Voltaire’s ‘monosyllabic’ tempest

Voltaire relished a good fight. But while the passions that would be invested in the Calas and La Barre affairs were to leave little room for feelings of amusement, when it came to Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan the target was ripe, the personal risk was low, and never was Voltaire in such fully gleeful form as during the years 1760-1761. He was safely settled; the exasperating conflicts with Frederick II of Prussia were well behind him; after the resounding triumph of Candide, he had the satirical wind in his sails, and he ran with it.

For all of this, Le Franc had no one but himself to blame. Bolstered by his election to the Académie française, on 10 March 1760 he delivered an inaugural discourse of rare arrogance, posturing as France’s religious antidote to the ascending philosophes in French culture and in the Académie itself (he all but named Voltaire and D’Alembert), all the more so that he saw himself as God’s poet, his chief claim to fame being a series of editions of his Poésies sacrées, adaptations of Biblical psalms and other texts. Le Franc, a provincial magistrate, was really in every way insignificant except as a self-ordained symbol of reaction.

Title page of Les Quand

Title page of Les Quand (Geneva [Paris], 1760), an edition printed in red ink.

Voltaire perceived his target perfectly and struck with exquisite precision. He refers repeatedly and perversely to Le Franc’s earlier (as he calls it) Prière du déiste, which is nothing but a French translation of Pope’s Universal Prayer. From Le Franc’s Mémoire présenté au roi, published in May, he concludes (quite rightly) that Le Franc wanted to wrap himself in pious royal protection, headily aspiring even to the dignity of royal governor. Le Franc repeatedly exposed himself in every way to Voltaire’s wilting barrage, and surely rued the day he saw fit to allude to ‘ma naissance et mon état’, every syllable of which gave Voltaire purchase to sink his claws deeper into ‘le seigneur de Montauban’.

Whereas Les Quand, which launched the serial attack, rhetorical indictment, the flurry of ‘monosyllabes’ (so named because many were based on single-syllable anaphoras, beginning with quand, qui, etc.) that followed – anonymous all, of course, if not pseudonymous – was more pointed. There seemed to be broadsides sprouting up everywhere, and they were intended to be recopied, by press or by hand, ad libitum, so much so that their proliferation stretches the limit of what an ‘edition’ is; even their order of appearance is hard to sort out. André Morellet chimed in with his own Si, Mais and Pourquoi, and in September these, along with several other pieces joined the bulk of Voltaire’s satirical productions of 1760 and were assured a certain fixity in the Recueil des facéties parisiennes pour les six premiers mois de l’an 1760.

Engraving of Palissot

Engraving of Palissot, pursued by a wraith-like Voltaire. The caption mocks his name.

The dramatist Charles Palissot de Montenoy must have thought that Le Franc’s star was rising – when it was about to go down in flames – and more or less hitched to it his comedy Les Philosophes. The play upped the stakes for the philosophes: Le Franc just made people laugh at him, Palissot made them laugh at the philosophes. A Voltaire didn’t have to worry much about the Académie, but the Comédie-Française was another thing entirely, and raised the spectre of persecution. With Le Russe à Paris he broadened the attack to include such other enemies as Maupertuis and numerous religious polemicists and ‘sponsors’ of Palissot’s. It took a year for the rage on both sides to subside, and by then the balance was about to tip dramatically in the philosophes’ favour.

– Philip Stewart

Volume 51A of the Complete works of Voltaire publishes Voltaire’s interventions in the literary quarrels of 1760, both his own original pieces, and his annotated or abridged versions of texts by other participants.

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