The Psychoanalytically-Informed Historian: Peter Gay

Paul H. Elovitz, Ramapo College | David Felix (CUNY-Emeritus) | Bob Lentz, The Psychohistory Forum

Peter Gay was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1923 and left in 1939.  He received his PhD in 1951 from Columbia University,  where he taught history from 1962-1969.  From 1969 until his retirement in 1993, Gay taught Comparative and Intellectual European History at Yale University, first as Durfee and then Sterling Professor.  Throughout his distinguished career he has received many awards and fellowships, including six honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees.

Gay’s numerous books include The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 2 vols. (New York: Knopf, 1966-1969); The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984-1986) and 3 vols. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993-1997); Freud for Historians (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); and Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988).  Gay  resides in Hamden, Connecticut.

Clio’s Psyche (CP): Please tell us about your family, siblings and birth order, and age at parental loss.

Peter Gay (PG): I was the first and the last child.  My father was a manufacturer’s representative, which is not the same thing as a traveling salesman.  He ran a firm in Berlin, which represented a number of manufacturers of china, glass, and crystal.  He would deal with the large department stores.  My mother was a housewife.  My father died in January, 1955, when I was 32, and my mother died in 1977, when I was 54.

CP: Are there experiences from your early years in Germany that profoundly affected your life?

PG: I’m writing a memoir just about that.  It’s actually very largely done and should be out next year.  I’m trying to deal with my life at home, and how my parents managed the advent of the Nazis.  I was roughly nine-and-a-half when the Nazis came to power.  That clearly made a big difference — it was very isolating and difficult to deal with because I was constantly being called names.  It was also complicated by the fact that I continued in a school, or gymnasium, and stayed there for five years during that period, and on the whole had a pretty easy time of it.

My main positive experience was that my father was very active in providing all kinds of alternatives to brooding about what was happening in the newspapers or in the streets.  He was a very impassioned soccer fan and so was I, and this meant that we had a lot to talk about and a lot of games to go to every Sunday.  I’m going to devote a whole chapter to what I call survival strategies — obviously things that I didn’t know then but which I unconsciously dropped into to keep myself more or less sane by a number of preoccupations of which sports was the most important.

The other thing to be said about my father is that once he became particularly active in getting us out of the country, he did all kinds of illegal things to make it possible, taking big chances, all of which I very much appreciated and all of which worked.  So, I think he looms very large in my mind, much larger than my mother who was more passive than he.  He took the initiative.  That was psychologically of great importance.  I never rebelled against him in any particular way.  Just one example: He was a village atheist of the most extreme kind, and so am I and have always been.  Unlike so many people I know who as adolescents or grownups turned away in some way from their parents, this did not happen to me at all.

CP:You’ve completed your series, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud?

PG: The fifth and final volume, Pleasure War, is ready — I’ve just sent back page proofs.  It is shorter and some of the old material is very much cut down.  To ask anyone to read all five volumes may be too much, so this final one repeats a number of the themes and restates them using examples the way Freud did on dreams — he took his The Interpretations of Dreams and cut the material way down.  Also, I have much new material on cultural tastes; I am trying to reinterpret the notion many hold against the bourgeoisie.  In the 19th century, the bourgeoisie participated in important cultural interchange.  Many of them had excellent taste and were progressive in their taste.  They supported not just the academic painters or composers, but were very alert to new developments.  I call it a progress report.

CP: You’re going to be working with the New York Public Library?

PG: I’ll be starting officially September 1 as the director of a small think tank, a place that will give houseroom to about 15 people each year to work on either some particular topics or perhaps branch out from a general theme to be announced.  It will be a common center for scholars and writers.  I imagine anyone but a severe natural scientist could fit.  I’m certainly not going to confine it to historians.

CP: How do you define psychohistory?  Are you a psychohistorian?

PG: I haven’t used that word for my myself because, although it’s very convenient, on the whole I’ve always thought that psychohistory has been excessively reductionist, giving too much weight, or causal importance, to certain inner experiences of whatever sort.  So I’ve used this clumsy phrase of being a historian who is “oriented towards,” or “influenced by,” psychoanalysis.

