Thursday, 31 October 2013

The racism of Arthur de Gobineau

The following piece was originally designed to be included in the chapter on Wagner in That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) but was excluded because we felt the chapter would be too long and that the material, although interesting, was more of a byway than essential for understanding Richard Wagner. I think this profile works better on its own.

Arthur de Gobineau

Among the thinkers influencing Richard Wagner was a failed dramatist and poet turned French diplomat, Arthur de Gobineau, whose writings underscored the cultural pessimism that characterized so much of nineteenth-century polemics. Already bitter about the loss of prestige of the nobility, the rise of the “philistine” bourgeoisie with its power of money and the influence of the “mob” since the French Revolution of 1789, Gobineau’s worst fears were confirmed by the Revolutions of 1848 that originated in France and spread their tentacles throughout Europe. These convulsive upheavals destroyed the old aristocratic order with its reverence for political elites, hierarchical social orders and family lineage. Doubts about his own aristocratic background drove Gobineau to idealize the Aryan nobility as a surrogate for his own origins. 

Turning to history, he argued in his four-volume magnum opus Essay on the Inequality of Races, that race or blood was the decisive factor in determining the vitality of a civilization. He accepted the existing racial hierarchy of blacks at the bottom who possessed animal passion but had limited intellectual and moral faculties, yellows who sought material satisfactions but otherwise were mediocre, and whites with “an energetic intelligence” that sustained their love of freedom and order and honour. He further distinguished within the white category the super-elite of Aryans with superior blood. The Aryan, that originally poured down from the Hindu Kush, “by virtue of his intelligence and his energy” was superior to other men, and for a time was uncontaminated by other races and debased Whites. His survey of ten civilizations purportedly demonstrated that a white Aryan race, originating in Central Asia, was responsible for the creation of civilizations culminating in Charlemagne’s Europe with its Teutonic and Frankish warriors. History, he said, “shows us that all civilizations derive from the white race, which none can exist without its help,” and “a society is great and brilliant only so far as it preserves the blood of the noble group that created it.” But this Aryan race, too, found itself abutted to the conquered peoples and inevitably succumbed to miscegenation. Gobineau wrote that over the centuries, promiscuous interbreeding with inferior races led to the slow debilitation of the noble race, and Europe was in decline because “the blood of the civilizing race is gradually drained away.” 

Barely disguising his hatred of democracy, he argued that Europe was a cesspool of racial degeneration, as “fresh hoards of mongrelized masses emerge from the rural darkness to descend on the cities and towns” wreaking havoc through their revolutionary fervor incited by demagogues preaching a false egalitarianism. Even with pockets of Aryan blood still remaining, contemporary disorders, intellectual and aesthetic mediocrity and racial enervation only reinforced his bleak and irreversible conclusion that “the white species will disappear from the face of the earth” as other races ascend and obliterate their memory forever. Some races were already disappearing and others have become extinct: “China has never had fewer inhabitants than it has now; central Asia was an anthill, and now there is no one there.”  His bleak implication was that mankind itself would not survive.  

Consistent with his era’s taxonomy, Gobineau employed race interchangeably with ethnicity, nation, civilization and most likely class, because the latter category is frequently the subtext of his analysis. However he blurred the distinctions, Gobineau argued the bizarre notion that the “white race has disappeared from the face of the earth” having “lost their original purity by the time of Christ.” The French Revolution had only marked the final defeat of racial exclusivity and the further dilution and exhaustion of Whites. If he had substituted class for race, his ideas would likely have carried greater resonance. But this perspective would have forced him to grapple with the ideas expounded by the left, and his conservative temperament did not allow that kind of dialogue since liberalism, democracy and socialism were symptoms of racial decline. Yet Gobineau, considering his work to be an exact science, compared himself to Copernicus. The more striking parallel is with Karl Marx, who concurrently was developing a so-called scientific economic basis of history, which explained not only the past but, following its own laws, predicted the future. They both shared a profound alienation from the dominant political, economic and cultural milieus of their time. Marx, however, was formulating a theory that, in his view, would inevitably eliminate class inequalities and inevitably inaugurate an idyllic society. If Marx perceived Britain as a beacon of hope in his belief that a highly advanced industrialized society provided the most fertile ground for a proletarian revolution, Gobineau despised it. To him it represented a debased, bourgeois society dominated by mercantile values. Gobineau’s overview of global history foreclosed the possibility of cultural renewal since it rested on a biological determinism that would lead inexorably to extinction since racial inequalities had been dissolved. Only in his book, The Renaissance did he hold out the slim possibility that disaster might be averted if societies looked to the inspiration provided by the beauty of ancient Greece and the virtues of Rome even though the characters he draws upon fail to defeat the forces of evil.  

