- 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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983
SIR: Peter France’s thoughtful review of Robert Darnton’s The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (LRB, 2 December 1982) focuses on a number of significant issues, the most important of which is Darnton’s scepticism on the causes, nature and effect of the Enlightenment. Many readers will be puzzled by an excessive caution here. Some of Darnton’s other positions, such as the influence of pornographic tracts on revolutionary politics, will be questioned for being too broad. The difficulties raised on both scores deserve attention, since they relate to the genre in which Darnton has cast his work – namely, the history of the Book.
Darnton’s most provocative, if perplexed argument concerns the influence of Grub Street on its writer and readers. Of the writers, he believes that it was their situation more than their ideas that mattered. The ‘Low-Lifers’ and yellow journalists of the Enlightenment repeated the message of the great philosophes (indeed, they had no ideas which were specifically their own – Grub Street had ‘no coherent political programme nor even any distinctive ideas of its own’). The ‘emotional thrust’ of Grub Street literature displaced political or social argument as the message, and it was from the Low-Lifers’ ‘visceral hatred, not from the refined abstractions of the contented élite, that the extreme Jacobinism found its voice’. In this phase of his analysis Darnton empties Grub Street culture of its ideological substance: what they said did not really matter to them.
The second half of Darnton’s argument deals with the effect on the reader of this filtered-down Enlightenment. There, he thinks, ideas did matter. The police understood this. They took popular journalism seriously because the libelles ‘had a serious effect on public opinion’. Paradoxically, though the Grub Street writers were moved by their own misery, the Grub Street reader was genuinely moved by their ideas. Cynics seduce. Reading Rousseau’s Social Contract may not have motivated the libellistes, but something did happen to their audience when abstract concepts of popular sovereignty were translated into pornographic stories about the Queen:
When philosophy went under, it lost its self-restraint and its commitment to the culture of those on top. When it turned against courtiers, churchmen and kings, it committed itself to turning the world upside down. In their own language, the livres philosophiques called for undermining and overthrowing. They counterculture called for a cultural revolution – and was ready to answer the call of 1789.
It was only when complex notions filtered down to the masses below that they became lethal. Only then did the attack on tradition, the praise of individualism, the utopian yearnings for equality, the desire that man and society, private virtue and public good, nature and the supernatural should be one, only then did these ideas matter.
Darnton’s assertion of the corrosive effect of Grub Street is highly suggestive. There remain problems of definition and gaps in the argument to be explored by future scholars. It is hard to know where Grub Street began and where it ended. A less archival perspective might lead to a somewhat more nuanced view of the broad spectrum of authorship during the Enlightenment. If the myth of Socrates had such impact in 18th-century France, it was after all because all intellectuals, including the very great, had at one time or another cause to feel vulnerable. In any instance, what we already know about Grub Street clearly indicates that it did not condition its inhabitants to any particular political point of view. A description of the milieu, striking as Darnton’s is, cannot ipso facto indicate what was thought there and why, just as the life of an author cannot explain his work. Grub Streets have existed at other times and in other places, no less humiliating to their inhabitants, but without much political effect. Indeed, Richard Popkin has shown in his extremely valuable The Right-Wing Press in France, 1792-1800, that ‘the majority of these [Reactionary] gens de letters … had been participants in what Robert Darnton has called the “low life of literature” rather than the pre-Revolutionary establishment.’ If Grub Street was a fount for the left, so was it one for the right.
The argument that the Enlightenment became effective when translated into pornography has problems also. It is difficult to find reliable measures of the causes of popular opinion. We do not know if reading prurient stories about Marie Antoinette really made much difference, even to the way that people thought about Marie Antoinette, not to speak of the monarchy, of liberty, equality and fraternity. The police may well have harried the libellistes but this may just have been one more case of a sterile ‘round-up the usual suspects’. Policemen have to justify their existence, as Richard Cobb has shown. That libellistes were arrested may tell us more about the mentality of the police than about that of their readers. Furthermore, as France points out, scurrilous pamphlets were nothing new.
