16 March, 2015Issue 27.5HistoryLiteraturePolitics & Society

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Mauvais Livres

Mark Byers


Robert Darnton
Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature
The British Library, 2014
£25 (hardback)
316 pages
ISBN: 9780712357616

Late one evening in January 1775, Pierre-Auguste Goupil, inspector of the French book trade, searched a shabby sixth-floor apartment on the Rue Saint Honoré in Paris. The flat belonged to Louise Manichel, proprietor of a small bookstall in a passage between the garden of the Palais-Royal and the Rue Richelieu. Goupil had received a tip-off that Manichel was selling scandalous works from her popular étalage, pamphlets of both political and erotic intrigue. “She lacks nothing,” a spy had informed him, “and sells everything.” Goupil was worried about one pamphlet in particular, Lettre de M. l’abbé Terray à M. Turgot, which associated the new ministry of the Baron de Laune with protests against the deposed former chancellor, René Nicolas Charles Augustin de Maupeou. Three copies of the anonymous Lettre were discovered in the Rue Saint Honoré apartment, and Manichel was carted off to the Bastille. Under interrogation, she exposed an underground book trade extending as far as Caen, Bayeux, Rouen, and Geneva.

The arrest of Manichel is one of several episodes in the first section of Robert Darnton’s Censors at Work, which offers three case studies in modern “systems of censorship.” Expanded from Darnton’s Panizzi Lectures, delivered at the British Library in 2014, Censors at Work sets out to provide an “anthropological” perspective on modern literary policing, one that turns Clifford Geertz’s method of “thick description” towards an understanding of censorship in three political systems: Bourbon France, the British Raj, and Communist East Germany. Darnton’s intention here is to nuance two “general tendencies” in the study of censorship, the first reading censorship as the “story of a struggle between freedom of expression and the attempts to repress it by political and religious authorities,” and the second regarding censorship as “an all-pervasive ingredient of social reality [operating] in individual psyches and collective mentalities.” The two tendencies can be “reconciled,” says Darnton, if they are subjected to a higher level of analysis, one that grounds censorship in the daily practices of the censor and a contemporary tissue of social, institutional, and ideological practice. Only through such dense microanalysis, says Darnton, will we arrive at a proper understanding of “How States Shaped Literature.”

That the anthropological approach requires “immersion in the archives” is well attested by the first section of Censors at Work, which draws heavily on resources in the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Darnton provides a corrective here to the “Manichean view of censorship” often applied to the Age of Enlightenment, a view that understands late Bourbon publishing history as the reflection of a broader cultural agon: the “struggle of knowledge to free itself from the fetters imposed by the state and the church.” This view is not supported by scrutiny of the work of Ancien Régime censors themselves, which offers a more various picture.

Take, for instance, the system of royal privilege. Under this system, book manuscripts were sent out to royal censors for “approbation.” The censors reported to the director of the book trade administration, recommending either royal privilege, publication without privilege, or outright suppression. On what basis did the censors make their decisions? On the one hand, royal censors “certainly defended church and king,” refusing royal privilege to manuscripts obviously “offensive to religion, morality, or the state.” But Darnton demonstrates that the work of Bourbon censors went much further than this. Censors, it appears, were just as concerned with matters of style, taste, and accuracy, with—as one of them declared—”the honour of French literature.” Indeed, the censeur royal often intervened in the text of manuscripts to improve their style, moderate their tone, and correct factual mistakes, working with authors in a way that “sometimes verged on collaboration.” This is censorship of a kind, but far from a battle of light against benighted state power.

Even so, many publications, the “bad books” or mauvais livres, never made it to the censors at all. Produced in underground printing shops and distributed from secret entrepôts, these works were left to the Bourbon book police, who engaged in a Sisyphean struggle to find and destroy them. Darnton outlines the “basic character” of such police work through several examples, including that of Louise Manichel. Late Ancien Régime censorship is irreducible to the work of the censors themselves, says Darnton, and should be understood “in a broad view of literary history, taking literature as a cultural system embedded in a social order.” This means, in practice, mapping literary surveillance and censorship against the activities of everyone involved in the licit and illicit book trades, a world that “extended throughout French society, down to peddlers who could barely write and smugglers who could not read.”