Gobineau’s lack of evidence to support his ludicrous hypothesis and ahistorical fatalism, particularly absent in his infamous Essay, troubled his French contemporaries. Where was the proof that the observable features of contemporary civilizations were the result of supposed mixtures in the past? According to his one-time mentor, the liberal Alex de Tocqueville, whose old Norman family bequeathed to him a greater inner security, if humanity’s best days were over, it would be necessary “to know not only the past but also the future.” In addition, Gobineau dogmatically accepted the “immutable laws” of race history that had predetermined his gloom-laden and apocalyptic conclusion. Gobineau said that man was dying and “no one will replace [him] when [his]
Alex de Tocqueville
degeneration is completed.” This fatalism disturbed Tocqueville because, as a committed believer in human liberty, these repugnant views sapped energy, confidence and the will to achieve as well as rendering man helpless. Gobineau’s racist outlook also repelled Tocqueville. He perceptively raised the question: “Do you not see inherent in your doctrine all the evils engendered by permanent inequality – pride, violence, scorn of fellow men, tyranny and abjection in all their forms?” Gobineau and later racists either evaded this consideration or in acknowledging it did not regard as evil the cost of racial inequality. That a contemporary of Gobineau recognized the pernicious effects of racism reveals that we do not need the benefit of hindsight when we discuss the link between the French Count and Nazism. But instead of wrestling with the implications of this devastating question, Gobineau deflected criticism as confirmation of his views. Michael Biddiss, his biographer, (Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau New York:Weybright and Talley, 1970) perceived a direct link between Gobineau’s work and the more infamous one written seventy years later when he commented that Essay “elaborated a racial philosophy of history and society that surpasses in scope and sinister grandeur even the pages of Mein Kampf.” 

Although extraordinarily popular at the time, Gobineau’s ideas have been largely discredited by recent science. First Europeans are a result of the genetic mixture resulting from migrations from Africa and Asia, two-thirds Asian and one-third African. Secondly racial purity is impossible to create; partial purity could only be created through at least twenty generations of inbreeding that would have severe consequences for the health and fertility of the children. (Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, Peoples, and Languages, translated by Mark Seielstad, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, 76, 12.) These discoveries demonstrate that Darwin’s conception of mankind, as a single species, was more accurate than the racist fantasies that proved so destructive.

Nevertheless, researchers like the psychologist Philippe Rushton have recycled with modifications Gobineau’s hierarchy of races. The late controversial former professor at the University of Western Ontario was funded by an American foundation that supports research into the roots of intelligence. Asians have supplanted whites in the racial hierarchy with the most brains and the least testosterone; blacks remain on the bottom with the biggest genitals, the most testosterone and the smallest brains. This kind of research demonstrates that a windfall of funds is available for intellectual cul-de-sacs.

Richard Wagner
If Gobineau’s ideas as a racist theorist carried little immediate import in France, they found an enthusiastic reception via Richard Wagner in Germany, who embraced both him and the pith and substance of his argument. Gobineau and Wagner met in 1876 and a friendship ensued through their enjoyment of each other’s company and in Wagner’s appreciation of the intelligence and "original mind" of the retired diplomat. By 1881, Wagner in reading Gobineau’s magnum opus believed that it provided scientific evidence for his own avowed racist views even though he did not appreciate Gobineau’s disparaging remarks about contemporary Germans. According to Wagner, Gobineau understood “all the peoples in the world except the Germans.” More importantly like Tocqueville, he rejected Gobineau’s fatalism; unlike the French liberal, who objected to Gobineau’s conclusion of irreversible decline for humanitarian reasons, Wagner repudiated his pessimistic beliefs on religious grounds. Races may be done for but redemption was possible in the acceptance of Christianity and through art, which he believed was essentially a religious experience. According to his second wife Cosima, he said on February 14, 1881, that the Gospels, not racial strength, were what really mattered.  Gobineau in turn rejected Wagner’s faith in the redemptive power of Christianity. Nor did he share Wagner’s notorious anti-Judaism that larded the latter’s prose as well as his frequent and odious rants against the Jews, (the French and the Roman Catholic Church, especially the Jesuits) that laced Cosima’s posthumously published diaries. Anti-Judaism had not penetrated into Gobineau’s racist arsenal because ancient Jews warriors, farmers and traders surpassed their neighbours, were a “free, strong and intelligent people,” and their survival through the Diaspora constituted evidence of the virtues of racial purity. Indeed, because of his hostility to miscegenation, Gobineau admired, among all the Semitic peoples, the isolationism of the Jews.

Cosima Wagner (1877)
After the deaths of Gobineau and Wagner who expired within months of each other, Wagner’s widow Cosima, whose marriage to the much older Wagner had been a paragon of devotion, now set out to preserve his legacy by proclaiming herself as the authoritative keeper of the Wagnerian shrine. Despite the ideological differences between her late husband and Gobineau, she promoted, along with her coterie, the French author’s work as an adjunct to her husband’s creative endeavors. They believed that Wagner’s music dramas, especially the massive, fifteen-hour tetralogy, The Ring of the Nibelung, with its authentic recreations of an old Norse Germanic legend, complimented Gobineau’s general belief in an ancient, stalwart Aryan people who offered the gift of civilization, but had been damaged by miscegenation. It would not have occurred to Cosima, who shared, if not exceeded, her husband’s anti-Semitism, that his music dramas could be impugned because of his offensive prose, even though she strove to recover all his correspondence to ensure that his posthumous image could in no way be blemished. Indeed, because she believed that she alone understood her husband’s will, Bayreuth became, under her autocratic direction, the quasi-religious mecca of Volkisch nationalism. For example, she made certain that, because of her husband’s late-life preoccupation with scientific racism, Gobineau’s works would be translated into German and a Gobineau society created. Had Wagner himself not drawn attention to the idiosyncratic, if not preposterous, views presented in the Essay by the French diplomat, they might have languished and remained neglected in the nineteenth century.


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