✍ Revolution in Print. The Press in France, 1775-1800 [1989]

por Teoría de la historia

UnknownIt was a great day for liberty when, on Aug. 26, 1789, the revolutionary French National Assembly decreed that “free communication of thought and opinion is one of man’s most precious rights.” With a single sentence in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the new order wiped away centuries of regulations, customs and bureaucracies that had made the expression of ideas a matter of constant control and coercion exercised by the monarchy. Within a month of the declaration, as Carla Hesse, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University, writes in an essay in this bright and erudite collection, ”the entire system of censorship . . . began to break down”. Eliminating age-old practices, however, is not simple, and, in fact, freedom of the press caused consternation among those whose economic interests were affected, notably the holders of the former royal monopolies in printing. The most important of these was the Paris Book Guild, whose members complained to the new legislature that their profession was ”lost and prostituted.” Free expression, they said, was a ”degenerate liberty” that needed to be ”tempered.” If anybody can print what he wants, they argued, ”France will soon be infected” with ”bad books.” Ms. Hesse’s account of the turmoil in the printing trade is typical of this multifaceted collection, the companion volume to a recent exhibit at the New York Public Library. It provides a striking way of understanding why the Revolution was revolutionary, how it turned the shaky world of monarchical France upside down. The book’s editors, Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche, professors of European history at, respectively, Princeton University and the University of Paris, have leaped beyond the standard historical narratives to reveal with refreshing concreteness and telling illustrations how things really changed, and changed forever. Mr. Darnton and Mr. Roche open the curtain with chapters on the world of publishing and censorship in the last years of the ancien regime, showing how the system of control, built on a proto-totalitarian thought police, was already teetering on the brink of collapse. In the 1750’s, 40 percent of those sentenced to the Bastille (136 of 339 prisoners) were connected with the book trade. Smugglers of illicit publications often concluded their lives as galley slaves. And yet censorship failed to strangle the circulation of what the entire publishing industry called ”philosophical” books, a code word for all materials, whether political or pornographic, that were banned by the thought police. These ”philosophical” works were printed in Switzerland and brought into France by a host of clandestine methods. A market existed for both ideas and illicit entertainment, and risk-taking entrepreneurs found ways to satisfy it. The Revolution, says Philippe Minard of the University of Lille in his piece on the work force, brought a ”spirit of insubordination” and an explosion of printed materials for a suddenly liberated populace. The traditional booksellers lost business, and the book itself, seen as an elitist relic of the old regime, lost favor. But there was a boom in ephemera, the thousands of pamphlets, booklets, newspapers, songbooks, almanacs and picture collections that carried on the Revolution’s debates in a society that, after all, had only the spoken and printed word as vehicles of communication. In explicating all of this, ”Revolution in Print” has the virtue of freshness but the vice of occasional spottiness, as do most collections of essays written by various scholars. Missing is at least one central theme, how the political swings of the Revolution, from the declaration to the Terror to the Thermidorean reaction, affected the concept of free expression itself. Yet the volume’s virtues are considerable. Using the power of particularity, it shows how France forged a new political culture, one based to a large extent on that device capable of shaking the earth, the printing press.

[Richard BERNSTEIN. “After the Revolution, the arts lived on… and the censors were silenced”, in The New York Times, 9 de julio de 1989]