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).

Strategy and revolution: the last words of the Jesuit China Mission?

On the eve of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), Voltaire published L’Orphelin de la Chine and the Essai sur les mœurs, marking what is generally seen as the high point of sinophilia in Enlightenment France. In the latter work, Voltaire presents China as a nation ruled with stability and continuity by an absolute but enlightened monarch and a rational and secular civil service, impartially trained and selected through the famous imperial examination system. Voltaire was, of course, drawing on a narrative that had largely been created by the Jesuits since Matteo Ricci had settled in China 150 years earlier.

The general view continues that, after Voltaire, sinophilia turned to sinophobia. Europe’s industrial and economic progress was contrasted with China’s perceived stagnation. The political stability and continuity that sinophiles had cited as evidence of the superiority of China’s political economy became problematic, as it was seen also to show that China could not now progress. Accordingly, China’s influence faded and left very little mark on France in the twenty years leading up to the Revolution.

The Mandate of Heaven–Strategy, Revolution, and the First European Translation of Sunzi’s Art of War (1772)

In The Mandate of Heaven – Strategy, Revolution, and the First European Translation of Sunzi’s Art of War (1772), published this month by Brill, I argue that China, as presented by the Jesuits, had a significant impact over those two decades. This can be traced through the movements, work and writings of three men. The first is a French missionary, Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–1793), who arrived in Beijing in 1751 to join the French Jesuit mission there. Four years later, just as Voltaire’s works were being published, two young Chinese, Louis Ko (1732–1780) and Étienne Yang (1733–1787), arrived in France to complete their education and training as Jesuits. (There was a third, Louis Zheng, but he soon disappears from sight.)

The Seven Years’ War, which formally broke out in 1756, radically affected all three of these men. In 1762, emboldened by the military, political and financial defeat of France and her Catholic allies at the hands of Britain and Prussia, the French Parlement brought a successful action to expel the Jesuits from France. Louis XV was forced to confirm this decision in 1764. Ko and Yang were stranded in France but taken under the wing of the minister Henri Bertin (1720–1792). Bertin arranged for their return to China, but not before he had organised for them to tour France to see the country’s manufacturing and economic strength. When they left in 1766, they took with them a set of questions about China’s economy, prepared by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781). Perhaps because of this exchange, François Quesnay (1694–1774), leader of the “physiocratic” movement of political economists, published an article in the physiocrat journal Éphémérides du citoyen entitled “Le Despotisme de la Chine” (1767). Quesnay went much further than Voltaire had in suggesting that China was a model for Europe, in the phrase of Lewis Maverick, who translated this work into English in 1946.

Joseph Amiot

A revolutionary? Joseph Amiot in Alfred Hamy, Galerie illustrée de la Compagnie de Jésus, 1893.

Ko, Yang and Amiot became correspondents of Bertin for the next thirty years. Amiot’s correspondence began in 1766 when the abolition of the Jesuits had thrown the French mission in Beijing into chaos and dismay. Amiot, by then one of its senior members, decided he needed to demonstrate to the French government that the Jesuits, the China mission and he himself were still of strategic value to France. Accordingly he translated “Sun Tzu’s Art of War” (孫子兵法 Sunzi bingfa) and other Chinese military materials, and sent them to Bertin. In his dedicatory letter, Amiot made clear his intent:

“A Frenchman, transplanted for the past 15 years in the capital of the Chinese empire, offers as homage to your Excellency a segment of his literary works. This tribute, owed to you by virtue of your taste for all that concerns the Sciences and the Arts, would not, perhaps, be unworthy of you if it were offered by anyone other than a Jesuit. It is a note, a compilation, or a type of translation of what has been written, least badly, in this extremity of Asia, on the military art … China is a vast field in which you constantly encounter some new resource that is no less suitable for the political utility of an enlightened statesman than for the sterile curiosity of the idle philosopher.”