I am a historian.  I feel a little bit like Erikson who did not like the word psychohistorian and I can see why.  I am a historian who uses psychoanalysis without forgetting that I am a historian.  I have been very much interested in the outside world — the world of the ego.  There is nothing unorthodox about that as far as Freud is concerned.  Freud talked about history a great deal, though he never did any real history.  He did, however, make it possible to do history from his point of view.  One of the real problems is that analysts are not doing enough about the outside world.  When I wrote my little book, Freud for Historians, there were two interesting reactions.  One was that analysts had no reactions to my work and, second, that historians, on the whole, had none either!  With the historians I understood this, because as a profession they are very ignorant about and hostile to psychoanalysis.  In Freud for Historians, I tried to mobilize the objections to psychoanalytic history I could think of, and suggest that they could all be overcome.  But, again and again historians have said, it’s too much trouble, or the material is too rare or too difficult to come by, or the leaps that you make are too large.  On the other hand, I would have thought that analysts might have picked it up as “applied analysis.”

My argument over the years has been that Freud left us a much more general view of how things happen, so that presumably the external influences the ego has to deal with are of great importance.  For example, he believed that the history of the Oedipus complex in each individual depends on schooling and reading and people around him, all of which are absorbed by the inner world so that there’s a kind of steady exchange.  In history, if you want to do a psychohistorical study of the French Revolution you can’t just talk about parricide and rage boiling over and so on.  All of these would be true but would not take account of such things as the bankruptcy of the French state, the loss of prestige of the French Crown, and the highly conflicted view of the various estates toward one another — all of which fed into the French Revolution.  I see the inner life as a rich amalgam of external influences and internal responses, or, rather, internal causal agents like the drives.  So, although I’m very happy with psychoanalysis as an auxiliary science or discipline, it seems to me the historian has much more to do than just that.

I think of myself as a historian who has learnt a lot from psychoanalysis and who has not given up on what most of my colleagues were not at all interested in calling real history.  I do not do a great deal of analysis, although I have done some dreamwork and have used, but only very rarely, psychoanalytic language.  When I went into my psychoanalytic training, I never had any intention of becoming an analyst.  I just thought that what analysis had to offer was the way people played their parts.

CP:Did you practice at all?

PG: No, but I did some interviewing.  I went through the entire course as a research candidate and at the end I decided not to take the analytic] route [to clinical practice].  I could have gotten a waiver, a “PhD” or an “MD,” because I have some connections with the American Psychoanalytic.  But I finally decided against it because it would have meant staying in New Haven eleven months of the year for years until I had my two or three patients done and I did not want to do that.  It had been a lot of commitment just to do the six or seven years of the training and classes.

CP: What brought you to psychohistory?  Your Freud for Historians was published fairly recently, in 1985.

PG: The interest goes back to 1950/1951 when I was just beginning to teach at Columbia in the Government Department, as I was working in the history of political ideas there.  History was the discipline to which I moved.  The first impetus came from an older colleague, Franz Neumann, who was a left-wing Marxist but open to other fields.  Having been tied to the Frankfurt School he had some interest in Freud, but in 1950/1951 he, his wife, who was as smart as he was, and their best friend, Herbert Marcuse, who came from Washington, DC, to do this, started this serious course of reading on Freud.  This aroused my interest.  Neumann was very influential among his younger colleagues.  So, from the very beginning I had an interest in psychoanalysis and as an amateur would try to think about how to deal with it and how to use it.  It certainly appears in a number of things I wrote, though it’s not very prominent.  Even my book on Weimar Germany, Weimar Culture (1968), has a number of psychoanalytic categories which are more or less invisible although they were in my mind.  But it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that I took professional training.  So, it wasn’t really until later than that that I really felt comfortable enough to write about it.

CP: Please tell us about your experience with collegial collaboration.

PG: One of the courses that I taught for several years was the famous Contemporary Civilization course, called “CC.”  It was a freshman course; each instructor had his own section.  We would meet on Thursdays for lunch.  We battled over our syllabus, or over what the final should look like.  We spent a lot of time like that even though the departmental rewards were very limited.  Then there came prosperity, conferences, and enormous emphasis on producing.  Now, I do not think that I  produced because I had to — I enjoyed it, I felt at home.  But, more and more people would do their own work and not talk business at lunch anymore — just eat, maybe gossip, and then go back to work.  Look at my situation with the Early American historian John Demos at Yale.  I like him and I think he likes me.  I once invited him to a graduate seminar where we were reading his Entertaining Satan.  He made the students very familiar with the work and it was a very enjoyable evening.  But did he and I otherwise sit down and talk about psychohistory?  Virtually not at all.  But I do not regard that as unusual.  There is such an emphasis on rushing things out and protecting yourself that the old, more leisurely way of getting together has become pretty rare.

