March 18, 2023

1. The Cat Massacre

Schopenhauer argued that all the teachers of morality were saying the same thing: “Do harm to no one; but rather help all people, as far as lies in your power” (Neminem laede, immo omnes, quantum potes, juva). Since this teaching was universal, it must be true; morality is embedded in human nature.

Schopenhauer based his argument on a study of Greeks, Jews, Chinese, etc. — civilized peoples with written records. He didn’t study primitive tribesmen in New Guinea, because he was born in 1788, and he matured before anthropology developed.

Nietzsche, however, was born in 1844, so he matured when anthropology was just getting started, when anthropology was a hot topic. So Nietzsche’s study of morality cast a wider net; in addition to the civilized peoples that Schopenhauer studied, Nietzsche studied various primitive peoples. Nietzsche decided that no morality is universal, no morality is true-because-it’s-universal; morality is not embedded in human nature.

The ancient Greeks also debated whether morality is universal. Socrates argued that reason can lead us to universal moral principles, principles that are true everywhere and always, just as 2 + 2 = 4 is true everywhere and always; Socrates would agree with Schopenhauer. The Sophists, on the other hand, argued that different societies have different moralities, there’s no universal morality; the Sophists would agree with Nietzsche.

In the last issue, I discussed the first essay in Robert Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre, which argues that French peasants had a defensive morality, their motto was il faut se défendre (One must defend oneself), they felt it was better to be a knave than a fool. As Nietzsche fused philosophy and anthropology, so Darnton fuses history and anthropology. Both Nietzsche and Darnton study moralities that are usually overlooked, moralities that Schopenhauer overlooked. So Nietzsche would find Darnton’s first chapter congenial.

While Darnton’s first chapter deals with French folk-tales, his second chapter deals with a cat massacre. The massacre was carried out by apprentice-printers in Paris around 1730. The apprentices were annoyed with the cats because they disturbed their sleep, and they were annoyed with their master (the owner of the print-shop) because he lived a comfortable life, while they worked hard for meager rations. The apprentices revenged themselves on the master and his wife by killing his wife’s favorite cat, la grise (the gray).

Darnton says, “The torture of animals, especially cats, was a popular amusement throughout early modern Europe.... Once you start looking you see people torturing animals everywhere.” Nietzsche’s study of anthropology led him to the same conclusion. In an early work, The Dawn, Nietzsche said, “In the act of cruelty the community refreshes itself and for once throws off the gloom of constant fear and caution. Cruelty is one of the oldest festive joys of mankind.” He returned to this subject in a later work, The Genealogy of Morals: “Cruelty constituted the great festival pleasure of more primitive men.”

Notice that Nietzsche doesn’t mention animals; doubtless he’s referring to cruelty toward one’s fellow man. Torture of prisoners was a common practice among Native Americans, as we see in the accounts of missionaries in Canada, and other early narratives. Doubtless torture was practiced by many primitive peoples.

Torture is probably related to humor; both involve degrading someone else, and elevating yourself by comparison. Torture and humor are intermingled in the cat massacre. Francis Bacon said that deformity, such as a hunchback or a dwarf, is laughable. Hobbes said, “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from a sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves by comparison with the infirmity of others.” Max Beerbohm said that public humor is about “delight in suffering.”1 Simone Weil said that torture/violence is “the transference to others of the degradation we bear in ourselves.” This could be a definition of torture or of humor.

While the cat massacre is a type of humor, a primitive type of humor, it can also be seen as a political statement. Darnton quotes the wife of the printer: “These wicked men can’t kill the masters; they have killed my cat.” This suggests that the apprentices might kill the masters if they could. Is the cat massacre a harbinger of the French Revolution? Darnton says that the apprentices “certainly felt debased and had accumulated enough resentment to explode in an orgy of killing. A half-century later, the artisans of Paris would run riot in a similar manner, combining indiscriminate slaughter with improvised popular tribunals.” The apprentices conducted mock trials for the cats, before hanging them. Later they re-enacted the whole affair in play, forgetting their miseries in laughter.

