Thursday, May 27, 2010

Hunt reviews Darnton and Walton on political slander, free speech during the French Revolution

Two books recent books take up the topic of political slander and free speech in 18th-century France: The Devil in the Holy Water, or, The Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon, by Robert Darnton (Harvard University), and Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution: The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech, by Charles Walton (Yale University).

Lynn Hunt recently reviewed both for the London Review of Books. Here are the first two paragraphs of her essay:

There is no doubt an art of political slander, as Robert Darnton terms it, and in many places something like what Charles Walton calls a ‘culture of calumny’. But in what ways are they particular to a time and place? How different, for example, are the charges of lesbianism and Machiavellian manoeuvring levelled against Hillary Clinton from those published two centuries earlier against Marie Antoinette (leaving aside for the moment the rather different outcomes for the two women)? True, Hillary was not accused of committing incest with her child, but she was linked with various financial scandals and even portrayed as ordering the murder of the deputy White House counsel Vince Foster (who committed suicide in 1993) in order to cover up her transgressions. John Knox was surely right to label his 1558 diatribe against powerful women only The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, so well developed is the tradition of denigrating women thought to exercise influence from behind the throne.

The particularity of slander matters because Darnton and Walton hang a great deal on its late 18th-century French version. Darnton argues here, as he has in a series of acclaimed books, that the libels proliferating like kudzu in the 1770s and especially the 1780s choked off the oxygen of legitimacy necessary to the survival of the monarchy. He endorses Pierre Bayle’s remark of the late 17th century that ‘the tongue and the pen of one man alone are sometimes more useful for a cause than an army of 40,000 soldiers,’ though Darnton has in mind not one man but a few handfuls of hacks. Walton, a student of Darnton’s, wants to push the effects of calumny further into the heart of the French Revolution. For him, the culture of calumny explains the violence of the Terror.

You can read the full review here.