To kill a cat

Anthony Pagden

  • Settecento Riformatore. Vol. IV: La Caduta dell’Antico Regime 1776-1789. Part One: I Grandi Staii dell’Occidente by Franco Venturi
    Einaudi, 463 pp, lire 45,000.00, July 1984, ISBN 88 06 05695 6
  • Settecento Riformatore. Vol. IV: La Caduta dell’Antico Regime 1776-1789. Part Two: II Patriotismo Repubblicano e gli Imperi dell’Est by Franco Venturi
    Einaudi, 1040 pp, lire 55,000.00, July 1984, ISBN 88 06 05696 4
  • The Great Cat Massacre, and Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton
    Viking, 284 pp, £14.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1728 8
  • Rousseau, Dreamer of Democracy by James Miller
    Yale, 272 pp, £25.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 300 03044 4

It is the fortune, or perhaps the misfortune, of the Enlightenment that its historians frequently write very long books. Franco Venturi’s Settecento Riformatore, which must surely be one of the longest, has now reached its fifth and final volume. As an enterprise it can have few parallels even among dixhuitièmistes. It offers no less than the description of an entire culture seen from a single geographical viewpoint. The culture is the whole of Europe from 1730 until the demise of the ancien régime in the French Revolution. The perspective is Italy, for, as Venturi announced at the start of the project, the Italians were, because of their long tradition of social and political analysis, perhaps the most perceptive observers of the European scene.

Settecento Riformatore has no single thesis. It is, as its title suggests, an anatomy of the several ways in which nearly every region of Europe, from Scotland and Russia to Spain and Portugal, struggled to adjust to demands for more open forms of government, for freedom from religious interference in secular affairs, for more humane attitudes towards the poor, the outcast, criminals and slaves, for a more rational organisation of political and social life. Each European nation responded to these demands in different ways, from the French insistence on the right of participation of all citizens in the political life of the nation to the ‘enlightened despotism’ of Catherine the Great and Joseph II. The Enlightenment was never, except among a restricted group of intellectuals, a single process. But by describing the various movements of which it was composed through Italian eyes, Venturi has provided his readers with a sense of how each of them can be read as a local response to a set of generalised ideological ambitions, even if some of these, like the term ‘Enlightenment’ itself, still elude adequate definition.

Those ambitions – and he has spent most of his life writing about them – were grounded in the belief shared by even the most radical of the philosophes that the virtuous life of the Roman Republic (or even that of Diderot’s Tahitian sages) could be achieved under a monarchy, even an absolute monarchy, if the monarch were prepared to commit himself to a rational and enlightened programme. Mercier’s futurist utopia conjured with the vision of a France in the year 2440 ruled over by a Louis XXXVI, who guaranteed for all his people an equal share in the civic life. By the end of the century, however, the enthusiasm raised by the apparent willingness of so many of Europe’s rulers to implement just such programmes had given way to a sense of the impending collapse of the ancien régime. As the Notizie del Mondo reported prophetically in 1783, ‘the crisis which faces Europe in the closing years of this century is certainly as great ... as any which one may read about in history.’ The final volumes of Settecento Riformatore deal with this crisis. Enlightened ministers in Spain and Portugal were driven from power by a revival of traditional values. The Netherlands, which had always been an important centre of diffusion for enlightened ideas, was plunged into revolt, as was the home of Rousseau’s ‘helvetic muse’, Geneva. Finally the world, essentially aristocratic and monarchical, which the men and women of the Enlightenment had struggled to improve collapsed in a revolution whose aim was to transform, not reform, society. It would be churlish to ask Venturi for more, but the somewhat old-fashioned decision to stop the work in 1789 leaves the reader to wonder just how Europe’s most perceptive political observers responded to an event which in so many ways brought an end to all the aspirations of the preceding decades.

Settecento Riformatore is simply the best account we have of the Enlightenment in Italy. Although he deals with only one, predominantly political, aspect of his subject, Venturi has succeeded in these volumes in establishing the importance for Europe, as well as the intrinsic fascination, of a diverse and complex cultural world which has been seen for too long through French eyes as a decadent corner of Europe that was never really able to sustain the achievement of its 15th-century renaissance. Few studies of the period make more than a passing reference to Italy. Beccaria, Muratori, Galiani, Giannone are sometimes mentioned because they were read in France and sometimes even wrote in French. But, for the most part, the Enlightenment is taken to be a French and possibly German affair, with English origins. Venturi’s massive work has done much to redress this balance: but it is still too little known outside Italy and unavailable in any language other than Italian. Is it too much to hope that some enlightened publisher might consider issuing at least an abridged English version?

