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Porn, Propaganda, and the Enlightenment

The Widening Circle: Essays on the Circulation of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Europe

by Robert Darnton, by Bernhard Fabian, by Roy McKeen Wiles, edited by Paul J. Korshin
University of Pennsylvania Press, 204 pp., $15.00

Priest and Parish in Eighteenth-Century France: A Social and Political Study of the Curés in the Diocese of Dauphiné, 1750-1791

by Timothy Tackett
Princeton University Press, 368 pp., $19.50

Lafayette: A Biography

by Peter Buckman
Paddington Press, 288 pp., $10.00

In The Widening Circle, a collection of three essays on the reading public in England, France, and Germany respectively in the eighteenth century, Bernhard Fabian, the author of the essay on Germany, quotes a classification of “habitual readers” that was made in 1799 by the German romantic novelist known as Jean Paul. “In Germany,” Jean Paul said, “there are three publics or publica: (1) the general, almost uneducated and unlearned of the lending libraries; (2) the learned consisting of professors, candidates, students, and reviewers; and (3) the educated, which is composed of men of the world and educated women, of artists and the higher classes educated at least through social intercourse and travel. (There are certainly frequent interrelations between these three publics.)”

Professor Fabian observes that though Jean Paul’s survey was not complete and may seem imprecise by modern standards of scholarship, it “offers a broad and authentic view of the contemporary reading scene.” Its terminology nevertheless sounds odd to modern ears and was evidently not always accepted even by eighteenth-century Germans. The editor of a Hamburg journal, The Patriot, whom Professor Fabian also quotes, identified the general reader not with the people in Jean Paul’s first category but with those in his third. The general reader, this editor said, was someone who was neither learned nor unlearned, and it was for him that The Patriot catered. The editor in consequence felt obliged to ensure that “every contribution [I accept] is neither too badly done nor too elementary to satisfy the learned, nor too esoteric and incomprehensible to appeal to the unlearned, but rather is intelligible to everyone and demands only a proper use of ordinary intelligence.”

As is plain from Professor Fabian’s essay, it is possible to define the eighteenth-century general reader in various ways. The definition provided by the editor of The Patriot, nevertheless, applied to a class of people which Jean Paul also recognized and whose existence has never been in doubt. These were the people for whom the great philosophers wrote and whose tastes Montesquieu, for example, had in mind when, in his De l’Esprit des lois, he divided his argument into short sections, and used only short sentences, in order that his complicated ideas might be understood as readily as possible.

The philosophes catered to a type of reader who felt he should keep himself au fait with the principal developments in the fields of politics, the arts, philosophy, and the sciences, and whose prototype was Frederick the Great—the patron of the philosophes and their hero for much of his life, although admittedly toward the end of it Diderot, d’Alembert, Rousseau, and others concluded that his government was a despotism and he himself a tyrant who did not deserve to be called enlightened. D’Alembert, a distinguished mathematician, also came to feel exasperated—after three months of the royal company in Potsdam without other intellectual companionship—because, as Frederick himself admitted, “I am only what the Italians call a dilettante.”

It is well known that the numbers of famous savants, among whom d’Alembert may be counted, grew in the eighteenth century, as did also the numbers of dilettantes, or general readers as The Patriot’s editor called them, who aspired to understand their works. But what about the members of Jean Paul’s first category, who, though they read habitually, were “almost uneducated”? What sort of people were these and what did they read?

Among the contributors to The Widening Circle no one except Robert Darnton attempts to tell us anything about them, though they cannot have been without importance. Together with the other classes of readers in the eighteenth century they must have contributed to the emergence of a phenomenon which many contemporaries noted, though they could neither define nor explain it—the phenomenon of “public opinion,” which Jacques Necker saw as the characteristic by which the age in which he lived was principally distinguished from all preceding ages. As he put it in his De l’administration des finances de la France, published in 1784: foreigners find it hard to appreciate

the authority which public opinion exercises in France. They can only understand with difficulty the nature of this invisible power that without wealth, without protection, without an army, can lay down the law to the town, to the court, and even in the palaces of kings.

In a work which he wrote ten years later, Necker attributed the Revolution to the fact that “this great force” would no longer tolerate “the immense weight of the taxes and their unequal distribution,” the “complete disorder” in the management of the finances, and “the just fears of the creditors of the state.”

It is not possible to doubt that there was some connection between the power of public opinion on which Necker insisted and the growth in the reading public, although there was not necessarily any immediate or exact correlation between these two phenomena. If, for example, we may believe Professor Fabian’s evidence, which on this point admittedly is somewhat dubious, Prussia in 1790 ranked, after England and France, as the most literate country in the world. The center of the German Enlightenment, it boasted several universities and many highly educated people. Nothing that could be described as public opinion, however, appears to have existed there before the end of the eighteenth century. Though a machinery of censorship, dating from the religious wars, continued to exist under Frederick the Great, it was never necessary to use it because, as Lessing lamented, in spite of the government’s repressive nature, not to mention the egregious miscalculations of which it was guilty from time to time, there was no body of opinion prepared to criticize or listen to criticism of the regime.

