Saturday, March 01, 2014

Robert Darnton. The Great Cat Massacre (1984)

      Robert Darnton. The Great Cat Massacre (1984) Subtitled And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. A collection Darnton’s essays on the subtitle subject: academic, and apparently intended for a reading list in French history. (My 2nd-hand copy has blue highlighter marks throughout). The cover blurb quotes Newsweek’s opinion this is a “brilliant work of popular history”, a somewhat excessive judgement. The essays are interesting, but not, I think, to most of the public. I learned a lot, mostly along the lines of how hard it is to recover the mind set and unspoken assumptions of our ancestors. Visiting the past entails a culture shock.
     I have some experience of culture shock, having been taken to England in 1945, and spending time alternately there and in Austria until 1954, when we emigrated to Canada. This perhaps makes it easier for me to imagine a different way of thinking, but there is still an impenetrable barrier, which no amount of reading of historical documents will remove. But Darnton does make me aware of just how much of a difference in worldview there must be.
     The essay on a reader’s response to Rousseau, which quotes and interprets an enthusiast’s letters to his book seller, is probably easiest to apprehend: we all know what it’s like to enjoy or endure an enthusiasm for a particular author, and fantasise about what (s)he is really like: to believe that one has somehow come to know a person intimately whom we can encounter only through their printed words. In this case, I found myself once again irritated by Rousseau, who I think has much to answer for. He made sentimentality respectable, no, worse he encouraged people to believe that having the right attitude was more important doing the right thing.
     Oh, about the title essay: Darnton re/de-constructs a cat massacre, and shows us that it was a not too veiled attack by the workers on their master and mistress, whom they despised as not only taking a large profit from their work, but also as less than qualified in the metier. One of the things that we have difficulty understanding these days is a society in which the middle and upper classes not only thought of the lower classes as below them socially, but hardly thought of them as human beings. It’s no wonder that resentment triggered brutality of a type we can barely imagine.
    Overall, a book worth reading, but I recommend reading it one essay at a time over several weeks. **½

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