Voltaire, quid de la mémoire contemporaine ?

S’il était encore parmi nous, il aurait 325 ans. Toutefois, si François-Marie Arouet dit Voltaire a marqué son temps, il continue de diviser longtemps après sa mort. La constitution du mythe Voltaire, commencée du vivant de l’écrivain, coïncida dès l’origine avec le mythe des Lumières, et se développa parallèlement à celui-ci. Les notions et valeurs qui lui furent associées devinrent au fil du temps des composantes à part entière de la pensée constitutionnelle française, du discours politique, et plus largement de l’idée de nation. Cette assimilation, qui ne se produisit pas sans déformation, correction ni critique, s’est effectuée par le détour de la littérature, au gré de différentes modalités de réemploi. Janvier 2015, date de l’attentat commis au siège de la rédaction du journal satirique Charlie-Hebdo, qui, dans ses combats, s’était revendiqué de la pensée de Voltaire, notamment sur le point, hautement sensible, de la liberté d’expression, marque le point de départ du retour à la lumière de Voltaire. Voltaire revient, plus contestataire, plus polémiste que jamais, et redevient le symbole de la défense de cette liberté d’expression, lui l’ami des souverains.

Discours social, journalistique et politique, la façon dont est convoquée la référence à la figure de Voltaire, à ses idées, à son œuvre, est plurielle. On l’aime ou au contraire, on le déteste, certains écrits faisant encore débat. A droite comme à gauche, chacun y va de sa formule « voltairienne », se l’appropriant au détour de contre-vérités et autres fantasmes, tout le monde ou presque aujourd’hui se revendique consciemment et bien souvent inconsciemment héritier de Voltaire. Une formule célèbre qu’on lui attribue à tort (aujourd’hui encore), est symptomatique selon moi du manque de lucidité et de connaissance à l’égard du patriarche de Ferney : « Je ne suis pas d’accord avec vous mais je me battrai jusqu’au bout pour que vous puissiez le dire ».

Cette assertion provient en réalité de la plume de la biographe anglaise Evelyn Beatrice Hall dans The Friends of Voltaire, ouvrage publié en 1906 sous un pseudonyme. Et à bien y réfléchir, quiconque connaît un peu Voltaire, s’interrogerait sur la plausibilité qu’il ait un jour prononcé cette phrase. Voltaire en effet tenait beaucoup trop à sa condition pour risquer de la mettre véritablement en péril pour quiconque.

Comment alors comprendre qu’après les attentats parisiens des 7, 8 et 9 janvier 2015, commis contre le journal satirique Charlie Hebdo, on a vu fleurir dans les « marches républicaines » du 11 janvier, à l’instar du slogan « Je suis Charlie » affiché en signe de solidarité et de protestation par les manifestants, les panneaux « Voltaire est Charlie ». D’autant que j’avais eu le sentiment que ses textes n’attiraient plus grand monde, tout comme le périodique Charlie-Hebdo ne trouvait plus grâce aux yeux des lecteurs. Mais, paradoxe de notre époque, les ventes du Traité sur la tolérance se sont brusquement envolées à la suite des attentats, l’ouvrage paraissant de nouveau faire écho auprès du public. Dans le même temps, de nombreux articles de presse présentaient Voltaire comme ayant toujours été en première ligne du combat multiséculaire pour la tolérance et la liberté.

Connaissons-nous vraiment qui était Voltaire ? Connaissons-nous ses textes, le lisons-nous ?

Pour la conscience collective, surtout pour une certaine classe élitiste, Voltaire est l’avocat des libertés publiques, fervent défenseur de la laïcité, il est une figure de l’intellectuel libre et impertinent, digne représentant d’une époque – les Lumières – qui absorbe et articule des opinions qui, dans le passé, étaient en conflit. Cette époque portée par de nombreux individus, des philosophes, des écrivains, des mathématiciens, loin d’être d’accord entre eux mais engagés en de pénibles discussions, est une période de débat et de profonde remise en question de la société française mais également de l’Europe entière. Il serait la figure tutélaire de tous ceux qui refusent l’idée que des croyances deviennent meurtrières, que l’on proclame sa foi en Dieu une arme à la main, que la religion soit utilisée comme alibi pour légitimer des massacres et autres attentats, que le fanatisme menace et mine les valeurs de l’appartenance à l’Humanité.

