Micromégas: objet littéraire non identifié

Le tome 20c des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, tout juste sorti des presses, comprend entre autres textes le conte philosophique Micromégas. Publié en 1751 mais mûri pendant de longues années (ses origines remontent à ‘une fadaise philosophique’ à propos d’un certain ‘baron de Gangan’ que Voltaire avait envoyé au futur Frédéric II de Prusse en juin 1739), c’est incontestablement l’un des chefs-d’œuvre de Voltaire, dont le succès ne s’est jamais démenti depuis sa publication (l’astronome américain Carl Sagan le cite même comme l’une de ses sources d’inspiration).

Citoyen de Sirius banni par ‘le muphti de son pays’ pour ses propositions ‘sentant l’hérésie’, le géant Micromégas parcourt l’univers, et échoue sur Terre en compagnie d’un habitant de Saturne rencontré en chemin. Croyant tout d’abord la planète inhabitée en raison de la taille minuscule de ses habitants, les deux visiteurs finissent tout de même par établir le contact avec des Terriens membres d’une expédition scientifique, et une conversation s’engage.[1] Le lecteur assiste alors en compagnie de Micromégas et de ses interlocuteurs à une sorte de tour d’horizon des connaissances scientifiques de l’époque.

Titre de départ d'une édition de Micromégas de 1778

Romans et contes de Monsieur de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, Société typographique, 1778), vol.2, p.15.

Riche d’un contenu scientifique pointu (en tout cas pour l’époque), Micromégas joue sur les tensions qui animent le débat entre les théories scientifiques cartésienne et newtonienne – Voltaire, on le sait, avait largement contribué à faire connaître Newton en France avec ses Elements de la philosophie de Newton, composés en 1736-1737, période où a probablement germé dans son esprit l’idée du conte qui allait devenir Micromégas. Mais c’est également la tension entre poésie et science, et entre imagination et vérité qu’explore Voltaire dans son conte. Il ne s’agit pas simplement de mettre en récit des idées philosophiques, mais plutôt d’élaborer une fiction prenant pour thème la quête de la vérité. Dans cet objet littéraire hybride fait de science et de philosophie, Voltaire met littéralement en œuvre la méthode expérimentale héritée de Locke et de Newton.

Récit de science-fiction, fable, à la fois conte et règlement de comptes de l’auteur avec certains ennemis personnels, commentaire sur la société de son temps, le texte propose aussi une réflexion sur la place de l’homme dans l’Univers, entre deux infinis. Comme souvent chez Voltaire, la simplicité du style, la limpidité de la narration et la concision du récit dissimulent maints niveaux de complexité et des subtilités insoupçonnées au premier abord.

Loin de n’être qu’un conte philosophique certes très plaisant et qui prône les valeurs voltairiennes de tolérance et de lucidité, Micromégas revêt également une importance unique en tant que texte scientifique ‘déguisé’ en conte.

[1] On reconnaîtra facilement Maupertuis et les membres de son expédition polaire dans la petite équipe découverte par Micromégas. Témoin de l’actualité scientifique de son temps, Voltaire s’était enthousiasmé pour le voyage du savant en Laponie au cours des années 1736-1737, voyage qui contribua à confirmer la théorie de Newton selon laquelle la Terre était aplatie aux pôles.

 

Animals and humans in the long eighteenth century: an intricate relationship

How does a scholarly book get started? In the majority of cases it is bound with the author or editor’s passion and deep-rooted (and often inexplicable) connection with his or her subject matter. For me, Animals and humans: sensibility and representation, 1650-1820 began nearly ten years ago, when I read Kathryn Shevelow’s eminently readable book For the love of animals, about the growth of the animal welfare movement in the eighteenth century. Our relationship with animals never ceases to fascinate, as we see from the Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition ‘Making nature: how we see animals’, and animal studies has recently flourished in the academic mainstream. Like Shevelow’s book, it crosses the boundaries between specialised academic study and deeply felt human experience.

My own beginning with this subject, though, occurred almost in infancy. An innate attraction to animals, these others with whom we co-exist on this planet, is shared by almost all small children and all human cultures in one way or another, and is represented throughout human history. And as we see in very small children, in this oldest relationship of the human species we still find a deep connection and resonance. In bringing together and editing this book, it was wonderfully liberating to be able to combine a lifelong passionate interest in animals with my own professional field of eighteenth-century literary and cultural studies.

