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Gobineau, Joseph Arthur de

by Calmard Jean

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 11
New York: Columbia University, 2003
... [Excerpt] ...

His experiences in Persia, however, enabled him to write his three best Oriental works. Trois ans en Asie (1859) is a lively account of his first voyage and sojourn in Persia, which is complemented by his abundant correspondence. Although influenced by his idiosyncratic racial theories and esoteric views, Les religions et philosophies dans l’Asie centrale (1865) is based on personal contacts and observations, notably on Babism and its recent evolution (chapters 6-12), and about the taʿzia-ḵᵛāni (chapters 13-16). Apart from Chardin and some English authors, Gobineau is dismissive of previous accounts of Persia by westerners and does not usually quote them. He also expresses a dislike for Joseph Philippe Ferrier, who was Rawlinson’s friend (Boissel, 1974, pp. 298ff.). On taʿzia-ḵᵛāni, he does not mention any previous accounts (Calmard, Mécénat, i., pp. 82 ff., 96 ff., 106 ff.; ii., pp. 135 ff.). In his Nouvelles asiatiques (1876), he does, however, acknowledge James Morier’s merits. His “Gambèr-Aly” is a replica of Hajji Baba. Most of his heroes and landscapes can be identified from his personal notes and correspondence. This is particularly evident with La danseuse de Shamakha, L’illustre magicien (a dervish from Lahore), and Les amants de Kandahar. His diplomatic experience appears in Gambèr-Aly (in which Jules Richard, later Ričār Khan, appears as M. Brichard) and in La guerre des Turcomans (Henri de Coulibšuf de Blocqueville, a French officer in the shah’s army, appears as “Ghoulam-Hussein”; the story depicts the lack of organization in the Persian army: see Nouvelles asiatiques, 1965, Gaulmier’s preface, pp. li-lxvii).

Gobineau’s abilities as a translator from Arabic or Persian were limited. For his French translations of the “Evangile des bâbis,” the “Ketab-e hukkam” (Ketāb al-ḥakkām), and the taʿzia “Les noces de Kassem,” he probably received help from competent Orientalists working in the mission, possibly from Barbier de Meynard, or more likely from Amédée Querry (1825-1900), working as a dragoman together with Jean-Baptiste Nicolas (1814-75; see Œuvres II, pp. 1172 ff.). He says that a “Jewish molla” (i.e. Lālazār Hamadāni) helped him to translate into Persian René Descartes’ Discours de la méthode (Boissel, 1993, p. 164). His collection of Oriental manuscripts was auctioned at the Hôtel Drouot, Paris, on 6 May 1884. Most of them went to the Oriental collections of the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and the British Museum (now the British Library) in London. From 1878, he began translating the Kuš-nāma (no. 192/4 in Drouot’s catalogue, now at the British Library, Or. 2780; ed. Jalāl Matini, Tehran, 1377 Š./1998). The unfinished autograph of the translation is kept at Strasbourg (fonds Gobineau, no. 3512; Molé, p. 124).

Gobineau worked dutifully at his Persian missions, as first secretary (July 1855-October 1856) and as chargé d’affaires (to January 1858), when he was in charge of British interests following the withdrawal of the British ambassador Charles Augustus Murray as a result of the Anglo-Persian war (1856-57). He also had difficulties with the adventurous Richard (March-April 1857; Hytier, Dépêches, pp. 83 ff.). In his second mission, as minister (January 1862-October 1863), he carefully noted the changes and improvements in Persia, particularly in Tehran. He settled the costly ransom for de Blocqueville, who had been taken captive by the Turcomans (ibid, p. 163). He had problems with some members of Lt. Colonel V. Brongniart’s military mission (1858-67), particularly in settling the case of a certain Captain Rous in a dispute with the Persian government over the delivery of arms (ibid, pp. 165 ff., 186 ff., 203 f; Boissel, 1993, p. 162). He generally disliked eastern Christians, and particularly the Armenian Catholics in Isfahan (Hytier, Dépêches, pp. 227 ff., 256 ff.). He took in charge the Italian mission (October 1862). While frequenting minor “scholars,” he maintained close contacts with such eminent and learned men as Reżāqoli Khan Hedāyat and Lesān-al-Molk Sepehr, and kept up a constant flow of reports on the political situation within Persia as well as on the external relations with her neighbors.

From his childhood, Gobineau had been interested in Oriental studies, including Buddhism and Hinduism, and kept abreast of scholarly publications on these topics, mostly in French and German. While attempting to base his writings on what he considered the best primary research available, he was conscious of his shortcomings (Œuvres II, p. 1081). Although he had many critics, including some Orientalists who criticized the Essai and other related works, his friends (Mohl, Renan, Barbier de Meynard, and others) maintained a favorable view of his Oriental studies. His opinions were also cited by Edward Granville Browne, in both his Year amongst the Persians (London, 1893, index) and in the fourth volume of his Literary History of Persia (London, 1924, index). Vladimir Minorsky also enjoyed Gobineau’s writings, and though he criticized some of his views, he thought he had a good knowledge of spoken Persian (Minorsky, p. 118; Boissel, 1974, p. 324).

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