Alors, je m’interroge: à quoi tient la force de cette figure aujourd’hui encore, surtout auprès des non-initiés. S’il est indéniable qu’il existe bel et bien une doctrine de tolérance chez Voltaire, il n’en demeure pas moins que nombre de ses écrits divisaient et continuent de diviser, ou encore ils sont tout simplement méconnus de la « populace », terme qu’il aimait employer comme l’atteste cette lettre à son ami Damilaville (1er avril 1766): « Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu ».

Alors qu’il s’agisse de partis ou de courants politiques, ou de sensibilités diverses, qui aujourd’hui se retrouve autour de cette figure des Lumières. Qui connaît Voltaire ?

La tolérance voltairienne, il faut l’avouer, était limitée à ses amis, ses relations opportunes et tous ceux dont il arrivait à s’accommoder. Pour les autres, et en particulier pour ceux qui ne pensaient pas comme lui, le traitement était tout autre: désinformation, calomnie, invective et manipulation. La fin justifiait les moyens, serais-je tenté de dire à propos de Voltaire. Serait-il vraiment ce héros de la tolérance, ce chantre de la liberté d’expression que l’imaginaire collectif français convoquerait aujourd’hui ? Si le recours aux auteurs des Lumières ne saurait résoudre la crise multisectorielle (religieuse et politique entre autres) que traverse la société française et bien d’autres en Europe depuis plusieurs années déjà, je m’autorise à penser que l’analyse de cette évolution à travers le prisme des Lumières et Voltaire, pourrait servir à apaiser un climat devenu délétère.

Alors Voltaire, homme de son temps ou du nôtre ? A vous de voir.

– Willy Soumaho Igoumou

Willy est doctorant à l’Université de Lorraine; l’intitulé de son sujet de thèse est De la promotion Voltaire (1980) à Charlie-Hebdo (2015) : présence de Voltaire dans la société et dans les textes (aire française et francophone).

‘Je soussigné barbouilleur d’écrits inutiles’

‘Je soussigné barbouilleur d’écrits inutiles, donne pouvoir à qui voudra de m’acheter la terre qu’il voudra, pour le prix qu’il voudra, où je vivrai tant qu’il voudra, comme il voudra, avec qui il voudra. Fait où il lui plaît. V.’ Ce court texte, résultat sans doute d’une plaisanterie dont les circonstances nous sont malheureusement inconnues, est l’un des morceaux rassemblés dans le volume de Fragments divers qui clôt la partie littéraire des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (la correspondance, les marginalia et les textes attribués suivent). Le manuscrit de cette procuration fictive, éditée par John Renwick dans ce tome 84 des Œuvres complètes, est effectivement une bribe issue de la plume du grand écrivain qu’il aurait lui-même probablement qualifiée d’‘écrit inutile’. Qu’aurait-il pensé du volume qui vient de paraître?

OCV t.84, Fragments divers

Le tome 84, Fragments divers, daté ‘2020’, prend sa place à côté du tome 85, l’un des premiers volumes à paraître sous la direction de Th. Besterman en 1968.

Un fragment est considéré comme une chose rare et précieuse, le plus souvent incomplète, qui nous est parvenue d’un passé proche ou lointain. Sa survie doit souvent quelque chose au hasard. Voltaire emploie le mot dans ce sens, par exemple dans Dieu et les hommes (1769):

‘Les Juifs avaient une telle passion pour le merveilleux que lorsque leurs vainqueurs leur permirent de retourner à Jérusalem, ils s’avisèrent de composer une histoire de Moïse encore plus fabuleuse que celle qui a obtenu le titre de canonique. Nous en avons un fragment assez considérable traduit par le savant Gilbert Gaumin, dédié au cardinal de Bérule. Voici les principales aventures rapportées dans ce fragment aussi singulier que peu connu. …’ (Chapitre 24, OCV, t.69, p.385)

Ou encore, dans le Commentaire historique (1776):

‘Le fameux comte de Bonneval devenu pacha turc, et qu’il [Voltaire] avait vu autrefois chez M. le grand prieur de Vendôme, lui écrivait alors de Constantinople, et fut en correspondance avec lui pendant quelque temps. On n’a retrouvé de ce commerce épistolaire qu’un seul fragment que nous transcrivons. …’ (OCV, t.78C, p.42-43)

