Apprivoiser ses livres: Voltaire ‘marginaliste’

Les marginalia sont un phénomène auquel on s’intéresse de plus en plus, comme l’illustre par exemple le répertoire Annotated Books Online. Paradoxalement, à une époque où il est souvent mal vu d’écrire dans ses livres, d’en corner les pages, ou de les déchirer, les historiens du livre étudient les traces de lecture anciennes et montrent que défigurer un livre peut lui donner du prix, comme le reconnaît Andrew D. Scrimgeour, responsable des bibliothèques à Drew University au New Jersey. Les auteurs J. J. Abrams et Doug Dorst, pour leur part, ont trouvé dans la pratique des notes marginales une structure et un thème propices pour un roman.

Jean Racine, Œuvres, t.2, p.423. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Jean Racine, Œuvres, Paris, 1736, t.2, p.423. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

‘Je voudrais bien savoir quel est l’imbecille […] qui a défiguré par tant de croix et qui a cru rempli de fautes le plus bel ouvrage de notre langue’: c’est ainsi que Voltaire réagit en marge aux traces qu’un autre a laissé dans son exemplaire des Œuvres de Racine. Mais dès qu’il devient lecteur à son tour, tout est possible. Sur une période de plus de cinquante ans, Voltaire a écrit dans les livres qui passaient entre ses mains: c’est le sujet de ma monographie, Voltaire à l’ouvrage, tout récemment parue. En tant qu’auteur célèbre, il a compris que ces traces avaient de la valeur et il lui arrivait d’offrir des exemplaires annotés à d’illustres connaissances et à des personnes de son entourage. Il a peut-être même pressenti qu’on allait s’intéresser à sa bibliothèque après sa mort, car certains commentaires marginaux semblent attendre un lecteur futur: ‘tout cela est de moy / jecrivis cette lettre’, note-t-il à côté d’un texte que Jean-François, baron de Spon cite comme ayant été présenté aux Etats-Généraux de Hollande en octobre 1745 – une espèce de ‘j’y étais!’ laissé pour la postérité.

Jean François, baron de Spon,Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de l’Europe, depuis 1740 jusqu’à la paix générale signée à Aix-la-Chapelle, t.3, p.51. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Jean François, baron de Spon, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de l’Europe, depuis 1740 jusqu’à la paix générale signée à Aix-la-Chapelle, Amsterdam, 1749, t.3, p.51. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Tous les marginalia de Voltaire contenus dans les livres de sa bibliothèque personnelle sont désormais disponibles: le neuvième tome du Corpus des notes marginales vient de paraître. Cette publication clôt le premier volet du projet commencé pendant les années 1960 à la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie. (Un dixième tome fournira les traces de lecture de Voltaire qu’on connaît en dehors de sa bibliothèque.) Le Corpus, dont la publication a été reprise dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire sous la direction de Natalia Elaguina à partir des années 2000, donne à chacun la possibilité de se plonger dans l’univers des lectures de Voltaire, monde à moitié imprimé, à moitié manuscrit, et constitue un outil formidable pour redécouvrir cet auteur pourtant déjà si connu.

Les traces de lecture de Voltaire permettent de traquer les origines de ses propres textes, grâce aux signets, aux soulignements et aux réactions en marge qui marquent des passages qu’il cite, qu’il conteste ou qu’il transforme dans ses écrits. Les notes comprennent des réactions ludiques et polémiques qui désorganisent parfois la lecture de l’imprimé, tels ses ajouts manuscrits à la page de titre des Erreurs de Voltaire de Claude-François Nonnotte, et des corrections qu’il a faites pour des amis (à paraître dans le tome 10 du Corpus).

Claude-François Nonnotte, Les Erreurs de Voltaire. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Claude-François Nonnotte, Les Erreurs de Voltaire. Bibliothèque nationale de Russie.

