Artisanal labour and the ethics of craft

Scholars today are rewriting histories of the eighteenth century to be more ambitious in scale and inclusive in scope. As a discipline whose foundations have traditionally been located in the European Enlightenment, art history has long defined itself through exclusive canons of ‘artists’ and ‘art’ that have valorized certain individuals and objects at the expense of others. Recent directives to decolonize art history, as well as architectural history, demonstrate that these disciplines seek to credit those who labour as part of art- and knowledge-making processes.

Artisanal objects represent the material and archival evidence of someone’s work and, accordingly, histories of art and architecture double as histories of labour. Our volume Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks recognizes artisan-labourers and contextualizes their identities in order to acknowledge distinct processes of facture – be that artisanal labour standardized, precarious, oppressed, or coerced – and the working conditions under which eighteenth-century artisans operated. Our volume captures the diversity of artisans from a range of occupations – sculptors, manuscript illuminators, ornamental carvers, desk– and chair-makers, clockmakers, garden designers, ceramicists, architects, and jewellers – working in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, colonial America, viceregal Mexico, Mughal India, Qing dynasty China, and colonial Australia. The dialogues between historians of art, architecture, material culture, sociology, and technology featured in our book demonstrate how contested histories of colonialism, imperialism, and Enlightenment are also fundamentally artisanal histories.

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is the June 2021 volume of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series.

The contributions in Crafting Enlightenment all argue for artisanal participation within the pluralities of Enlightenment thought, along multiple narratives of Enlightenment that existed across the eighteenth-century world. Instead of focusing exclusively on the Enlightenment’s European intellectual origins, we consider how artisans from the long eighteenth-century and the products of their labour responded to a multifaceted Enlightenment that meant very different things in different places, as historian Sebastian Conrad has argued. Our version of this transnational Enlightenment extends well beyond the eighteenth century, from seventeenth-century projects of state building to nineteenth-century consequences of imperialism and cross-cultural encounters. We hope our volume encourages readers to delve more deeply into the intertwined narratives between art objects and labour – like the artisans discussed, the objects themselves also represent critical moments of transnational exchange.

Crafting Enlightenment offers a timely reminder that artisans employed craftsmanship and labour to assert their own creativity across the eighteenth-century world. These important queries around pluralism and inclusive practices continue to resonate throughout the academy and governments via policy. In addition to identifying historical eighteenth-century actors who have been marginalized by history, scholars might further chart ambitious intellectual territory by tracking how the exploitation of labour and extraction of natural resources today continue to advance the problematic agenda of colonialism around the world. Public attention is now increasingly trained on the ways that local materials, outsourced labour, and working conditions determine our habits of consumption. Such ecologies of natural resources and labour, identified as such in the long eighteenth century, have allowed us to explore how transnational networks highlight discrepancies between certain privileged artisans who had access to imperial commissions and others who did not and remain uncredited for their work. These issues are as relevant today as they were in the long eighteenth century. Artisanal craftsmanship remains at the heart of social critique, demonstrating how the objects we make and use reflect our personal biases. The practices of contemporary craft – hand-woven textiles being one example – demonstrate how feminized labour, materiality, gender, and race have pulled these techniques towards ideological ends. Ethical questions prompted by artisanal production inflect ongoing debates in art and architecture, signalling how the structural limitations of Enlightenment thought have persisted in determining the production and reception of craft.

Lauren R. Cannady (University of Maryland, College Park) and Jennifer Ferng (University of Sydney)

Crafting Enlightenment: artisanal histories and transnational networks is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in June 2021.

‘The princely progress of the human race’: Guido Maria Brera’s new Candido

La Nave di Teseo, the François vase (Museo Archeologico, Florence).

La nave di Teseo – The ship of Theseus: that is the name of the publishing house which brought out, no more than a few months ago, Guido Maria Brera’s latest novel: Candido. The ship of Theseus, just like the ship that, as reported by Plutarch, the people of Athens busily renovated agan and again, and which, however, they stubbornly kept claiming to be the very one that bore the son of Aegeus back to Greece. No name would have been more appropriate: Brera’s Candido is at the same time Voltaire’s Candide and something quite different. Animated by a quintessentially Voltairian verve, which Sciascia had also brilliantly rendered in his own, Sicily-set, work of the same name, Brera’s Candido is a profoundly disillusioned reflection on some of the problems affecting modern (Italian) society. It is a harsh critique of a certain model of ‘development’, presented as inevitably leading to increased inequality and, ultimately, totalitarianism.

Guido Maria Brera: Candido.

Brera’s Candido is a rider, an English word that the Italians have made their own and use to refer to a (food) delivery person (and, by extension, to any underpaid ‘slaves of the gig economy’). He is a rider in a post-pandemic, post-recession, dystopic, unnamed yet easily recognisable Milan, with its ‘old gothic church’ and its bosco verticale. Much like in Orwell’s London, streets in Brera’s Milan are dotted with telescreens, ceaselessly broadcasting the ruling Party’s propaganda. Pangloss, the Party’s spokesman lecturing from the telescreens, tirelessly repeats ‘tutto è bene, tutto va bene’ (‘all is well, everything is going well’), a sentence that grotesquely mimics the slogan written on many of the banners hanging down Italian balconies at the peak of the covid-19 pandemic: ‘andrà tutto bene’.

He further adds that being pessimistic or negative is a sure way of making the world a worse place, and that work and dedication are sure ways of hitting the big time and becoming free – one might almost be tempted to write this last bit in German. Surrounded by these gigantic telescreens, Candido rides happily on his bicycle to deliver food and drinks to the people in the Inner Neighbourhoods. The more food and drinks he delivers, he cheerfully reasons, the more credits he will earn, and the more credits he earns, the more time he will be able to spend in his little bedroom, chatting with his much-beloved Cunegonda. Little does he care or indeed realise that his Cunegonda is but a hologram generated by Voltaire, the ruling Party’s social network, which, one cannot help but noticing, is somehow reminiscent of another, much-debated Italian online platform, also named after a prominent eighteenth-century thinker, Rousseau.

One of thousands of pandemic banners: ‘All will be well’.

Completely out of place in such a dehumanised social reality, a bit like Italo Calvino’s Marcovaldo in post-war, booming Turin, Brera’s Candido is, however, fully integrated in the totalitarian system he lives in. Plus royaliste que le roi, plus candide que Candide, he makes the Party’s slogans his own. To his fellow riders complaining about the hardship of their condition, Candido replies with some of Pangloss’s best quotes; he reminds them that to deliver food is to contribute to the wellbeing of humankind, and that they would not complain so much if they only dared to be a bit more positive about life. When they look at him in astonishment, their mouths agape, he smiles and walks away, glad to have imparted some much-needed wisdom. Likewise, when his mother is compelled to sublet her own bedroom to make up for the credits he can no longer earn – he has been spotted in the company of some protesters and unjustly fired – Candido cannot help but rejoice that his old woman is no longer alone in the house.

