In 1855, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau was appointed secretary to a diplomatic mission to Persia for three years. He could not have dreamed of a better destination. His Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853-1855) had just given credit to the legend which placed the birthplace of the Aryan race on the borders of the Caucasus. During his adolescence in Brittany, he had become enamoured of the Thousand and One Nights. “All he dreamed of were mosques and minarets, he said he was a Muslim, ready to make his pilgrimage to Mecca”, recounted one of his childhood friends. As soon as he arrived in Paris in 1835, he started taking Persian lessons with Quatremère at Le Collège de France, before giving into the Orientalist fashion of the time in a long poem entitled Dilfiza (1837); he also unsuccessfully attempted to found a review, La Revue de l’Orient.

As soon as he reached the Orient, it enchanted him. Its starry sky, more radiant than in Europe, was to become in his novel Les Pléiades (1874) a metaphor for a higher sphere, whose fixity escapes from the decadence of the earthly world. Stable and respectful of hierarchy, Persian society was at the antipodes from the world which, during the revolutionary times of 1848, had exacerbated his horror of democracy. In his eyes, the Dervishes were the authentic mystics of the modern world. Because they did not separate truth from falsity, and were open to the imagination, Oriental philosophies suited his temperament; they provided him with support against punctilious western scholars, who criticised his historical views and racial theories for being superficial. It is true that actual experience soon led to disenchantment: “In the scientific sense of the term, a Persian race does not exist any more than a French one does,” he wrote to Tocqueville on 15th January 1856. But he was always more indulgent with Oriental failings than European ones. His stay inspired his Trois ans en Asie (1859), a travel book whose rather conventional descriptions of landscapes are worth less than the portraits of Orientals he met on the way, delicious anecdotes, and the polemical verve that aimed at “telling Europeans what he thinks about their civilisation”. Moved by a tenacious linguistic ambition, he published his Lectures des textes cunéiformes (1858) and prepared a Traité des écritures cunéiformes (1864). According to him, the symbolic value of this ancient form of Persian writing had thus far been ignored. Even though specialists found his discoveries to be devoid of any scientific interest, his reply was resounding: “Scholars are stupid”.

In January 1862, he returned to Tehran, with the title of plenipotentiary minister. During his second stay, he continued writing his huge Histoire des Perses (1869), in which Cyrus came over as being too like a Medieval knight to be convincing for qualified historians, and composed his Religions et philosophies dans l’Asie centrale (1865)Far from placing the sovereign within the “advantages of material existence, in a social or political life”, Orientals “need a world which is unseen”. This work features considerations, still of use to today, about Shia Islam, Sufism and Bábism, as well as the survival of traditional theatre in Persia. Gobineau then set about translating into Persian the Discours de la méthode so as to show just how much Oriental philosophies were distinct from the Cartesian positivism that he hated. “The Asians are no doubt wrong; but they do have something in their favour: this is the greatness, the power and hardiness of their hypotheses”, he wrote to the Count of Prokesch-Osten on 20th July 1862.

“I know that when I return to Europe, I shall mourn Asia for the rest of my life”, he confided on 20th March 1857. As an allusion to the Thousand and One Nights, he nicknamed the three heroes of his Pléiades “Calenders, sons of kings”. Above all, his Nouvelles asiatiques (1876) illustrated this nostalgia. Three of the six tales (“L’Illustre Magicien”, “Histoire de Gambèr-Aly”, “La Guerre des Turcomans”) depict with both humour and tenderness the failings of modern Persians (dissimulators, versatile, taken in by anything shiny); two others (“La Danseuse de Shamakha” and “Les Amants de Kandahar”) exalt individuals who, amid the mountains of the Caucasus or Afghanistan, have managed to keep the strength of character and nobility of their original culture. When he uses an emphatic, florid style, we can wonder if he is mocking or entering into a complicity with Orientals, but this ambiguity adds to the charm of his stories. The last one in the collection, “La Vie de voyage”, is a novelistic transposition of his first mission, when his wife had accompanied him. “Asia is an extremely seductive dish, but it poisons those who eat it,” he wrote in Trois ans en Asie. Though ill throughout the journey, Lucie, the heroine of the story, nevertheless goes home with “the happiest, most brilliant and most unforgettable sensations” that she had ever experienced.

Légende de l'image : Arthur de Gobineau. XIXeme siècle