Cependant, Voltaire aurait-il vu ses propres fragments du même œil? Car il a beau être l’auteur prolifique que l’on sait, les fragments n’en demeurent pas moins précieux, même s’il aurait sans doute été horrifié de voir publier une édition critique de papiers qu’il ne destinait pas à la publication. A l’exception des notes de travail, dont une poignée est publiée ici sous le titre de Fragments de carnets, et des corrections qu’il a apportées à une préface de Baculard d’Arnaud, les textes que nous publions ici n’ont rien de lacunaire, mais cette collection hétéroclite et aléatoire de courts textes jette un nouvel éclairage sur plusieurs facettes de la vie littéraire – et moins littéraire – de Voltaire.

Il y a d’abord un certain nombre de textes dans le sens plus traditionnel du terme, qui évoquent des sujets chers à Voltaire: la Bible; la question de l’âme des bêtes; la nécessité de rester unis entre philosophes face à l’Infâme; la dramaturgie. D’autres encore concernent des activités d’édition: une préface inédite pour une collection prévue de ses œuvres; un avis et des instructions pour l’imprimeur concernant une édition de La Henriade publiée en 1770; une dédicace inédite pour un ouvrage paru à Berlin au moment où son séjour en Prusse tournait mal. Enfin, une troisième sorte de texte nous transporte au plus près de l’écrivain: ses rapports avec la poste; sa façon de classer ses lettres et autres papiers; des notes de travail qui préparaient des écrits plus développés.

Le fragment dont une page est reproduite ci-dessous nous montre Voltaire au travail: il prend des notes à partir de ses lectures sur l’‘histoire orientale’ tout en ajoutant ses propres observations aussi. On le voit revenir sur son manuscrit pour identifier les passages qui l’intéressent le plus, ce qu’il fait en dessinant des espèces de ‘mains’ stylisées qui ressemblent à des ‘6’ penchés. Il apporte des compléments en marge. Il note à plusieurs reprises la source de sa lecture (les Voyages de monsieur le chevalier Chardin, en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient, de Jean Chardin), et cite des vers persans en traduction. Cette édition des fragments de carnets découverts depuis la publication en 1968 des Notebooks de Voltaire par Theodore Besterman fournissait l’occasion pour nous de faire une analyse plus poussée de ses notes de travail.

OCV t.84, Fragments diverses, fragment 48a

Fragment 48a (manuscrit autographe), f.7r. Oxford, Voltaire Foundation: MS20.

Outre l’intérêt des découvertes et des nouvelles perspectives, éditer de tels textes procure le plaisir de travailler avec des documents autographes. Nous jugeons que ce volume de fragments, quelque disparates qu’ils soient, apporte du nouveau dans le domaine des études sur notre auteur en révélant aux lecteurs ses papiers restants et des brouillons qu’il n’avait pas jugé bon de publier. N’en déplaise à Voltaire.

– Gillian Pink

What can the Enlightenment teach us about theater and emotion?

What connects the religious zealots who tried to annihilate theater under Louis XIV to an early Enlightenment attempt to hoist theater up as the most complete method of understanding and influencing human behavior? How did theatrical affect transform from a dangerous contamination of the soul to a particular regime of emotional pedagogy that was supposed to help spectators navigate the complexities of society? What happens to spectators when they watch a play and how did notions of that “infiltrating” moment change during a tumultuous, yet understudied, period in French history? And most essentially, why should tensions and debates about theater, spectatorship, and emotion in early modern France interest us now?

In The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, I investigate a departure from discussions of dramatic literature and its undergirding rules to a new, relational discourse on the emotional power of theater. Through a diverse cast of religious theaterphobes, government officials, playwrights, art theorists and proto-philosophes, I show a concerted effort during the early Enlightenment to use texts about theater to establish broader theories on emotion, on the enduring psychological and social ramifications of affective moments, and more generally, on human interaction, motivation, and social behavior.