Gainsborough, Girl with pigs (1782)

Thomas Gainsborough, Girl with pigs (1782), oil on canvas; Castle Howard Collection. © Castle Howard; reproduced by kind permission of the Howard family.

1650-1820 – the timeframe we cover in our study – is the period associated both with the growth of experimental science and the horrors of vivisection, and with the rise of modern humanitarianism. While the defence of animal rights itself goes back to classical times, in the eighteenth century it was directly linked to a growing awareness of universal human rights and a new definition of humanity based on the ability to feel rather than in the primacy of reason. Together with the abolitionist and feminist movements of the later eighteenth century, animal welfare came to resemble its modern self, with legislation first enacted in 1820.

Simon after Gainsborough, The Woodman

Peter Simon after Gainsborough, The Woodman (1791 [1787]), stipple engraving; Sudbury, Gainsborough House. © Gainsborough House.

But in this book we aim to explore more deeply the human relationship with animals in the long eighteenth century, in many different forms of expression. As shown by the different essays in this volume, this ancient relationship challenges not only the arbitrary divisions of Western cultural history (classicism and romanticism, for example), and not only disciplinary boundaries between poetry and science, art and animal husbandry, fiction and natural history, but also the basic assumptions of human self-perception, in which we do not see animals as objects of our ‘objective’ study, but rather as beings with whom we share a space and who demand a mutual response. A major thread of this book, then, is the re-evaluation of sentiment and sensibility, terms that in the eighteenth century referred to the primacy of emotion, and which were not solely the prerogative of humans. Through the lens of eighteenth-century European culture, contributors to this volume show how the animal presence, whether real or imagined, forces a different reading not only of texts but also of society: how humans are changed, and how we the readers are changed, in our encounters with the non-human other, in history, art, literature, natural science and economics. More deeply, we are reminded of the power and antiquity of this relationship.

– Katherine M. Quinsey

Voltaire and the one-liner

To mark the publication at Oxford University Press of his new book ‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’, a contribution to their Very Short Introductions series, Nicholas Cronk has written the following post about the wit and wisdom of Voltaire for the OUP Blog.

Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cronk is published by Oxford University Press.

As we mark Voltaire’s 323rd birthday – though the date of 20 February is problematic, – what significance does the great Enlightenment writer have for us now? If I had to be very very short, I’d say that Voltaire lives on as a master of the one-liner. He presents us with a paradox. Voltaire wrote a huge amount – the definitive edition of his Complete works being produced by the Voltaire Foundation in Oxford will soon be finished, in around 200 volumes. And yet he is really famous for his short sentences. He likes being brief, though as a critic once remarked, “Voltaire is interminably brief.”

Voltaire’s most famous work, Candide, is full of telling phrases. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” asks Candide in Chapter 6. The expression “best of all possible worlds” comes originally from the philosopher Leibniz, but it is Voltaire’s repeated use of the phrase in Candide that has made it instantly familiar today. Another saying from the novel was an instant hit with French readers: in Chapter 16, Candide and his manservant Cacambo, travelling in the New World dressed as Jesuits, fall into the hands of cannibals who exclaim triumphantly: “Mangeons du jésuite” (“Let’s eat some Jesuit”): the Jesuits were highly unpopular in France at this time, and the expression instantly became a catch-phrase.

One French expression from Candide has even become proverbial in English. In 1756, the British lost Minorca to the French, as a result of which Admiral Byng was court-martialled and executed. Voltaire has fun with this in Chapter 23:

‘And why kill this admiral?’
‘Because he didn’t kill enough people,’ Candide was told. ‘He gave battle to a French admiral, and it has been found that he wasn’t close enough.’
‘But,’ said Candide, ‘the French admiral was just as far away from the English admiral as he was from him!’
‘Unquestionably,’ came the reply. ‘But in this country it is considered a good thing to kill an admiral from time to time, pour encourager les autres.’

Painting of Voltaire by Bouchot.

Voltaire. After a painting, by Bouchot No. 539. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Voltaire’s other writings are equally full of pithy and memorable short sentences, which often help him drive home a point, such as this, from his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie: “L’espèce humaine est la seule qui sache qu’elle doit mourir” (“The human species is unique in knowing it must die”).

