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Thursday, October 2nd, 2003


 

George Washington's False Teeth: An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century

by Robert Darnton

Great Reception

A review by Lynn Hunt

Robert Darnton has a knack for breaking open an old chestnut and finding the meat still clinging inside. The chestnut in question is usually the Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century intellectual movement that aimed to subject everything to reasoned criticism. As its great impresario Denis Diderot put it, "All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings." It sounds banal now, until you remember that "anyone" meant the authorities of church and state who routinely banned books and put dissidents such as Diderot himself in prison. "All things" turned out to include bigotry, superstition, fanaticism, intolerance, judicial torture, inequities of taxation, and a host of other issues bound to offend official sensibilities. Darnton never forgets that intellectual freedom in the West came at a price, and in many places in the world it still does. He has made it his mission to bring the Enlightenment to life, to show how it worked, and to demonstrate its continuing salience in a world in which bigotry, superstition, fanaticism, and related evils have hardly disappeared.

When an illustrious scholar gathers together occasional pieces into a volume, the result is often less rather than more, a dilution of powerful ideas in the interest of making the most of every talk given outside the classroom. Some of the pieces in this volume do qualify as Darnton lite, but most do not. The opening essay, the most substantial in the book, offers a powerful rejoinder to anyone who considers the Enlightenment somehow passé. In it Darnton gives voice to his most profound intellectual convictions: that Enlightenment was a cause that galvanized intellectuals committed to tolerance, skepticism, individualism, civil liberty, and cosmopolitanism, and that its values have proved to be the most potent defense against the various forms of inhumanity that we have experienced in our world. In holding this view, Darnton follows in the footsteps of his greatest twentieth-century predecessors, Paul Hazard, Ernst Cassirer, and more recently Peter Gay. Forced to confront the evils of fascism — and in the case of Cassirer and Gay, compelled to leave Germany because they were Jews — these scholars used their writings to make the Enlightenment into the touchstone of Western liberal thought.

Had it not always been so? The original publicists of Enlightenment — Voltaire, Diderot, Beccaria, Franklin, Lessing, Kant, and many others like them — thought of themselves as comrades in an international movement for liberty. But they had not envisaged the French Revolution, and they could not imagine how the Revolution would change their image. Enlightenment figures who lived through the revolutionary upheaval came to feel deeply ambivalent about it. Radicals found them too politically moderate, while conservatives blamed them for the Revolution's violence and terror. When a republic finally took hold in France after the 1870s, it claimed Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau as its forefathers, but elsewhere in the Western world their work and their legend had much less resonance. In Spain they were still too "atheist," in the Netherlands and Great Britain they were too French, and even in the United States they seemed irrelevant in comparison with Locke and various oppositional figures in British politics.

Fascism changed all that by celebrating an explicitly irrationalist, hypernationalist, and anti-cosmopolitan ideology: by acting on what Isaiah Berlin called the Counter-Enlightenment. And so anti-fascist intellectuals on both shores of the Atlantic looked to histories of the Enlightenment to articulate common Western values of intellectual freedom and individual rights. Cassirer published The Philosophy of the Enlightenment in 1932; Hazard published his book on the origins of the movement in 1935 and finished his general history just before his death in wartime France in 1944. Anti-fascism now had an intellectual lineage, and the Enlightenment had become synonymous with modern Western culture.

Darnton is a child of a different era, who could initially take the virtues of the Enlightenment for granted. In his first book, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (1968), he explored the Parisian vogue in the 1780s for the "animal magnetism" of the Vienna-trained physician Franz Anton Mesmer. Darnton portrayed a high society in necrosis, thrilling to quacks and adventurers, unmoved by the poor and the rapidly escalating financial crisis of the monarchy. The Enlightenment had run its course; the greats had passed from the scene (Voltaire and Rousseau died in 1778), and their epigones grubbed for a living writing scandal sheets about the powerful and the high-born. Darnton never focused on the ideas of the Enlightenment itself. He wanted to show how those ideas diffused outward and downward, and above all he was fascinated by the low life of literature, the publishers and the smugglers of forbidden books, the pamphleteers and the pornographers who gnawed away at the beams holding up the ancien régime. Darnton has done more than anyone else to illuminate this story and to show how it matters. The Business of Enlightenment (1979) and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995) are rightly considered classics in the field.

