Between freedom and formality

A critical edition of Voltaire’s Complete Works, begun in 1968

When, in 1958, Roland Barthes described Voltaire as ‘the last happy writer’, the accolade was surprisingly valedictory. Voltaire had customarily been acclaimed as the first, not the last, of a kind. Proud to have introduced Shakespeare to the French, he was also, it seems, the first to have written about Newton’s apple. Described as the first author of science fiction, Voltaire would become the first major writer to occupy the Panthéon in Paris, to which his remains were transferred in 1791.

Barthes did not mean that Voltaire was exceedingly cheerful; rather, that the philosopher was a serene, intellectually untroubled writer. This contrasts with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire’s unhappiest foil and his perpetual neighbour in the Panthéon. Rousseau was frustrated, tormented, given to self-sabotage, in the face of Voltaire’s smirking complacencies. ‘Jean-Jacques écrit pour écrire’, scoffed Voltaire, who viewed his own writing as an essential intervention, called into existence by particular moral or social purposes rather than by abstract philosophising.

In 1968, as French students were challenging authority, praising theory and allowing themselves, under Barthes’s imprimatur, a certain revolutionary disdain for Voltaire, the first blocks in a monument to the great man were quietly being put into place. The enigmatic Theodore Besterman, who had previously edited Voltaire’s voluminous correspondence, embarked on a new critical edition of his Complete Works. The gargantuan project’s first home was in Geneva, then it moved to Banbury and, finally, Oxford University. There, at the Voltaire Foundation and under the direction of Nicholas Cronk, who took over the project in 2001, Voltaire’s Complete Works are this year finally, triumphantly complete.

 

When compiling the hundreds of writings by Voltaire, previous editors had insisted on the purity of different genres, and generally required prose and poetry to keep a healthy distance from one another. According to this logic Voltaire was, first and foremost, a tragedian and a poet. The first nine volumes of the so-called Kehl edition (1784-1789, named after its place of publication), the first to be published after Voltaire’s death, contain his plays. There then follows his epic poem, the Henriade (1723). Between volumes 16 and 26 he is a historian. Only in the later volumes do we really meet the satirist and philosopher, the author of so many miscellanies grouped under the expedient title of Mélanges, while Candide (1759) is to be found lurking among the ‘Romans’ grouped in volume 44.

This arrangement was misleading, since it had the effect of making Voltaire seem both more predictable and more respectable than he actually was: it was easy to ignore the mischievous wit largely confined to the works further down the shelf. In this way, Voltaire could be understood as starting out a poet before becoming a philosopher after his trip to England in the 1720s. This illusion is dispelled by the newly complete Oxford edition, which presents a more authentic version of Voltaire, whose disparate compositions now succeed each other in more or less the order they were written. His tragedies accordingly now mingle with his works of prose. Diderot likened the elderly Voltaire bashing out alexandrines to an old man unable to stop chasing girls. Voltaire himself remarked that to be a tragedian, it was necessary to have balls: you needed really to be a young man. But, as was often the case with Voltaire, he would set out an apparent expectation, the better to defy it himself, and the tragedies kept coming.

These tragedies, such as Mahomet (1741) and Sémiramis (1749), now seldom performed, today come across as weary and formulaic. It is ironic that ‘the death of tragedy’ identified by George Steiner seems only to have been hastened by Voltaire’s proclivity. The new edition allows us better to appreciate the curious tension between what Lytton Strachey described as Voltaire’s ‘aesthetic timidity’, as exemplified by the tragedies, and the ‘speculative audacity’ of his thought.

Split into nine volumes, the Essai sur les mœurs is the longest of Voltaire’s works included in the Oxford edition of the Complete Works.

Even in the monumental surroundings of Cambridge University Library, the 205 collected Oxford volumes are an awesome sight. The full scale and range of Voltaire’s seemingly irreconcilable writing here comes to the fore. Lifting the works out of the order artificially imposed by previous editions, this complete edition mirrors the serendipitous logic of texts such as the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-4) or the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), which delight in surprising juxtapositions. A reader is not expected to accompany the author from start to finish through these texts: given the myriad overlapping ideas, anecdotes and arguments, it is always possible that, in looking for one thing, the reader will find another.