Whatever combination of circumstances, nevertheless, was needed to bring a public opinion into existence, the written word, in an age in which there was no radio or television, must have played a significant part; for unless considerable sections of many communities had become politically conscious, which without an increase in the reading public would hardly have been possible, the changes that the Revolution introduced in France and elsewhere could not have occurred. Who read what in the eighteenth century is therefore an important question.

It is a question that the essays in The Widening Circle purport to answer. The editor claims that these essays “lay the groundwork for the studies of the intellectual historian, the social historian, and the student of politics and revolutions.” In the case of two of the three contributors this is somewhat exaggerated claim. The late Professor Roy McKeen Wiles, who wrote on “The Relish for Reading in Provincial England Two Centuries Ago,” and Professor Bernhard Fabian, who writes on “English Books and Their Eighteenth-Century German Readers,” are concerned with the numbers of books and newspapers that were published, with the nature and problems of the book trade, and with evidence, such as is provided by lending and private libraries, that shows how the habit of reading grew. The essay of the third contributor, Robert Darnton, is, however, is a different class. Though he deals with the same kind of problems he sees them in a wider perspective and demonstrates their general significance.

He writes on “Trade in the Taboo: The Life of a Clandestine Book Dealer in Prerevolutionary France”—a subject that is related to one he dealt with before in an arresting article, published in Past and Present in 1971, on “The High Enlightenment and Literary Low Life.” In this article Professor Darnton examined from a new angle the old question of the intellectual origins of the French Revolution—origins which it has always been customary to ascribe to Voltaire, Rousseau, and the other great literary figures of the age. In fact, however, as Professor Darnton showed, these prophets of the Enlightenment, for all their revolutionary ideas, were so far from advocating revolution that in the end most of them accepted and were accepted by the establishment. They were received in the salons, deferred to by ministers, made members of the Academy, and provided with pensions and sinecures by the government.

The authors of the revolutionary propaganda were not these beneficiaries of the ancien régime but the poverty-stricken hacks who lacked whatever combination of talent, good luck, and social gifts were necessary for literary success in a society where, in the absence of a mass market, writers were dependent on the government for support.

The many, for the greater part talentless, aspirants to literary fame who failed to secure entry into the cultural elite were consumed with hatred for the system which doomed them to destitution and particularly hated their more fortunate colleagues. They accused these, not without justice—for by 1789 the generation of great philosophers was already dead and had been succeeded by mediocrities—of blocking all the roads to success in the arts and letters. The Revolution gave these members of the literary underworld the chance to apply the principle of ôte-toi de lá que je m’y mette and to deprive the existing incumbents of their pensions, sinecures, and monopolies.

Professor Darnton is concerned with the preliminaries to these events in his essay in The Widening Circle. The philosophes who became the beneficiaries of the regime were prevented from openly attacking it however much its practices may have conflicted with their principles. The government continued to enforce a comprehensive censorship in the interests of morality and the existing social and political order. Professor Darnton uses the history of a dealer in illicit works—a certain Bruzard de Mauvelain—to illustrate how this censorship was evaded and by means of what kind of literature. His evidence comes from the papers of a Swiss firm, the Société typographique de Neuchâtel, which specialized in printing and assembling books for distribution in the French underground and which provided Mauvelain with his supplies.

Mauvelain’s story is a squalid one. According to his own account he had once occupied a high position in the society of Troyes, from which he was driven out for some undisclosed reason. Thereafter he took to peddling illicit books in order to make money. The hazards of this trade were however considerable and proved too much for him. In the end he was driven bankrupt and died in destitution from venereal disease. He was a typical figure of the literary underworld and thus has an interest in his own right, though his principal interest lies in the purposes he served. In two years, between 1783 and 1785, he succeeded in introducing into Troyes, a town of only 22,000 inhabitants, no fewer than 1,000 forbidden works, whose contents Professor Darnton has analyzed.

It emerges from this analysis that only a minority of the works which Mauvelain distributed dealt with political themes or with themes we associate with the Enlightenment, and of these only a few contained any serious argument. The best-selling works were all to a greater or lesser extent pornographic. Sometimes they purveyed pure pornography with no political overtones; more commonly they dilated on the vices and perversions of prominent personages and thus contrived, as Professor Darnton puts it, “to make private decadence a public issue.” They were not avowedly revolutionary since they put forward no program; they were hardly even revolutionary in intention since the bulk of their authors would write anything for money and merely sought to exploit the market for sex and sensationalism and to air their private grievances. They were nevertheless profoundly subversive since they smeared every person of importance and every social and political institution, and led their readers to believe that France was ruled by a vicious, corrupt, and tyrannical despotism.

Professor Darnton supposes that this scurrilous literature must have played a considerable part in politicizing the French provinces at the end of the ancien régime, and doubtless it did so to a greater extent after 1789 when the censorship was lifted. Even after two hundred years it continues to exercise some influence, as Peter Buckman’s biography of Lafayette shows.