Amiot’s work was published in 1772, and one of its readers was a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, Paul-Gédéon Joly de Maizeroy (1719–1780), himself a translator of classical military theory. In 1771, Maizeroy published his translation of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI’s Taktika. In the course of this Maizeroy took the word στρατηγíα from the Greek and created the French word stratégie. For Maizeroy, “strategy” was the all-embracing process by which political objectives are translated into action using military means. This was a significant development, but just as important is the fact that for Maizeroy, the object of strategy is not fighting but winning. By 1777, Maizeroy had synthesised classical European and Chinese traditions in a formulation that strongly echoes the Sunzi:

“The science of war […] is the art of managing the lives of men and of achieving victory. The latter does not mean only winning in combat. It is winning by reducing to nothing the plans of the enemy, obliging him to abandon an advantageous position, or to retire, without one’s being obliged to take the risk of combat itself.”

A survey of European history and military thought from 1600 to 1945 would show just how radical this idea was at the time, but it can be seen as a pivotal idea in the asymmetrical warfare that has characterised the past 74 years. It also explains why the ideas of the Sunzi have been so influential outside the military world. Today, Maizeroy and Amiot are largely forgotten, but strategy is a common part of the civilian vocabulary, and even in civilian life “Sun Tzu” is the best-known exponent of the idea of it.

There is one more piece to this story. Amiot acknowledged in his letter to Bertin that he was not sending a literal translation (although he contradicts this elsewhere). What he does not say, however, is that he has very significantly altered the closing words of the final chapter of the Sunzi. In Amiot’s version, this chapter deals with “divide and rule” as a fundamental approach to strategy, and he suggests that two of the great figures of Chinese history were masters of it. These two men were, respectively, subjects of the Xia and Shang dynasties, but were instrumental in their overthrow. As Yuri Pines writes in his article “To Rebel is Justified? The Image of Zhouxin and the Legitimacy of Rebellion in the Chinese Political Tradition (2008), these stories exemplify the Chinese notion of “legitimate rebellion”, which arises when a ruler has lost the “mandate of heaven” (天命 tianming). The original text makes passing reference to these men, whereas Amiot writes of them,

“Is there a single one of our books that does not praise these two great men? Has history ever called them traitors of their nation, or rebels against their sovereigns? Far from it; they are always mentioned with the greatest respect. They are, according to historians, heroes, virtuous rulers, saintly figures.”

This then is how one should describe those who rebel against an unjust ruler. And, for good measure, Amiot on four occasions tells his readers that the Xia dynasty was overthrown in 1766 BCE. How strange that he was writing in 1766 CE.

Was Amiot trying to suggest that Louis XV had lost the “mandate of heaven” and could now be overthrown? Certainly, the missionary was downcast by Louis’s decision to suppress his beloved Society of Jesus. Regardless of his motive, however, his work was picked up by a group of radical soldiers who were part of the Physiocratic circle and who published État actuel de l’art et de la science militaire à la Chine in 1773. This was on the face of it a review of Amiot’s work, but the authors used the introduction as an opportunity to take Quesnay’s thinking from 1767 to a new level and called explicitly for a revolution in Europe to establish a government and political economy like those of China. “Fortunately,” they conclude, “everything tells us that this great revolution is not far off!”

I do not go so far as to suggest that Amiot set out to invoke a revolution in France, but he made two important connections. Firstly, as he introduced Chinese classical military thought to Europe, he influenced the emerging idea of strategy, and connected strategy to revolution. Secondly, he connected the longstanding ideal of the Chinese state with the doctrine of justified rebellion. In Amiot’s Sunzi the Chinese saint is a rebel who uses strategy to overthrow a tyrannical sovereign and establish enlightened rule.

– Adam Parr

John V’s Lisbon: the new Rome

“All the new coins will show my effigy and name on one side, as some of the old kings in these reigns used to mint as well as almost all the Princes of Europe right now […]” 1

This quote comes from a new law issued by the Portuguese monarch, John V, in April 1722. By then the Portuguese king had been on the throne for fifteen years and, piece by piece, his magnificent plan for his country was coming together. Not only was the aforementioned law intended to reform the coinage in order to provide his subjects with more adequate coins for transactions, but it also formed part of a bigger plan of promotion of the Braganza monarch among the great powers in Europe. What better way for disseminating his image than in a coin that everyone would see?