Another difficult question for Rezeptionsgeschichte is the comparative significance of particular texts or types of text. Darnton does think that some mattered more than others. He claims that the message of the libelles was ‘more dangerous propaganda than the Contrat Social’. This is problematic for a number of reasons, of which the first is the contradictory evidence at hand. The publication which had the greatest succès de scandale in the 1780s was Necker’s Compte-rendu au Roi, hardly a pornographic text voicing ‘baser sentiments’ in the language of the people, which sold more than fifty thousand copies in under two months. It is no more true to say that the Revolution was intimately connected to pornographic writing than to argue as Taine did that Revolutionaries were woolly-headed social deviants. Without a doubt, Grub Street did have some effect; Darnton’s hero, Brissot, is certainly grist to his mill, as might be Mirabeau, Collot, Fabre and Billaud-Varennes. But it surely is a striking and obvious fact that nearly all important Revolutionary leaders had had nothing to do with Grub Street, and despised its ways and means, whether they stood in politics on the right, the left, the extreme left, the centre or the sides. What Necker and Lafayette, Robespierre and Condorcet, Sieyes and Carnot probably shared most was an intensity of seriousness and a relentless righteousness; Saint-Just, the only ex-pornographer among the first-stringers, being perhaps the most unbending. The bourgeois Revolutionaries were overwhelmingly moral and sincere men, so were the extreme revolutionaries, the Enragés, the Babouvians, and even the terrorists like Carrier, Lebon and Fouché. And well they might be: their concerns were vast, their sense of history was overwhelming, and the French Revolution is still today the central world-historical event of modern times. What Grub Street had to do with the essential message, social alignments and trajectory of the French Revolution needs further examination.
A broader problem raised by the history of the Book concerns the relationship between its methodology and the complex, subtle issues on which it touches. The potentially radical insights must be of interest to us. Derrida has challenged the ‘phallogocentrism’ of Western culture, in a critique of the patriarchal institutions and mystery cults that are founded on the printed word. Darnton hopes that work like his own may ultimately provide us with ‘a larger understanding of how printing has shaped man’s attempts to make sense of the human condition’. As yet, however, the bolder insights advanced even by fine historians like Darnton may fail to convince because of limitations in the methods on which they rely. To speak abruptly, their fundamental idea has often been to count rather than to read. ‘Books are economic commodities as well as cultural artifacts … As vehicles of ideas, they have to be peddled on a market.’ What Darnton turns to in consequence, in his later essays, are watermarks, bills of lading, shipments, gains and losses. At its best, as it is this collection of essays, this concern for who published what, where, and in how many copies, can lead to some striking observations. Darnton’s essays are justly celebrated for their ‘thick’ descriptions of the varied and entertaining worlds of ‘Low-Lifers’ and of publishers and customs men. Fundamentally, however the reification of culture underlies such an argument. To consider ideas as commodities is to assume that writers, functioning in a discrete context (like Grub Street), produce concrete objects (libelles) whose statistical distribution tells us something about their effect on an otherwise virgin field (the mind of the reader).
It must be emphatically repeated that books are not just commodities. They speak to reason or the imagination; to the moment and the ages; or not at all. Events unpredictably give them brief or lasting actuality. There is no monovalent relationship between book and belief. It is chastening in this respect to remember that Montesquieu was an important source not just for Marat but for Saint-Just, the arch-enemy of bureaucratic tyranny and foe of arbitrary rule.
A more flexible model along lines being developed by Rezeptionsgeschichte would present culture and socio-economic life, writer and reader, as protean, interacting forms. Brissot’s life on Grub Street may have honed his polemical interests, but interest in pornography as a medium is also an aspect of a more general revival of interest in sexuality, where sexuality was (inter alia) an expression of individual liberation. Libels on Marie-Antoinette and Laclos’s Liaisons Dangereuses, or prurient prints and Fragonard, are not opposites whose origins and ‘impact’ can be mechanically isolated. They are different aspects of the seamless web of culture and society, and they could productively be reread from a semiotic and structural perspective, as feminists have done for Classical literary texts. Régine Robin’s and Jacques Guilhaumou’s essays on revolutionary slogans are suggestive in this respect.
Darnton’s method and emphasis on the indirect effect of Enlightened thought may seem unsurprising today, and it may be useful to note why they have become so since the date of his first publication. The historical climate at the time of their conception in the 1960s was that of a fading but still dominant and aggressively materialist Marxist perspective, derided in 1964 by Cobban in his Social Interpretation of the French Revolution. In that ‘vulgar Marxist’ view, the Enlightenment was a ‘superstructure’. The French middle classes, wrote the late Professor Soboul, ‘had elaborated a philosophy which was in keeping with its history, its role and its interests’. Darnton’s argument, in that context, was truly novel: it rescued culture from oblivion, albeit only in its connection to Grub Street. Twenty years later, however, the historiographic climate has changed dramatically. It is now more catholic to argue that the Revolution was a machine that ran out of control (dérapage) in large part because of its ambiguous ideological content. The ideology of the Enlightenment is now thought to have been critical for two reasons. First, the integrative power of culture, as well as common links to nascent capitalism, helped unite before 1789 the liberal aristocracy and the reformist bourgeoisie. Second, it was the contradictions – or, in Furet’s view, the disintegrative implications – of Enlightenment thought which explain the genesis and failure of Revolutionary extremism. The Revolution is no longer seen as the work of a bourgeoisie whose ideas mechanically fitted its interest. It is now increasingly understood to have been the uncontrollable creation of a composite élite of liberal nobles and reformist bourgeoisie, steeped in the message of the Enlightenment, but unaware of its destructive power. To have argued for even the indirect effect of Enlightened thought in 1971 was a great step forward. To insist exclusively on Grub Street in 1982 would trivialise the culture of an epoch when it was ‘bliss to be alive’.