Darnton compares the whole affair to a “charivari,” in which a mob parades noisily to the home of a cuckold, or someone else whom they want to embarrass. Wikipedia says a charivari is a

folk custom designed to shame a member of the community, in which a mock parade was staged through the settlement accompanied by a discordant mock serenade. Since the crowd aimed to make as much noise as possible by beating on pots and pans or anything that came to hand these parades are often referred to as rough music.

Wikipedia says that a charivari is “alternatively spelled shivaree or chivaree and also called a skimmington.” Below is Hogarth’s depiction of a “skimmington.” Note the suggestion of animal-torture in the lower-left corner of the engraving, as if the cries of the animal were contributing to the cacophony.

Hogarth depicted animal-torture more explicitly in his “First Stage of Cruelty” (see below), which is on the cover of Darnton’s book.

The humor magazine Punch was called “The London Charivari,” and its cover depicted the hanging of a cat:

All sorts of folk customs involved cats. Cats were believed to have an occult power, they were linked to witches and to various folk medicines. Cats also had sexual significance, as we see in the English word “pussy.” So when the printer’s apprentices massacred cats, their action carried with it a range of symbolism. Darnton says, “Anthropologists stress the multivocal character of symbols, and they understand rituals as complex patterns of behavior, which express multiple meanings.”

For the apprentices, the cat massacre meant play, laughter, entertainment:

The workers’ mode of expression [Darnton writes] was a kind of popular theater. It involved pantomime, rough music, and a dramatic “theater of violence” improvised in the work place, in the street, and on the rooftops. It included a play within a play, because [they] reenacted the whole farce several times as copies in the shop. In fact, the original massacre involved the burlesquing of other ceremonies, such as trials and charivaris.

So here again, as in his discussion of folk-tales, Darnton is looking at popular culture, working-class culture. The cat massacre is a play, a comedy routine, a symbolic act. The cat massacre throws light on the life of the masses — their hostility to their masters, their cruelty, etc. The writings of Voltaire and Rousseau, Darnton seems to say, have much to offer, but we should also look at humbler forms of culture, forms of culture that express the mind of the masses.

2. France on the Eve of the Revolution

The third essay in Cat Massacre is an account of the city of Montpellier in 1768. The author of the account is unknown, probably a member of Montpellier’s bourgeoisie. What exactly do we mean by the term “bourgeois”?

The French Revolution is often ascribed to the rise of the bourgeoisie, their demand for political power commensurate with their important role in society. Marx viewed the bourgeois as “the owner of the modes of production,”2 a factory owner rather than a landowner, a city-dweller (“bourgeois” is related to “burg,” meaning city). But Darnton says that, on the eve of the French Revolution, the bourgeois rarely owned a factory; most manufacturing was done at home, done remotely, done through the “putting-out system.”

On the eve of the Revolution, the bourgeoisie were “primarily rentiers, who lived from annuities and land rents and did not work, the very opposite of the industrial bourgeoisie of Marxist historiography.” Merchants tried to retire from business as soon as possible, perhaps because it was considered degrading. “Merchants tended to shift their capital from trade to land and offices.”

If you bought a position in the judiciary or bureaucracy, you were ennobled, and many of these positions brought with them an annual salary, so buying a position was like buying an annuity. For example, the Présidents of the court paid 110,000 livres for their position, and received a salary of “6,000 livres plus various fees.” Most Montpellier “nobles” had purchased their ranks; “the town had virtually no ancient feudal nobility.” But if you purchased a high rank, it could be transmitted to the next generation. Buying a place in the nobility wasn’t a new practice; Tocqueville tells us that it started in 1270 AD.3

Clergy, too, received an annual salary. A Dominican received 6,000 livres a year, an Augustin 4,000.

Several times a year, Montpellier had a procession of clergy, nobles, soldiers, etc. Darnton says, “Processions were important events everywhere in early modern Europe. They displayed the dignités, qualités, corps, and états of which the social order was thought to be composed.” The clergy or First Estate came first in the procession, and within the clergy, certain religious orders took precedence over others. Dominicans marched ahead of Augustins, just as Dominicans had a higher salary than Augustins.

Each rank was denoted by particular clothing. Professors at the local university wore “crimson satin with ermine hoods.” Darnton says, “Dress served as a social code in Montpellier as everywhere else in early modern Europe.”

