Catfishing Voltaire

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

Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

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

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

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

Poem by Desforges-Maillard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Sam Bailey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Apocalypse then

The Contrast.

‘The Contrast, 1793…’ , engraving by Rowlandson, following Lord George Murphy (1793, pub. by S.W. Fores, London). Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF.

The concepts of ‘crisis’ and ‘apocalypse’ have reappeared rather abruptly on our secularized horizons, yet they have never been completely absent: merely, one could argue, in retreat from our prevailing belief in ‘progress’. From meditations on a ‘last man’ in Victorian England to Günther Anders’ writings on the nuclear threat in the 1950s, from eighteenth-century literature on ruins to ISIS today, these themes seem to be inextricably bound up with Modernity and our experience of it.

Crisis, extremes and apocalypse’ is a new research network at the University of Oxford that seeks to shed light on and engage with themes that are more timely than ever. Indeed, these themes have a long history and include events from the French Revolutionary period. After hosting a workshop on ‘Rousseau, Freedom and the French Revolution’ in March, in April the network welcomed Marisa Linton from the University of Kingston to discuss the French Revolution and the ‘politics’ and ‘language’ of virtue in a talk on ‘Robespierre and the politician’s terror’. The Revolutionary era’s diffusion of power and obsession with transparency led all political members to fashion themselves as men of virtue.

Marisa Linton.

Marisa Linton.

As Camille Desmoulins boasted on 14 December 1793 to the Jacobin Club: ‘I was always the first to denounce my own friends; from the moment that I realized that they were conducting themselves badly, I resisted the most dazzling offers and I stifled the voice of friendship that their great talents had inspired in me.’ (Original French: François Aulard, ed., La Société des Jacobins: recueil des documents pour l’histoire de club des Jacobins, 6 vols, Paris, 1889-1897, vol.5, p.559.)

This pursuit of a ‘Republic of virtue’ thus compelled all political members to give constant performances of virtue that threatened to spiral out of control and into violence at any moment: every action was scrutinized and could be interpreted as suspicious, leading to a pervasive fear.

The network will be hosting Marisa Linton once again in late autumn 2017, alongside Olivier Tonneau and Sophie Wahnich, for a workshop on Saint-Just. Visit the network’s homepage or our Facebook page for updates!

– Audrey Borowski

An overview of Marisa Linton’s spring talk

Robespierre cartoon.

‘Robespierre guillotinant le boureau après avoir fait guillot.r. tous les Français… : cy gyt toute la France’, engraving, [Hercy ?], (1794, s.n., Paris[?]). Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF.

Over 220 years since his death, Maximilien Robespierre continues to generate controversy over his role in the traumatic events of the French Revolutionary period known as the ‘Terror’ (1793-1794). Historians have repeatedly sought in Robespierre’s personality and motivation an explanation of the Terror. Marisa Linton argues that such interpretations can offer only a limited understanding: in order to comprehend both Robespierre and the Terror, we need to place his actions within the wider context of Revolutionary politics in the National Convention, paying close attention to the atmosphere in which politics were conducted. Most importantly, we need to take into account the extent to which political choices during the Terror were influenced by intense emotions on the part of the Conventionnels themselves – above all, the emotion of fear.

Marisa Linton uses ‘the politicians’ terror’, a term she first identified and used in her book Choosing terror: virtue, friendship and authenticity in the French Revolution (OUP, 2013), to throw new light both on Robespierre’s role in the Terror, and on the nature of the Terror itself. The politicians’ terror was the form of terror that Revolutionary leaders meted out to one another. The Revolutionary leaders were themselves ‘subject to terror’. This took two forms. Firstly, Revolutionary leaders were liable to arrest under the laws that enabled terror, as successive laws removed their parliamentary immunity and criminalised the ‘wrong’ political opinions. Secondly, they were subject to the emotion of terror. From the outset of the Revolution there was an expectation that Revolutionary politicians should be able to demonstrate authentic political morality (virtue). During the heightened atmosphere of 1793-1794, and against the backdrop of fears that France faced military defeat, any failure of Revolutionary politicians to demonstrate their political virtue could be seen as an indication that they were secret conspirators, motivated by financial and political corruption, and in league with the royalists and foreign powers to undermine the Revolution from within.