I have felt that the two fields, history and psychoanalysis, really fit together, but most of the time there is very little patience on either side.  When analysts used to say, “Why don’t you write something?”, I would say, “Why don’t you write something!”  But I have done enough fighting.  In the late 1960s there was a panel at a meeting of the American Psychoanalytic that dealt with group processes.  The reporter said that this was the first panel on group processes that we had had in 28 years and he thought we should do this more often.
Another difficulty is the question of how you can structure a graduate program that would include psychohistory and that would be practical.  I once actually wrote a lecture of how one might even have a graduate program in which young historians interested in this would have dual training in history and in psychoanalysis right at the beginning in their mid- or late-twenties.  But I never published it because it seemed to be not practicable.  In part, not only because the training is so expensive, but also because the profession is so suspicious of it that you’re not going to impress your colleagues.  I always said to my students that if they wanted to be trained in psychoanalysis, I thought it would be a very good idea, but not to announce it at the beginning — their careers might very well be hampered.  Rather, they should emphasize that they are historians of modern Germany or the Reformation or whatever, and then when they have tenure they can come out of the closet.  This is unfortunate, but this is how the historical profession is.

CP: Why is dual training valuable?

PG: It seems to me fairly obvious that the psychoanalytic view of the human animal is the most fruitful psychology we’ve got.  To have psychoanalysis as one of your instruments to search with or as one of your fundamental orientations towards individuals and collective experiences makes dual training very valuable.  But psychoanalytic training is also very expensive and very difficult.  Therefore, it’s going to continue to be very rare.  One of my good friends, who is an American historian, has just entered into training and it’s going to be financially extremely difficult to absorb.  But he came to the conclusion that that’s what he wanted to do for the sake of his history, not in order to become an analyst.  There are about half-a-dozen of us who have done it.  It’s not an easy thing, but I would argue that it’s extremely valuable, precisely because it gives you an intimate sense of what the Freudian dispensation is about, as well as some sense of being able to take a critical distance from it which you could hardly do when you’re surrounded by all this clamor that is either 100%-accepting or, more likely these days, 100%-rejecting of psychoanalysis.

CP: Do you foresee these obstacles — the time, the money, the suspicions of colleagues — being overcome in the future?

PG: No, I don’t see it.  The historical profession, as a whole, strikes me as quite unreceptive to dual training for a number of reasons.  First of all, history itself is a pretty demanding discipline.  A graduate student who wants to become a professional has to do a great deal of reading and paper writing.  The neighboring disciplines — anthropology, economics, whatever — will be picked up, on the whole, quite informally.  If you’re doing a historical essay of the Great Depression in the United States, you will certainly want to study economics a little so that you have some sense of what the forces were in the stock market.  But psychoanalysis is an extremely hard discipline to pick up.  Freud thought nobody knows about it until he’s been analyzed.  Well, that already eliminates a lot of people.To be somewhat more optimistic, what I do see is the possibility that some of the assaults will slacken off — they do have trends and rhythms of their own.  I suspect that more and more psychologists, to judge from textbooks that I have seen, will acknowledge that Freud was a psychologist of great importance who made permanent contributions.  Something else that would help would be a historian who informs himself, who spends a good deal of time reading, and who even takes some courses without going through the analytic training itself.  That would at least eliminate some of the more outrageous nonsense which he must have been reading in the newspapers.  It would also alert that historian to some areas in which no other auxiliary discipline makes much sense.  There will always be people to do that — there are a few dozen people around who have taken an interest in that.  I can also see that when some of the more faddish postmodern isms disappear, as I think they’re beginning to already, that there may be once again more room for psychoanalysis in history.

CP:What about the encroachment in recent years of psychopharmacology on psychoanalysis?

