Voltaire, the most alive of dead white males

Voltaire’s afterlife is complex, his reputation changing with successive regimes. The French Revolution looked back to him as a heroic precursor of its struggle, and in 1791 his remains were brought back to Paris and with great ceremony placed in the Panthéon. For much of the nineteenth century the name of Voltaire was synonymous with anticlericalism, and the philosophe was widely, if implausibly, seen as an Antichrist. In the wake of the Dreyfus affair Voltaire’s reputation as a crusader for tolerance was re-emphasised, and in the latter years of the Third Republic, under the influence of the Sorbonne literary historian Gustave Lanson, Voltaire became a fixture of the republican school and university curriculum. The latter half of the twentieth century has taken a more nuanced approach to Voltaire’s religious views, especially in the wake of René Pomeau’s La Religion de Voltaire (first published in 1954), which stresses the depth of Voltaire’s deist convictions.

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). Image: BnF.

Voltaire’s legacy in the wider world is ubiquitous. His name has become a byword for tolerance, justice and the power of reason whenever fanaticism, tyranny and superstition rear their ugly heads. Famously, portraits of him spontaneously appeared on the walls of the French capital in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in 2015. Several years before the attack, in 2008, then editor-in-chief of the satirical magazine, Philippe Val, had published a book entitled Reviens, Voltaire, ils sont devenus fous!, and philosopher André Glucksmann’s last book, published in 2014 (one year before he died), is called Voltaire contre-attaque.

Voltaire is undoubtedly the most widely quoted of all French writers past and present. Everyone is familiar with his ‘il faut cultiver son jardin’, ‘le meilleur des mondes possibles’, and ‘si Dieu [which can be replaced with anything deemed to be of value, no matter how trivial] n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer’. These three quotations happen to be genuine and traceable; interestingly, however, we at the Voltaire Foundation often receive queries from scholars and members of the public alike asking about the provenance of various Voltaire quotes which, after diligent research, turn out to be apocryphal. It is as if witty and wise pronouncements in search of an author were routinely attributed to him by default.

Paris, January 2015.

Ironically, what must be the most famous and oft-repeated quotation by Voltaire does not appear anywhere in his writings or his correspondence. Elizabeth Knowles picks up the story:

“A column in the Daily Telegraph of February 2006 on freedom of speech referred to ‘Voltaire’s famous maxim – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ’

“In De l’esprit (‘On the Mind’), published in 1758, the French philosopher Helvétius put forward the view that human motivation derives from sensation: a course of action is chosen because of the pleasure or pain which will result. The book was seen by many as an attack on religion and morality, and was condemned by the French parliament to be publicly burned. Voltaire is supposed to have supported Helvétius with these words. In fact, they are a later summary of Voltaire’s attitude to the affair, as given in S. G. Tallentyre’s The Friends of Voltaire (1907). What Tallentyre wrote was:

“‘What the book could never have done for itself, or for its author, persecution did for them both. “On the Mind” became not the success of a season, but one of the most famous books of the century. The men who had hated it, and had not particularly loved Helvétius, flocked round him now. Voltaire forgave him all injuries, intentional or unintentional. “What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was his attitude now.’

“(The comment ‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ had been recorded earlier, in James Parton’s 1881 Life of Voltaire.)” [1]

We will end this short blog article on this culinary note. Readers who are curious about the origin of this particular quote are invited to consult Lettres à Son Altesse Monseigneur le prince de *** (letter 7) or the article ‘Athéisme’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie.

– Nicholas Cronk and Georges Pilard

[1] Excerpt reprinted from What they Didn’t Say – A Book of Misquotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford University Press, 2006), p.55. By permission of Oxford University Press.


Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).

Fausser le climat pour mieux s’exprimer? Stratégies de discours dans la philosophie politique de la Renaissance aux Lumières

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573).

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573). Courtesy of giuseppe-arcimboldo.org (CC by 4.0).