What emerges in this study is a fundamentally anthropological assessment of theater in the works of anti-theatrical religious writers such as Pierre Nicole, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Bernard Lamy, and Armand de Bourbon-Conti. These enemies of the stage – and countless others – argued that emotional response was theater’s raison d’être and that it was an efficient venue to learn more about the depravity of human nature. A new generation of pro-theatrical writers – dramatists and theorists such as Jean-Baptiste (the abbé) Dubos, Antoine Houdar de La Motte, Marivaux, Pierre-Claude Nivelle de La Chaussée, and others – shared the anti-theatricalists’ intense focus on the emotions of theater as well as their conception of theater as a unique and powerful experience on the senses. However, unlike their skeptical counterparts, early eighteenth-century theatrical scientists of man did not view emotion as a conduit of sin or as a dangerous, uncontrollable process. For this group of playmakers, political operatives and theoreticians, performance provided for cognitive-affective moments of feeling and learning about oneself and others.

Theater scholars working in the French tradition have often dated this “transformative” conception of performance to the advent of Denis Diderot’s great theatrical project, the drame (or drame bourgeois). Diderot’s drame was a ground-breaking movement in the history of European theater. The famous philosophe recast the relationship between actor and spectator, invented a new theory of illusion, reoriented the purpose of drama towards intimate community engagement, and proved that sensibility could be a significant tool in creating a virtuous and “enlightened” society. The Emergence of a theatrical science of man reaches back a few generations before Diderot to find a surprising path to his revolutionary project. My book traces a moment when writers began to use plays, critiques, and other cultural materials about the stage to study (and, in their minds, “improve”) the emotional, social, and political “health” of kingdom. I hope that my book will encourage readers to wonder if this conception of theater, emotion, and transformation is still relevant today.

The European Enlightenment never settled any debates on the nature of theatrical emotion, nor did it provide any definitive conclusions about the struggle between absorbing effects and distance as the most effective means for promoting social understanding and change through the performing arts. From Antonin Artaud’s rekindling of theatrical contagion, to the alienating rationality of Brecht’s drama, to attempts to correct injustice and build knowledge through kinesthetic practice in Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, more recent theatrical movements have continued to debate the most fundamental question about theater, that is, what can it do? If twentieth-century greats, like Artaud, Brecht, Boal, and others, labor to come to terms with theater’s power, then why should anyone expect to find definitive answers in the eighteenth century? However, if the Enlightenment was indeed a set of discourses, actions, and processes – an “age of Enlightenment” rather than “an Enlightened age”1 – it appears that writers at the time kept true to the Kantian claim by bringing to the forefront, but not forever resolving, the most complex questions of their day.

I invite students and scholars from disciplines as (seemingly) distant as contemporary performance studies to seventeenth-century religious history to read my book. I hope readers will appreciate a unique imbrication of emotion, religion, and theater; one story of how France became modern; one route to the Enlightenment and its theatrical science of man.

– Logan J. Connors, University of Miami

1 Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the question: what is Enlightenment? (1784), in What is Enlightenment? Eighteenth-century answers and twentieth-century questions, ed. James Schmidt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), p. 58-64 (62).

Logan J. Connors is the author of the January volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, The Emergence of a theatrical science of man in France, 1660-1740, an exciting new perspective on the polemics of affect, emotion, and theatrical performance in early Enlightenment France.

This post is reblogged from Liverpool University Press.

The triumph of truth

In my work on the digital Voltaire iconography database, I frequently stumble across portraits of Voltaire which are particularly unexpected, funny, or have an interesting story to them. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ The Triumph of Truth, which hangs in Marischal College, Aberdeen, is a personal favourite.

The Triumph of Truth is a portrait of James Beattie (1735–1803), a Scottish poet, philosopher, and Professor of Moral Philosophy. The book under his left arm, entitled ‘Truth’, and the title of the painting both refer to the Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth, which Beattie published in 1770. It was well received, earning Beattie both a royal pension and an honorary doctorate in law from the University of Oxford.

James Beattie, by Joshua Reynolds

Dr James Beattie (1735-1803), by Sir Joshua Reynolds. (University of Aberdeen)

Although Beattie is rather splendid in his new doctoral robes, what draws our eye is the glowing Angel of Truth striking down three grotesque, dishevelled figures in the background. It is a powerful image and strong statement; Beattie’s thought becomes a superhuman, heavenly force, striking down the enemies of truth and faith. But who are these three villains? Beattie claimed they represented Prejudice, Scepticism, and Folly – and yet, the central figure of the three seems too familiar to be mere allegory. His chin and arms may be a little strong, but his sharp eyes and wry smirk hint at his true identity. On 22 February 1774 Reynolds wrote to Beattie, explaining:

‘there is only a figure covering his face with his hands which they may call Hume, or anybody else; it is true it has a tolerable broad back. As for Voltaire, I intended he should be one of the group.’

