That unfortunate movement

Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges, pioneer of women’s rights, here pictured handing Marie-Antoinette a copy of her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne. Engraving by Desrais and Frussotte, c. 1790. (BnF/Gallica)

The French Revolution: A very short introduction was one of the earliest titles to be commissioned in what has become a very successful series – the nearest equivalent in English to the celebrated Que Sais-je? volumes published by Presses Universitaires de France. It appeared in 2001 and has enjoyed very healthy sales, both in English and in translation into a number of other languages. For this reason alone, after half a generation of new research a second edition to bring readers up to date seemed increasingly overdue. The problem with any new edition is how much to change, short of rewriting the whole thing. A lot of new research, though impeccably scholarly, is at a level of detail impossible to reproduce in a short volume, although some can be silently incorporated. A revised bibliography can point in the direction of more. But the most updating that a very short introduction can do is to indicate some overall trends.

The first edition, written in the aftermath of the Revolution’s bicentennial in 1989, was able to conclude and neatly culminate with the great debates among historians and others which that occasion provoked, and which were still echoing when the new millennium began. Historiographical discussions since then have been far less acrimonious and more nebulous. While the mid-twentieth-century obsession with the so-called ‘popular movement’ of the sans-culottes has faded, the Revolution has increasingly been studied as a symptom of deep cultural changes. Feminist scholarship has brought extensive reappraisal of the role of women, and the failure of overwhelmingly male revolutionaries (and historians!) to give them their due.

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence. Artist unknown, c.1796-1799. (BnF/Gallica)

There has also been renewed interest in links with other contemporary revolutionary movements on both sides of the Atlantic, and above all with the overthrow of black slavery in the former French colony which became Haiti. These changed perspectives are introduced and appraised in the concluding historiographical chapter. With a largely English-speaking readership in mind, the first edition also gave plenty of space to the supposed contrast between a violent, unstable France and a peaceful, evolutionary England. The second edition expands on that perception with more on the clash between Edmund Burke and Tom Paine. Recent years have brought curious echoes of this in the debate over Brexit, reminding us that issues first raised by the French Revolution can still resonate.

And whereas a prime function of an introduction is to impart accurate and reliable knowledge, another is to dispel misinformation. Nothing is more difficult. The world will always want to remember that Marie-Antoinette said, ‘Let them eat cake’ – even though she didn’t, as I emphasise in the book’s very opening pages.

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

The world is also in danger of remembering that in 1972 Chinese premier Zhou Enlai declared that it was ‘too early to say’ what the consequences of the French Revolution had been. I invoked this myself in the preface to the first edition. But in the intervening years it has emerged that Zhou was referring to the French upheavals of 1968, not 1789. The second edition makes this clear. Whether it will stop people invoking the old version is perhaps too early to say.

– William Doyle

(‘That unfortunate movement’ – from act I of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, speech by Lady Bracknell.)

‘Depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours’ – mission accomplished

Many readers picking up Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV for the first time might find it all too easy to put down again as not living up to its title. By only a stretched definition is the work a précis; it is not about a siècle; and only in a few places does it focus on Louis XV. But to put it down too quickly would be a mistake. There are many reasons why the Précis – published by the Voltaire Foundation in 3 volumes, the first of which (vol.29A) has just come out – deserves our attention. Here are some of them.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe (Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne), BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4. By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Foremost perhaps is the picture of Voltaire in action as a historian of modernity. We know from earlier writings that he thought the study of modern history important for the instruction of future generations. He also thought it essential for the historian to be both accurate and impartial, but then when it came to writing about his own day – events that he had witnessed himself or involved people he knew – he was not always able to put these ideals into practice. The need for impartiality may be behind the detachment with which Voltaire treats Louis XV, but elsewhere he frequently sails too close to the wind, particularly in the polemical chapters at the end of the work. Accuracy he strove for conscientiously, as he had done with the Essai and the Siècle, although sometimes within his own compass of taking the mean position of several authorities without naming any of them. He allows himself to embroider, but if he occasionally seems to invent it is probably in error or where strict accuracy needed to be set against readability, as pointed out by a correspondent of 1768: ‘Vous attachez tant par la magie de votre diction que l’on aime presque mieux s’égarer avec vous que s’instruire pesamment avec d’autres’ (vol.29A, p.140).

The Précis also has a remarkable history as the culmination of Voltaire’s plan, announced in 1742, to write a universal modern history and take it up to his own day. This was the launching pad for the Essai sur les mœurs. The nascent Siècle de Louis XIV, he said in 1745, was destined to ‘[entrer] dans ce grand ouvrage et doit le terminer’ (vol.29A, p.6, n.3). But as the following reign rolled on the distance between an end point of 1714 and continuing the history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’ became too great to be bridged. In 1768, in preparation for the new quarto edition of his Œuvres complètes, Voltaire uncoupled the Siècle from the Essai, reducing the subtitle to ‘jusqu’au règne de Louis XIII’, and using the chapters that carried his history beyond 1714 as the basis of the new Précis du siècle de Louis XV.

