Review- de Gobineau, “Essay on the Inequality of Human Races”

Arthur de Gobineau, “Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races” (1855) (translated from the French by Adrian Collins) – French right-wingers are generally more interesting than right-wingers from the Anglosphere, I’ve found. Something about that always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride thing- they never really wound up in charge, the only time they came close was Vichy, a parody of French nationalism installed by their worst enemies… and the worst part was, by that time, that parody probably was the best they could do. Among other things, French right-wing thought is interesting because it’s diverse, which means it never coalesced around one movement or figurehead, not even Papa Petain.

So the work of the Comte de Gobineau, one of the fathers of “scientific” racism, is better than it has any right to be… but still not “good.” An aristocrat who was buddies and pen pals with that other big French aristocratic intellectual name of his era, Alexis de Tocqueville (your original liberal-chud pairing, like how some left-libs pat the likes of Dreher or whoever on the head now sometimes?), the Gobineaus were pretty big losers during the Revolution. Not big enough, if you ask me, but apparently Mama Gobineau started defrauding people to keep little Artie in book money, and you gotta figure that “defraud” might be a euphemism for selling what she had to sell, so…

He’s pissed! He’s pissed at society for being insufficiently deferential to its betters, and pissed at all the theories that imply either equality of peoples, or that inequality is the product of environment, ideas, or any of that (needless to say, the idea that hierarchy might not be the best way to order our comparative understandings of society doesn’t enter into his head, or, to be fair, most nineteenth century heads). He has a good old time showing the many inconsistencies in various theories of history from Herodotus to Rousseau to contemporaries like Guizot. They had a lot of them, as theories of history, and especially theories of history before people really knew how to do archival research, often do. This is the best part of the book.

But then he goes into his big theory of history. It’s all blood, people! Good blood, bad blood (you know I’ve had my share/my woman left home with a brown-eyed man/and I actually really care a lot because his brown eyes are a sign of racial impurity etc etc). All of civilization comes from a small coterie of people with good blood, and most of that good blood comes from “Aryans,” that horrible conceptual gift the advance of linguistics accidentally gave to the world. Why, then, do “civilizations rise and fall,” as one of the central question of nineteenth century thought somewhat unhelpfully put it? Because good blood mingled with the bad blood it conquered! Thereby diluting the bloodlines, thereby leading to the decline of civilization. Gobineau also makes entirely clear he’s talking about France- the nobles, his people, had Germanic Aryan blood, the peasants had Celtic blood, and those peasants only got the better of the nobles because the nobles mixed blood and became degenerate.

This is stupid, and has about the kind of “evidence” behind it as you’d expect, but the kind of stupid that proves, for lack of a better word, “catchy” with some kind of people. It doesn’t convince so much as it burrows a groove in the head of those who want such a groove there. It has embedded in numerous projects into which stupid people with mental energy to spare can invest themselves. They can try to chart where exactly the blood went wrong, or try to explain China, Japan, the Mayans, or whichever non-whites they find impressive as being, somehow, Aryan. They can try to come up with schemes to preserve that blood, which almost always involve shedding somebody else’s.

Interestingly, Gobineau didn’t have an issue with the Jews. He sees them as a strong race, as possibly Aryan even! There’s no big puppet master behind decline, in Gobineau’s book- just horny aristocratic conquerors and hustling low-borns. It makes you wonder why, if they’re such hot shit, the master races can’t maintain, but that’s sort of part of what makes French reaction both smarter and less able to take power than the versions you see in the Anglosphere and in Germany. The latter often say they have a tragic sensibility, but with one or two exceptions, they don’t. Gobineau’s work is spiky with hatred — for black people, for the masses in general, and especially for intellectuals who think the masses are anything other than dross — but it’s also basically resigned to the inevitable tragedy that is life. It’s a stupid, needlessly cruel, and ultimately self-flattering version of tragedy, but at least connects up to it, somewhere, and French reactionary thought from Maistre to Celine to Faye does a lot with that, or anyway, more than other (one is tempted to say “more Aryan,” from the ironically-named Rosenberg to Breivik) do.

Of course, a Hitler is always in the wings to gussy it up and give violent racists something to do other than ponder the tragedies of decline and horniness, and that’s how you get the inevitable blood-farces of reaction. C’est la vie, as Gobineau might sigh to his pen pal Tocqueville. *’

Review- de Gobineau, “Essay on the Inequality of Human Races”

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