Commentary Magazine

Pleasure Wars by Peter Gay

Pleasure Wars
by Peter Gay
Norton. 324 pp. $29.95

“Victorian” and “bourgeois” have become distinctly less acceptable as synonyms for hypocritical and philistine in the wake of the Yale historian Peter Gay’s monumental reexamination of 19th-century European and American culture. His revisionist history has taken shape in five volumes bearing the collective title The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. The burden of the whole has been to show the variety and complexity of bourgeois life through a focus on certain fundamental human passions.

Gay’s researches into the inner life of the bourgeoisie have yielded volumes on sex and love (Education of the Senses and The Tender Passion), the inclination to aggression (The Cultivation of Hatred), and strategies for ennobling the bourgeois self (The Naked Heart). In this fifth and final volume, Pleasure Wars, he takes up the formation of taste and the emergence of modernism in the arts. The memorable verdict of the first volume—“Bourgeois eros ranged from extreme repression to unabashed libertinism, but for the average couple, there seems to have been far greater sexual pleasure, for both partners, than we have been led to believe”—finds its counterpart in this new realm. Just as lots of Victorians liked sex, so too, lots of them had taste.

This was not, needless to say, the verdict reached by contemporary vilifiers of the middle class. Gay begins with these self-avowed “bourgeoisophobes,” novelists like Gustave Flaubert whose loathing of “stupid grocers” (his all-purpose epithet for the bourgeoisie) was so intense that it left him nauseated. Philosophers as diverse as Marx and Nietzsche added to the abusive caricature, and their slanders came to be accepted as reportage.

The middle class did have its defenders, however, even among the ranks of fringe-dwelling artists. The poet Charles Baudelaire, for instance, referred to the bourgeoisie as “the natural friends of the arts.” Taking his cue from such surprising allies, Gay argues that the bourgeoisie, far from being “the sworn adversary” of unconventional art, as the standard view would have it, was in fact its principal backer, not least of all financially.

This intersection of commerce and culture is a leading theme of Pleasure Wars. Gay goes to great lengths to describe what the various strata of the bourgeoisie could purchase in the way of artistic expression and cultural goods. Thus, by setting out the pricing of opera tickets in Munich right down to the last pfennig, he shows how an impecunious student attending a special matinee might enjoy the same performance as a local notable at a world premiere. Such accessibility meant that culture was less and less the preserve of aristocrats and magnates.

The upper echelons did exercise a guiding influence, however. In one especially interesting chapter, Gay compares the elites of Manchester and Munich. In Manchester, arts patronage was entirely in the hands of enterprising and highly educated merchants and manufacturers, many of them assimilated German-Jewish immigrants like the calico printer Hermann Leo and the Jewish-born Unitarian Salis Schwabe. By contrast, the tone in Munich was set by the royal house of Ludwig I and Ludwig II, the latter of whom was Richard Wagner’s besotted patron. In this contest between “self-help and state sponsorship,” Gay gives the laurels to Manchester, attesting to the reality of the city’s motto: “By the gains of Industry we promote Art.”



With the democratization of the cultural scene, a need arose for new authorities. Enter the critics and reviewers who became the guides to pleasure and the guardians of opinion. According to Gay, the foremost of these “acknowledged legislators”—writers like William Hazlitt and Matthew Arnold in England, or C.A. Sainte-Beuve in France—were themselves “bourgeois refining the palate of other bourgeois.” Their intent was frankly pedagogical, and their audience included not only the public but artists themselves. “It is striking testimony to the anxiety of creative spirits in the presence of critics,” writes Gay, “that beginning in the 1880’s, [the painter Claude] Monet subscribed to two clipping services.”

Not everyone checked in with the critics first. Gay devotes two chapters to independent-minded collectors, particularly highlighting the role they played in the eventual success of the Impressionists. Interestingly, wealth was not a prerequisite for significant acquisition. Among the earliest discoverers of Cezanné was Victor Chocquet, a chief clerk in the customs house in Paris. Despite his quite limited means, Chocquet was able to assemble a truly impressive collection of modern French art, including works by Delacroix, Monet, Pissarro, and Renoir and more than 30 paintings by his beloved Cézanne.

Gay is aware, of course, that such affection for the avant-garde was hardly universal among the bourgeoisie. Throughout Pleasure Wars, one encounters members of the middle class on every side of the 19th century’s disputes over art, from staunch traditionalists to votaries of the new. For Gay, however, these very controversies and divisions promoted the eventual victory of modernism.

The bourgeois, Gay observes,

performed their historic service to modernism almost as much by reviling as by endorsing it; they gave it the kind of publicity the modernists would never have enjoyed without the shocked exclamations of insulted lovers of art, music, or dance.

The irony, then, is that the virulent “bourgeoisophobes” among modernist artists, like Flaubert, turned out to be dependent on the “stupid grocers” for their success, while the bourgeois themselves, whether knowingly or not, served the cultural and political aims of those intent on their destruction.



Gay’s Revisionist history is a helpful counter to the tendentious caricature of the crass and priggish bourgeois. Yet when all is said and done, it is unclear what exactly he intends to put in place of the caricature. He describes his project as “a crowded, colorful, and recognizable portrait” in the pointillist style—which means that once we get sufficient distance from the bourgeois experience, it “should cohere into a whole.” Yet his method achieves just the opposite effect. Though details are traced with realistic exactitude, the overall impression is a mishmash.

For Gay, to be bourgeois is to be everything, and anything: “the spectrum of bourgeois taste covered the whole range of possible expressions from the outer edges of conservatism to those of radicalism, from the support of the conventional to the equally determined support of the unconventional.” Even those whose motto was “épater le bourgeois” (shock the middle class) are themselves to be called bourgeois.

Gay may be right that the pleasure wars, rather than being a struggle between bourgeois and bohemian, were really a series of internal contests within the bourgeoisie itself. If that is the case, however, it becomes imperative to explore the self-division and self-contradiction that lie at the heart of what it means to be bourgeois—something that Gay, despite his professed indebtedness to psychoanalysis, does not undertake to do. Perhaps if he had traced bourgeoisophobia back to its (non-phobic) beginnings in the thought of Rousseau, he could have helped the reader better understand the quality of “in-betweenness” that leaves the bourgeois so undefined. According to Rousseau, still the most profound student of the subject, the bourgeois “will never be either man or citizen,” for he is “always in contradiction with himself, always floating between his inclinations and his duties.”

An appreciation of the bourgeoisie’s dissatisfaction with itself would also help to explain the eventual triumph of the avant-garde in this century—and might have led Gay to entertain more reservations about the desirability of that triumph. In our own time, after all, the obsession of artists with administering polemical shocks to bourgeois society has gone so far that art often seems to have lost all connection to pleasure, not to mention beauty and truth.

Henry James was already aware, at the close of the last century, of the dangers of an art animated by hatred of its audience. In a review of Flaubert, James wrote of “the strange weakness of [Flaubert’s] mind, his puerile dread of the grocer,” and asserted that this sentiment had “sterilized a whole province of French literature.” What James reminds us is that artistic authenticity does not require bourgeois-bashing, and that the truest art entirely transcends the pleasure wars.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.