Voltaire thus uses the word précis not in the sense of an abridgement of a longer account, as might be expected of a detached published work, but of a summary of what he sees as the essentials of the age in a series of capsules. This enables him to pick and choose his material, pausing to give anecdote and detail in some places, particularly the early years when he himself was in Paris, passing rapidly over the middle years of the reign and dwelling again at length on aspects of the later years that attracted his attention as philosophe. Throughout his style is light, never flippant, and his sometimes provocative leaps, summaries or asides beckon the reader to further research.

As for ‘siècle’, Voltaire had felt from the outset that the achievements of France in the glorious era of the roi soleil should be defined not in terms of a reign, but as an ‘age’ or epoch. This is the sense in which the word is used again of the reign of Louis XV, although the king did not dominate his own reign and was noteworthy only in the wrong ways. For most of the book Louis XV himself stands silently to one side, but the events portrayed seem none the worse for that, highlighting the difference between his ‘siècle’ and that of his great-grandfather.

In 1768 Voltaire brings the Précis up to date with further chapters on more recent matters, and extends the themes of some of these into the self-contained Histoire du parlement de Paris. He closes the resulting gap between the early and later years of the reign of Louis XV by bringing in a précis in the more usual sense of the word. This was the first authorised appearance, albeit in shortened form, of Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741, undertaken in 1745 in his capacity of historiographe du roi, as an account of the ‘campagnes du roi’ in Flanders of 1744 and 1745. These campaigns covered years that showed the king at his best and France as victorious; they were soon extended both backwards and forwards to take in the whole war, but that is another story, to be read with the full text in volume 29C. Circumstances conspired against Voltaire’s intention to publish the Guerre de 1741 until he was settled in Geneva, by which time France was involved in another war and any thirst for details of the War of the Austrian Succession had long evaporated. By the mid 1760s, therefore, the Guerre was a work in search of a home, and the incipient Précis a work with a beginning and potential end but no middle. The solution was obvious.

Having difficulty keeping up? Unsurprising – the complexities defeated the Kehl editors as well as Beuchot and Moland, who omitted the original complete Guerre entirely. The Introduction in vol.29A of this edition analyses the sequence of the composition of both texts and the eventual assembly of the whole in 1768.

But Voltaire was unable to call it a day. Another edition of his complete works in 1775 saw him taking up his pen once more at the age of eighty to record the death of the king, who in the course of nature – and perhaps Voltaire’s original conception of this work – would have been expected to outlive Voltaire. And Voltaire was then spurred on to review the whole. Annotations preserved in a copy of the 1775 edition now in St Petersburg show the Précis to be among the most heavily corrected texts under revision at the time of Voltaire’s death, truly taking his modern history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’. Looking at the years since 1742 and the water that had flowed beneath Voltaire’s many bridges since then, his readers can only respond, Chapeau!

– Janet Godden



Over her dead body: tears and laughter in L’Ingénu’s final scene

Engraving by Monnet and Vidal

Engraving by Monnet and Vidal, in Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2. (BnF/Gallica)

‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ Bloggers and other would-be beaux esprits routinely reach for Oscar Wilde when confronted with depictions of uncomfortable sentimentality, but we risk coming away empty-handed. With Nell’s death never actually depicted in The Old Curiosity Shop, Wilde’s quip seems less a skewering of Dickens’s prose and more a celebration of his own. Nevertheless Wilde – in linking pathos, humour and self-consciousness – may be on to something that can help when we come to the puzzle of Mlle de Saint-Yves’s death in L’Ingénu.

The early chapters of L’Ingénu have a forthright ‘gauloiserie’ about them, such as the bawdy allusions to the hero’s penis, anticlerical digs, and depictions of earthy rural folk. In stark contrast stands the heroine’s death. When Mlle de Saint-Yves eventually dies after several pages on her deathbed, her demise provokes widespread despair as well as a kind of madness in the hero: ‘Lorsque le moment fatal fut arrivé, tous les assistants jetèrent des larmes et des cris. L’Ingénu perdit l’usage de ses sens.’[1] As Roger Pearson asked in his splendid biography Voltaire Almighty (2005), should we take this sentimentality at face value? Is Voltaire not taking a swipe at the protracted deaths of Richardson’s Clarissa and, in particular, Rousseau’s Julie? This is in part doubtlessly true, for L’Ingénu was composed around the same time as the critical Lettre de Monsieur de Voltaire au docteur Jean-Jacques Pansophe and Lettre de M. de Voltaire à M. Hume (1766-1767).