PG: As Freud himself said in An Outline of Psychoanalysis, there might be a day when we get medication.  At the moment, though, the best we have is this expensive, clumsy thing called psychoanalysis.  Let us suppose for a moment that psychoanalysis as a therapy dies out, which I do not think will happen, but suppose it did.  That would still be no reason for psychoanalysis to disappear altogether because its picture of the human animal is the best we have.  I just don’t see any other model that gets you anywhere near where the historian wants to go.  I think most psychology tells you all the things he doesn’t need to know about.  Psychoanalysis sensitizes you to some things that great historians like Marc Bloch did on their own.  How complicated things are, for example.  What I would propose is that psychohistorians should one day write the history of the defenses, which would be a wonderful thing to do.  A lot of people are not aware of the fact that even Andrew Carnegie might have had a superego.

CP: How would you write a history of the defenses?

PG: It might be possible to take, let’s say, Anna Freud’s list of defenses, or take half-a-dozen of the most important examples from it, and see what we can find out — whether some defenses rise in prominence, and how they are struck in this place and that.  There is a very interesting and remarkable book on England in the Reformation period, Treason in Tudor England (1986) by Lacey Baldwin Smith.  It does not use psychoanalysis, and its diagnosis might not be what you or I would agree with, but it perceives the fact that most people are really paranoid.  Paranoia in that period was encouraged by the way people were taught.  Everyone was trained to look behind himself before someone else stabbed him.  It is quite an interesting example of how one could research a history of the defenses.

CP: What other authors, other works, do you feel are important to psychohistory?

PG: There is the Georges’ book, Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House (1964).  It’s very well informed about Wilson.  It’s also didactically interesting because there has long been a big debate whether Wilson really had strokes or instead had psychological problems.

Another book I greatly admire is E. R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational (1951).  Dodds was a great classicist, not a historian, who decided to clarify a number of rather puzzling issues, particularly the ancient Greek superego and its development and its pulling back later towards mysticism.  His Greek intellectual history is remarkably original, very persuasive, really brilliant.  I once took the trouble to look at the reviews of Dodds’ book because I wanted to know what classicists would say about it, and they were uniformly appreciative, which doesn’t mean that a lot of classicists have followed his road.  I think Dodds got interested in psychology and psychoanalysis through these English groups whose parapsychological investigations, although he didn’t pursue them to their superstitious ends, gave him an impetus to study Freud very carefully.
I think well of John Demos’ book, Entertaining Satan.  In it he does not yet do what he’s begun to do more of lately where fictional material comes into his work.  Entertaining Satan is a very interesting book because it’s an attempt to place certain inner pressures into interaction with other elements — with the historical development, the sociological situation, and the individual lives of the Puritans in their fight against the Indians and their attempts to establish their little commonwealth under untoward circumstances.  The book is an interesting instance of how inside and outside conflicts work together, stimulate one another, and frustrate one another.  My only criticism of the book is that he makes the psychological dimension one of four dimensions, equal to the other three.  My own feeling is that the psychological dimension, with which he begins, should have been the most significant one, the one which is modified and dealt with by the other categories of historical development, sociological cohesion, and biography.

CP:How can psychohistorians strengthen our work and make more of an impact?  How do you see psychohistory developing over the next decade?

PG: My own feeling is that the journals are useful but will be read essentially by the converted.  There is one, and only one, way in which psychohistory may work, and that is by doing, by having examples, by showing that this really makes sense.  An example of this, and a fourth book to add to the above three, is Maynard Solomon’s Mozart: A Life (1995) which I have just now read through very carefully.  It is an excellent example of the kind of thing I have in mind.  The author knows about the Mozarts’ social place in 18th-century Austrian society.  He knows a great deal about music and writes about it with an expert’s competence.  Yet he never leaves the relationship of the son to the father out of the center of his concerns.  It is the kind of book that I think might win some converts.  I think that this is the only way: To say, “Look, I’m doing this and I’m finding things that I would not have found otherwise, and I’m not really that far from you.”  You know the point I’ve made in my Freud for Historians, that every historian is a psychologist anyway.  Everybody makes guesses as to why this population group was more susceptible to the Nazis than others, or why Churchill was the ideal man to take over in May, 1940.  You’re constantly psychologizing, whether it’s groups or individuals.  My only real hope is that books of that kind will convince or persuade simply by being there.

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