Let’s talk: 18th-century scholars, tell us about how you read

The editorial team of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (formerly, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century) is this month undertaking its first-ever survey of scholarly reading practices among 18th-century specialists.

Our goal is to learn how you – our readers, our authors and our reviewers – access scholarship, in print and in digital format, and then to use this information to better serve your needs. To do so, we have designed a short online questionnaire, to which we are asking specialists in 18th-century studies to respond. We need your help to ensure that we receive a response representative of our ‘republic of letters’. We want to hear from scholars from a wide range of nations, professional ranks, disciplinary backgrounds, research specializations, and, of course, using a variety of reading platforms.

You can access the survey from now until Sunday, October 29th, through this link: Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment survey of scholarly reading practices.

The Voltaire Foundation has been publishing, in the Studies, pioneering work on a wide range of Enlightenment topics since 1955; this longevity and success has been due in good part to the series’ strong bond with its scholarly community. As we move forward into our seventh decade, the @OxUniEnlightenment editorial team seeks to ensure that we continue to publish innovative research on topics at the forefront of the field – and to make this work as widely accessible to our readers as possible.

Hence we are asking, in this survey, how our community accesses scholarship – both print and digital. Through this survey, you can help shape the future not only of the Studies, but, we believe, the future of Enlightenment scholarship more generally.

The questionnaire should require less than 15 minutes to complete, whether in French or English. All responses will remain anonymous. No installation of software, account creation or personal information is required. By using established best practices for survey research, including the Qualtrics survey platform, we can assure all participants of the confidentiality of their responses and the security of their data. Further details, including the statement of informed consent, are available here.

In recognition of your time and your engagement on behalf of Enlightenment values of toleration and the dignity of all human beings, the Voltaire Foundation will make a charitable contribution for each survey response completed to two causes which defend these principles worldwide: Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières.

Could you please set aside 10 to 15 minutes to complete the survey this week? And in any case, could you please find time to do so before Sunday, October 29th, when the survey closes? To help ensure that your discipline and the members of your national society affiliate are well represented in the survey, please do forward the survey link to your colleagues or share this blog post on social media.

Please address any questions, suggestions or concerns to Gregory Brown.

How we developed this survey

The idea for such a survey is one that I first broached when I took on the duties of General Editor. Last year, in collaboration with the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, we undertook the first phase by assembling aggregate data on the national affiliations, native languages, disciplinary homes, and research specializations of a sample of over 6000 eighteenth-century scholars from around the world. This work was conducted by the ISECS Communications Secretary, Nelson Guilbert, with support from the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, and these findings were presented to the ISECS Executive Committee at their meeting in 2016.

Using that baseline, we prepared a survey and a research protocol, and then refined it to meet established best practices of survey research.

This second phase – the current survey – has received essential in-kind support from my home institution, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. At UNLV the Department of History and College of Liberal Arts provided a highly talented research assistant, Evan Casey, and Bridgit Kelley, director of the Cannon Research Center, provided expert advice on conducting the survey. UNLV’s Office of Information Technology provides access to the Qualtrics online survey platform.

We are grateful to the leadership of all national societies for eighteenth-century studies who have agreed to help circulate the invitation to their respective members. Indeed, you may have already received such an invitation, and we apologize for any cross-posting. Rest assured that the Qualtrics platform has functionality that ensures the validity of a survey accessed through an anonymous link.

Thank you for your support for Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment!

– Gregory Brown, General Editor, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment


Publish, possibly perish, but live life to the full

The Age of the Enlightenment was awash with print and the number of authors, male and female, with at least one publication to their name grew by leaps and bounds across the eighteenth century. Becoming a published author, however, was not always easy. The reading public wanted to be entertained as well as informed, and dry works of science and scholarship were not to their taste. Mathematicians, natural philosophers, and even antiquarians who wanted to place an erudite tome in the public domain had to either find a patron to finance the cost of publication or put their hands in their own pockets. Members of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters were proud of their independence but seldom rich. As a result, many published little of substance. Those who did often exhausted their inheritance and faced bankruptcy. The Montpellier naturalist and agronomist, Pierre-Joseph Amoreux (1741-1824), a savant of limited means with an itch to write, struggled throughout his life to get his words of wisdom into print. His lengthy autobiography, left on his death in manuscript form, is an extraordinary window into the trials and tribulations of the enlightened scientist as author. Edited and introduced by myself for the first time under the title From Provincial savant to Parisian naturalist: the recollections of Pierre-Joseph Amoreux (1741-1824), it is essential reading for anyone working on the history of the book in the long eighteenth century.