The procession wasn’t an accurate reflection of life in Montpellier. Clergy loomed large in the procession, but were less important in city life. On the other hand, merchants played an important role in city life, but not in the procession. The bulk of the population — artisans, laborers, servants — were absent from the procession. Protestants, who made up one-sixth of the population, were also absent.

Darnton says that, in the second half of the Montpellier Description, the anonymous author views society, not as “a parade of dignités,” but as a “three-tiered structure of ‘estates.’” The clergy, formerly known as the First Estate, is cast aside; “it is not much esteemed in this city.” The new First Estate is the nobility, that is, “nobles of the robe,” people who bought or inherited positions in the judiciary or bureaucracy. The Second Estate, according to the anonymous author, is made up of

magistrates who have not been ennobled, lawyers, doctors, attorneys, notaries, financiers, merchants, tradespeople, and those who live from their revenues without having any particular profession. This class is always the most useful, the most important, and the wealthiest in all kinds of countries. It supports the first [estate] and manipulates the last according to its will.

Darnton says that the Second Estate is clearly the estate to which the anonymous author is loyal. The Second Estate is active and useful, while the First Estate prides itself on idleness; “living ‘nobly’ meant doing nothing at all.” A member of the First Estate would marry off his daughter with a dowry of thirty to sixty thousand livres, while a SecondEstate bride would bring with her a dowry of ten to twenty thousand.

The Third Estate is made up of artisans and laborers, while servants and unemployed are left out of all estates.

Darnton says that the anonymous author has no respect for entrepreneurial activity or risk-taking. The author describes “a handicraft economy, cut into tiny units and hedged about by guilds, a little world of artisans and shopkeepers that seemed centuries away from an industrial revolution.”

Darnton says that the author sometimes drops the three-fold classification, and divides the population into patricians and plebeians. The author is concerned about the lower class mixing with the upper classes. He’s concerned that members of the lower class are becoming educated, and mingling at the park with their betters:

Nothing is more impertinent [writes the anonymous author] than to see a cook or a valet don an outfit trimmed with braid or lace, strap on a sword, and insinuate himself amongst the finest company in promenades.... If any such mixing must take place, one should be able to pick them out by a badge indicating their estate and making it impossible to confuse them with everyone else.

While the author is concerned about the Third Estate penetrating the Second, he welcomes a merger between the Second and the First Estate:

“The two have merged, and today there are no more differences in the way they run their households, give dinner parties, and dress.” A new urban elite was forming in opposition to the common people.

Darnton says that the anonymous author has no patience with theological disputes. The author respects the philosophes, who turn away from theology. “The reading of philosophical books has taken such a hold on most people, especially young people, that one has never seen so many deists as there are today.” The author calls Montpellier “a city where people accept the authority of reason.”

* * * * *

In his fourth essay, Darnton says that philosophes and other writers often depended on patronage. If their first book caught the eye of a patron/protector, they might obtain a sinecure. Darnton mentions a writer named Moncrif, who found a patron in M. d’Argenson. Moncrif was “secretary general of the French postal service, a position that brings him in 6,000 livres a year and that M. d’Argenson gave to him as a present.” Darnton is quoting a police inspector, Joseph d’Hémery, who kept files on Paris writers around 1750.

So many sinecures! So many people drawing a salary for nothing, while the masses struggle to eke out a living! It seems like a society ripe for revolution, but in 1750, few people anticipated revolution. Of course, one could argue that patronage is good for literature, especially at a time when it was difficult to make money by writing. But sinecures were usually given to people with no connection to literature, or to writers of dubious merit.

Discussing d’Hémery’s report on the abbé de Bernis, Darnton says that d’Hémery

situated [Bernis] in a network of family relations, clientages, and “protections,” a key term, which runs through all the reports. Everyone in the police files was seeking, receiving, or dispensing protection, from princes and royal mistresses down to two-bit pamphleteers. Just as Mme de Pompadour got Bernis an abbey, Bernis got Duclos a sinecure. That was how the system worked. The police did not question the principle of influence peddling. They assumed it: it went without saying, in the republic of letters as in society at large.