In approach and in method, in how it conceives the historian’s task, in the very subjects it studies, Venturi’s history could not be more unlike Robert Darnton’s new book. Venturi is interested in how great events were understood by great, or at least highly articulate, minds. Darnton is concerned with apparently insignificant events – not the American Revolution but a slaughter of cats – and in what they meant to the poor, the peasant, the artisan, sometimes the policeman, or the bourgeois. Traditionally, of course, the Enlightenment has been viewed as the exclusive domain of a ‘high’ culture. If Aufklärung was, as Kant had famously asserted it to be, man’s newfound capacity to know himself, then its history was the history of those men and women, articulate, learned and always powerful, who could exploit that knowledge in pursuit of a set of ideas which, despite the battering they later received from Romanticism, still exercise a powerful hold over the modern imagination. The Enlightenment saw the birth of that much berated but still indispensable individual – the intellectual – and it is he, and the domain he is said to have inhabited as though it existed as a geographical reality, the ‘republic of letters’ with its salons and its cafés, which constitutes most people’s understanding of the Enlightenment. Darnton sees things rather differently.

Animating all the bright show there were others: journeymen, apprentices, policemen and grub-street hacks, would-be-writers with little talent and no integrity, men who doubled as spies and informers to eke out a living in their proverbial garrets. There were also the bourgeois for ever on the fringes of the polite intellectual world of the salon, and, out beyond the limits of the city, the ubiquitous and over-studied French peasant. In a series of books and articles Darnton has brought to light, and to life, this other world of the literary underground which sustained, preyed upon and kept watch over the lions and lionesses of the high culture. And he has done it with a skill and sophistication which no other historian of ‘popular culture’ writing in English possesses. This new collection of essays is an experiment in l’histoire des mentalités, a term which Darnton wishes to translate as ‘cultural history’: a history, that is, of culture, as anthropologists use that troubling word, a ‘history in the ethnographic grain’. This is a polemical move. ‘Most people’, as Darnton says, ‘tend to think that cultural history concerns high culture, culture with a capital c.’ Most people would be right. Cultural history as Kulturgeshichte has, after all, been with us for a long time, and it has always been, on the most minimal account, the history of enduring artefacts produced by and for the dominant classes within any society, those which have, like it or not, in the end shaped the way we have all come to live no matter what our place on the social scale. What Darnton wishes to substitute for this is a history, largely though not uniquely, of the culture of the streets and fields, of the ‘ordinary people’ who operate ‘at ground level’.

In order to understand the world of these people the historian has to learn to read his evidence in ways which his own discipline, a singularly unreflective one, has ill-equipped him to do. Traditional methods of historical analysis, however applied, cannot achieve very much with the kind of unstructured material most ‘ordinary, people’ have left behind. But historians have never been bashful about borrowing other people‘s techniques; and the historians of popular culture have borrowed freely, especially from Victor Turner and Darnton’s acknowledged mentor, Clifford Geertz, whose principal concern has been with culture as a system of meanings, as, in Geertz’s phrase, an ‘acted document’. But the historian faces problems the anthropologist does not. His material is fragmentary and fixed. It cannot be questioned for specific responses. It cannot, except by chance, be increased, and its extent depends on factors which are entirely unrelated to it. Darnton is too good a historian to ignore these difficulties. Since the material lacks the definition of – the analogy is his own – the Congressional Record, we simply cannot, he insists, ask for too much precision. ‘We never meet pure idiom.’ But if the end-result is imprecise, even ‘fuzzy’, the wealth and variety of the documentation does allow the historian to recover the strategies which ‘the men in the street’ used, as Darnton has it, ‘to think with’.