Pour expliquer l’hypothèse de lecture de mon livre, Les Climats du pouvoir: rhétorique et politique chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, je voudrais me référer à la blague suivante, tirée d’un article du Dictionnaire de Trévoux:

‘Le froid, dans le figuré, est une métaphore établie; mais il ne faut point qu’elle passe les bornes: & l’Italien qui disoit à son retour de Pologne, que les personnes de ce pays-là étoient si froides, que leur conversation l’avoit enrhumé, outrait la métaphore.’ (‘Froid’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux)

Durant l’Ancien Régime, la popularité des discours climatologiques et déterministes tenait non seulement aux effets de science qu’ils apportaient à la conversation mais à leur flexibilité rhétorique. C’est pourquoi il faut noter la sagesse de l’article ‘Froid’ du Dictionnaire de Trévoux qui ironise sur la facilité des corrélations à laquelle la logique déterministe peut trop souvent donner lieu. Entre la température et le tempérament, le potentiel rhétorique des associations fait voir un glissement métaphorique qu’on peut aisément exagérer ou dissimuler à des fins multiples. Dans mon livre, qui porte sur les appropriations politiques du climat, le but n’est pas nécessairement de faire rire. Mais on retrouve le même écart créatif à l’égard de cette théorie prétendument scientifique.

C’est un ludisme qui échappe parfois aux analyses, surtout en raison du passé controversé des théories des climats. Celles-ci ne méritent souvent que des explications historiques et épistémologiques. On considère souvent le discours comme une erreur de l’époque, comme si son ‘primitivisme’ ou manque de rigueur scientifique neutralisait quelque peu sa charge ethnocentrique. D’où la tendance à expliquer les différentes versions de la théorie en bloc, en fonction d’une épistémè qui n’est plus la nôtre, mais qui entrent dans une généalogie de nos origines et de nos progrès scientifiques. Ainsi, Bodin croyait à la théorie des climats à cause des influences de la cosmologie; Montaigne et La Mothe Le Vayer y recouraient grâce à l’ouverture chorographique (géographie axée sur la description) fournie par les récits de voyage et ainsi de suite. Toutefois, de telles lectures désamorcent le déterminisme climatique et le neutralisent par l’explication. Ainsi, en soumettant le discours à des déterminismes épistémologiques, on risque de passer sous silence les logiques internes du discours, c’est-à-dire leur créativité propre.

C’est ici que je voudrais dégager l’ironie des théories des climats. Chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, les théories des climats s’avèrent conscientes d’elles-mêmes ainsi que des erreurs géographiques qu’elles véhiculent. Autrement dit, les discours des climats ne sont pas nécessairement une chasse gardée pour les historiens de la science. Dans le cas des appropriations politiques, ils peuvent jouer un rôle prépondérant dans la structure argumentative de l’ouvrage et inviter à des usages métaphoriques. Mon livre propose une lecture en profondeur de ces arguments, tant sur la forme que sur le fond, les reliant aux grandes théories politiques de la période: la souveraineté, le constitutionnalisme et le républicanisme. J’avance que l’usage créatif du discours climatique révèle différents niveaux de lecture et différents types de lecteurs.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (anonymous portrait, 1728). Public domain.

Pour revenir à la blague du Trévoux, il faut cependant convenir que, contrairement à la voix narrative qui annonce l’humour du ‘rhume’, les corrélations température-tempérament des déterminismes climatiques tendent à estomper leurs marques énonciatives. La tentative est de confiner à une vérité scientifique. La dimension rhétorique se dissimule derrière l’observation empirique. De là, le discours se réclame d’une vérité physique, des observations avérées par la connaissance géographique, pour objectiver une position scientifique, que mon étude explique, de différentes manières, comme un homme de paille. C’est ce voile de la ‘scientificité’ qui abrite une stratégie détournée ou ‘ésotérique’ (Leo Strauss) de représenter le pouvoir. Moins des ‘caractères’ sociologiques ou des indices de la diversité humaine, les climats cachent une philosophie du pouvoir. Une grande partie de mes analyses expliquent le pourquoi de cette dissimulation que les théories de Strauss – mais aussi l’héritage des miroirs des princes – aident à structurer. Pour les modèles gouvernementaux et absolutistes de l’Ancien Régime, le discours climatique sera envisagé en tant qu’un idiome destiné aux législateurs, qui imite le manque de transparence de leur pouvoir, c’est-à-dire les arcana imperii, afin de mieux les influencer.

