In 1810, Jan Potocki sent Joseph de Maistre an essay in which Potocki speculated that there were several floods that happened in several regions at several epochs of the earth’s history. De Maistre sent back a letter defending Biblical chronology. He divided his defense into sections, beginning with the metaphysical. About which he says:
“It [metaphysics] teaches that everything has been made by and for the intelligence; that man began with science, and not in a state of barbarity, as all of the 18th century school falsely and stupidly supposed; that the perfectibility of man and his taste for science is only the secret instinct of his nature, which moves him to return to his native state; that the state of the savage, which one has called the state of nature, is precisely the contrary of nature and the last degree of human degredation; that it is thus impossible to reason worse than those have done who argue the state of sciences at a point in time distant from antiquity in order to suppose a crowd of anterior centuries necessary for gradually leading up to such a state of human knowledge. We cry out: how much time was necessary to arrive at this point! – Plato would respond to us: without a doubt, if nobody learned was taught what they would have learned… The human families that depart from the state of barbarism have nothing in common with primitive man, who was, following the happy expression of Seneca, Diis recentes.” Maistre, correspondance, 238
I don’t know if De Maistre ever read William Paley and his famous example of the design of the world – a watch found out in the grass. Paley’s point was that such a watch indicated intelligence. But de Maistre would see under that comparison the degenerate theory of evolution, or progress – for there are no single watches in the world. Watches are produced by watch factories, and watchmakers use instruments and parts that evolved elsewhere – for instance, the little grooved wheels that first evolved for taking water out of wells – to make the watch. Design leads us to evolution, which leads us inevitably to progress. De Maistre, of course, sees the world in inverse terms, as a place that is condemned by original sin and only redeemed by the son of God. In his strict theology, there is no progress.
De Maistre is the metaphysician of the reaction. He of course knew Jan Potocki and his family. He knew him as a fellow mason. I’ve been threading about Marx’s notion of universal history in the Grundrisse. Deleuze and Guattari in the Anti-Oedipus asked, how can we find enough innocence to make universal history? Much of Anti-Oedipus is devoted to showing how universals were made, under the aegis of capitalism and the familialism that characterizes the Great Transformation – thus neatly bringing together two of my themes, that of free love and that of the role played by universal-makers in the construction of the World System. Potocki and de Maistre were both aware of, and both working on the margins of, the fashion, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, for universal histories.
I wanted to backtrack from Marx to the formation of reactionary alienation. Since, more and more, I’ve come to think of Jan Potocki as a leading character in The Human Limit, it is fortunate that some of de Maistre’s most revealing letters were written to him.
Or rather, not fortunate. Around Potocki there comes into play myriad coincidences – he is a connector, a man with very short degrees of separation from many of the players in the transatlantic Revolutions. In other letters, Maistre refers to Potocki as a man who has helped him get books. He described Potocki going off to war in 1808, against Napoleon, bringing with him several Indian cockatoos – de Maistre loved the dandyish gesture.
Yet, in his letter to Potocki, he takes it upon himself to caution that irreligion is the infallible mark of scum – canaille.