animal lusts. It doesn't sound very plausible, does it? And Peter Gay, the biographer of Freud, would certainly not dream of saying anything of the sort.

The Cultivation of Hatred is a psychoanalytical history of the 19th century balanced on a great pun: Victorians cultivated hatred in both senses of the word: they tried to deny, tame and civilise it, but all they succeeded in doing was making it grow and bear fruit.

It's a subject of lively contemporary interest - how does our modern world manage or restrain its instinct towards violence? - supported by wonderful detail. Gay investigates the various excuses for aggressive behaviour clung to by the Victorian elites in Europe and America. He looks at the cod-Darwinian ideas of raw competition enjoyed by writers such as Jack London and businessmen such as Rockefeller; charts the nuances of racism - the dotty but fearful phrenological theories of brain size, the cold anthropology of hierarchies; explores the dominant ideal of manliness (with its attendant bogus sentiment - the domesticated ideal of womanliness); and illustrates the aggressive urges that underwrote the famous Victorian sense of humour.

He does not overdwell on the 19th-century reflex to conquer faraway places, but expert on the Victorian urge to 'master' or industrialise nature; he even finds time for some reflections on sportsmanship. There is great work on medicine, women in literature, engineering, education (especially the German Gymnasium), bacteriology, advice manuals, flogging in schools, politics, the army, rape statistics, paupers, capital punishment, and lots more.

How could all this be unfascinating? It is exactly the sort of massive, intimate history that is usually called magisterial, and the book does indeed feel like a verdict being handed down, a historic sentence being passed. It is gripping and thoroughly alert - no less than a psychological history of an entire century.

Not surprisingly, the age in question (or its parents, at any rate) is perplexed, neurotic, and has quite a bit of explaining to do. Greed, hypocrisy, imperial fantasies, cruelty, sexual bullying, racial intolerance - boy, the people who did this need help. The Freudian straitjacket fits 19th-century Europe perfectly - almost too perfectly. Oscar Wilde once said that only shallow people do not judge by appearances, and by these standards no one is shallower than Freudians, on the lookout for hidden depth.

Freudian metaphors of primitive, unacknowledged strata of meaning have long been popular with literary critics, eager analysts in search of the latent or repressed subtext. Gay is zealous and subtle: he knows that civilisation is both awkward and necessary, and apologises for the simplifying Freudian terms he uses. The view of human life as a perpetual war between two imaginary poles (Eros and Thanatos - sex and death) is compelling, he writes, but not satisfactory: 'We are confronted with a wealth of motives and actions far too disparate to fit comfortably under a single umbrella.'

Still, even he can't resist the odd reductive slogan. At one point he argues that 'solving a tantalising puzzle, climbing an unclimbable mountain, gaining proficiency in an obscure tongue, inventing a labour-saving device, are all in their way aggressive acts'. We can be forgiven for asking: so what if they are? They are a lot less aggressive than kicking someone's head in. It seems a bit pat and easy to suggest that constructive acts are really just disguised aggression; by blurring the picture, it even allows us to think of murder and rape as creative gestures. Sometimes the desire to lump together creates categories too broad to be useful.

Still, Gay has collected a superlative gallery of nervous 19th-century dogmas. His subject is the deep human reflex towards hostility, and he illuminates the frosty underground life of our aggressive streak through nearly a century of bourgeois life. He is authoritative on the alibis for aggression which disguised the Victorian love of hatred - though this does encourage us to reflect on our own modern alibis.

What might Gay tell us about the Freudian alibi - our conviction that aggressive acts are random eruptions along the fault line where innate aggression meets childhood trauma? This is an alibi with senior cultural backing: it can even stand up in court (we're depraved on account of we're deprived).

Gay's most risky proposition, however, is his chronological argument. He begins by watching German duellists slice pieces out of each other's cheeks so they can obtain the prescribed romantic scar, and ends by watching wave after wave of human cannon fodder fall into the mud of Flanders. The implication is that the innate aggressive urge of Europe, maddened by a hundred years of cultivation, finally exploded in the trenches of the First World War. This sounds grand and elemental, but also schematic. Gay identifies nationalism as one more alibi for aggression, documents the heady rhetoric of the Kaiser, and remarks:

'The very extravagance of these demands allowed all within the magic circle of a nation to cluster together as one large family, to live within the comforting hug of undifferentiated mutual love. This bath of shared emotions linked one-time adversaries - labour and capital, Bavarians and Prussians, Jews and Christians - as though internal enemies no longer mattered, indeed no longer existed. And they welcomed that national embrace not just because in doing so it bridged familiar gulfs and repressed familiar hostilities, but also because in doing so it authorized aggression.'

This sounds like an insight: it presses all the right rhetorical buttons and even replays the old saws about war being the happiest time of me life, all of us chaps pulling together, anything to give a helping hand to a mate, and so on. But can a psychological vocabulary invented for individuals really speak to national cultures? Can a hundred years truly be reduced to a spick-and-span Freudian formula of repression, perversion and release?

Gay is a wise analyst of murky motives; but what the Thanatos are we supposed to make of this airy diagnosis of German society? Talk about the suppressed drive for mastery.

A Day Like This

29 April, 1949 CHIPS CHANNON in his diary records a visit to Somerset Maugham: 'Alan Searle met me at Beaulieu, in blazing sun, and we drove to the villa. Willie, looking like a mandarin and flanked by footmen, met me at the door. I was struck by his calm oriental manner, his youthful bearing and his stammer; he seemed interested in everything. Alan is now Willie's housekeeper, companion and amanuensis. The villa is white, Moorish in appearance and stands in an elaborate sweet-smelling garden. All is regulated, precise and spotless. Many good pictures - Zoffanys, Reynolds, etc, and several dozen theatrical pictures which Willie has left to the National Theatre. At dinner we had much chat and gossip, of a rather licentious nature. Willie and Alan appeared in elaborate dressing-gowns. I felt drab and ordinary in my dinner jacket.'

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