Amoreux had his first introduction to vanity publishing in 1784 when he sought to find a printer for his Traité de l’olivier. Rather than negotiate with a local Montpellier publisher or send his manuscript to Paris, he decided to try his luck in Avignon, which had a thriving commercial press. Avignon was part of the Papal States and its printer-booksellers, largely free from the censorship restrictions that their French counterparts endured, purportedly offered good terms.

Faculté de Médecine de Montpellier Entrée.

Faculté de Médecine de Montpellier, entrance.

The experience was not a happy one. Amoreux’s initial investigations led him to believe that an Avignon house would charge him 30 livres per folio sheet of sixteen pages: 24 livres to cover the cost, plus 6 livres profit. This, however, turned out not to be the case. A medical friend in the city, Jean-Claude Pancin, who acted as go-between, approached two printers of repute. Both refused to take the book on such a small return. Balthazard-Jean Niel (1724-c.1789) demanded 40 livres a folio and a further 30 for 300 flyers, and could not be shifted. Pancin dismissed him as ‘une espèce de juif’, a stinging insult in a town with a sizeable ghettoised Jewish minority. The terms of Jean-Louis Chambeau (c.1716-1780) were better, but he still wanted a premium of 28 sous per folio on the grounds that typesetting the manuscript required three different fonts. Moreover, it proved impossible to close the deal because Chambeau’s compositor objected to the state of the manuscript: Amoreux had sent his friend a manuscript peppered with ‘petits billets sous forme d’additions attachées au texte.’

The Montpellier naturalist had no choice but to see if he could get an acceptable quote from a publisher in his home town. This he must have done, for the 365-page book was eventually published by a printer called Guiot and distributed through the bookshop of the widow Gontier. Assuming Guiot charged 30 livres per sheet, the publication would have cost Amoreux nearly 700 livres. This would have made a considerable hole in his purse. At this date Amoreux’s only income came from his post as a medical librarian, worth 500 livres per annum. Had he not been a bachelor still living at home with his parents, he would never have been able to publish his first substantial book. And had he not managed to do so, he might well have thrown in the towel and published next to nothing, like so many of his contemporaries in the Republic of Letters.

Le parvis et la façade de Notre-Dame de Paris

Notre-Dame de Paris in the 18th century, by Jean-Bapstiste Scotin (1678-?). Public domain.

Amoreux’s autobiography, however, is more than a study of the angst of the scientific author. Starting in 1800, Amoreux made continual visits to the capital to taste its intellectual delights. His Souvenirs provide a detailed account of his stays in Paris. With Amoreux, the reader will walk the city from end to end, cross its bridges old and new, visit its museums and bookshops, revel in the sights and sounds of the Champs Elysées on Bastille Day, and catch a glimpse of Napoleon through the crowd. On the way to listen to the lectures of Cuvier or some other intellectual giant, he or she will even drop into the Paris morgue. No other account of early nineteenth-century Paris catches so fully the multi-faceted nature of the vibrant post-Revolutionary city, whose cast of characters ranges from bankers to barrow-boys. If Amoreux had had the literary talent, he could have left a work which would have stood comparison with Joyce’s Ulysses. Nobody interested in Napoleon’s Paris as the cultural centre of Europe should miss the opportunity to accompany the Montpellier naturalist on his travels.

– Laurence Brockliss

Voltaire Foundation appoints Digital Research Fellow

I am delighted to announce my appointment as Digital Research Fellow at the Voltaire Foundation for the academic year 2017-2018. This is the first Digital Humanities appointment in French at Oxford, and is made possible by the generosity of M. Julien Sevaux and the John Fell Fund. As Digital Research Fellow, I will oversee the creation of a pilot Digital Voltaire project, establishing a dataset that for the first time contains all of Voltaire’s works, including his correspondence, as well as undertake a series of computational experiments around the theme of ‘Visualising Voltaire’.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

Voltaire, by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1735.

As the monumental print edition of the Complete Works of Voltaire nears completion, the Voltaire Foundation is currently preparing the ground for Digital Voltaire, an interactive and innovative digital edition of Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes. The pilot project we are embarking upon will thus bring together two key existing datasets: TOUT Voltaire, developed in collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago; and Voltaire’s letters, drawn from Electronic Enlightenment. The combined dataset will include more than 20,000 individual documents and over 11 million words, making this one of, if not the largest single-author databases available for digital humanities research. This resource, together with a focused research project to scope and understand its potential uses and applications, will enable the Voltaire Foundation to begin to create a conceptual and infrastructural framework for a broader, transformational Digital Voltaire, for which fundraising efforts have already begun.

