The Journées Voltaire 2019

La vision et la réception de Voltaire et de ses séjours dans l’espace allemand au sein des réseaux de communication germanophones (XVIIIe- XIXe siècles).

The recent Journées Voltaire held on 13-14 June at Amiens and Paris focused on Voltaire’s reception in the German-speaking lands. Papers dealt with such questions as the diffusion of Voltaire’s work’s outre-Rhin, and the presence of Germany or German subjects in Voltaire’s works, as well as Voltaire’s influence on the major figures in German literature and philosophy: Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Nietzsche and others.

From left to right: Antony McKenna, Christiane Mervaud, Edouard Langille.

From left to right: Antony McKenna, Christiane Mervaud, Edouard Langille.

The conference’s final panel featured two papers of interest to the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the Complete Works: Antony McKenna’s “La Lettre sur Locke à la cour princière de Rheinsberg”, and my own “L’Avis de l’éditeur précédant la Réponse aux vers précédents (c’est-à-dire les Vers aux Roi de Prusse) est-il de Voltaire?”

Enthusiasm can flag during the last panel of a conference, but such was not the case on 14 June. Under the presidency of Christiane Mervaud, Antony McKenna argued conclusively that as early as July 1736 a clandestine version of Lettre 13, “Sur Locke”, had made its way to Berlin where it was favourably received by Crown Prince Frederick. The young Frederick, it seems, now turned away from Wolff’s metaphysics and, following Voltaire’s interpretation of Locke, he increasingly called into doubt the immortality of the soul. These early days chronicle the beginning of Frederick the Great’s lifelong association with Voltaire, and they mark a turning point in the young Prince’s conversion to Enlightenment ideals. Interestingly, according to McKenna, the 1736 publication of the clandestine version of Lettre 13 was orchestrated by Voltaire’s enemies, who sought to discredit him by exposing his anti-Christian convictions to the wider public, especially in France. These findings will no doubt be considered as the VF prepares its forthcoming edition of the Lettres philosophiques.

Voltaire’s unsigned works have long occupied critics. Previously unattributed works, nevertheless, continue to be identified. In the second of the panel’s papers I wondered whether Voltaire wrote the Avis de l’éditeur preceding the poem entitled Réponse aux vers précédents, the latter an unbridled attack on Voltaire’s scandalous Vers au roi de Prusse. The Avis and Réponse were published anonymously in the last pages of the 1757 edition of the Lettre philosophique par M. de V*** (p. 276-285). The Avis’s ironic tone and word choices certainly appear to bear Voltaire’s stamp. Voltaire’s authorship seems even more plausible when one considers the Réponse’s menacing tone: “Comment ton grand savoir ne te dicte-t-il pas / Que les rois sont à craindre, ayant de fort longs bras?” (p. 283). Voltaire was hardly going to take such a threat lying down. Recalling his house arrest in Frankfurt in 1753 after he left Frederick’s court in Potsdam under a cloud, it seems likely that Voltaire arranged to publish the Réponse, preceded with the Avis, right after his own Vers au roi de Prusse, in order to discredit Frederick and expose the hostility his verse aroused at the Prussian court.

As Voltaire knew well, attack is the best form of defence.

– Edouard Langille

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