Robert Darnton’s history of censorship is vividly written, but sometimes he is just too sympathetic to his subjectsby Timothy Snyder / November 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature, by Robert Darnton (WW Norton, £25)
An arresting feature of this book is the apparent distance between author and subject. Robert Darnton, a leading historian of the west and director of one of the world’s finest libraries, is among the last people one might suspect of a deep engagement with censorship or a sympathy with its practitioners. Associated above all with his readings of the archives and press of the French ancien régime, one part industry and one part imagination, and most recently with his widely discussed efforts to make Harvard’s library fit for the 21st century, Darnton exemplifies as few can a spirit of open inquiry, a kind of boundless epistemic optimism.
This study began with an unlikely encounter deliberately pursued, between Darnton as a guest of the Wissenschaftskolleg (Institute for Advanced Study) in Berlin in 1990, and a pair of censors who had worked in East Germany. Although Darnton works appealingly hard here and throughout the book to present anyone who has any contact with text as a kind of comrade, the ideological frictions of this meeting are unmistakable. As a guest of the “Wiko,” Darnton was at the very peak of subsidised academic production under capitalism.
A quarter of a century later, Darnton has placed East German censorship at the end of his story, introducing it with two considerations of the relationship between the state and literature: Paris in the late 18th century and British Bengal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather than clarifying what is and what is not censorship, he adopts what he calls an “ethnographic” approach, which means writing about what he finds interesting and whomever he finds sympathetic. Ethnography means identifying with the subjects of study, which Darnton seems to find rather easy in the case of ancien régime France. As he stresses twice on succeeding pages, censors then were aristocratic “men of letters.” Their job was not to prevent publication, but to give it the royal seal of approval. In a characteristically elegant overstatement, he claims that: “Instead of repressing literature, they made it happen.” Of course, it happened without them as well: across borders and underground. It also happened after the censors were guillotined.
To his credit, Darnton is also capable of identifying with the half-literate purveyors of illegal literature, and he follows with great skill and panache the efforts of the police to suppress them. Here, as elsewhere, one feels that he be just a bit too optimistic about life in general and the coherence of the stories that he explores. In a fetching account of a roman à clef about royal debauchery, he places the responsibility for the authorship, as did the police, on a chambermaid, writing without apparent irony that her initial on each page of interrogation protocols was “testimony to its accuracy.” It might appeal to current sentiments about gender and class to believe this version; and perhaps I would believe it too if I had read as carefully and for as long as Darnton has in the relevant archives. But it seems much more likely that she was set up, as poor women often were when there was time in prison to be served.
The “ethnographic” approach allows for vagueness about the subject, but also constrains the author. In his second section, Darnton claims to have discerned a contradiction between liberalism and imperialism in British sedition trials of Bengali authors in the early 20th century. One can accept that sedition trials can be called censorship in some “ethnographic” sense. But it is unclear how an “ethnographic” method allows the historian, now committed to operating within a culture rather than from some external position, to make such judgements about values and their irreconcilability. It is also clear that his British protagonists saw the tensions just as he does.
The story he tells, however, is fabulous. The British followed the development of Bengali literature, and bungled a bit—one wonders how self-consciously—in some of their catalogue entries: “Miscellaneous verses on time, hope, rich men, the quail and coconuts.” Their political mistake was to take seriously the high literature and to scorn the low. They allowed publications in Bengali which everyone seemed to think were in fact seditious. They acted only after the explosion of political nationalism, and then chiefly through formalistic trials for sedition. Both sides in the courtroom, Bengali and British, were immersed in the literature of the other, and thus capable of great feats of sophistry. A poem of 1910 was defended as tamer in its criticism of tyranny than Oliver Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” read by every British schoolboy. The arguments were intricate and sometimes, as Darnton beautifully elucidates, strikingly erudite; but, as he stresses, those accused of sedition, once inside the judicial system, usually lost.
Darnton does not pretend that his encounter with the German Democratic Republic is a case study on par with the others. He writes this section in the first person, which imparts a certain richness to his conversations with this third group of “men of letters” (who are often women). He faces censors who make the same argument about themselves that he is making about the elite censors of ancien régime France: that their work was to enable literature rather than to suppress it, and indeed that their success was such that the GDR was a kind of paradise of letters, a Leseland.
