Revolution and Enlightenment in France

Simon Schama

  • The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the ‘Encyclopédie’ 1775-1800 by Robert Darnton
    Harvard, 624 pp, £13.00, September 1979, ISBN 0 674 08786 0

No walnuts, no Enlightenment, it seems. For, as Robert Darnton tells us in his epic chronicle of the Life and Times of the quarto edition of the Encyclopédie, it was nuts and resin from the Midi together with Paris turpentine and linseed oil which made the ink (six monstrous 250-livre barrels) which primed the type which printed the 36 million sheets which comprised the quarto which lowered the price which Spread the Word which overthrew superstition which disarmed the Old Regime and inaugurated the rationalist millennium. Or was it?

Historians have long been given to attributing the French Revolution and all its unholy works to the corrosive influence of the Philosophes. The counter-revolutionary Abbé Barruel saw the Revolution as a conspiracy hatched by malevolent acolytes of Voltaire: freethinkers and freemasons bent on subverting the authority of Christian monarchy. Less histrionically, Alexis de Tocqueville shared the assumption that the diffusion of Enlightenment scepticism had unfastened the ties of deference and order underpinning the Old Regime. It was characteristic of the fecklessness of intellectuals, he argued, to attack established institutions without much bothering about what might replace them.

For Marxist historians, this approach was unduly generous to thinkers and scribblers, investing, as it did, the world of ideas with an autonomy that was unreal. Since, in their view, the Revolution was a product of inexorably shifting social forces, the Enlightenment could be no more than an expression of that movement: in Ernest Labrousse’s awesome phrase, ‘la prise de conscience bourgeoise’. The Philosophes were correspondingly relegated to the role of window-dressers for the ascendant power of the bourgeoisie. One of the many satisfying results of Robert Darnton’s prodigious research has been to dispose of these hoary pieties once and for all. By painstakingly tracking down virtually all of the eight thousand-odd subscribers to the quarto, he has been able to show that a preponderant majority belonged to precisely those sections of the French élite that were the first to suffer from the Revolution: rentiers; office-holders; landowners with pretensions to cultivation; ‘enlightened’ clergy; Parlement lawyers. Many of these were noble; very few of them were engaged in anything that could be described as capitalist enterprise. Commercial travellers in pursuit of subscriptions found meagre pickings in the great centres of trade and industry like Nantes and Lille, where they grumbled of philistinism and avarice. In an ancient centre of administration and law like Besançon, though, the mixture of ennobled professionals and bien-pensant noble academicians yielded a bonanza for the purveyors of Enlightenment by mail order.

Both the anti-revolutionary and the Marxist views were, in any case, based on bald assertion rather than evidence. Both tended to extrapolate an ethos from an arbitrarily summarised version of the Great Texts, and then assign it significance or insignificance as their preconceptions dictated. But we are all contextualists now. Instead of ruminating in a documentary void on the social resonance of political philosophy, cultural historians look to political milieu and the currency of polemics, to routes and means of transmission and to the vulgarisation, rather than the refinement, of original texts, for clues to an understanding of their impact. While form seems to be of more interest than the interpretative scrutiny of content, and the printer’s bench has replaced the philosopher’s cell as the focus of attention, this should not be taken as a reaction of vulgar empiricism against the over-rarefied nature of old-style kulturgeschichte. At its best, and when not mesmerised by the nuts and bolts of ideology – the minute enumeration of column inches and censors’ pencil stubs – it is an authentically historical way of examining the process by which words become deeds; ideas animate action; and the heresies of one generation transmogrify into the orthodoxies of the next.

In this work of historiographical reorientation, Professor Darnton’s magisterial study stands as a major landmark. The measure of his extraordinary achievement is that, for all the countless volumes that have been written on the Enlightenment, his is the first to have understood it, and to have succeeded in describing it, as a social phenomenon. This he has done, not by pondering the exegetical niceties of manuscripts nor by tracing the distribution of the expensive folio edition, but by going directly instead to its ‘stepchild’, the mass-market quarto: ‘ragged, blotchy and unkempt’. Thus he begins where most intellectual historians lose interest: with Diderot’s ill-tempered refusal to have anything to do with a proposed revised version, in 1768. This was not because his editorial genius could not bear the prospect of alterations to the sacred text, but for precisely the opposite reasons. He now regarded the whole Encyclopédie as ‘un gouffre où ces espèces de chiffoniers jetèrent pêlemêle une infinité de choses mal digérées, bonnes, mauvaises, détestables, vraies, fausses, incertaines et toujours incohérentes’.

