Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment

This contribution to Talking about Voltaire and the Enlightenment is adapted from the author’s article in A Companion to World Literature, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire, like all thinkers of the Enlightenment, was well versed in classical literature and was especially interested in the world literature of his own day, reading English, Italian and Spanish, along with English translations of texts not yet translated into French, such as Camões’s The Lusiads, and the Qur’an in George Sale’s scholarly edition. He is also a historian of European literature. His Essay on epic poetry (1727), which he wrote and published in English before producing a French-language version, is a pioneering essay in comparative European literature, comparing the different European epic poets from Homer to Milton. The Letters concerning the English nation (1733) is comparative in a different way, contrasting tragedy, comedy, and lyric poetry in the French and English traditions. This is European literary history for a European audience.

J. B. Du Halde, Description de la Chine (Paris, 1735) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

But Voltaire’s voracious literary appetite extends beyond Europe. His tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine, first performed at the Comédie-française in 1755, has its source in a thirteenth-century Chinese play, translated into French by Joseph-Henri de Prémare as L’Orphelin de la maison de Chao, that Voltaire found included in Du Halde’s Description de la Chine (1735), a best-selling work on all aspects of Chinese culture. The philosophes of the Enlightenment were fascinated by the example of Chinese religion and culture, and they drew their information primarily from the Jesuit Du Halde, whose work was translated into English (1736), German (1747), Dutch (1774), and Russian (1774).

Voltaire’s interest in literature beyond Europe is intimately connected with his historiographical interests more generally. Before the Enlightenment, what was called ‘universal history’ in Christian Europe was invariably the history of the Christian world. A well-known example is Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1679, published 1682). Relativism is at the heart of Voltaire’s thought and he resolved to write a history of the world that would present Europe and European culture alongside other continents and cultures, so decentering Europe, and the Christian religion, from its ascendant position. The Essai sur les mœurs, as his universal history is usually known, was begun in the 1740s and appeared in its first full edition in 1756; Voltaire continued to revise the work until his death in 1778. This innovative work recounts the history of China, India, Africa, America, and the Muslim world alongside that of Europe, and the range is unprecedented. The essential ideological aim is clear: Voltaire seeks to sketch the progress of human civilization, which for him amounts to the triumph of reason; the underlying assumption is that all human cultures, whatever their apparent differences, share the same fundamental beliefs in reason and a supreme being (in this he differs from Bayle, who in the seventeenth century had praised China as a sophisticated atheistic culture, unlike that of Europe).

Voltaire’s declared ambition in the Essai sur les mœurs is not just to recite the deeds of kings and warriors but to tell the story of human intellectual endeavour. This attempt to sketch the history of culture – in practice this means, for Voltaire, literature – is remarkably innovative, even if the ambition was hard to realize, given the resources then available to him. So, in chapter 82 of the Essai, devoted to science and the arts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Voltaire contrasts what he sees as the decadence of European culture with the vibrancy of the Muslim world. He discusses the Persian poet Saadi, whom he describes as a contemporary of Petrarch, and equally famous as him (OCV, t.24, p.282-83). Voltaire was able to find ample information about Saadi in d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque orientale (1697); but, more than that, he gives us an extended example of one of Saadi’s poems, 15 lines of exemplary alexandrine verse. Voltaire’s openness to the East turns out to be cultural appropriation on a grand scale, but the gesture was influential none the less. Jaucourt’s article on ‘Poésie orientale moderne’ in the Encyclopédie (1765; vol.12, p.839f.) is lifted directly and explicitly from Voltaire’s text, and quotes in full Voltaire’s imitation of Saadi’s verse.

Voltaire’s predilection for tendentious translation of selected literary passages – what the French call belles infidèles – is a key part of his practice of literary comparativism, and it is not only Saadi who is subjected to this process; Shakespeare and others are rewritten in the Letters concerning the English nation, and a number of Latin poets are translated, more or less freely, in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Of course, the ideological gesture is always to the fore: Voltaire is trying to do for literature what he does for religion – to suggest there are universal human values.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Voltaire’s attempt to reconceive universal history. The Essai sur les mœurs was a huge bestseller that reset the intellectual horizons of Enlightenment Europe. To take just one example, Adam Smith, in his Theory of moral sentiments, talks about Africans in one example (V.2.9) and on another occasion uses China in a thought experiment (III.1.46), and it is hard to imagine that he would have had such easy recourse to examples like these if Voltaire’s universal history had not paved the way. The work is equally influential regarding the history of world literature. Voltaire’s appropriation of the literature of other cultures for his own uses is a polemical gesture that he makes no attempt to hide. Even so, his determination to include literature in his treatment of world history was highly innovative and, more generally, Voltaire’s eagerness to discuss literature from outside Europe is remarkable and without precedent. As a practitioner of comparative literary study, Voltaire is a pioneer.