– Richard Spavin

Collaborative editing OCV-style: a text’s journey across continents and over the years

As a long-standing editor of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (OCV), who regularly visits 99 Banbury Road whenever he is in the UK, Andrew Hunwick was asked for his reminiscences of being an OCV contributor in this the fiftieth year since the start of the series…

Theodore Besterman.

Theodore Besterman.

At the University of Western Australia, when the academic year ends in November, the mind turns to the need for research and publication. For this particular Australian editor, I especially need the resources of the Paris Bibliothèque nationale. Back in 1972, Qantas was offering a greatly discounted return air fare to London – including free return hop to Paris!

In the hope also of getting my doctoral thesis published, I approached Theodore Besterman, editor of the Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century. He wrote back, saying, ‘By all means give me a ring when you get near these parts’ (the Voltaire Foundation was then at his home, Thorpe Mandeville House in Oxfordshire). This I did, from Paddington Station, and when I eventually got round to discussing possible research projects on Voltaire, he suddenly engaged: ‘Ah, now you’re talking! You’d better come here today, and stay to lunch.’ It was ThB who suggested I become a contributor to the Voltaire Œuvres complètes by contacting general editor William Barber at the University of London. William said there were a handful of opuscules requiring an editor and I gratefully accepted – not realising that I would still be engaged on them years later…

The first step was to locate any extant manuscripts of these four texts. ThB had told me of the important volume 77 of the Studies, containing all the locations of manuscripts and printed editions, as compiled by William Trapnell. At the BN there were two surviving manuscripts of only one of my texts, the Mandement du père Alexis – published this month in OCV, volume 60B.

Teaching and marking took most of my time during the academic year, especially (to ThB’s disbelief) as I was teaching all of French literature, not just the eighteenth century. Yet although our library had the Moland edition of Voltaire, Studies, and the first edition of the Correspondence, I wasn’t able to work on my opuscules until I got study leave, in August 1974. To obtain a carte de lecteur for the BN was about 40 Francs, and this also got me into the Département des manuscrits, where I set about palaeographically transcribing my two documents, one in Voltaire’s hand, the other in secretary Wagnière’s. The former became my base text (nowadays for OCV the first printed edition is often used). In order to establish variants, I found it helpful to read the manuscript aloud, recording it onto a cassette. I then played this back on a Walkman, while comparing it with each of the sources one after the other, noting down any differences.

Obtaining access to the first printed editions proved, in the long run, to be something of a problem. I had assumed that all would be held by the BN. In the event, it was not until my edition of the Mandement was at proof stage that I learned of the existence of edition ‘65a’ (not held by the BN) – which then swiftly became my new base text after consultation with a photocopy provided by the Vf.

One of my opuscules was the book reviews Voltaire contributed in 1777 to the Journal de politique et de littérature from 25 April to 5 July (OCV, vol.80C, list, p.12). As I saw it, my task was to read these books myself, in order to have some basis for assessing Voltaire’s views. Sterne’s Tristram Shandy provided no difficulty, being readily available in our university library. But how was I to consult the four others? In those days (1975) there was no e-mail, internet or Google. No copies were held in any Australian library, and in any case it was unlikely that any library anywhere would be willing to lend its copies of what would undoubtedly have been classed as ‘rare’ books.

I was also busy preparing my doctoral thesis for publication, and my next ‘long period of uninterrupted concentration’ (the stated criterion for ‘humanities’-type research in the detailed submission made to the Australian Senate) would not be until my next study leave in mid-1979. By this time I had arranged to visit Cambridge (accommodation with friends) and acquire a reader’s card to use in their library, which held the ‘rare’ titles I needed to consult. I wasn’t even required to wear special gloves, or keep the pages open with a ‘sausage’, as I found was still the case in 2010 in the Rare Book sections of most of the Paris libraries.