Other lines, like this one from his poem about luxury, Le Mondain, “Le superflu, chose très nécessaire” (“The superfluous, a very necessary thing”) are all the more memorable for being in verse. Voltaire’s facility for producing snappy phrases is even there in his private correspondence, as this letter to his friend Damilaville (1 April 1766): “Quand la populace se mêle de raisonner, tout est perdu” (“When the masses get involved in reasoning, everything is lost”).

And one phrase that still resonates with us comes from a private notebook that Voltaire surely never intended to publish: “Dieu n’est pas pour les gros bataillons, mais pour ceux qui tirent le mieux” (“God is on the side not of the heavy battalions, but of the best shots”).

Then there are the ones that got away, the one-liners he never actually said – ‘misquotations’ in the parlance of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Hardly a week passes without a newspaper quoting “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Voltaire’s rallying cry of free speech is central to our modern liberal agenda, so it’s a bit awkward that he never actually said it. The expression was made up in 1906 by an English woman, biographer E. B. Hall. But she meant well, and we have collectively decided that Voltaire should have said it. Another advantage of Voltaire’s one-liners is that they provide great marketing copy, and a quick search on the web reveals that many of them are for sale, on t-shirts, shopping-bags, and mugs. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is especially popular, in French as well as English – which explains my favourite t-shirt: “Je me battrai jusqu’à ma mort pour que vous puissiez citer erronément Voltaire” (“I will fight to my death so that you can quote Voltaire incorrectly”).

Luckily, wit is contagious. There is a famous one-liner in Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro, when the servant Figaro imagines addressing his aristocratic master: “Vous vous êtes donné la peine de naître, et rien de plus” (“You took the trouble to be born, and nothing more”). This has become so celebrated that we have forgotten that Beaumarchais was only improving on a less snappy one-liner he had found in one of Voltaire’s more obscure comedies. George Bernard Shaw, a self-styled follower of Voltaire, has fun with misattributed sayings in Man and Superman:

Tanner: Let me remind you that Voltaire said that what was too silly to be said could be sung.
Straker: It wasn’t Voltaire. It was Bow Mar Shay.
Tanner: I stand corrected: Beaumarchais of course.

And so we go on inventing Voltaire. Another dictum that has recently gained wide currency on the web is this: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

Now regularly attributed to Voltaire, this saying seems to originate with something written in 1993 by Kevin Alfred Strom, an American neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, and not a man who obviously exudes Voltairean wit and irony. But once you become an authority, it seems, all sides have a claim on you.

The one-liner can seem a good way of encapsulating a truth: “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”).

Voltaire knew he was on to a winner with this line, from a poem of 1768 (the Epître à l’auteur du livre des trois imposteurs), and he re-used it often in later works. Another much-repeated phrase occurs at the end of Candide. When the characters finally come together, after umpteen trials and tribulations, all argument is silenced with the words “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (“We must cultivate our garden”). Is this a precious nugget of wisdom, neatly encapsulated? Or is it just another “Brexit means Brexit”, a trite phrase meaning anything and nothing? But that, of course, is another use of the one-liner: to maintain suspense, while bringing down the curtain at the end….

– Nicholas Cronk

This post first appeared on the OUP Blog.

Pierre Bayle est mort. Vive la République des Lettres!

00_Bayle_frontis 1..9999

Enfant du Carla (aujourd’hui Carla-Bayle) dans le Midi-Pyrénées, fils et frère de pasteurs réformés, exilé peu avant la révocation de l’édit de Nantes, Pierre Bayle passa une grande partie de sa vie à Rotterdam, d’où il communiquait avec les philosophes et savants de toute l’Europe. Créateur d’un des premiers périodiques de critique littéraire, historique, philosophique et théologique, les Nouvelles de la république des lettres, il a défini une nouvelle conception de la liberté de conscience fondée sur le rationalisme moral. Dans son œuvre majeure, le Dictionnaire historique et critique, il recueille mille détails sur les événements historiques et cherche à démontrer, dans les articles philosophiques, que la religion chrétienne est incompatible avec une argumentation rationnelle. Dans ses toutes dernières œuvres, la Continuation des pensées diverses et la Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, il diffuse une version du spinozisme qui marquera tous les philosophes des Lumières. Bayle se représentait comme un simple citoyen de la République des Lettres et en est arrivé à incarner cet ‘Etat extrêmement libre’ où l’on ne reconnaît ‘que l’empire de la vérité et de la raison’. Il mourut, à l’âge de 59 ans, le 28 décembre 1706 vers 9 heures du matin, quasiment la plume à la main.

bayle-2

Lettre de Pierre Bayle à Hervé-Simon de Valhébert, écrite à Rotterdam le 22 octobre 1705.