I’m reminded of the Chinese term guanxi, meaning “an individual’s social network of mutually beneficial personal and business relationships.” Perhaps such networks existed in most societies throughout history, especially in societies that aren’t governed by the rule of law. The words “patron” and “client” have Roman roots; Roman society was based on patronage. In the U.S., there was a movement in the late 1800s to replace the patronage system with a merit system; the patronage system was sometimes called “the spoils system.”

So d’Hémery focuses, in his reports, on patronage, and hardly mentions the “literary marketplace.” This marketplace couldn’t develop without copyright, royalties, etc.

D’Hémery views marriage as a financial matter, a potential sinecure, an opportunity not to be missed. Darnton says, “Writers’ wives never appeared as intelligent, cultivated, or virtuous in the reports; they were either rich or poor.” Of course, women might view men as “either rich or poor,” and writers were usually poor. Darnton says,

The majority of writers... never married.... Liaisons were dangerous for a man of letters because he might marry his mistress, no matter how “bad” the match.... The marriages of Rousseau and Diderot — to a semiliterate laundry maid and to the daughter of a washerwoman, respectively — do not look unusual.

There was little prestige in a literary life. D’Hémery refers to many writers as “boys” (garçons), not because they were young, but because of their “lack of social distinction.” But Darnton thinks that the status of writers was about to change; “the philosophes laid the foundation of the modern cult of the intellectual.” I’m not sure what Darnton means by “the modern cult of the intellectual”; based on my own experience, I would say that modern society has zero respect for the intellectual.

Darnton says that writers in 1750 were more respected than they were in 1650, but less respected than they were in 1850. Darnton mentions two writers (Vauban and Fénelon) who were summarily exiled from court by Louis XIV. On the other hand, in the 19th century, writers like Balzac and Hugo

established the heroic style of authorship and Zola consummated the conquest of the marketplace.... D’Hémery expressed an in-between stage in the evolution of the writer’s status. He did not think of writing as an independent career or a distinct estate. But he respected it as an art — and he knew it bore watching as an ideological force.

Why would a police inspector like d’Hémery keep tabs on writers? D’Hémery was looking for libels, i.e., personal attacks on the king, on someone close to the king, or on a nobleman. If libels circulated widely, they could affect public opinion, and shake the foundations of the monarchy.

Another concern that d’Hémery had was atheism, impiety; Darnton speaks of “a rising tide of irreligion.” D’Hémery felt that the crumbling of religion would mean the crumbling of the established order. But d’Hémery wasn’t aware of the Enlightenment as a movement, or the Encyclopédie as a movement, or the salons as a movement. D’Hémery was only aware of individual writers, like Diderot and Voltaire, and viewed them as “bad subjects.”

Darnton writes well, his prose is lucid and lively. He’s trying to reach a broad audience — laymen as well as scholars.

3. The Enlightenment Encyclopedia

The Encyclopédie of Diderot and d’Alembert began as a translation of an English encyclopedia by Ephraim Chambers. In general, encyclopedias draw on earlier encyclopedias; Wikipedia, for example, often draws on old editions of Encyclopedia Britannica, editions that are in the public domain.

The Encyclopédie is famous for its ironic attitude toward Christianity; many of its writers were free-thinkers who were skeptical of traditional religion, and wanted to create a new, rational civilization. In my view, the rational approach has little to offer. I’m more impressed with the power of the unconscious, I’m more interested in the mysterious and the occult.

The Encyclopédie respects Bacon and his inductive approach; it respects Locke and his emphasis on sensation; it respects Newton and his mechanical worldview. The Romantic period that followed the Enlightenment took a different approach; William Blake, for example, viewed Bacon, Locke, and Newton as the “trinity of evil.”4 The Romantics respected dream and intuition at least as much as reason and logic; they preferred an organic worldview to a mechanical worldview. The Enlightenment’s faith in reason was excessive, but perhaps it was a necessary stage in the progress of human thought; as Blake said, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

Darnton says that the Encyclopédie, like any encyclopedia, is not a neutral collection of information, it draws boundaries, it takes positions. In a recent issue, I criticized Wikipedia for dismissing many subjects as pseudoscience, dismissing many theories as “fringe theories.” In other words, I took issue with how Wikipedia drew the boundary between science and pseudoscience, how it drew the boundary between theories and fringe theories.