Voltaire treats his readers to more than just Mlle de Saint-Yves’s death. He presents a series of lugubrious scenes, in one of which the Ingénu entirely displaces his godmother as an object of fascination:

‘Le morne et terrible silence de l’Ingénu, ses yeux sombres, ses lèvres tremblantes, les frémissements de son corps, portaient dans l’âme de tous ceux qui le regardaient ce mélange de compassion et d’effroi qui enchaîne toutes les puissances de l’âme, qui exclut tout discours, et qui ne se manifeste que par des mots entrecoupés. L’hôtesse et sa famille étaient accourues ; on tremblait de son désespoir, on le gardait à vue, on observait tous ses mouvements. Déjà le corps glacé de la belle Saint-Yves avait été porté dans une salle basse, loin des yeux de son amant, qui semblait la chercher encore, quoiqu’il ne fût plus en état de rien voir.’

Mlle de Saint-Yves’s body comes back into view, only to be ignored; her corpse is displayed by the front door while two priests distractedly recite prayers; some passers-by lazily sprinkle holy water while others blithely walk on; and Père de La Chaise averts his eyes from the casket. The characters’ reactions proceed/decline (take your pick) from profound grief to indifference and then to rejection. Where does this leave the readers? Are we meant to weep, breeze along, or even laugh? Must one have a heart of stone to read the death of Mlle de Saint-Yves without laughing?

One way into thinking about those final pages of L’Ingénu might be suggested by the moment in chapter 18 when the heroine arrives at the Bastille:

‘Confuse et charmée, idolâtre de l’Ingénu, et se haïssant elle-même, elle arrive enfin à la porte de
… cet affreux château, palais de la vengeance,
Qui renferme souvent le crime et l’innocence.
Quand il fallut descendre du carrosse, les forces lui manquèrent; on l’aida; elle entra, le cœur palpitant, les yeux humides, le front consterné.’

Just as Wilde celebrates his own writing, so does Voltaire, who quotes here from the fourth canto of La Henriade. By moving into the literary realm, Voltaire asks his readers to be more conscious about the way fiction sets us up for particular response. Fiction, as Rita Felski so persuasively argues, can provoke and unsettle us in unexpected ways: ‘We can be taken hold of, possessed, invaded by a text in a way that we cannot fully control or explain and in a manner that fails to jibe with public postures of ironic dispassion or disciplinary detachment.’[2] And L’Ingénu does just that, inviting its readers to commiserate, weep and even laugh over the death of its heroine.

– Thomas Wynn

[1] For an English translation of this and following quotations, please see p.159-60.

[2] Rita Felski, ‘After suspicion’, Profession (2009), p.28-35 (p.33).

Translating ‘rights of man’ across language, time and meaning

With the release of this month’s book, The Enlightenment and the rights of man, the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment is pleased to publish, for the first time in our nearly 65-year history, a translation of a previously published scholarly title. We are honoured and proud that Vincenzo Ferrone, Professor of Modern History at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Turin, chose the series to present his richly sourced and deeply erudite argument to the English-reading public.[1]

The Studies have long been, and remain, an actively bilingual collection, offering books in French and English. And we have previously published translations of historical documents – most recently, Clorinda Donato and Ricardo López, Enlightenment Spain and the ‘Encyclopédie Méthodique’. However, this release marks a further expansion and evolution of our editorial mission as a scholarly collection interested in the full breadth and scope of the Enlightenment, a place for communication across disciplines but also across multiple languages.

The Enlightenment and the rights of man

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is the November 2019 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The Enlightenment and the rights of man is an appropriate book for us to launch this new dimension of our publishing programme because it addresses a theme of such great currency for multiple disciplines, including history, politics, philosophy and law. Specifically, Ferrone seeks the origin of a language of “rights of man”, and explores both its distinction from, and its relevance to, contemporary understandings of political “civil rights” and a trans-national discourse of “universal human rights”. (These themes will be explored in a special discussion of the book on 19 February 2020, hosted by the Voltaire Foundation and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights.)

One might consider the classical interpretation of the Enlightenment’s role in the history of rights to be found in the “Whig interpretation of history”. This interpretation, focused primarily on the history of England, traced a clear line of progression from late medieval and early modern natural law theory to the Enlightenment concept of “natural rights” put forth in Whig arguments for toleration, parliamentary sovereignty and limitations on the authority of the state over the life, liberty and property of the individual.[2] From there, this classical argument would hold, a more modern, liberal conception of rights emerged through the American Revolution and early republic.[3]