The massive work of revision and correction was deflected into the alternative project of the quarto – making the Encyclopédie available at a third of the original price to thousands of subscribers. This change of course represented a deliberate entrepreneurial decision to go for quantity rather than quality, and for fast, fat profits rather than lingering scholarly endeavour. And it was in researching the genesis of this momentous enterprise that Darnton hit on a historical goldmine of staggering richness: the papers of the Swiss publishers and printers, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel. Though the STN were to be muscled out of much of the action that followed by the heavy brigade of French publishing, the intricacy and density of their records enabled Darnton to unravel the entire history of the launching, manufacture and marketing of the quarto.

His narrative follows the speeding diligences conveying the ill-assorted syndicate of business partners between Paris, Lyons and Neuchâtel, each group wheeling and dealing to out-manoeuvre the other while fending off lightning raids by press pirates profiting from an age innocent of copyright protection. It moves among the peregrinations of ragpickers scouring Burgundy for the linen shreds needed to produce the mountains of paper consumed by the book, and records the unpredictable behaviour of master printers, downing tools for an impromptu foray into the local cabaret or disappearing down the road towards the beckoning finger of a rival employer offering better wages. The excruciating scissors-and-paste labours of tame abbés, hired to sort, file and rearrange copy, are documented, as are the perspiring journeys of solitary travelling-salesmen, working the provinces for orders, attempting to drum up promotion, and greasing the palms of smugglers crucial for the selling of what was still, at least officially, an illegal book. Frustrated booksellers in Montpellier and Le Havre and Dijon fret and fume as promised deliveries fail to materialise or arrive with blotched paper and disintegrating bindings. But finally, at the end of the chain, the subscribing customer, his 36 volumes complete (including three of plates), could count himself, for less than 400 livres, as the advance publicity cunningly promised, among the advance guard of modern civilised man: the owner of a work which more than any other had, ‘with giant steps’, ‘accelerated the progress of reason’.

Professor Darnton has marshalled this immense mass of detail with skill and elegance to cause the minimum of pain and maximum of illumination. Quite apart from the challenging nature of its conclusions, it is a work which brilliantly succeeds in clothing the dry bones of history with living flesh. His resourcefulness is such that on the basis of a single thumb print smearing a page in Volume 15, he was able to piece together the biography of the peripatetic and slovenly artisan who left it there. Over-inking was a dodge used to lighten the formidable task of pulling the press bar, and it was from the irate correspondence of the STN with their contract printer, complaining about the abuse, that this pocket biography was rescued from oblivion.

In the interminable procession of Lives of the Famous – royal and political – which week after week testify to the bankruptcy of the historical imagination, Robert Darnton’s magnificent book stands as an inspirational example. Its time-scale is perfectly calculated for the examination of a complex phenomenon in depth: it is not bogged down in triviality, nor does it get lost in the vast deserts of the longue durée demanded by the most severe practitioners of ‘total history’. Its prose is as sharp as its perception, and for all the texture of its detail, the book avoids the kind of micro-history now favoured by, for example, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, in which the relating of a single episode, garnished with a gloss of elementary social anthropology, is meant to proclaim self-evident significance. This is simply the imaginative re-creation of a momentous enterprise, set in the framework of an important historical argument. As such it will become one of the classics of modern historical literature.

Much of the originality of the book derives from its yoking together – as the title implies – of cultural and economic history. Its account of the launching and management of the huge and unwieldy business of the quarto is essential reading for an understanding of entrepreneurial practice and malpractice in the 18th century. The extensive arsenal of extortion, conversion of funds, counterfeiting, blackmail, bribery and press piracy is offered as a record of big-time capitalism in its tooth-and-claw phase. A relatively mild form of everyday dishonesty sanctioned, for example, the use of promotional literature announcing the publication of a new work, together with prices and prospectuses, without the slightest commitment to going ahead should this preliminary sortie fail to elicit an encouraging response. More serious was the naked blackmail practised by pirates (one with the engaging name of Grabit), who threatened to publish available material at undercutting rates until bought off by the harried publisher at an exorbitant price. Much of what is recorded here suggests the thinness of the line between crime and business, though Darnton’s suggestion that this was in stark contrast to a more ‘managed’ capitalism in industrialising Britain seems open to debate.