Professor Darnton has rendered a signal service to all who are interested in the causes of the Revolution by his analysis of its propaganda, which had many features in common with that of the Nazis and of other twentieth-century totalitarian regimes, though this resemblance is usually ignored. Serious scholars still accept as a statement of fact Sieyès Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat, the most famous and influential of the attacks on the ancien régime, although Goebbels could have taught its author little about how to create a false impression by means of half-truths and imprecise definitions.

Professor Darnton’s conclusions thus deserve a wider audience than is provided by the learned journals for which he writes. Timothy Tackett writes for the same kind of audience and with a comparable professionalism. His Priest and Parish in Eighteenth-Century France is an excellent piece of work in its way. It is a study of the curés in the diocese of Gap in Dauphiné between 1750 and 1791 and describes with admirable clarity and precision the social milieux from which these curés came, how they were educated, how and how much they were paid, the grievances they had against the higher clergy, their somewhat ambivalent relations with their parishioners, their reasons for siding with the third estate in 1789, and their fate during the Revolution.

Unlike Professor Darnton, however, Professor Tackett explodes no myths and opens up no new vistas. His subject is typical of kind of theme chosen by young academics with an interest in eighteenth-century France who need to find a field of research, or more accurately a plot of ground, which has not yet been cultivated. The supply of these plots shows no signs of running out, though the task of cultivating them becomes increasingly arduous as techniques become more sophisticated. It is said that these labors are undertaken in order to advance knowledge, but they do not necessarily have this result. If Professor Tackett had been a Frenchman, and had chosen the curés of the diocese of Gap between 1750 and 1791 as the subject of a doctoral thesis, the 300 or so small pages of text which have sufficed for him would have been judged insufficient. He would have felt obliged to cover anything up to 1,200 large pages. One or two works of this size, devoted to some small topic in eighteenth-century French history, may appear in a single year, and in conjunction they lend support to the aphorism that some scholars learn more and more about less and less until they know nothing at all.

There is no general survey of the social and political scene in France at any time in the eighteenth century that can be compared, say, with Marc Bloch’s famous work on feudal society, and a diminishing number of people have the time and patience necessary to deduce general conclusions from the many hundreds of monographs and articles which have been written on the ancien régime since 1926, when, according to a reputable French bibliography, there were already 10,000 in existence. There are in consequence universities in Britain, and doubtless in other countries, where the subject has come to seem unteachable and is no longer taught.

In these circumstances amateurs are tempted to step in where professionals fear to tread. Their medium is usually biography, which demands less in the way of complicated techniques and provides more human interest than do the sociological inquiries now fashionable in academic circles. The professionals are apt to look down their noses at these intruders and to say that in any case biography is not history. This judgment is often unjust, but the more remote from his own experience the period with which the amateur biographer deals, the greater the amount of justice the judgment is likely to contain, since the characters and motives of human beings cannot be understood without an understanding of their social background, and the more unfamiliar the background the greater the amount of labor and imagination required to understand it.

These are Peter Buckman’s difficulties. His Lafayette is a popular book, well and clearly written, as such books have to be, but inspired by the nostalgia which many people in this egalitarian age feel for the days, as they imagine them, when the nobility led wicked but glamorous lives. The stereotype of the grand seigneur enjoying a life of luxury while, as Mr. Buckman puts it, “the villagers shivered and starved” is as old as the revolutionary propaganda itself, as is much else that he has to say about French society before and after the outbreak of the Revolution.

He often gets his facts wrong, for which he might be forgiven since everyone makes mistakes, were it not that in his case the mistakes come from an ignorance that prevents him from explaining his hero’s motives convincingly; that frequently leads him to make statements so vague as to be meaningless (for example the continual references to a “bourgeoisie” whose composition is never discussed); and that can even result in such absurdities as the assertion that France before the Revolution “boasted the most efficient administrative machinery in Europe.” It would be interesting to know how Mr. Buckman arrived at this judgment which would not be greatly more implausible if applied to Russia in 1917.

Taken in conjunction the three works here under review seem typical of the changes in the reading public which have occurred since Jean Paul made his classification nearly 200 years ago. The learned are still with us, and indeed flourishing as never before, though now, with rare exceptions, they write only for each other and their students, as do the authors of The Widening Circle and Priest and Parish, and not for a wider audience as they commonly did in the eighteenth century, particularly in Western Europe. Readers who are “almost uneducated” are also still with us though the literature provided for them, now as then, is not reviewed in respectable journals. On the other hand people of the kind who composed Jean Paul’s third category, and whom the editor of The Patriot called “general readers,” are if not obsolete at least obsolescent, even where works of history are concerned. They are being driven out of existence by the elimination of the leisured classes on the one hand and by the growth of specialization on the other. Mr. Buckman, whose Lafayette would not pass the tests set by the editor of The Patriot, writes for an audience that is less well informed and exacting, though the present reviewer lacks the means of judging how far he will satisfy it.

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