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Discredited today and largely ignored by his compatriots during his lifetime, Comte Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was nonetheless a key contributor to nineteenth-century race theories. Born in Ville-d’Avray, France, in 1814, he argued that racial difference was not only key to understanding the problems of history, but that it was the precondition of history. Comte de Gobineau posited two broad categories based on the shape of people’s heads: Aryan or dolichocephalic populations, and Alpine or brachycephalic people. But it was his theory of racial mixing and degeneracy that won him admirers and detractors.
In the Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, 1853–1855), Gobineau claims the existence of three original, distinct human races: white, black, and yellow. Of these, white people, or Aryans, occupied the highest rank in a hierarchy of three. However, the “fusion” of these original races in history had, Gobineau argues, resulted in degeneracy and would eventually account for the decline of all civilization. The Essai and other writings, such as La fleur d’or (The Golden Flower) which was published posthumously in Germany in 1918 and in France in 1923, are thus infused with apocalyptic inferences: despite notable exceptions of “golden” flowering, all human societies face decline, not because of corruption or the abandonment of religious ideals, or even because of bad government. In themselves, these factors—“poisonous blossoms”—cannot undermine a nation unless its people had already degenerated through mixing. The “degenerate man properly so called” is racially different from “the heroes of the great ages” who, for example, were to be found in the Roman Empire prior to its greatest successes. Despite his French nationality, Gobineau’s Martinican Creole mother took him to Germany and had him educated in the gymnasium system, where he acquired his admiration for things Germanic. He came to believe that the Germanic race was heir to Roman purity, and he dedicated his Essai to George V (1819–1878), king of Hanover.
Gobineau’s work built on the earlier racial typologies of the French naturalist Baron George de Cuvier (1769–1832), but it incorporated new developments in biology, archeology, and the emerging sciences of ethnology and physiology. It was also inflected by his royalism and Orientalism, the latter inspired by his years as a diplomat in Persia (1855–1858, 1862–1863).
Although a protégé of Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), through whom he received his first diplomatic postings in Persia, Gobineau eschewed Enlightenment notions of intellectual equality or fraternity across different races. Tocqueville labeled Gobineau’s views false and pernicious. In turn, Gobineau claimed that intellectual fraternity across races was the deluded product of miscegenation. This was the risk of imperialism. According to Gobineau, a “principle of death” emerges when a stronger people assumes ownership over conquered lands. Although growing into nationhood, such societies faced the danger of “mixing” their blood. Despite producing an initial strength, these newly mixed people would lack the power of their ancestors. Segregation was thus natural and manifested itself in a “spirit of isolation” that persists in peoples despite their mixed origins. In his broad-sweeping claims, he praises Arabs, Persians, Jews, Farsis, and Turks for being “repulsed” by the prospect of “crossing” blood.
Gobineau’s elevation of a blond, blue-eyed Aryanism as the racial ideal found acceptance in Imperial Germany, attracting the admiration of Richard Wagner (1813–1883), Ludwig Schemann (1852–1938), and Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow (1849–1929). With von Bulow’s support, Schemann founded the Gobineau Society in 1894. Members included Swiss jurist Johann Kaspar Bluntschli (1808–1881) and British-born political philosopher and proponent of the theory of a German master race, Houston Swiss Chamberlain (1855–1927). Under the sway of Gobineau’s writings, Chamberlain argued for social practices that reflected the inequality of the races. Chamberlain, however, adjusted Gobineau’s theory of degeneracy and predicted instead a growing “Aryan” strength. Gobineau’s influence upon German National Socialism would eventually be incorporated, along with a racialized reading of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), into the pro-Nordic writings of Ludwig Woltmann (1871–1907). In the United States, Gobineau’s Essai was translated by Swiss immigrant Henry Hotz, with an appendix by the proslavery physician and polygenist, Josiah Nott (1804–1873). Gobineau was not pleased with the American translation of his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, which he thought too selective. Where the original edition ran to over one thousand pages, the American translation was cut down to less than four hundred pages.
What Chamberlain, supporter Robert Knox, and others failed to acknowledge was Gobineau’s insistence that the Aryan ideal had been overtaken by history. They also overlooked Gobineau’s less than flattering condemnation of white Americans as “an assortment of the most degenerate races of olden-day Europe,” as well as his resistance to American treatment of slaves and Native Americans, and his argument that racial mixing, and specifically black blood, had produced artistic mastery.
Within fifty years of his death, a systematic challenge to and rejection of Gobineau’s work had emerged in the writings of Léopold Senghor (1906–2001), Aimé Césaire, and Léon Damas (1912–1978). Their formulation of the negritude movement in Paris in the 1930s to 1940s owed much to Senghor’s opposition to Gobineau’s pronouncements upon race mixing. Senghor’s rethinking of Gobineau’s work led to his influential theory of cultural métissage, an alternative energized multiplicity that incorporated an African past into a hybridized present in the Americas and Caribbean. Among the African diasporic writers influenced by negritude was Martinican essayist Suzanne Roussy Césaire (1915–1966). Her call to “cannibalize” and incorporate white Western culture into African diasporic culture reflected the strong cultural backlash against Gobineau’s purist agenda.
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- Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur.  1935. Nouvelles Asiatiques. Paris: Librairie academique Perrin.
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- Gobineau, Comte de, Arthur. 1970. Selected Political Writings, ed. Michael D. Biddiss. New York: Harper.
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- Banton, Michael. 1998. Racial Theories. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Bernasconi, Robert, ed. 2003. Race and Racism in Continental Philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Biddiss, Michael. 1970. Father of Racist Ideology: The Social and Political Thought of Count Gobineau. New York: Weybright and Talley.
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- Blumenbach, Johan Friedrich. 2000. On the Natural Variety of Mankind. In The Idea of Race, eds. Robert Bernasconi and Tommy C. Lott. 27–37. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
- Césaire, Suzanne Roussy. 1942. Misère d’une poèsie: John Antoine-Nau. Tropiques 4: 49–50. Reprinted in Tropiques: Collection complete, 1941–1945. 1978. Paris: Jean-Michel Place.
- Césaire, Suzanne Roussy. 1943. Le surréalisme et nous. Tropiques 8–9.
- Césaire, Suzanne Roussy. 1945. Le grand camou age. Tropiques 13–14.
- Clinton, David. 2003. Tocqueville, Lieber, and Bagehot: Liberalism Confronts the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Gobineau, C. Serpeille de, ed. 1933. Correspondence entre le Comte de Gobineau et le Comte de Prokesch-Osten, 1854–1876. Paris: Plon.
- Mitchell, Harvey. 2002. America after Tocqueville: Democracy against Difference. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Solomos, John, and Les Back, eds. 1999. Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader. London: Routledge.
- Tocqueville, Alexis de. 1959. The European Revolution and Correspondence with Gobineau. Trans. and ed. John Lukacs. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
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