D. Rodrigo Anes de Sa Almeida and Meneses

Image portrays D. Rodrigo Anes de Sa Almeida and Meneses (1676-1733), 3rd Marquis of Fontes. It does not yet mention the title of 1st Marquis of Abrantes, which would be conferred on him by John V on 12 August 1718. (Biblioteca nacional de Portugal)

Likely inspired by the marchis of Abrantes (one of his closest counsellors and a well-known collector of coins and medals), and also by his father-in-law, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I, who used medals to publicize his successes, John V quickly understood the impact of coins and medals as a vehicle to promote himself. He was seduced by the idea of placing himself on the face of the coins in the fashion of ancient emperors and old kings. He also endorsed reform at the House of the Mint in Lisbon, hiring foreign minters and acquiring new machinery in order to produce better coins and medals to fulfil his plans.

The Portuguese numismatic tradition was usually aniconic; John V’s change was a transcendent one and further illustrated just how important the use of images was for his grandiloquent plans. Underpinning these choices was the need to promote a strong and renovated image of the king before his peers, as he was, at that particular moment, challenging Pope Innocent XIII’s influence in the role Portugal played within the European arena. The king was adamant: Portugal must be seen and considered to be among the most powerful realms – Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire – so he planned to use the influence of Rome, through the obtaining of privileges from the Pope, in order to support and reinforce his beliefs and his agenda.

By 1722 John V was in his prime. Among other things, he had defeated the Turks with his ships in the Battle of Matapan, he had already been granted the patriarchal title for the former Royal Chapel in Lisbon, he had obtained the holy bands for his first-born like the other powerful monarchs around him, and he had lured several top-notch artists and musicians to Lisbon in order to meet his most extravagant desires about his new and brilliant court. Of course there were still many things to accomplish in order to pursue the glory that John V was expecting to achieve, but strong roots were already settled, and the years to come would be bursting with grandiose commissions in art, architecture and music.

This book deals with John V’s dream of turning Lisbon into a new capital, taking Rome as its model. It is not only concerned with the king’s fascination with the Papal City, but also explores how John V’s plan for his country and court involved many aspects, from art, architecture and music to ceremonies, images and of course politics. The volume does not pretend to be exhaustive, but rather presents a noteworthy sample of the most recent and refreshing research around a theme widely studied within Portuguese historiography but not so well known outside Portugal. Politics and the arts in Lisbon and Rome explores the obsession of John V with Rome from very different angles, tackling classical political history, musicology and art history, and ultimately aims to bring to life a fascinating period in the relations between Rome and Portugal. It also puts into perspective the achievements of a magnificent, and sometimes extravagant, king.

– Pilar Diez del Corral Corredoira, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Madrid)

Pilar Diez del Corral Corredoira is the editor of the October volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment seriesPolitics and the arts in Lisbon and Rome, a cross-disciplinary study of the Golden Age of Portugal in the eighteenth century, which explores new perspectives on John V of Portugal and his cultural endeavours with Rome.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

1. “Todas estas moedas da nova fabrica teraõ de huma parte o meu retrato, e nome, como usaraõ alguns dos Reys antigos destes Reynos, e praticaõ presentemente quasi todos os Principes da Europa”, António Caetano de Sousa, História Genealogica da Casa real portuguesa (vol. IV), Lisboa occidental: Na officina de Joseph Antonio da Sylva, 1735, p. 408.

Obstinément Voltaire. La redécouverte en Suisse d’un portrait par Jean Huber

L’heureuse rencontre de deux personnalités tout à fait hors du commun est à l’origine d’une suite de portraits de Voltaire – silhouettes, dessins, gravures, aquarelles, conversation pieces à l’huile délicieuses – d’une remarquable modernité (la plupart de ces petits tableaux à l’huile ont été achetés par Catherine de Russie, du vivant de Voltaire, et ils sont conservés à l’Ermitage, à Saint-Pétersbourg). D’un côté nous avons le philosophe, désormais au seuil de la vieillesse et au faîte de sa célébrité, recherchant une demeure dans les alentours de Genève sur les rives du lac Léman, de l’autre Jean Huber (Chambésy 1721-1786 Lausanne) qui fait sa connaissance par hasard.