It is, then, Voltaire who is being struck down by the angel. This comes as no real surprise; Beattie’s Essay on Truth was heavily critical of both Hume and Voltaire, writing of Voltaire:

‘He has dwindled from a genius of no common magnitude into a paltry book-maker; and now thinks he does great and terrible things, by retailing the crude and long exploded notions of the freethinkers of the last age […] as nothing but the monstrous maw of an illiterate infidel can either digest or endure.’

Beattie was criticised during his career for ad hominem attacks of his opponents; Reynolds’ rather unflattering depictions of Voltaire and Hume with his ‘broad back’ are extensions of that. Beattie’s most unflattering portrait of Voltaire, however, is not to be found on canvas, but in a manuscript.

In the late 1760s, Beattie wrote The Castle of Scepticism, a prose allegory against Voltaire and Hume. Although not published in Beattie’s lifetime, it was circulated privately among British men and women of letters. It is a dream narrative; Beattie falls asleep while reading ‘one of the volumes of Mr Hume’s excellent Essays’ and enters a place known as The Land of Truth. Here he meets a series of increasingly silly and arrogant characters (among them ‘the Earl of Sneer’ and ‘lord viscount Bigwords’, who can be identified as the Earl of Shaftesbury and Viscount Bolingbroke respectively), who sacrifice Common Sense at the Temples of Ignorance, Self-Conceit, Fashion, Licentiousness, Ambition, and Hypothesis, and blindly follow the ‘Great Oracle’ (Hume) and ‘the Orator’ (Voltaire).

Beattie’s Voltaire is ‘a lean little old man, with his face screwed into a strange sarcastic grin’. He does not make the best first impression:

‘“Sir,” replied he, his eye glistening with inexpressible rage and disdain, “my name is Voltaire – you must have heard of me, I suppose; blockhead as you are, you must have heard of the greatest genius that ever appeared upon earth.”’

Despite this overwhelming braggadocio, Beattie’s Voltaire is surrounded by an army of followers, clamouring to hear what he has to say. He recites Candide to the waiting crowd:

‘Here he began a very tedious tale, where it seemed hard to determine, whether obscenity or blasphemy, whether absurd fiction or bad composition, was most prevalent. The audience laughed often, and the speaker almost continually.’

Beattie, unimpressed, soon leaves Voltaire and continues his journey; despite being waylaid by various unsavoury types, not least of all a blunderbuss-wielding Thomas Hobbes, he eventually makes it back to the waking world unscathed.

Beattie’s portrait of Voltaire is, much like Reynolds’, exaggerated and grotesque – yet it is all the more recognisable for it, even (or perhaps particularly) to Voltaire’s supporters. Beattie’s condemnation of Voltaire as an arrogant man, laughing at his own jokes, although critical, may still draw a smile from those who enjoy his work; a keen reader of Candide can certainly imagine a playful author chuckling to himself as he heaps increasingly implausible miseries upon his characters. His lean frame, glistening eyes and sarcastic grin are also instantly recognisable to both supporters and critics; even in his youth, Voltaire describes himself as ‘maigre, long, sec et décharné’ (summer 1716, D37), while Bernstorff’s impression of an older Voltaire is almost identical to Beattie’s: ‘La vivacité de ses yeux et son souris [sic] malin m’ont frappé’ (24 April 1755, D6253).

These same features – bright eyes, wry smile, a biting sense of humour – seem to crop up again in both written and visual portraits of Voltaire, not just in the flattering, even reverent works of the likes of La Tour and Pigalle, but in the satirising depictions of critics like Reynolds, Beattie, and Gillray. It is this that makes Beattie and Reynolds’ depictions of Voltaire, like many critical portraits of Voltaire, so interesting and so familiar; these recurring traits of intelligence, sarcasm, and sharp wit, acknowledged by Voltairophiles and Voltairophobes alike, begin to hint at a consistent thread of character and of physiognomy which can be identified across the depth and breadth of his iconography.

Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

(Josie is a research assistant in the Digital Enlightenment. She is currently building on existing research by Professor Samuel Taylor (St Andrews) to create a digital Voltaire iconography database.)

That unfortunate movement

Olympe de Gouges

Olympe de Gouges, pioneer of women’s rights, here pictured handing Marie-Antoinette a copy of her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne. Engraving by Desrais and Frussotte, c. 1790. (BnF/Gallica)

The French Revolution: A very short introduction was one of the earliest titles to be commissioned in what has become a very successful series – the nearest equivalent in English to the celebrated Que Sais-je? volumes published by Presses Universitaires de France. It appeared in 2001 and has enjoyed very healthy sales, both in English and in translation into a number of other languages. For this reason alone, after half a generation of new research a second edition to bring readers up to date seemed increasingly overdue. The problem with any new edition is how much to change, short of rewriting the whole thing. A lot of new research, though impeccably scholarly, is at a level of detail impossible to reproduce in a short volume, although some can be silently incorporated. A revised bibliography can point in the direction of more. But the most updating that a very short introduction can do is to indicate some overall trends.

The first edition, written in the aftermath of the Revolution’s bicentennial in 1989, was able to conclude and neatly culminate with the great debates among historians and others which that occasion provoked, and which were still echoing when the new millennium began. Historiographical discussions since then have been far less acrimonious and more nebulous. While the mid-twentieth-century obsession with the so-called ‘popular movement’ of the sans-culottes has faded, the Revolution has increasingly been studied as a symptom of deep cultural changes. Feminist scholarship has brought extensive reappraisal of the role of women, and the failure of overwhelmingly male revolutionaries (and historians!) to give them their due.

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence

Toussaint Louverture, hero of Haitian independence. Artist unknown, c.1796-1799. (BnF/Gallica)

There has also been renewed interest in links with other contemporary revolutionary movements on both sides of the Atlantic, and above all with the overthrow of black slavery in the former French colony which became Haiti. These changed perspectives are introduced and appraised in the concluding historiographical chapter. With a largely English-speaking readership in mind, the first edition also gave plenty of space to the supposed contrast between a violent, unstable France and a peaceful, evolutionary England. The second edition expands on that perception with more on the clash between Edmund Burke and Tom Paine. Recent years have brought curious echoes of this in the debate over Brexit, reminding us that issues first raised by the French Revolution can still resonate.

And whereas a prime function of an introduction is to impart accurate and reliable knowledge, another is to dispel misinformation. Nothing is more difficult. The world will always want to remember that Marie-Antoinette said, ‘Let them eat cake’ – even though she didn’t, as I emphasise in the book’s very opening pages.

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

Zhou Enlai: ‘Too early to say?’

The world is also in danger of remembering that in 1972 Chinese premier Zhou Enlai declared that it was ‘too early to say’ what the consequences of the French Revolution had been. I invoked this myself in the preface to the first edition. But in the intervening years it has emerged that Zhou was referring to the French upheavals of 1968, not 1789. The second edition makes this clear. Whether it will stop people invoking the old version is perhaps too early to say.

– William Doyle

(‘That unfortunate movement’ – from act I of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, speech by Lady Bracknell.)

‘Depuis Charlemagne jusqu’à nos jours’ – mission accomplished

Many readers picking up Voltaire’s Précis du siècle de Louis XV for the first time might find it all too easy to put down again as not living up to its title. By only a stretched definition is the work a précis; it is not about a siècle; and only in a few places does it focus on Louis XV. But to put it down too quickly would be a mistake. There are many reasons why the Précis – published by the Voltaire Foundation in 3 volumes, the first of which (vol.29A) has just come out – deserves our attention. Here are some of them.

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe

Louis XV donnant la paix à l’Europe (Laurent Cars after François Lemoyne), BnF, Réserve QB-201 (170, 9)-FT 4. By kind permission of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Foremost perhaps is the picture of Voltaire in action as a historian of modernity. We know from earlier writings that he thought the study of modern history important for the instruction of future generations. He also thought it essential for the historian to be both accurate and impartial, but then when it came to writing about his own day – events that he had witnessed himself or involved people he knew – he was not always able to put these ideals into practice. The need for impartiality may be behind the detachment with which Voltaire treats Louis XV, but elsewhere he frequently sails too close to the wind, particularly in the polemical chapters at the end of the work. Accuracy he strove for conscientiously, as he had done with the Essai and the Siècle, although sometimes within his own compass of taking the mean position of several authorities without naming any of them. He allows himself to embroider, but if he occasionally seems to invent it is probably in error or where strict accuracy needed to be set against readability, as pointed out by a correspondent of 1768: ‘Vous attachez tant par la magie de votre diction que l’on aime presque mieux s’égarer avec vous que s’instruire pesamment avec d’autres’ (vol.29A, p.140).

