Email this review


 With sweep, erudition, and insight, Gay (History/Yale Reading Freud, 1990, etc.), in this third volume of a projected five-book history of middle-class culture in 19th-century Europe and America (The Tender Passion, 1986; Education of the Senses, 1983), explores aggression as both a constructive and destructive force in Victorian life. The Victorians were so ambivalent toward aggression, Gay says, that they found alibis for it--organizing it in sports or duels; channeling it into economic or political activity; institutionalizing it in a cult of manliness (the courtly ideal of proving oneself through conflict, epitomized in Teddy Roosevelt); and projecting it on ``the other'' (Dreyfus in France, blacks in America), toward whom aggression was acceptable. The ``pathologies'' of repressed aggression were acted out in ritualized retribution, with punishment ranging from floggings to public executions; in sadomasochistic eroticism; and in suicide. Aggression also played a central role in the emergence of political culture among the middle classes and in the opposition between democrats and demagogues. Women, the ``powerful weaker sex,'' domesticated aggression and the struggle for power, directing their aggressive energies into prolific writing. Positive contemporary expressions of aggression included varieties of laughter from Dickens to Daumier; varieties of militancy--wars against poverty, ignorance, disease, unbelief; and various manifestations in social service, education, sports, industry, even in the use of statistics. Gay extends the meaning of aggression itself in a discussion of the development of professions, of the division of labor, of the rise of a literature of advice, and of versions of neurosis that reflected a growing belief in the civil wars within the self. The First World War itself appears here as a massive expression of the internalized or repressed aggression of the previous century. An appendix covers theories of aggression. His argument is occasionally untidy, perhaps simplistic, but Gay proves here to be fascinating, original, and humane--a genial guide even when so concerned with conflict.

Pub Date: Sept. 7th, 1993
ISBN: 0-393-03398-8
Page count: 752pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1993


NonfictionMODERNISM by Peter Gay
by Peter Gay
NonfictionSCHNITZLER’S CENTURY by Peter Gay
by Peter Gay
NonfictionMOZART by Peter Gay
by Peter Gay