Then, about 40 years ago, this interpretation came under challenge through several works of enduring significance. John Pocock proposed an alternative paradigm, one which argued for the importance of “an Atlantic republican tradition” not grounded in natural law theory.[4] Pocock suggested classical civic republicanism and 17th-century radicalism, more than Enlightenment ideals of natural law, as the basis for a very different understanding of the place of rights in American (and more broadly, modern Western) political culture. Nearly simultaneously, working from a very different line of approach, Garry Wills[5] also downplayed Whig political ideology as the template for conceptions of political rights in the Declaration of Independence, and its legacy in American culture. Wills highlighted other Enlightenment languages, particularly the Scottish school of civil society and moral sentiment.[6] A third inflection away from classical natural law as the basis for rights followed Tom Paine’s trajectory, deploying “rights of man” as a concept encompassing not individual liberties but a broader vision of a democratic, egalitarian political culture. Paine’s view found fullest expression not in the Enlightenment but among the French Jacobins, for whom “the rights of man” characterised not only individual liberties of the 1789 “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen”, but also the egalitarian fiscal policy of the republic and revised “Declaration” proposed in 1793 for its never-adopted Constitution.[7]

In the decade prior to the initial publication of Professor Ferrone’s book, the link between the Enlightenment ideas of natural right and “human rights” had been restored, but not as it was understood in the classical model. It is this more recent body of work to which Ferrone responds most directly. Lynn Hunt sought to reassert the Enlightenment origins of human rights but not ground them in natural law political theory; she argued instead that we should understand the “rights of man” as having been inspired by the “torrents of emotion” which poured forth in literary works, especially novels and personal memoirs, and through which an idea of the “self” emerged. This self, she argued, became the subjectivity to which rights could be attributed.[8] Hunt had adhered to the more classical argument in her documentary textbook, French Revolution and Human Rights (1st edition, Bedford Books, 1996), emphasising the influence of political debates over toleration and citizenship, and highlighting the structural and substantive link from the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen to the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even more recently, intellectual historian and legal scholar Sam Moyn argued that “human rights” should be understood as a contemporary political paradigm which emerges only after the 20th century undermined the Christian and Marxist eschatological visions of human destiny. To Moyn, “human rights” were not an Enlightenment ideal so much as the “last utopia”.[9]

The Enlightenment and the rights of man, in response, reasserts the importance, and historical specificity, of the European Enlightenment as the central terrain for interpreting how “rights of man” (which he distinguishes explicitly from “human rights”) took right as a modern political language. Inspired by his scholarly mentor, Franco Venturi, Ferrone casts his view broadly across Europe and North America, though paying particular attention to the English abolitionist movement (as symbolised by the image on the book’s cover). He argues for the relevance of the 18th century to modern concerns (especially in his preface), although he agrees that the discourse of “human rights” should be located in the 1940s and 1950s. He makes a powerful case for the Enlightenment “rights of man” as not being historically limited in its vision, even though the philosophes and abolitionists of that era did not attain, in vision or action, the global scale of post-war human rights organisations.

– Gregory S. Brown (General Editor, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, and Professor of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

At present, manuscripts which are translations of several other published scholarly books are currently in development or under review. Those interested in discussing a proposal for an English translation of works on the Enlightenment, especially works originally written in non-Western languages, are encouraged to contact the General Editor or any other member of the editorial board.


[1] The volume was first published in Italian as Storia dei diritti dell’uomo: L’Illuminismo e la costruzione del linguaggio politico dei moderni (Roma: Editori Laterza, 2015). Visit the publisher’s website for more information.

[2] Although Herbert Butterfield famously associated this line of argument most closely with Lord Acton, its clearest expression was in Macaulay’s History of England from the accession of James II.

[3] One might also consider Leo Strauss’s Wallgreen Lectures, Natural Right and History (University of Chicago Press, 1953) as a pillar of this classical interpretation of rights as an expression of natural law theory. For a much more historically broad and deep account of the natural law origins of rights as expressed in the Enlightenment and then American and French Revolutions, see Dan Edelstein, On the Spirit of Rights (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

[4] The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton University Press, 1975, 2nd edition, 2003).

[5] Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (Doubleday, 1978, 2nd edition 2018).

[6] The significance of this argument is expanded by David Armitage, who has shown that the Declaration of Independence is much more than merely an American heritage, in The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard University Press, 2008).

[7] On “social rights” as a component of the idea of “rights of man” in the French Revolution, see for instance Jean-Pierre Gross, Fair Shares for All: Jacobin Egalitarianism in Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1997), and the essay of G. Charles Walton in David Andress, ed., Experiencing the French Revolution (SVEC 2013:05).

[8] Inventing Human Rights: A History (Norton, 2007).

[9] The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Harvard University Press, 2012).