Italian gig economy workers demonstrate for labour rights (Financial Times).

Eventually invited to take up an internship in the Voltaire headquarters, Candido is finally about to prove the world that he was right all along, and that everything is indeed for the best: he performs brilliantly and is soon promoted to the highest positions. And yet, just as the internship is about to come to a close, a sudden, momentary ‘glitch’ unveils the bleakness and squalor of the world he lives in: much like Alcina’s palace in Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, the seemingly idyllic Voltaire headquarters are revealed to be the monstrous seat of corruption. Confirmed in his intuition by bookseller Martino, Candido hurries to apologise to his mother and friends. A modern, more proactive, but perhaps equally self-destructive Bartleby, Candido begins to say no and stand up against the system. He joins a massive protest and… well, I am not a huge fan of spoilers and have no wish to hurt any of my four readers. But it is worth noting that other countries are much more advanced than Italy in their race to becoming large gig economies, and that, unfortunately, even academia appears to have been dragged down that direful path. Oh, ‘magnifiche sorti e progressive’!

– Ruggero Sciuto

Casanova and medicine

Casanovas’s Guide to Medicine, by Lisetta Lovett (Pen and Sword Books, 2021).

Forget the stereotype! Most people on hearing the name Casanova immediately think of a libertine and debauched figure, tropes peddled by numerous films (of which the 1976 Fellini version was particularly vicious), television series, plays, books and even music from the early 20th century. What would a man like that have to say about the serious subjects of illness and medical practice? ‘Is it all about venereal disease?’ was a common question from acquaintances during the six years or so that I was researching my book.

Whilst it is true that Giacomo Casanova was captivated by women and that he suffered with venereal disease several times in his life, his legacy is much more important than these reductive facts. He was a scholar, prolific writer, linguist, mathematician and philosopher, whose Memoirs have given researchers rich pickings on social, political and cultural aspects of his times. However, insights about medical practice and the lived experience of disease have been somewhat neglected, which is why I wrote this book. In doing so I grew to feel more sympathetic to the man even though I am a product of 1970s feminism. In particular I realised an important lesson, which is not to judge the behaviour of past eras by our current moral standards. This book is not about Casanova, which is why I have not focused on character judgements. Rather, this is a book about disease and medical practice in the 18th century, an era when contagious diseases were a frequent challenge to normal life. Although plague was less rampant than in previous centuries it was still much feared, as were smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid and even influenza. The exact mechanisms of spread and how to treat them were both unknown. Life was a lottery, a situation that in a corona-virus world, we can all probably understand better.

‘The Gout’, by James Gillray (1799) (Wellcome Collection of Images CCBY).

Casanova wrote on a number of conditions apart from the pox. These range from duelling injuries to piles, skin complaints to stroke, cataract operations to gout; this last remains as painful now as was the case then. His descriptions provide alternately grim and amusing insights into public health measures, the doctor-patient relationship, medical etiquette and the dominant medical theories of the era. To help the reader understand the historical significance of the medical subjects covered, I have integrated throughout the book an extensive historical context drawn from contemporary sources of information and current literature on the history of medicine. I have also tried to make the book as jargon free as possible, taking care to explain medical terms when they arise because I wanted the book to appeal to a non-medical readership. It was my hope that readers would find these medical subjects animated and memorable thanks to encountering them through the prism of Casanova’s stories.

Casanova’s interest in medicine started as a teenager. He had wanted to study the subject at university in Padua, but his guardian the abbé Grimaldi and his mother would not hear of it. Instead he was directed to study ecclesiastical law and become a cleric. However, he maintained an interest throughout his life, kept himself informed and at times gave medical advice. Like most of contemporary society, he felt obliged to take an interest in his own health because ancient Greek medical theory, which still dominated medical understanding, stressed the importance of taking responsibility for one’s health through attention to life style, or regimen.

While Casanova was a librarian in Dux in the last years of his life, his doctor recommended that he write his Memoirs to control his black melancholy. It is thanks to this advice that we have his memoirs. They consist of 3800 folio pages organised into twelve bundles that start with his birth and continue to 1774, when they abruptly end because of his death in 1798 aged 72 years. The story of how the manuscript was preserved, edited and published subsequently is almost as colourful as Casanova’s life.

First page of Chapter II, Vol. X (later published as Vol. XII) of Giacomo Casanova’s manuscript of Histoire de ma vie (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

The lived experience of disease and medical understanding and practice in the 18th century may not seem to be of any relevance to us now. After all we have come a long way from the ubiquitous practice of bloodletting or purging patients. But on closer examination many of the episodes that Casanova describes relating to himself or others contain resonances. For example, avoidance of quarantine through foiling the Venetian cordon sanitaire, established to stop the spread of plague; support but also significant suspicion about inoculation for smallpox; the distress and stigma of having an itchy skin condition; the shame of suicide; the dangers of childbirth; patient ambivalence about their doctors’ advice; the absence of medical understanding about either the cause or mechanism of disease and therefore how to treat it. Of course medical science is so much more sophisticated today but the last year has illustrated that humanity can be as confused and vulnerable in the face of a disease as it was then. Medical hubris both from practitioners and a public that thinks medicine can treat everything has taken a tumble.

I have always been interested in history. As a medical student I persuaded my Medical School, then called Guy’s Hospital, to allow me to take a year off in order to study, amongst other things, a diploma course on history of medicine, run by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. A busy NHS career followed, eventually as a consultant psychiatrist, and a few years later I also took up an academic post in the medical school at Keele Univesity. There was little time to pursue my early interest although amongst the many psychiatric papers I published there were forays into history of psychiatry. One was a paper on Thomas Bakewell, who ran a small asylum on ‘moral therapy’ lines during the first decades of the 19th century. As a medical educationalist, I introduced into the undergraduate curriculum opportunities for medical students to undertake a project in a range of humanities subjects; many chose to do history, supervised by me or my colleague, an academic historian called Alannah Tomkins. Together we published a textbook on history of medicine with bite-sized chapters, designed to be easily accessible to busy medical tutors who wanted to introduce a historical perspective into their teaching.