Marisa Linton then gave an extended account of the politicians’ terror, before going on to examine its role in one of the most iconic events of the Revolution – the arrest, trial and execution of Georges Danton and his group, the Dantonists, which took place just months before the fall of Robespierre himself. Listen to the full podcast of Marisa Linton’s talk, and look out for the workshop on Saint-Just.

 

L’Ingénu and Electronic Enlightenment

Title page of the first edition of L’Ingénu.

Title page of the first edition of L’Ingénu.

Electronic Enlightenment (EE), an online collection of edited correspondence from the early modern period, has been an invaluable resource for me as a first-year modern languages student at Durham University. As part of the Reading French Literature module I have been studying my first work by Voltaire, the satirical novella L’Ingénu, and have used EE to explore Voltaire’s correspondence, pursuing my intuitive hunches about this text as well as finding out more about the context in which it was written.

Religion struck me as one of the main topics of discussion in L’Ingénu. In reading letters to and from Voltaire on EE, I began to better appreciate the extent of religious contention in eighteenth-century France. The theory of Creation is referenced in a seemingly poignant moment at the end of chapter 13, where l’Ingénu is touched by the sight of a beautiful woman: ‘il faut convenir que Dieu n’a créé les femmes que pour apprivoiser les hommes.’ However, shortly after this assertion, Voltaire writes, ‘C’est une absurdité, c’est un outrage au genre humain, c’est un attentat contre l’Etre infini et suprême de dire: Il y a une vérité essentielle à l’homme, et Dieu l’a cachée.’ Here the use of irony and of different narrative voices points to the value of turning to Voltaire’s correspondence, as this is an external source which may be used to compare Voltaire’s voice as a narrator with his supposedly real voice when in communication with his peers. Voltaire’s particular form of expression means that the reader can never be quite sure as to where his personal opinion lies. This is confirmed through a study of his correspondence, where we see him playing with different voices.

Letters from figures such as Jean Le Rond d’Alembert piqued my curiosity to read about religious policy in contemporary society. D’Alembert remarks about religious tensions and debate in France, ‘la censure de la Sorbonne contenait douze à quinze pages contre la Tolérance’ (14 August 1767). This source of ‘unofficial’ discourse between the two men corresponding in a personal capacity is useful in gauging a contemporary reaction to the public discourse and politics of the time and the context in which Voltaire wrote.

Image from L'Ingénu.

‘Le Huron tout nu dans la rivière, attendant qu’on l’y vienne baptiser’, in Le Huron, ou l’Ingénu, histoire véritable, fromRomans et Contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2, p.234. Image BnF/Gallica.

Without this letter, I would not have started to explore so keenly this facet of eighteenth-century society. Similar religious contention is revealed in Voltaire’s letter to Etienne Noël Damilaville, as he makes reference to the significance of truth and tolerance in religious debate: ‘Je sais avec quelle fureur le fanatisme s’élève contre la philosophie. Elle a deux filles qu’il voudrait faire périr comme Calas, ce sont la vérité et la tolérance’ (1 March 1765). The case of Jean Calas serves as an illustration of Voltaire’s discussion of religious intolerance. It prompted me to look further into the Calas story, and to learn about the inferior position of Protestants in France at the time.

This has influenced my reading of L’Ingénu, since it supported the idea that the protagonist was regarded as such a social outsider because of the uniformity and strictness with which Catholicism dominated. From reading Voltaire’s letters, we can acknowledge the position of the author. It is clear that he advocated religious freedom, and sought to denounce the Catholic Church, since he poses assertive questions such as: ‘comment obtenir justice? comment s’aller remettre en prison dans sa patrie où la moitié du peuple dit encore que le meurtre de Calas était juste?’ (1 March 1765).

