Wednesday, June 08, 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 Tocqueville’s research assistant for the latter’s history of the ancien regime. Most of their correspondence was published 1907, although the editors deleted certain parts – for instance, Tocqueville’s confession that he was an agnostic. It is by the prudery of editors that posterity is shaped.

As to the question of Jesus Christ and Isaac Newton, translated into another register: Tocqueville quickly seized on the main thesis of Gobineau’s system, and presents it with admirable clarity:

“Thus, you speak endlessly of races regenerating or deteriorating, which take on or quit social capacities that they did not have by an infusion of different blood ; I believe that these are your own words. I must declare that this predestination appears to me a cousin of pure materialism. Believe me that if the crowd,  which follows the great paths blazed by reasoning, admitted your doctrine, they would go immediately from the race to the individual and from social faculties to all faculties whatsoever.  It makes little difference, from my point of view, which is that of the practical consequence of different philosophical doctrines, if, the fatality is directly implanted into certain organisations of matter or it is the will of God who wanted to make many species of humans in the human genus and then impose on certain humans the obligation, in virtue of the race to which they belong, not to have certain sentiments, certain thoughts, certain behaviors, certain qualities that they will know about without being able to acquire them. The two theories result in a great restriction, if not to say complete abolition of human liberty. Thus, I confess to you that after having read you this time, as well as before, I remain situation at the extreme opposite of these doctrines. I believe they are probably false and certainly very pernicious.”

I think Tocqueville is very smart to grasp the essence of the theory of racism, or the inequality of races: that it naturally poisons the relationship between different kinds of humans who are nevertheless grouped together as humans. Either it is true, and thus the superior individual owes everything to the race, and denies every part of the superiority to the inferior, while the inferior is aware, at every moment, of thoughts, sentiment and behaviors that she is materially denied – or it is untrue, and it introduces the most pernicious conflict and apology for conflict between “races”. Morally, both parts of this are bad. But, as Tocqueville says, as natural history this idea is founded on a myth of ancient purity that nothing shows us ever existed.

“When it is a question of human families which differ among each other in a deep and permanent manner by their exterior aspect, we could perhaps recognize different distinctive traits during the course of time and go back to a sort of different creation. The doctrine, in my opinion, would without being certain becomes at least less improbable and easier to establish. But when we put ourselves in the middle of one of those great families, say, that of the white race for instance, the thread of our reasoning disappears and escapes us a each step. What is more uncertain in the world whatever we do than the question of knowing by history or tradition when, how and in what proportions humans are mixed, who retain no visible trace of their origin?”

Indeed, Tocqueville’s curious conservative liberalism seems to prefigure the arguments made in a book that came out about four years before this correspondence was published by the Revue des Deux Mondes: The Souls of Black Folks.  

Tocqueville’s liberalism was founded not on some ideal picture of the human, some existential model, but on the fact that humans are always within some circumstance. He always brought philosophical doctrine down to the circumstances in which it was produced, and that it effected. In this way, Tocqueville’s thinking had a very pragmatic strain. Given the attention to circumstances, Tocqueville was anything but color-blind – rather, he was color-aware, he saw the circumstances that had made for the “white race” and its relation to all others. Du Bois observed that the white race was a discovery of the 18th and 19th century: I think Tocqueville would have agreed. That doesn’t make race any less a social fact. But it makes the social fact of race an object for historical observation.

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

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 be by Shakespeare, and since the mechanism of publication in Plato’s and Shakespeare’s epochs did not color within the lines and give us straightforward attributions, we have scholars mightily working on the sidelines to either purge the units comprising their works or add others to them. Not surprisingly, these scholars refer to … the agreed corpus of Shakespeare’s and Plato’s works to make their arguments.
But what the biography means after we have all agreed that these are the terms of the game is another matter. Some would say that the unity of an artist’s work is different from that of a philosopher or scientist. The unity of Einstein’s work, for instance, is secondary to the universe that it tries to account for. Shakespeare cannot be overthrown by the behavior of real Princes who happen to be in Hamlet’s position, but Einstein can be overthrown if we find evidence that the speed of light is not the fastest thing in the universe. If Einstein actually stole the proof from his wife, it would lower our opinion of Einstein (the stealer!) but not of the theory of general relativity.
Of course, we “find” our proves for science through science. We don’t have any direct oracle from nature. Unless, like Newton, we think that science makes no hypotheses, and the math is just that direct oracle from nature, more direct than any hearing or echolocation. In which case, there is a sense in which there are no authors in science, there are just figures.
But in the social sciences and in philosophy, we don’t have science in that sense. We have Marx, we have Keynes, we have Wittgenstein, we have Heidegger – we have a set of figures who seem, like Tolstoy or Austin, to have an authorial relation to their texts.
The next defense of the formalist is that at least here, we can forget the vices and virtues of the figures and speak of their arguments in the same way that we can speak of the formal characteristics and values that go into building a poem, play, or novel.
This, at least, is one way of building the argument.,

Sunday, June 05, 2022

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 Ireland in 1835. He explains that he is in Kilkenny – for what purpose, he is rather vague. It all has to do with what an anthropologist would call field work. For Tocqueville, this meant attending trials and talking to judges and lawyers, among others.