Retirement has allowed me to pursue a second career as a medical historian. My interest in Casanova started whilst I was in Malawi on a volunteer psychiatric teaching programme shortly after I retired. The long, free evenings allowed me to read all of Casanova’s twelve volumes on my kindle, and thus the seed of an idea for a book was planted.

If you would like a foretaste of the book please go to my website.

– Lisetta Lovett

A version of this item was published on the Pen and Sword blog in February 2021.

Jean Guéguinou (1941-2021)

C’est avec une grande tristesse que nous avons appris le décès de Jean Guéguinou, ambassadeur de France à Londres de 1993 à 1998. Lors de sa visite à la Maison Française d’Oxford en 1994, année du tricentenaire de la naissance de Voltaire, il nous avait fait l’honneur et le plaisir d’inaugurer les nouveaux bureaux de la Voltaire Foundation. Comme le rappelle la nécrologie parue dans Le Monde du 25 juin 2021, il était ‘convaincu que le rayonnement de la culture française à l’étranger fait partie de la diplomatie’: nous nous souvenons de lui avec amitié et reconnaissance.

Plaque à la Voltaire Foundation, Université d’Oxford.

Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment (part 2)

This contribution follows on from part 1 of ‘Voltaire and the Orient of the Enlightenment’, published last week, and is adapted from the author’s article in ‘A Companion to World literature’, edited by Ken Seigneurie, Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2019.

Voltaire and the Biblical Orient

In the Protestant lands of Enlightenment Europe, in Britain and Germany especially, there were biblical scholars who became Orientalists in order to better understand the Hebrew Bible. By the second half of the eighteenth century there was widespread discussion of the ‘sublimity’ of Hebrew poetry and the Bible’s ‘Oriental’ style was an issue debated by eighteenth-century translators of the Bible: should the Orientalisms of the Hebrew original be rendered literally, as Johann David Michaelis believed, even at the risk of defamiliarizing the biblical text? Or should the Oriental style be tamed to suit the taste of the times? Even though not a reader of Hebrew, Voltaire was certainly sensitive to the ‘Oriental’ style of the Hebrew scriptures and, as a parodist and ventriloquist of genius, he took every opportunity to play with his ‘Oriental’ voice. The Oriental fiction Zadig has a parodic dedication signed by the Persian poet ‘Saadi’, preceded by a bogus ‘Approbation’ naming a Turkish chief judge, a spoof on contemporary French censorship (OCV, vol.30B, p.113-16). This parody of overblown ‘Oriental’ style becomes a philosophical discourse of choice and a favoured device in Voltaire’s high-profile campaigns of the 1760s against religious intolerance, carried on under the slogan Ecrasez l’infâme. Voltaire uses it in De l’horrible danger de la lecture (1765), a hard-hitting attack on censorship, written ostensibly in the voice of an Ottoman mufti, and again in the Epître écrite de Constantinople aux frères (c.1768) and the Avis à tous les orientaux (c.1769), both pleas for toleration and rational religion (OCV, vol.67, p.1-9, and vol.70A, p.1-10). These two polemical pamphlets, untypically, remained unpublished in Voltaire’s lifetime.

Mandement du muphti (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

When Voltaire needs to beg a favour of the duc de Choiseul, then foreign minister, he writes him a letter addressing him in the style of an Oriental potentate (9 January 1767, D13823). A mysterious text entitled Mandement du muphti, published anonymously in French in London in 1772, and claiming to be a translation from the Arabic, is a humorous attack on Voltaire, concluding with the hope that he be impaled in front of the château de Ferney. No one has ever been able to identify with certainty the author of this strange work but, given its bravura use of the Oriental voice, there is every chance that this work is by Voltaire himself, and that he is here parodying his own Oriental voice.

Voltaire clearly relishes the playful possibilities of the Oriental style but his creation of an Oriental voice is emphatically not innocent. Although himself no Hebrew scholar, he was steeped in biblical criticism and unstoppable on the subject of the illogicalities and absurdities of the Old Testament. Voltaire likes to emphasize the fictional, even fairy-tale, quality of the Hebrew scriptures, and so remind his readers of their status as an Oriental text. In 1759 Voltaire wrote to Mme Du Deffand: ‘je vous avouerai que je ne lis que l’ancien Testament, trois ou quatre chants de Virgile, tout L’Arioste, une partie des mille et une nuit’ (D8484). In this respect, Voltaire’s Orientalism takes a radical turn, for in placing the Bible and the 1001 Nights on the same footing as works of entertainment, Voltaire is using an argument from comparative literary history to undermine Christian orthodoxy. Faced by an ancient historical or theological text, Voltaire’s greatest term of abuse is to brand it a ‘fable’: as a character in Jeannot and Colin remarks, ‘Toutes les histoires anciennes, comme le disait un de nos beaux esprits, ne sont que des fables convenues’ (OCV, vol.57B, p.280). In Aventure indienne there is a hilarious description of Bacchus walking across the Red Sea without wetting his feet, these details, the narrator notes, ‘comme on le raconte fidèlement dans les Orphiques’ (OCV, vol.60B, p.253): for Voltaire to imply an equivalence between Bacchus and Moses is amusing (and he was familiar with the current of scholarship since the Renaissance that deliberately sought out comparisons between mythological and Christian figures); but to hint that biblical scriptures might be as fanciful as mythological accounts is seriously provocative. Similarly Ralph Nablow shows that a mythologicial reference in the conclusion to La Princesse de Babylone (OCV, vol.66, p.203) has a distinct biblical echo.

Voltaire, Le Taureau blanc ([London], 1774).

Voltaire’s most daring Oriental work, written when he was 80, is undoubtedly Le Taureau blanc (1773-1774), an Oriental fiction constructed on the fables of the Old Testament. As Roger Pearson writes in his translation of Candide and other stories, ‘As an Oriental tale devoted to the Bible it is unique not only among Voltaire’s stories but also among all eighteenth-century Oriental tales’ (Oxford, 2006). The heroine of the tale, princess Amaside, demands to be entertained by the stories told her by the old serpent, but she turns out to be more discriminating than Scheherazade, and is bored by all his tales from the Old Testament: ‘“I find stories like that boring,” remarked the fair Amaside, who had both intelligence and good taste … “I require a story to be essentially plausible, and not always sounding like the account of a dream. I prefer it to be neither trivial nor far-fetched … But, worst of all, when this sort of nonsense is written in an inflated and incomprehensible style, I find it dreadfully tiresome.”’