For example, Wikipedia might call physiognomy, periodicity, and divination “pseudosciences.” True, these subjects are mysterious and poorly understood, but the cutting-edge of knowledge is at the mysterious; the cutting edge of knowledge is where encyclopedias and textbooks fear to tread. Wikipedia says, “Beyond this fence is the jungle.” Philosophers should say, “In the jungle is where things are most interesting and exciting, where the biggest discoveries are made.”5

Knowledge is often expressed as a map or a tree. When Bacon drew a map of the world of knowledge, he divided knowledge into human and divine. Divine knowledge, revealed religion, was independent of reason, and occupied half the world of knowledge.

The Encyclopedists took a different approach. They tried to remove knowledge from the control of the clergy; they tried to make scholarship secular. They restricted the sphere of revealed religion, and expanded the sphere of philosophy.

In the tree of the Encyclopédie [Darnton writes] philosophy was not so much a branch as the principal trunk. Out of it, on a rather remote twig, grew “revealed theology” amidst a cluster of dubious subjects: “superstitions,” “divination,” “black magic,” “the science of good and evil spirits.” The Encyclopedists conveyed a message merely by positioning things, as in the notorious cross references of their articles (for example, Anthropophagy: “See Eucharist, Communion, Altar, etc.”).

Darnton points out that classification schemes can shape reality:

Pigeon-holing [is] an exercise in power. A subject relegated to the trivium rather than the quadrivium, or to the “soft” rather than the “hard” sciences, may wither on the vine. A mis-shelved book may disappear forever. An enemy defined as less than human may be annihilated.

Darnton says that, if we can’t classify something, it threatens to disturb our worldview:

All animal life fits into the grid of an unconscious ontology. Monsters like the “elephant man” and the “wolf boy” horrify and fascinate us because they violate our conceptual boundaries, and certain creatures make our skin crawl because they slip in between categories: “slimy” reptiles that swim in the sea and creep on the land, “nasty” rodents that live in houses yet remain outside the bounds of domestication. We insult someone by calling him a rat rather than a squirrel.... All borders are dangerous. If left unguarded, they could break down, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve in chaos.

Setting up categories and policing them is therefore a serious business. A philosopher who attempted to redraw the boundaries of the world of knowledge would be tampering with the taboo. Even if he steered clear of sacred subjects, he could not avoid danger; for knowledge is inherently ambiguous. Like reptiles and rats, it can slip from one category to another.6

4. Rousseau and His Reader

Darnton says that Rousseau created a new relationship between writer and reader. Rousseau poured out his soul in works like La Nouvelle Héloïse, and readers responded by trying to live as Rousseau’s characters lived, by writing to Rousseau, visiting Rousseau, etc. Demand for La Nouvelle Héloïse was so great that bookstores rented it out by the hour.

Readers couldn’t stop reading it, and couldn’t believe that the characters weren’t real people. One reader “sobbed so violently that he cured himself of a severe cold.” La Nouvelle Héloïse is written in the form of letters, i.e., it’s an “epistolary novel.” One reader said that reading the last letter “created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died during that supreme moment.” Yet the novel is almost forgotten today; I never met anyone who said they enjoyed it — in fact, I never met anyone who read it.

Though it’s usually referred to as La Nouvelle Héloïse, the original title was “Letters of Two Lovers, living in a small town at the foot of the Alps, collected and published by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” The epigraph was from Petrarch:

The world did not know her while she lived:
I knew, I who am left to my weeping
[Non la conobbe il mondo mentre l’ebbe:
conobbil’io, ch’a pianger qui rimasi]

Below is the original title page.

Rousseau’s novel takes place far from the big city, far from high society, far from the theaters and salons and wit of the elite. Rousseau tried to create a new type of literature, an ingenuous literature, the literature of the simple heart. Rousseau had always felt that culture was corrupting; his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750) had argued that culture corrupted the natural man; this essay had made him famous. In the preface to La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau said, “This novel is not a novel.” Rousseau was trying to teach his readers how to be simple and pure, not cultured and sophisticated.