I obtained what I needed from the Cambridge library, and found ‘chapter and verse’ for all the other references contained in Voltaire’s footnotes. I roughed out by hand my introduction to this opuscule and the books reviewed therein, as well as listing by hand, as far as possible, all my own footnotes in numerical order.

When I resumed my university duties, in 3rd term 1979, my teaching and marking loads were considerable (I was also supervising two Honours students’ mémoires), but after exam marking I found time to type up fair copies of the work completed on leave. Happily our part-time typist had earlier typed copies for me of Voltaire’s own texts, and eventually my complete typescripts were compiled by the third week in December 1979. These I photocopied and posted, with a covering letter, to William Barber (by this time he and Giles Barber of the Taylorian had become the OCV editors), who promptly acknowledged receipt of my work. Well, as most readers will know, my editions, as well as those of other contributors, did not become the object of actual publication for quite some time… but that, decidedly, is another story.

– Andrew Hunwick

Note from the Vf: OCV volume 60B is finally published this month. The very last of the collectaneous volumes in the series, the Œuvres de 1764-1766 contains twelve texts and some shorter verse. Work on it began as early as 1979 (see above). It involved eleven contributors along the way, and had passed through the hands of five of the in-house editorial team before it was typeset (four on the bibliography alone). It required eleventh-hour library checking in Paris by a willing student, and emergency call-outs to several OCV editors for last-minute problem-solving, including asking someone’s uncle in Canada to visit a local academic’s home to take photos to verify a manuscript variant. Impressive teamwork at the final hurdle meant that 60B kept its allocated slot in the tight OCV publication schedule. The complex logistics had been further compounded by the initial inclusion of the edition of the Collection des lettres sur les miracles by José-Michel Moureaux (who, sadly, died in 2012) and Olivier Ferret, which then moved to its own separate volume (60D), to be published this Spring.

– KC

Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Choix de Chansons: Digital Editing and the Limits of Disciplinarity

One of the first projects being developed in the newly established Voltaire Lab is a cutting-edge digital edition of Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s long-forgotten illustrated songbook Choix de Chansons (1773). Funded by the Australian Research Council, Performing Transdisciplinarity brings together a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the Australian National University, the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, and the Voltaire Foundation, working across the disciplines of art history (Mark Ledbury and Robert Wellington), musicology (Erin Helyard), French literature (Nicholas Cronk), and digital humanities (Glenn Roe). The team is exploring the interrelation and interactivity of images, music, and text in the Choix de Chansons and similar cultural objects in the eighteenth century more generally. By reconceiving the illustrated songbook as a multimedia digital interface for sharing and linking deep disciplinary knowledge, this project will provide a fascinating glimpse into the sounds, sensibilities, and social mores of late-eighteenth-century France.

Title Page from Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, ‘Choix de Chansons’, 1773.

Title Page from Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, ‘Choix de Chansons’, 1773.

As we know, the Enlightenment was the golden age of book illustration in France. Traditionally, studies of eighteenth-century illustrated books were the province of amateurs and bibliophiles who delighted in deluxe editions and wrote of the engravings they contained as splendid rococo follies, reflecting the decorative impulse of a lost courtly age. This approach, however, has marginalized the contribution of these artists through a failure to interrogate the significant sociological dimensions of their illustrated books and their participation in complex networks of production and reception.

One of the best-known illustrated songbooks of the later eighteenth century is the four-volume Choix de Chansons compiled by Laborde (1734–1794), fermier général and premier valet de chambre to Louis XV. Published in 1773 and dedicated to the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, this deluxe set is an exemplary work of hybrid performativity. It includes printed text from leading contemporary poets, including Voltaire, more than a hundred pictorial engravings, and hand-engraved musical scores for voice and harp or harpsichord. Its author, Laborde, was an avid musician, composer, musicologist, and Freemason. While remaining a noted member of Louis XV’s court, he corresponded with some of the most prominent intellectual figures of the period.

Frontispiece of the ‘Choix de Chansons’ featuring Laborde and a quatrain by Voltaire.

Frontispiece of the ‘Choix de Chansons’ featuring Laborde and a quatrain by Voltaire.