The Visualising Voltaire project will become part of the soon-to-be-created ‘Voltaire Lab’ – a virtual space for new research experimentation and dissemination centred on Voltaire’s textual output and its relationship to the broader field of eighteenth-century studies. By interrogating the ‘big data’ of Voltaire’s texts at both a macro- and microscopic level, we hope to shed new light on Voltaire’s use of intertextuality, his most commonly used themes and literary motifs, his intellectual networks, and his development as a thinker. This research project will further benefit from close existing ties with the ARTFL Project and the newly-established Textual Optics Lab at the University of Chicago, and with the Labex OBVIL (‘Observatoire de la vie littéraire’) based at the Sorbonne; centres for digital humanities research and development in French studies where much of this type of analysis has been pioneered.

Visualising Voltaire will include a number of literary experiments to test the scholarly and critical value of a combined digital archive of Voltaire’s texts. Following on from the work of Franco Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab, the project will investigate how we can apply distant reading approaches to this large corpus in order to discover new connections and patterns at scale, and, at the same time, how these new approaches can interact and intervene with our traditional close reading modes of analysis. To this end, we have identified two areas of research that we will pursue in 2017-2018, and that we hope will lead to further projects in the future.

Sequence alignment.

Sequence alignment in the intertextual edition of Raynal’s Histoire des deux Indes, Centre for Digital Humanities Research, Australian National University.

In the first instance, we will focus on Voltaire’s ‘intertextuality’ and how computational techniques such as sequence alignment – borrowed from the field of bio-informatics – can help us better understand the rich complexity of Voltaire’s writing practices. Indeed, one of the major research questions that has arisen from the preparation of the Complete Works of Voltaire concerns Voltaire’s unacknowledged use and reuse of other texts. This takes two forms: the widespread reuse (borrowing/theft/imitation) of works by other writers, and the equally widespread reuse of his own work. This is a huge subject that has never been satisfactorily studied until now.

In a second instance, the completion of the Complete Works of Voltaire on paper has also created the opportunity to provide an index to the whole of his writings, notably using automatic indexing and classification techniques developed in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In addition to our ‘traditional’ indexes of the paper editions, which can be digitised and leveraged for computational analysis, we will also aim to generate ‘thematic maps’ of Voltaire’s works and correspondence using both supervised and unsupervised machine learning algorithms such as vector space analysis and topic modelling. These sorts of approaches will, we hope, open up Voltaire’s writings in wholly new and exciting ways, creating opportunities for high-profile public engagement activities such as hackathons, and generating new areas of investigation for potential doctoral research students.

Choix de Chansons.

From Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Choix de Chansons, 1774 – subject of the ARC Discovery grant ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’.

And finally, beyond these specific research projects, my role as Digital Research Fellow will entail making and maintaining connections with digital humanities teams both locally and internationally, building on past and current relationships to generate new research initiatives moving forward. We are interested, for example, in establishing a better understanding of the importance of Voltaire’s Enlightenment network and its participation in the larger eighteenth-century Republic of Letters, questions that can be addressed in collaboration with the Center for Spatial and Network Analysis at Stanford, and the Cultures of Knowledge project based in Oxford. The Voltaire Lab can thus become a venue for engaging with other complementary Oxford digital projects, such as the Newton Project, which will allow for broader access as well as further fundamental research. Newton is often seen as the key thinker who sets the agenda for Enlightenment scientific thinking – through his emphasis on empiricism and the experimental method – while Voltaire, the dominant intellectual figure of the Enlightenment, helps to popularise Newton’s scientific method across Europe. Voltaire’s role as a key critic and disseminator of ideas and texts is also an area of research to which digital approaches can bring much to bear, in particular by linking his correspondence to projects such as Western Sydney University’s French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe and Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment.

We are equally keen to investigate the deeply interdisciplinary nature of Voltaire’s work beyond the purely literary or even textual, and, more generally, of his role in the often-overlooked interplay of music, images, and text in eighteenth-century print culture. This is in fact the subject of our recently awarded Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, ‘Performing Transdisciplinarity’, which brings together a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the Australian National University, the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, and Oxford.

The above are just a few of the countless avenues of research opened up by digital approaches to Voltaire’s work and legacy, and to which many more will be added as the larger Digital Voltaire project takes shape over the next few years. As the newly appointed Digital Research Fellow at the VF, I very much look forward to keeping you all informed on the results of these experiments and of the project’s evolution in due course.

– Glenn Roe

Les Nouveaux Mélanges : recette d’une bonne capilotade, façon Voltaire

CAPILOTADE. s. f. Sorte de ragoût fait de plusieurs morceaux de viandes déjà cuites. Bonne capilotade. Faire une capilotade des restes de perdrix, de poulets.