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

Au programme des agrégations de Lettres en 2020: Zadig, CandideL’Ingénu

Les ‘contes philosophiques’ de Voltaire sont aujourd’hui la partie émergée d’un iceberg aux multiples facettes. D’abord poète, mondain, tragique et épique, Voltaire a beaucoup écrit, dans tous les genres. Ses œuvres complètes totaliseront deux cents volumes dans la nouvelle édition qu’achève en ce moment la Voltaire Foundation à Oxford. La lecture de ses contes nécessite, pour qui veut en saisir toute la portée littéraire, historique et philosophique, une lecture approfondie d’autres écrits du philosophe. Il faut notamment relire l’ensemble du corpus romanesque, pour saisir les échos, les continuités et les évolutions entre les contes de jeunesse, qu’ils soient en vers ou déjà en prose, et les contes au programme de l’agrégation. La production théâtrale, elle aussi, offre des perspectives éclairantes sur l’œuvre narrative, que l’on songe à la veine orientale de plusieurs de ses tragédies, ou bien à certaines thématiques de ses comédies, liées à la condition féminine que l’on retrouve dans les contes. La philosophie personnelle de Voltaire, son ethos, sa morale et ses conceptions esthétiques sont exprimés dans nombre de poèmes, le Temple du goût, Le Mondain ou encore ses épîtres. Bien entendu, et c’est peut-être le plus important, les enjeux des contes ne peuvent être saisis sans une relecture des grands textes philosophiques et militants de Voltaire. Enfin, il est aussi utile et intéressant de se référer aux écrits autobiographiques du philosophe, ainsi qu’à sa correspondance, qui rassemble aujourd’hui près de vingt mille lettres.

Zadig, gravure de Monnet et Dambrun

‘L’ange cria [à Zadig] du haut des airs: prends ton chemin vers Babylone.’ Gravure de Monnet et Dambrun, dans Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), t.1. Image BnF/Gallica.

Si les trois contes mis au programme de l’agrégation à la prochaine session sont les plus célèbres de toute la production voltairienne, c’est qu’ils ont su émouvoir et faire réfléchir des générations de lecteurs. Elaborés sur une vingtaine d’années, ces contes s’inscrivent chacun à une étape décisive de la trajectoire de Voltaire. Zadig (1748), Candide (1759) et L’Ingénu (1767) ont popularisé l’image d’un Voltaire conteur, volontiers railleur, préoccupé par les maux de notre monde, en un mot universel. Qu’on les nomme ‘récits’ ou ‘contes philosophiques’, ces ‘fictions pensantes’ (selon l’expression de Franck Salaün, Besoin de fiction, Paris, 2010) mettent en scène les aventures terrestres de trois jeunes garçons, originaires de Mésopotamie, d’Allemagne et du Canada, parcourant le monde sur un mode initiatique, goûtant l’amour et tâtant de la prison, découvrant les beautés et les contradictions des sociétés humaines. Nos héros se forgent ainsi, au contact de ces réalités, une expérience qui leur permet de construire une pensée critique.

Ces dispositifs romanesques, qui jouent du topos du manuscrit trouvé, sont avant tout didactiques. Ils participent des Lumières militantes. Voltaire veut former une jeunesse trop souvent inconsciente: ‘Nous l’avons déjà dit ailleurs, et nous le répétons: pourquoi ? Parce que les jeunes Welches, pour l’édification de qui nous écrivons, lisent en courant, et oublient ce qu’ils lisent’ (note de Voltaire dans l’article ‘Ventres paresseux’ des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie). Le propos des contes n’est pas neuf. Ces récits participent, grâce à une formule littéraire inédite, du combat de Voltaire contre ‘l’Infâme’, mettant en jeu les préjugés de son temps et dénonçant tour à tour le fanatisme religieux, la violence, l’exploitation des hommes et des femmes, l’obscurantisme, la métaphysique lénifiante, le dogmatisme pédant et la suffisance des puissants. L’Ancien régime de la pensée, de l’organisation sociale et du pouvoir politique sont ainsi vilipendés, en ce qu’ils produisent des injustices sans nombre que les personnages mis en scène découvrent avec naïveté et effroi.

Candide, gravure de Monnet et Deny

‘M. le baron de Thunder-ten-tronckh passa auprès du paravent, et, voyant cette cause et cet effet, chassa Candide du château à grands coups de pied dans le derrière.’ Gravure de Monnet et Deny, dans Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), t.2. Image BnF/Gallica.

Comment Voltaire est-il parvenu à mettre au point cette recette littéraire appelée à une grande fortune et si indissociablement liée à son nom ? Ne cessant, tout au long de sa carrière, de réfléchir à son art poétique, il a formulé à plusieurs endroits les enjeux théoriques de son écriture. Pour être efficace, le conte voltairien doit être ‘très court et un peu salé’ (lettre de Voltaire à Paul Claude Moultou, 5 janvier 1763). Ces petites ‘coïonneries’, comme les appelait volontiers le philosophe, sont des entités narratives reposant sur le récit d’aventures de fiction, mêlées de considérations sur la marche du monde, d’indications référentielles et d’idées facilement reconnaissables. Un riche arrière-plan historique, politique et religieux est constamment mis en perspective dans les contes, dont les sources documentaires sont d’une grande variété. Surtout, le récit est parodique, et joue constamment d’un intertexte multiple, à tel point qu’on a pu parler, à propos de Candide, d’une ‘encyclopédie du roman’. Les courants de pensée avec lesquels les récits dialoguent sans cesse, de façon critique et parodique, ne sont pas moins complexes à saisir. Voltaire passe ainsi en revue nombre de systèmes philosophiques, pour aboutir à une conclusion qui chasse toute prétention à une explication générale du monde. La véritable sagesse, pour Zadig, pour Candide ou pour l’Ingénu consiste surtout à se méfier des interprétations simplistes, invitant ainsi le lecteur à se forger plutôt la conviction des limites de notre savoir, seule forme de sagesse et de morale.