The Précis also has a remarkable history as the culmination of Voltaire’s plan, announced in 1742, to write a universal modern history and take it up to his own day. This was the launching pad for the Essai sur les mœurs. The nascent Siècle de Louis XIV, he said in 1745, was destined to ‘[entrer] dans ce grand ouvrage et doit le terminer’ (vol.29A, p.6, n.3). But as the following reign rolled on the distance between an end point of 1714 and continuing the history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’ became too great to be bridged. In 1768, in preparation for the new quarto edition of his Œuvres complètes, Voltaire uncoupled the Siècle from the Essai, reducing the subtitle to ‘jusqu’au règne de Louis XIII’, and using the chapters that carried his history beyond 1714 as the basis of the new Précis du siècle de Louis XV.

Voltaire thus uses the word précis not in the sense of an abridgement of a longer account, as might be expected of a detached published work, but of a summary of what he sees as the essentials of the age in a series of capsules. This enables him to pick and choose his material, pausing to give anecdote and detail in some places, particularly the early years when he himself was in Paris, passing rapidly over the middle years of the reign and dwelling again at length on aspects of the later years that attracted his attention as philosophe. Throughout his style is light, never flippant, and his sometimes provocative leaps, summaries or asides beckon the reader to further research.

As for ‘siècle’, Voltaire had felt from the outset that the achievements of France in the glorious era of the roi soleil should be defined not in terms of a reign, but as an ‘age’ or epoch. This is the sense in which the word is used again of the reign of Louis XV, although the king did not dominate his own reign and was noteworthy only in the wrong ways. For most of the book Louis XV himself stands silently to one side, but the events portrayed seem none the worse for that, highlighting the difference between his ‘siècle’ and that of his great-grandfather.

In 1768 Voltaire brings the Précis up to date with further chapters on more recent matters, and extends the themes of some of these into the self-contained Histoire du parlement de Paris. He closes the resulting gap between the early and later years of the reign of Louis XV by bringing in a précis in the more usual sense of the word. This was the first authorised appearance, albeit in shortened form, of Voltaire’s Histoire de la guerre de 1741, undertaken in 1745 in his capacity of historiographe du roi, as an account of the ‘campagnes du roi’ in Flanders of 1744 and 1745. These campaigns covered years that showed the king at his best and France as victorious; they were soon extended both backwards and forwards to take in the whole war, but that is another story, to be read with the full text in volume 29C. Circumstances conspired against Voltaire’s intention to publish the Guerre de 1741 until he was settled in Geneva, by which time France was involved in another war and any thirst for details of the War of the Austrian Succession had long evaporated. By the mid 1760s, therefore, the Guerre was a work in search of a home, and the incipient Précis a work with a beginning and potential end but no middle. The solution was obvious.

Having difficulty keeping up? Unsurprising – the complexities defeated the Kehl editors as well as Beuchot and Moland, who omitted the original complete Guerre entirely. The Introduction in vol.29A of this edition analyses the sequence of the composition of both texts and the eventual assembly of the whole in 1768.

But Voltaire was unable to call it a day. Another edition of his complete works in 1775 saw him taking up his pen once more at the age of eighty to record the death of the king, who in the course of nature – and perhaps Voltaire’s original conception of this work – would have been expected to outlive Voltaire. And Voltaire was then spurred on to review the whole. Annotations preserved in a copy of the 1775 edition now in St Petersburg show the Précis to be among the most heavily corrected texts under revision at the time of Voltaire’s death, truly taking his modern history ‘jusqu’à nos jours’. Looking at the years since 1742 and the water that had flowed beneath Voltaire’s many bridges since then, his readers can only respond, Chapeau!