Les rapports que Voltaire entretient avec ses livres sont fortement ancrés dans la matérialité de l’objet. Ainsi, il introduit des plis, des entailles dans le papier, il exploite adroitement les différents espaces blancs à sa disposition, il démembre des volumes, les refait à sa manière, il utilise encres, crayon de plomb, sanguine, et crayons de couleurs pour laisser ses traces sur la page. Voltaire aurait apprécié les fonctions de recherche et de repérage offertes par le Kindle, les fichiers pdf et autres manifestations du numérique. Ces technologies permettent de joindre des annotations au texte, mais n’accordent pas les mêmes possibilités d’un corps à corps qui caractérise la lecture telle qu’il l’a pratiquée. Dans Voltaire à l’ouvrage, je me penche également sur les lectures faites dans différentes langues, et sur le style et la poétique des annotations marginales. C’était l’occasion aussi de comparer les marginalia de cet auteur à ceux d’autres lecteurs de l’époque, ce qui fournit un contexte et permet de mesurer l’originalité, ou non, des pratiques voltairiennes.

Gillian Pink

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‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: Sentimental Beginnings and Endings

2018 has already provided a curate’s egg anniversary for scholars of eighteenth-century fiction: 250 years since the first publication of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (27 February 1768) and, less than a month later, the death of its author, Laurence Sterne (18 March 1768).

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas (1760), National Portrait Gallery.

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas (1760), National Portrait Gallery.

‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference marked both sestercentennials by inviting over forty scholars from twelve countries to reflect on the impact of Sterne’s writings in his and our times. The conference took place at Sterne’s Alma Mater Jesus College, Cambridge, providing an opportunity for delegates staying in college accommodation to breakfast beneath a copy of Joshua Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sterne in the dining hall.

Marking both events together proved apt. A Sentimental Journey was, from its earliest conception, tied to the health of its author. Its origins lie in a seven-month tour of France and Italy that Sterne, a sufferer from pulmonary tuberculosis since his days as an undergraduate, undertook to improve his ailing condition. The risks as well as the rewards of venturing abroad in ill health are immediately apparent in the narrative. Having only just arrived in Calais and dining on a ‘fricassee’d chicken’ (ASJ, 3), Yorick, the text’s sentimental traveller, worries that the richness of his meal might lead to death by indigestion and the loss of his goods under the rules of the Droits d’aubaine. It is a mordant first step into cultural tourism: having just crossed the border into France, death by consumption would cement Yorick the consumptive’s status as an outsider under its laws of inheritance.

Many readers in 1768 would have been aware that Sterne had already resurrected Yorick from his death in the first volume of Tristram Shandy (1759-67). Even this most absolute of borders proves porous when Sterne requires it to be, and this sense of strange re-orderings, and the haziness of causal links that bind characters to each other and to their environs, suffuses much of his fiction. After an early chastening encounter with a monk he inadvertently abuses, Yorick promises to ‘learn better manners as I get along’ (ASJ, 11), yet his journey fails to provide any straightforward heuristic narrative. Yorick later muses that ‘I seldom go to the place I set out for’ (ASJ, 103), and it proves difficult to discern what, if anything, he actually learns from his sentimental encounters.

Digressions abound; at one point Yorick winds up in Rennes (200 miles west of his route south from Calais to Lyon) without any explanation for his presence there beyond it being ‘an incident of good fortune which will never happen to any traveller, but a sentimental one’ (ASJ, 108). As James Chandler notes, the capacity to reflect on his feelings appears to open Yorick to a flux of potential encounters, yet it remains unclear whether such reflections ‘can be supposed to occur on a single plane of circulation, where we all reflect each other’, or ‘on an ascending scale of higher-order recognitions’.[1]

Conversely, Yorick values highly the ability to distinguish difference. His distinction between the English and the French national character relies, as if folding the principle of differentiation in on itself, on differing potentials for individuation. The French, he argues, have reached such a heightened degree within the ‘progress of their refinements’ (ASJ, 119) that, like coins ‘jingling and rubbing one against another for seventy years together […] they are become so much alike, you can scarce distinguish one shilling from another’ (ASJ, 119). The English, in contrast, are ‘like antient medals, kept more apart, and passing but few peoples hands’ and it is this propensity to remain separate that preserves ‘the first sharpnesses which the fine hand of nature has given them’ (ASJ, 119). Yorick’s further observation that ‘’tis certain the French conceive better than they combine’ (ASJ, 112) almost certainly refers to Locke’s description of wit and judgement as respectively the combining and separating of ideas, yet the peculiarity of his own narrative lies in its interplay between such atomistic and holistic impulses.