“ I came here attracted by the assizes. Not being able, myself, to judge or condemn anyone, I wanted to have the pleasure of seeing how these things are done by others.
Doesn’t this remind you of the fable of the cat who was metamorphosed into a woman, and who was surprised running after rats? For a philosopher like me, there is nothing, besides, more curious than the assizes.”

Tocqueville’s mind was well stocked with the fables of La Fontaine and the stories of Perrault. In this little sentence, something shines out: you are what you hunt. An especially wise maxim for a writer, a tribe known for self-delusion. What you hunt and how you hunt it is all out there, if you know how to look.

In the recent NYRB, there’s a review by Linda Hunt the book on Robespierre by Marcel Gauchet, an author who rather fancies himself a republican in the vein of Tocqueville. Hunt is rather merciful with a book that, as she writes, seems wilfully ignorant of any new scholarship about Robespierre, or maybe any scholarship at all. Gauchet’s thesis is the conservative one: modernism, by which a jumble of events from the French revolution to the rise of the bourgeoisie, was consequent upon the “de-christianization”. Hunt begins the review in the tried and true manner of the Cold War liberals – whose style lingers on:

“Before Hitler and Stalin (and Putin), there was Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the French Revolution during the period in 1793–1794 known as the Terror.”

Imagine writing: “Before Hitler and Stalin (and Putin) there was Thomas Jefferson…” Or, William Pitt, or Toussaint L’ouverture, etc. In Jefferson’s case, the affinities with Hitler – an entire world view shaped by racism and the need for Lebensraum, to the point of supporting ethno-cide – is pretty clear. But the stupidity of the list is really marked by the parentheses “(and Putin)”, elevating Putin to the heady company of the great murderers, when in actuality he is still well below George Bush in murderous effect. It is by such means that Cold War liberalism became the undertaker of its own principles, since if Robespierre (and Putin) equal Stalin and Hitler, the crimes of Stalin and Hitler are normalized, diminished, and whitewashed.

In any case, Hunt’s review gets better after its first sentence. And she coops Gauchet’s most sweeping thesis in a useful paragraph:

“Modern democracies, he maintains, emerged as the religious foundations of collective existence crumbled; religion did not disappear, of course, but it no longer provided the crucial legitimation for the political and social order. Modern democracies therefore face the challenge of explaining to the citizenry what holds society together in the absence of any transcendental justification.”

This strikes me as a pretty shaky thesis, although it is pretty commonplace. It depends on a sort of collective, qualitative erosion: the religious foundations “crumble” – somewhere. In the minds of the intellectuals? Of the educated class, the governors? In the ordinary life of the people? And this, too, assumes something called the “religious foundations.” While it is true that in France, in contrast to Britain (which emerged from the Puritan revolution with a closer tie to religious institutions in the ordinary life of the masses), de-Christianization as marked by the increasing disuse of Christian rituals has been closely traced by historians like Michel Voyelle, who used testaments, which classically contained a “spiritual” passage, to track the decline of Christian authority in the 18th century, it is a bit too facile to take this decline as a proof of some great skepticism concerning “transcendental justification”; it could as well be the parallel to a legitimation crisis striking the idea that certain families were proxies for and entitled to rule the state, or region, etc. Herzen, in the 19th century, derided the Russian royal family for believing that Russia was defined by a family – the family of the czar. These families – in England with Henry VIII, in France with Louis XIV, in Russia with Peter the Great – succeeded in throwing off supposedly rooted forms of religious practice in favor of others – which to my mind points to the practical foundation of what holds society together, which is the power of some established elite.

I’m not sure that many people need a transcendental justification for what holds society together. However, I am sure that some do. And this might have something to do with the story of the French Revolution. I’ve been reading Michon’s novel, The Eleven, recently. The novel centers on a painting of the Commission of Public Safety – Robespierre, St. Just, Barrere, etc. – painted by Corentin. There is no real painting named The Eleven, and no real painter named Corentin: like Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Marbot, Michon is using a fake vita as the form in which to put his story – and his quasi thesis, which is that the French Revolutionary leadership contained an awful lot of would be authors. Literature, as his narrator puts it, was taking the place of religion. Religion, here, is much more expressly the kind of thing that happens when people pay tithes, go to church, and are preached to and directed by minions of the church, priests and such. Michon is most concerned with literature as we informally know it – but for me, literature is an effect of media, and it is media that is truly working as the underground mole against the ancien regime. In France in 1789, in other places like Russia in 1917… As Thomas Mann once put it, the ancien regime ended in 1914, not 1789. It was not a transcendental justification, but the formation of the time zone of the contemporaneous – a “we” in time – that, to my mind, defines society among its members.

Which gets us back to the cat, the woman and the rat – for doesn’t this demonstrate how what you hunt and how you hunt it defines who you are – what woman you are – under appearances? To me, the rat is not the transcendental justification of the social at all. And when somebody else’s rat is put in those terms…

I smell a rat.

The ethics of integrity or the Baker at Dachau

    Throughout the 19th and 20th century, one stumbles upon the lefthand heirs of Burke – Red Tories, as Orwell called them. Orwell’s inst...