Darnton has no means of testing whether the strategies he has teased out of his documents correspond to anything other than the pre-established constructs in his own mind, constructs which have been devised for measuring responses within cultures which, despite certain superficial similarities, are remote from the one under examination. Such difficulties can perhaps never be resolved. If the historian is to attempt anything other than the dreary round of factual description, he is going to have, just as the anthropologist has, to accept the limitations of his chosen methods. And anyway, as Darnton says with what comes close to being a shrug, ‘one can always put new questions to old material.’ His own strategy for finding new questions to ask is to look for those aspects of a culture which seem wholly inexplicable, to locate a point of disjuncture between our understanding of the norm and theirs. This will, he believes, administer the necessary dose of culture shock which the historian requires before he is able to identify and then unravel ‘an alien system of meaning’. Hence the cat massacre itself.

Some time in the 1730s, in the Rue Saint-Séverin in Paris, two apprentices in the printing shop of Jacques Vincent set to work massacring all the cats in the neighbourhood. They dumped them by the sackload in the courtyard of the shop, gave them a mock trial, declared them guilty and strung them up on an improvised gallows. It was all a great joke which left the apprentices ‘delirious with joy’, ‘disorder’ and ‘laughter’, particularly since their master‘s wife was a great cat lover and her favourite pussy la grise was, though she did not yet know it, among the dead. For a group of 18th-century youths this seemed to be just about the funniest thing that had ever happened to them, and yet it must strike the modern reader not just as singularly unfunny but as downright repulsive. Darnton claims that if we can only get the joke, we can perhaps also get some purchase on ‘a basic ingredient of artisanal culture under the Old Regime’.

His own explication de texte for this episode turns on the hostility of the apprentices towards their master and the elaborate sexual (‘pussy’ is a euphemism in more than one European language) and satanic imagery of cats, whose slaughter could be used to state in coded yet unambiguous terms, the apprentices’ belief that the master’s wife was a witch, a slut and a whore, and he in consequence a cuckold and a fool. The great cat massacre, then, fulfilled some of the functions of the popular festival or the charivari. It allowed the workers to revenge themselves on their master in ways which rendered him powerless to punish them. These interpretations, with their neatly balanced sociological distinctions, might perhaps strike the reader as too elaborate. Darnton is not suggesting that the imagery on which the cat-killings drew was entirely self-conscious, or that the killers ‘knew’ what they were doing to the extent that the ‘text’ they devised was meant to be ‘read’ by the master and his mistress with the same degree of precision with which the historian is able to read it. The power of a private joke lies, after all, in its privacy, in the fact that the victim can never know the extent to which he is being ridiculed. But the difficulty which must face anyone – historian or anthropologist – who attempts to make sense of ‘culture shock’ is how, in the process of analysis, to preserve the shock itself: how to preserve, that is, the integrity of the culture under examination. What has vanished in Darnton’s explanation, convincing though it is as an explanation, is the sheer violence of the event. The loss is perhaps inescapable, and Darnton is far too intelligent, too sensitive to the particularity of every culture, to resort to the stock means of dealing with the problem: the use of simple cross-cultural parallels, the belief that if it were possible to find instances of cat massacres among some remote and ‘primitive’ people, then the mere fact of the similarity would both preserve the strangeness of the deed and provide an explanation for it.

In the end, perhaps, the world of the 18th-century apprentice, like the world of the cultures removed from us in space rather than time, defies satisfactory interpretation. As Darnton says, ‘other people are other.’ It is even difficult to imagine what a satisfactory interpretation would look like, since it would inevitably have to be couched in a language wholly remote from the mental world of the people it is concerned with. In the end, the historian is in danger of receiving back from his text the answer which anthropologists all too often receive from their informants: things are that way because that is the way things are. There are, of course, more satisfactory ways of dealing with the problem than accepting this kind of response at its face value, and Darnton’s explanation of the heuristic value of culture, though it raises problems it cannot solve, is a great deal more instructive than either Carlo Ginzburg’s Aryan oral tradition or Le Roy Ladurie’s dichotomy between the ‘rational’ and the ‘irrational’ (now brilliantly dissected by Susan James in The Content of Social Explanation).

