Voltaire, quid de la mémoire contemporaine ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Willy Soumaho Igoumou

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

Ceci n’est pas Candide

Translating Voltaire: past and present

In his study of Voltaire and England (1976), André-Michel Rousseau gives Voltaire’s contemporary translators short shrift. He dismisses most English translations of the contes out of hand. They are ‘platement littérales, lourdes et fades’ (flat, literal, heavy and colourless). Translations of the plays fare better, but only because they aren’t translations at all. They are rewritings. Only historical and philosophical works escape unscathed. They are hardly altered by translation. Mercifully, translators couldn’t do them much damage.

Candide as pulp fiction

Candide as pulp fiction: front cover of the translation by Walter J. Fultz (New York, Lion Books, 1952).

Such withering – and blinkered – judgements reflect a persistent trope in Western thinking. Common metaphors of translation (an unfaithful mistress, a mirror, the distorted image on the back of a tapestry…) always emphasise negation – what translation is not, rather than what it is. Measured on a notional scale of sameness to the ‘original’, any translation, however brilliantly executed, will always fall short, a dull satellite orbiting the dazzling planet of the source text. A ‘translator’, by the same token, can never equal an ‘author’. Alexander Pope, for example, describes Homer’s hapless translators struggling to keep up the pace: ‘sweating and straining after [the author] by violent leaps and bounds, [or] slowly and servilely creeping in his train’ (preface to The Iliad of Homer, p.20). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Rousseau warned fellow scholars not to waste time on translations. An endless catalogue of egregious errors would add nothing to our knowledge of Voltaire. In any case, no translator could argue the toss with Voltaire.

It is now over fifty years since Barthes (1967) and Foucault (1969) challenged conventional concepts of authorship and declared ‘the author’ dead. One might, therefore, reasonably assume that ‘the translator’ perished in the same theoretical tsunami. Up to a point that is true. As objects of academic study, translated texts and those who produce them have come into their own. Translation Studies are now established across the globe as a distinctive interdisciplinary field, and funding bodies look favourably on research projects with a focus on translation. Theorists agree that translations are produced not by solo translators but by multiple agents; they are autonomous texts functioning independently within the literary system in which they are received. Translators need many of the same skills as authors, but they deploy them differently. They work bilingually to construct hybrid texts comparable with, but not the same as, the ‘source’ texts to which they are intertextually linked. Translated texts and those who create them are, thus, agents in the afterlife of the source text. As such, they merit scholarly examination in their own right. These theoretical and institutional advances are opening the way for exciting – and long overdue – projects on translations of Voltaire and the context of their reception.

But that is only part of the story.

Practice has not kept pace with theory. Academics can now research translation, they can teach courses on it, but they are not paid to do it.[1] In other words, the distinctive contribution to knowledge made by translators as translators is still unacknowledged at an institutional level. This disjunct between theory and practice is not a trivial anomaly. It is a primary factor in a worrying drop in translation commissions among Anglophone academic publishers.[2]

Does that matter?

French classics marketed as Gallic smut for wider appeal

French classics marketed as Gallic smut for wider appeal: Mademoiselle de Maupin and Candide (New York, Royal Books, 1953).

As Voltaire points out: ‘il en coûte toujours quelques fatigues à lire des choses abstraites dans une langue étrangère’ (reading about abstract matters in a foreign language always entails a certain amount of effort). Translations exist, in other words, because readers need them. The prevalence of English as the lingua franca of academic exchange should not blind us to the fact that a great deal of leading-edge research is published in other languages. Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes are proof of that. But there is a clear resistance to scholarship produced in languages other than English (Sapiro, p.3-4), a monolingual bias compounded in the US and UK by the steady erosion of modern language learning. Fewer and fewer researchers beyond the confines of French Studies are able (or willing) to access texts published in French. Without translations, therefore, the impact of the groundbreaking scholarship in the Œuvres complètes will be significantly reduced. But without a funding model that recognises translation as a valid scholarly output, translation commissions within the academic publishing sector will dwindle still further.

