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…