On dit proverbialement et figurément, Mettre quelqu’un en capilotade, pour dire, Médire de quelqu’un sans aucun ménagement, le déchirer, le mettre en pièces par des médisances outrées.

Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, éd. 1762.
Page de titre des Nouveaux Mélanges, 3e partie (1765)

Page de titre des Nouveaux Mélanges, 3e partie (1765).

Prenez des échanges dialogués, qui tiennent à la fois du conte, de la scène isolée et du dialogue philosophique, ajoutez des fragments, une anecdote, des facéties. Salez, poivrez  généreusement. Vous obtiendrez un ensemble de ‘petits chapitres’ narratifs, argumentatifs et  on s’en doute  polémiques. C’est ainsi que le tome 60A des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire rassemble, sous le titre de Nouveaux Mélanges, une trentaine de textes brefs, très majoritairement en prose, parfois en vers, publiés ou republiés en 1765: ils offrent l’agrément de la variété et le charme des écrits ‘courts et salés’ mitonnés dans l’intarissable officine de Ferney. Le plat a du goût, et il est nourrissant.

Par delà la diversité des sujets et des formes, cet ensemble aborde en effet des questions qui se rattachent à trois au moins des préoccupations majeures de Voltaire depuis le début des années 1760: les affaires judiciaires (Calas, Sirven et bientôt La Barre), la campagne incessante menée contre l’Infâme, l’implication du ‘patriarche’ dans les troubles politiques qui agitent la République de Genève. Les textes réunis dans ce volume bénéficient en outre de l’unité éditoriale que leur confère leur parution dans la ‘troisième partie’ des Nouveaux Mélanges philosophiques, historiques, critiques, etc. etc., recueil publié par les frères Cramer avec le concours de Voltaire.

Les questions abordées ne sont donc pas foncièrement nouvelles: ces textes présentent, on le voit, des enjeux, notamment idéologiques, qui rejoignent ceux d’œuvres réputées ‘majeures’, publiées, rééditées ou remises en chantier à la même époque  le Dictionnaire philosophique, La Philosophie de l’histoire qui servira dans les années suivantes d’‘Introduction’ à l’Essai sur les mœurs. En production, tel trait, tel argument, tel exemple avancé dans l’un de ces ‘rogatons’ sert peut-être à compléter tel passage de l’une de ces œuvres, à moins que ces nouveautés, qui constituent les variantes introduites dans les moutures récentes de ces œuvres, ne constituent le noyau à partir duquel s’organise la matière du rogaton. En réception, redire avec des variations, c’est veiller, dans ces années de lutte, à la plus large diffusion possible des idées, à une forme de saturation de l’espace public dans laquelle Voltaire est passé maître. De nos jours, la recette fonctionne toujours: le connaisseur des ‘grandes’ œuvres, sensible au rappel d’une touche ou d’un morceau, apprécie les vertus digestives de ces petits textes; pour l’amateur et le curieux, ces derniers peuvent aussi servir d’apéritif préparant à la consommation des premières. En somme, les ‘petits chapitres’ se dégustent en entrée ou en dessert, de part et d’autre des plats de résistance qui les accompagnent, les mauvais convives dussent-ils se plaindre d’indigestion lorsque les mêmes mets  ou presque  leur sont trop fréquemment servis.

Le lecteur gourmand peut enfin s’intéresser à la manière dont Voltaire confectionne ce qu’il appelle fréquemment ses ‘petits pâtés’ et ses ‘ragoûts’, et, au-delà d’un art consommé d’accommoder les restes, chercher à percer celui de mettre les petits plats dans les grands  autrement dit s’interroger sur le statut de ces sous-ensembles que sont les ‘mélanges’ dans l’architecture globale de ‘collections complètes’ qui, du vivant de Voltaire, ne le restent jamais longtemps. L’existence de ces ‘mélanges’ questionne enfin l’actuelle collection, censément définitive, des Œuvres complètes, dont le principe de classement chronologique des textes exclut les regroupements génériques adoptés jusque-là. L’architecture de ce volume, tout comme celle du tome 45B (Mélanges de 1756) publié en 2010, montre que la catégorie accueillante des ‘mélanges’ constitue encore, faute de mieux, un principe efficace de regroupement des écrits fugitifs.

– Olivier Ferret


Rousseau on stage: Vitam impendere vero


Fig. 1: João Luís Paixão in the role of Pygmalion, in the research project Performing Premodernity’s production of Rousseau’s Pygmalion at the Castle Theatre of Český Krumlov 2015. Photo by Maria Gullstam.