Ce qui le marque au départ comme un marginal – l’éloignement du Carla des centres de la vie culturelle et la pauvreté de sa famille – nourrit une passion qui fait de lui un érudit aux lectures infinies, un lecteur critique hors pair, qui enregistre soigneusement, dans des recueils alphabétiques, toutes ses lectures et qui se plaît à affronter les récits, les interprétations et les systèmes philosophiques. Avec l’intelligence comme seule arme, il prend du recul par rapport aux controverses religieuses et aux débats philosophiques de son temps; il excelle à disséquer les systèmes philosophiques pour démontrer leurs conséquences absurdes: c’est un recul critique et souvent ironique qui fait de lui non pas un pyrrhonien mais un témoin privilégié de la crise qui marque son époque. Jacques Basnage décrit parfaitement sa passion philosophique:

‘Comme il s’était accoutumé à combattre les erreurs du vulgaire, il avait porté plus loin ce même esprit et un des plaisirs les plus doux qu’il goûtait était de faire sentir à une infinité de gens que les opinions qu’ils regardaient comme évidentes ne laissaient pas d’être environnées de difficultés insurmontables’ (Jacques Basnage au duc de Noailles, le 3 janvier 1707: Lettre 1743, Volume XIV).

Notre édition critique de sa vaste correspondance, qui comporte quinze volumes et près de de 1800 lettres échangées avec un très large cercle d’interlocuteurs, est désormais achevée. Le Volume XIV paraîtra en février 2017 et le Volume XV, comportant la bibliographie générale et l’index général des noms de personnes, paraîtra en été 2017.

*

Pierre Bayle is dead. Long live the Republic of Letters!

Born in Le Carla, a tiny village near Foix in the South of France, Pierre Bayle came from a family of Protestant ministers, and was exiled shortly before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Consequently, he spent most of his life in Rotterdam, from where he corresponded with philosophers and scholars throughout Europe. He launched one of the first literary and philosophical periodicals, the Nouvelles de la république des lettres and defined a new conception of religious tolerance based on moral rationalism.

bayle-3

His most famous work, the monumental Dictionnaire historique et critique, contains detailed historical articles and others concerning philosophers, in which he sought to demonstrate that Christian doctrine is incompatible with rational argument. In his last works, the Continuation des pensées diverses and the Réponse aux questions d’un Provincial, he defined a version of Spinozism which greatly influenced Enlightenment philosophers. In his unassuming way, Bayle thought of himself as a simple citizen of the Republic of Letters and came to incarnate that ‘extremely free State’ in which no other law is recognised but ‘the rule of truth and right reason’. Bayle died at the age of 59 on the 28th December 1706 at about 9 a.m., virtually pen in hand.

The critical edition of his extensive correspondence, containing fifteen volumes and nearly 1800 letters exchanged with his vast network of friends and associates, is now complete. Volume XIV has just published (February 2017), and volume XV, containing the general index and bibliography, will publish in the summer of 2017.

– Antony McKenna

 

Chance discoveries in French and Italian archives

Le président de Brosses

Le président de Brosses, buste par J. B. Lemoyne. Cliché © Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon.

Chance plays as much of a part in the discovery of new material as it does in history itself. This is certainly the case with the epistolary exchanges of two figures who were at the centre of the Republic of Letters, the president de Brosses and the abbé marquis Niccolini. Had it not been that one of my students happened to be a descendant of president de Brosses, this edition of his correspondence might never have seen the light of day.

In 1982-1984, when I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Paris X Nanterre, Alec de Brosses came to see me about undertaking a Master’s thesis based on his family’s papers. At the start of his work on the president’s relations with the British geographer Alexander Dalrymple, Alec de Brosses had also photocopied for me letters written to the president by a friend, the abate Antonio Niccolini. Because their content covered travel, literature, politics, diplomacy, antiquity, philosophy and religion, these letters were, in themselves, well worthy of publication, but where were the president’s own letters to his Florentine friend? He had kept only a few copies.

