Coffee for the intellectuals

Gobineau, the Prince of Pessimists, to Tocqueville, the last credible optimist, 1856:

“Don’t doubt my religion. If I say I am Catholic, it is the truth. Of course I am not a perfect Catholic, which I regret, though some day I hope to be one, but at least I am a sincere Catholic, Catholic in heart and soul, and if I believed for a moment like you that my historical ideas were in opposition to the Catholic religion, I should give them up immediately.”

I love to mention Count Arthur de Gobineau (such as here), if only because he makes progressive ears curl. Or, he did back when they had some idea who he was; these days they don’t know anything. Like Nietzsche, he is a joy to read, even and perhaps especially when one thinks that everything he writes is wrong, or primly assumes that he is godless.

When Nietzsche, for instance, says that “God is dead,” in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, he is not saying what he seems to be saying. He was the world champion ironist, after all. He is echoing Hegel, who thought this perception a normal part of the Christian experience of redemption. Nietzsche says it again in Also sprach Zarathustra, I gather. A wide chasm, it echoes back and forth. It is an ironical way of hinting that, “God lives.”

There was a time when Nietzsche had only a few dozen readers. Now he has a million who do not understand him. Gobineau is luckier: he once had plenty, but only a few dozen today.

When Gobineau champions the spirit of La Renaissance, in delectably imagined dialogues between historical figures, he is not, as any post-modern will assume, demeaning the Middle Ages. Rather he is demeaning everything that comes after. He exults in such Renaissance “values” as Beauty, Learning, Energy, Force, Manliness. He decries our effeminate counter-values: liberté, égalité, fraternité, … “kultur.” (Someone fetch my Browning.)

World traveller, and world perceiver, speaker and reader of many languages, Gobineau earned the rights to his opinions. And he is generous in sharing them.

He thought, for example, that the Chinese were crass and materialist — like the British. But like Doctor Johnson he thought something could be done, even with a Scotsman, “if he were caught young.”

Really, people should read his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, rather than the hatchet job in the Wicked Paedia, before offering their opinions. You should see what he thinks about his contemporary Frenchmen. He is an equal-opportunity abuser, at least.

And here’s a Canadian angle. Employed by the Quai d’Orsay, Gobineau was sent to Newfoundland (with side-trips to Cape Breton and Nova Scotia) to vexate hopelessly upon the perpetual fishing dispute between the British, Newfoundlanders, French, and Saint-Pierrais and Miquelonnais — as punishment for refusing to take a post in Peking. This gave him an opportunity to slander us in our outports, too, while making thoughtful observations on regional geography, history, ethnology, and so forth. As often in his marvellous travel sketches, he fails to conceal a sweet-natured affection for the very savages upon whom he heaps racial, creedal, and class epithets. He condemns everyone. But he is also fascinated with everything, everywhere he goes.

His views on the Persians, among whom he lived (as diplomat) for years, precisely match those we find in The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824) — long given to English travellers as a kind of preparation and warning. Gobineau shocked critics who twitched, even then, at the despotism of their rulers, by complaining that the Persians were “too democratic.” He said they had accomplished nothing since the time of Herodotus; that if the British managed to enlist them as allies, they would attack the Russians next morning, be defeated by noon, and side with the Russians by evening. The trick, which he was trying to perform in the interest of France, was to keep them as enemies.

Yes, he is a white supremacist; which is why, I suppose, he reserves the best part of his contempt for white people. His theory, if such it may be called, is ultimately at the service of an aristocratic vision, and thus no practical use to our low-life neo-Nazis. I might summarize it in this way. The Blacks have more rhythm, the Orientals more smarts, and the Whites are the Aristotelian mean. For all I know this may be true.

I recommend we sprinkle the works of Gobineau around all the university safe spaces. They will make heads explode. Or would, if only the heads in question could read. But then, there is hardly a book that could not serve these joyless combustibles as a fuse.