Robert Darnton and The Great Cat Massacre: Introduction

The Great Cat MassacreAccording to Peter Burke, the historian-journalist Robert Darnton used to read Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy hiding the book inside a Playboy magazine, while he worked at The New York Times. That is part of the myth. The fact is that Darnton wrote, in 1984, The Great Cat Massacre, a title that sounds more like a horror book for kids —like the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm— than a journey through the ways of thinking in eighteenth-century France.

Says Darnton in the introduction to the book: «It attempts to show not merely what people thought but how they thought—how they construed the world, invested it with meaning, and infused it with emotion». This inquiry, according to the author, leads to the confused territory of l’histoire des mentalités, a genre without a name in English yet, but close to cultural history. «It is history —says Darnton— in the ethnographic grain».

To discover the thoughts of the french people, the author traces the way that ordinary folk made sense of the world, their cosmology and behavior. Darnton does not try to «make a philosopher out of the man in the street» but to see how street people made a strategy to survive; e.g. stories or ceremonies.

In The Great Cat Massacre, the author sets the things straight: we do not think like other people do. If we read a poem or a letter from the eighteenth-century and we cannot get familiar with it, we have found a key to a new sistem of meaning.

Darnton tries to explore such views of the world wandering through the archives of the Old Regime: «a primitive version of  “Little Red Riding Hood,” an account of a massacre of cats, a bizarre description of a city, a curious file kept by a police inspector».

Every chapter is crossed by the notion of reading with the purpose to discover meanings. But Darnton knows that he is presenting his own vision of this world and that his readers may well disagree with him. That is the reason he includes appended texts, so we can read them and make our own interpretations.

Moreover, he knows that objections to his method are close: why should we take for granted that the minds of the peasants of two hundred years ago still remain in some evidence picked by the arbitrariness of Darnton? It is the risk of staying far from the established modes of making history. And the author knows this: «I do not want to turn this introduction into a discourse on method. Instead, I would like to invite the reader into my own text. He may not be convinced, but I hope he will enjoy the journey».

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