Issu de la meilleure société genevoise, d’origine huguenote, appartenant au milieu financier international, Jean Huber n’a rien du sérieux légèrement apprêté de ses concitoyens. Au contraire, il est d’un naturel vif, imprévisible, plein d’humour, aux multiples intérêts et à l’aise partout: il a tout pour séduire le philosophe. Jean Huber avait reçu l’éducation typique de son rang, séjour à l’étranger, d’abord à la cour du landgrave de Hesse-Kassel puis dans le Piémont chez Charles-Emmanuel III, roi de Sardaigne. Il aimait jouer de la musique, chasser au faucon, oiseau dont il étudiait scientifiquement le comportement; il se consacrait aussi à la peinture, sans avoir jamais pris de leçons.

L’amitié entre les deux hommes durera une vingtaine d’années, avec des hauts et des bas, exacerbés par leurs fortes personnalités. Ils arriveront à se voir presque quotidiennement: Huber est d’abord hôte aux Délices, la charmante propriété genevoise que Voltaire occupera pendant quatre ans, puis au château de Ferney.

Témoin de l’activité frénétique du patriarche s’adonnant à ses activités champêtres de ‘monarque sans couronne’, débordant de projets et recevant régulièrement des visiteurs venus de toute l’Europe, un observateur aussi fin que Huber ne pouvait manquer d’être frappé par la physionomie de Voltaire, par ses innombrables expressions faciales, et par l’énergie déployée par l’homme maigrissime et vieillissant, fragile et tremblotant, mais soutenu par une détermination hors du commun.

Il était inévitable que tôt ou tard Huber se mettrait au travail armé de papier et de ciseaux pour découper des silhouettes du philosophe, lui qui était passé maître dans cette forme artistique. Par la suite Jean Huber produisit aussi croquis, dessins, et de nombreuses gravures représentant son ami philosophe, toujours dans le but presque obsessionnel de s’approcher le plus possible de la vérité de ce visage aux mille expressions, tour à tour émerveillé, fâché, mort de fatigue, autoritaire, sarcastique, déçu, méprisant, pensif… et toujours théâtral.

Ses croquis sont loin des nombreuses représentations officielles du célèbre homme de lettres, les yeux investigateurs levés vers le ciel. Chez Huber, l’intention est diamétralement opposée. D’une façon inédite et très moderne, il veut nous restituer simplement l’être humain avec son sarcasme, ses défauts, ses mauvaises humeurs, ses peurs, sa mélancolie face au temps qui passe… Ce peintre détaille aussi scrupuleusement les mises très drôles de Voltaire, ‘à faire pouffer de rire’, et les perruques démodées à la Louis XIV que le patriarche adopte à Ferney, et dont lui-même est le premier à s’amuser.

Quand à Paris ces gravures très recherchées se diffusent, la patience de Voltaire est à bout, non pas parce qu’il aspire à la discrétion mais parce que, selon lui, Huber l’exploite en se moquant de lui, et en en tirant par-dessus le marché toute la gloire possible… et le philosophe le fait savoir publiquement, par exemple dans l’Epître CXIV: A Horace. Huber sent alors qu’il doit se défendre rapidement, notamment parce qu’il tient trop à cette amitié, qui, en effet, sera rétablie par la suite: ‘Ne concevrez-vous pas qu’il faut des ombres à votre portrait, qu’il faut des contrastes à une lumière que personne ne pourrait soutenir […] Je vous ai dit cent fois que je savais précisément la dose de ridicule qu’il fallait à votre gloire. Il est de fait que depuis quinze ans que selon vous, monsieur, je travaille à la ternir, elle n’a fait que croître et embellir […] Imitez le bon Dieu qui n’en fait que rire’ (Lettre de Huber à Voltaire, 30 octobre 1772).

Voltaire, par Jean Huber et Andrienne Cannac.

Voltaire, par Jean Huber et Andrienne Cannac. Collection particulière, Suisse.

A la rencontre de Voltaire et Huber, rencontre aussi passionnante qu’unique, se rattache la découverte d’un ‘nouveau’ portrait de Voltaire à l’aquarelle, découpé, dans une niche Louis XVI brodée (troisième quart du dix-huitième siècle), accroché depuis toujours dans le château d’Hauteville (sur Vevey), et vendu aux enchères du château en 2015.

