Sunday, 27 February 2011

Review of "The Executioner" by Joseph de Maistre

"I very much miss those 'symposia' of which the ancient world has left us several precious records.  Women are pleasant, certainly; we have to live with them in order not to become barbarians.  Large gatherings have their place; it is even necessary to know how to participate in them with good grace; but when one has satisfied all the duties imposed by custom, I think that it's a great thing that the men gather from time to time to have a reasoned discussion, even at the table.  I don't know why we no longer follow the practice of the ancients in this regard."

Count Joseph de Maistre was a counter-Enlightenment icon: an erudite politician and diplomat, and an extreme enemy of human progress and freedom.  He was the figurehead and spokesman of Throne-and-Altar conservatism - not the sensible, pragmatic conservatism of Edmund Burke, nor the right-wing economic liberalism inspired by Adam Smith, but that chilly ghost of the feudal past that stalked around Europe from the aftermath of the French Revolution to the death of General Franco.  His dark-hearted masterpiece, On the Pope, is XXX-rated hardcore ultra-right-wing porn.  He was the Ron Jeremy of the counter-Enlightenment.  He disposed of the argument that a legislative assembly makes better laws than an absolute monarch in a single footnote.  Pat Buchanan apparently quite likes him.

Penguin have chosen to titillate their readers by including some extracts from de Maistre's St Petersburg Dialogues in their Great Ideas series.  Presumably On the Pope didn't lend itself to excerpting in the same way.  The extracts chosen address issues like why the just suffer and the unjust prosper, and why war was not merely part of human experience but was regarded as a noble and glorious thing: de Maistre observes that an alien learning about human society for the first time would expect the executioner to be revered as a noble figure and the soldier to be despised as a savage.  The pieces are set in Tsarist Russia - where else? - and presumably derive their dialogic form from Plato, that other great enemy of freedom.

Few modern readers, even those of a conservative or religious cast of mind, will feel able to accept at full strength de Maistre's ideas about original sin, divine punishment and the workings of providence - still less his racism, sexism and social snobbery.  This is a man who believed, some distance into the nineteenth century, in the literal existence of Adam and Eve, and in Noah's Flood.  Few readers, too, will relish his darker and more dystopian passages: "Thus, from the maggot up to man, the universal law of the violent destruction of living things is unceasingly fulfilled.  The entire earth, perpetually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be immolated without end, without restraint, without respite, until the consummation of the world....".

De Maistre's ideas are interesting from an historical perspective, but his works are less valuable for the content of their thought than for their mood music.  In their ethos and culture, they are a kind of more sinister and politicised version of a Jane Austen novel.  They evoke a lost world of impeccable courtly manners, religious piety, aristocracies and hangmen.  And they provoke a real feeling of gratitude that we have had the good fortune to be born in an enlightened liberal democracy.