The other night I was the “featured author” at a book launch at our town’s big independent bookseller, Labyrinth Books. There probably were about forty people there, only half of whom were close friends or family members. Such an unusually bookish experience gave me the occasion to think a bit not merely about my book but the state of the book in general.
It is hardly news that the entire book trade is in a state of crisis or of transition — or maybe it is “critical transition” — and I do not pretend to be able to predict the commercial future of the printed book. I have not yet fully absorbed the implications of the advent of the mega-publisher, the mega-store, and e-commerce; yet much more is likely coming soon. I recently met my first bookless English professor, that is, a literary scholar who, confident that everything he will ever want or need to read will be available in electronic form, refrains from buying printed books on principle. Under these circumstances a large, high quality independent bookshop that gracefully navigates the markets for both learned and trade books is a precious community asset.
I was talking about my new book, "The Dark Side of the Enlightenment." If ever a topic were tailor-made for bookshop chatter the Enlightenment ought to be it. For although there is no universal agreement as to what, when, or how the Enlightenment was, it’s easy enough to see that books had a great deal to do with it. For convenience of chronology I am willing to follow Harold Nicolson in associating Enlightenment origins with two famous English books: Newton’s "Principia" (1687) and Locke’s "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1690) — two enormously influential books that, I claim, “mark a decisive shift in the way thinkers regarded the natural word around them, and the way they thought about thinking itself.” I suppose the books that most people naturally call to mind when they hear the word “Enlightenment” are the large volumes of the great French encyclopedia published in Paris in the third quarter of the 18th century.
Fortunately for us mere mortals, not all writings of the Enlightenment period were so difficult and high-minded. My old friend and longtime colleague Robert Darnton, now the university librarian at Harvard and one of the key players in some of the more benign of the vast electronic projects characteristic of our age, has written brilliantly about the print culture of the 18th century, demonstrating its extraordinary vitality and variety.
One of the major figures dealt with in my book is “Count” Cagliostro, a famous alchemist, sooth-sayer, table-rapper, healer and Freemason of the second half of the eighteenth century. If you believe Thomas Carlyle, Cagliostro was “the most perfect scoundrel that in these latter ages has marked the world’s history — Gold-cook, Grand Cophta, Prophet, Priest, and thaumaturgic moralist and swindler, really a Liar of the first Magnitude — what one may call the King of Liars.” If on the unlikely other hand you believe Fleming, Cagliostro was an unconventional social reformer and a Rosicrucian “friend of mankind” whose exploitation of celebrity just happened to be a bit advanced for his time.
The Carlylian view of Cagliostro derives directly from a particularly seedy French journalist, active in London in the 1780s, named Thévenau de Morande. His specialties were pornography and blackmail, not infrequently conjoined in interesting ways. You may well think our gutter press is pretty bad, but a perusal of a few numbers of Thévenau’s Courrier de l’Europe will offer enlightening perspective. The public revelation that journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World had hacked the telephone of an abducted and murdered girl in search of publishable information was a death sentence for that venerable yellow sheet. Mr. Murdoch was dragged penitent before a tribunal to declare himself shocked, shocked by what had been going on. The paper’s actual editors Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson are even at this moment being tried in court, where, ironically, the exposure of their own intimate misbehavior became a gratuitous and incidental point of testimony.
A journalist of the school of Thévenau would have spared himself the labor and simply have made up whatever information he wanted. There are after all distinct advantages to fictional journalism. In the early part of the eighteenth century the great Jonathan Swift, who was among other things a journalist, took a dislike to the popular astrologist John Partridge. (Astrology was very big during the Enlightenment.) This Partridge was a compiler of almanacs in which he published astral predictions concerning the high and mighty: what the stars had to say about the stars, so to speak. So Swift, alias Bickerstaff, decided to make a prediction of his own.
In his widely circulated journal he published the prediction that the well-known astrologer, John Partridge, would die on such-and-such a day. Then, when the day arrived, he announced the sad news that poor Partridge had in fact succumbed on schedule. Alas, the stars were fatally aligned. Swift then sat back to enjoy the vain protestations of some man claiming to be Partridge to the effect that he was still alive. After all, the whole world knew the truth. They had read it in the papers. Thévenau de Morande did a similar number on Cagliostro’s reputation, though he admittedly had some genuine good material to start out with. Of course you can believe every word in my books.