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Nothing Sacred

Robert Darnton, the distinguished historian of the Book, and author of The Great Cat Massacre, has now produced his long-awaited study of the best seller in eighteenth-century France: or rather of a peculiar kind, the “forbidden” best seller, belonging to the class (a very extensive one, containing a large part of the books the modern reader is likely to have heard of) of books banned by the authorities. His work is an attempt at a new answer to an old question: namely, Was it the books and ideas of the mid-century that caused the French Revolution, and if so, which books? Daniel Mornet, writing in 1910, argued that the Revolution could not have been, as the song has it, the “fault of Rousseau” or the “fault of Voltaire,” since the French on the whole did not read Rousseau (not, at least, the Contrat social) nor, most probably, did they read Voltaire either. They spent their leisure hours on the sentimental novels of Mme. Riccoboni and the adventure stories of Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe.

Mornet lacked a system as a historian of the Book and he got various things wrong. There is a popularized version of the Contrat social in Book 5 of Emile, and this people certainly did read: it became a best seller. Nevertheless, says Darnton, Mornet’s question “What did the French read?” remains the right one; and his own inquiries into a kind of literature that Mornet neglected—pornography, muckraking chronicles, and the like—lead him to the conclusion that books, this kind of books, were a precipitating cause of the Revolution. They were so, not by advocating a revolution, but by discrediting the existing regime. “The ideological origin of the Revolution was a matter of deligitimating the Old Regime rather than anticipating a new one. And nothing sapped legitimacy more effectively than the literature of libel.” When, in 1787, the controller-general Calonne put forward a progressive tax plan that would solve the Crown’s financial problems, it was scurrilous libelles, and antiquated fantasies about the sex life of the departed Louis XV, that decided public opinion against him.

For twenty-five years, Darnton tells us, he has spent every spare summer and sabbatical in the archives of booksellers, but especially those of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN) in Switzerland. The STN, a publisher and wholesale supplier to the book trade, occupied an ideal situation for producing illicit French books and shipping them down the Rhône or the Rhine or across the Jura mountains, and its voluminous archives have survived more or less complete. No other such archive exists; but there are reasons, says Darnton, why the picture that it gives of the trade in forbidden books might be considered representative. It was, for one thing, the usual practice of publishers and booksellers of the time to take one another’s books in exchange, treating a sheet of one book as the equivalent in value of a sheet in another.1 As a result, the stocks of such dealers tended to be broadly similar; and this tendency was reinforced by the fact that no “returns” were allowed, thus encouraging booksellers to stock small quantities of a wide range of titles rather than risk large orders of a few.

Darnton has, he says, come to trust his sense of smell, “the pifomètre, as the French call it,” and feels reasonably confident that general conclusions can be based on the STN’s papers. Nevertheless, he continues very sensibly,

I want them to be representative. After 25 years and 50,000 letters, the hunger for significant conclusions can be overwhelming, and that is dangerous, because as soon as a historian desires a certain result, he or she is likely to find it.

Accordingly he has made close comparisons with the registers of confiscated books of the Paris Customs, inventories of bookshops made during police raids, and catalogs of forbidden books from other Swiss publishers, and the results generally confirm his institutions. (The companion volume to the present book gives details of this research.)

In the STN archive, it is a simple matter to separate out the banned books from the rest. For, to the French book trade, illicit books, from grave treatises to pornography, were universally known as “philosophical.” Booksellers, when putting in orders to a wholesaler such as the STN, would mark items as “philosophical,” and they might issue a catalog listing works of this kind that they could supply themselves. Such catalogs, out of caution, gave no details of their source and were intended to be destroyed, but some have survived in the STN’s papers.

In the exchange system, a sheet of a “philosophical” work would be calculated at a higher rate, because of the risks involved, and these, of course, were considerable. Porters caught carrying illegal works might be branded and sent to the galleys, and booksellers employing them could end up in the Bastille. Darnton describes various standard ruses that were employed to outwit the Customs. One of these was “larding,” that is to say interleaving the sheets of respectable works (books generally traveled unbound) with those of illicit ones. (One retailer instructed the STN to “lard” or “marry” Fanny Hill with the Gospel.) A bookseller who wanted to avoid all risk would, at considerable expense, employ an “insurer,” who would command his own team of professional smugglers.

All this first part of Darnton’s Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, dealing with the STN and certain of its customers, and giving a general picture of the book trade, is most impressive in its rigor, and altogether fascinating in its findings. It concludes with seven tables, analyzing the sales of banned books by bookseller, author, and pattern of demand. These have been extracted from the companion volume, The Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 1769-1789, where the same data are also broken down in several further ways and in more detail.