L'Ingénu, gravure de Monnet et Deny

‘Mon cher neveu, dit tendrement le prieur [à l’Ingénu], ce n’est pas ainsi qu’on baptise en Basse-Bretagne’. Gravure de Monnet et Deny, dans Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), t.2. Image BnF/Gallica.

Les composantes de la fiction, schéma initiatique du conte, motif du voyage, rencontres, dialogues, discours, intertexte et métafiction, participent d’une intention globale: figurer un processus de prise de conscience politique. C’est en cela que la fiction s’inscrit dans le projet des Lumières. Le roman d’apprentissage met en scène une initiation: l’évolution psychologique du héros, née de la confrontation avec de nouvelles réalités sociologiques, culturelles, politiques, génère une remise en question, un questionnement des valeurs et des modèles connus. Le motif du voyage, du déplacement, permet la découverte d’un monde inconnu, présentant de nouveaux modes de fonctionnement (l’Egypte, l’Eldorado ou la France). Le réalisme géographique, culturel, sociologique donne lieu à des tableaux descriptifs: par ces descriptions, le narrateur propose au lecteur un processus critique, mettant en lumière les absurdités, les failles, les excès de ce que les personnages observent. Les rencontres avec d’autres personnages sont des moments de confrontation avec l’autre. L’expérience de l’altérité permet une prise de conscience de la différence de pensée, de valeurs, de culture et la mise à distance, pour les personnages mais aussi pour le lecteur, de ses propres certitudes. Certes, les trois fictions au programme présentent des points communs, qui permettent de les aborder conjointement – le récit initiatique est mis au service d’une intention critique, le romanesque s’allie au questionnement moral et philosophique, la fantaisie et l’humour confèrent une dimension parodique à l’intrigue sentimentale et au récit d’aventure –, mais sur d’autres plans, ces trois contes diffèrent sensiblement, et manifestent l’évolution de la pensée de l’auteur.

On ne peut donc que se réjouir de voir les récits les plus célèbres de Voltaire au programme des agrégations de Lettres. Jouant sur le rire, introduisant un jeu dans la pensée, suspendant le jugement, ils permettent l’exercice de la réflexion. Traduits, édités, illustrés, lus, étudiés, commentés, imités, adaptés dans le monde entier, ces trois contes offrent aujourd’hui aux agrégatifs l’occasion d’entrer dans l’atelier du philosophe pour analyser ces chefs d’œuvres dont la verve et l’humour sont une fête pour l’intelligence. La poétique voltairienne, qui convoque et associe de multiples formes littéraires, est un hymne à la liberté, celle de l’écrivain et celle du lecteur. Puissent les agrégatifs faire leur cette liberté, et la transmettre un jour à leurs élèves !

– Linda Gil
(Université Paul-Valéry de Montpellier, Institut de recherche sur la Renaissance, l’âge Classique et les Lumières)

La Beaumelle, écrivain engagé avant la lettre

Le quinzième tome de la « Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle », qui vient de paraître, se concentre sur la période de janvier 1764 à décembre 1766.

Le 23 mars 1764 le mariage de La Beaumelle avec Rose-Victoire Lavaysse veuve Nicol est célébré en l’église du Taur à Toulouse. La Beaumelle a contraint par voie d’huissier le curé qui connaissaient les époux comme des protestants notoires à respecter la législation qui stipule que le royaume est tout entier catholique.

Laurent Angliviel de la Beaumelle

Laurent Angliviel de La Beaumelle. Artiste inconnu.

La Beaumelle s’installe à la Nogarède, propriété de sa femme, près de Mazères en pays de Foix. Il consacre beaucoup de soins à la mise en valeur de cette demeure et à la modernisation de l’exploitation des terres : locations, fermages, plantations de muriers, production de céréales. Le 22 août 1765, en tant que ‘seigneur haut, moyen et bas justicier du Carla’, il est élu député du corps de la noblesse et des militaires de Mazères à l’assemblée des notables de la province. En effet il a acheté à sa femme la seigneurie du Carla, la patrie de Bayle. Il s’engage dans les contestations politiques qui agitent ces deux communautés.