In recent years the image of a pre-eminently ‘happy writer’ has been replaced by that of an angry opponent of fanaticism. Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance (1763) is, unfortunately, of renewed relevance in our age of extremity. His intellectual and moral preference for toleration can be traced to his experience of and engagement with English thinkers, notably John Locke. It seems appropriate that the final volumes of the Oxford edition turn to Voltaire’s formative time in England (1726-8) and the publication of the Lettres sur les Anglais on his return to France.

One imagines too that the bibliographical puzzle the text presents might also account for its place at the end of the queue. The difficulties begin with the title. Should we be calling this work the Lettres sur les Anglais or Lettres philosophiques, as it has sometimes been known? Or perhaps we should refer to it by its first English title, Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733)? After all, it was published in English before French, and it seems plausible that Voltaire had himself written this text in English. No tourist, he was apparently serious about becoming an English writer. It is now beyond doubt, however, that the English version is a rather free translation of a lost manuscript. The editors include it because the work was overseen, to some extent, by Voltaire himself. This English text forms Volume 6A (II). Volume 6A (I) offers a comprehensive introduction, while Volume 6B is devoted to its French incarnations: the Lettres philosophiques (1734) and Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais (1734). Volume 6C consists of Voltaire’s Lettre sur M. Locke (1736).

The plaque marking Voltaire’s former lodgings at 10 Maiden Lane, a short walk south of Covent Garden. It was installed in 1994 by Westminster City Council and the Voltaire Foundation.

Voltaire’s letters paint an idealised picture of the cultural and political life he discovered in England: we could almost be looking at one of Canaletto’s sunlit views of London. But the text is tantalising in allowing shadows to fall across its pages. From the first moment that Voltaire comes face to face with a Quaker, the characteristic Voltairean tension between freedom and formality is palpable. His many quotations from English authors seem to show, too, an English propensity to melancholy.

The Lettres sur les Anglais, to use the overall title the editors have chosen, is a highly apposite place to see out the edition, a project that has been through five editors, more than two hundred contributors and fifty-three years. This work accounts for decisive influences on Voltaire, while his letter on Pascal (the twenty-fifth Lettre philosophique) is about as serviceable a statement of Voltaire’s philosophical credo as one can hope to find. Typically his position emerges only once he has felt a need to oppose and ‘rectify’ that of another writer, in this case ‘the sublime misanthrope’ who, Voltaire opined, had wasted his talents on religious speculation.

There is another reason for which the Lettres sur les Anglais provides a suitable finale: Nicholas Cronk himself has edited the two final volumes. His skills in choosing and cajoling numerous editors to contribute over the past twenty years should not be underestimated. I remember one of his predecessors remarking, with a doleful shake of his head, that a number of his designated editors had died without telling him. Cronk has the command of the technical and bibliographical detail essential to this project, but he has also allowed himself some latitude in introducing and contextualising the work. In common with the members of his team, past and present, he is, in his evaluations of Voltaire, generous but never idolatrous, a risk inherent in an all-consuming project of this size. When, at the beginning of this enterprise, with war with Germany still in the memory, Besterman edited the letters Voltaire exchanged with Frederick II, he could not resist using his footnotes to boo at the Prussian from the margins. Cronk’s editorial restraint in refraining from overt interpretation and speculation, let alone disapproval, while maintaining a uniform tone and approach throughout is remarkable.

It is, then, surprising when a newly discovered sketch by Hogarth, potentially of Voltaire in the company of Martin Folkes, is included at the end of Volume 6A (I), complete with a discussion by Anna Marie Roos; it is an unexpected bonus, perhaps marking a momentary relaxation of bibliographical norms. We cannot even be sure that the gentleman who looks like Voltaire was Voltaire, but this is a pleasing touch. Even if this edition offers the definitively last word on Voltaire, and will surely be the last scholarly project of this magnitude to be printed on paper, we are reminded that there will continue to be new discoveries and discussions.

– John Leigh, Senior Lecturer in French at Cambridge University and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College

First published by the TLS on 2/9/2022

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