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.

The second figure in the gallery is a total unknown, the Abbé Le Senne, author (or so he said) of many unidentified books, wheeler and dealer on the fringes of Encyclopedic literature. Le Senne emerges from this account as the type of the pauvre diable (Voltaire’s phrase) who struggled to make a living out of the new writing. He won the protection of D’Alembert, offered himself to the STN as editor of a new journal to cash in on the vogue for new ideas, sent them a steady stream of proposals for publication (from Japanese customs to scurrilous attacks on the upper clergy), did literary odd jobs of all kinds, embezzled his publishers’ money, fell foul of the authorities for pamphleteering, fled from Paris and his debts, angled for teaching posts, tramped the wintry roads of France, and eventually disappeared from the files of the STN – into the Revolution perhaps. Again, as with Brissot, the story is told in minute detail, and Darnton sets himself the hard task of understanding his man. Psychological biography is a largely fictional enterprise at the best of times, and all the more so when all one has to go on is one set of papers from the archives of a publishing house. What is interesting is that he has recourse to a product of the high culture of the time, Diderot ’s Le Neveu de Rameau, in order to fill out the conjectural inner being of his sordid hero.

After a writer, a bookseller: one Mauvelin, who sold clandestine (and other) books in Troyes. Eighteenth-century booksellers, too, ‘emerge as full-blown personalities, grappling with very human problems – disease, debt, loneliness, failure, and above all the frustrations of a difficult trade’. This sketch is more economically done than the previous one; it concentrates less on the ins and outs of Mauvelin’s dealings with the STN (debts and embezzlement once more) than on the nature of his trade – together with an absorbing digression on the way books were smuggled. Mauvelin’s orders to the STN provide strong evidence for the taste of French provincials of 1784 for forbidden fruit: pornography, anticlerical works and scurrilous pamphlets. But in this chapter, too, we have a portrait of a failure of 18th-century literature, one who starts in a distinguished family and attempts to keep up appearances by sending the STN boars’ heads instead of the money he owes them, but sinks into poverty and debt and vanishes from the archives around 1785, probably to die of venereal disease.

The next chapter concerns a printing shop. This is not a sketch of an individual, but a composite portrait of a professional group. It belongs to labour history rather than to the social history of ideas’, as Darnton calls his own genre. But here, too, the aim is to bring the dead back to life, showing us how printers and masters looked on each other and themselves, how compositors travelled from shop to shop, working when jobs turned up and when they needed cash, engaging in the fiddles of the trade, and perpetuating the apprenticeship rituals and the rest of a corporative culture which survived long after the Revolution.

So much for the case-histories, full of the detail of lived experience. What are we to make of them all? Do they produce any overall picture? Do they alter our view of 18th-century literary history? Such questions are tackled most directly in the two long chapters at the beginning and end of the book, ‘The High Enlightenment and the Low Life of Literature’ and ‘Reading, Writing and Publishing’. These first appeared more than ten years ago, before all the other pieces gathered here except the chapter on Brissot. They have already become classics, and Darnton has not thought fit to modify them in the light of his and other people’s subsequent work.

The main emphasis in the first chapter is on the psychology of the Grub Street writer as a clue to the relation between the Enlightenment and the Revolution. A pretty convincing picture is built up of a growing mass of people with intellectual ambitions who felt themselves excluded from a cultural position to which they had as much right as the fat cats of the academies; having lost their innocence and compromised their ideals, they understandably seethed with resentment. And this, in Darnton’s view, is how Enlightenment leads to Revolution. He admits that the early generation of philosophes also deserves its place among the ‘intellectual origins of the French Revolution’ (Daniel Mornet’s phrase), since they began the undermining of the old order, but he gives the limelight to their impoverished successors:

And while they [the Suards and the Marmontels] grew fat in Voltaire’s church, the revolutionary spirit passed to the lean and hungry men of Grub Street, to the cultural pariahs who, through poverty and humiliation, produced the Jacobinical version of Rousseauism. The crude pamphleteering of Grub Street was revolutionary in feeling as well as in message. It expressed the passion of men who hated the Old Regime in their guts, who ached with hatred of it. It was from such visceral hatred, not from the refined abstractions of the contented cultural élite, that the extreme Jacobin revolution found its authentic voice.