– Janet Godden

 

 

Over her dead body: tears and laughter in L’Ingénu’s final scene

Engraving by Monnet and Vidal

Engraving by Monnet and Vidal, in Romans et contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2. (BnF/Gallica)

‘One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.’ Bloggers and other would-be beaux esprits routinely reach for Oscar Wilde when confronted with depictions of uncomfortable sentimentality, but we risk coming away empty-handed. With Nell’s death never actually depicted in The Old Curiosity Shop, Wilde’s quip seems less a skewering of Dickens’s prose and more a celebration of his own. Nevertheless Wilde – in linking pathos, humour and self-consciousness – may be on to something that can help when we come to the puzzle of Mlle de Saint-Yves’s death in L’Ingénu.

The early chapters of L’Ingénu have a forthright ‘gauloiserie’ about them, such as the bawdy allusions to the hero’s penis, anticlerical digs, and depictions of earthy rural folk. In stark contrast stands the heroine’s death. When Mlle de Saint-Yves eventually dies after several pages on her deathbed, her demise provokes widespread despair as well as a kind of madness in the hero: ‘Lorsque le moment fatal fut arrivé, tous les assistants jetèrent des larmes et des cris. L’Ingénu perdit l’usage de ses sens.’[1] As Roger Pearson asked in his splendid biography Voltaire Almighty (2005), should we take this sentimentality at face value? Is Voltaire not taking a swipe at the protracted deaths of Richardson’s Clarissa and, in particular, Rousseau’s Julie? This is in part doubtlessly true, for L’Ingénu was composed around the same time as the critical Lettre de Monsieur de Voltaire au docteur Jean-Jacques Pansophe and Lettre de M. de Voltaire à M. Hume (1766-1767).

Voltaire treats his readers to more than just Mlle de Saint-Yves’s death. He presents a series of lugubrious scenes, in one of which the Ingénu entirely displaces his godmother as an object of fascination:

‘Le morne et terrible silence de l’Ingénu, ses yeux sombres, ses lèvres tremblantes, les frémissements de son corps, portaient dans l’âme de tous ceux qui le regardaient ce mélange de compassion et d’effroi qui enchaîne toutes les puissances de l’âme, qui exclut tout discours, et qui ne se manifeste que par des mots entrecoupés. L’hôtesse et sa famille étaient accourues ; on tremblait de son désespoir, on le gardait à vue, on observait tous ses mouvements. Déjà le corps glacé de la belle Saint-Yves avait été porté dans une salle basse, loin des yeux de son amant, qui semblait la chercher encore, quoiqu’il ne fût plus en état de rien voir.’

Mlle de Saint-Yves’s body comes back into view, only to be ignored; her corpse is displayed by the front door while two priests distractedly recite prayers; some passers-by lazily sprinkle holy water while others blithely walk on; and Père de La Chaise averts his eyes from the casket. The characters’ reactions proceed/decline (take your pick) from profound grief to indifference and then to rejection. Where does this leave the readers? Are we meant to weep, breeze along, or even laugh? Must one have a heart of stone to read the death of Mlle de Saint-Yves without laughing?

One way into thinking about those final pages of L’Ingénu might be suggested by the moment in chapter 18 when the heroine arrives at the Bastille:

‘Confuse et charmée, idolâtre de l’Ingénu, et se haïssant elle-même, elle arrive enfin à la porte de
… cet affreux château, palais de la vengeance,
Qui renferme souvent le crime et l’innocence.
Quand il fallut descendre du carrosse, les forces lui manquèrent; on l’aida; elle entra, le cœur palpitant, les yeux humides, le front consterné.’

Just as Wilde celebrates his own writing, so does Voltaire, who quotes here from the fourth canto of La Henriade. By moving into the literary realm, Voltaire asks his readers to be more conscious about the way fiction sets us up for particular response. Fiction, as Rita Felski so persuasively argues, can provoke and unsettle us in unexpected ways: ‘We can be taken hold of, possessed, invaded by a text in a way that we cannot fully control or explain and in a manner that fails to jibe with public postures of ironic dispassion or disciplinary detachment.’[2] And L’Ingénu does just that, inviting its readers to commiserate, weep and even laugh over the death of its heroine.

– Thomas Wynn

[1] For an English translation of this and following quotations, please see p.159-60.

[2] Rita Felski, ‘After suspicion’, Profession (2009), p.28-35 (p.33).