Gobineau and Tocqueville: The Curious Case of the Medical Metaphor in Corpus Stylistics

  1. 1. Joel Goldfield

    Fairfield University

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Corpus stylistics and statistical analysis of keywords
can have a voice in a growing debate about the literary
effect of metaphor between two nineteenth-century
authors who also served as French government officials:
Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) and Alexis de Tocqueville
(1805-1859). In his prize-winning biography
on Tocqueville, Hugh Brogan recently highlighted an
aggressive response made 150 years before by the esteemed
literary statesman to his former chief of staff.
Tocqueville, Brogan argues, disagreed “...entirely with
Gobineau’s immoral ideas about human decadence”
(592) and miscegeny, particularly as expressed in the latter’s
L’Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, whose
first two volumes Tocqueville had read. In his defense,
Gobineau, at that point a diplomat in France’s Foreign
Service, replied that, “he was no more immoral than a
doctor who tells his patient that his disease is mortal”
(592). Brogan then cites, in his own translation, a key
paragraph from the published correspondence of July 30,
1856, from Tocqueville to Gobineau:
I reply that if the act is not immoral in itself, it can only
produce immoral or pernicious consequences. If my doctor
came to me one morning to say, ‘My dear sir, I have
the honour to announce that you have a mortal illness, and
as it affects your very constitution, I have the advantage
of being able to add that there is absolutely no chance of
saving you in any way,’ I would first be tempted to knock
the fellow down. (592)
To Tocqueville’s follow-up thought that he would then
hide under the blanket or perhaps, like Boccaccio’s characters
during the plague in Florence, indulge his whims
or perhaps prepare himself for the afterlife before the inevitable
occurred, Brogan adds a provocative footnote:
“It might be interesting to know exactly when AT [Alexis
de Tocqueville] read Gobineau’s latest volumes. In
the Foreword to the Ancien Régime he compares himself
to a physician (OC II i 73)” (592).
With so much of Tocqueville’s and Gobineau’s literary
and historical work online in the ARTFL database, corpus
stylistics and statistical analysis may have something
to offer our research on the vocabulary of Tocqueville’s striking reply of July 1856, compared to the wording in
his foreword to L’Ancien régime et la révolution. The
first two volumes of Gobineau’s Essai had been already
been published in the summer of 1853. The first two
occurrences of médecin(s), both in the first two volumes
released, and the fourth, in the last two volumes (1855)
to which Brogan refers as “Gobineau’s latest volumes,”
are simply part of a list of professions. The third, however,
occurs in a discussion of Plato. Gobineau explains
that either because of status attributable to his
birth or because of circumstances, Plato finds himself
in charge. Unfortunately, horrified by Athen’s problems
and hesitant to undertake any mission that might worsen
them, Plato remains powerless to act. “Such people,”
Gobineau opines, “are doctors, not surgeons and, like
Epaminondas and Philopoemen, they cover themselves
in glory without fixing anything” (my translation). And
so it would seem that doctors may be good only for diagnosing
problems, not repairing the damage. Indeed,
Gobineau had written to Tocqueville on March 20, 1856,
“I am no more an assassin than the doctor who says that
the end is near. I’m wrong or I’m right.” All written
in relatively close chronological succession, Gobineau’s
thoughts seem to imply that he is like Plato and like a
doctor, intelligent enough to see the errors of mankind’s
ways, able to speak up to diagnose the ills, but powerless
to solve any of them. How inconvenient! Explaining
away any curative or corrective abilities that doctors may
have is a false premise, perhaps appealing to a minority
of popular complaints, and seems to serve as justification
for the supposedly perceptive Gobineau to throw his
hands in the air. Tocqueville, however, remains hopeful,
despite the ill health that has been plaguing him for
years: “I add that physicians, like the philosophes, are
often wrong in their predictions, and I have seen more
than one man condemned by them carrying himself quite
well later while resenting the doctor who had needlessly
frightened and discouraged him.”
Research on the delivery patterns of letters between
Gobineau and Tocqueville indicates the probability that
enough time existed for Gobineau’s letter of March 20,
1856, sent by diplomatic post from Teheran, to reach
Tocqueville in Paris before the final weeks in May and