Even defining what we should search for order proves a vexed point. Yorick’s Journey begins with his reader arriving at the end of a conversation: ‘––THEY order, said I, this matter better in France––’ (ASJ, 3). Precisely what ‘matter’ is ordered ‘better’ in France remains undisclosed. Some critics, such as Martin C. Battestin, take the term to allude to Sterne’s complicated friendship as an Anglican clergyman with materialist philosophes such as Baron d’Holbach, who was instrumental in obtaining Sterne’s passport to travel through France.[2] Another solution lies in the careful arrangement of the text itself into titled scenes, or vignettes. In driving action from discourse at the Journey’s outset, Sterne, Michael Seidel argues, ‘makes the linguistic properties of utterance spatial’, but more importantly, by inscribing ‘the space for narrative projection’ in these terms, he threads the ‘matter’ of what is, or should be, well ‘order[ed]’ into the fiction’s textual weave.[3] In a prime example of Sternean slippage between text and scene, it is the order of narrative ‘matters’ – i.e. the material arrangement and divisions of the book itself – that Yorick most strongly evokes by asking that his reader interpret the end of a conversation as the beginning of his journey.

If it begins with an ending, the Journey ends with an aposiopesis, or breaking off, that again conflates text and scene. Somewhat uncomfortably for readers in the age of #metoo, the interruption provides also a pun on a grope, with Yorick’s outstretched hand catching ‘hold of the Fille de Chambre’s… END OF VOL. II.’ (ASJ, 165). As Paul Goring noted in a paper at Cambridge, the Journey’s abrupt conclusion also left Sterne’s final debt to his readers unrepaid. Its subscribers had been promised four volumes for their investment, but Sterne’s untimely death left them with only two.

Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door’, by Thomas Patch, etching (1769), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door’, by Thomas Patch, etching (1769), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The scene, ‘The Case of Delicacy’ (ASJ, 160), with which the Journey’s second and final volume ends, proves fascinating in light of the events that took place shortly after its publication. We leave Yorick supine and almost entombed in a bedchamber, ‘it being totally dark’ (ASJ, 165). Yorick’s hand extends ‘by way of asseveration’ (ASJ, 165) in one final reach outwards that manages to be both deathly and bawdy – in other words, Sternean. In a first-hand account of Sterne’s death in London, John MacDonald, a footman to one of Sterne’s friends, reports that when the moment came ‘He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute.

Our conference at Cambridge welcomed a number of distinguished speakers, including author Martin Rowson, who discussed his graphic novel adaptations of Sterne’s fictions, and Peter de Voogd, who shared his insights from amassing arguably the largest collection of Sterne’s works on the continent.

Martin Rowson delivers a guest speech at ‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference’.

Martin Rowson delivers a guest speech at ‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference.

My own highlight was an incisive keynote from Freya Johnston, who addressed the subject of characterisation and determinism in Sterne’s fictions. Sterne’s characters, Johnston argued, do not develop or change in his narratives so much as undergo ordeals that evince their engrained hobby-horsical inconsistencies time and again. The claustrophobia that permeates his works – in which, even when we follow Yorick on the open road, we find ourselves enclosed within discreet, archly constructed sentimental scenes – begins with Tristram’s conception of the homunculus as an already complete character-in-miniature, and culminates at the end of the Journey’s first volume with Yorick reflecting on Walter Shandy’s theory that ‘children, like other animals, might be increased almost to any size, provided they came right into the world’ (ASJ, 80). According to Walter, only the rooms in which children are confined limit the extent of their growth, a theory that Yorick considers, but equivocates in passing judgement on, in his observations of a Parisian dwarf. It is an oddly death-like vision of the human potential for growth: one in which characters come pre-formed, encased in – and stunted by – their environment. Like being born into a coffin.