Jean Huber a fréquenté à plusieurs reprises cette magnifique propriété de goût italien. Située sur les ravissantes collines du lac Léman, elle appartenait à Pierre-Philippe Cannac. Provenant d’une famille huguenote d’origine lyonnaise qui avait cherché refuge en Suisse à la suite de la révocation de l’édit de Nantes, Pierre-Philippe s’était marié avec la genevoise Andrienne Cannac née Huber, tante de Jean. Ils entretenaient des rapports affectueux avec leur neveu espiègle et hors du commun, en particulier pendant les vacances d’été à Hauteville, où d’autres découpages de Huber ont été trouvés.

Comme divertissement estival, ce portrait singulier – on ne connaît qu’un autre portrait de Voltaire à l’aquarelle par Huber sur carton découpé[1] – a été réalisé à quatre mains, conjuguant ainsi le savoir-faire du neveu et celui de Mme Cannac, dans le domaine de la broderie des vêtements et de la niche. Le but aurait été de montrer leur adhésion à la pensée voltairienne, en exhibant aussi la parenté entre les Cannac et les Huber.

Ce tableau mérite toute notre attention parce que sa découverte et son attribution ajoutent un chaînon significatif au répertoire de l’œuvre de Jean Huber.

– Silvia Mazzoleni

[1] Grimm, Diderot et al., Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, éd. M. Tourneux, t.10 (Paris, 1879), p.98-99.


Writing the imagination

Jean Honoré Fragonard’s drawing L’inspiration de l’artiste (ca. 1761-1773) shows us the artist in the act of conceiving an artwork. Before embarking on the material process of creation, he shuts his eyes to the outside world and unleashes the power of his imagination. Various fantastic figures, both sublime and grotesque, emerge from an amorphous background and gradually take shape. Whereas the artist is overwhelmed by his inner fancies and seems plunged into a state of ecstasy, the spectator of the image witnesses how the empirical world gradually gives way to the imagination. It seems as if we were observing the moment just before the eclipse of reality, and that a second later the emerging fantasies might continue to swallow up the island of sensory perception in the centre of the stage. Instead of seeing only the finished picture, we are made to see the very process of imagination that produces it.

L’inspiration de l’artiste, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

L’inspiration de l’artiste (ca. 1761-1773), by Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

I would argue that this scene can help us to reconsider other eighteenth-century reflections on the imagination. Fragonard’s drawing is not only a product of the imagination, it simultaneously strives to stage the power of the imagination itself. The mode of representation and the represented object are made to converge. The imagination is used as a tool to explore its own workings.

Self-reflexive moves of this kind can also take place in texts that are engaged in one way or another with the imagination. A writer can explicitly say something about the imagination, but he or she also always does something with the imagination, be it explicitly by using a fictional mode of representation, or implicitly through the metaphorical underpinnings of his or her thought. Even though these two dimensions – theory and practice of the imagination – may be present to different degrees, they are usually inseparable. Diderot’s Le Rêve de d’Alembert is a case in point. The interlocutors of this dialogue repeatedly make statements concerning the imagination, but at the same time the reader becomes involved in an imaginative process: a flow of collective associations, stunning analogies and metaphors, fantastical creatures.

The eighteenth century has often been described as the crucial turning-point in the history of the imagination, as the pivotal moment in which an inferior faculty becomes an anthropological force of fundamental importance. It is also the period that puts into question the Cartesian idea that there is a purely rational standpoint beyond the imagination (the cogito). My recent book Die Kraft der Figuren (The Power of Figures) reassesses this process by focusing on the interaction between theoretical claims and practices of writing. This approach turns out to be most productive in the case of authors who explicitly take into account the power of the imagination as a part of their own writing, such as Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot, who are at the centre of the study.

One could say that the desk of these philosophers, like that of Fragonard’s inspired artist, is placed in the midst of the imagination, and not opposed to it. Shaftesbury, Condillac and Diderot conceive the imagination as a process they are always already involved in. As Fragonard teaches us, though, this also entails the risk of coming into touch with the imagination’s dangerous side, represented by the dark hybrid creature in the lower left-hand corner of the drawing…

– Manuel Mühlbacher