Darnton gives them a long hearing. There follows a bracingly competent exposition of the political context, much richer here than in the French and British cases, perhaps because the political system was itself so much denser. Or the explanation might be more personal: in the case of Paris, Darnton can constrain his tendency to identify with the elite by writing about the poor; and in the case of Bengal, he can primly criticise British imperialism as an Anglo-Saxon. But what exactly is the appropriate moral position to take in the case of a censorship office in East Berlin, a place that is so near and yet so far from an airy study in the “Wiko”, and about which no such pat answers are available?
The East German censors he met were not agents of a weak or historically distant state as in the other two cases, but rather part of an outlandishly ambitious apparatus that Darnton describes in some detail. In the previous two sections of the book, a story could be told from the perspective of an individual work or author. With the GDR this becomes impossible, which itself is quite interesting.
Each book published in the GDR was part of an annual plan. And censorship was an element of the system of control that was required to ensure that writers wrote what was thought to be useful. With his acute sense of the micropolitics of institutions, Darnton shows how battles over turf could matter more than ideology, and how skilful bureaucrats were able to shepherd ambiguous cases through the system. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is one of carefully exercised hegemony. Control of authors was not just a matter of expulsion from the country, imprisonment or censorship. It also involved the less dramatic but equally effective dangling of carrots to cooperative authors: permission to travel, to read the West German press, to be a member of the official writers’ union, to get a car or a flat. “Censorship,” Darnton observes, “was accepted by everyone.” This was not quite true, as some of his own examples show. But its broad acceptance was a result of the acceptance of the system itself. This is what gives the reader pause.
Darnton steers clear of ideology, but his findings suggest certain ironies and paths not taken. A favourite term of opprobrium in censorship offices in East Germany was “late bourgeois,” which sounds like a reasonable description of the GDR itself. The censors kept having problems with actual proletarians, both when they wrote and when they were written about. An actual socialist literary sensibility seemed peculiarly hard to attain. Darnton avoids any comparison between the GDR and the regime it succeeded, although his material cries out for it: time after time, what East German censors had to remove or modify were references to the Nazi past. We learn that Erich Honecker, like Adolf Hitler, was influenced by Karl May. His Wild West novels could not be republished in the GDR, despite the General Secretary’s wishes, because the rights were held in West Germany—a “late bourgeois” problem if ever there were one.
The “ethnographic” method means that the author’s choice of topics is definitive of the subject. History turns out to be what the historian does. In Darnton’s histories, things almost always make sense, there is a key for every lock. Here, he mentions but shies away from the more ambitious aspects of literary control in the GDR, such as the marking of young talent and the deliberate shaping of personality. Considering this further might have offered a transition to a contemporary problem that Darnton knows well from his library work: the capacity of the internet to transform individual key strokes into advertising protocols. Or to the postcommunist reversal of censorship, in which, as is happening in Russia today under Vladimir Putin, an unhinged and uncensorable state does incalculable damage to the notion of truth itself.
What Darnton takes for granted, but is actually now in question, is the idea of the writer as separate from the public forces that, on his own exceptionally broad definition at any rate, could be called censorship. The conditions in which this book was conceived and created—beginning in a physically isolated outpost of scholarly research, passing through almost 25 years of deliberation by an unusually well-stocked mind in the highly congenial conditions of the Harvard University library—are as far as can be imagined from the rough and tumble and free-for-all of the internet, where, for better or worse, most literary production takes place. Darnton is sympathetic to anyone who helps a writer be a writer or even claims to. The implication of such sympathy would seem to be that the creation of that writerly person requires institutional and social support. From which it would appear to follow that the destruction of the writerly person is not difficult, either.
This book, like the rest of Darnton’s work, demonstrates an almost magical ability to generate narrative coherence from written archival sources. And the set pieces are so beautiful that they leave one optimistic about the future of narrative history. In its luminous elegance, Censors at Work is a kind of incantation against the darker worlds suggested by its subject.