In encouraging his readers to regard the Old Testament as an Oriental text, one more among so many, he was taking his habitual relativism to new levels of impertinence, and of radicalism. The Christian Bible might be seen by some as the founding text of world literature – as it is by the Chicago professor of literary criticism Richard Moulton in 1911 in World literature and its place in general culture – insofar as it speaks across linguistic and cultural barriers, and has meaning in many different cultures in many different periods. Voltaire, in his role as literary historian, seems to take pleasure in reminding us that the Word of God is the product of a specific group of Eastern cultures.


Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (Londres [Amsterdam], 1776) (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

Voltaire’s researches as a historian, allied to his insatiable literary interests, made him enormously receptive to world literature and it is no exaggeration to characterize him as a pioneering historian of comparative literature. Relativism is at the core of his philosophical approach, so a work like his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares (1776) uses the wisdom of imagined Chinese and Indian cultures to comment on religion and politics in France. If his belief in the universality of human reason encourages him to minimize the distinctions between different literary cultures, his determination to undermine the unique position accorded to the ‘fables’ of the Old Testament encourages him to emphasize the ‘Oriental’, non-European, quality of the Hebrew scriptures. Voltaire’s unprecedented literary celebrity earned him a European, and eventually a global, readership. True, it is Goethe who is credited with inventing the word Weltliteratur, much influenced as he was by ‘Oriental’ poets; but it is hard to think that Goethe’s conception of world literature would have developed as it did had it not been for the intellectual example of Voltaire.

Nicholas Cronk

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.

The quotable Voltaire

The Quotable Voltaire: a compilation of wit, wisdom, quips and quotations by and about Voltaire, edited and presented by Garry Apgar and Edward Langille (Bucknell University Press, 2021).

The popularity of quotations, especially of famous people, reflects the human thirst for wisdom and for the pithy encapsulation of a clever thought. Insightful observations economically expressed – proverbs, maxims, adages, truisms, quips, etc. – have been around forever. Whether they be anonymous or credited to eminent statesmen, poets or pop stars, quotes help us cope with the mysteries and challenges of life. They supply food for thought at dinner parties and epigrams for books.

Few have served up as many bons mots as Voltaire. ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ is a current favourite with the governing class in Washington. ‘All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’, ‘We must cultivate our garden’, and ‘Pour encourager les autres’ are all familiar expressions in English as well as in French. And how can we forget ‘If God did not exist, He would have to be invented’? Or again the oft-quoted cynical line that ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’. The list of Voltaire’s aperçus is a long one. For Nicholas Cronk, Voltaire was ‘a master of the one-liner’. His witty aphorisms, – shrewd, cynical, or spiteful – surpass in sheer quantity the sayings of any other writer we can think of.

David Levine, pen-and-ink caricature of Voltaire. Illustration for John Weightman’s review of two works about Voltaire in the New York Review of Books, 18 June 1970. © Matthew and Eve Levine.

But Voltaire is famous not just for his witticisms. He may in fact be even more famous for things he never wrote or said, the most notorious and long-lived being: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This sentence, while faithful to Voltaire’s liberal principles, sprang from the pen of an English woman of letters around the turn of the last century. Writing under the alias ‘S. G. Tallentyre’, Evelyn Beatrice Hall offered a summary of Voltaire’s reaction to news that an atheistic tract by Helvétius had been condemned by the Church: ‘“What a fuss about an omelette!” he had exclaimed … 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.’

Hall’s qualifying phrase, ‘his attitude now’, was overlooked by almost all who read her book, and her stirring paraphrase, immediately ascribed to Voltaire, was later carved in stone inside the lobby of the Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune, when it was inaugurated in 1925. In June 1934 Reader’s Digest passed the bogus quote on to its vast national readership. In 1938 it was further fixed in the public mind by the Hollywood film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis, in which a dinner guest declared, ‘I think it was Voltaire who said, “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.’ Writers, journalists, and politicians have since sown the misquotation further afield.

Voltaire had opinions on virtually everything, from Aristotle, friendship, and luxury to testes and Zoroaster, though, it must be added that they were not always polite or what we would now regard as politically correct. He was, at times, malicious, and often obscene.

The Best of All Possible Worlds: Voltaire’s romances and tales (1929), with an introduction by US labour lawyer Clarence Darrow. Dust jacket designed by Art Young, showing Voltaire dropping a splash of light on a benighted world. Private collection.

The 1300 or so quotations that appear in this book show both the positive and negative facets of Voltaire’s character. The Quotable Voltaire is unique in terms of its bilingual format, substance, and the trouble that has been taken to ensure accuracy. We offer parallel versions in French and English for each quotation (except those originally written in English) so that the translation may be compared with the original French. This extends to the inclusion of a handful of quotations commonly misattributed to Voltaire. In compiling The Quotable Voltaire we have relied chiefly on the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, the first critical edition of the whole of Voltaire’s works, newly completed, in 200 volumes. All entries are fully documented, with dates of publication and page numbers for every source we cite.

The second half of the dictionary presents a three-part section of comments on Voltaire, his life and accomplishments, by Voltaire himself, by his contemporaries, and by personalities as diverse as Goethe, Charles de Gaulle, Ray Bradbury, Mae West, and even the heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Underscored is Voltaire’s pre-eminent position in Anglo-American culture, especially from the 1930s onward, when, progressively, he became the poster-boy of the American Left, or Right, depending on one’s point of view!

Finally, and interestingly, the book is richly illustrated, some images (including the book’s cover) having never been previously published.

Garry Apgar and Edward Langille

Reframing Rousseau

What can Enlightenment philosophes – especially Rousseau, arguably the most difficult of them all – have to tell us about modern life that we don’t already know?

Le Lévite d’Ephraïm: la douleur du Lévite (c.1806), by Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours of Geneva, 1752-1809 (MAH Musée d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève).

We are a team of scholars from different academic areas, each of whom offers a unique vantage point in understanding Rousseau’s texts. This constellation of approaches – grounded in an appreciation of the shared background of feminist critique promoted by the contributors to our volume Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity – provides the density that allows Rousseau’s nuanced writings to be read in their full complexity.

This book focuses on a relatively unfamiliar work of Rousseau’s: Le Lévite d’Ephraïm, a prose-poem in which Rousseau elaborates on a little-known Hebrew biblical text to interrogate many of the accepted, conventional views on issues ranging from the role of sacred texts; to Rousseau’s self-construction through the representation of guilt and remorse; to the role of hospitality in structuring both individual self-representation and social cohesion; to the place of violence in establishing national and communal self-identity. In each of these spheres, Rousseau reveals a particularly modern perspective in trying to honor both personal and social needs, and in privileging both the individual viewpoint and the political structure.

