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April 30, 2011

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"Blogging Now and Then (250 Years Ago)": Harvard's Robert Darnton Lectured at The Getty Center on 18th Century Anecdotes and Their Links from the Secret History of Politics to Literature, Blogging and Graffiti

The Talking Statue of Rome
by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, Editor-in-Chief

In 18th century Britain, “paragraph men” visited coffee houses in London picking up anecdotes and news behaved like today’s bloggers trolling the Internet who recycle material from other blogs.

“Paragraph men” collected scandalous gossip about public figures on pieces of paper that they would take to the printing shop, either for a fee or to promote themselves, and published scandal sheets about the sex lives of famous people. The only way to defend against these ‘scandal mongers,’ who earned nicknames like “Bruiser” and “Viper”, was to resort to physical fights.

In France, defying the censors, newsmongers (nouvellistes de bouche) sought information from gatherings at special benches in the Tuileries or Luxembourg Gardens or under the tree of Cracow in the Palais-Royal, then transfer these oral “anecdotes” to written snippets of gossip that would later be printed in newspapers published outside of France but circulated within the country. Since the entire process was illegal, those mentioned as the subjects of gossip had no recourse in the courts for ‘libel’ but also engaged in combat with the writers, including, once, France’s greatest poet, Voltaire.

Historian Robert Darnton shared this information Thursday night at The Getty Center in his talk, “Blogging Now and Then (250 Years Ago)”, in a lecture that complimented the new exhibit, “Paris: Life and Luxury in the 18th century” which opened April 26 at The Getty Center in Brentwood.

Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library at Harvard University, examined, according to the J. Paul Getty Museum’s website, “how anecdotes, dispensed by ‘newsmongers’ and ‘paragraph men’, became a staple in the daily diet of news consumed by readers in 18th-century France and England. Anecdotes were also pilfered, reworked, and served up in books. By tracking anecdotes through texts, we can reassess a rich strain of history and literature.”

“We are living through a revolution ever bit as big as the time of Gutenberg,” Dr. Darnton told his audience after an introduction that identified him as the “rock star” of scholars in 18th century literary and cultural history and the author of numerous prize-wining books in European history.

“It’s uncomfortable,” he said. He said that this deluge of information sometimes created a need for readers to make sense of it all, but he said that there is a “fragmentary characteristic of information in general.”

Websites such as The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post collect stories of scandal and gossip mongering that is “not so trivial”, Darnton said. He quoted Stendhal’s opinion about collecting anecdotes and said that the mania for anecdotes was essential in the 18th century.

Dr. Darnton showed a photo of The Talking Statue of Rome, an ancient Roman sculpture nicknamed Pasquino, often covered by poems about the scandalous behavior of cardinals in the 16th century, and used through the ages, including the student uprisings in 1968, and from where “many current graffiti descends.”

“Information comes in fragments and inked in niches in the surrounding environment,” Dr. Darnton said.

Just as modern bloggers recycle material from other blogs, the scandalous gazettes repeated information. Snippets of information about the sexual or private lives of politicians were treated much like the tweets of today.

“However, 21st century blogs are not the same as 18th century anecdotes,” Dr. Darnton said. “I will point out the differences to understand information, how tidbits circulate, and peculiar to time and place.”

Blogs undercut revenue from newspapers, reducing jobs in journalism by 16,000 in 2008, according to Dr. Darnton. Online news is short and you can begin blogging effortlessly. Readers seek out aggregating websites like The Huffington Post that through searches “comb” websites for information. This marginal reporting is comparable to ‘hack writing’ in the 18th century.

“Ancedotes in the 18th century were seen as ‘true’ and ‘secret’, ‘suppressed’ by the king,” Dr. Darnton said. But anecdotes were also gathered by Byzantine historian Procopius whose “Secret History, The Anekdota” detailed the sordid and private lives of the court of Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.

Other anecdotes were copied into books such as the English translation of “The Private Life of Lewis XV” owned by George Washington who, alas, Dr. Darnton said, did not leave any notes in the margins of his copy.

Dr. Darnton said, “Anecdotes were the secret history, the underground literature, understood to be half truths.”

These “scraps of paper” which were the “echo of public noises” transferred information from the oral system to writing and then to print. They have been found at the Bastille and were collected and pasted into journals, assembled in chronological order, and sold underground as books.

Dr. Darnton suggests rethinking literature based upon the ‘fragmentary nature of information” and “how it is re-worked.”

“Don’t dismiss gossip as trivial,” he said. “Oral transmittal of news was terribly important.” Even the police compiled a gazette by gathering these anecdotes through thousands of spies. Some salons such as Madame Doublet’s met regularly to “cobble together” these anecdotes to make money, and these books by anonymous writers have disappeared from literary history, according to Dr. Darnton.

Someone from the audience asked Dr. Darnton if these anecdotes were used for political change and lead to the French Revolution.

“It’s similar to Egypt or Libya today,” Dr. Darnton responded. “No one foresaw the revolution.” People knew many anecdotes revealing the private lives of the aristocrats, including a coffee spilling incident where the King of France’s mistresses spoke to him as if he were nothing more than a servant, and the accumulated effect of repetition “builds up mythology”.

“Bastille only had seven people imprisoned on the day it was stormed,” Dr. Darnton said. “But in 1778/1789 it was all about the perception of events.”