Opening this week at the Getty Center is Paris: Life & Luxury, which traces the refined activities that took place inside a luxurious Parisian town house of the mid-1700s. On the streets outside such a house, however, occurred one activity a bit less refined: trade in gossip with remarkable parallels to the blogosphere of our own day. Historian Robert Darnton gives a free talk this Thursday about this 18th-century blogging culture and the scandalous tidbit—known in centuries past as the anecdote.
Why is a renowned historian of the book talking about commenting, clouds, and Twitter? He explained during a break between teaching classes as Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard, directing the world’s biggest university library, and writing books on his favorite century, the 18th.
You say there was a blogosphere in the 18th century. Explain.
It’s not too far-fetched to describe the circulation of information in 18th-century Paris as a kind of blogosphere. But I admit that this is an outrageous anachronism.
Describe this blogosphere.
If you wanted to know about current events in 18th-century Paris, you couldn’t just read a newspaper—censorship and the absolute monarchy prevented that. So you went to a certain tree, known as the Tree of Cracow, in the garden of the Palais Royal. Newsmongers would get oral reports of the news, write it up on little bits of paper, and share it. Some of these bits of paper were confiscated when the police arrested people for sedition. I’ve worked in the papers of the Bastille prison and come across them.
This is an ecology of information not all that different from blogs, in which a snippet of information appears, and then there are comments, and comments on the comments.
An 18th-century information society?
It bugs me when people say, “we live in the information society,” as if ours is the first one that ever came into existence. Every society is an information society, according to the technologies of the time.
What were the topics of the news?
A lot of it had to do with sex in high places, but there were other topics, too. I’ll begin the lecture with modern blogs and show tidbits of information of this kind from today and the 18th century. The parallels are quite striking.
If these plucky 18th-century newsmongers were working today, what would they be doing?
They’d be blogging, for sure—as people are doing in Cairo, and Syria, and China, and everywhere. Trying to communicate nuggets of information rapidly, and in brief format.
In London, so-called “paragraph men” would reduce a bit of news to a sentence or two. Newspapers consisted of a succession of paragraphs, with no headlines, each of which was autonomous and operated sort of like tweets.
Twitter, 18th-century style. Can you give an example?
“The lieutenant general of police has received an order from Mme D… that no police officer should set foot in a brothel. Mme… still feels loyalty to her former colleagues.”
It’s saying that Madame du Barry, the mistress of the king, used to be a whore.
And this information made it into books, too?
There was a large corpus of printed works that were the result of all this information circulating in Paris.
The Private Life of Louis XV, a four-volume scandalous version of contemporary history, was totally illegal, but a big bestseller. I’d be reading a section and say, “I’ve read this somewhere before”—it was a case of obvious plagiarism. The writer of Louis XV was simply quarrying anecdotes from other sources and cobbling them together. Of 50 pages, 75% is plagiarized. We’re not looking at a book, but a kind of amalgam of blogs. A cloud, you could even call it.
How does a historian of the book come to be interested in blogging?
I think of myself as studying the history of communication. As soon as you really look hard at books and understand how they came into being and were circulated, you realize that they’re part of something much larger: an information ecology.
That’s the point of my lecture, how a well-known book is a product of oral modes of diffusing news, and tidbits assembled by anonymous hack writers in garrets, that eventually acquired the form of a book. The notion of “book” is not adequate to describe that.
You’ve stated that blogs intend to provoke, vent, and gossip. But surely not all blogs…
I wouldn’t pretend that all blogs are like that! The New York Review of Books wants me to blog more for them, because they’re trying to develop a highbrow style of blogging. And why not? I’m not claiming to cover all blogging by any means.
This lecture at the Getty grew out of a blog post for the Review, which drew on “The Devil in the Holy Water,” a thick academic book no one will read. It was nice that I could get the same ideas across rapidly in the form of a blog.
The lecture that was a blog post, that began as a book?
Your lecture complements the exhibition Paris: Life & Luxury, which traces a day in an 18th-century Parisian town house. As a historian of that century, do you feel we can ever get close to how people really thought, or felt, at this time?
I’m a true believer in the importance of seeing other worlds in the past as people saw them at the time—but it’s much more easily said than done. A really good exhibition can help in the mental effort to “think yourself back” to a different world. If you can surround yourself with objects, pictures, articles of furniture and dress, and things people used in their daily lives and try to imagine the way they were used, you’re already moving into another mental universe. I’m really looking forward to spending time in the exhibition.