Devouring the pangolin

John Sutherland

  • The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History by Robert Darnton
    Faber, 393 pp, £25.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 571 14423 3

Robert Darnton’s reputation was founded on his monumental The Business of Enlightenment (1979). In this study of ‘the life-cycle of a single book’ Darnton tracked the creation, manufacture, distribution and reception of the fourth edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1775-1800. His account drew on the archive of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, on the Franco-Swiss border. Using this material with great skill, Darnton was able to narrate what was involved in making and importing (sometimes smuggling) a subversive book into France in the Revolutionary era. He expertly digested the technicalities of the 18th-century printing trade, the historical-political background, and summarised a wealth of information into graph and tabular form. What kept the book from the fatal dryness of most economic history was the author’s gift for animating detail. At every point, Darnton seemed able to extract a human interest angle from his manuscript sources. He had, as reviewers noted, a novelist’s eye and a novelist’s power of evocation. Noting the prim engravings of the printing shop to be found in the Encyclopédie itself, Darnton observed that

real printing shops were dirty, loud and unruly – and so were real printers. The presses creaked and groaned. The ink balls, filled with wool soaked in urine, gave off a fierce stench. And the men waded about in filthy paper, swilling wine, banging their composing sticks against the type cases for the sheer joy of making noise, bellowing and brawling as opportunities arose, and tormenting the apprentices with practical jokes.

One of the revelations in the present collection is that Darnton began his career not as an academic historian but as a crime reporter on the New York Times. The training stuck. He retains the newshound’s trick of grabbing the reader. I wonder, too, how much the above description owes to the pre-computerised New York Times newsroom.

The Business of Enlightenment is the most satisfying study that the new specialism of publishing history has produced. But as a model for others it poses difficulties. Booktrade materials are mostly very boring. Very few books are as obviously historically significant as Diderot’s was in the late 18th century, nor do they have as excitingly subversive careers. The average book is an article of commerce. Moreover, there are dauntingly many of these articles of commerce – 50,000 new titles a year, half a million titles in print, ten million or more stored in the copyright libraries. Even following the career of a single edition of a single book, as Darnton did, required a huge investment of scholarly time: 14 years as he reckoned. Most academics want a quicker return than this. As careers are rewarded nowadays, they need a quicker return.

In the abstract, and given a degree of teamwork, the task of writing a comprehensive history of the national book – English, French or whatever – is well within the realm of possibility. As a task, it would be rather less onerous than star-mapping or the human genome project (which will require identifying three billion base pairs, at $1 a shot). But the sponsorship for the task is not there. Publishing History has no departmental or disciplinary home in the academic enterprise. Bibliography, History and Literature all own an interest; none will pick up the bills. State-sponsored centres of the book (such as that projected at the new British Library) will help, but they will be at best places where the work can be done rather than paying patrons.

As long ago as 1959, William Charvat came to the reluctant conclusion that a comprehensive history of publishing was a mirage. What we would have to live with was a provisional and largely intuitive sense of the big picture, together with detailed accounts of the manufacture, distribution and reception of the handful of great works that compose the current literary canon. Publishing History, that is, would have to make the same compromise as departments of English which select fifty or so texts from the millions available and label them ‘literature’. Higher educational syllabuses are no more a generic account of literature than a Desert Island Discs selection is a history of music. But we live quite happily with the compromise.

Darnton’s follow-up to The Business of Enlightenment was called The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982). It kept to the same area as its predecessor, but was organised differently. Darnton now used the Neuchâtel archive to create a series of vivid snapshots, with no attempt at totality. The book was self-consciously a collection of independent essays of a provisional nature. By exploring in detail the world of one clandestine bookseller in one French town, Darnton aimed to show, for instance, how a whole arm of the literary underground operated. These were, Darnton argued, cas typiques, metonymies. As he put it in his preface, ‘having explored as much of the literary underground as possible, I realised that it could be pictured more effectively by a set of sketches than by a grand tableau. Sketching in history provides a way of catching men in motion, of holding subjects up to unfamiliar light and examining their complexities from different angles.’ But history ultimately demands something more solid than a sketch. Darnton postponed ‘systematic study’ of the STN archive for ‘a later work’. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime struck one as a troubled book intellectually, gesturing as it did to an as yet unwritten ‘series’ of works that would one day supersede it. Would that ‘systematic later work’ be written by Darnton? It wasn’t clear that he was going to bury himself in the Neuchâtel archive for another decade and a half. And what ‘system’ was implied in ‘systematic’?