In the Lettre à d’Alembert (1758) – Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critical assessment of the Parisian theatre – the philosopher writes in a footnote: ‘[J]’ai presque toujours écrit contre mon propre intérêt. Vitam impendere vero. Voilà la devise que j’ai choisie et dont je me sens digne. Lecteurs, je puis me tromper moi-même, mais non pas vous tromper volontairement; craignez mes erreurs et non ma mauvaise foi. L’amour du bien public est la seule passion qui me fait parler au public.’[1] Rousseau claims to be writing with the ‘public good’ in mind, even though it might go against his own interests – such as his love for theatre and opera. When approaching Rousseau’s writings for and about theatre, we need to consider the often forgotten parts of his œuvre, as well as highlight the relation between these works and his political, musical, and literary writings. There are still numerous links to be made, and the task of making the connections is not always easy.

An illustrative example of this is Rousseau’s essay De l’imitation théâtrale – a translation and adaptation of parts of the tenth book of Plato’s Republic, with personal annotations by Rousseau himself. Originally, the text was composed in connection with the Lettre à d’Alembert in 1758, and Rousseau planned to publish the two texts together. However, he writes in the preface of De l’imitation théâtrale, ‘n’ayant pu commodément l’y faire entrer, je le mis à part pour être employé ailleurs’.[2] A few years later, Rousseau finds himself in a similar situation when publishing Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloïse in 1761. Its preface in dialogue form had to be published separately from the novel, ‘sa forme et sa longueur ne m’ayant permis de le mettre que par extrait à la tête du recueil’, as its author writes in the avertissement of the separate publication.[3] Interestingly, he then attempts to publish it together with De l’imitation théâtrale, though without success.


Fig. 2: Laila Cathleen Neuman as Galathée and João Luís Paixão as Pygmalion, in the research project Performing Premodernity’s production of Rousseau’s Pygmalion at the House of Nobility (Riddarhuset) in Stockholm 2016. Photo by Maria Gullstam.

Two years later, in 1763, Rousseau has new plans to publish his ‘extrait de divers endroits où Platon traite de l’Imitation théatrâle’[4] – this time together with the Essai sur l’origine des langues and Lévite d’Ephraïm, and he starts to write a preface (Projet de préface).[5] But, just as in previous attempts, this third initiative to publish De l’imitation théâtrale is never finalised. Instead, the text is published on its own in 1764.

Rousseau saw fit to publish his essay on theatrical imitation together with texts ranging over a whole spectrum of topics and genres: his apparently complex treatise the Lettre à d’Alembert – criticising the Parisian theatre from both an anthropological and a moral perspective; the Préface to his novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloïse, which when published separately in 1761 carried the subtitle Entretien sur les romans; further, the Essai sur l’origine des langues, which has strong connections to both Rousseau’s political writings (through its kinship with the Discours sur l’inégalité) and his writings on music (parts of the Essai started to develop in his unpublished response to Rameau’s accusations in the Erreurs sur la musique dans ‘l’Encyclopédie’); and finally, his moral tale Le Lévite d’Ephraïm. Thus, Rousseau could see connections between his essay on theatrical imitation and all these works. This is just one example amongst his many works for or about theatre that need to be reincorporated in his œuvre as a whole.

Rousseau loved drama passionately, he was aware of the consequences of attacking the Parisian theatre, and yet he criticised the Comédie-Française so fiercely in his Lettre à d’Alembert that this work’s inflammatory reputation still echoes in the twenty-first century. The Lettre’s notoriety has kept most theatre scholars from further exploring Rousseau’s own works for the stage, while the widespread labelling of Rousseau as an homme à paradoxes has every so often justified loose ends within Rousseau studies on the topic. Rousseau’s seemingly dual position in relation to theatre does entail numerous challenges. Our volume Rousseau on stage: playwright, musician, spectator does not claim to resolve these challenges, but to aim, nonetheless, at probing certain difficulties and starting to unravel others. The point of departure for Rousseau on stage is Rousseau’s passionate and double relationship to theatre as expressed and elaborated in the Lettre à d’Alembert, his theoretical texts on music and opera, his compositions for the stage and many descriptions of his experiences as a theatre-goer. Its authors and editors hope to add to the recent increasing interest in Rousseau as playwright, musician and spectator.

– Maria Gullstam and Michael O’Dea

[1] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes, ed. Bernard Gagnebin and Marcel Raymond, 5 vols (Paris, 1959-1895) (henceforward OC), vol.5, Lettre à d’Alembert, ed. Bernard Gagnebin and Jean Rousset, p.120.

[2] Rousseau, OC, vol.5, ‘Avertissement’ in De l’imitation théâtrale, ed. André Wyss, p.1195.

