Friday, December 21, 2018

The Marquis de Custine

In his forward to the Marquis de Custine's Empire of the Czar:  A Journey Through Eternal Russia, Daniel Boorstin claims that Custine can be compared to Alexis de Tocqueville in terms of his sociological approach to travel writing.  For like Tocqueville, Custine has created something much richer and more profound than a picturesque description of a rising power in the first half of the nineteenth century.  On the other hand, Custine's treatise on Russia is often bigoted, misogynist, and racist.  Thus Custine's analysis of Russia lacks Tocqueville's gravity, detachment, and even-handedness. 

Why should anyone read Custine, if he repeatedly attacks Russian culture and society in ways that can only be described as Orientalist?  Why read Custine if he can't admit that even a single Russian woman might be accurately called beautiful?  In the first place, Custine is widely entertaining.  His treatment of Russia and the Russians is witty, inventive, and darkly comic. The book sometimes reads like a very long string of immensely clever bon mots.  It's as if the Truman Capote of Answered Prayers, or the Hemingway of Movable Feast, decided to savage a whole country rather than a small segment of society.  It's almost impossible not to laugh out loud by the author's willingness to savage almost every aspect of the Russian Empire, including its climate, architecture, manners, art, high society, and women. 

In the second place, Custine has something serious to say about the nature of power.  His Empire of the Czar is an incredibly insightful analysis of how oppression works on a people.  Of course, Custine makes many wild generalizations about Russian servitude.  Certainly, Russia has not inherent, ingrained aversion to freedom.  Yet Custine is journeying through Russia at a time when the Tsar's power was relatively unfettered.  Moreover, Custine remembers that the position of the monarch and his aristocracy are predicated on the monstrous condition of Russia's serfs. So while one may not agree that the approaches to St. Petersburg are ugly, or that the art and architecture of the city are derivative, it's difficult to disagree that Russia was suffering from something much worse than the inequality of France or other Western powers. 

But even if one doesn't particularly like Custine's analysis of the issues confronting Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century, one must admit that Custine's admittedly romantic attack against authoritarian government remains valid to this day.  Custine's point is that authoritarian government leads to authoritarian modes of thinking. And perhaps the reverse is also true. Custine believes that the spirit of authoritarianism infects every aspect of a society.  It makes people cowardly, sycophantic, imitative, uninspired, and unoriginal.  It robs people of their initiative, and focuses everyone's attention on the source of authority. 

It's interesting to read the Marquis de Custine's Empire of the Tsar against a more modern indictment of authoritarianism, Lev Navrozov's brilliant memoir, The Education of Lev Navrozov.  The comparison seems to suggest that Custine's specific indictment of Russian culture may hold some validity:  If Russia lacked freedom under the Romanovs, Navrosov is certain that things got worse under the Soviets.  But like Custine, Navrozov reminds us to look carefully not only at authoritarian tendencies in government, but also in authoritarian influences over every aspect of interpersonal relations.  Both men remind us that freedom isn't merely a matter of constitutional government, but rather the very foundation of personal happiness. 

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