Thursday, December 23, 2010

French Dissing: the Scandalous Literature
That 'Liberated' a Country

by Robert Fulford

When we chronicle the struggle for literary freedom we too rarely give proper credit to the scandalous books, the salacious books, the truly outrageous books. We imagine that modern freedom was won by high-minded altruists devoted to human progress. A closer look reveals that much of the vast terrain on which literature and politics stand was in fact cleared by some dubious characters publishing books that no one, even the authors, considered respectable.

Robert Darnton has spent many years nudging us toward an understanding of this reality. Most recently he’s instructed us that 18th-century French publishing had a well-known category, libelles, which covered many books that delighted newly literate readers by undermining the authority of the monarchy and the Church.

Libelles helped create the demand for liberty. They were a major factor in the monarchy’s collapse. On shaky moral grounds, they founded French press freedom.

In the 18th century, libel was a French industry. The books Darnton explores sometimes told the truth and sometimes spread vicious lies. Still, for decades they provided the only available information on the great public figures of France. Newspapers came late to France, much later than to Germany and Britain, because the monarchy didn’t allow them. Paris got its first daily in 1777; Leipzig had one in 1660...Unsurprisingly, the favourite victim of libellers was Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI...She received, as Darnton says, far more than her share of calumny: “The avalanche of defamation that overwhelmed her between 1789 and her execution on October 16, 1793, has no parallel in history"...Read it all

Digital Archive Offers Glimpse into the ‘Dark Side’ of the Enlightenment

"When most people talk about the age of enlightenment they are usually referring to a period in 18th century European history when logic and reason rose to supremacy. During this important period of cultural growth, public intellectuals like John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire dedicated themselves to solving perennial human dilemmas.

They and their contemporaries gathered in salons and coffeehouses and exchanged volumes of letters in the name of sharing knowledge and improving the human condition.

"Dan Edelstein, a Stanford French professor, has been exploring an aspect of the Age of Enlightenment that is less familiar to most, the so-called “dark side” of the enlightenment. He described the differentiating factors:

"The prevailing understanding of the enlightenment is one in which there was only scientific and rational thinking, but there was also a significant number of people contributing to the enlightenment who were absorbed in dubious scholarly pursuits like alchemy, mythology, astrology and secret societies...Edelstein partnered with scholars from UC Berkeley, Washington University, UCLA, Kings College London, and other institutions to learn more about these unconventional figures, and more specifically how much their ideas and arguments really diverged from those of the canonical enlightenment figures.

"The more time I spent reading these curious works, the more I realized that my familiar Enlightenment friends were sometimes up to the same tricks,” Edelstein recounts...Read it all

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