[3] Rousseau, OC, vol.2, Préface de la Nouvelle Héloïse, ou Entretien sur les romans, ‘Avertissement’, ed. Henri Coulet and Bernard Guyon, p.9.

[4] Rousseau, OC, vol.5, ‘Avertissement’ in De l’imitation théâtrale, p.1195.

[5] Neuchâtel, Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, MS R 91.

Un ennemi distingué: Bergier face à Voltaire

Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier (image Wikicommons).

Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier (image Wikicommons).

Des ennemis, Voltaire n’en manque pas, comme on sait, et particulièrement chez ceux qu’on appelle les antiphilosophes.[1] S’ils ont le malheur d’être aussi vindicatifs que lui, il ne les épargne guère, et quoi qu’il arrive, il les harcèle de pointes, les enterre sous les quolibets, quand il ne se laisse pas aller à de moins glorieuses attaques. Pourtant, à côté des Fréron, Le Franc de Pompignan, Nonnotte, Chaumeix et quelques autres, qui doivent à l’acrimonie de Voltaire l’essentiel de leur postérité, il y a une exception qui confirme la règle: un apologiste que, de manière étonnante, Voltaire n’attaque pas frontalement et qu’il semble même ménager; un défenseur de la religion catholique pour lequel il manifeste indéniablement une certaine estime intellectuelle; bref, un champion du christianisme qui reste fréquentable en pleine campagne contre l’Infâme! Cette perle rare, c’est l’abbé Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier.[2]

Bergier, Le Déisme réfuté par lui-même (Paris, 1765), page de titre.

Bergier, Le Déisme réfuté par lui-même (Paris, 1765), page de titre.

Qu’a-t-il pour bénéficier d’un tel traitement de faveur? Pourquoi cette polémique sans animosité, telle qu’elle se manifeste dans une seule œuvre, les Conseils raisonnables à M. Bergier (qui paraît ce mois-ci dans le tome 65c des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire) – absence d’acharnement assez rare pour être notée? C’est que ce n’est pas un apologiste comme les autres. Par son itinéraire tout à fait exceptionnel, il est devenu celui par qui l’Eglise peut ambitionner de battre les incrédules sur leur propre terrain, celui d’une libre pensée en débat: entendons qu’il n’est pas un théologien dogmatique étalant ses autorités, mais un penseur qui accepte de se plier aux règles du débat rationnel. En cet âge de cercles littéraires ou intellectuels, la ‘fréquentation’ des philosophes se fera, avec l’abbé Bergier, au sens le plus littéral du terme: il ira sur les terres de ses ennemis, en assistant, par exemple, aux fameuses soirées du baron d’Holbach, où il s’est fait introduire par son frère, François-Joseph Bergier, libertin et libre penseur, qui a des convictions aux antipodes des siennes. Diderot ne se fera pas faute d’ailleurs de vanter à son propre frère, avec lequel les relations sont tendues, ce modèle de coexistence pacifique! L’abbé cessera cependant ses passages quand il se mettra à attaquer franchement les principes des athées matérialistes qui viennent de frapper un grand coup avec le Système de la nature, dont l’auteur véritable, derrière le pseudonyme de Mirabaud, n’est autre que d’Holbach lui-même. C’est une cible que Bergier partage avec Voltaire, même s’ils ne sont pas du même bord.

Bergier, L’Apologie de la religion chrétienne (Paris, 1769), page de titre.

Bergier, L’Apologie de la religion chrétienne (Paris, 1769), page de titre.

Ce qui fait vraiment l’importance de Bergier c’est que figurent à son tableau de chasse rien moins que trois grands penseurs considérés comme les principaux dangers pour la religion catholique: d’Holbach, Rousseau et Voltaire! En quelques années il a enchaîné les réfutations de leurs œuvres: il réplique coup sur coup à Rousseau dans Le Déisme réfuté par lui-même (1765), aux nombreuses productions voltairiennes dans L’Apologie de la religion chrétienne (1769), et au Système de la nature du baron d’Holbach dans l’Examen du matérialisme (1771). Entre Rousseau et Voltaire, Bergier aura eu le temps de réfuter l’Examen critique des Apologistes de la religion chrétienne, attribué alors à Fréret, dans La Certitude des preuves du christianisme (1767). C’est précisément cet ouvrage qui va décider Voltaire à répliquer, et c’est ainsi que naissent les Conseils raisonnables. Si Bergier est sensible à l’originalité de la position de Rousseau et à la radicalité de d’Holbach, Voltaire tiendra toujours une place à part dans son combat: il le considère comme le patriarche des incrédules, celui qu’il convient donc de réfuter de préférence pour contrarier la séduction de ses persiflgages iconoclastes – figure de proue d’autant plus à craindre qu’elle s’abrite lâchement derrière de multiples pseudonymes. Bergier a cependant presque toujours la correction de ne pas les dévoiler, quelque transparents qu’ils soient. L’animosité ne se cache pas cependant en privé et le ressentiment est perceptible dans la manière dont Bergier rend compte de la mort de Voltaire à un de ses correspondants le 20 mars 1778: ‘Voltaire a crevé comme il devait naturellement le faire avec le sombre désespoir d’un réprouvé’!

