Exploring Voltaire’s letters: between close and distant readings

La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe

‘La lettre au fil du temps: philosophe.’

A stamp produced by the French post office in 1998 celebrates the art of letter-writing by depicting Voltaire writing letters with both hands. It’s true that Voltaire wrote a lot of letters – over 15,000 are known, and more turn up all the time – but even so it’s not altogether clear that an ambidextrous letter-writer is someone we entirely want to trust. Voltaire’s correspondence is full of difficulties and traps, and faced by such a huge corpus, it is hard to know where to start. Without question, the Besterman ‘definitive’ edition (1968-77), digitised in Electronic Enlightenment, has had a major impact on Enlightenment scholarship: historians and literary critics make frequent use of these letters, but usually in an instrumental way, adducing a single passage in a letter as evidence in support of a date or an interpretation.

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020)

Nicholas Cronk and Glenn Roe, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings (CUP, 2020).

Voltaire’s letters can be notoriously ‘unreliable’, however, and they really need to be read and interpreted – like all his texts – as literary performances. Few critics have attempted to examine the corpus of the correspondence in its entirety and to understand it as a literary whole. In our new book, Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings, we have experimented with a range of digital humanities methods, to explore to what extent they might help us identify new interpretative approaches to this extraordinary correspondence. The size of the corpus seems intimidating to the critic, but it is precisely this that makes these texts a perfect test-case for digital experimentation: we can ask questions that we would simply not have been able to ask before.

For example, we looked at the way Voltaire signs off his letters – and were surprised to find that only 13% of the letters are actually signed ‘Voltaire’; while over a third of the letters are signed with a single letter, ‘V’. Then Voltaire is hugely inventive in the way he plays with the rules of epistolary rhetoric, posing as a marmot to the duc de Choiseul. And if you want to know why in a letter (D18683) to D’Alembert he signs off ‘Miaou’, the answer is to be found in a fable by La Fontaine…

We studied Voltaire as a neologist. Critics have usually described Voltaire as an arch-classicist adhering rigorously to the norms of seventeenth-century French classicism. True, yet at the same time he is hugely energetic in coining new words, an aspect of his literary style that has been insufficiently studied. Here, corpus analysis tools, coupled with available lexicographical digital resources, allow us to consider Voltaire’s aesthetic of lexical innovation. In so doing, we can test the hypothesis that Voltaire uses the correspondence as a laboratory in which he can experiment with new formulations, ideas, and words – some of which then pass into his other works. We identified 30 words first coined by Voltaire in his letters, and another 36 words first used in his other works, many of which are then reused in the correspondence. Emmanuel Macron has encouraged the description of himself as a ‘président jupitérien’, so it’s good to discover that ‘jupitérien’ is one of the words first coined by Voltaire.

Voltaire letter

A letter in Voltaire’s hand, sent from the city of Colmar to François Louis Defresnay (D5612, dated 1753/1754).

A reader of Voltaire’s letters cannot fail to be struck by the frequency of his literary quotations. We explore this phenomenon through the use of sequence alignment algorithms – similar to those used in bioinformatics to sequence genetic data – to identify similar or shared passages. Using the ARTFL-Frantext database of French literature as a comparison dataset, we attempt a detailed quantification and description of French literary quotations contained in Voltaire’s correspondence. These citations, taken together, give us a more comprehensive understanding of Voltaire’s literary culture, and provide invaluable insights into his rhetoric of intertextuality. No surprise that he quotes most often the authors of ‘le siècle de Louis XIV’, though it was a surprise to find that Les Plaideurs is the Racine play most frequently cited. And who expected to find two quotations from poems by Fontenelle (neither of them identified in the Besterman edition)?! Quotations in Latin also abound in Voltaire’s letters, many of these drawn, predictably enough, from the famous poets he would have memorised at school, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid – but we also identified quotations, hitherto unidentified, from lesser poets, such as a passage from Manilius’ Astronomica. By examining as a group the correspondents who receive Latin quotations, and assigning to them social and intellectual categories established by colleagues working at Stanford, we were able to establish clear networks of Latin usage throughout the correspondence, and confirm a hunch about the gendered aspect of quotation in Latin: Voltaire uses Latin only to his élite correspondents, and even then, with notably rare exceptions such as Emilie Du Châtelet, only to men.

The woman on the left, a trainee pilot in the Brazilian air force, is an unwitting beneficiary of Voltaire’s bravura use of Latin quotation. The motto of the Air Force Academy is a stirring (if slightly macho) Latin quotation: ‘Macte animo, generose puer, sic itur ad astra’ (Congratulations, noble boy, this is the way to the stars). The quotation is one that Voltaire uses repeatedly in some dozen letters, and it is found later, for example in Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe. On closer investigation it turns out that this piece of Latin is an amalgam of quotations from Virgil and Statius – in effect, a piece of pure Voltairean invention.

In the end, Voltaire’s correspondence is undoubtedly one of his greatest literary masterpieces – but it is arguably one that only becomes fully legible through the use of digital resources and methods. Our intention with this book was to affirm the simple postulate that digital collections – whether comprised of letters, literary works, or historical documents – can, and should, enable multiple reading strategies and interpretative points of entry; both close and distant readings. As such, digital resources should continue to offer inroads to traditional critical practices while at the same time opening up new, unexplored avenues that take full advantage of the affordances of the digital. Not only can digital humanities methods help us ask traditional literary-critical questions in new ways – benefitting from economies of both scale and speed – but, as we show in the book, they can also generate new research questions from historical content; providing interpretive frameworks that would have been impossible in a pre-digital world.

The size and complexity of Voltaire’s correspondence make it an almost ideal corpus for testing the two dominant modes of (digital) literary analysis: on the one hand, ‘distant’ approaches to the corpus as a whole and its relationship to a larger literary culture; on the other, fine-grained analyses of individual letters and passages that serve to contextualise the particular in terms of the general, and vice versa. The core question at the heart of the book is thus one that remains largely untreated in the wider world: how can we use digital ‘reading’ methods – both close and distant – to explore and better understand a literary object as complex and multifaceted as Voltaire’s correspondence?

– Nicholas Cronk & Glenn Roe, Co-directors of the Voltaire Lab at the VF

Voltaire’s correspondence: digital readings will be published in print and online at the end of October. The online version is available free of charge for two weeks to personal and institutional subscribers.

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