The case is eloquently put. Is it just a revival of the chip-on-the-shoulder thesis put forward by Rivarol, Barruel and scores besides? Not really, for Darnton is alive to the many exceptions to this thesis, from Academicians who reviled the Academy to Jacobins who loved establishment culture. He does leave room for the influence of general ideas as well as personal resentment, and in any case he nowhere claims that the ‘intellectual origins’ are the prime cause of the Revolution. Even so, the thrust of his argument seems to overstress the psychological motivation of a certain number of revolutionary leaders, and thereby, to downgrade the significance of the Revolution. Writing in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, he clearly has no time for Marxist or similar versions of 1789 or 1793 as a great step forward for humanity. This essay was first published soon after the ‘events’ of May 1968 and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and it is perhaps a sign of those times that special attention is given to the ‘Jacobinical determination to wipe out the aristocracy of the mind’. This certainly existed in 1793-4, but the Revolution was a lot more than a resentment-fuelled cultural revolution.

However Darnton’s essential point is surely valid and important. The links between Enlightenment and Revolution are oversimplified in many textbooks, and we do need to be more aware of the distance in time between the philosophical explosion of the mid-century and the storming of the Bastille, and of the shifting structure of the cultural world of the Old Regime. This will not, however, ‘explain’ the Revolution, and one gets the impression from reading Darnton’s later essays (and in particular his Business of Enlightenment) that he has dismissed ambitious speculations about the causes and significance of the Revolution to the margins of his thinking and has come to concentrate more on investigating the literary world of late 18th-century France for its own sake.

Already in ‘Reading, Writing and Publishing’ the Revolution is by no means the point to which everything is tending. The author’s concern here, as indeed in all the essays of this book, is to widen the general view of French literature in the Old Regime. As he puts it at the end of Chapter Four, ‘Too much has fallen by the wayside, and it is too easy to assume that the French of the 18th century read what passes today for 18th-century French literature. But by studying the business of a clandestine bookdealer in the 1780s, one can catch a glimpse of that literature as it actually existed, at its most explosive, in its real context.’ This is absolutely right, and of course Darnton is not alone in thinking this way. Long ago Daniel Mornet made a start with his study of private libraries, and in more recent times the Annales historians, H.-J. Martin, the Bordeaux sociologists of literature and many others (in France and elsewhere) have pursued the elusive answers to questions about the real literary life which lies behind and around a Candide or a Neveu de Rameau. What books were produced? In what numbers? How were they distributed? Who read them? Darnton analyses certain attempts to answer such questions and comes to rather sceptical conclusions. Nevertheless he believes that such questions should be asked. Literary history should not be merely literary. In particular, he claims, it is essential to remember the co-existence in 18th-century France of two systems of book production and distribution, the legal and the clandestine. He himself is mainly concerned with the second of these. The STN, being situated just outside France, did a great trade in forbidden or pirated books, which reached the avid French reader by all sorts of picturesque routes (full of ‘colourful characters’, of course). And no doubt he is right that the clandestine press – like the ‘radios libres’ which have been seeking recognition in France this year – could be a force for change. New kinds of book to meet new tastes – or vice versa?

What was the nature of this innovation? The best answer is to be found in the lists of ‘philosophical’ books which Darnton cites with evident relish from time to time. ‘Philosophy’, to an 18th-century audience, meant all sorts of things besides Leibniz – probably not Leibniz at all, in fact. A good modern analogy might be the ‘alternative’ bookshop in which all that links the books is that they are anti-authority: astrology, feminism, ecology, left-wing politics, satire, eroticism. For Mauvelin’s customers the list might go: anti-religious propaganda (La Fausseté des Miracles), pornography – also often anti-religious (Vénus dans le Cloître) – political theory (Mably or Rousseau) and the ubiquitous libelles against the ruling few (Anecdotes Secrètes sur Madame du Barry). Unlike the contents of the alternative bookshop, however, all of this went to a quite respectable readership.