L’abbé marquis Antonio Niccolini, gravure de Domenico Campiglia. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

L’abbé marquis Antonio Niccolini, gravure de Domenico Campiglia. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The Niccolini family still lived in Florence, and locating the president’s letters would become a matter of enlisting their support. During my period in Paris, I had met Emanuela Kretzulesco, the author of an excellent book on the dream of Polyphilus. Through Princess Kretzulesco, I had an introduction to the remarkable Marchesa Gilberte Serlupi Crescenzi in Florence, to whom I explained my quest. She knew the Niccolini family, and I was soon admitted to their extensive family archives. The lady of the house, who knew the archives well, soon found the president’s letters. She and I photocopied them together at a neighbouring café. I now had both sides of a truly fascinating and extensive correspondence that spanned over thirty years from 1740 to 1770. I could envisage editing and publishing them with my collaborator from the University of Pisa, Mireille Gille, whom I had met at the Florence ISECS Congress of 1979, and who was herself an expert on the form of the eighteenth-century letter.

The process would be a lengthy one and there were a number of amusing incidents over the following years. In Florence, where some other privately held papers were then in restauro, Mireille Gille and I were allowed to work on them at the restorer’s workshop to the sound of loud rock music. With a deep sigh, the restorer told me that Britain was a great country because there, archive restoration was treated as an academic discipline in which one could get a degree.

Fac-similé d’une lettre de l’abbé Niccolini au président de Brosses (lettre du 7 décembre 1746).

Fac-similé d’une lettre de l’abbé Niccolini au président de Brosses (lettre du 7 décembre 1746).

On another occasion, I was extremely fortunate to have Alec de Brosses with me because the archives were in a cubby-hole high up on the wall of a room, almost by the ceiling. Unlike me, he was able to leap up and pass the papers down. All these efforts and incidents were not in vain, and Mireille Gille and I are very pleased that the Correspondance du président de Brosses et de l’abbé marquis Niccolini is now available to the public, with an extensive introduction and notes. We are left with a great sense of gratitude to all those who helped us to produce an edition of a truly enriching correspondence.

– John Rogister

Fac-similé d’une lettre du président de Brosses à l’abbé Niccolini (lettre du 12 septembre 1761).

Fac-similé d’une lettre du président de Brosses à l’abbé Niccolini (lettre du 12 septembre 1761).

Of Voltaire’s London years and the Lettres sur les Anglais

Thanks to support from the AHRC for the publication of one of the iconic texts of the Enlightenment, Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques, a.k.a. Lettres sur les Anglais (1733, published in English the same year under the title Letters concerning the English nation), the Voltaire Foundation launched both online and offline events this summer.

First page of the preface to the Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733), the first edition of Voltaire’s text to be published.

First page of the preface to the Letters concerning the English nation (London, 1733), the first edition of Voltaire’s text to be published.

On 27 September Professor Nicholas Cronk gave a talk entitled ‘Voltaire in London: Cultural life in the 1720s’, hosted at the Handel House Museum in London. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street in Mayfair from 1723 to 1759; Voltaire, for his part, was lodging at a rather less smart address in Soho in the latter part of the 1720s. We do not know if Handel and Voltaire ever met, but both men made significant contributions to the cosmopolitan cultural life of London in the 1720s.

Voltaire was in his early thirties and already a well-known poet when he came to London to launch a subscription to publish La Henriade, an epic poem glorifying King Henri IV of France, which touches upon the evils of religious fanaticism, among other topics. Originally, he had hoped to get permission to have it published in France with a dedication to the young Louis XV, but the subject matter of his poem was such that permission was not granted. Voltaire decided to go to London to have it published by Huguenot printers, free from censorship, and the book was dedicated to Queen Caroline.

Voltaire settled at the White Perruke on Maiden Lane in Soho, in a Huguenot area of the capital where French was widely spoken and which extended to Spitalfields. He stayed in London for two and a half years and taught himself English. He was a regular visitor at the Drury Lane theatre, where he discovered Shakespeare. He read Gulliver’s Travels in English and attended an early performance of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera.

Voltaire read Addison’s Spectator, a publication whose tone and format was to prove a big influence on his own Lettres philosophiques. He met Pope, Gray and Swift, and was instrumental in popularizing Newton’s ideas in France. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1743.

