Review – de Maistre, “St. Petersburg Nights”

Joseph de Maistre, “St. Petersburg Nights: Or, Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence” (1821) (translated from the French by Richard Lebrun) – Insofar as Joseph de Maistre has a reputation in the anglophone world, it’s as the arch-orthodox monarchist conservative. No sentimentality, no Whig background like his British opposite number, Burke: this is the dude who wrote a rhapsody to the hangman as the basis of the social order. Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay about Maistre as forerunner of fascism (Maistre might be “fash” but not like that); Hari Kunzru had his altright TV writer villain insert Maistre speeches into the mouth of his renegade cop character. An air of limpid, cultured menace — think Hannibal Lecter — lingers around him.

Well, here’s a weird one- this supposed arch-orthodox, who was, by all accounts, a sincere and fervent Catholic, was also an “Illuminist” and a member of a Masonic lodge. This is an odd one. Catholic reactionaries aren’t supposed to like the Masons. In the anglophone Protestant countries, that’s mostly down to Masonic anti-Catholicism- I remember older Catholic relatives (not reactionaries) telling me if I had to join a fraternal order, it should be the Knights of Columbus, not the Masons. In continental Europe it’s a little more complicated. By and large, French reactionary culture has despised the Masons and the Enlightenment culture it was tied to. The Vichy regime had to be asked by the Nazis to round up French Jews, but they went after the Masons all on their own. At the same time, you do get groups like the P2 Masonic lodge, which assisted neofascist coup attempts in Italy, and Maistre’s lifelong involvement with Masonry and other mystical strains that weren’t exactly Catholic. Some of Maistre’s works made their way to the Vatican’s naughty list, even as Catholic presses translated and published his works. 

“Soirees de Saint-Petersbourg” was, I’ve read, the work Maistre was most proud of, his last statement. Beyond that hangman spiel, which comes from one of the early dialogues in this book, most of his work that gets circulated in academic circles is his earlier, more directly political stuff, regardless of what the man himself thought. This is probably in part because the dialogues here are… odd. Take the subtitle. “The temporal government of providence” – maybe it’s just grammatically awkward, and means “the way divine providence governs the affairs of time,” but as read in English, makes it sound like a time-bound governance system for the divine. That doesn’t make a lot of sense- as far as I can tell, one of the basic elements of divinity is that it’s not time-bound, not in the way human life is, at least. 

That’s just the subtitle. The dialogues themselves are a discussion between three dudes: a young, somewhat naive but polite “Chevalier,” a somewhat sententious but right-headed older “Count,” and “the Senator,” and when he starts talking, The_Wisdom_Dispenser has logged on. The Senator is Maistre, explaining how despite how it all looks, God has it all in hand. But not in some easy peasant way! It’s not all rainbows and meeting your pets in heaven. It’s closer to a state of divine justice, everything working out according to God’s plan, in much the same way as the existence of the hangman, however repellent — because repellent! — holds up the social order, so does suffering hold up the general temporal order. Maistre never quite gets at why this supposedly all-powerful, all-good God decided to make a universe with sentient beings destined to run afoul of his rules and suffer for it. Presumably, if the Chevalier bothered to ask that, rather than just tell Senator Maistre he’s a genius after every answer, Maistre would do a shell game involving causality or something. The usual mystic stuff.

The theology isn’t interesting, though it is weirdly off in places, for this supposed arch-Catholic, and most of the weirdness comes from Maistre’s insistence that, on earth, it actually does all make sense. That seems to be where his “illuminism” comes in, though I’ll admit, I’m a neophyte with this stuff. A lot of mystics – from Renaissance magicians to the Freemasons (back before they became a social club) to the Five Percenters – seem to understand the principle of “as above, so below” (never got why that was so compelling to people) implied that just as heaven is rightly ordered (again… why?), so too is Earth, if only we could see it. Oftentimes, they imply that happiness, peace, even superhuman power comes with somehow “grokking” this truth in its fullness. No waiting for divine redistribution of fates in the afterlife! It’s interesting, but also sad, mostly in the way it asks a sad question… which is more pathetic? Thinking that a divine figure will arrange things just so, make things somehow make sense, after you die, or thinking that you will, learn, magic your way to making this world make sense while still in it, the way God supposedly wants you (and really only you, and other people cool enough to do the thing) to do? I’ll punt to where I usually do: at least orthodox religion, with its series of IOUs payable on some judgment day, have substantial real estate portfolios on this earth, more than most of the heterodox can say. 