Bergier, La Certitude des preuves du christianisme (Paris, 1767), page de titre.

Bergier, La Certitude des preuves du christianisme (Paris, 1767), page de titre.

On prend la mesure de son originalité de ‘philosophe chrétien’ quand on considère sa trajectoire d’ensemble, jusqu’à la fin de sa vie en 1790. S’il adopte volontiers des positions qui le classsent parmi les conservateurs (comme son rejet de la reconnaissance des unions protestantes par exemple), il est aussi un théologien hétérodoxe, que sa hiérarchie regarde d’un œil méfiant. Non seulement il collabore à l’Encyclopédie méthodique de Panckoucke, qui prend la relève ostensible de celle de Diderot et D’Alembert, mais il oriente également certains dogmes vers des positions moins rigoristes, en ne se prononçant pas ainsi sur la damnation des enfants non baptisés. Si socialement et politiquement il appartient incontestablement au camp des antiphilosophes, intellectuellement il participe d’une forme d’acculturation philosophique dont témoignent ses positions doctrinales, qui lui valent souvent la censure de l’Eglise.

Comment qualifier un tel personnage? le plus philosophe des antiphilosophes? Grimm dans la Correspondance littéraire du 15 avril 1767 estime qu’il ‘est un homme très supérieur aux gens de son métier’ mais ajoute perfidement: ‘C’est dommage que sa bonne foi lui fasse exposer les objections de ses adversaires dans toute leur force, et que les réponses qu’il leur oppose ne soient pas aussi victorieuses qu’il se l’imagine’. Maintenant que le combat est passé, et que chacun peut choisir son vainqueur, on peut surtout apprécier de voir Voltaire choisir un ennemi qu’il ne se contente pas de ridiculiser.

– Alain Sandrier, Université Paris Nanterre

[1] Un dictionnaire de référence vient de paraître à leur sujet: Dictionnaire des anti-Lumières et des antiphilosophes, éd. D. Masseau (Paris, 2017). Il faut également citer les travaux pionniers de Didier Masseau, Les Ennemis des philosophes (Paris, 2000) ainsi que la synthèse d’Olivier Ferret, La Fureur de nuire (SVEC 2007:03).

[2] Voir la monographie de Sylviane Albertan-Coppola, L’Abbé Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier (1718-1790) (Paris, 2010).

Catfishing Voltaire

Sam Bailey has just received an MSt in European Enlightenment studies from the University of Oxford (distinction) and won the Gerard Davis prize for his MSt dissertation. He is working at the VF as a research assistant over the summer. In the coming academic year, he will begin an AHRC-funded PhD on representations of disability in seventeenth-century French cabaret poetry at the University of Durham.

Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

It is for good reason that the Republic of Letters is often referred to as a social network. A quick browse of the Electronic Enlightenment project reveals how seamlessly the lengthy written exchanges between the philosophes can be repurposed for digital publication. Indeed, the letters themselves, with their perplexing in-jokes, abbreviations and allusions, seem to invite the various cross-references and hyperlinks that can be added when publishing electronically. So strong are these parallels, that a recent seminar I attended involved a tangential discussion of whether Diderot would have liked Wikipedia. (For the record, we concluded that he would have admired the ambition of the project but would not have liked the fact that anyone can contribute).

As with their twenty-first-century counterparts, eighteenth-century social networks came with a host of pitfalls and were frequently hijacked for the purposes of trickery and even practical jokes. Indeed, a so-called mystification involved luring an unsuspecting gullible individual into a humorous trap designed to teach him or her to be more alert.[1] A particularly popular strategy was to adopt a false identity through which to communicate with one’s target, a ruse that bears a striking resemblance to the modern-day concept of ‘catfishing’. For those who don’t spend their time watching late-night American reality TV, catfishing is the social media phenomenon of creating a fake online profile to strike up a (usually romantic) relationship with a stranger.

The term originates from the 2010 film Catfish, which documents a real-life situation of this kind. A character explains that when transporting live cod for long distances, fishermen found that the flesh of the fish turned soft and mushy due to inactivity. Their solution was to place a small number of catfish into the tanks, which proceeded to chase the cod and keep them agile. There are people in life who are like those catfish, so the analogy goes, people whose unpredictable actions keep us alert and forever looking over our shoulders. Although the name and the online setting are new, the phenomenon of catfishing is most certainly very old.

