Darkness Visible

George Steiner

  • Joseph de Maistre: An Intellectual Militant by Richard Lebrun
    McGill-Queen’s University Press, 366 pp, £30.35, October 1988, ISBN 0 7735 0645 4

Roll out the drum and blow the fife. 1989 is close at hand, and with it the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Well over a hundred international colloquia will mark the occasion. They will range from platitudinous immensities – ‘the rights of man’, ‘Europe and America after the fall of the Bastille’, ‘the French Revolution and the Third World’ – to genuinely worthwhile specificities (‘music and drama during the Jacobin regime’, ‘clandestine presses and the dissemination of revolutionary doctrines’). Publishers are poised to pour out a veritable cornucopia of books, acta, learned monographs and anthologies on the history of France and of Europe from 1789 to 1800. The monumental Dictionary of the Revolution, put together by Furet and a galaxy of Continental historians, is out in France. A day-by-day calendar of events throughout France, beginning with the disorders in the provinces during 1788, is in process of publication. Museums, national, civic, metropolitan and local, are announcing pertinent exhibitions. Plays, operas, ballets, old and newly-commissioned, on French Revolutionary themes, will be staged. Hymns pro and con, by Cherubini, Beethoven, Berlioz, will echo to the searchlit skies. Arguably, though that word is inappropriately cautionary, the 14th of July 1789, that day proclaimed by Fox to be the most glorious in the history of man, is more immediate to world-wide remembrance than is any other (the date of the birth of Christ is problematic and its resonance far from universal).

In the midst of this legitimate clamour and celebration, the voices of dissent ought not to be altogether forgotten or stifled. Resistance to the Revolution, attempts at counter-revolution constitute a savage, prolonged chapter in French history. The charismatic despotism, the advance into epic marshalled by the Napoleonic empire, now looks to have been an armistice between irreconcilable antagonisms within French ideology and society, a projection outward of forces which would otherwise, after the fall of Robespierre, have torn France apart. More tragically, the fratricidal hatreds, the vendettas which set the Vichy regime – a French, not a German creation – against Paris and the Resistance during 1940-1945, can best be understood as a renewal of the unresolved tensions which have divided conservative-Catholic-agrarian and anti-Jacobin France from the Republican heirs of July and August 1789.

The successive risings in the Vendée, the Lyon insurrection, the truly hideous White Terror in the Midi and the South-West in 1795, the actual invasions of Revolutionary France by émigré and foreign armies intent on re-establishing the monarchy, have been investigated by political, social and military historians. Far less attention has been given to counter-revolutionary thought, to the political, philosophical and aesthetic repudiations of the whole enterprise of 1789. Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien’s preface to the Penguin edition of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France represents a brilliant exception. There is, in the Anglo-American domain, almost no awareness of Goethe’s meditative, fundamental critique of French Revolutionary ideals and practices. Professor Richard Lebrun’s monograph on Joseph de Maistre is, at many points, a pioneering effort.

Burke’s indictment, with its complexly diverse legacy in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, in Carlyle, in Yeats, and in Orwell’s riposte (both to Dickens and Burke), is generally, if roughly, familiar. Burke regarded as folly the Enlightenment programme of willed, abstractly underwritten social reform. Such a programme not only did violence to the quintessential manifold and contingency of human nature: it violated the organic mystery of historicism, the almost biological entelechy (Burke is a great Aristotelian) and unfolding of those institutional modes of social being which are best symbolised by the ‘great blossomers’, the deep-rooted stems of the natural order. When Burke reflected and published, the French Revolution was in its arcadian phase (cf Wordsworth’s vernal account of his first visit to France). Burke’s bloodstained previsions seemed nearly hysterical in their implausibility. The actual course of events, the execution of Louis XVI and his Queen, the homicidal conflicts between political factions, the Terror, the aggressive militarism of French foreign policies, fulfilled Burke’s prophecies. Retroactively, the analysis behind his sombre clairvoyance took on formidable weight.

Goethe had personally witnessed the battle of Valmy. He had perceived in the dismal rout of Brunswick’s armies the beginning of a new epoch in the history of man. Seeking to order this immensity of change in his own mind and sensibility, Goethe wrote, sketched, left fragmentary an enigmatic series of tragi-comic plays of which Die Natürliche Tochter is the most fascinating. Goethe’s critique bears on the French Revolution’s inevitable destruction of private life, of the domestic intimacies and spaces for individual inwardness that are part of an ancien régime. As Goethe saw it, the scale, the ontologically ‘totalising’ and totalitarian impact, of the Revolution had made of every man and woman a political animal, an inhabitant, willing or not, of history. Of this forced habitation the sovereignty of journalism, the tyranny of the daily momentous (also observed by Wordsworth) was a most vivid symptom. A man might sit in what was left him of his garden, but he would see the points of the bayonets pass by above his hedge. Culminating in the dread avowal that he preferred ‘injustice to disorder’, Goethe’s critique, Goethe’s sense of the death of privacy and of the fatal accelerando of time itself in the consciousness and existence of men, remains of the utmost incisiveness. Coleridge’s magical ‘Frost at Midnight’ is its concordant echo.

