The Making of Middle-Class Culture, 1815-1914.
By Peter Gay.
Illustrated. 334 pp. New York:
W. W.+Norton & Company. $27.95.
In a breathtakingly conceived series of five books published over some 15 years and called, collectively, ''The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud,'' Peter Gay established that at least some members of the European, American and British bourgeoisie enjoyed sex, had successful marriages, channeled aggression, cultivated self-awareness and supported the arts. Who said they didn't? You have to reach back to the historical platitudes of the 1950's and early 60's, in which the term ''Victorian'' is equivalent to prudish, philistine and materialistic, to find the picture Gay has worked so long, so inventively and so successfully to correct. Few students of the 19th century have read as widely and as imaginatively as Gay. Few deploy erudition as elegantly as he does. His research has added new ''data'' to the historic record: William Gladstone's massages of his wife's breasts so she could nurse, suggesting Victorians were not so prudish as we may have thought; Mrs. Beeton's instructions to Victorian housewives on how to kill a turtle, suggesting they were not so squeamish. Familiar to readers of Gay's earlier volumes, the stories are reprised in ''Schnitzler's Century,'' which Gay calls a ''synthesis.''
In a gesture meant to be as witty and naughty as assuredly it is tin-eared, Gay dedicates the century he has so long studied to a relatively obscure Austrian writer of plays, short stories and novels. Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931) has consistently found a small but appreciative audience for his sophisticated stories of sexual intrigue. An early trifle called ''Reigen,'' 10 linked dialogues between a man and a woman, each a prelude to sex, inspired Max Ophuls's 1950 film, ''La Ronde,'' and David Hare's 1998 play, ''The Blue Room.'' Schnitzler's ''Dream Novella'' inspired Stanley Kubrick's last film, ''Eyes Wide Shut.''
Schnitzler's Vienna is a world of sexual adventure and artistic ambition; much of the talent was Jewish and much of the political passion anti-Semitic. Of his many extraordinary novels and novellas, I recommend ''The Road Into the Open'' (1908), in which Georg, a gifted but dilettantish composer, begins a love affair with a gentle, lovely singing teacher, Anna Rosner. Georg is a minor aristocrat; Anna is bourgeois. She becomes pregnant. Georg never seriously entertains marriage, though he knows he should. He dithers until the moment of the baby's birth, as he has dithered about his music, putting more emotional energy into avoiding commitment than he has ever devoted to accomplishment. Anna never reproaches him and accepts the end of her personal hopes with dignity and calm. The reader is struck by the total absence of humbug in their portraits, and by the emotional clarity with which Schnitzler treats autobiographical material, for the callous, philandering Georg is an aristocratic, de-Semiticized version of himself.
Although much of Schnitzler's writing concerns philanderers, and he himself comes across in Gay's account as an unlikable roué, his three novellas about women, ''Beatrice,''+ ''Fr* ulein Else'' and ''Thérèse,'' show him going out of his way to depict women sympathetically and their mental states, especially in extreme erotic circumstances, with complexity. Beatrice is tempted by a lover her son's age, and Else, a teenager, is forced to beg for a loan on her father's behalf from an older man who asks a sexual favor in return. These tight stories remind us both in scope and in the protagonists' socioeconomic background of Freud's case studies. It's not hard to see why Gay, who prides himself on writing ''cultural history informed by psychoanalysis,'' would be interested in Schnitzler, a writer whom Freud himself considered his literary double. Unfortunately, there isn't very much about Schnitzler here, and few readers will be led to associate the bourgeois ascendancy with his name.
Gay focuses on one episode, which took place when Schnitzler was 16. His father read the young man's diary, including an account of visits to a prostitute. The father, a well-known physician, hauled his son into his consulting room and showed an illustrated treatise on sexually transmitted diseases. The two were furious at each other, the young man at the invasion of his privacy, the father at the son's stupidity. Gay tries to turn this incident into the kind of emblematic episode that has served some of the new historicists so well. He opens with it and comes back to it at the start of succeeding chapters, as evidence variously of Victorian sexuality, anxiety, aggression and expectations of privacy. But the unmemorable vignette is not so much rich as it is forced to yield up meaning.
In the past, Gay has been a master at treading the ground between the particular and the abstract, finding new particulars and revising prized abstractions. He is a skilled biographer (of Freud) and memoirist, who nonetheless understands the danger of reducing all truth to the truths of the individual life. He wrote this book in the conviction, he says, ''that while it may be hard to live with generalizations, it is inconceivable to live without them.'' But while he is still bashing the bourgeoisophobes with unabated energy and playfulness, some of his favorite facts have gotten shopworn. The whole book takes too much for granted, reminding me of the convicts in the joke who know each other's stories so well they can merely call out, ''No. 14,'' to produce tears, and ''32'' to produce laughter.
As goalie defending the bourgeois enterprise, Gay fends off corner kicks even from Freud, who, in presenting neurosis as a product of sexual repression, criticizes the bourgeoisie too much for Gay's taste. Perhaps he has begun to mistake his own puckish corrections and saves for well-proven theoretical positions, and in the process come full circle back to something resembling the silliest of the old generalizations about Victorian culture, which his scholarship helped do away with. Or perhaps there is an Olympian kind of wisdom here I do not follow.
So we get: ''Everyone but a fanatical devotee of the new somewhere got off the train racing toward modernism.'' And in conclusion: ''It almost seems as though the Victorians left all that was best about them to the ungrateful generations that followed them, and that the evils of our times are our own invention.''
Generalizations like this will send many of us back to biographies and novels, and if some of the novels now are Schnitzler's, we should be grateful to Peter Gay