In keeping with Rousseau’s own multifocal writings as reflected in our own authors’ distinct voices, each contributor here provides a more detailed description of the sections in this book.

Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity (Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment May 2021).

In focusing on Rousseau’s rewriting of one narrative in the Hebrew biblical text, the first chapter interrogates the uses to which Enlightenment thinkers put the ancient – to many, still sacred – understanding of the biblical text. Why do 18th-century thinkers feel the need to refer to biblical texts at all? What new ways of reading do they create to construct a world view that differs markedly both from ancient and classical philosophical and political thought? This section foregrounds the ‘strange’ reliance Rousseau places on an ancient text to propose a modern critique of the conventional way of understanding the world.

Although Rousseau named Le Lévite d’Ephraïm the ‘most cherished’ of his works, it has drawn far less scholarly attention than most of his other works. Taking the author at his word, the second chapter of the volume explores the paradox behind Rousseau’s valorization of the most disturbing of his writings and his contention that it provided proof of his gentle nature. This chapter identifies links between Le Lévite d’Ephraïm and Rousseau’s autobiographical works and writings on language and society. Rousseau’s rewriting of this Biblical narrative reflects his vision of language, human nature and the fragility of community bonds while offering unique insight into Rousseau’s understanding of human psychology, manipulation of language, and the dynamics of scapegoating and civil unrest.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Line engraving. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

Chapter three looks to how Rousseau incorporates the metatext of hospitality into his œuvre, utilizing the social and textual themes of misguided and absent hospitality. It seems that Rousseau’s personal circumstances intensified his conviction that the subversion of hospitality by the host (individual, group, or nation), ineluctably leads to moral catastrophe. Inter alia, this presentation addresses the issue of failed hospitality as it relates to the marginalization of individuals and to the eventual alienation of the group. In the end, society creates its own strangers, and by mistreating them, prefigures its own demise. Le Lévite constitutes a plea for society to restore its moral compass. While much of Rousseau’s work, including the Confessions and Emile, provides insight into the context of his interpretation of faulty hospitality, it is Le Lévite d’Ephraïm that offers a view from a different vantage point of the developing political philosophy explored more fully in the Contrat social.

The book’s final chapter focuses on Rousseau’s view of how nationalism can intersect with violence. Do these two movements inevitably presuppose each other? What determines the notion of ‘belonging’ to a nation? Concomitantly, Rousseau treats the inverse implication of these questions: what is the status of the stranger, of the person who doesn’t belong? Rousseau’s choice of an abstruse biblical text through which to examine this complicated issue highlights Rousseau’s understanding of the complexities of texts, and of others, as we try to interpret these all to get at their essences.

The Afterword of this volume explores some of the current implications of the questions raised, both implicitly and explicitly, by the text of Le Lévite d’Ephraïm. How do Rousseau’s writings – particularly Le Lévite d’Ephraïm – speak to a 21st-century world fractured by demonization and alienation? This section of the book outlines the ways in which strangeness and nationalism can be utilized to unite the world of variegated individuals and communities that form the complicated texture of our lives.

In Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraim, Abrams, Morgenstern and Sullivan offer us a new look at Rousseau’s writing on political and cultural issues that continue to be salient in contemporary times. The authors look forward to expanding this conversation with the responses and reactions from the readers of this book.

Barbara Abrams, Mira Morgenstern, and Karen Sullivan
(Suffolk University Boston, City College / City University of New York, Queens College / City University of New York)

Reframing Rousseau’s Lévite d’Ephraïm: The Hebrew Bible, hospitality and modern identity is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.

A version of this blog first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog in May 2021.

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, a Voltaire fan?

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage à l’Isle de France (Amsterdam, 1773) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre returned to France in 1771 following an unhappy posting to Mauritius. In Paris he made new acquaintances, D’Alembert, Julie de Lespinasse, Condorcet and, most significantly in the eyes of posterity, he befriended Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This intimacy has ossified critical opinion as it was D’Alembert who aided the publication of his first book, the Voyage à l’île de France (1773) by a printer whom Voltaire termed ‘l’enchanteur Merlin’. Drafted in part in the Indian Ocean, the work was published anonymously with a permission tacite as it criticized French colonial practices. In it Bernardin claimed that his travel writing was innovative as Voltaire, D’Alembert, Buffon and Rousseau had not provided a model. He demonstrated his extensive reading by asserting: ‘Je sais bon gré à M. de Voltaire d’avoir traité de barbares ceux qui éventrent un chien vivant pour nous montrer les veines lactées’ (a reference to the article ‘Bêtes’ in the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Like Voltaire, Bernardin was educated by the Jesuits. He too liked citing Latin authors, particularly Virgil, and also frequently quoted from memory. He stated that D’Alembert had suggested that he compose histories and claimed that he had read Voltaire’s historical writings. He shared the patriarch’s alarm at d’Holbach’s Système de la nature and wrote against it. Despite a staunch belief in God, Bernardin was anticlerical and loathed superstition. Like Voltaire, he mocked fears about a comet in 1773, telling Mme Necker: ‘On attend ici la comette pour demain; il y a des églises dont les confessionaux ne désemplissent pas; le peuple est fort inquiet de sçavoir si la terre sera brûlée ou noyée’ (Electronic Enlightenment, BSP_0244). He too was intrigued  by the possibility of ‘éléphants’ (i.e. mammoths) in Siberia. The Revolution saw him produce short works advocating tolerance and social harmony.

Invitation à la Concorde, pour la Fête de la Confédération, du 14 juillet 1792 (Gazette Drouot).

His Invitation à la concorde (1792) appeared in print and as a poster. It proclaims that discord will destroy France but Catholics, Protestants and Jews will thrive ‘autour de l’autel de la patrie’ where ‘chaque religion deviendra citoyenne’. He composed contes in a manner reminiscent of Voltaire. The Café de Surate (1792), depicting often religious prejudices, may have been inspired by a chapter in Zadig, ‘Le Souper’. He read his fictional Voyage en Silésie, with its message of reconciling quarrelsome multinational travellers, in his capacity as professeur de morale républicaine to instituteurs at the Ecole normale in 1795. In the foreword to the first printed edition, he asserted that ‘Mon but était d’inspirer aux hommes, qui sont les mêmes quant au fond, de la tolérance pour les opinions diverses.’

Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Voyage en Silésie (Paris, 1807) (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Bernardin returned to a controversy treated by Voltaire in Lettre XI of the Lettres philosophiques, inoculation. In the Harmonies de la nature (begun in the 1790s), he writes: ‘On a longtemps agité la question, si l’inoculation était utile. J’observerai ici que Jean-Jacques n’a pas osé la décider dans son Emile.’ While acknowledging risks, Bernardin is decisive: ‘Il me semble […] que pour détruire tant d’intérêts particuliers qui s’opposent à l’intérêt général on devrait faire inoculer à la fois tous les enfants […] l’inoculation contribuerait à resserrer entre eux les liens de la fraternité.’ Despite his antipathy to the scientific establishment and, unlike Voltaire, opposed to Newtonian ideas of attraction, Bernardin is generally in favour of scientific advances.

Voltaire loved publishing texts anonymously or with fictional authors. Bernardin, after the Voyage, demanded his name on the title page. Yet, in a text not printed in his lifetime which I am editing for his Œuvres complètes (Garnier), the Fragment sur la théorie de l’univers, he too adopted a ludic pretence. The narrator, a ship’s pilote, recounts Bernardin’s views to a passenger without naming him. All he will reveal is that: ‘Le système dont je vais vous entretenir est d’un Français.’ Subsequently he speaks of ‘l’auteur de la nouvelle théorie’, ‘mon auteur’, ‘Notre auteur’.

Simon Davies, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre: colonial traveller, Enlightenment reformer, celebrity writer, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Liverpool University Press, 2021).

Bernardin often omits the sources of his references. In a manuscript that I am also editing for his Œuvres complètes, he writes ‘Un de nos poètes a dit: “Dieu mit la fièvre en nos climats et le remède en Amérique.” C’est une pensée de bel esprit.’ The line had appeared in a poem to Frederick the Great (OCV, t.32A, p.412) and in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (OCV, t.41, p.394). Bernardin probably found it in the latter as it is mentioned in the Harmonies de la nature.

While Bernardin sympathised with ‘l’infortuné Jean-Jacques’ and knew that his public renown benefited from that association, he believed that sociability was natural. He thought that reform was needed, hence his acceptance of appointments at the Jardin du roi (where he championed initiatives), the Ecole normale and the Institut. He disliked Voltaire’s relations with crowned heads (although he had met Catherine the Great, praised her in his Voyage ‘porté par tout le vent des philosophes qui étaient dans sa faveur’), but was far more sociable than his clichéd reputation. To label him as simply a disciple of Rousseau is misleading. He owed as much to Voltaire as to Rousseau and he supplies an even-handed comparison in his Parallèle de Voltaire et de Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His celebrity in the Ancien Régime and the Revolution and the accessibility of his correspondence in Electronic Enlightenment make him an excellent point of reference for questions still raised about the role and impact of the so-called philosophes in scholarly publications and recently at the Enlightenment Workshops in Oxford. In sum, Bernardin reacted to the challenges of his age and responded in his own distinctive fashion.

– Simon Davies

Il faut des romans aux peuples corrompus: le romanesque républicain dans la Suisse des Lumières

En 1753, Voltaire, à la suite de différents événements désagréables, quitte le royaume de Prusse où il avait été appelé par le roi Frédéric II. Voltaire est alors âgé de 59 ans, il a déjà une vie riche derrière lui, ponctuée de multiples expériences, de beaucoup de publications et de très nombreuses rencontres. Il hésite sur la direction à prendre. Il sait qu’il n’est pas le bienvenu en France où il sera surveillé et censuré. Il devra vivre loin de Paris ce qui ne l’enchante guère. L’Angleterre est un séjour exotique, et si l’île offre de nombreux avantages, elle n’est pas dominée par la culture française. Pire, les hostilités se font de plus en plus précises entre la France et l’Angleterre, les deux nations cherchant à étendre leur commerce et leur domination coloniale. Voltaire a alors l’idée de se tourner vers un petit pays à la fois indépendant, mais suffisamment proche des grands centres de culture: la Suisse et ses satellites, dont Genève. Voltaire décide de se fixer d’abord à Lausanne et ensuite dans la cité de Calvin. Grâce à l’intermédiaire de Jean-Robert Tronchin, Voltaire loue une propriété à Saint-Jean qui deviendra les ‘Délices’.

‘Les Délices’, dessinée par F. Philipesenn et gravée par G. Charton (1775-1853) (BGE, Centre d’iconographie genevoise).

A Lausanne, avec sa cathédrale gothique et son château où siègent les baillis bernois, c’est grâce à l’intervention de Georges François de Giez, jeune banquier, qu’il peut louer la propriété de Montriond à l’entrée de la ville (voir François Jacob, Voltaire, Paris, 2015, p.193). ‘Les Délices seront pour l’été, Montriond pour l’hiver’ (Voltaire à Clavel de Brenles, 10 février [1755], D6150).

Voltaire adhère ou feint d’adhérer à l’image idyllique que les visiteurs européens diffusent de la Suisse. Il loue, dans l’Epître de l’auteur, en arrivant dans sa terre près du lac de Genève, en mars 1755, ses mœurs républicaines, la douceur de son climat, la beauté du Lac Léman que l’on peut contempler depuis les coteaux lausannois:

‘On n’y méprise point les travaux nécessaires;
Les états sont égaux, et les hommes sont frères.
Liberté, liberté, ton trône est en ces lieux.
La Grèce où tu naquis, t’a pour jamais perdue.’

Mais contrairement à d’autres visiteurs européens, Voltaire ne se contente pas d’admirer l’austérité des mœurs suisses. Il souhaite répandre la passion du théâtre. Il dirige différentes pièces au théâtre de Mon-Repos. La noblesse lausannoise y accourt soit pour jouer sur scène soit pour assister aux représentations en public averti. La famille Constant s’illustre dans cette activité, David Louis Constant d’Hermenches deviendra l’âme des activités théâtrales de Lausanne après le départ de Voltaire pour Genève.

Voltaire applaudit ces succès qu’il s’empresse de rapporter à ses amis parisiens, plaçant les Lausannois sur un pied d’égalité avec les Français: ‘On ne se douterait pas, monsieur, qu’un théâtre établi à Lausanne, des acteurs peut-être supérieurs aux comédiens de Paris, enfin une pièce nouvelle, des spectateurs pleins d’esprit, de connaissances et de lumières, en un mot tous les soins qu’entraînent de tels plaisirs, m’ont empêché de vous écrire plus tôt’ (à Jean Lévesque de Burigny, 20 mars [1757], D7207). Les Parisiens font semblant d’être dupes.