Indeed, Darnton’s later essays are concerned with another, more ‘respectable’ milieu, that of contraband books rather than of illicit libelles. These essays rely, however, even more strictly on the classical statistical methods of the history of the Book. The problem lies in the way this genre has been conceived. The danger is that it may become a way out rather than a way forward, a method which finds its explanation in the collapse both of the classical Marxist schema and of ‘bourgeois’ modernization theory.
In the last pages of his splendid work on the printing and commercialisation of the Enlightenment, Darnton modestly concluded that the Encyclopédie was so vast that no study of it can ‘provide easy answers to questions about the ideological nature of the Revolution’. This could be take to mean that questions of the relationship of ideas to politics ‘are incapable of meaningful answer’, as Peter France has pessimistically concluded. But optimism must prevail, even if the problems are at the moment very baffling: as regards the period before 1789, the Marxist argument on ideology as superstructure still has considerable force. Conversely, the revolutionary ideology of 1793-94 can very rightly be perceived as a set of self-sustaining symbols, with their own inner logic divorced from social or political circumstance. There are no easy answers, but it would be a fatal step for historians simply to give up on trying to make consistent sense of the relationship of ideas to politics in this period of human history. Restated, this would be to set aside the central aspect of the central historical problem of modern times. The whole endeavour may be Sisyphean, but that in itself is cause to go on; and one of the best reasons for optimism that we have today is the work that is symbolised by this collection of insightful essays.
Vol. 5 No. 5 · 17 March 1983
SIR: If I may be permitted to reply to Patrice Higonnet’s criticism of my book (Letters, 10 January), I find myself joining the chorus of authors who repeat the same, sad refrain: you read me wrong; I never meant that. It is melancholy company, and the fault may lie with us rather than with our readers. So let me clarify what I was attempting to do in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime. As my title indicates, I wanted to explore a particular milieu: the world of Grub Street writers, pirate publishers and under-the-cloak booksellers. It is a vast, unknown territory. I attempted only a few forays into it, directing my research where the archives seemed richest and casting my writing in the form of essays – that is, essaying lines of interpretation rather than pretending to produce a systematic treatise.
Patrice Higonnet presents my book as an argument about the Enlightenment, which stumbles through three non-sequiturs. 1. Ideas did not matter in 18th-century France, so one need not ponder texts like the Social Contract. 2. Those texts were translated into pornographic tracts by hack writers, who used them as a vehicle to vent their social frustrations. 3. In this vulgar form, the ideas did matter, for they displaced the work of the philosophes as the key intellectual influence on the Revolution. I disavow those arguments and never advanced them, as one can see from several passages in my text, notably those on pp.37-40, 145-147 and 202-208.
The diffusion of Enlightenment ideas was the subject of my two previous books. In this one, I studied a different phenomenon: the spread of scurrilous pamphlets, chroniques, scandaleuses and libelles. They expressed a Grub Street view of the world, and they sold widely in pre-Revolutionary France. Yet because of their crude character, they have been completely forgotten. I think they deserve a place among the ideological origins of the French Revolution along with the work of the philosophes. I think it important to recognise that Les Fastes de Louis XV headed the best-seller list, as I have reconstructed it from publishers’ account books, in a sleepy provincial town like Troyes. But I do not mean to disparage the significance of Diderot and Rousseau, and I never dreamed of arguing that ‘the Enlightenment became effective when translated into pornography,’ as Higonnet would have it. Finally, I think it even more important to study texts, that of the Social Contract as well as that of Venus in the Cloister, and to understand how they were read at the time.