– Alexander Hardie-Forsyth (Wolfson College, Oxford)

[1] James Chandler, An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago, 2013), p.205.

[2] Martin C. Battestin, ‘Sterne among the Philosophes: Body and Soul in A Sentimental Journey’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 7:1 (October 1994), p.19.

[3] Michael Seidel, ‘Narrative Crossings: Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey’, Genre, 18 (1985), p.2.

Maria Theresa: the Habsburg empress revisited

Maria Theresa, by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1762.

Maria Theresa, by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1762.

On 26 February 2018, Tobias Heinrich (Kent) and Avi Lifschitz (Oxford) convened a study day at Queen’s College (Oxford) to mark the tercentenary of the birth of Maria Theresa, empress of the Habsburg Empire from 1740 to 1780. Leading scholars came together from across Europe for a day of interdisciplinary talks and discussion about the enduring ‘myth’ of Maria Theresa. These talks provided a fascinating window into the life and rule of this formidable empress, covering a range of topics including the representation of Maria Theresa from her own time into the present day, her correspondence with her daughter Marie Antoinette, her succession to the throne as a woman, her social and political networks, and the Catholic Enlightenment.

In the first session, Werner Telesko (Austrian Academy of Sciences) presented a paper entitled ‘Maria Theresa: the making of a myth. Old questions and new insights’. Telesko highlighted the way in which the proliferation of idealized portraits, etchings and symbols, standardized the idealized representations of the empress in the eighteenth century as empress, mother, and widow. Telesko demonstrated how the myth of the empress continued thereafter to be adapted to suit contemporary needs, Maria Theresa becoming the ultimate embodiment of ‘being Austrian’ in the national memory. Catriona Seth (All Souls College, Oxford) presented her work, ‘A well-tempered correspondence? The letters of Marie Antoinette and Maria Theresa’. Seth revealed the way in which Maria Theresa deployed her daughters in her imperial ambitions through marriages abroad, managing these royal alliances through correspondence. She kept careful tabs on the one who made the most prestigious marriage, treating Marie Antoinette as a dependent in need of counsel even after she was crowned queen of France. Maria Theresa dictated with whom her daughter was allowed to maintain correspondences, implored her above all to produce an heir to the throne (demanding constant updates of her daughter’s reproductive status), and urged her to heed the advice of the Austrian ambassador Mercy, Maria Theresa’s eyes and ears in France.

Letter by Marie-Antoinette to her mother Maria Theresa, 9 July 1770.

Letter by Marie-Antoinette to her mother Maria Theresa, 9 July 1770.

In the second session, William O’Reilly (Trinity Hall, Cambridge) gave his paper, ‘“All the king’s men”: Maria Theresa and the Holy Crown of St Stephan’, a fascinating reflection on the problem of female succession and the history of the legal gymnastics involved in answering the question: is the heir a child, or a woman? O’Reilly underscored how Maria Theresa came to be seen as a man in the person of a woman in order to rationalize her succession to the throne, forming her royal image in imitation of Queen Mary I. Thomas Wallnig (University of Vienna) concluded the second session with a provocative paper entitled ‘After 2017: is new research on Maria Theresa possible?’. Wallnig answered his own question, at least in the beginning, in the negative, paying homage to the substantial scholarship on Maria Theresa that has been completed to date. Proposing to move beyond biography, correspondence, and her family, Wallnig ultimately turned to the promise of digital humanities and network analysis for reframing the questions, opening up new avenues for historical inquiry and making room for future innovative studies of the empress.

The study day concluded with a keynote lecture by leading eighteenth-century historian Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger (University of Münster), ‘Maria Theresa and the Catholic Enlightenment’. Stollberg-Rilinger began her talk highlighting Maria Theresa’s vexed relationship with the Enlightenment. Maria Theresa viewed the philosophes as having ‘ni foi, ni lois, ni honnêteté’. She was in favour of upholding the authority of tradition and disliked the philosophes’ entitlement to think on their own. Yet what emerged through Stollberg-Rilinger’s analysis of Maria Theresa’s policies regarding the Church was in fact a woman fully confident in her capacity to think for herself. Stollberg-Rilinger demonstrated how Maria Theresa cracked down on the Church when the problem of exorcists became a major issue in the public sphere, asserting her sovereign rule over the Church as she claimed the authority to settle religious matters. In claiming the power of decision-making and the power to define what was faith versus charlatanism, Maria Theresa asserted her divine right to rule as sovereign, even over the Church.