By the mid-1990s, however, it became clear that the virtues of the Enlightenment could no longer be taken for granted. "The Case for the Enlightenment," first published in 1997 and now the opening essay of Darnton's new book, has a defensive tone. In it he argues against postmodernist, feminist, and anti-imperialist critics from within the Western tradition. The Enlightenment writers, he grants, were elite men, not peasants, workers, or, for the most part, women. They talked about universal values while making fun of the Persians and the Chinese and doing little to stop slavery or colonial exploitation and nothing at all for the rights of women. Reason was an article of faith for them, just as Christianity was an article of faith for others. All true, Darnton admits, since the men of Enlightenment were after all men of their times. But the philosophes also criticized slavery and colonial exploitation, and opened the way to an anthropological understanding of other peoples, and rejected most of the elements of modern racism, and defended notions of reason and rights that are the only possible barriers to terror, torture, or totalitarianism.

There is nothing wrong with such a defense, except that it already seems out of date — as does Darnton's ending to this chapter, when he suggests that we emulate George Washington and "face up to the injustices around us by gritting our teeth." Washington had a hard time gritting his teeth because he wore false ones made of wood. But our problems cannot be solved in a dentist's chair. Even before September 11, the postmodernist, feminist, and anti-imperialist accusations against the Enlightenment had been widely recognized as specious. That David Hume uttered what we now piously categorize as racist remarks does not make the Enlightenment the source of modern racism. It is incontrovertibly the case that the foremost proponents of feminism, anti-imperialism, and even abolitionism were disciples of the Enlightenment. In the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center, the left-wing anti-Enlightenment diatribes of the last two decades seem almost frivolous. What the world needs now is an army of Voltaires, not an army of Voltaire-bashers. An equal-opportunity satirist himself, Voltaire ridiculed European and non-Western customs alike. We may think that he wrote too harshly or dismissively about "the other," but we could do with a dose of his willingness to subject every custom — ours and theirs — to the inspection of reason.

An army of Voltaires can be raised only when the material conditions are in place. The second essay in Darnton's book, "The News in Paris: An Early Information Society," brilliantly showcases his method of getting at the circulation of ideas. It is deeply researched, bursting with telling anecdotes, and very accessible to the reader, like the news itself. How did ordinary people get news in a society with no daily newspapers and two hundred censors who forbade the publication of political criticism? They could try to read between the lines of officially approved newspapers or subscribe to earnest foreign ones, but more titillating sources were on offer. Self-appointed newsmongers told stories in public gardens and recounted gossip in cafes; hand-copied newsletters, songs, and poems satirized the king's mistresses and ministers; romans à clef, which often came with keys to decoding the characters, lambasted courtiers and officials of all descriptions.

Throughout his career, Darnton has managed to transform the potentially dreary details of "reception history" into the stuff of spy novels. Consider the example of a song attacking Louis XV, which began with the line "Monster whose black fury." Darnton traces it from the moment that the police in Paris are ordered to find its author. With the help of a well-paid informant, they arrest a medical student who under interrogation says that he got the song from a priest, who in turn names another priest, and so on down the line through a law student and a notary's clerk, until fourteen men are picked up. Questioning of the suspects reveals that the song had been passed from hand to hand on scraps of paper, periodically revised in bull sessions, and even dictated from memory to students at the University of Paris, until it finally made its way into one of those pesky handwritten gazettes that specialized in rumors and conspiracies. Many Parisians collected these songs and poems. The most avid collector of all was Comte de Maurepas, Louis XV's minister of the navy, who had thirty-five handwritten registers of such songs; he was fired and sent into exile for his interest in songs ridiculing the king's mistress, Madame de Pompadour. Authoritarian rulers invariably end up finding their cronies aiding and abetting the dissidents.

Did dirty songs do more to sap the foundations of the monarchy than the writings of Voltaire or Rousseau? At times this seems to be Darnton's implication. He ends by insisting that "politics was an endless series of variations on a single theme, decadence and despotism." His sources more or less force him to this conclusion; if you want to follow the circulation of ideas, you must go to the police reports, and the police always gave priority to the most flamboyant kinds of political criticism, which in mid-eighteenth-century France meant attacks on the Catholic Church ("atheism") or on the king's closest confidants ("sedition"). When Darnton set out to discover which books sold best in late-eighteenth-century France, he found that Enlightenment works were outnumbered on the list by pornographic and scurrilous attacks on the monarchy. But would we really want to conclude that Fanny Hill had greater political influence than The Social Contract or Émile because none of Rousseau's books ever made the best-seller list?

