Now that the main ideas at large in the 18th century have been elaborately described, students of the period have been resorting to more oblique procedures. In 1968, in The Counterfeiters, Hugh Kenner turned 18th-century ideas into systems, and derived a comedy of entrapment from the spectacle of men coping somehow with systems designed to suit other people. Install a man in an ill-fitting system, and you may witness that discrepancy between the organic and the mechanical which Bergson regarded as the provocation of comedy. Kenner probably got the hint from Wyndham Lewis: if so, it is explicable that his account of Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe makes them seem like Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta, respectively. In The Great Cat Massacre (1984) Robert Darnton described a night in Paris in the late 1730s when two apprentice printers went on the hunt for cats and staged a mock-trial before hanging them, to the raucous delight of their apprentice colleagues: the episode, as Darnton tells it, was an instance of elaborately vengeful symbolism in which workers taunted their bourgeois masters, mocked middle-class sexuality, and enjoyed Rabelaisian carnival on the margin of a society they resented. The moral of the story doesn't seem as dramatic as the massacre of the cats, but street-history is bound to show disproportion between actions and their social meaning.
LRB 6 February 1986 | PDF Download