Kaiserin Maria Theresia im Kreise ihrer Kinder, by Heinrich Füger, 1776.

Kaiserin Maria Theresia im Kreise ihrer Kinder, by Heinrich Füger, 1776.

Wallnig is right to point out that a figure as prominent as Maria Theresa has been studied exhaustively, with countless studies dedicated to her alone. The eighteenth century is full of such figures – rulers, philosophes, political theorists, artists, writers, and countless others – that continue to captivate us dix-huitiémistes and inspire our work. Yet while Wallnig asked what more we can possibly do on Maria Theresa in the twenty-first century, I found myself leaving Queen’s College thinking about what Maria Theresa can teach us about why eighteenth-century studies matter today. One might ask, how could an afternoon of talks dedicated to a single person answer that question?

Yet in that afternoon, we thought about how we can leverage twenty-first-century technology to find openings in well-trodden fields, and make new discoveries and contributions to eighteenth-century scholarship. We considered the role of media in the construction of glorified images of political figures, and the appropriation of historical figures to serve contemporary purposes. We thought about the problem of women and power through the lens of the letters between a mother and a daughter: not only how a woman acquires and holds onto power, but more strikingly the negotiation of identity as a woman in power, negotiating the political and the personal, the identity of empress versus mother. We grappled with how to justify the right of a woman to rule, and what to do when a title is intended for a man: Rex versus Regina. And lastly, in what proved particularly prescient, we wrestled with the question of where power lies – with the Church or with the State – and who has the power to define faith versus charlatanism, what we could transpose to our current political moment as fact versus fiction.

– Chloe Edmondson (Stanford)

Classic and modern clash in Italy

Giambattista Vico

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), by Giuseppe Fusitani (1836).

In recent years, groups of Italian students protesting against governmental cuts to education funding and the rise of university fees have gained some popularity in the international media due to their highly original form of opposition. They made padded shields shaped as book covers, and used them as a symbol of literary and cultural resistance to the draconian cuts imposed by Italy’s successive governments.

The canon of works chosen for this very unique form of public protest – ranging from Plato’s Republic to Machiavelli’s The Prince to Marquez’s One hundred years of solitude – has raised immediate attention. With only a couple of exceptions, all the selected ‘book shields’ can be considered canonic books, ancient and modern classics, works whose value has matured over time. Professor Luca Serianni from La Sapienza University in Rome commented that it looked like a second-hand canon, closer to the reading matter of students rioting in the late sixties and seventies. In other words, a canon inherited from today’s students’ parents.

The image of protesters resisting undesired changes in public education policies by raising classical books as shields is a powerful image of Italy’s approach to tradition, change and permanence in culture and education. Italian culture is characterized by a perceived continuity of tradition, both the Greco-Roman classical and that of the so-called modern classics. The metaphor of these book shields further confirms that there is a complex connection between literary canon, tradition and resistance.

Giacomo Leopardi

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). Drawing by Luigi Lolli, engraving by Gaetano Guadagnini (1830).

Other European philosophical traditions were born instead out of a rupture with the past. Descartes’ ideas can be viewed as an example of modern thought grounded in a fracture with tradition – as Hegel said, Descartes is one of those who ‘restarted philosophy from zero’. Descartes’ thought is grounded in doubting the philosophical foundation of various fields of knowledge, particularly the humanities. Additionally, Descartes doubted that the study of classical sources, rhetoric and history adds anything to human knowledge. Giambattista Vico’s enquiry started from a critique of Descartes’ viewpoint: Vico’s speculation claims that there is a modern, ‘scientific’ method of studying the humanities. Vico’s legacy consists in a new way (a New science) to look at the ancient world and classical authorities, which, in Vico’s view, should preserve their legacy and guarantee their survival in an increasingly scientific world.