Darnton lays particular stress on the libelles. There is nothing new about such scurrilous pamphlets (one may recall the flood of mazarinades around 1650), and it remains unproved that there was a tremendous increase of them in the late 18th century, but their existence is not to be ignored in a view of 18th-century reading. Neither of course, at the other extreme, should one forget the continuing popularity of perfectly legal devotional writing, or of the old wives’ tales of the Bibliothèque Bleue. The clandestine circuit needs to be set in a broader context if one is to get an overall view of the life of the book in pre-Revolutionary France, but it is certainly a vital ingredient in reconstituting what Raymond Williams has called the ‘structure of feeling’ of the time. For this reason, Darnton’s work will be on the reading list of anyone making a serious study of the literature of 18th-century France.

Not that it is entirely obvious what the literary reader will do with the knowledge given here. The title speaks of the literary underground, not underground literature, and the work does not contain any detailed reading of the clandestine books whose existence it highlights. Indeed, the recurrent use of such dismissive terms as ‘hack writer’ or ‘gutter Rousseauism’ suggests that for all its importance the material discussed here is hardly to be read in its own right. So for the person who is primarily interested in reading the work of a Diderot or a Laclos with greater understanding, does this book provide more than an interesting background, something it is necessary to know about rather than to know directly?

Take Le Neveu de Rameau, since this is one of the few works from the ‘high culture’ that is considered at any length here. Darnton claims that ‘Le Neveu de Rameau can be read as a gloss on Le Senne’s letters and vice versa; for the life of Le Senne and the literature of Diderot mirror one another in ways that are mutually illuminating.’ In the first place, Diderot’s dialogue is used to fill out the conjectural character studies of a Brissot or a Le Senne – plausible, but unhelpful to the reader of Diderot. Secondly, it is claimed that Le Neveu is better understood when we can see in the raw something of the real-life experience which it distils. This is a vexed question in the day of the self-sufficient text; Le Neveu, like The Heart of Midlothian or Madame Bovary, carries its own world within it, and does not, strictly speaking, need to be buttressed with external evidence. However, I for one would accept that it is interesting to know something of Scott’s Scotland or Flaubert’s France, and that we read better if we can imagine (we can do no more) the way in which books reshape experience. To the extent that ‘poor devilry’ is an important literary theme of the time, Darnton’s work enriches our reading of such books.

Of course Le Neveu is an odd book, in that it was not destined for any of the publishing circuits of the time; it did not see the light of day until several years after Diderot’s death, and then in Goethe’s German. So a knowledge of the world of clandestine publishing is less directly useful here than for Candide or the Encyclopédie. But in general there is certainly much strength in Darnton’s contention that we shall read less anachronistically if we can envisage the circumstances in which the work was printed and distributed.

From a literary point of view, however, what is most useful to the reader of the relatively ‘polite’ literature of the time, or any other time, is a direct experience of the products of the literary underground. To understand Le Neveu de Rameau historically (and this is not the only way), it is not so important to know about a Mauvelin as to read some of the books he peddled, and indeed other writings of all kinds (from funeral oration to almanac), since the literary culture of a society is a structure in which each part takes its full value from its relation with all the rest. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime does not dwell on the books themselves, but not the least of its virtues is that it points readers towards them. Finally it should be stressed that, as in his earlier books, Darnton resuscitates a vanished world, and in doing so, like the best historians (‘C’est un littéraire qui parle’), produces a literary text of our own time. Like most work on the literary underground, of course, these are books that belong firmly in élite culture.