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Gobineau’s Romantic Orientalism

Had he taken the trouble to read Gobineau more extensively, Said might perhaps have seen the value of placing him within his category of “imaginative and travel literature”. Here he chose Flaubert and Nerval as his chief prototypes of the European writer who went to the Orient to fulfil “some deeply felt and urgent project ... For each ... the Oriental pilgrimage was a quest for something relatively personal.” While the work of each is connected to official Orientalism, it “yet remains independent of it”, one reason being that “their egos never absorbed the Orient, nor totally identified the Orient with documentary and textual knowledge of it”.28 Incorporating Said’s remarks within his own analysis, Ali Behdad has written of Nerval’s “split discourses”. On the one hand instilled with textual Orientalism, at the same time possessing a personal desire for the Orient, Nerval is disappointed by its reality - the ashes and dust of the decaying Cairo that he describes in Journey to the Orient (Voyage en Orient). The same response is enacted with regard to the traveller’s thirst for a stereotypical sensual Orient when, sexually aroused to what lies behind the veil, Nerval realises that “the desire always lies where his subject is not”.29 The genius and personal complexity of Nerval caused him to borrow the “authority of a canonized Orientalist text”30 even while, as Behdad puts it, his personal investment in the dream-like world of his Oriental nouvelles meant that “the narrative of the voyage becomes an imaginary tale divested of most ideological implications of a discourse on the Other”.31

Behdad’s notion of Nerval’s split discourses could appropriately be applied to Gobineau’s Oriental auvres, which range through the genres of travelogue, dissertation, sub-standard poetry, and the Oriental short story. As a traveller in the Orient, Gobineau evinces, it is true, the type of racial observation that became almost de rigueur for later nineteenth-century travellers in the region.32 But against the grain of race he also demonstrates a pity for, and a sense of equality with, the oppressed and exploited populations of the East.33 Repudiating the false ideas of western travellers to Persia who were prepossessed by the superiority of their culture, he preferred to put himself in the place of the people studied before judging their ways of being or feeling.34 Of the Gobineau who was domiciled in Tehran between 1855 and 1858 as First Secretary at the French legation, Jacques Barzun commented:

He acclimatized himself readily and conceived a love for the “semitized” and “melanized” Persians inconsistent with his written profession of faith. His work on the history and religion of the Persians breathes sympathy and understanding in a measure that few writers wholly innocent of racial bias could achieve.35

Persians intrigued Gobineau in spite of their notional decadence, as can be seen in his Asiatic Short Stories, where, as stated in his preface, he consciously set out to broaden the orientalist dimensions of Morier’s depiction in Hajji Baba of what came to be known as “the Persian character”.36 As he wrote to his friend Prokesch Osten: “Tout ce pays, enfin, est plein de l’idee de Dieu. La decrepitude, la vieillesse, la corruption extreme, la fin enfin, est partout dans les institutions, dans les mmurs, dans les caracteres, mais cette constante et absorbante preoccupation sacree, ennoblit singulierement toute cette ruine.”37 In Religions and Philosophies we can see how he characterises Persian ways of thinking as a combination of intuitive and inductive method and distinguishes them from the practical Europeans:

They are full of fire and are the most naturally and deeply intuitive people in the world; they excel ... in splitting hairs, and from the strands they will form a bridge capable of bearing a carriage; they will see unlimited food for thought, by no means lacking in value, in the tiniest notions; but at the same time it is certain that the moral faculty we call common sense and which, let it be said in passing, depresses us at least as often as it guides us, is not in perfect equilibrium with the power of their imagination and the speed of their understanding. The truth is that they lack common sense, and in all their dealings, great and small, one sees barely a trace of it.38

As with Nerval’s split discourses of textual and anti-Orientalism, such identification with oriental intuition answered to deep personal need; it also ensured that Gobineau did not apply race theory as the sole power to explain the land and its peoples - which would presumably have been Said’s point in arguing “to be a European in the Orient always involves being a consciousness set apart from, and unequal with, its surroundings”.39 Comparable to Nerval’s, Gobineau’s articulation of the customs and ways of thought of Persians and other Central Asians was constructed out of personal “desire for the Orient”, a need to find solace in an Other that was the antithesis of the hated Occident. Gobineau’s oriental writings, too, are touched by the Oriental Renaissance, by the “idea of restorative reconstruction”,40 but - and here is his point of departure from the grand schemes of Europe’s rebirth explicated by Schwab - only as related to individual quest. He placed no credence at all in the idea of the West’s being re-invigorated by the East, or in the West’s superiority over the East. In so far as his race theory emphasised the decline of human endeavour in the modern world, it was far too late for positive cultural exchange to occur. By expansion of western trade, the easterners would in time gain the better of the deal and eventually supersede Europe. Through the drive of western imperialism towards conquering the East, the West risked accepting a poison dish, and could only hasten its own destruction. For reasons intimately connected with his own sense of disenfranchisement, or to use the term used by Nerval, his “disinheritance”, Gobineau detested western imperialism.41

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