A century later, Italy’s continuity with classicism is again endangered in the field of literature with the so-called classic-romantic quarrel, which is also in some respects a quarrel between tradition and modernity. In this context, Giacomo Leopardi, with his 1818 Discourse on Romantic poetry, embodies an attempt to resist the rise of modernity and to preserve continuity with the innocence of origins, guaranteed by the traditional forms of poetry.

I start from this position in my book Rebuilding post-Revolutionary Italy: Leopardi and Vico’s ‘New science’, in which I identify continuity between these two moments and figures. Vico and Leopardi, almost a century apart, renegotiated Italy’s role, identity, and tradition in a modern world and raised the authority of established classics as a shield in an attempt to resist or to negotiate change. In a time that had witnessed large-scale historical transformation with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, within a community that had ‘grown old in Revolutions’, as Pietro Colletta, a reader of Vico, put it in 1815, Italy cultivated its own, distinctive approach to modernity.

– Martina Piperno

Les manuscrits à la VF: découvertes et partage

First page of ‘Assassins section 2de’

Début de la copie de l’article ‘Assassins section 2de’ (Voltaire Foundation: ms.73 [Lespinasse 3], p.14).

Une petite armoire à la Voltaire Foundation abrite une collection modeste de manuscrits dont la plupart datent du dix-huitième siècle. Rassemblés par notre fondateur, Theodore Besterman, tous les documents ne concernent pas forcément (ou uniquement) Voltaire: récemment nous avons accueilli des chercheurs de l’équipe des Œuvres complètes de d’Alembert, un collègue de la British Library, et j’ai aussi été contactée par le responsable du projet de l’Inventaire Condorcet, qui me demandait de vérifier des références et de fournir, pour leur beau site, des photos de certaines lettres que Voltaire avait adressées à Condorcet dont nous possédons des copies d’époque.

C’est en cherchant une de ces lettres, en feuilletant un volume de papiers laissés par Mlle de Lespinasse, que je suis tombée sur un texte de Voltaire qui m’était familier, et cela depuis dix ans, car c’est en 2008 que j’ai participé à l’édition du second volume des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Par un heureux hasard, la découverte coïncidait avec le travail de préparation de l’introduction des mêmes Questions, qui paraîtra dans quelques mois. Il ne s’agissait aucunement d’une hallucination: le texte, ‘Assassins section 2de’, est bel et bien celui de l’article ‘Assassinat’ de cet ouvrage de Voltaire en forme d’encyclopédie (article au demeurant assez méchant, où l’auteur s’attaque à Jean-Jacques Rousseau).

Selon la note inscrite en marge du titre de ce texte dans le manuscrit Lespinasse (on la voit sur la photo), Voltaire envoya l’article à D’Alembert avec sa lettre du 9 juillet 1770 (D16505). Ce qui m’a surprise, c’est que l’inclusion de cette ‘pièce jointe’ n’est pas signalée dans l’édition de la correspondance de Voltaire procurée par Theodore Besterman. La chose étonne surtout étant donné que celui-ci connaissait déjà le volume manuscrit au moment de préparer son édition (cette copie est l’unique source de la lettre qui nous occupe), et en fournit la référence dans l’apparat critique de la lettre. Il a donc apparemment jugé qu’il n’était pas pertinent de mentionner ce témoignage concernant l’envoi de l’article avec la lettre. Pourtant, il est extrêmement intéressant pour quiconque s’intéresse à la diffusion et à la pré-publication des Questions de savoir que cet article figure parmi ceux que l’auteur envoya à D’Alembert, l’un des deux responsables de l’Encyclopédie, ouvrage avec lequel les Questions entrent pour ainsi dire en dialogue.