Par son mariage La Beaumelle est devenu le gendre du célèbre avocat David Lavaysse et le beau-frère de Gaubert Lavaysse, impliqué dans l’affaire Calas. La réhabilitation des condamnés prend le pas dans ses préoccupations sur sa Vie de Maupertuis et sur ses traductions des auteurs latins. Il rédige les ‘Lettres à Mr [Daine]’, l’un des maîtres des requêtes de l’Hôtel qui le 9 mars 1765 déclarent innocents tous les accusés. Sollicité par Mme Calas il achève une consultation pour la prise à partie en dommage et intérêts des Capitouls et de la Tournelle du Parlement de Toulouse. Il y analyse la responsabilité du capitoul David de Beaudrigue dans les premiers commencements de cette procédure inique : par la rédaction antidatée du procès verbal de sa descente sur les lieux, par l’arrestation précipitée des personnes présentes avant tout interrogatoire et sans procéder à un état des lieux, par l’invention de prétendus bruits publics évoquant un crime religieux, il a empêché toute enquête objective et réduit au silence des témoins transformés en accusés. Gaubert Lavaysse à Paris est à la croisée de la rédaction de deux mémoires de prise à partie, l’un réalisé à Toulouse par La Beaumelle auquel Mme Calas renoncera, l’autre à Paris par Elie de Beaumont poussé par Voltaire.

Parmi les nombreux documents inédits contenus dans ce volume on notera les ‘Lettres à Mr [Daine]’ inachevées, le très étendu ‘Mémoire à consulter pour la dame Calas’ prêt pour l’impression, tous deux de la main de La Beaumelle, le dossier qui a conduit à la destitution partielle du capitoul David de Beaudrigue convaincu de prévarication sans lien avec son action dans l’affaire Calas, et le rapport relevant dans les Mémoires de Maintenon les affirmations contraires à la foi catholique qui justifient sa mise à l’index par le Vatican en 1765.

– Claude Lauriol

N.B.: Jusqu’en 2019, la ‘Correspondance générale de La Beaumelle’ a été publiée par la Voltaire Foundation. D’entente avec les éditeurs Hubert Bost, Claude Lauriol et Hubert Angliviel de La Beaumelle, le relais éditorial sera pris, à partir du tome XVI, par les éditions Slatkine pour les derniers tomes de l’édition.

Ceci n’est pas Candide

Translating Voltaire: past and present

In his study of Voltaire and England (1976), André-Michel Rousseau gives Voltaire’s contemporary translators short shrift. He dismisses most English translations of the contes out of hand. They are ‘platement littérales, lourdes et fades’ (flat, literal, heavy and colourless). Translations of the plays fare better, but only because they aren’t translations at all. They are rewritings. Only historical and philosophical works escape unscathed. They are hardly altered by translation. Mercifully, translators couldn’t do them much damage.

Candide as pulp fiction

Candide as pulp fiction: front cover of the translation by Walter J. Fultz (New York, Lion Books, 1952).

Such withering – and blinkered – judgements reflect a persistent trope in Western thinking. Common metaphors of translation (an unfaithful mistress, a mirror, the distorted image on the back of a tapestry…) always emphasise negation – what translation is not, rather than what it is. Measured on a notional scale of sameness to the ‘original’, any translation, however brilliantly executed, will always fall short, a dull satellite orbiting the dazzling planet of the source text. A ‘translator’, by the same token, can never equal an ‘author’. Alexander Pope, for example, describes Homer’s hapless translators struggling to keep up the pace: ‘sweating and straining after [the author] by violent leaps and bounds, [or] slowly and servilely creeping in his train’ (preface to The Iliad of Homer, p.20). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Rousseau warned fellow scholars not to waste time on translations. An endless catalogue of egregious errors would add nothing to our knowledge of Voltaire. In any case, no translator could argue the toss with Voltaire.

It is now over fifty years since Barthes (1967) and Foucault (1969) challenged conventional concepts of authorship and declared ‘the author’ dead. One might, therefore, reasonably assume that ‘the translator’ perished in the same theoretical tsunami. Up to a point that is true. As objects of academic study, translated texts and those who produce them have come into their own. Translation Studies are now established across the globe as a distinctive interdisciplinary field, and funding bodies look favourably on research projects with a focus on translation. Theorists agree that translations are produced not by solo translators but by multiple agents; they are autonomous texts functioning independently within the literary system in which they are received. Translators need many of the same skills as authors, but they deploy them differently. They work bilingually to construct hybrid texts comparable with, but not the same as, the ‘source’ texts to which they are intertextually linked. Translated texts and those who create them are, thus, agents in the afterlife of the source text. As such, they merit scholarly examination in their own right. These theoretical and institutional advances are opening the way for exciting – and long overdue – projects on translations of Voltaire and the context of their reception.

But that is only part of the story.