The songs selected by Laborde in his Choix de Chansons are by a variety of French poets whose subjects provide an extraordinarily wide panorama of eighteenth-century life. Laborde commissioned the celebrated print-maker, Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1814), known as Moreau le Jeune. Moreau contributed only twenty-five plates to the four-volume set, however, with three other illustrators completing the project (Le Bouteux, Le Barbier, and Saint Quentin). Although the work is dedicated to Marie Antoinette, many contributors to the Chansons, especially Moreau and Voltaire, were socially progressive, both men having belonged to the radical Masonic Loge des Neuf Sœurs. Scholars have argued, for instance, that the same moral sensibility found in a thinker such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau can also be found in Moreau le Jeune’s printed œuvre. Laborde’s Choix de Chansons thus distils the dynamic sensibilities of late-eighteenth century France, embodying both the exuberance of the Court and the enlightened mores of the philosophes.

Engraving from the song ‘Le Dernier parti à prendre’, featuring Voltaire.

Engraving from the song ‘Le Dernier parti à prendre’, featuring Voltaire.

Our contention then is that the Choix de Chansons – to be fully appreciated – must be understood in its deeply multi- or trans-disciplinary historical context. As Julia Douthwaite and Mary Vidal have shown, the eighteenth century was perhaps the last truly ‘interdisciplinary century’. It was a time when artists, musicians, poets, jurists, mathematicians, philosophers, and diverse audiences worked together to produce new interdisciplinary practices that explored the fundamental inter-connectedness of the arts and sciences. Music was admired as much for its harmonic science as its compositional beauty; and the visual arts became an important point of entry into contemporary debates about the mechanics of aesthetic experience, in part stimulated by the new branch of physics called ‘optics’ that had developed in the wake of Descartes and Newton. Nowhere is this interdisciplinary gesture more evident than in the great mid-century Encyclopédie, a collaborative reference work edited by Denis Diderot and Jean D’Alembert that explicitly sought to establish epistemological correspondences between the arts, natural sciences, and technical trades.

In order to recapture the fundamentally interdisciplinary aspects of eighteenth-century cultural production, we aim to move beyond our normal areas of specialisation to explore the Choix de Chansons through a ‘transdisciplinary’ lens. The transdisciplinary approach aims to integrate disciplinary knowledge into a meaningful whole, one that implies a system of interrelated knowledge without established disciplinary boundaries that only becomes visible when brought together; a system that in fact has much in common with that imagined by Diderot and D’Alembert in the Encyclopédie. We propose that the Choix de Chansons is, like the Encyclopédie, in many ways a quintessential transdisciplinary object. As such, it requires a new methodological approach that operates at the interface of interdisciplinary collaboration, rich historical contextualization, and new media dissemination.

Le dernier parti a prendre from Jean-Benjamin de Laborde, ‘Choix de Chansons’ (1773). Music by Laborde, lyrics by Voltaire.

Through the digital editing and analysis of Laborde’s Choix de Chansons we will ‘perform transdisciplinarity’ in a way that both forges spaces for knowledge discovery and sharing and elucidates eighteenth-century practices of cultural production. To achieve these goals, we will develop a digital interface that acts as a holistic framework to enrich our understanding of the Choix de Chansons as well as other, similarly complex cultural objects and, more generally, of the performative nature of the cultural experience in eighteenth-century France. Working with design specialists at the ANU School of Art and Design, we are constructing a transdisciplinary data model and interface that can be applied to future humanities research across a variety of disciplines, including art history, literary studies, musicology, visual culture, book history, and digital humanities.

The Performing Transdisciplinarity team at BSECS 2018.

The Performing Transdisciplinarity team at BSECS 2018.

Our first major presentation of Performing Transdisciplinarity was delivered at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (BSECS) conference in January this year as part of the panel, ‘Unboxing Jean Benjamin Laborde’s “Choix de Chansons” (1773) – ancien-régime sociability and the possibilities of the digital humanities.’ Conference delegates were also treated to a recital of eight songs from Laborde’s book, sung by Emilie Renard and accompanied by Erin Helyard on Harpsichord (see video link above). Further developments of this project can be found on the Voltaire Lab page.