La Nouvelle Héloïse is a paean to love, family life, child-raising, and natural beauty. Perhaps one of the themes of the novel is the ecstasy of youth. Rousseau describes his characters as “young people, almost children, who in their romantic imaginations take the innocent frenzy of their minds to be philosophy.” (Kafka lamented that modern culture, 20th-century culture, had forgotten the power of youth, the ecstasy of youth.7)

La Nouvelle Héloïse also emphasizes the written word. “Because it is an epistolary novel,” Darnton writes, “the plot unfolds through the exchange of letters. Living cannot be distinguished from reading, nor loving from the writing of love letters.” Darnton says that Rousseau had always been preoccupied with the written word: “Reading is a theme that appears everywhere in Rousseau’s works. It obsessed him.”

La Nouvelle Héloïse was published in 1761, when Rousseau was quarreling with the Encyclopedists, including Diderot, his former friend. Rousseau’s differences with the Encyclopedists were philosophical as well as personal. While the Encyclopedists were champions of reason, Rousseau emphasized feeling over reason. While the Encyclopedists favored materialism, Rousseau “emphasized his fervent belief in a spiritual origin of man’s soul and the universe.”8

In my view, one of the deepest questions in philosophy is whether the universe is essentially spirit or essentially matter. I favor spirit, Rousseau favored spirit, the Encyclopedists favored matter. Doubtless the Encyclopedists were reacting to religious traditions, which favored spirit; the mission of the Encyclopedists was to undermine religious traditions, which they felt were impeding the progress of mankind.

The phrase “nouvelle Héloïse” alludes to the story of Héloïse and Abelard. Héloïse was a student, Abelard her tutor, they fell in love, her family disapproved of the match. In Rousseau’s novel, the female protagonist, Julie, becomes the lover of her tutor, Saint-Preux, but her father disapproves of the match.

Darnton found a cache of letters from Jean Ranson, a reader of Rousseau, to a friend and bookseller. The letters show how eager Ranson was for Rousseau’s books, and also how eager he was for information about Rousseau himself. Ranson tries to live a “Rousseau life”; since Rousseau was a champion of breast-feeding, Ranson says that his wife is breast-feeding their children. Ranson often refers to Rousseau as “friend Jean-Jacques” (l’Ami Jean-Jacques). In his preface, Rousseau seemed to encourage a personal relationship between author and reader (the preface is written in dialogue form):

R:Does a man of integrity hide himself when he speaks to the public? Does he dare to publish something that he will not dare acknowledge? I am the editor of this book, and I will name myself in it as editor.
N:You will name yourself in it? You?
R:I, myself.
N:What! You will put your name to it?
R:Yes, Monsieur.
N:Your real name? Jean-Jacques Rousseau spelled out in full?
R:Jean-Jacques Rousseau spelled out in full.

I’m reminded of Whitman, who put a picture of himself at the front of Leaves of Grass, and introduced himself to the reader as

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding...
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
...Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you...
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Whitman even takes a step that Rousseau probably didn’t take: he addresses the reader who’s not yet born. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman wrote,

It avails not, neither time nor place — distance avails not;
I am with you — you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself — also I return — I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refreshed;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I looked...
Closer yet I approach you:
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you —
I laid in my stores in advance;
I considered long and seriously of you before you were born...
   what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face,
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you....
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you.

Whitman sent a copy of his first book to Emerson, who responded, “I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks and visiting New York to pay you my respects.” Likewise, one of Rousseau’s readers wrote, “My first impulse was to order my horses harnessed so that I could go to Montmorency and see him, no matter what the cost, and tell him how much his tenderness places him above other men in my eyes.”

Rousseau addressed the reader directly, bared his soul to the reader, tried to guide the reader, tried to show the reader where happiness could be found. Darnton writes,

Ultimately, then, the power of Rousseau’s novel derived from the force of his personality. He initiated a new conception of the author as Prometheus, one that would go far in the nineteenth century. So in La Nouvelle Héloïse instead of hiding behind the scene, he strode to the front of the stage. He related everything in the prefaces to himself, his “I”.