The heart of this latter volume, however, is a checklist of 720 “Forbidden Books” which, so Darnton claims, “offers a fairly complete view of the entire corpus of illegal literature.” It is arranged alphabetically by title, and shows, under a standard set of rubrics, the demand for each book among the customers of the STN, broken down by dealer, and showing the total number of copies taken by him and the number of his orders; also the number of times the book appears in clandestine catalogs, in lists of police confiscations, and in lists of Customs confiscations. As Darnton himself implies, there is no end to the ways in which a resourceful reader might interrogate this scrupulously marshaled information.

His list of illegal best sellers, arranged in order of popularity, runs thus:

1. Mercier, The Year 2400
2. Mairobert (?),Anecdotes of The Countess du Barry2
3. D’Holbach, System of Nature
4. Mercier, Tableau of Paris
5. Raynal, History of the Two Indies
6. Mairobert & Moufle d’Angerville, Historical Journal… by K. de Maupeou
7. Du Laurens, Aretino
8. Anon., Philosophical Letter
9. Coquereau, Memoirs of the Abbé Terray
10. Voltaire, The Maid of Orleans
11. Voltaire, Questions About the Encyclopaedia
12. Anon., Memoirs of Louis XV
13. Mairobert, The English Observer
14. Lambert (?), Translation of Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (i.e., Cleland’s “Fanny Hill”)
15. D’Argens (?),Thérèse the philosopher
16. Anon., Collection of Merry Songs
17. Linguet, Philosophical Essay on Monasticism
18. D’Holbach, Critical History of Jesus Christ
19. Bérage (?), Translation of The Secretest Mysteries of Freemasonry
20. Linguet, Petition to the Royal Council
21. Franco (?),The Errant Whore
22. D’Holbach, Christianity Unveiled
23. Rousseau, Works
24. Bretonne, The Peasant Perverted
25. Milot, A School for Girls
26. D’Holbach, Good Sense
27. Linguet, Letter to the Count de Vergennes
28. Helvétius, On Man
29. D’Holbach, Social System
30. Lanjuinais, The Accomplished Monarch
31. Voltaire, Portable Philosophical Dictionary
32. D’Angerville, The Private Life of Louis XV
33. Anon., The Merry Lyre
34. Morlière, Ecclesiastical Laurels
35. Latouche (?),History of Dom B., Carthusian Porter

Here, then, are the books. But what, asks Darnton, did their original readers make of them? “Reading,” he argues, is a contentious concept. “We hardly know what it is when it takes place under our nose, much less what it was two centuries ago when readers inhabited a different mental universe. Nothing could be more misleading than the assumption that they made sense of typographical signs in the same way that we do.” He returns to this theme many times, and the sentiments are ones that cultural historians and reader-response theorists are fond of. I think, though, they need a little questioning,

Many years ago I wrote a very amateur study of the best seller myself, and I came to the conclusion that the real rewards of doing so were not, as I might have supposed, sociological, but were literary-critical and self-improving. To get anywhere in such an inquiry the question one needed to ask oneself, I found, was: Is a certain best seller good, i.e., can we take it seriously as a work of art? And the only way to find out was to read the book honestly and on the assumption that it might be. One might then discover that a certain pleasure one got out of the book was false, a trick, perhaps quite a subtle one; and this was so much learned, not just about that book but also about other books and about oneself.

The principle, indeed, seems to extend beyond the best seller. Theories about reader-response, that is to say about what other people might have got out of a book or a class of book, are, I am inclined to believe, only legitimate—assuming they are legitimate at all—if based on what one has got out of it oneself. According to this view, if people in eighteenth century France “made sense of typographical signs” in a way quite different from ourselves, there is nothing much one can say about what they got out of their reading.

It is important not to misunderstand the nature of the “implied reader” described by Wolfgang Iser in his book of that name. This reader of Iser’s, upon whom an author like Bunyan or Fielding is performing cunning tricks and moral manipulations, is a function of the given work’s rhetoric or form (and not fundamentally different from the implied reader in Paradise Lost, as described by Stanley Fish). He or she is not, that is to say, some imaginary eighteenth-century reader, miraculously resurrected by the skills of the social historian. He is, rather, ourselves, when we are reading the book rightly (and the need for knowledge comes in because it enables us to respond fully to the author’s ploys). We can no more get some imagined robot to do our reading for us than we can, in the words of the hero of Axël, get our servants to do our living for us.

  1. 1

    The sheet, folded once to form a folio, twice to form a quarto, etc., was and is the normal basis for calculations of this kind. 

  2. 2

    The question mark indicates that authorship is uncertain. For the sake of simplicity I have omitted alternative candidates for authorship. I have also modified the titles of items to make them clearer. 

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