Darnton has always taken a sensible middle-of-the-road position on the influence of the Enlightenment. Although he is rightly considered one of the pioneers of "the history of the book," which concentrates on the production and the circulation of books rather than on their intellectual content, he has resisted the tendency among its practitioners to downplay the impact of ideas. His essays in this book on Rousseau, Voltaire, Jefferson, and Condorcet demonstrate his continuing interest in the big fish, not just the small fry attracted to the muck of the political sewers. In one of the pieces on Rousseau, he even affirms that the Genevan's three main works — Émile, The Social Contract, and Julie, or the New Heloïse — "changed the course of cultural history." Just how they changed the course of cultural history is not clear, for Darnton never develops this point; he seems to mean that Rousseau, more than any other Enlightenment figure, understood the importance of symbolic forms of power; that democracy, as outlined by Rousseau, would require a new culture, fashioned through education and the festivals of a new civil religion. A fleeting reference to Ronald Reagan synchronizing his inauguration with the kickoff of the Super Bowl does not really serve to illuminate the point.

If Darnton's pages on the major Enlightenment figures are more flimsy than those on the circulation of scandalous songs and pamphlets, it is because the connection to the French Revolution is harder to establish in the case of the former than the latter. The not-so-hidden agenda of almost all Darnton's work has been to answer the perennial question of whether the Enlightenment caused the French Revolution. That question explains his unrepentantly Francocentric definition of the Enlightenment, his interest in the sleaze factor, and his lifelong fascination with Jacques-Pierre Brissot, sleazemonger turned revolutionary ideologist. Brissot turns up again and again in Darnton's work — he is mentioned here as often as Voltaire — and he has recently been the subject of an online publication by Darnton, J.-P. Brissot and the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (2001), from the Voltaire Foundation. Brissot, unlike Rousseau or Voltaire, is the kind of figure who seems directly to link Enlightenment and Revolution. A twenty-four-year-old unknown when Voltaire and Rousseau died in 1778, Brissot clawed his way up from Grub Street to become a major advocate of penal reform. He spent time in the Bastille for his pains, and he may have spied for the king's police. He founded the first French abolitionist society, edited one of the most influential newspapers of 1789, exercised great influence as a deputy in the revolutionary legislature, and fell victim, like so many other republican leaders, to Robespierre's terror in 1793.

Darnton vividly recounts the ups and downs of Brissot's mercurial career before 1789. Despite his frantic efforts to cultivate patrons, get his name into print, and assure favorable reviews of his books, Brissot came out of the Bastille in 1784 overwhelmed with debt. An unscrupulous financier named Etienne Clavière helped him to recover by fronting the money for gambling on a drop in future stock prices. In return Brissot wrote pamphlets assailing government support of various banks and companies, claiming that the ministry deliberately shored up their assets in order to benefit those who put their money on share increases. These attacks helped to discredit the government at a time of growing financial crisis — and made Brissot and Clavière money. Brissot's Rousseauistic rhetoric, employed to denounce speculation and stock-jobbing, appears entirely cynical, though not without results. The controversy drove the king's chief financial minister from office. In 1792 Brissot repaid Clavière by naming him minister of finance. Clavière committed suicide rather than accompany Brissot to the guillotine in October 1793.

Although Darnton devotes nearly a third of this book to the wily wannabe philosophe, his focus on Brissot does not bring us any closer to understanding the links between Enlightenment and Revolution. Are we to conclude that most revolutionaries were hacks, police spies, and stock-market manipulators? The evidence does not support such a conclusion. Or was Brissot just an especially bad apple? Robespierre and his followers believed that "the Brissotins" and their ilk were financially corrupt and politically treasonous, but they had their own reasons for insisting on this characterization, and they caught up many innocent dissidents in the same all-purpose net. In any case, we do not know what Darnton wants to make of the Brissot case, because he never gets to the French Revolution and never compares Brissot to other revolutionaries. His conclusion is exasperating: "Was Brissot both a dedicated revolutionary and a crass spy for the police? God only knows."

Darnton does not pretend to have unraveled the complex interconnections between Enlightenment and Revolution. He subtitles his book "An Unconventional Guide to the Eighteenth Century," and though he claims to take us to the eighteenth century's "main concern, the cause of the Enlightenment," he prefers most often to discourse engagingly about "its most curious, out-of-the-way corners." For these curiosities, for the surprising twists and turns of irreverent songs, stock-market machinations, selfinterested pamphleteering, and comical police chases after the purveyors of political insolence, Darnton is certainly the ideal tour guide. He calls his method "anthropological history," but it does not need such an academic-sounding label. It is good history, because it is so richly documented. It is also captivating history: reading Darnton you find yourself lingering at the Tree of Cracow, a leafy chestnut in the Palais-Royal gardens, listening to the latest rumors from the antechambers of Versailles. All the analysis in the world cannot fill in for the vivid sense of being there that is Robert Darnton's greatest gift to his readers.


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