Goethe, who might be called Rousseau’s successor, said that the important thing about drama is the dramatist: “Of what use are all the arts of a talent, if we do not find in a theatrical piece an amiable or great personality of the author? This alone influences the cultivation of the people.”9

Salinger took a more light-hearted approach to literature, or at least cultivated a more light-hearted persona. In Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

* * * * *

Rousseau had a particular interest in education, and he had an impact in this field. Rousseau

insists on the importance of patience and gentleness on the part of the teacher. Instead of being crammed with useless information, children should learn according to the natural development of their faculties. Above all, they should learn to be good. For reading is a kind of spiritual exercise: it trains one not for literature but for life....

[Rousseau] insisted in Emile that the child learn to read late, when he was ripe for learning, without artificial exercises: “Any method will do for him.”

Here again Rousseau crossed the boundary between literature and life. His readers could put his educational ideas into practice with their own children. Ranson told his correspondent, “Everything that l’Ami Jean-Jacques has written about the duties of husbands and wives, of mothers and fathers, has had a profound effect on me; and I confess to you that it will serve me as a rule in any of those estates that I should occupy.”

* * * * *

Darnton says that eighteenth-century readers were aware of the physical aspects of a book — the paper, the printing, etc.

In the eighteenth century [books] were made by hand. Every sheet of paper was produced individually by an elaborate procedure and differed from every other sheet in the same volume. Every letter, word, and line was composed according to an art that gave the artisan a chance to express his individuality. Books themselves were individuals, each copy possessing its own character. The reader of the Old Regime approached them with care, for he paid attention to the stuff of literature as well as its message. He would finger the paper in order to gauge its weight, translucence, and elasticity (a whole vocabulary existed to describe the esthetic qualities of paper, which usually represented at least half the manufacturing cost of a book before the nineteenth century.) He would study the design of the type, examine the spacing, check the register, evaluate the layout, and scrutinize the evenness of the printing. He would sample a book the way we might taste a glass of wine; for he looked at the impressions on the paper, not merely across them to their meaning.

In his conclusion, Darnton says that the historian (like the philosopher, like all humanists) is a student of the human spirit.

I doubt that any of us [Darnton writes] will come up with the final answers. The questions keep changing, and history never stops. We are not accorded “bottom lines” or last words; but if there were any, they would belong to Marc Bloch, who knew that when historians venture into the past they seek to make contact with vanished humanity. Whatever their professional baggage, they must follow their noses and trust to their sense of smell: “A good historian resembles the ogre of the legend. Wherever he smells human flesh, he knows that there he will find his prey.”

5. Undermining Democracy

Democrats complain that Republicans are undermining democracy, by casting doubt on the 2020 election, by encouraging an insurrection on January 6, 2021, etc. Republicans complain that Democrats are undermining democracy, by proposing to pack the Supreme Court, by proposing to create new states (blue states), and by overthrowing the secret ballot, which has been a cornerstone of American democracy for more than 100 years. Democrats have fallen in love with mail-in ballots, which aren’t secret ballots.

The 2020 election was legitimate if the mail-in ballots were legitimate, but no one knows if the mail-in ballots were legitimate, someone may have been looking over the shoulder of the voter, using carrots and sticks to influence the voter. To restore faith in elections, mail-in voting should be restricted, and the secret ballot should be restored.

Undermining democracy isn’t a Trump problem, or an American problem, it’s a global problem. Hardly a day goes by without a headline such as “Democracy Under Threat in Mexico,” “Democracy Under Threat in Israel,” “Democracy Under Threat in Poland.” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes wrote The Light That Failed, about the undermining of democracy in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. In my view, threats to democracy are as likely to come from the Left as from the Right (the Mexico situation involves a party on the Left). With respect to undermining democracy, Trump is a symptom rather than a cause (as bad as he is, Trump is almost always a symptom rather than a cause).

What is the root cause of these threats to democracy? Have people lost faith in the future? Or in civilization? Or in liberal democracy? Have people lost respect for forms and procedures?

Any sort of demagoguery undermines democracy. When Biden spends $500 billion to erase student loans, that’s a classic demagogue’s maneuver, it’s a blatant attempt to buy votes, and it undermines democracy. It makes our debt problem worse, it makes inflation worse, and it means that we have $500 billion less for defense, infrastructure, etc. Biden has undermined democracy at least as much as Trump did.