Practice has not kept pace with theory. Academics can now research translation, they can teach courses on it, but they are not paid to do it.[1] In other words, the distinctive contribution to knowledge made by translators as translators is still unacknowledged at an institutional level. This disjunct between theory and practice is not a trivial anomaly. It is a primary factor in a worrying drop in translation commissions among Anglophone academic publishers.[2]

Does that matter?

French classics marketed as Gallic smut for wider appeal

French classics marketed as Gallic smut for wider appeal: Mademoiselle de Maupin and Candide (New York, Royal Books, 1953).

As Voltaire points out: ‘il en coûte toujours quelques fatigues à lire des choses abstraites dans une langue étrangère’ (reading about abstract matters in a foreign language always entails a certain amount of effort). Translations exist, in other words, because readers need them. The prevalence of English as the lingua franca of academic exchange should not blind us to the fact that a great deal of leading-edge research is published in other languages. Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes are proof of that. But there is a clear resistance to scholarship produced in languages other than English (Sapiro, p.3-4), a monolingual bias compounded in the US and UK by the steady erosion of modern language learning. Fewer and fewer researchers beyond the confines of French Studies are able (or willing) to access texts published in French. Without translations, therefore, the impact of the groundbreaking scholarship in the Œuvres complètes will be significantly reduced. But without a funding model that recognises translation as a valid scholarly output, translation commissions within the academic publishing sector will dwindle still further.

In recent decades, the landscape of academic publishing has changed almost beyond recognition. Academic texts, translated or not, can be funded, produced and disseminated differently. It is a kairos, a moment of opportunity to mainstream translators and translation networks within research communities. Knowledge production is dynamic, and the increased synchronicity afforded by new technologies allows more proactive collaboration between different participants (editors, translators, authors, copyright holders, designers, technicians) and expands conventional limits of ‘translatorship’. As a recent pilot partnership between the Voltaire Foundation and the University of Bristol has shown, the virtual space of the Voltaire Lab is an ideal environment in which to create a global translation network, producing new texts which contribute to the transdisciplinary afterlife of the Œuvres complètes. The long-term aim of the project, which is part of Voltaire Foundation’s Digital Enlightenment project funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, is to put in place a translation ‘laboratory’, making key textual and peritextual scholarship in the Œuvres complètes available (initially in English) to researchers across the disciplinary spectrum.

Today’s general reader is spoilt for choice as regards translations of Voltaire’s best-known works, but scholars are less well served. Funding is a primary obstacle. Quality another. While volunteer networks can be a partial solution, competent academic translators are thin on the ground (Sapiro, p.185). Postgraduate programmes in translation, however, are flourishing and the opportunity to translate complex texts for which there is a genuine market is valuable training for today’s students, especially if they can work in a supportive environment. The Voltaire Foundation, therefore, formed a partnership with the University of Bristol and trialled the translation of the article Goût from Questions sur l’Encyclopédie as the basis for a Master’s dissertation. The relationship between the student and the Foundation broadly paralleled that between translator and client, but the task brief and records of student / ‘client’ exchanges were shared with the dissertation supervisor, who worked with the student in the normal way. Full responsibility for assessment remains with the University, while the Foundation will liaise independently with the student about publication in the Voltaire Lab, a prestigious showcase for her practical skills.

The success of the pilot project is encouraging, and in the first instance the collaborative model will be expanded to include other partner institutions with the aim of producing a series of themed translations from the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Once translation guidelines are fully developed, the network can be extended to include undergraduate (and other) volunteers. In due course, larger collaborative translation projects could be initiated, potentially exploring the power of translation tools to accelerate the rate of production. Practice-based doctorates are increasingly common in post-graduate programmes, and joint funding bids could include the production of new translations as one of their research objectives.

In practical terms, a global translation network within the Voltaire Lab integrates translation production within a wider research agenda, combats the decline in conventional translation commissions, and raises the institutional status of academic translators. From a theoretical perspective, however, it does much more than that. It reconfigures the relationship between translatorship and authorship within the cycle of knowledge production. Translators do not straggle and struggle after authors as Pope implies. They pick up the baton from them, taking their texts forward into the future. They work collaboratively to craft new – quite different – texts: ‘translations’, intertextually linked to an anterior ‘source’ text, but destined and designed for new markets and new readers.

– Adrienne Mason

[1] See Venuti, L. (ed.), Teaching Translation: Programs, Courses, Pedagogies (Abingdon & New York, 2017), p.4-7.

[2] Frisani, M., McCoy, J. A. and Sapiro, G. (2014), ‘Les traducteurs de sciences humaines et sociales aux États-Unis et au Royaume-Uni’, in Sciences humaines en traduction. Les livres français aux États-Unis, au Royaume-Uni et en Argentine, ed. G. Sapiro (Paris, 2014), p.158–74 (166-68).