– Glenn Roe and Robert Wellington

Behind the scenes of eighteenth-century music and theatre


Gustaf Nyblaeus (1783–1849), Interior from Gustav III’s opera house, scene from Méhul’s Une folie, which was performed at the Opera from 1811 onwards. Photo credits: Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Licence: CC BY SA.

In recent years cross-disciplinary encounters and research agendas have stimulated an upsurge of interest in the history of early modern and eighteenth-century music and theatre, resulting in new insights into musical methods, artistic milieus and hubs, and the professional practices of actors and musicians.

It was clearly an opportune time to weave these strands into a single publication.

The story of our book began on the shores of the Mediterranean, where two ANR research programmes (CITERE and THEREPSICHORE) and one Academy of Finland research project (‘Comic opera and society in France and Northern Europe, c.1760–1790’) pooled their resources to stage a series of research meetings that enabled a thought-provoking exchange of ideas between historians, literature specialists, linguists and musicologists, paving the way for a truly interdisciplinary volume. An added bonus was the pleasure of working with such a cosmopolitan team of authors from Europe, the US and Australia.

The result, Moving scenes: the circulation of music and theatre in Europe, 1700-1815, certainly reflects something of the repeated crossing of borders – political, linguistic and stylistic, and borders of convention and genre, society and culture – that characterized musical and dramatic production in the eighteenth century. By adopting a case study approach it is our hope that this volume will provide insights into life behind the scenes, such as:

  • The various personal or political motives and struggles related to particular productions, as in the case of Grétry or the productions of French plays in Germany during the coalition wars.
  • Conditions of the recruitment of actors and musicians, illustrated by Favart’s efforts to hire French comedians for the Viennese stage.
  • The sociology of the artistic profession and the material conditions of artistic careers, as exemplified by the Huguenot actor and writer Joseph Uriot, who crossed social, political and linguistic borders between French-speaking territories and the German-speaking world.

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685-1766), Portrait of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1755), oil on canvas, 82.3 x 64.5 cm. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC PD Mark.

The book may be in English but the geographic framework is largely European, the eighteenth century being a Europe of French theatre and Italian music. The Leitmotif, however, is circulation: circulation of people, ideals, musical themes, and literary innovations and appropriations. These are stories about high art and the canon of good taste, about patronage and collecting, about translation and imitation, and about earning a living as an artist. They take us from Stockholm to Madrid and from Moscow to New York, and show the extent to which travelling and mobility was, and always has been, part of the artistic and musical sphere. Indeed, it is also part of the academic sphere.

The disciplines of intellectual history and cultural history can tend to be mutually suspicious – or indeed ignorant – of each other. With our book, Moving scenes, we want to demonstrate that by focusing on the actual circulation of people, texts and works across Europe, it is possible to overcome many theoretical obstacles and initiate fruitful debates that cross any disciplinary barriers.

– Charlotta Wolff and Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire


Sade: a national treasure?

What do Ian McKellen and the Marquis de Sade have in common? They’re both national treasures in their respective countries.

Manuscript of Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome.

In Britain, a national treasure is someone who’s been around for quite a while, and generally regarded with respect and affection. Think Judi Dench and David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley and Alan Bennett, who are probably Britain’s favourite national treasures even though they might blanch at the label. Such is the enduring love for these reassuring yet sometimes quirky figures that even when scandal strikes – as when La Lumley was embroiled in that ghastly garden bridge brouhaha – we collectively sigh, shrug and continue in our comfortable love. This points to a trait common to many British national treasures: their pasts as well as their presents are rarely conservative. Though they may have a traditional keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude, there’s often something irreverent, naughty or even queer about them – think of Irvine Welsh, Helen Mirren and David Hockney. That’s why Kate Moss is already a national treasure, Nicola Adams might be one day, but the Queen will never be. Longevity doesn’t translate into insipidness, and Mary Beard exemplifies how a national treasure continues to stimulate, provoke and upset (some of) us.

