”Whether such pronouncement represented genuine alarm or rhetorical posturing is difficult to say, but the authorities certainly took slander seriously. On may 28, 1649, the Parlement of Paris tried to restore order in the capital by threatening to hang anyone who produced ”libelles” . In June, it nearly hanged a lawyer, Bernard de Bautrau, for disturbing the peace by a slanderous pamphlet. And in July it condemned a printer, Claude Morlot, who was caught running of sheets of ”La Custode du Lit de la Reine” which began with a statement about Mazarin and the queen mother, Anne of Austria, that was as crude as anything put out in the 1770’s: ‘Townsmen, don’t doubt it anymore; its true that he fucks her”.
Morlot was saved by a riot of journeymen printers, who snatched him from the hangman; but the point had been made: Libelles led to sedition and a crackdown on the press was in order. Thus, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, a genre was established; it had been branded as seditious by the state, and the way was cleared for the clandestine best-sellers of the pre-Revolutionary era. …
There is a necessary illusion that modern freedom was won, and is to be credited, to high-minded and noble altruists devoted to human progress. We are conditioned to look up to the heavens in awe, a Mount Rushmore of morals and not towards the bathroom a, bedroom and various dens of iniquity. A more discerning look reveals that much of the vast terrain on which literature and politics rest, was in fact cleared by quite a few dubious characters publishing books that no one, even the authors, considered respectable.
”Short, scurrilous abuse proliferated in all sorts of communication systems: taunts scribbled on palazzi during the feuds of Renaissance Italy, ritual insult known as “playing the dozens” among African Americans, posters carried in demonstrations against despotic regimes, and graffiti on many occasions such as the uprising in Paris of May–June 1968 (one read “Voici la maison d’un affreux petit bourgeois”). When expertly mixed, provocation and pithiness could be dynamite—the verbal or written equivalent of Molotov cocktails. This subject deserves more study, because for all of their explosiveness, the blog-like elements in earlier eras of communication tend to be ignored by sociologists, political scientists, and historians who concentrate on full-scale texts and formal discourse.”
These illegal news sheets proliferated everywhere in eighteenth-century France, owing to the demand for news, especially news of the saltiest variety. The police tried to repress them, but for every “nouvelliste” locked up in the Bastille, a half-dozen more took up the pen. Eventually, the police sought to gain control of this underground press by compiling their own manuscript gazettes—which eventually lost credence and were supplanted by still more “nouvelles à la main.”
Most of these ”libelles” did not defend any clear set of principles. They were animated by a spirit of nihilism rather than of ideological commitment, yet the libelles showed a curious tendency to moralize, even in their pornography, even if this morality was a rhetorical pose resulting from a feeling of total contempt for a totally corrupt elite; in this respect they acted as Voltaire’s Grub Street foot soldiers in a smutty but entertaining attack on the Church. ”Enlightenment as primarily an attempt to spread light, these bit players ”pauvre diables” to Voltaire, look quite important; for they were the ones who did the vulgarizing and propagandizing. True, Voltaire himself manipulated the media of his time. He was a master at dominating public opinion. But he could not have succeeded without the foot soldiers that he was able to inspire and mobilize. By studying their activities, one can see how the Enlightenment worked its way deeply into the fabric of society.”
The, authorities, the ancien regime, seemed to breed a regiment of frustrated writers who were not able to be published lawfully due to censors. The government knocked out accusations down through the century, warning with ever-greater insistence of the spirit of `blasphemy’ and `sedition’ spread by the `coryphaeuses’ of the new learning, while summoning the spectre of the `horrors of anarchy’ and `bloodied thrones’. In scores of weighty treatises, judicial rulings, pastoral letters, mandements and pulpit sermons, the devots condemned philosophic `fanaticism’ and `intolerance’. They accused their foes of spreading atheism, materialism and the hatred of priests, of corrupting social morals, preaching debauchery and sexual licence, uprooting families, and condoning divorce. The philosophes sanctioned a vile egoism and a vicious personal interest, they charged, that ripped apart `social ties’, reducing all to the pursuit of pleasure and the love of self. And they shamelessly rejected the counsel of tradition, the wisdom of the past.
