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Peter Gay

By Ramie Targoff

In January 1988, I was a junior at Yale College, studying English and Italian literature, and perfectly confident in—or rather blissfully indifferent to—my psychological well-being, when I enrolled in Peter Gay’s course on Freud. Four months later, I emerged a shaken, but wiser young woman. Under Peter Gay’s instruction that semester, I learned that I had a surprising number of things in common with Dora, the Wolf Man, and the Rat Man—I was neurotic, showed signs of obsessive compulsive disorder, and had some light symptoms of hysteria. How I ever managed to make it through my bourgeois New York childhood, let alone through my first few years at Yale, seemed to me nearly miraculous, but Peter Gay, in his courtly, avuncular way, also disabused me of the idea that I was in any way special. This was not to say that I was “normal,” any more than the other hundred or so Yale students sitting in that lecture hall in the winter of 1988 were “normal”—the category of the “normal,” he cheerfully taught us, did not really exist. We were all somewhere along a spectrum of sexual, mental, and emotional aberrance. We were all doing, no doubt, the best we could.

What made this an oddly reassuring, and not simply frightening, experience was that Peter Gay was a professor of History, and not a professor of Psychology. Gay was approaching Freud, that is, as a historical thinker in the same way that he approached Hume or Voltaire in his courses on Enlightenment Europe. He was teaching us that Freud’s constructions of the ego and the id, of totems and taboos, of childhood sexuality and the unconscious work of dreams, of repression and sublimation and everything else that occupied our secret inner lives, were not absolute or universal truths: they were the result of a particular mind who lived at a particular time. Although he did not directly apply his conclusions to his students—he was far too elegant for that—he strongly suggested, and this was the source of my comfort, that we, too, were all products of our own historical circumstances, and that our psychological lives were necessarily complicated, contextual, and ultimately, to borrow the subtitle of his celebrated biography of Freud, “for our Time.”

Peter Gay was an expert of the social history of the European bourgeoisie—his magisterial five-volume history, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, appeared between the years 1984 and 1998—and he taught his students to consider Freud not only as a great genius, but also as a Viennese Jew astutely observing the world in which he lived. His insistence on the specific cultural and even domestic origins of intellectual progress was a completely refreshing account for me both of how history got made, and how genius emerged, as I was also enrolled that very semester, if I’m not mistaken, in Harold Bloom’s course on Shakespeare. There, my classmates and I were being given a very different version of how great thinkers emerged—according to Bloom, Shakespeare was a timeless genius whose talent was, as it were, history-free. There was no mention in that classroom of Stratford-upon-Avon or the creation of the Globe Theater, and any questions on our part about the habits of the Elizabethans or the politics of the English throne were regarded as symptoms of a historical and hence deeply limited mind.

What was so utterly enlightening, then, to use a very Gayian term, about Peter Gay’s lectures on Freud was precisely his ability to situate Freud in his late 19th- and early 20th-century world without in any way diminishing his accomplishment; what was thrilling, that is, was his ability to convey how Freud’s historical circumstances did not exclusively create, but certainly made possible his set of perceptions about seemingly universal aspects of human psychology. Gay taught me—and to this I believe I owe my own trajectory as a scholar—that to separate the fields of history, psychology, literature, religion, and politics from one another was to produce a drastically reduced understanding of the past.

Peter Gay knew first-hand about the complexity and contingency of living in a particular historical period—why it mattered, that is, to live in one century, or one city, rather than another. Gay was born in Berlin in 1923 to bourgeois, atheist, ethnically Jewish parents, who cannily fled Germany just in time. His father, Moritz Fröhlich (Gay was the English translation of this German name) had purchased tickets for his family in 1938 on the St. Louis heading for Cuba, but somehow sensing that they could not afford to wait for its departure date, he forged tickets on a different boat, the Iberia, leaving two weeks earlier. The Iberia turned out to be the last ship allowed to land in Cuba from Nazi Germany, while the St. Louis was famously, infamously, turned away, and sent back to Germany where nearly a quarter of its passengers were subsequently murdered. Gay and his parents emigrated in 1941 from Cuba to the United States, where they settled in Denver in order for his mother to convalesce at a Jewish sanitarium for tuberculosis treatment—an episode that sounds like a zany concurrence of Mann’s Magic Mountain, Freud’s Dora, and the Wild West.

Over the course of Peter Gay’s long and immensely productive career, he shared with a large American public the grand narratives of European intellectual and social thought, capturing for this new world the pleasures and idiosyncrasies of the old world that his family had left behind. Gay’s books were encyclopedic, humane, and full of hope; they taught their many generations of readers, as they taught me in the spring term of 1988, that our failings had historical precedent, and were largely forgivable. Peter Gay was a great historian of human culture and behavior, and on behalf of the thousands of students whose lives he touched, I am honored to honor him tonight.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 5, 2016.

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