Pourtant des voix s’élèvent pour dénoncer la pratique de la comédie, amusement qui nous paraît aujourd’hui bien innocent, et les arguments des détracteurs sont puisés dans la tradition républicaine. On se rappelle que Platon dans La République dénonce les artistes et les arts en général. Cette accusation vaut certes pour les beaux-arts, mais en Suisse elle touche également le théâtre, car sa pratique par les gens de la bonne société démontre leur oisiveté et leur luxe. Or les auteurs républicains, d’Aristote à Machiavel et de Platon à Rousseau n’eurent de cesse de condamner leurs effets socialement pernicieux et moralement corrupteurs.

Dans l’Aristide ou le Citoyen, journal lausannois paru de 1766 à 1767, un étranger de marque, le Prince Louis-Eugène de Wurtemberg, reproche à la comédie de ‘flatter le goût général’ et non de le ‘redresser’. Quant au général vaudois Warnery, celui-ci écrit que ‘le luxe, la délicatesse et la dépravation des mœurs ont fait des progrès en Suisse avec la Poésie’ (Remarques sur l’Essai général de tactique de Guibert, Varsovie, 1782, p.59-60).

Aristide ou le citoyen (Lausanne, Grasset, 1766) (Réseau vaudois des bibliothèques).

Au dix-huitième siècle, dans les républiques helvétiques, ces arguments sont très répandus. Les spectacles avaient été interdits à Genève par une ordonnance datant de 1617 (cette interdiction avait été renouvelée en 1732 et en 1739). Le théâtre se voyait reprocher de détourner l’intérêt des individus des affaires de la cité. Dans la Lettre à D’Alembert sur les spectacles (1758), J.-J. Rousseau s’inquiète également de l’arrivée des spectacles à Genève. Il oppose à l’intérieur des salles de théâtre, où chacun s’amuse individuellement en imagination, l’activité sociale des cercles de Genève où les hommes peuvent se retrouver pour discuter, écouter des conférences, boire et se divertir. Pour Rousseau, les cercles sont le terreau de la vie citoyenne, l’antichambre d’où partent les compagnies bourgeoises qui défilent en ville et en assurent la sécurité aux temps troublés. Pour Voltaire au contraire, le théâtre aide à policer les mœurs, il ‘dégrossit’ les rustres suisses. De plus, le théâtre est une activité où les deux sexes se mêlent, ce qui pour Voltaire est un gage de galanterie et de politesse. Pour Rousseau ce mélange corrupteur des deux sexes, qui ‘dénature’ proprement leurs qualités intrinsèques est signe d’une décadence civique et morale. Une société ‘molle et efféminée’ ne pourra résister efficacement aux envahisseurs étrangers. Curieusement, Voltaire et Rousseau se retrouvent sur le terrain de la culture: Voltaire souhaite que le théâtre transforme les Lausannois et les Genevois en Français alors que Rousseau lutte contre cette altération culturelle par crainte d’une détérioration de patriotisme.

J. J. Rousseau citoyen de Genève, à Mr. D’Alembert (Amsterdam, 1758).

Déplacé à Genève, aux Délices, dès 1755, Voltaire se rapproche de ses éditeurs Gabriel et Philibert Cramer, mais aussi d’une scène plus brillante et d’un public dont la réputation européenne est excellente.

Là il se retrouve toutefois confronté aux mêmes contrariétés qu’à Lausanne. L’idéologie républicaine est très forte parmi les bourgeois, en particulier dans le groupe de ceux qui s’opposent aux décisions des Conseils restreints dominés par un ensemble de vieilles familles. Cependant là aussi, Voltaire croit au rôle civilisateur du théâtre, les bons spectacles poliront le reste de sauvagerie que les Genevois conservent. D’où l’intrigante remarque de l’article ‘Genève’ de l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par D’Alembert, mais soufflé par Voltaire: associer ‘à la sagesse de Lacédémone la politesse d’Athènes’. Les travaux de Rahul Markovits qui documentent les réactions genevoises à l’introduction des théâtres dans la ville – constructions éphémères accompagnant l’arrivée des médiateurs français lors de chaque grande crise politique et sociale – montrent que toutes les couches de la société étaient séduites par les spectacles. Les chefs du parti bourgeois (communément appelés Représentants, à cause des ‘pétitions’ qu’ils adressaient aux Conseils restreints assurant le gouvernement) ont beau dénoncer l’effet pernicieux provoqué par les spectacles, le peuple en général s’y rendait malgré tout.

Dans la Lettre à D’Alembert sur les spectacles, les idées de J.-J. Rousseau reflètent ou sont similaires à celles des Représentants de Genève, dont un des chefs de file est Jacques-François Deluc. Horloger dans la cité de Calvin, De Luc cultive les valeurs républicaines. Il pense que la ‘pureté’ des mœurs genevoises est le résultat des ‘Lois’ et des ‘usages’ d’un petit Etat dont les habitants n’ont pas été ‘dégradés’ par les rapports d’argent et la bassesse qui règne dans les grandes villes, où le fort opprime le faible. Les Remarques sur le paragraphe de l’article Genève, dans l’Encyclopédie, qui traite de la comédie et des comédiens datent du 26 avril 1758 et ont été écrites en parallèle à la Lettre à D’Alembert. Pour Rousseau, la comédie induit la diffusion des mœurs de Paris dans les villes rurales ou à la campagne, ce qui se heurte cependant à l’incapacité anthropologique des individus à adopter d’autres mœurs et d’autres manières de sentir: ‘Les habitants de Paris qui croient aller à la campagne, n’y vont point; ils portent Paris avec eux’ (La Nouvelle Héloïse in Œuvres complètes, Paris, 1961, p.602).

Jacques-Francois De Luc (1698-1780), attribué à Robert Gardelle (1682-1766) (Bibliothèque de Genève).

Le déisme représente un autre point de divergence entre Voltaire et les bourgeois, citoyens de Genève. C’est sans doute le point de divergence le plus important et celui qui oblige Voltaire à quitter la ‘parvulissime’ république, comme il l’appelle, pour Ferney. On l’oublie facilement, mais la Lettre à D’Alembert est aussi une défense de la sincérité des pasteurs de Genève accusés de socinianisme dans l’article ‘Genève’ de l’Encyclopédie. Par la suite cependant, Rousseau se distancie de l’opinion des pasteurs genevois: les Lettres écrites de la montagne (1764) portent trace de ces tensions. Mais dès La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau tentait de concilier ses doutes sur la nature de la foi chrétienne dans une grande synthèse embrassant le monde rural, la mystique, la vertu civique et l’utopie. Il peut paraître étrange que Rousseau, critique violent du théâtre, s’abandonne à l’écriture et à la publication d’un vaste roman dès son installation à l’Ermitage en 1756, alors qu’il souhaitait consacrer son temps à ses institutions politiques et à d’autres ouvrages qu’il considérait sérieux. Mais si l’aspect social du théâtre le rebute, il conçoit la littérature épistolaire comme une grande communion dialogique où les différents points de vue coexistent et se tolèrent. Plus qu’une intrigue avec des personnages ridicules, le roman permet de construire progressivement une psychologie, de montrer des personnages dynamiques qui évoluent avec leurs doutes et leurs fêlures. Cette leçon littéraire de Rousseau, les Suisses – qui jusqu’alors s’étaient méfiés de la littérature fictionnelle, car mensongère et non-vertueuse – la retiennent et l’enrichissent.