Because of the extraordinary assortment of rogues and fools, villains and victims assembled in the book, some of its narrative has the compelling quality of an 18th-century morality novel. The backwoods provincial Swiss, turgid with Calvinist probity, innocent of deep guile but with their nostrils quivering at the scent of profit, plunge headlong into the murky waters of quasi-illegal publishing, only to swim straight into the grateful jaws of the giant (French) predators gliding in the lower depths. That they eventually surfaced again without being swallowed alive, but after being treated to a severe mauling, was less the result of their own astuteness than of the predictable and mutual hostility of the two most accomplished and ravenous sharks: Joseph Duplain and Charles-Joseph Panckoucke.

The two men were not, in fact, interchangeable types. Duplain, the press baron of Lyons, was the more uncomplicated and gangsterish. Specialising in rapid turn-over and massive profit margins, he never hesitated to use graft, strong-arm pressure and extortion to secure them. While tyrannising his subcontractors to produce the goods, he was quietly creaming off enormous sums by falsifying his inventory of sales. Even he, however, could go too far and expose himself to lethal counter-attack by his long-suffering and suspicious business partners. Having educated themselves in the kind of tactics that were second nature to Duplain – industrial espionage, sabotage, false greetings of amity – the STN together with Panckoucke sprung the trap for their delinquent partner. In one of the most memorable passages in the book Duplain was confronted with irrefutable evidence of his gigantic swindle, and forced into disgorging 200,000 livres to extricate himself from disgrace and ruin. While this was a colossal sum, and while their cut provided the Swiss with some balm for their wounded innocence and shrunken profits, it was nothing like enough to impede Duplain’s progress towards his heart’s desire: the purchase of royal office, carrying with it a patent of nobility. And it was a paradox, absolutely typical of late 18th-century France, that the semi-criminal buccaneering capitalist should see the goal of all his plots and stratagems as absorption into the class of the landowning aristocracy.

Panckoucke, who had some tart asides to offer on his ex-partner’s pretensions to lord it as ‘Duplain de St Albine’, was an altogether more complex personality. So far from speeding after Duplain down the highway of illicit gain towards noble status, Panckoucke veered off after the quarto away from quantity and back, as he supposed, to quality. In the closing sections of his book, Darnton traces his subsequent career, dominated as it was by the colossal, ruined edifice of the Encyclopédie Méthodique, the ultimate work of compilation, arranged according to rules of subject, not the absurd dictation of the alphabet. The ‘ultimate Encyclopédie’ was intended by Panckoucke to replace the solecisms and anachronisms of which Diderot had complained so bitterly. But the effort needed to tackle this work of revision proved so exhausting that it cast a long and dark shadow over Panckoucke’s remaining years, growing ever more monstrous like some intellectual Fonthill that threatened to crash down from its precarious foundations and bury its architect amid the debris.

Professor Darnton sees Panckoucke’s obsession with the project of the Encyclopédie Méthodique as an anticipation of the habits of 19th-century robber barons for whom ‘speculation had become an end in itself.’ It is certainly true that the scale of the gamble, costing Panckoucke nearly two million livres and involving 100,000 articles collected in 42 quarto or 84 octavo volumes, dwarfed anything that the Enlightenment had yet produced or even conceived. But rather than this growing out of Panckoucke’s admittedly omnivorous appetite for big-time business, it was the product of his fixation that the tomes of the Encyclopédie Méthodique would provide the key with which the mysteries of the modern world would be disclosed. In other words, he had come to believe his own promotional literature – an unpardonable lapse for a publisher. He even appears to have cherished the view that the systematic organisation of knowledge, its classification into great monolithic compartments of the intellect, would make men happy and free. ‘L’homme devient autant libre plus il a l’esprit cultivé,’ he opined, following Condorcet rather than Rousseau; and he stuck by this faith as his great project hit the reefs and started to founder.

A mighty débâcle was in sight long before the Revolution made it a certainty. Deadlines were broken; the brigades of editors assigned responsibility for the mammoth sections into which the work was divided procrastinated, as subsidised intellectuals are prone to do, and failed to deliver copy. Panckoucke’s costs skyrocketed and his subscribers began to defect as he importuned them for more time, more volumes, and more subscriptions.