The other device for preserving the integrity of an alien culture is descriptive. Whatever interpretation is given to it, the sheer fact that certain people in 18th-century France found killing cats on such a scale uproariously funny (when other people in 18th-century England, as Keith Thomas has shown us, thought throwing bread to wild birds in winter a sign of humanity) compels recognition of the many-textured density of what we call culture, high or low. Take the apparently familiar case of the child’s fairy-tale. In an essay entitled ‘Peasants tell tales’ Darnton has given us a historical account of a number of popular fairy-tales known to most of us only in a form which has been diluted, purged of violence and incomprehensibility by those – members, naturally, of the high culture – who first recorded them. Here is an original version of the story of Red Riding Hood in which the Wolf, instead of eating the old mother, feeds her to her granddaughter while a cat sits by saying, ‘Slut! to eat the flesh and drink the blood of your grandmother,’ and in which Red Riding Hood is made to strip before getting into bed with the Wolf, and finally, instead of being rescued by a hunter, is eaten. (In another version, not mentioned by Darnton, Red Riding Hood laughs at the absurd spectacle of a wolf dressed up as an old woman and walks away.) What, Darnton asks, can such tales tell us about the people who told them? They perhaps defy exegesis. What, however, they do offer is a clear, and sometimes chilling, reflection of the mental set and social circumstances of those who told them. The French peasant in the 18th century lived, as peasants had always lived, in a world of ‘raw and naked brutality’. We only have to think, as Darnton points out, of the impossibility of imagining a modern mother lulling her child to sleep with such stories of inadvertent cannibalism to realise how far this world of assumptions is from ours. The peasant could only survive against the pressures of his feudal lord, of Church and State, by subterfuge. He lived, therefore, by what have come to be called ‘peasant tricks’, whose workings, thanks to recent studies by Carlo Poni, we are now beginning to understand. Like the wolf, the peasant had to be able to outwit his enemies and turn them into his victims. The fantasies of the peasant story are always rooted in a world of immediate and local anxieties and needs. The ogres encountered by French giant-slayers are usually local landlords even if they do feed their neighbours on dishes of roast boys. When the peasant strikes it lucky, he rarely ends up with a great fortune and a princess in a castle, but with a full stomach, a house which is proof against the weather, and freedom from the depredations of his seigneur.

Not all of the essays in this book are concerned with life at such a ‘low’ level as this. One describes how a bourgeois of Montpellier viewed his social world; another is an analysis of the organisation of the material in the Encyclopédie (in fact, a rather pedestrian account of D’Alembert’s Discours Préliminaire). Yet another analyses the files which a policeman named D’Hémery kept on a large number of what Gibbon once called ‘the tribe of authors’. These contained information not only on such figures as Diderot (‘a clever boy but extremely dangerous’) but also on hacks and journeymen, some of whose lives D’Hémery recorded in such detail that ‘they read like the digests of novels.’ One of the most successful essays describes how contemporary readers, and in particular a merchant from La Rochelle, Jean Ranson – a man who was ‘hardworking, civic-minded and rich’ and therefore lived in a world apart from either the peasants or the artisans of the Rue Saint-Séverin – read Rousseau. What emerges from this man’s letters is an image of Rousseau quite unlike the one we have been accustomed to.

For Ranson and those like him, Rousseau was not the author of the Contract Social or the Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts, though doubtless Ranson had read these works. He was the author of La Nouvelle Héloïse, ‘perhaps the biggest best-seller in the country’ – so much so that the printers were able to rent out copies by the day, even by the hour, once the first run had been sold. This epistolary romance between two lovers, Julie and Saint-Preux, was, Rousseau insisted, to be read not for its literary but for its moral value. The letters were to be taken as real, which is exactly what many readers, conflating the author with his creation, assumed them to be. They wrote to Rousseau ceaselessly about the sorry, if elevating fate of the two lovers. It was a correspondence in which, as Darnton says, ‘one is struck everywhere by the sound of sobbing.’ The Marquise de Polignac broke down on reaching Julie’s death-bed scene. ‘I dare not tell you,’ she wrote to Rousseau, ‘the effect it had on me. No, I was past weeping. A sharp pain convulsed me.’ One Charlotte de la Taille cried so hard over the same scene that she did not recover for eight days. The novel drove a J.-F. Bastide to his bed and nearly off his head, while the Abbé Cahagne wrote to Rousseau: ‘one must suffocate, one must abandon the book, one must weep, one must write to you that one is choking with emotion and weeping.’ Ranson himself, who constantly refers to Jean Jacques as his ami, was more controlled, but did his best to model his life after the precepts of his hero, and made his wife breast-feed her child (an unusual practice among the well-born in 18th-century Europe) in accordance with Rousseau’s claims for the civilising value of all such gestures of maternal love. For Ranson, and those like him, living could hardly be distinguished from reading, nor ‘loving from the writing of love letters’. The sentimental novel which, in the hands of Richardson and Lessing, had set hearts pounding and eyes streaming all over Europe, was intended by Rousseau to carry a message about how men and women ought to live their lives in society. To us, gushing sentimentality of the kind elicited by La Nouvelle Héloïse appears suspect if not repellent – an indication of shallow and unstable beliefs: but in the 18th century it was frequently held to be a means towards moral understanding.