Which was in part, true. What emerges of greater interest is an aesthetic of rebellion, and its creation of myths and symbols through clandestine publishing. The libelles were very constructive in what could be termed the ”making of meaning”, a dry run of what in part may have been inspired by a similar iconography in the American revolution. So if the libelles lacked a coherent ideology, they communicated a revolutionary point of view: they showed that social rot was consuming French society, eating its way downward from the top. The pornographic details got the point across to a public that could not assimilate the ”Social Contract” or navigate the insight and perspicacity of a Condorcet. It was a gutter Rousseauism, likely related to Rousseau’s own rejection of the culture and morality of France’s upper classes.
”Slander has always been a nasty business, Robert Darnton notes, but that is no reason to consider it a topic unworthy of inquiry. By destroying reputations, it has often helped to delegitimize regimes and bring down governments. Nowhere has this been more the case than in eighteenth-century France, when a ragtag group of literary libelers flooded the market with works that purported to expose the wicked behavior of the great. Salacious or seditious, outrageous or hilarious, their books and pamphlets claimed to reveal the secret doings of kings and their mistresses, the lewd and extravagant activities of an unpopular foreign-born queen, the affairs of aristocrats and men-about-town as they consorted with servants, monks, and dancing masters. These libels often mixed scandal with detailed accounts of contemporary history and current politics. And though they are now largely forgotten, many sold as well as or better than some of the most famous works of the Enlightenment.”
Whether exchanged orally in a café, scribbled on a scrap of paper, or combined as paragraphs in a newssheet, anecdotes operated as the primary unit in a system of communication then. Many of them found their way into print. They were picked up by famous writers like Voltaire, but more often they appeared in anonymous tracts known as “libelles.” The spiciest “libelles” —works such as Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry and Vie privée de Louis XV—became bestsellers. Most contained a great many passages that were lifted from one another or from common underground gazettes. They were really collages pieced together from pre-existing material and whatever new items that were available, similar to many blogs, which serve up compilations of tidbits collected from around the web. Instead of imagining this literature as a corpus of books written by distinct authors, the libelles were a shifting repertory of anecdotes, which were endlessly rearranged as they passed from one form to another.
To acknowledge this fact is to admit that in many ways historians of the Enlightenment have been inclined to repeat its own catechisms. For like the philosophes themselves, we have tended to depict the eighteenth century as the steady advent of `light’ at the expense of `darkness’, viewing their opponents as did Voltaire — as fanatics, reactionaries, the infame — relegating them to obscurity, or neglecting them altogether. And though it is probably true that the century witnessed a gradual `deChristianization’, along with both an absolute and relative decline in religious publication, the dynamics, as this clandestine press revealed, were more complicated than generally acknowledged.
”The most damaging libels from the 1770s and 1780s were produced by French expatriates in London – “at a hundred leagues from the Bastille”, as they put it on the title pages of their tracts. Not only did they slander everyone of any importance in Versailles, but they also grafted a blackmail operation onto their literary speculations. The French government responded by sending a series of
secret agents to assassinate, kidnap, or buy off the London libellistes. Their adventures and misadventures provide a rocambolesque tale which leads directly into the French Revolution. The same genre, developed by many of the same authors, fuelled polemics right through the Terror, but its substance changed, while its form remained the same.
The literature of libel therefore shows how an ideological current eroded authority under the Ancien Régime and became absorbed in a new political culture, one that reached its extreme point under Robespierre but that drew on ingredients from the world of Grub Street under Louis XV.The most important of the French libelers in London was an extraordinary adventurer named Anne Gédéon Lafitte, marquis de Pelleport. While writing the general study of libels, I became increasingly fascinated by him. And while trying
to reconstruct his biography, I uncovered one of his most fascinating books – not a libel but a novel, written in the Bastille, which tells the story of his life and of the hack writers that he encountered. Pelleport wrote it while another marquis in a neighbouring cell was writing another novel: Les 120 Journées de Sodome.
Pelleport and Sade almost certainly got to know each other during the four years that they spent together in the Bastille. They may have had an important influence on each other’s way of writing. Pelleport’s book, Les Bohémiens, was as obscene as Sade’s in places, but (in my opinion), it was far better written. Yet it has completely disappeared from the history of literature, just as Pelleport himself has vanished from the history of France. I have been able to locate only six copies scattered in six different countries. ( Darnton )