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

(Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

Interestingly, an exhibition of waxworks organised on the Strand not long after Voltaire’s death featured an effigy of ‘that justly admired French genius’ who had been ‘in his lifetime an intimate friend to Pope, Congreve and Young’ – testament to the lasting impact of his stay in London many decades earlier.

Thanks to the AHRC grant, the Voltaire Foundation also commissioned Oxford DPhil student Cameron Quinn to write ‘Stories around the Lettres sur les Anglais’ for our website. This resource provides background information about the Lettres and their importance as a seminal text for the Enlightenment, and sheds light on the reasons that drove Voltaire to spend two years of his life in England; it also gives an overview of the political, as well as economic and cultural, situation in England during the years Voltaire lived here.

Thematic pages focus on several key topics that were important for society in general or to Voltaire in particular at the time the Lettres were written, and they also offer links to relevant websites. The themes covered are immensely varied in scope; they include, among others, religion, poetry, the Newtonian revolution, the English adoption of the practice of inoculation, and the question of the soul.

These webpages can be a resource for those without much prior knowledge of the wider historic or cultural contexts of the time, or of the issues at stake.

We hope our readers will enjoy this ‘rough guide’ to the Lettres sur les Anglais and the historical context in which they were written!

– Clare Fletcher

Relocating British Orientalism in Portugal

Fig.1. An Orientalist folly? Monserrate Palace and Gardens, Sintra, Portugal (© L.Châtel)

Fig.1. An Orientalist folly? Monserrate Palace and Gardens, Sintra, Portugal (© L. Châtel)

Perched high up on the Portuguese hills of Sintra, Monserrate, with its interlace of Moorish, neo-Gothic and Alhambresque features (Fig. 1 & 2), boasts a residence that has all the trappings of an Oriental palace.[1] In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18), Byron was Monserrate’s most vibrant supporter, remembering the days when it was William Beckford’s hill, both enchanting and luxuriant:

‘And yonder towers the Prince’s palace fair:
There thou, too, Vathek! England’s wealthiest son,
Once formed thy Paradise, as not aware
When wanton wealth her mightiest deeds hath done,
Meek Peace voluptuous lures was ever wont to shun.’
(Canto 1, XXII)

Fig.2. Entrance to Monserrate Palace (© L.Châtel)

Fig.2. Entrance to Monserrate Palace (© L. Châtel)

In 1840, Oscar Wilde’s father also thought of Montserrate as ‘the princely mansion of Beckford’, and his evocation was ‘sadly qualified by regret at the utter destruction to which this most lovely of retreats is fast hastening’.[2] In 1880, in her Portugal à vol d’oiseau, Princess Rattazzi saw Monserrate as the ‘living picture’ of the Arabian nights: ‘Tout ce qui peut captiver, séduire, charmer, est réuni dans cet Eden que ne manque de visiter aucun voyageur, curieux de voir l’illustration des contes merveilleux des Mille et une Nuits.’

On the face of it, Monserrate’s Oriental splendour makes it a fitting place for Beckford. However, against all expectations, its Oriental airs owe nothing to him, but to the nineteenth-century owner Francis Cook and his architect, James Thomas Knowles. Beckford did indeed rent out the house between 1795-1798, but at that time it had none of the Oriental features it was given in the 1860s (Fig. 3).[3]

Fig.3a. Monserrate, 1830, plate in Anon, Portugal; or, The young travellers: account of Lisbon and its environs (London, 1830, p.137)

Fig.3b. Monserrate, detail, 1840, lithograph by Manuel Luiz. (© private collection)

Fig.3b. Monserrate, detail, 1840, lithograph by Manuel Luiz. (© private collection)

While it is tempting today to see a direct link between Monserrate’s decorative features and the narrative flourishes found in Vathek, the Oriental décor that encased the outside and embellished the inside of the previous eighteenth-century layer is unrelated to Beckford (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Interior long corridor, Monserrate Palace (© L. Châtel)

Fig. 4. Interior long corridor, Monserrate Palace (© L. Châtel)

His Orientalism lies elsewhere, and critics need to delve beneath the surface of post-Romantic constructions of Orientalism and consider Enlightenment aesthetics to relocate Beckford’s debt to the East. It is precisely my aim in William Beckford: the elusive Orientalist to revisit late eighteenth-century scholarship in order to ‘relocate’ British traces of Orientalism, and, specifically, Beckford’s.

