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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 291-295
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Remembering the Mémoires Secrets
Jack R. Censer,
George Mason University
Bernadette Fort, ed. Les Salons des "Mémoires secrets," 1767-1787 (Paris: École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 1999). FF 170 cloth.
Jeremy Popkin and Bernadette Fort, eds. The Mémoires secrets and the Culture of Publicity in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1998). $47.75 cloth.
Historians have long treated the Mémoires secrets as a goldmine of information and attitudes about French cultural life. This enormous work of 36 volumes appeared as a printed version of a newsletter that circulated clandestinely from 1762-1789. The first set of volumes published in 1777 included material up to 1775, and subsequent additions described later periods and retrospective information. In part, because even a casual reading reveals much gossip and pithy news that authorities would have seemingly decried, scholars simply assumed that they were working with a document that, though a compilation, accurately communicated an unmediated account of events.
Growing out of a conference held at the Newberry Library, The Mémoires secrets and the Culture of Publicity in Eighteenth-Century France attempts to destroy the view of the Mémoires as a simple slice of the past. The most provocative article is the lead piece, "The Mémoires secrets and the Reading of the Enlightenment," by co-editor Jeremy Popkin. His thesis appears in bold and uncompromising terms: "as I shall argue, the essence of the text of the Mémoires secrets is to present itself in a way that no fixed understanding of it is possible" (12). Not only does Popkin demolish the notion that this text was direct testimony, but he [End Page 291] further claims that it cannot communicate an unambiguous view (or perspective). This was not the result of deliberate action, but was inherent in the Mémoires. Like postmodern literary theorists, he queries the stability of the text but sees this as specific to this case. Popkin's argument is worth following.
First, although the Mémoires presents itself as the work of Louis Petit de Bachaumont, a participant at the salon of Madame Doublet, this is utterly impossible. Bachaumont died in 1771, eighteen years before the last information contained in these volumes. In fact, scholars have customarily credited the work to the well-known writer Pidanisat de Mairobert and to B.F. J. Jouffle d'Angerville about whom we know little. But even these attributions remain uncertain. Knowledge of the author, which customarily orients the interpretation of a text, becomes impossible in this case. Another strategy deployed to provide a certain source for the material in the Mémoires secrets is to see it as the combined effort of the Doublet salon members who had access to secret information. While Popkin remains agnostic about the precise role of the salonnières, he suggests that this vision of the Mémoires as the product of a disinterested group is far from the mark. Instead, this publication was a commercial enterprise composed largely from the foreign periodicals that circulated willy nilly in France. In a way, the rest of Popkin's article tries to ascertain what sort of commercial product the Mémoires might be.
In another effort to provide a platform for comprehending this text, Popkin compares the volumes to other serial works that can be reliably connected to Mairobert. Here, according to Popkin's ingenious hypothesis, a review of the various other texts reveals enough similarity to suggest that all these series were based on a common font of knowledge that was exploited to produce different versions of the same thing. Yet the author immediately undermines this theory by showing that each individual work attacks the other. Was this strategy to create distance between these efforts in order to sell more than one version to the same subscriber? Popkin remains uncertain and concludes that no way exists to provide "a stable context for interpreting the Mémoires secrets by determining their authorship" (23).
Popkin then attempts to understand the text, not from its source, but...