La question se pose évidemment de savoir si le copiste disait vrai ou s’il se trompait… Mais cette petite histoire d’une trouvaille inattendue illustre l’évolution de l’esprit de l’édition critique sur la quarantaine d’années qui se sont écoulées depuis la parution de la seconde édition de la correspondance de Voltaire dans les années 1970. On a beaucoup plus tendance de nos jours à prêter attention aux détails matériels des sources et à incorporer ces indices à l’apparat critique. D’un point de vue personnel, je suis contente d’avoir trouvé ce manuscrit avant et non pas après la parution de l’introduction des Questions – où Christiane Mervaud s’intéresse à la genèse et à la diffusion de ce texte – et heureuse aussi de constater qu’il ne présente aucune variante textuelle par rapport aux deux autres manuscrits connus de cet article, qui sont conservés, assez bizarrement, dans la même armoire à la Voltaire Foundation.

– Gillian Pink

 

 

Voltaire, the most alive of dead white males

Voltaire’s afterlife is complex, his reputation changing with successive regimes. The French Revolution looked back to him as a heroic precursor of its struggle, and in 1791 his remains were brought back to Paris and with great ceremony placed in the Panthéon. For much of the nineteenth century the name of Voltaire was synonymous with anticlericalism, and the philosophe was widely, if implausibly, seen as an Antichrist. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair Voltaire’s reputation as a crusader for tolerance was re-emphasised, and in the latter years of the Third Republic, under the influence of the Sorbonne literary historian Gustave Lanson, Voltaire became a fixture of the republican school and university curriculum. The latter half of the twentieth century has taken a more nuanced approach to Voltaire’s religious views, especially in the wake of René Pomeau’s La Religion de Voltaire (first published in 1954), which stresses the depth of Voltaire’s deist convictions.

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). Image: BnF.

Voltaire’s legacy in the wider world is ubiquitous. His name has become a byword for tolerance, justice and the power of reason whenever fanaticism, tyranny and superstition rear their ugly heads. Famously, portraits of him spontaneously appeared on the walls of the French capital in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in 2015. Several years before the attack, in 2008, then editor-in-chief of the satirical magazine, Philippe Val, had published a book entitled Reviens, Voltaire, ils sont devenus fous!, and philosopher André Glucksmann’s last book, published in 2014 (one year before he died), is called Voltaire contre-attaque.

Voltaire is undoubtedly the most widely quoted of all French writers past and present. Everyone is familiar with his ‘il faut cultiver son jardin’, ‘le meilleur des mondes possibles’, and ‘si Dieu [which can be replaced with anything deemed to be of value, no matter how trivial] n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer’. These three quotations happen to be genuine and traceable; interestingly, however, we at the Voltaire Foundation often receive queries from scholars and members of the public alike asking about the provenance of various Voltaire quotes which, after diligent research, turn out to be apocryphal. It is as if witty and wise pronouncements in search of an author were routinely attributed to him by default.

Paris, January 2015.

Ironically, what must be the most famous and oft-repeated quotation by Voltaire does not appear anywhere in his writings or his correspondence. Elizabeth Knowles picks up the story:

“A column in the Daily Telegraph of February 2006 on freedom of speech referred to ‘Voltaire’s famous maxim – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ’

“In De l’esprit (‘On the Mind’), published in 1758, the French philosopher Helvétius put forward the view that human motivation derives from sensation: a course of action is chosen because of the pleasure or pain which will result. The book was seen by many as an attack on religion and morality, and was condemned by the French parliament to be publicly burned. Voltaire is supposed to have supported Helvétius with these words. In fact, they are a later summary of Voltaire’s attitude to the affair, as given in S. G. Tallentyre’s The Friends of Voltaire (1907). What Tallentyre wrote was:

“‘What the book could never have done for itself, or for its author, persecution did for them both. “On the Mind” became not the success of a season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. “What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was his attitude now.’

“(The comment ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ had been recorded earlier, in James Parton’s 1881 Life of Voltaire.)” [1]

We will end this short blog article on this culinary note. Readers who are curious about the origin of this particular quote are invited to consult Lettres à Son Altesse Monseigneur le prince de *** (letter 7) or the article ‘Athéisme’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie.

– Nicholas Cronk and Georges Pilard

[1] Excerpt reprinted from What they Didn’t Say – A Book of Misquotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford University Press, 2006), p.55. By permission of Oxford University Press.

Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).