Darnton’s emphasis on the everydayness of Bourbon literary censorship, on patterns of policing and administration across social strata, continues into his second case study, that of censorship in the British Raj after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (India’s First War of Independence). Before 1857, Darnton observes, the “British authorities paid little attention to the vernacular press.” But, in the wake of the Rebellion, the Indian Civil Service began to keep a close eye on Indian publishing. Darnton is keen to demonstrate how the new imperative to surveil and—if necessary—punish, exposed the “contradictions” underlying British “liberal imperialism.” That is, literary censorship exposed the incommensurateness of imperial power and liberal commitments to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The contradictions became acute after the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the rise of Indian nationalism. If the imperialists had hitherto “treated literature liberally”—surveillance never quite translating into suppression—they now cracked down on “seditious” works forcefully, all the while struggling to maintain the outward signs of liberal principle. As Darnton puts it:

If the Raj could not be identified with the rule of law, it might be seen to rule by force. If its judges did not uphold the freedom of the press, they might be taken as the agents of tyranny. Yet they could not allow the Indians to use words as freely as Englishmen did at home.

The solution was to cloak censorship in the veil of legitimate judicial process, stretching the laws of libel and sedition to the point of absurdity. Unlike the Bourbon book police, the imperial authorities of the British Raj felt themselves bound to reconcile censorship with the ideals of free speech. But “Indians […] trained in the schools of the sahibs” were perfectly sensible of this contradiction, and could call on Milton’s Areopagitica in defence of vernacular expression.

If censorship was not supposed to exist in the British Raj, neither was it supposed to exist in the German Democratic Republic. Darnton’s final section turns to Communist East Germany and the two poles of its approach to publishing: “Planning and Persecution.” The first of these was simple enough. Like “everything else” in the GDR, literature was subject to an annual plan. Produced by the Main Administration of Publishers and the Book Trade, and signed off by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Plan listed all the books to be published the following year. It was sent to the Central Committee with an “ideological report” which emphasized the dominant motifs of that year’s literary production. Thus the Plan for 1989 “stressed that the year’s output of historical novels would express ‘energetic antifascism’” and that all the year’s fiction would “conform to the principle of socialist realism.” As one former GDR censor assured Darnton, this was not censorship per se, more a rationalisation of literary production.

The “persecution” side of things was trickier, however, because the GDR did not want to alienate its best writers or drive them into the arms of the vulgar capitalist West. Darnton’s most illuminating discussion here concerns Volker Braun, who gained substantial leverage over the censors due to his increasingly international reputation. Braun’s Hinze-Kunze-Roman (1985), concerning a louche and venal Party official, passed the censors after much negotiation and despite is obvious lack of “‘socialist Party-ness.’” Other writers were less fortunate, however, and many neglected to return to the GDR after international readings and award ceremonies (a frequent embarrassment for the Ministry of Culture).

The experience of censorship in the GDR—comparable but ultimately oblique to the experience of censorship in Bourbon France and the British Raj—would seem to justify Darnton’s “anthropology” of literary suppression. For Darnton, the question “what is censorship?” is unanswerable, for it belongs “to a category of conceptual traps that the French call questions mal posées.” Instead of treating censorship as a “thing-in-itself”, we would do better to regard it “holistically, as a system of control, which pervades institutions, colors human relations, and reaches into the hidden workings of the soul.” There is no such thing as censorship then, only censorships, and the “ethnographic view” would “do justice to the different ways that censorship operated in different societies.”

Darnton’s thickly descriptive ethnography avoids the trap of framing all forms of literary suppression and surveillance within the Procrustean bed of “censorship” strictly defined. The three case studies confirm in luxuriant archival detail the specificity of literary censorship to local social and political conditions. But the approach does have a blind side. For without some kind of normative and transhistorical definition—however provisional—will we know censorship when we see it? The weakness of Darnton’s “ethnographic view” is that it would seem to preclude a definition of censorship that could form the basis for activism and law. Without treating censorship theoretically, as a “thing-in-itself,” how do we draw a moral and legal line between the legitimate curtailment of free speech (in the interests of public safety, privacy, and so on) and the illegitimate effort to stifle debate and silence dissent? Censors at Work offers virtuoso ethnographic description, and represents a major intervention in contemporary scholarship. But can we “take a stand” by its method? Today, “when the state may be watching every move we make,” the “badly put question” seems still worth asking.

Mark Byers recently submitted his DPhil thesis in English at Balliol College, Oxford.