What intrigued me most about the Nights wasn’t its strangeness, but its continuities with other thought. Here, I’m influenced by a book I read back in my comprehensive exams days, when I ambitiously looked into all kinds of stuff my professors didn’t recommend or even know about, because, I don’t know, I did. One was a book on de Maistre’s influence by one Carolina Armenteros. It was a strange, fascinating book, that insisted that far from being a lonely figure on his mountain of Catholic reactionary obscurantism, Maistre was actually profoundly influential on French social and historical thought throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, his influence was less straightforwardly counter-enlightenment, in some easy “revolution and democracy equals bad, religion and monarchy equals good” kind of way, though he did believe those things. Rather, Maistre was important for his methodologies and research agendas, that generally complicated, and in some ways ran alongside, Enlightenment methodologies of social thought, rather than simply opposing them. 

And in these dialogues, you can see it. Maistre despised most of the lumieres, the Rousseaus and Voltaires, but he did not altogether abandon their methods in favor because… what other options were there? He was too old and unadaptable for the Romantic route, like fellow French Catholic reactionary Chateaubriand would take (one of the reasons Berlin’s Maistre takes were so blazingly wrong- he places Maistre in his hall of fame of Romantic, anti-rational bad guys, and that dog won’t hunt). He wasn’t going to get over with his reactionary thought that way. He’s a little bit closer to Burke in this respect, in that he tries to lay down an alternative path to collecting, refining, and disseminating knowledge that will work for a literate public to whom you can’t simply wave a cross or a flag as an explanatory method. Burke is closer to romanticism, even populism, encouraging his epigones to try to track the capillary methods through which the “little platoons” create – maybe congeal is the right word, or generate, if we’re being more generous – the great organic tree of society. 

But that’s not quite Maistre. In one sense of the word, Maistre was a rationalist: not in the degraded sense of “reasonable” (they’re not) but in terms of rationalist versus empiricist, working from first principles as opposed to from collecting observations. More than Voltaire or other salon Clever Dicks, Maistre hates Francis Bacon. But this isn’t for the usual “God is higher than Science” reasons we’re used to- it’s because Maistre believes he has a counter-science, a rationalist understanding of the universe superior to empiricism (not unlike Lyndon LaRouche, in this!). In his way, he was as devoted to the systematic exploration of the implications of his understanding as were any Enlightenment philosophes for theirs. This, presumably, is why the Soirees was his favorite work. 

French historians and social scientists – Chateaubriand, Comte, Saint-Simon – did not reject Enlightenment empiricism as thoroughly as de Maistre did. It’s also possible to overstate de Maistre’s rejection of facts- he clearly was a great reader and collector of information, such as he had access to. What he had in common with later French historical social thought was a way of arranging his facts, using facticity strategically to counter other schema of thought, specifically, the Enlightenment thought of the revolutionary era, which threatened to become hegemonic in France, arguably in Europe. Later French social thinkers could, like de Maistre, take on board the trope of empirical facts pointing to a hidden hand, to forces that aligned human societies and history that can only be seen by a sort of negative inference, what the record shows is possible (and, more to the point, impossible). It’s not quite Hegel’s dialectic, or Smith’s invisible hand- it’s altogether woolier and, well, more esoteric than that- the idea that the scholar’s role is to uncover these esoteric forces (later given a boost by the ways in which stuff we can’t see, from germs to electromagnetic waves, really do affect our lives). They presume a hidden hand- maybe not Maistre’s divine providence, but something. Later social scientists could turn these intellectual practices towards goals that, had they been alive to see it, Maistre might disapprove and his lumiere enemies might like better, such as Comte’s rational society run by sociologist-priests. But they are still living in, attempting to explore and articulate, a world where knowledge makes itself known via the application of value-laden rationalistic schema giving order to the welter of fact. You can see how that might find itself even further down the road, with your Foucaults and LaTours, though I’d tend to think that would be more a legacy de Maistre left on French thought rather than direct influence. 

Anyway! Who knows how much all of that really means. I do like spooky-ing up the French rationalist tradition. It’s no good taking people at their self-assessment without thorough examination, and the idea that the French really are more rational-as-in-reasonable than us Anglos never really washed. Rational as in schematic, sure… but their schemes might be weirder than all that. Among other things, rather disenchants our reactionary Lecter figure, too… That’s what allowed me to enjoy this as much as I did. Your mileage may vary. ****

Review – de Maistre, “St. Petersburg Nights”

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