Finally, reading a distinct form of material such as Voltaire’s letters, instead of solely his published writings, has made me consider the impact of the public and the motivation behind authorship. Much more assertive opinions regarding theological inclination are expressed in the evidently intimate, more personal letters than in Voltaire’s stories, and the subtlety of his opinions appears clearer when the richness of the correspondence in EE is taken into account.

– Hannah Hawken

ASECS 2017: the twentieth century meets the eighteenth

This spring, the Voltaire Foundation showcased its publications at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. One of those staffing the VF book stand was Evan Casey, a graduate student in History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Here, Evan recounts her first-time experience of ASECS.

Downtown Minneapolis

Downtown Minneapolis.

As a history student working primarily on twentieth-century America I felt a bit of an interloper at an event for eighteenth-century scholars. However, I found that while I may have been out of my primary research period, I was not out of my methodical or theoretical comfort zone. I enjoyed participating in the graduate and women’s caucus luncheons, as well as the Voltaire Foundation’s cocktail and dessert party (which drew over 80 ASECS attendees to the suite of retiring executive director Byron Wells), the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment editorial board’s working dinner, and a pub outing on the final night of the meeting, hosted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Modern History.

Vf book stand, with Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and Evan Casey.

Vf book stand, with Kelsey Rubin-Detlev and Evan Casey.

I spent most of the conference at the Voltaire Foundation book stand, which provided an ideal spot from which to encounter the dix-huitiémistes in their native habitat. All three days brought consistent traffic between and during conference sessions. Several of the authors stopped by throughout the conference; most were pleased to see the display and enthusiastically took promotional order forms for their texts. Shoppers seemed similarly impressed by the exhibit of recent releases from Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment and the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. There was repeated enthusiasm for some of the newer books, including the monographs John Millar and the Scottish Enlightenment: family life and world history by Nicholas B. Miller, and William Beckford: the elusive Orientalist by Laurent Châtel, as well as Casanova: Enlightenment philosopher edited by Ivo Cerman, Susan Reynolds, and Diego Lucci. Great interest was also expressed in the final volume of the Correspondance de Madame de Graffigny, which completes the 15-vol. edition of all of Françoise de Graffigny’s letters.

Ecrasez l’infâme tote bag.

Ecrasez l’infâme tote bag.

Of course the most popular items at the stand were the complimentary ‘Ecrasez l’infâme’ canvas tote bags. These tote bags made a clear statement of fashion – so much so that our supply ran out early, though their appeal brought ASECS attendees to the stand throughout the weekend. The tote bags, emblazoned with the eponymous philosopher’s iconic motto, also sported the URL for the Voltaire Foundation website.

The website also provided a ready point of reference to another question that was posed frequently during the conference – how does one submit an inquiry or formal proposal to the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment team? The answer, of course, is through the series homepage, which includes an overview of its prestigious history, its presence in university libraries worldwide, information for prospective authors, and submission process guidelines. Many prospective authors who visited our table at ASECS expressed enthusiasm for this.

OSE editorial board dinner.

OSE editorial board dinner.

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment itself (including its former incarnation as Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century/ SVEC) also featured on the program. Members and associates of the VF – Director Nicholas Cronk, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment General Editor Gregory Brown, editorial board members Geoffrey Turnovsky, Karen Stolley and Melissa Hyde, as well as Oxford junior research fellow Kelsey Rubin-Detlev – participated in a roundtable entitled ‘The Enlightenment since Besterman: sixty years of Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century’, which highlighted important works from the SVEC backlist.

Naturally, I would encourage those already thinking forward to the 2018 meeting in Orlando to plan time to visit the Vf exhibit, and to check in on all the latest publications and forthcoming news.

– Evan Casey