Arthur de Gobineau, the French writer and theorist who described himself as “a poor fellow from the 18th Century fallen into (the 19th) by a fluke I shall never be able to explain to myself,” was indeed a man at odds with his era. “Anti-republican, anti-colonialist, anti-progressive and anti-evolutionist in the century of democratization, imperialist expansion, technical progress and Darwinism,” as the authors write, Gobineau was alienated from the intellectuals of his day as well as from his own family: “I hereby leave and bequeath,” he wrote in his will, “what Madame de Gobineau my wife has not stolen or spent from my estate to . . . Diane de Gobineau . . . and do so only because the law requires it.”
Gobineau hasn’t fared much better since then, either being ignored or remembered (incorrectly, we learn) as an anti-Semite. And yet he was a fascinating figure, intense and searching, if deeply neurotic, as Annette and David Smith, literature professors at Caltech, demonstrate in this new collection.
While Gobineau was racist for his belief in an initial inequality (with “black and yellow peoples” toward the bottom and the Germanic race at the top), he believed that all races had degenerated by his time, into a “tasteless, colorless” mass. He was never anti-Semitic (saluting the ancient Hebrews, in fact, as “gifted,” “free,” “strong” and “intelligent”) and despite his theories, he vociferously defended blacks and Indians when they were being exploited in America.
Gobineau’s stories are “delightfully aerial,” as the translators write, easily accessible and deceptively romantic. “Adelaide,” for example, is superficially about a countess “at the peak of her glory (but) . . . also at the edge of the slope that would lead her down from it” who courts a young man, only to see him fall for her daughter. On another level, though, “Adelaide” reflects Gobineau’s belief in an ecology that, like a Shakespearean fairy, returns characters to their proper place in Nature after social conflict leads them astray.