Poor Devils

Peter France

  • The Literary Underground of the Old Regime by Robert Darnton
    Harvard, 258 pp, £11.55, November 1982, ISBN 0 674 53656 8

The French Enlightenment? Think of Huber’s famous picture of the dîner des philosophes: there is Voltaire, one arm raised to heaven, and alongside him, around the well-provided table, on elegant chairs, sits the periwigged company of older and younger Enlighteners, D’Alembert, Diderot, Marmontel, Condorcet, La Harpe... Two familiar images come together here. Eighteenth-century France as a place of refinement, good taste and witty conversation, a haven of the ‘civilisation’ celebrated long ago by Clive Bell. But at the same time the dynamic new France, in which great thinkers shake the foundations of traditional society and prepare the way for the Revolution and the modern age – such is the view propagated in different guises by the French republican tradition.

Robert Darnton’s objective, in this collection of essays, is to disturb the serenity of the dinner party, to bring the historian of ideas or the literary scholar down from the noble summits to the murky depths of Enlightenment. His particular concern is with the later Enlightenment in France, the last decade or so before the Revolution, when the masters of the heroic period are all dead or dying and a new cultural configuration has come into being. The once radical Enlightenment has conquered the Academy and much of the polite sector of French society. The second-generation philosophes (a Suard or a Marmontel) no longer have the subversive fire of their elders, but live respectable and well-paid lives – until the Revolution – as members of the enlightened élite. But the élite is small: there is no room in it for all the young provincials with no money and the burning desire to be the Voltaires of their generation. These are the people who interest Darnton; they inhabit the Grub Street which he explores here in fascinating detail.

Detail is indeed Robert Darnton’s strong suit. He likes to conjure up voices which had been silent for two centuries, to resurrect what he calls (modifying Peter Laslett’s famous phrase) ‘a world that we had lost’. And how? Not by ‘contemplating philosophical treatises’, but by ‘grubbing in archives’: in particular, the rich store of papers from a Swiss publishing house, the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), which have already provided the material for a splendid book, The Business of Enlightenment (1979), and which look good for a lot more.

Before The Business of Enlightenment Darnton had published a study of Mesmerism. This displayed strange strands of ‘Enlightenment’ thought, which might strike a modern reader as far from enlightened, and it showed the author’s taste for highly spiced historical narrative in which period documents are made to yield their maximum flavour. The same holds true for the present volume. Darntom has not attempted a ‘systematic study’ of the literary underground, but a ‘set of sketches’, which add up to a little comédie humaine. They are engagingly written, perhaps rather long on detail – it must be hard to sacrifice good archival material – but telling some vivid stories about a ‘colourful cross-section of vanished humanity’.

The first main character to appear is the revolutionary leader Brissot, by no means an unknown figure. His pre-Revolutionary career is generally known through his own self-justifying memoirs, written not long before his execution. The archives of the STN, together with the Paris police records, tell a different story. They show us not so much the pure and persecuted apostle of Enlightenment as a man deeply engaged in the shady dealings of the literary underworld. In particular, Brissot was driven by poverty, a spell in the Bastille and the crash of his ambitious philosophical projects to act as a police informer. Persistent rumours to this effect have often been dismissed as malicious gossip emanating from personal enemies such as Marat, but Brissot’s letters to the STN and the memoirs of Lenoir, the Paris police chief, leave little doubt about it. Although Darnton takes some pleasure in showing up Brissot’s hypocrisy, he claims that he is not concerned to unveil the villain behind the noble mask, but rather to explain the unpleasant compromises forced on a well-meaning man who, like most people, trod a tricky path between ideals and expediency.

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