De Maistre’s Considérations sur la France, published in the spring of 1797, contain traces of Edmund Burke’s reflections. But they are of an altogether different spirit. More than Spinoza’s tractate, they merit the designation of ‘political theology’, of a rigorous, factual political analysis whose foundations, whose terms of reference, are theological. There is, for Joseph de Maistre, no mortal event which does not, especially within its freedom of choice, its libre arbitre, represent and enact the will of God. The French Revolution corresponds to an exact, perfectly previsible fatality. It had to come to pass in order to fulfil the destructive, the suicidal potential inherent in the factitious doctrines of the Enlightenment. It is the natural harvest of the corruption of institutions under a feeble monarchy and, above all, of the mundane, latitudinarian character of the Gallican Church. It is with an almost ecstatic grimness, that de Maistre welcomes the unfolding terrors of anarchy and aggression as these have seized upon France. It is puerile, declares the author of the Considérations, to blame individual demagogues and populist tyrants for the chain of bloody events and mutual ravening unleashed in July 1789. The allegedly great men, the Mirabeaus, Dantons, Robespierres, are nothing but ludicrous puppets: ‘It is not men who make the revolution, it is the revolution that makes use of men.’ Never has ‘Divinity shown itself so plainly in the affairs of men’. An utter determinism presides over the rise and fall of fundamentally impotent mountebanks, each of whom must devour his predecessor even as he himself will, in turn, be devoured.

De Maistre’s investment is in apocalypse. The grandeur of God’s intent can be made fully manifest only if the French Revolution reaches its predestined extremities. De Maistre, here wildly original, acclaims the military expansion of France across Europe (he was himself its direct victim). It is God’s warrior-hand which is at work in the resurgence of French national confidence and armed prowess. Even incipient Bonapartism is a clear link in the great chain of fated national and international being. Victorious abroad, restored to sovereign order and a sense of its historical eminence at home, France shall, by virtue of logic, of a necessity of an almost mathematical kind, recall the banished royal house. In 1797, Joseph de Maistre calmly prophesied the perfect inevitability of the Restoration as it was to occur in 1814 and 1815.

This apocalyptic providentialism gives to the Considérations their singular and sombre splendour. No other dissent from the French Revolution has a comparable resonance. The material influence of de Maistre’s tract was fitful and largely subterranean. But the text stands as one of the most disturbing and visionary in the history of political polemics. At more than one point, it provides a paradoxical counterpart to Sade’s clandestine pamphlet calling upon the French people to carry the Revolution to its true libertarian end.

It is the undoubted merit of Professor Lebrun’s otherwise plodding study to set out in detail the private, provincial road which led de Maistre to his Considérations. Drawing minutely on previously unused family records, on the extensive corpus of as yet unpublished writings by de Maistre, Lebrun details the forty years of civil service, family life, voluminous reading, which prepared de Maistre for his exilic and prophetic calling. We learn in implacable detail of de Maistre’s involvement in Freemasonry, an involvement oddly consonant with his fervent Catholicism. A set of numerical tables (!) lays before us the exact divisions of de Maistre’s readings, of his annotations. The placid, inward stream of life in Chambéry, in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, is chronicled. The young magistrate’s finances, the social and fiscal particularities of his marriage, are documented. Much of this pedantry is rewarding. Lebrun does give insight into the extraordinary economy of consciousness, into the ripening of perception, which made de Maistre leave his native province in September 1792, and which underlay the explosive authority of his first political philippics. But, inevitably, there is little room left for the study of what is, in fact, de Maistre’s greatest period and masterpiece.

Distrusted by his royal Sardinian masters, de Maistre, now a wanderer without revenue, accepted the ambassadorship to St Petersburg. He was to spend 14 years in Imperial Russia and became a Russian subject while retaining his full diplomatic status. He fished deeply in the murky waters of Russian political and educational reform. He strove to Catholicise an aristocratic coterie of Russian friends. He advised the Czar on European affairs. He steeped himself in military theory during the Napoleonic wars. He conspired more or less transparently to secure a toehold in Russia for the Jesuits (it was the Russian turn to nationalist, mystical Orthodoxy after 1815 which was to bring on the grievous termination of de Maistre’s illustrious embassy). But, above all, it was on the banks of the Neva, during the white nights and the auroral hours unique to that haunting city, that Joseph de Maistre, most probably between 1809 and 1813, composed his Soirées de Saint-Petersbourg. These are, together with Galileo’s Dialogo, the most powerful philosophic-dramatic dialogues written in the West after Plato.