If the Rousseau conjured up by Darnton seems a strange, even offputting figure, this is only perhaps because most modern readers are more familiar with Rousseau the political theorist than with the psychologist, the ‘historian of the human heart’, though the two are really inseparable. James Miller offers a more traditional image of the ‘citizen of Geneva’, but this, too, lays stress (and is most interesting when it is doing so) on another perhaps unfamiliar aspect of its subject – Rousseau the dreamer who, untroubled by ordinary modesty, once told his readers: ‘It is impossible for men, and is difficult for nature herself, to surpass the riches of my imagination.’ The role of rêverie plays such a large part in Rousseau‘s political thinking that it is surprising that it has not received more attention. Miller’s own purpose is, however, to demonstrate that what Rousseau dreamed about most of the time was some version of democracy, and that the image of him favoured by Jean Marat (and Lord Acton) as the prophet of the Revolution is, in its essential details, correct. The vision of democracy contained in the Contrat Social, although it could not, he claims, be said to have provided the revolutionaries with a ‘plot’, nonetheless offered them a language with which to articulate their own views on the ideal society. It is precisely the ambiguities and ‘conflicting tendencies’ at work in Rousseau’s idea of freedom which explain ‘the multi-faceted ways in which his thinking was put during the French Revolution’. Such claims are very general, and in a general sense they are unexceptionable. It was Rousseau’s insistence on freedom as the essence of humanity and the basis of all political right, his insistence on the paradox that men must be ‘forced to be free’ and that only a free man can be a virtuous citizen, which provided the ideologists of the Revolution – and the architects of the Terror – with a voice, however remote it might sound, in their mouths, from that of Rousseau. But Miller’s reading of the Contrat Social is based on another contention. Rousseau, he claims, employed two distinct vocabularies: in one, democracy is spoken of as a form of government, and in the other as a form of sovereignty. In the former, democracy is defined as a society in which the people remain constantly assembled to attend to public affairs. (Like Rousseau’s state of nature, however, such communities have never existed; and like the state of nature they may only – though this is clearly not Miller’s view – exist at all in Rousseau’s imagination to remind us of the possibility of the perfectly ordered society.) Meanwhile the latter is described as simply the principle whereby ‘the People is Sovereign.’ But democracies can, by definition, only be a form of government in which the people are sovereign. This is surely the meaning of the observation in the lettre à D’Alembert, which Miller cites, that in a democracy ‘the subjects and the sovereign are only the same men considered in different relations,’ for the ruler in a democracy owes his position to the consent of the people who, in any real state larger and less self-sacrificing than the Swiss Alpine village, are constrained to delegate their sovereignty to a body of magistrates whose function it is to rule in their interest.

Miller’s division, though he makes it do some interesting work, rests upon a linguistic confusion, encouraged, it is true, by such remarks of Rousseau’s as the claim that, in the act of selecting their magistrates, the people operate ‘by a sudden conversion of sovereignty into democracy’. Rousseau’s own preference for what we might call a ‘meritocracy’, and what he called an ‘elective aristocracy’, was perfectly compatible with the notion that the only legitimate form of government was one in which sovereignty rested with the people at all times, since it was delegated to chosen – and, at least in the ideal society, elected – representatives; and it was wholly compatible with most contemporary republican thought. It was even possible, as Montesquieu had pointed out – a view which Rousseau, who had no particular dislike of kings, seems to have endorsed – that a republic, a respublica, even a democratic one, might be realised under a monarchy.

Miller has done much to give some of Rousseau‘s more elusive ideas – his view of himself as the creator of possible worlds, the role in his thought of the city of Geneva, the all-powerful ideal of freedom – a place in their historical context, and he has interesting things to say about how these were understood and used by the men of 1789. What we still lack is an ideological history of the Revolution which would find a place both for the ideas of the ‘high’ culture and for the crucial role played in their diffusion – and their distortion – by Darnton’s ‘grub-street hacks’.