The history of reading, however, is difficult terrain, terribly barren in documentation. Instead of venturing into it, I worked in an area where the evidence is thick and the question manageable: what did Frenchmen read in the 18th century? What did they really read as distinct from the canon of classics that was subsequently selected to represent 18th-century French literature? I will give a fuller account of this littérature vécue in a later work, and I intend to move from there to a systematic investigation of public opinion and the ideological origins of the Revolution. The Literary Underground represents only the first steps in what has already become a long trek through the archives. If it has stirred up some debate, so much the better. And if, like other authors, I wince when my readers get me wrong, that may serve as a healthy reminder of the complexities of communication through the printed word, which is what I ultimately hope to understand.
SIR: I was very interested to read Patrice Higonnet’s thoughtful comments on the issues raised by Robert Darnton’s book. However, both Higonnet’s letter and his recently published work on the nobility of the Revolution, which likewise deals with the impact of Enlightenment ideas on the French Revolution, seem to me to be pitched at too high a level of abstraction, if the relationship of ideas to politics is to be meaningfully explored. For example, in criticising the ‘vulgar Marxism’ of the late Professor Soboul, according to which, in the Enlightenment, the middle classes ‘had elaborated a philosophy which was in keeping with its history, its role and its interests’, Higonnet – besides not giving credit to the more subtle aspects of Soboul’s actual analysis – seems to neglect the fact that the middle classes themselves, not just more or less déclassé pornographers, were producers and disseminators of ideas. It may be true, as Higonnet says, that ‘the Revolution is no longer seen as the work of a bourgeoisie whose ideas mechanically fitted its interest’: nor is a united bourgeoisie seen, mechanically, to have had one interest. Nevertheless, important sections of the bourgeoisie, who were morally respectable and who were not themselves men of letters or explicit ideologists, were perfectly capable of putting pen to paper and expressing their interests in a very forceful and sometimes eloquent way. Neither Darnton nor Higonnet gives much attention to this fact, the former because he looks too low, the latter because he looks too high.
Possibly some consideration of this ‘literature’ might reveal a degree of Enlightenment influence, pressed more or less happily into service for the defence of specific interests and the advancement of very definite claims. This would certainly seem to be the case at Marseille, where, for example, merchant members of the Academy were conscious proselytisers for ‘philosophic’ values, even to the extent of wishing to spread the more utilitarian of these to the local artisan and peasant classes. Figures such as Dominique Audibert (correspondent of Voltaire, Necker, Clavière etc, friend of Raynal) and Jacques Seimandy (whose pamphlets on the interests of the commercial classes were adopted by the Chamber of Commerce) prided themselves (with justification, I think) on their participation in the triumph of enlightened ideas in 1789. These were ideas which, as Soboul says, they saw as the vindication of the historical role, present position and aspirations of their milieu. Moreover, also at Marseille, Mirabeau was not acclaimed in 1789 because of his mildly risqué novels, which, if known, would have put off many of Higonnet’s ‘overwhelmingly moral and sincere’ bourgeois revolutionaries. He was elected to the States General because of his hatred for the reactionary nobility of Provence, and won the admiration of many bourgeois for his speeches on economic matters in the National Assembly, speeches seen as defending the very material interests of the commerce of Marseille.
Thus, if one is interested in exploring the relationship of ideas to politics, it is necessary to examine (as best one can) all the written – and other – productions of the time, in the relevant political and social context, broadly defined. Mirabeau’s speeches in the National Assembly, including those directly defending economic interests (such as the free return of Indies ships to any French port, not just Lorient), do not always succeed in reconciling the enunciation of philosophic principles with the expression of specific, materially-orientated points of view. But in assessing the play between interests and principles, it is useful to know that Mirabeau was sometimes plied with statistics and arguments by real merchants, just before he mounted the tribune. Only then can both vulgar materialism and a disembodied idealism be avoided.
One might add, in conclusion, that when pronouncing the death-knell of the view which gives prominence to the material interests of the bourgeoisie in producing the revolutionary situation of 1789, and the ideas then expressed, it might be prudent to give some attention both to what those interests were and to how the bourgeoisie saw them and gave expression to them. It may, as Higonnet claims, be more ‘catholic’ to adopt a vague perspective which ignores this point, but can it be said to be more accurate?
University of Aberdeen
Vol. 5 No. 7 · 21 April 1983
SIR: In Vol. 5, No 1 you published a letter by Professor Patrice Higonnet of Harvard, in which he was quoted as saying: ‘Indeed, Richard Popkin has shown in his extremely valuable The Right-Wing Press in France 1792-1800 …’ I agree that the book is extremely valuable, but I regret that I am not the author of it. However, I am happy to report that my son, Jeremy D. Popkin, Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, is the author, and I am sure Professor Higonnet will join me in giving credit where credit is due.
Richard H. Popkin
Department of Philosophy, Washington University