Though a full translation into English is at last in progress, the flavour of the original will be difficult to capture. De Maistre’s handling of the pulse and cadence of argument, of exposition, of challenge, of momentary mundane détente, has a Platonic suppleness and variousness. The unique light of St Petersburg, as it plays across the waters, the privileged strangeness of the extraterritorial setting, the Ambassador’s salon, the distant drumming of thunder, both literal and symbolic (Europe is blazing under the march of the Grandes Armées), are incomparably evoked. The successive soirées are nothing less than a conspectus, metaphysical and political anthropological and historical, of the humar condition. Exactly like Milton, whom he admired and read closely, de Maistre sets out to justify the ways of God to man.

The crux is that of Original Sin. Man is fallen from original grace. History is the blood-stained enactment of that Fall. How else can one provide any rational view of the sum of massacres, torture, folly, self-destruction, which make up the works and days of humanity? How else can one even hope to grasp why it should be that scientific and technological progress, economic expansion, intellectual and artistic invention, have not only left mankind unenfranchised from private and public anguish, but have, in plain fact, made human existence more naked to barbarism and the menace of mass-extermination? How shallow are the utopian promises of the Humanists and the Enlightenment, how myopic Rousseauist or Jeffersonian expectations of progress. What lies ahead, in a 20th century yet to come, is world war and the carnival of torture, is censorship and the regimen of the inhuman.

Joseph de Maistre’s ‘night-vision’ in the Soirées may well be the principal feat of precise foresight in the history of modern political thought and theory. It makes the ‘futurology’ of Rousseau, of Hegel and Marx look utterly shallow. The age of the Gulag and of Auschwitz, of famine and of ubiquitous torture, of Idi Amin, of Pol Pot and of Ceaucescu is exactly that which de Maistre announced. The nuclear threat, the ecological laying waste of our planet, the leap of endemic, possibly pandemic, illness out of the very matrix of libertarian progress, are correspondent to the analysis and prevision of the Soirées. The axiom of Original Sin, however we interpret its existential content, offers a key to the facts of our historical condition (there is, of course, in both Marxist and Freudian aetiologies of the human circumstance a scarcely-concealed borrowing of the axiom of the Fall). No secularist-liberal model can match either the logic or the predictive force of de Maistre’s political theology.

More unpalatable is the cold glitter, the uncanny joy, which fuels the play of argument and rebuttal in these dialogues. There is an exaltation of warfare, already implicit in Heraclitus and Homer, but more openly vehement than in any other modern thinker. There is the famous apologia for capital punishment, for the metaphysical dignitas of the executioner’s trade. Throughout, the keynote is that of ‘chastisement’, of history and social institutions seen as inevitable instruments of God’s retribution over fallen man. Yeats’s late political poetry – the ‘gaiety’ in those ‘ancient glittering eyes’, as Yeats portrays it – has something of the same chill fire. The Soirées de Saint-Petersbourg are not for the weak-nerved: but neither is Plato’s Republic, nor the punitive, nocturnal Tenth Book of Plato’s Laws.

Published in their incomplete guise in 1821, immediately after de Maistre’s death, the Soirées have been pondered by master spirits. De Maistre’s analyses of war exercised considerable influence on Tolstoy. Baudelaire’s religious anguish, his fascination with the retributive harmony of capital punishment, derived immediately from de Maistre. The current spokesman for total pessimism, Cioran, has not only written an incisive essay on de Maistre: his own aphoristic, tenebrous texts are, time and again, direct echoes of the Soirées. Given the murderous absurdities of our politics, given the gathering vengeance of the Third World and the collapse into tribalism and hysterical fundamentalist religiosity of so many regions on the globe, the Soirées will, I suspect, have an increasing presence in the syllabus of essential reference.

Of these spellbinding matters, Professor Lebrun’s book gives hardly a hint. If Tolstoy is mentioned once, cursorily, neither Baudelaire nor Cioran figure in either the bibliography or index. The account offered of the Soirées is so superficial as to be insulting. One values Professor Lebrun’s archival research; his monographic inquiry into the ‘prehistory’ of de Maistre’s genius is useful. But the imbalance of his treatment, its neglect of what really matters, are such as to give academic practice a bad name. The pity of it.