Darnton’s thinking at this stage was pulled by two irreconcilable ideals. On the one hand, he wanted the big ‘macroanalytic’ picture; something that would digest all the raw material into histoire totale. This project would require quantitative and statistical processing of masses of evidence But such an approach, as Darnton complained, ‘froze out’ the human element. Stories and characters are lost in the pie-chart. On the other hand, attention to the human interest angle congested itself in detail and idiosyncrasy. How to reconcile the part and the whole?

Darnton found the solution in the classroom. At Princeton for six years he co-taught a course with Clifford Geertz, ‘Anthropology and History’. Out of this experience came his next book, The Great Cat Massacre (1984). This, too, was a collection of essays, less coherent in content than its predecessor, but more confident in tone and method. Darnton had accepted Geertz’s view – expressed in ‘Blurred Genres: the Refiguration of Social Thought’ – that the essay, with its quick reflexes and adaptability to the cultural moment, was the proper mode of academic discourse in the 1980s. Geertz’s own considerable fame depends especially on an essay on Balinese cock-fighting.

With The Great Cat Massacre, Darnton redefined himself as a cultural historian. This new intellectual alliance with anthropology offered what seemed like a way round the linkage problem: how to combine the sketch and the grand tableau. Darnton’s title essay examines a brutal jape by some printers’ apprentices and journeymen printers in 1730s Paris. Peeved by their stuck-up master and his mistress, these young men gleefully slaughtered their employers’ pampered cat, together with all the cats in the neighbourhood. It is a good story in its own right. But Darnton read it anthropologically – as a play of symbols, which the apprentices manipulated as effectively in their idiom as ‘poets did in theirs’ – and historically, as a ‘Workers’ Revolt’, prefiguring 1789.

This reading of the great cat massacre proved controversial with Darnton’s fellow historians, particularly those of the Annales school. There was a fierce rebuttal by Roger Chartier in the Journal of Modern History. Chartier objected that the cat massacre was not eye-witnessed or reported. It was recounted thirty years after the event by someone who claimed to have been there. It did not have the same status as the Balinese cock fight, which anthropologists like Geertz might themselves observe. It was a literary text – with the conventions of a literary text – not field work. Chartier questioned Darnton’s linguistic understanding of key French terms such as charivari. Above all, Chartier denied that symbolism operated as a mode of social exchange – a means by which people communicate and interact with each other. The apprentices might have been trying to say something by killing their employers’ cat (something along the lines of ‘up yours’). But the episode was not loaded with significance in the way that a wedding ceremony or coronation ritual is.

Darnton’s latest collection seems to betray uncertainty as to how to go forward. Instead, he has chosen to go backward. The Kiss of Lamourette gathers up his incidental writings of twenty years past into a miscellany. Some of these pieces are already well-known. A number are reviews of books now long gone. There are some shavings from the Neuchâtel floor (though not, alas, the systematic study). One reprinted piece – a jokey advice to authors based on Darnton’s years as an adviser to Princeton University Press – is so trivial that it should never have been published in the first place. There is an ‘open letter’ to a television producer deploring the travesties of a proposed docudrama on Napoleon and Josephine. Darnton had been invited to act as a paid consultant. He refused in disgust on seeing the script. But since the name of the producer, the network and even the programme itself (which was eventually transmitted) are suppressed, for fear of libel action, the ‘openness’ of this exercise is moot. There is an essay on Poland written in 1981 which speculates anxiously about whether the Russians will invade or not. In his search for book-filler, Darnton reaches back to 1971 and a review-essay that he contributed to the Journal of Modern History. In the preface to The Kiss of Lamourette, the author claims that his book will ‘report on the state of play’ in history, and that ‘I hope to inform the reader of what is going on in my beat.’ Going on?

The title piece in this collection was written to commemorate the bicentenary of the French Revolution, and published in January 1989. It has the standard opening in Darnton’s historiography – an expression of how strange the past is to us. As it continues, the essay takes the form of a dazzling catalogue of the cultural changes imposed by the Revolutionary regime on taking power. Darnton evokes the heady spirit of ‘possibilism’, the sense that anything and everything could be reformed, from the days of the week to marriage, from the name of queen bees to hair-styles.

‘The Kiss of Lamourette’ shows Darnton at his most vivid. But it is clearly an occasional piece, written for an anniversary and for a non-French readership. In his introduction, Darnton gives some background to the essay’s composition. It was commissioned by the editor of the New York Times Book Review. When the piece was submitted, however, it was rejected as ‘too complicated, too demanding of the reader’. Darnton interpreted the rejection as symptomatic of a crisis in historiography. ‘Monographism has taken over academic history and confined it to a corner of our culture where professors write books for other professors and review them in journals restricted to members of the profession.’ With some alarm he noted that ‘the disease must have infected me, for there I was, a former police reporter on the New York Times incapable of putting the Revolution into words that would pass with an editor of the New York Times.’