* * * * *

Trump is a problem for Democrats, but a bigger problem for Republicans. Republicans would love to have DeSantis or Haley running against the decrepit Biden, but Trump is standing in the way. Trump is starting to say that DeSantis will cut Social Security — one of the most irresponsible arguments in the Democratic playbook. So Trump is doing the Democrats’ dirty work for them.

© L. James Hammond 2023
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1. Bacon, Hobbes, and Beerbohm are mentioned in Koestler, The Act of Creation, Ch. II, “Laughter and Emotion” back
2. Darnton, Ch. 3 back
3. Tocqueville: “In the eleventh century nobility was beyond all price; in the thirteenth it might be purchased; it was conferred for the first time in 1270; and equality was thus introduced into the Government by the aristocracy itself.”(Democracy in America, Introduction)

Darnton says that, beginning in the 1950s, French historians tried to write “total history,” history that would show how the economy shaped society, and how society shaped culture. “The title of France’s most influential historical journal,” Darnton writes, is Annales: Économies, sociétés, civilisations, demonstrating the 3-part scheme. Darnton is skeptical of the idea that you can “distinguish levels in the past,” and he’s skeptical of the idea that culture “somehow derives from” economics and society. Darnton also questions whether culture can be understood through statistics. He says that French historians have become fond of counting — for example, counting “pounds of candle wax burned to patron saints in churches.”(Great Cat Massacre, Conclusion)

In several respects, Darnton’s approach is similar to mine:

  • he doesn’t aim at “proof”
  • he tries to combine different fields (in his case, history and anthropology; in my case, philosophy and psychology)
  • he tries to reach beyond the scholarly world, he hopes to be read by anyone “curious about the human condition,” and he hopes the reader will “enjoy” his book (unlike professional scholars, laymen are often looking for enjoyment)
  • he’s wary of statistics
  • he says, “I did not try to integrate everything into a single, seamless account of eighteenth-century French culture because I do not believe that any such thing existed. Like many modern or postmodern writers, I did not worry about presenting my work in a fragmented and nonholistic way.”
  • he says, “I have abandoned the usual distinction between elite and popular culture, and have tried to show how intellectuals and common people coped with the same sort of problems”; I sometimes deal with popular culture (for example, I wrote about Star Wars), and I believe that the best literature is popular (for example, Homer was popular)
4. This is a quote from Erich Heller, not from Blake. See this earlier issue. back
5. In my book of aphorisms, I compared cutting-edge theories to wild fruits. In an earlier issue, I noted that Schopenhauer was a firm believer in physiognomy; Schopenhauer said, “The countenance expresses and reveals the whole essence of a man.” In another issue, I noted that Jung was receptive to divination, and sometimes consulted the Chinese divination-book, the I Ching. In another issue, I discussed the Chappaquiddick Affair, and I set forth a theory that Wikipedia calls a “fringe theory.” back
6. Darnton quotes an imaginary Chinese encyclopedia, an encyclopedia that Borges describes in his essay “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” Borges’ imaginary encyclopedia inspired Foucault’s book The Order of Things. Borges says that every way of classifying the universe is arbitrary because we don’t know what the universe is. back
7. Conversations With Kafka, by Gustav Janouch, p. 161 back
8. Wikipedia back
9. Conversations With Eckermann, March 28, 1827. While Rousseau calls attention to himself, he doesn’t hide his faults. “I do not want to be considered any better than I am,” Rousseau said. I’m reminded of Hawthorne, who said, “Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”(Scarlet Letter, Ch. 24)

La Nouvelle Héloïse is a classic example of a sentimental novel, and it spawned many imitators. Though it was wildly popular, the pendulum of taste swung, the public tired of the sentimental style. In 1843, Kierkegaard wrote, “In itself, salmon is a great delicacy; but too much of it is harmful, since it taxes the digestion. At one time when a very large catch of salmon had been brought to Hamburg, the police ordered that a householder should give his servants only one meal a week of salmon. One could wish for a similar police order against sentimentality.”(Either/Or, Vol. I, “Diapsalmata”) back