Friday, 26 December 2014

The Wonders of Libraries

I’ve been a card carrying library user since 1935 when the Bay City, MI Public Library gave a proud 8 year old his first free entrĂ©e. And seventy-five years later, I daily begin my “working day” at 9:00 a.m. sharp at one of Europe’s greatest libraries, named for the Countess Anna Amalia who was Goethe’s patron. The International Herald Tribune (crucial, now that its owner NYTimes limits me to 10 articles a month! I read more than that every day) and the Manchester Guardian are my first must reads.

What time is left before lunch is invested weekly in TLS and NYRB. And for Euro 1.5 they will order for me almost any serious book in the collections of German universities. Like the one I’m reviewing. All through an internet site for the Universal German Library Exchange. Heaven can wait, with such service.

One such book now at my desk is Robert Darnton’s “Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris” (Belknap/Harvard,2010). Darnton is currently my intellectual MVP. He has parlayed a Princeton professorship in French intellectual history to Harvard’s head librarian who is now leading the world’s library digitization. With time out to write an absolutely enchanting story (a rich 224 pages) on how restless French citizens in 1748-9 prepared their country for the French Revolution.

It seems that the outsider French were miffed at Louis XV not only for his sleazy encounters with “Madame” Pompadour, and his spinelessness to deny support for the Stuart Pretender, Prince Edouard, not to forget his new “Vingtieme” law which made his subjects retroactively pay for the War of the Austrian Succession’s alleged victory.

The key to their diverse protests was to politicize the Parisian pop song traditions. Darnton recalls the radio ditties of the 1940’s imprinted in his childish brain:

Pepsi-Cola hits the spot.
Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot.

Which reminds him of his first experience of irreligion in his youth:
Christianity hits the spot.
Twelve apostles, that’s a lot.
Holy Ghost and a Virgin, too.
Christianity’s the thing for you.

That’s basically what the king’s secret enemies were doing to try to bring him down. Mocking him, using street singers well known music to simply publicize their satirical lyrics. Amazingly most of the “perpetrators” were college students, priests, and disenchanted upperclass dissidents.

How do the police figure? The lyrics were secret. So they set themselves the task of finding and punishing those leeric writers. Fourteen of them ended up in the Bastille. In the course of their incarceration the cops left copious records of how these critics worked which Darnton has used to understand their pioneering what would in less than half a century lead to their Revolution. And they didn’t pull their punches:

That a bastard strumpet
Should get ahead in court,
That in love or in wine,
Louis should seek easy glory.
Ah! There he is! ah! Here he is,
He who doesn’t have a care. (p.100.)

“Madame” P was just a working girl named “Poisson” until Louis entitled her. That leads to endless fishy puns. Her husband is cuckolded:

By the king’s order I am a cuckold.
Can one resist one’s master?
Perhaps some lord may laugh at it
And will be cuckcolded by the first passer-by. (p. 109.)

They could be mean:

Louis the ill-loved
Have your Jubilee
Leave your whore
And give us bread. (p.114.)

She was a lousy operatic singer. So they mocked her mediocrity.

Darnton describes the popular culture of Parisian streets and how the critics used the hip hop equivalent of the eighteenth century was employed to chide “their betters”.