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Young, R.M. (1986). Freud for Historians, by Peter Gay, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, xx + 252 pages, £16.50/$17.95. Free Associations, 1(7):142-143.

(1986). Free Associations, 1(7):142-143

Freud for Historians, by Peter Gay, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985, xx + 252 pages, £16.50/$17.95

Review by:
Robert M. Young

Psychohistory, or the application of psychoanalytic concepts to historical and cultural phenomena, has had a fairly uniformly dismissive reception among scholars. The journals and conferences addressed to this approach have been criticized for their methodology, sweeping generalizations, and their psychological reductionism, which is the same thing as failure to give due weight to social, political, economic and ideological forces in their own right.

Yet we persist in feeling that insight is to be gained from thinking psychoanalytically about, say, Hitler, Eichmann, Reagan, Thatcher, Gadafy. Experts have panned Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther, but the book and the play based on it have enlightened many people who would not otherwise have thought seriously about Luther or his stand. Psychobiography, then, is attractive, and some books in this genre have managed to have it both ways and to achieve respect from analytic as well as historical thinkers. Maynard Solomon's Beethoven (Granada paperback, 1980), by an editor of American Imago is an example in the arts; while Eugene V. Wolfenstein's The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution (University of California, 1980) by a Freudo-Marxist professor of political science is an example in politics. Peter Gay is in the process of a large-scale historical enterprise: a study of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture from a psychoanalytic perspective, two volumes of which — on sexuality and love — have appeared. In the course of this project he has written a modest volume, Freud for Historians, in which he canvasses the strengths and weaknesses, the criticisms and defences of various forms of psychohistory. I did not find it a deep book — rather a useful, readable review of the issues and guide to the literature.

In the course of his scholarly research, Professor Gay decided that he should learn more and complement his academic knowledge with clinical experience. So, at fifty-three, he entered the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis as a research candidate. He underwent an analysis and took the full complement of courses.

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