BOOK REVIEW / The smut that caused the Revolution

The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France by Robert Darnton, HarperCollins, pounds 25; Was the French monarchy undermined by pornography and political satire? Felipe Fernandez-Armesto considers a jolly, if deluded, theory
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The Independent Culture
The Marquis de Sade claimed to have started the French Revolution by haranguing the mob from his window in the Bastille.The crimes of this fat, raddled aristocrat, who now shammed liberty and humanity, including imprisoning, torturing and poisoning.

His works were subversive of traditional values, but not on behalf of equality and human rights: his repulsive heroes were natural noblemen, exempted from decency by their elevated birth, who ripped and raped their way through lower-class bodies at their pleasure. He cannibalised the ideals of the revolution but really represented the grossest vices of the old regime. Shortly afterwards, a feeble hack called Louis-Sebastien Mercier pretended to have predicted and even inspired the Revolution. Yet his rambling utopianism contained nothing offensive to convention, except fashionable anti-clericalism.

Writers' estimates of their own influence are nearly always self-flattering. On the face of it, claims like de Sade's and Mercier's look risible. Today, however, the gutter-press is credited with the power to "undermine institutions" and rock a throne. We can therefore sympathise with historians of 18th- century France who have been sucked by muckrakers' revolutionary affectations or impressed by scribblers' claims to potency and prophecy. The cleverest and most eloquent of these historians is Robert Darnton. The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France is the latest in a series of works in which he argues that pornogaphy and pasquinade helped "cause" the French Revolution by sapping the legitimacy of the old regime.

The literate culture of the period is the focus of Darnton's life's work. He illuminates it with assiduous scholarship, incisive thought, judicious argument, sensitive reading and stylish writing. None of this makes him right, though it makes his books delightful. His thesis, indeed, is one of those fertile errors that are better than a hundred sterile truths.

His new book advances his case on a narrow front. He poses the question "Do Books Cause Revolutions?" but makes it hard to answer positively by limiting himself to his favourite subject, clandestine trade. The most widely read and admired titles of the time are excluded - among them, major works that can be shown to have moved readers and shaken states. "Forbidden" writings did not make a coherent category. Nothing distinguished them collectively except the whimsy of police and customs officers who had no clear criteria in mind.

The subversive messages in banned books were no different from the critiques of church and society openly uttered in unbanned ones. At most, clandestine titles peddled exaggerated versions of the talk of every educated salon. Darnton's sense that books change hearts and minds is surely right, but there is no good reason to suppose that clandestine books are more powerful in this respect than others that are more readily available, more widely circulated and - because they are cheaper - accessible to a wider cross- section of readers.

Darnton concentrates on three genres and one example of each. Therese philosophe (1748) represents what might be called philosophical pornography; Mercier's chaotic little L'An 2044 (1768) stands for utopianism and Andecdotes sur Madame la Comtesse du Barry (1775) for salacious court scandalmongering. These books are jolly to read and Darnton devotes a third of his space to proving it by printing huge chunks of them. What is left unproven is that any of them - or other books like them - influenced the events of 1789 and after.

Therese philosophe is a happy romp through voyeurism, mutual masturbation, coitus interruptus and brothel arts - likely enough, on the face of it, to keep any philosopher otherwise engaged. But Darnton professes that "pornography did not exist" and that Therese really is a tart with a part in history - a challenge to the existing order.

It is true that "pornography" did not mean the same then as now, but "the obscene" existed - the category identified by Rousseau as "books to be read with one hand". In the usual manner of libertine literature, the narrative of Therese is interspersed with irreverent dialogue that mocks God and derides metaphysics. Smut, however, is not made political by infusions of philosophical cant. The passages of irreligion evidently added piquancy for readers at the time. The excesses of the Marquis de Sade included ejaculating over a crucifix and "proving" - so he said - "that God does not exist" by inserting consecrated hosts in the rectums of his buggery victims. The claim that pornography can be socially or politically liberating is a scam - reminiscent of the technique of one seducer in the book, who deludes his victim into mistaking sexual pleasure for spiritual ecstasy.

L'An 2044 is a title superficially more amenable to Darnton's thesis. Here is a work explicitly critical of the state and social order. By Darnton's statistics - dubious, since he was compelled to rely on the records of a bookseller for whom clandestine books were a marginal line - it was easily the most popular title in the forbidden trade. But its prescriptions are naive and self-contradictory. Mercier's utopia is, on different pages, both an absolute and a constitutional monarchy, as well as a republic. It is an egalitarian state - but with an aristocracy blessed with wealth and leisure for benevolence. Christianity has been abolished but a deist church seems ubiquitous. To procure this utopia, revolution is "a horrible remedy", better foregone in favour of a "philosopher-king" who will reform the state. As Darnton admits, Mercier's future is merely the France of his day, purged of abuses. In as far as the book has a coherent message, it is cribbed from Rousseau: social ills are caused by the luxury and self-indulgence of the privileged - the very class who might be distracted from noblesse oblige by dalliance with philosophers like Therese. Society, Mercier thinks - contradicting the pornographers - must be regulated according to reason, not the pursuit of happiness.

In Darnton's estimation, his case is best served by Anecdotes sur du Barry, which traces the career of Louis XV's favourite mistress through raffish bordellos to royal bed. With a lot of lubricious innuendo about sceptre-wielding, the book shows how the heroine's friends used her to usurp power from a more "godly" faction of court. "Slander," says Darnton, "damaged something fundamental in the people's attachment to the monarchy." He includes elaborate diagrams to show how derogatory stories about the king can rise from the gutter via the salons and the streets to influence that shadowy stalker, "Public Opinion".

It is true that in the course of his region Louis XV literally "lost his touch": he stopped conferring on scrofula-sufferers the healing power traditionally transmitted by the finger of God's anointed. This seems, however, more likely to have been the effect of his own idleness, rationalism or conscience than of any change in the already sophisticated perceptions of Parisians. The criteria by which subjects judged a king became less sacral and more secular. But the scandalmongers can hardly be held responsible. Court "anecdotes" were an ancient genre, particularly popular in France. They had never brought down a kingdom before: if they could do so now, it must be because of changes in society, not novelties in the genre. Darnton seems uneasily aware of this: he comes close to conjuring up that old illusion, the "Rise of the Bourgeoisie", only to stuff it hurriedly back into the depths of his magician's hat.

At the end, this cunning historical prestidigitator still has a trick. Madame du Barry's taste and experience rated her lovers' performances in inverse proportion to their social rank: might this sexual democracy, Darnton suggests, have helped revolutionary egalitarianism along? Like his broader thesis, it may not be true, but it is a happy invention.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's recent books include 'Millennium: A History of our Last Thousand Years'.

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