Charles Parrocel, Mehemet Effendi, Turkish ambassador, arrives at the Tuileries on 21 March 1721 (Château de Versailles).

Voltaire and the Oriental

In the eighteenth century Europe’s long-standing fear of the Turk was replaced by fascination. Following the failed siege of Vienna (1683) and the ensuing Peace of Karlowitz (1699), the Ottomans sent more frequent embassies to the European capitals, most famously to Paris in 1721 and 1742, where the magnificent spectacle of the ambassadors’ entourage aroused widespread comment and excitement. This eighteenth-century obsession with the Oriental made itself felt in painting and literature, in the applied arts as well as in fashion.

The actor Le Kain in the role of Genghis Khan in Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine (1765). Drawing by M. F. A. Castelle, engraved by Pierre Charles Levesque.

The Orient, used in this broad sense, embraces Turkey, Persia, China and India, and the newly fashionable interest in these cultures reinforced Voltaire’s desire to investigate culture beyond the confines of Europe. All of Voltaire’s non-European literary explorations can be loosely grouped under the Oriental label and he became celebrated for his extensive use of this exotic material. Voltaire is pioneering in the extent to which he uses Oriental subject matter in his tragedies: in addition to his play Zaïre, translated into many languages,and L’Orphelin de la Chine there are many more. To some extent, this is a question of local colour: eager to differentiate himself from the classical tragedians of the previous century, who had mainly found their sources in Greek mythology and Roman history, the Orient offered Voltaire the chance to explore new emotional terrain. Furthermore Voltaire was keen to reform French classical tragedy by giving greater importance to costumes and sets and by introducing spectacular scenic effects, and here again, in Sémiramis for example, the Oriental subject matter suited him well. Audiences loved the exotic costumes and the actor Le Kain had himself depicted as Genghis Khan in L’Orphelin de la Chine, complete with feather headdress, in a portrait that circulated widely as an engraving. There are ideological reasons for Voltaire’s choice of Oriental subject matter. He had no interest in writing tragedies about cultures alien to him and his audience, quite the contrary in fact; his desire was not to explore the emotional terrain of an ‘other’ culture, but to use the other relativistically to refract on his own. A case in point is Le Fanatisme ou Mahomet le prophète, first performed in 1741. The character Muhammad is portrayed as a despotic religious leader who manipulated the credulity of his followers to achieve his own cynical ends: Voltaire intended the work, of course, as an implicit attack on Christian religious fanaticism and he uses Islam as a cover for Christianity. Eighteenth-century audiences everywhere understood the subterfuge and the play was widely performed. Modern audiences no longer understand this relativistic strategy and the play has become all but unperformable because it is now misunderstood as nothing more than a crude attack on Islam.

Zadig, Antoine-Jean Duclos (1742-1795) after Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814) in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, Kehl, 1784 (Wikimedia Commons).

It is in the field of fiction that the eighteenth century was most open to Oriental influence. Antoine Galland’s reworking into French of the 1001 Nights (1704-1717), itself the basis for translations into other European languages including English and German, enjoyed phenomenal success. Galland’s work in turn had enormous influence on the evolution of fiction all across Europe, and it has been calculated that the number of French ‘Oriental’ fictions published during the eighteenth century numbers nearly 700 (see Marie-Louise Dufrenoy, L’Orient romanesque en France, 1704-1789, Montreal, 1946-1947, i.343). Voltaire is nothing if not reactive to literary fashion, and over an extended period he writes some 11 short fictions making use of this Oriental framework, amounting to nearly a half of his entire fictional production: in order of publication, Zadig, ou la destinée, Le Monde comme il va, Memnon, Lettre d’un Turc, Histoire d’un bon bramin, Le Blanc et le noir, Aventure indienne, La Princesse de Babylone, Les Lettres d’Amabed, Le Taureau blanc, Le Crocheteur borgne. In works like Zadig or La Princesse de Babylone, he plays with the Oriental motif deriving from Galland, always keeping his reader alert in the way he treads a fine line between parody and pastiche.

Voltaire is allergic to fairy tales, and fables in general, because he wants humankind to make use of reason; but he is a master of pastiche and he enjoys playing with the metafictional possibilities that the Oriental tale can create. In the article ‘Fiction’ of his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, he recounts an Oriental tale which purports to be a familiar story but which is in fact Voltaire’s own invented pastiche of the 1001 Nights. The other great narrative advantage of Oriental material was the easy pretext it provided for erotic subject matter and Voltaire makes generous use too of these opportunities. A number of French Oriental fictions, usually with a philosophical sting in the tail, were published as being by ‘M. de V… ‘: Voltaire had, of course, nothing to do with them but, in the minds of his readers, he was closely identified with the genre.

Nicholas Cronk

A continuation of this piece, ‘Voltaire and the Biblical Orient’, will be posted shortly on this blog.

2 thoughts on “Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment

  1. Pingback: Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment (part 2) | Voltaire Foundation

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