Attention: livre dangereux

As Banned Books Week is drawing to a close, this seemed an opportune time to reflect on an event that occurred 250 years ago in Northern France and which haunted Voltaire for the rest of his life.

When Voltaire inscribed the words ‘livre dangereux’ in a number of the books in his library, he was referring to the subversive content of these works. But he could also have been alluding to the dangers connected with authoring or possessing such books in Old Regime France.

That reality was made startlingly clear in June 1766, when the chevalier de La Barre, a young nobleman from the provincial town of Abbeville, was condemned by the Parisian Parlement to be tortured and executed for various blasphemies, including the failure to doff his cap in the presence of a religious procession, and for ‘having given marks of respect and adoration to the vile and impure books [livres infâmes et impurs] that were placed on a shelf in his room’.* Indeed, the prominence of these books was such that the official document spelling out his sentence made provision for transporting the lot of them back to Abbeville from Paris, where they had been sent while the judgment was under review. And one book specifically was designated to be ‘thrown by the Executor of High Justice onto the same pyre as the body of said Lefebvre de la Barre’: this book was Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portatif.

Of course, following standard practice in the world of clandestine books, Voltaire had declined to have his name appear in print editions of this work, and, in his correspondence, he had consistently denied responsibility for it. For this reason, he himself was not named in the sentence condemning La Barre, nor had he been named the previous year in the Parlement’s decree banning the Dictionnaire philosophique. But the magistrates had intentionally defined their opposition to this work in terms that implicated Voltaire directly. They targeted the Dictionnaire philosophique not simply because it contained unorthodox ideas; more pointedly, they claimed that the rhetorical strategies it used — including ridicule and wit — and the fact that it was aimed at a broad reading audience made it particularly venomous. Regarding authorship, the magistrates pretended not to know whose work this was but ominously stated: ‘If the author were known, he would not appear any less deserving than his work of the most rigorous punishments.’

Low relief on the La Barre monument in Abbeville.

Low relief on the La Barre monument in Abbeville.

Naturally, Voltaire was alarmed to be connected in this way to the Chevalier, and his correspondence displays a number of strategies that distance him from the young man’s horrific execution: renewed denials of authorship; rejection of the idea that reading philosophical works could lead to delinquency; sarcastic denunciations of Pasquier, the councilor most responsible for linking the incident to the philosophes. At the same time, however, Voltaire refused to be intimidated, and he vigorously embraced La Barre’s memory, making it his mission to publicize the arbitrary judicial practices that had led to his death. Most immediately, he revised and amended the text of the very work that tied him to the case, the Dictionnaire philosophique, adding numerous anti-religious articles, including allusions to La Barre. He also composed an emotional Relation de la mort du chevalier de La Barre, which began to circulate in early 1768. In 1769, a further expanded edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique included a new article, ‘Torture’, in which La Barre’s gruesome story again featured prominently. In 1771, the Relation was reprinted in its near entirety as the article ‘Justice’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. And in 1775, Voltaire again took up the events of 1766 in Le Cri du sang innocent, as he sought to assist one of La Barre’s associates, Gaillard d’Etallonde, in his quest to return from exile in Prussia.

Torture: first page.

First page of the article ‘Torture’, in La Raison par alphabet (this is the 1769 edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Indeed, Voltaire continued to ponder the tragedy of Abbeville until his final days, no doubt haunted by the way in which his own works had been implicated in a gross abuse of judiciary power. In returning repeatedly to these events, in creating an ongoing stream of banned books, he carried out his earlier vow: ‘Je veux crier la vérité à plein gosier; je veux faire retentir le nom du chevalier de La Barre à Paris et à Moscou; je veux ramener les hommes à l’amour de l’humanité par l’horreur de la barbarie’ (letter to Gabriel Cramer [D14678, January 1768]).

– John R. Iverson, Whitman College

* The full text of the two parliamentary decrees was reproduced in L.-M. Chaudon’s Dictionnaire anti-philosophique, pour servir de Commentaire & de Correctif au Dictionnaire Philosophique […] (Avignon, 1767).

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