Enlightenment Orientalism is often considered a French prerogative, and quite rightly so, since the French were indeed not only proponents of but decisive actors in shaping Orientalist taste. With his Bibliothèque orientale (1697) of facts and mores, Barthélémy d’Herbelot provided an alternative catechism, enabling a displacement of interest from Western to Eastern religious and political thinking. Through Antoine Galland, one was given access to the many delights of the Arabian nights (1704-17), and a significant new window onto the East. Voltaire was interested in Chinese and Indian culture[4], whilst Montesquieu, Diderot, and the abbé Raynal were important transmitters of Oriental lore.

Undeniably French as Orientalism may have been, recent scholarship has also drawn specific attention to the contribution of Britain, with pivotal studies written by Srinivas Aravamudan, Ros Ballaster, Robert Irwin, Saree Makdisi, Felicity Nussbaum, Diego Saglia and Marina Warner. It is my hope that William Beckford: the elusive Orientalist will add a chapter to the British story by drawing attention to the peculiar case of William Beckford.

Insert Fig 5. Interlaced motifs, Monserrate, first floor, design by James Thomas Knowles (© L.Châtel)

Insert Fig 5. Interlaced motifs, Monserrate, first floor, design by James Thomas Knowles (© L. Châtel)

I purposefully use ‘peculiar’ as Orientalism and ‘peculiarity’ are mutually enlightening. Beckford’s ‘peculiarity’ was, for a long time, interpreted as a quirky characteristic in psychological and biographical terms that conveyed notions of distrust or puzzlement. It is my contention that one can reappraise Beckford if one looks at his ‘peculiarity’ in aesthetic terms. Beckford’s creativity was always necessarily derivative and elusive. The frustration felt by most of his contemporaries is that Beckford never painted a clear picture of himself, as if he meant to hide his agency or somehow let it be believed that whatever he did was the result of an invisible agency. The translations from the Arabian nights were a ‘collective’ work, and one may easily imagine him to be the prime mover behind the grand scheme. It was not just his own doing, but was also that of the Turk Zemir, the English Lady Craven, Samuel Henley, and, last but not least, the French Madame de Starck (a.k.a. Melle Falques). The Orientalist artefacts displayed at Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower, co-produced with silversmiths, goldsmiths and his friend Gregorio Franchi, were an aggregate action; not only was it teamwork, but the Oriental piece was grafted onto another item and given a new lease of life by being subtly reprocessed, thus creating an art object (see, for example, the artefacts at Charlecote Park).

Insert Fig. 6 ‘Eye and turban’, frontispiece, published in Vathek (London, Clarke, 1815). Private collection.

Insert Fig. 6 ‘Eye and turban’, frontispiece, published in Vathek (London, Clarke, 1815). Private collection.

Back to the park and palace of Monserrate. The genius loci of this land of bizarre estrangement and wild luxuriance can lead the visitor astray, operating like a trompe l’œil or mirage of British Orientalist luxury. And yet it can also provide a clue to previous layers, pointing to the undeniably Orientalist, albeit elusive and misunderstood, taste of Beckford. How much of Beckford’s Orientalism Francis Cook meant to revive and restore at Monserrate deserves to be explored further. But it is wonderfully entertaining that, today, Monserrate can be interpreted as a resurgence of British Orientalism, if not a homage to Beckford himself. Monserrate confirms the necessarily allusive and elusive reception of Beckford’s aesthetics – ghostly, spectral but vividly present.

– Laurent Châtel

[1] Monserrate Park, 1995 World Heritage Site and 2013 European Winner of Garden Award is located about 3.5 km from the Sintra historical center and 25 km west to Lisbon; see https://vimeo.com/79885257

[2] William Wilde, The Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe, and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean (Dublin, William Curry & Co, 1840), p.74.

[3] For Monserrate, see Maria João Neto, The Romantic Country House of an English Family (Casal de Cambra, Ediçao e Artes Graficas, 2015); Malcolm Jack, Sintra – A Glorious Eden (2002); the official website: https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en/parks-and-monuments/park-and-palace-of-monserrate/

[4] See, for example, his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartars in Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, ed. Marie-Hélène Cotoni, Basil Guy et al, vol. 77b (Oxford, 2014)