Monday, December 06, 2010

Book Review: "Poetry and the Police"

Robert Darnton's latest book is Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Harvard University Press, 2010). It is classic Darnton: having found an intriguing episode in the archives, he follows the trail wherever it may lead. In this case he came upon a series of dossiers in the French police archives pertaining to "l'affaire des Quatorze," ("Affair of the Fourteen") a 1749 dragnet which resulted in the arrests of fourteen men (mostly priests, students, and clerks) for disseminating six salacious poems about Louis XV, his government, and his unpopular mistress, Madame de Pompadour.

Throughout the book, Darnton allows us to peer inside his research methods and puts into writing the questions he asked himself as he carried out his own investigations into the police's dogged pursuit of those circulating the scandalous verses. By attempting to "reconstruct orality," (which he calls the "the most important missing element" in the history of communication - p. 2), Darnton suggests that we can (to the extent possible) "uncover a complex communication network and study the way information circulated in a semiliterate society" (p. 3).

In this slim volume (just 145 pages of text, followed by much end-matter, discussed below) Darnton offers up not only an account of the Affair of the Fourteen (how it proceeded and how it turned out), but also (widening the scope) contextual chapters on the political and social climate in France that led to the poems' production and spread, fascinating capsule-treatments of musical culture in eighteenth-century Paris (most notably the "street-singing") and how new lyrics laid atop old tunes (I love his phrase "aural palimpsest" for this) made the rapid infiltration of the poems and songs possible.

Darnton also admits the difficulties with the type of work he's trying to do with this book, noting that determining the actual public perceptions and impact of these verses in their own time is inherently tricky, since the much the evidence historians would want to be able to make a strong argument about the importance of this affair is simply lost to us. And he points out the dangers in reading proto-Revolutionary sentiments into these verses; while they do poke fun at (or even encourage the assassination of) the royal family, they should be seen "not as a symptom of things to come but rather as one of those rare incidents that, if adequately examined, reveal the underlying determinants of events" (p. 140).

I've heard Darnton speak several times about his desire to see historical works "enhanced" by supporting documentation and other materials, and he has certainly followed his own advice in this work. By supplementing the text with the texts of the poems which led to the Affair of the Fourteen, short contextual essays on various aspects of the book, and by an electronic caberet which features recordings of several of the tunes referred to in the text, Darnton has provided a fine example usefulness of enhanced texts (provided, of course, that the publisher maintains the website, &c.).

As usual, Darnton has found a good story, and told it well. By pulling at the loose threads of this seemingly unimportant episode, Darnton "reveals the way an information society operated when information spread by word of mouth and poetry carried messages among ordinary people, very effectively and long before the Internet" (p. 145).