Poem by Desforges-Maillard

Poem by Desforges-Maillard published in the July 1732 issue of the Mercure de France.

Towards the beginning of his life as a literary celebrity, Voltaire was embroiled in a saga very similar to a modern incident of catfishing when he became the unwitting victim of Paul Desforges-Maillard. As explained in the 1880 edition of his collected works, Desforges was a lawyer and amateur poet from Brittany who, despondent after many failed attempts at achieving literary recognition, tried an ingenious marketing strategy with the latest poem he sent to the Mercure de France. And so, ‘un beau jour de l’année 1732 […] le Mercure présenta à Voltaire, coquettement encadrée dans ses colonnes, la pièce de vers suivante, datée du Croisic, en Bretagne, et signée d’une femme’.[2]

The woman in question was one Mlle Malcrais de la Vigne, whose verses in the Mercure had already won her several admirers in the months leading up to this event. However, none were as distinguished as Voltaire. The verse ‘A M. Arouet de Voltaire…’ was an immediate hit, causing Desforges to continue publishing under the Malcrais pseudonym and receive further praise from many unsuspecting (male) readers. The seductive image of the ‘héroine du Mercure’, an unmarried, unknown woman, exiled far from metropolitan Paris in Brittany completely captured the imagination of the Parisian reading public.[3] Eventually, Malcrais’s verse received a laudatory, even flirtatious, response from Voltaire himself, who, by all accounts, had been duped: ‘Voltaire, ce prince des moqueurs, a aussi été moqué, joué, mystifié’.[4]

Poem (dated 15 August 1732) sent to the Mercure de France by Voltaire

Poem (dated 15 August 1732) sent to the Mercure de France by Voltaire as a response to Desforges-Maillard’s poem.

Alain Viala recognises that ‘signer une œuvre publiée, c’est engager une image de soi’, and the pseudonymous identity of Mlle Malcrais de la Vigne is precisely that: a projection of a fabricated self-image designed to carry out a mystification of her readers and, specifically, to ensnare Voltaire, the prince of mockery himself.[5] Initially, wrote Desforges-Maillard in 1753, his objective was simple: ‘quand j’écrivis sous le nom de mlle de Malcrais; je ne voulais tromper que l’auteur du Mercure avec lequel j’étais brouillé, chacun prit la pilule et l’avala’.[6] How far we choose to believe this self-portrait of the catfish as a victim of circumstance is up to us, but it serves to highlight a risk inherent to pseudonymous publication, namely that one can never be sure how far the ruse will play out and exactly whom it will deceive.

Desforges writes that Voltaire was ‘bien double, bien vain et bien mauvais’, in other words, just as much of a con-artist as the man behind Malcrais.[7] Far from a literary demi-god, Voltaire is, in Desforges’ view, no more than another cunning trickster who dons masks as and when he sees fit with a view to deceiving people into exalting him. While Desforges evidently had no qualms about deceiving a man he considered the arch-deceiver, even relishing the challenge, the moral limit for him came when, still publishing as Malcrais, he received a letter from the biographer Évrard Titon du Tillet praising her work. Desforges felt guilty for duping Titon du Tillet, a seemingly honourable man who was himself guilty of no trickery, and this caused him to reveal his true identity to his readers, who, predictably, promptly lost interest.[8]

Voltaire, however, never forgot, frequently evoking the Malcrais episode in his correspondence as the definitive example of all not being as it seems. Desforges is remembered, but only as Malcrais, the ‘muse androgyne’ to whom Voltaire continued to make reference in letters right up until 1770. Malcrais’ name is preserved in history as Voltaire’s catfish, the cautionary figure who kept him alert and ceaselessly reminded him that appearances may be deceiving.

– Sam Bailey

[1] For more on mystification, see Reginald McGinnis’s Essai sur l’origine de la mystification (Paris, 2009).

[2] Paul Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses de Desforges-Maillard (Paris, 1880), p. II.

[3] Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses, p. IX.

[4] Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses, p. I.

[5] Alain Viala, La Naissance de l’écrivain (Paris, 1985), p. 85.

[6] Desforges-Maillard to Gilles François de Beauvais, 21 June 1753.

[7] Desforges-Maillard to Gilles François de Beauvais, 21 June 1753′.

[8] The way in which Desforges revealed his true identity is yet another remarkable tale that allegedly involved him dressing as a woman and going to dinner with Voltaire. The full story can be found in the preface to the 1880 edition.