National treasures in France, however, are not people but ‘des biens culturels qui présentent un intérêt majeur pour le patrimoine national au point de vue de l’histoire, de l’art ou de l’archéologie’, and whose expatriation is temporarily blocked so that their value can be determined by experts and potentially for the State to raise sufficient funds for their purchase. On 18 December 2017 France’s Ministère de la culture declared the manuscript of Sade’s 120 journées de Sodome to be a ‘trésor national’, a decision taken just before the twelve-metre long scroll was about to be auctioned off as part of a sale of manuscripts owned by the now discredited company Aristophil, a French investment firm that went bankrupt in 2015 after buying more than a 100,000 manuscripts and whose founder was charged with fraud last year. Sade’s scroll – as well as André Breton’s Manifestes du surréalisme which were also owned by Aristophil and were similarly designated a national treasure – cannot leave France for at least thirty months, during which time the State is expected to rustle up the funds to purchase it at a price such as it would reach on the international market. According to Le Figaro, that sum is in the region of 8 million euros, slightly more than the 7 million euros paid by Aristophil, which bought the manuscript in 2014, the bicentennial of Sade’s death.

Les 120 journées de Sodome – described by its author as the ‘récit le plus impur qui ait jamais été fait depuis que le monde existe, le pareil livre ne se rencontrant ni chez les anciens ni chez les modernes’, and somewhat surprisingly by both the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail as ‘an erotic masterpiece’ – appeared in the Pléiade series in 1990 and as a Penguin Classic in 2016. As the official website of the Ministère de la culture notes, ‘ce manuscrit, remarquable par sa forme particulière résultant des conditions de sa création en cellule lors de l’incarcération du marquis de Sade à la Bastille, son parcours fort mouvementé, sa réputation sulfureuse et son influence sur un certain nombre d’écrivains français du XXème siècle, est d’une importance majeure dans l’œuvre de Sade, en tant que premier véritable ouvrage, à la fois le plus radical et le plus monumental, bien que resté inachevé.’ Frédéric Castaing, member of the committee that advises on which works should be classified as national treasures, is quoted in the New York Times as describing Les 120 journées as a work that ‘that challenges, that reaches into the depths of humanity, of the obscure, […] a serious document of literature, of France’s literary history.’ Its canonization is now complete and irrefutable.

Ironically, Les 120 journées de Sodome works against the idea of nationhood. One of the books that inspired Sade’s novel is the Abbé Bertoux’s Anecdotes françaises (1767), which provides a pithy story or two to exemplify the ‘mœurs, […] usages et […] coutumes’ of the French nation for many of the years since 487. In contrast to Bertoux, who deploys the conventional anecdote to forge a collective and nationalist readership, Sade uses the obscene anecdote to create an individual and subversive reader. And yet there is a logic to this violent, obscene and radically atheist novel being declared – and publicly funded – as a national treasure. Sade writes in ‘Français, encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains’, the political pamphlet intercalated in La Philosophie dans le boudoir (1795):

‘Que les blasphèmes les plus insultants, les ouvrages les plus athées soient ensuite autorisés pleinement, afin d’achever d’extirper dans le cœur et la mémoire des hommes ces effrayants jouets de notre enfance [the phrase “effrayants jouets de notre enfance” of course refers to religion]; que l’on mette au concours l’ouvrage le plus capable d’éclairer enfin les Européens sur une matière aussi importante, et qu’un prix considérable, et décerné par la nation, soit la récompense de celui qui, ayant tout dit, tout démontré sur cette matière, ne laissera plus à ses compatriotes qu’une faux pour culbuter tous ces fantômes et qu’un cœur droit pour les haïr.’

With his manuscript now classified as a national treasure, it transpires that Sade has won just that kind of prize. Whether his fellow Europeans are in the mood to award a similar prize is less clear for now.

– Thomas Wynn, Durham University

Thomas Wynn’s translation and edition of The 120 Days of Sodom, produced in collaboration with Will McMorran (Queen Mary, University of London), was published by Penguin Classics in 2016.