So far from the French Revolution representing the consummation of Encyclopedism, the opposite turned out to be the case. Although Panckoucke initially greeted it with warmth, he very soon felt its adverse effects. The costs of both manpower and materials shot up, and both were diverted to service the more urgent needs of the Revolution: broadsides, pamphlets, patriotic ballads and the like. He had been prudent enough to diversify into journalism, but the kind of ephemeral literary flotsam and jetsam washing around the streets of Paris, and soaking up precious print and paper, was anathema to his sense of the weighty and the durable. More galling still, as soon as he had brought out the immense compilation on legal institutions the Revolution wiped the slate clean of antique usages and arcane precedents, thus rendering it useless as a work of reference.

All this was hard to take, and as the Revolution turned militant, Panckoucke’s huffing and puffing against scurrilous invective and irresponsible fly-by-night printers became more exasperated. Rejected at the polls, he took to advocating the old system of guilds and licences as a way of restoring orderly regulation. This was not simply a case of sour grapes. For all the ostensible ‘liberalism’ of the Encyclopédie enterprise, it turned out in the end to have been crucially dependent on the institutional peculiarities of the Old Regime. A state in which official censorship co-existed alongside actual permissiveness had been ideally suited to Panckoucke’s sort of publications. The formal disapproval of the Parlement courts, the occasional book-burning by the public executioner, promoted his reputation as a purveyor of the avantgarde, while the reality of toleration and even encouragement on the part of Louis XVI’s Court protected him from serious jeopardy. Like much that was dynamic in this period – Atlantic trade, for example – his publishing operated within the interstices of formal institutions where the spirit of modernity was struggling to free itself from the dead weight of antiquity.

Indeed, both Panckoucke and Duplain had needed the power of the French monarchy as an occasional tactical weapon. When confronted by a Swiss-printed octavo which threatened to undercut the quarto just as they had undercut the folio, they used the full muscle of police power to deny the trespassing pocket edition any entry to the French market.

In a more oblique sense, the entrepreneurs, like the authors of the Encyclopédie, had worked, not in irreconcilable antipathy to, but in symbiotic relationship with, the Old Regime. They were grateful for its more self-parodying anomalies as points to score off, and like Voltaire in his denunciations of mortmain, actually embellished their abuse for propaganda purposes. Many of the King’s ministers had long come to acknowledge the truth of much of what the Philosophes, and indeed the physiocrats, urged. But with some exceptions, such as the emancipation of Protestants in 1787, their institutional immobilism precluded their being able to do much about it.

No such tacit generosity coloured the militant stage of the Revolution which profited from their inadequacy. Instead of embracing Panckoucke’s creed of liberating reason, sanctimonious Jacobinism turned violently and with savage repugnance on the lukewarm morality of the savant and the bel esprit. Academicians were reviled (not infrequently by renegades among their own number) as parasites who in their lust for royal and noble favour had battened off the verminous cadaver of the old order. Against their celebration of pure rationality were ordained the transcendent values of social piety, simplicity of manners, stoical virtues and righteous anger.

It was only when the fierce flame of this irascibility burnt itself out with the Terror that those who had evaded its punishments, or who had at least temporarily colluded in its indignation, surfaced once more in a guise that would have been familiar to Panckoucke. By this time, he had prudently silenced his tirades, but had abandoned the wreck of the Encyclopédie Méthodique to his family before dying in 1798. Had he survived just a few years longer, one suspects he would have been gratified by the ethos of Bonaparte’s Consulate. For in place of editorial patronage the state had taken over the management of classified data and had transformed their practitioners – land surveyors, engineers, mathematicians and polytechniciens – into the freshly-exalted caste of professional experts, showering them with the status and the subsidies which they have never relinquished.

If this extraordinary dénouement fails to yield a satisfactory answer to the question I posed at the outset – the connection between Enlightenment and Revolution – it may well be because it was, all along, the wrong question to put. If, instead of characterising the Revolution as the harbinger of the New Era, one sees it as a convulsion of nostalgic desperation, and its protagonists, not as men with their gaze directed at a scientifically-organised or capitalistically-managed future, but rather as artisans and landless peasants rebelling against the prospect of such a future, then its historical separation from the late 18th century and the mid-19th century becomes clearer. And if we formulate a new question – did the Enlightenment and its most ambitious creation, the Encyclopédie, help bring to birth a modern world in which aggressive capitalism was to be partnered by scientific determinism, notwithstanding the interruptions of revolutionary upheavals? – then, after reading Robert Darnton’s thrilling and luminous volume, we can venture a tentative answer. Oui, hélas.