Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Mother of the Race

"The History of White People"  lives up to its blurb.  Nell Irvin Painter has indeed given us a "mind-expanding and myth-destroying exploration of the notions of white race—not merely a skin color but also a signal of power, prestige and beauty to be withheld and granted selectively."

Chapter 6
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach Names White People "Caucasian"

A reader might sensibly wonder why the social sciences, the criminal justice system, and, indeed, much of the English-speaking world label white people "Caucasian". Why should this category have sprung from a troublesome, mountainous, borderland just north of Turkey, from peoples perpetually at war with Russia in the present-day regions of Chechnya, Stavropol Kray, Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, South Ossetia, and Georgia? The long story begins in Göttingen, Lower Saxony, in 1795, and the better-known part of it belongs to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach {1752-1840}.

Blumenbach was the author of De generis humani varietate nativa (On the Natural Variety of Mankind).
By 1795, twenty years had passed since the first publication of On the Natural Variety of Mankind.  In the interim, skin color, not heretofore the crucial factor for Blumenbach, had risen to play a large role. He now sees it necessary to rank skin color hierarchically, beginning, not surprisingly, with white.  Believing it to be the oldest variety of man, he puts it in "the first place".  His reckoning includes a large dose of aesthetic reasoning, led by the blush.
With the concept of human beauty as a scientifically certified racial trait, we now come to a crucial turning point in the history of white people. Now linking "Caucasian" firmly to beauty, Blumenbach remained divided of mind. Holding first place in his classification was always the scientific measurement of skulls. But second within human variety came a concern for physical beauty, going well beyond the beauty of skulls and giving rise to a powerful word in racial thinking:
"Caucasian variety. I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian."
A long footnote follows, quoting the seventeenth-century traveler Jean Chardin as only one of a "cloud of eye-witnesses" praising the beauty of Georgian women. Blumenbach's quote leaves out Chardin's disapproval of Georgians' heavy use of makeup, their sensuality, and the many bad habits Chardin had deplored. Now Chardin intones to Blumenbach the gospel of Georgian beauty.....
Beauty's charms reached into science, but what of science's bedrock, the measurement of skulls?

Now Blumenbach squirms. By turns he embraces Enlightenment science—the measurements of his skulls—then lets go to reach for romanticism's subjective passion for beauty. Yes, skull measurements count, but when it comes down to it, bodily beauty counts for more, but no, no, not conclusively. Even while extolling Caucasian beauty, he adopts a third line of reasoning meant to puncture European racial chauvinism. Consider the toads, says Blumenbach: "If a toad could speak and were asked which was the loveliest creature upon god's earth, it would say simpering, that modesty forbad it to give a real opinion on that point." As in the first edition of On the Natural Variety of Mankind, Blumenbach qualifies his estimation of European beauty as rife with European narcissism.

Even so, he uses the word "beautiful" five times on one page in describing the bony foundation of his favorite typology, a Georgian woman's skull. It is "my beautiful typical head of a young Georgian female [which] always of itself attracts every eye, however little observant".

The story behind this skull is a sad one.
In 1793, shortly after Catherine had won her second Caucasian war against the Ottomans, Asch {Blumenbach's benefactor, Georg Thomas Baron von Asch {1729-1807}} sent Blumenbach a pristine female skull, explaining its provenance in a cover letter. The skull came from a Georgian woman the Russian forces had taken captive, precisely the kind of situation figuring in so many descriptions of beautiful Caucasian and Circassian women: as an archetype, she is a pitiful captive lovely in her subjection. Actually, the perfect appearance of the teeth support a suspicion that the owner was a very young person, indeed, more adolescent than woman. In this case, the story continued to its tragic end when the woman or girl was brought back to Moscow. Although Asch sheds little light on her life in Russia, he does tell us that she died from venereal disease. An anatomy professor in Moscow had performed an autopsy before forwarding the skull to Asch in St. Petersburg. Ironically, perhaps, the woman whose skull gave white people a name had been a sex slave in Moscow, like thousands of her compatriots in Russia and the Ottoman empire.

"Once Blumenbach had established Caucasian as a human variety, the term floated far from its geographical origin."  There were several more steps before "Caucasian" as a term for white people reached the English-speaking world. You'll have to read the book.  But Blumenbach set the ball rolling. And, I imagine, the world still labors under the curse of the enslaved young girl. For Blumenbach's ideas were eventually morphed into an ugly ideology whose effects still are around us.

Wiki: Blumenbach's beautiful Georgian skull