the first two weeks in early June when he wrote or revised,
respectively, the foreword to L’Ancien régime
(see Gannett, p. 144). Tocqueville’s work was not published
until June 16, 1856 (see http://classiques.uqac.ca/
“I therefore admit that in studying our former society in
each of its parts, I have never entirely lost the new one
from sight. I have not only wanted to see to what illness the patient had succumbed, but how he could have
avoided dying. I have done as those doctors who, for
each exhausted organ, try to surprise the laws of life. My
goal has been to paint a picture that would be exact and
that at the same time could be instructive” (my translation).
(“J’avoue donc qu’en étudiant notre ancienne société
dans chacune de ses parties, je n’ai jamais perdu entièrement
de vue la nouvelle. Je n’ai pas seulement voulu
voir à quel mal le malade avait succombé, mais comment
il aurait pu ne pas mourir. J’ai fait comme ces médecins
qui, dans chaque organe éteint, essayent de surprendre
les lois de la vie. Mon but a été de faire un tableau qui
fût strictement exact, et qui, en même temps, pût être instructif.”)
One might wonder whether Tocqueville’s delicate health
and Gobineau’s repugnant preference for partitioned
racial types as a way to stabilize mankind’s existence
might have led to added references to doctors and related
terms. Judging by the data in the ARTFL FRANTEXT
database, the entire exchange described above is,
on the contrary, quite uncommon for these two authors
as individuals. Tocqueville’s use of the combination or
cluster médecin(s)- vie(s)–organe(s) in the foreword
of L’Ancien régime is one of only seven such clusters
within the same sentence over the entire FRANTEXT
database, from the early 1600’s through 1992 in the
2,540 documents searched. And two of these seven were
purely medically oriented.
The z-scores in Figure 1 suggest at least two somewhat
surprising interpretations. First, Tocqueville, rather than
Gobineau, seems to have the more medically oriented
attitude toward politics and civilization. The z-score of
+4.23 in Tocqueville’s correspondence is statistically
significant in its positive rate whereas Gobineau’s rate of
-2.25 is an inverse correlate, significantly negative. Second,
the use of the lemma médecin in Tocqueville’s Ancien
régime, during whose writing he became increasingly
ill with tuberculosis, is also negatively significant.
This fact heightens the value of the cluster doctor(s)-
life/lives-organ(s) (médecin(s)- vie(s)–organe(s)) described
above. Returning to the original observation by
Hugh Brogan, one might suppose that he and perhaps
others who are scholars or otherwise frequent readers
of Tocqueville’s work are likely to be even more impressed
by the physician/doctor metaphor. While the use
of médecin(s) in L’Ancien régime does not attract attention
for repetition compared to the norm of the quarter
century, it certainly does for cognitive and statistical
reasons in Tocqueville’s and Gobineau’s oeuvres . The
bas-relief of the word’s rarity in this work moves the word and its word cluster to the forefront, particularly in
a foreword. Coupled with time and opportunity, it indeed
seems likely that Tocqueville had a rebuttal to Gobineau
on his mind as he penned the avant-propos shortly before
his own father’s death. It is no coincidence that in
the next sentence after the medical metaphor, he writes
of fathers, male virtues (“vertus mâles”), and faith in a
cause as well as in ourselves, “la foi en nous-mêmes et
dans une cause.” References
ARTFL. American and French Research on the Treasury
of the French Language. U. of Chicago.
Brogan, Hugh (2006) Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life.
New Haven: Yale.
Gannett, Robert T., Jr. (2003) Tocqueville Unveiled.
Chicago & London: University of Chicago.
Gobineau, Arthur de (1853) Essai sur l’inégalité des
races humaines, vols. 1 & 2. Paris: Pierre Belfond.
ARTFL database.
---- (1855) Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines,
vols. 3 & 4. Paris: Pierre Belfond. ARTFL database.
Tocqueville, Alexis de (1959) Oeuvres complètes. Tome
II. L’Ancien régime et la révolution. Originally published
in 1856. Also see: see http://classiques.uqac.ca/
--- Oeuvres complètes. Tome IX. Correspondance
d’Alexis de Tocqueville et d’Arthur de Gobineau. Introduction
by J.-J. Chevallier. Edited and annotated by
Maurice Degros. Paris: Gallimard. Correspondence
dates from 1843-1859.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2009

Hosted at University of Maryland, College Park

College Park, Maryland, United States

June 20, 2009 - June 25, 2009

176 works by 303 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (4)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None