Le roman Confidence philosophique (1ère édition en 1771) du pasteur Jacob Vernes offre un espace littéraire où contre-attaquer les thèses de Voltaire sur la religion et les mondanités. Dans ce roman épistolaire à thèse, Jacob Vernes, pourtant ami de l’auteur de Candide, fait du Voltaire à rebours. Il use des mêmes armes rhétoriques que les philosophes et il tourne en ironie les critiques contre la religion exposant le grand vide ontologique qu’elles laissent. La correspondance qui continua entre les deux hommes ne laisse pas penser que Voltaire ait pris ombrage des procédés narratologiques du pasteur genevois. Cependant ceux-ci illustrent de nouveau les tensions politiques et religieuses qui existeront toujours entre Voltaire et les élites suisses et genevoises. Là où Voltaire critique la religion au nom de la liberté en dénonçant la superstition, les seconds défendent le protestantisme en insistant sur son cadre moral et sa philosophie pratique réconfortante. D’un point de vue politique, là où Voltaire valorise la force législatrice et culturelle d’un grand roi, capable de guider son pays dans une direction nouvelle et progressiste, les élites suisses défendent l’austérité républicaine, mais aussi l’esprit de simplicité et d’égalité qui doit présider aux décisions collectives.

L’apport de mon livre, Rêves de citoyens, dans cette querelle à la fois esthétique, littéraire, politique et religieuse est d’avoir mis en évidence que les Suisses, sans délaisser le théâtre, vont utiliser d’autres médias fictionnels pour exprimer leurs idéaux républicains. La Nouvelle Héloïse est le détonateur qui amorce une série de récits sentimentaux qui explorent les facettes d’un idéal-type républicain (au sens wébérien), c’est-à-dire une utopie. Si à l’époque des Lumières, les écrivains suisses délaissent le genre de l’utopie littéraire, ils trempent leur plume romanesque dans un utopisme assumé. Grâce aux travaux de Bronislaw Baczko, nous savons que le dix-huitième siècle est une époque ‘chaude’ de l’imaginaire utopique. L’esprit de réformes, radical ou non, s’empare des sociétés d’Ancien Régime. En rédigeant La Nouvelle Héloïse, Jean-Jacques Rousseau se dote d’un espace littéraire qui offre à son imaginaire républicain une riche gamme de possibilités. Ainsi Rousseau reconstruit grâce à la lettre sur le Valais les sources idéales d’un républicanisme supposé naturel comme il représente dans la microsociété de Clarens, animée par Julie, les diverses interrogations qui assaillent quotidiennement citoyens et citoyennes. Quel cadre offrir à la morale politique et religieuse? Comment exploiter un domaine qui assure à la fois une certaine aisance familiale, qui permette que les terres soient bien cultivées et qui fournisse aux environs des emplois nécessaires à la préservation des individus dans les campagnes en leur évitant de rejoindre les villes corruptrices? Comment former l’esprit des citoyens pour que ceux-ci soient sensibles aux inégalités sociales et au respect des formes démocratiques? De même, comment rendre l’homme suffisamment sensible pour que dans le ‘tableau de la nature’ il perçoive et respecte l’œuvre du créateur? Ces questions, que les personnages du roman de Rousseau discutent longuement, avec des opinions contradictoires, sont reprises par les romans sentimentaux helvétiques, qui les explorent à leur tour. Il n’y a pas d’opposition frontale dans ces textes à la pratique du théâtre; au contraire dans le roman fleuve (en 7 volumes!) de Samuel Constant de Rebecque, Laure ou lettres de quelques femmes de suisse, les personnages s’amusent à monter et à jouer une pièce; cependant la tonalité du discours romanesque reflète un éthos républicain équivalent à celui qu’Albrecht von Haller peint dans Les Alpes ou que Jean-Jacques Rousseau, avec ses Montagnons du Jura, dessine dans la Lettre à D’Alembert.

Dans la deuxième moitié du dix-huitième siècle, le roman sentimental chemine avec l’utopie littéraire, il exploite, par exemple, la narration en tableaux, comme Louis-Sébastien Mercier dans L’An 2440. Rêve s’il en fut jamais (1771) et dans Le Tableau de Paris (1772). Comme les utopistes, les romanciers sentimentaux font l’éloge de la simplicité, de la transparence et de la vertu civique. Dans l’utopie, la religion naturelle fusionne avec la sensibilité: l’homme est bon par nature et de sages lois peuvent le rendre meilleur; la tonalité est la même dans les romans sentimentaux. Dans les textes utopiques, malgré leur communisme à la fois social et économique, les femmes allaitent et les législateurs valorisent leur supposée pudeur naturelle pour mieux leur assigner un rôle inférieur. Rares sont les femmes qui participent au gouvernement dans les sociétés utopiques. Dès La Nouvelle Héloïse, Julie se plaint que Saint-Preux adresse les ‘réflexions graves et judicieuses’ à Milord Edouard et qu’il l’entretienne de sujets plus légers comme l’opéra ou les femmes françaises, mais elle se cantonne elle-même dans un rôle secondaire: ‘J’avoue que la politique n’est guère du ressort des femmes’ (p.305).

Animés par un éthos républicain classique, les romans sentimentaux helvétiques investissent un espace littéraire similaire à celui occupé par les utopies en France. Cette perspective romanesque permet également de représenter des citoyens en action, ce qui concilie les exigences patriarcales héritées du protestantisme avec les courants civiques et intellectuels des Lumières. Quant au théâtre, si celui-ci connaît un succès croissant, à Lausanne comme à Genève, ses effets de propagande et son impérialisme français sont observés avec suspicion. Les caractéristiques nuisibles du théâtre nourrissent la création d’une identité républicaine que les romans sentimentaux contribuent à définir et à élaborer.

Helder Mendes Baiao