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  • The Culture of Love: Victorians to Moderns
  • Joshua D. Esty
Stephen Kern . The Culture of Love: Victorians to Moderns. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. 458 pp. $34.95.

Taking his cue from Virginia Woolf's famous observation that historians tend to ignore private experiences, Stephen Kern has written the cultural history of a manifestly important subject which traditionally resists scholarly analysis: love. Kern proceeds from the claim that love, despite its amorphous, multifarious and often invisible nature, also "has a history." Specifically, he argues that love (in the West) becomes an increasingly "authentic" experience from 1847 to 1934. The theoretical joists supporting this argument come from existentialism and phenomenology, particularly Heidegger's notion of authenticity, which for Kern refers to a mode of existence in which individuals can exercise choice and reflect on the meaning of their choices. The Culture of Love proposes, then, that modern lovers are freer and more self-reflexive than Victorian lovers.

Kern's methodology—that of the cultural historian—depends on the evidentiary value of art. He substantiates his claims with analyses of novels and paintings drawn from the mainstream of European, especially Anglo-American, culture. Indeed, one of the book's chief virtues is its range of sources, which include works of psychology, medicine, and philosophy as well as visual and literary texts from the period in question. Kern uses these [End Page 423] dense depictions of Victorian/modern Zeitgeist to generate persuasive local arguments about changing notions of love. In a chapter on "Desire," for instance, Kern claims that Victorians tended to consider "love in art" (inspiration) whereas modernists, in the wake of Freud, began to consider "love as art" (sublimation). The book makes many such periodization claims, but also pays due attention to exceptions (the works of Whitman and Forster, for example) and to transitional figures such as Hardy and James.

Kern frankly acknowledges his own delimiting mechanisms, including notably the decision to focus almost entirely on heterosexual love. A rich cultural history which integrated analysis of homosexual and heterosexual experience could certainly be written for this period. And, although the argument turns at several junctures on the development of women's freedom as a crucial prerequisite for the more authentic love of the modernist era, Kern tends to assimilate that story into his broader thesis. A more explicit, less muted treatment of the feminist argument would have strengthened the entire historical project.

Two more important questions are raised by the book. First, there is the question of using Heidegger to advance a progressivist historical thesis. Kern seems to align authenticity with self-liberation from the existential condition of being-with-others , thereby conjoining Sartre and Heidegger. He also pits phenomenological ideals of freedom and meaning against the constraints of Victorian social convention, suggestively posing Emily Post's Etiquette (1927) as a counter-text to Being and Time (1927). But, by arguing for clear progress towards freer and more meaningful love in the twentieth century, Kern generates a historical narrative more sanguine than either Sartre's or Heidegger's. Of course, Kern himself acknowledges that his ultimately ethical valuation of modern love over Victorian love does depart significantly from Heidegger.

Finally, Kern's methodology raises anew the question of how artistic products can profitably and validly be read as historical documents. This book makes a strong case for using representations of love as evidence for claims about the actual experience of love. Indeed, Kern argues that cultural artifacts are our best tools for historicizing private and emotional experiences. And yet the considerable insights yielded by this scholarly process are accompanied by a necessary blindness: the historian must ignore problematic layers of invention, fusion and artistic distortion in order to read novels and paintings as telling reflections of "real life" in their social milieu [End Page 424]

Joshua D. Esty
Duke University


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