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Showing posts from June 5, 2022

Tocqueville and Gobineau

  Il y a un monde intellectuel entre votre doctrine et la mienne - Tocqueville to Gobineau When I was a child in the suburb of Atlanta, I was effected in particular by two books. One was the Bible, and one was the Encyclopedia Britannica – the latter, in the 1911 edition, arriving at our house as a gift from the retired woman across the street, whose husband, a doctor, had bought it. From those two books I evolved a question. I remember it popping into my mind as I was bouncing a basketball on the driveway: why didn’t Jesus discover gravity? A silly question, but as good a place as any to start understanding universal history. Which brings me by a commodious vicus of recirculation, as the man says, to the correspondence between Arthur Gobineau and Alexis Tocqueville concerning the Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines, sent by the former to the latter. Tocqueville and Gobineau were friends long before Gobineau’s book was written; although the elder, Gobineau had been Toc

He who touches this book touches me

  When I went to my freshman American literature class, the first thing I was taught was not to take bits of the author's biography and use them to interpret the text. That used to be the law and the prophets, a discourse full of "fallacies" that only the amateur stumbled into. But that way of looking at literature was always a chancy construct. The obvious objection to the pure formalist’s notion that biography has nothing to do with the artist’s work is that, indeed, biography provides the unifying link that gives you one distinct level of your units of analysis. We don’t jumble together War and Peace and Sense and Sensibility, on this level, but put Sense and Sensibility in that unit called “Jane Austin’s work” and “War and Peace” in what we call Tolstoy’s work, and so on. To compare “Jane Austin” to “Leo Tolstoy” is to reference these unities. When we don’t have those unities, in fact, we get worried. We want all of Plato’s works to be by Plato, and Shakespeare’s to

I smell a rat

  Tocqueville, like Flaubert and Kafka, had a bad case of imposter syndrome – or at least that is how I interpret the writer’s complex. He was always setting out, as a young man, on precisely defined projects in foreign countries – America, Ireland, England - and finding in the midst of them that the definition was too limiting, uninteresting, and just not for him. Over him towered the example of Chateaubriand, to whom he was related: Tocqueville’s aunt married Chateaubriand’s brother, and as that couple perished in the Revolution, their children were brought up by Tocqueville’s parents. Thus, he very naturally became part of the salon around the Grand Old Man. So he knew how the writer’s role was at the intersection of politics and knowledge, in the broad sense – a kind of science, a kind of art. There’s a charming letter that Tocqueville wrote to the Comtesse de Grancey (his cousin, another descendent of a family whose members died in some quantity beneath the guillotine) from Irelan