In the first instance, the slur on academic history is not strictly true. There were at least two books written by historians in this period – Simon Schama’s Citizens and Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers – which reached a mass non-professorial audience. Kennedy’s book has, in fact, had a profound influence on political thinking in the United States. But what is more striking is Darnton’s own reaction to the ‘monographism’ which he perceived as disabling his profession. In the face of rejection, he went up-market and placed the essay with the New York Review of Books. All this is odd. His essay is rejected and Darnton diagnoses a ‘disease’ – the tendency by modern historians to close ranks and talk to an ever smaller audience. He then re-submits the essay for a smaller readership. Darnton’s pronouncement on the disease of professors talking to professors and calling it history makes even stranger his decision to reprint a twenty-year-old review culled from the pages of the Journal of Modern History, whose readership is exclusively professorial.

An essay which is worth rereading (even on its fourth appearance in print) is ‘What is the history of books?’ It remains the best blueprint as to what a future publishing history might be. Darnton, writing in 1981, proposes a holistic model of the book as a circuit of communication. Ideally, the publishing historian should include the whole apparatus of creation, manufacture, distribution and consumption, together with the large contingent spheres of culture, law and politics. It’s a dauntingly encyclopedic programme. Darnton predicts it will be achieved by a departmentalised Publishing History which will enjoy ‘a place alongside fields like the history of science and the history of art in the canon of scholarly disciplines’.

This establishment of Publishing History as a respectable scholarly discipline has not occurred. But Darnton’s model for what a history of the book should be has focused controversy. On the one side, traditional analytic bibliographers like Thomas Tanselle have attacked Darnton for losing sight of the primary object of research. That object, Tanselle insists, must be the book itself, not the apparatus (publishing, ‘culture’, or whatever) that produces the book. Revisionary bibliographers like Jerome McGann (who sees the text as an inherently collaborative production) and D.F. McKenzie (who has proposed a ‘sociology of the text’) come down firmly on Darnton’s side. From the prospectus, it looks very much as if the multi-volume History of the Book in Britain which Cambridge University Press have commissioned (under the general editorship of McKenzie and Ian Willison) will follow the Darnton model in its main outline and may indeed have been inspired by it.[*]

Darnton has moved on from Publishing History (more’s the pity). The essay that will attract most interest in The Kiss of Lamourette is the author’s reply to Chartier’s criticisms of The Great Cat Massacre. Now called ‘History and Anthropology’, it was first published in the Journal of Modern History (March 1986) as ‘The Symbolic Element in History’. Darnton defends himself by a densely anthropological parade of how symbolism works in primitive societies. He traverses the Fang of Gabon, the Apache of Arizona, the Ilongot of the Philippines, the Tamil of South India. He devotes much space to the reverence which the Ndembu, a Zambian people, pay to the mudyi or milk tree. The Thai peasant, we learn, identifies with his buffalo ‘just as an Englishman does with his dog’, and has the same repugnance to eating the animal. The Lele people of Africa, on the other hand, have no scruples about devouring the pangolin, a creature ‘that has scales like a fish, climbs trees like a monkey, lays eggs like a chicken, suckles its young like a pig, and gives birth to a single offspring like a human’. Eventually, after much wandering through the wonderful world of anthropology, Darnton returns to his French apprentices and their luckless cats, insisting on the validity of his ethnographic-symbolic reading of the episode.

Although he does not refer to them here, Darnton’s reply sparked off a further round of professional objections. Dominick La Capra was severe, accusing Darnton of turning to anthropology for a ‘quick fix’ to the ‘difficulties encountered in historiography’. He evidently didn’t find the versatile pangolin to be the key to French history. Nor did La Capra like the raciness of Darnton’s writing. His stance as a historian, La Capra complained, ‘tends, I think, to be that of a folksy spectator – if not voyeur – of the exotic past ... Darnton is an extremely “readable” writer – in a certain sense too accommodatingly readable, for the style of writing in his work at times relies on sure-fire techniques of narration, transitional devices and catchy phrase-making that tend to gloss over problems and smooth over knotty points that may call for critical thought.’

Darnton thus finds himself in an impasse: too readable for Dominick La Capra, not readable enough for the New York Times. The present book is not, in my opinion, entirely worthy of his talents. But even Darnton’s missteps are fascinating, reflecting as they so clearly do the dilemmas of his profession.

[*] A conference on the Renaissance book in Britain, one of a series devoted to the preparation of the Cambridge project, will be held on 7-9 December at the University of Warwick.