In recent decades, the landscape of academic publishing has changed almost beyond recognition. Academic texts, translated or not, can be funded, produced and disseminated differently. It is a kairos, a moment of opportunity to mainstream translators and translation networks within research communities. Knowledge production is dynamic, and the increased synchronicity afforded by new technologies allows more proactive collaboration between different participants (editors, translators, authors, copyright holders, designers, technicians) and expands conventional limits of ‘translatorship’. As a recent pilot partnership between the Voltaire Foundation and the University of Bristol has shown, the virtual space of the Voltaire Lab is an ideal environment in which to create a global translation network, producing new texts which contribute to the transdisciplinary afterlife of the Œuvres complètes. The long-term aim of the project, which is part of Voltaire Foundation’s Digital Enlightenment project funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, is to put in place a translation ‘laboratory’, making key textual and peritextual scholarship in the Œuvres complètes available (initially in English) to researchers across the disciplinary spectrum.

Today’s general reader is spoilt for choice as regards translations of Voltaire’s best-known works, but scholars are less well served. Funding is a primary obstacle. Quality another. While volunteer networks can be a partial solution, competent academic translators are thin on the ground (Sapiro, p.185). Postgraduate programmes in translation, however, are flourishing and the opportunity to translate complex texts for which there is a genuine market is valuable training for today’s students, especially if they can work in a supportive environment. The Voltaire Foundation, therefore, formed a partnership with the University of Bristol and trialled the translation of the article Goût from Questions sur l’Encyclopédie as the basis for a Master’s dissertation. The relationship between the student and the Foundation broadly paralleled that between translator and client, but the task brief and records of student / ‘client’ exchanges were shared with the dissertation supervisor, who worked with the student in the normal way. Full responsibility for assessment remains with the University, while the Foundation will liaise independently with the student about publication in the Voltaire Lab, a prestigious showcase for her practical skills.

The success of the pilot project is encouraging, and in the first instance the collaborative model will be expanded to include other partner institutions with the aim of producing a series of themed translations from the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. Once translation guidelines are fully developed, the network can be extended to include undergraduate (and other) volunteers. In due course, larger collaborative translation projects could be initiated, potentially exploring the power of translation tools to accelerate the rate of production. Practice-based doctorates are increasingly common in post-graduate programmes, and joint funding bids could include the production of new translations as one of their research objectives.

In practical terms, a global translation network within the Voltaire Lab integrates translation production within a wider research agenda, combats the decline in conventional translation commissions, and raises the institutional status of academic translators. From a theoretical perspective, however, it does much more than that. It reconfigures the relationship between translatorship and authorship within the cycle of knowledge production. Translators do not straggle and struggle after authors as Pope implies. They pick up the baton from them, taking their texts forward into the future. They work collaboratively to craft new – quite different – texts: ‘translations’, intertextually linked to an anterior ‘source’ text, but destined and designed for new markets and new readers.

– Adrienne Mason

[1] See Venuti, L. (ed.), Teaching Translation: Programs, Courses, Pedagogies (Abingdon & New York, 2017), p.4-7.

[2] Frisani, M., McCoy, J. A. and Sapiro, G. (2014), ‘Les traducteurs de sciences humaines et sociales aux États-Unis et au Royaume-Uni’, in Sciences humaines en traduction. Les livres français aux États-Unis, au Royaume-Uni et en Argentine, ed. G. Sapiro (Paris, 2014), p.158–74 (166-68).

An American Voltaire: the J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection at McGill

Reblogged from McGill University Library News ‘Library Matters’, 9 May 2018.

An American Voltaire

Published by Cambridge Scholars in 2009, with contributions by Nicholas Cronk and other Voltaire scholars.

Pat Lee, who died in 2006, was a life-enhancing friend as well as a Voltaire enthusiast and an avid collector of books. The J. Patrick Lee Voltaire Collection was acquired by McGill in 2013, and contains some 2000 books and 42 manuscripts, relative to Voltaire and his contemporaries. I recently had the huge pleasure of helping Ann Marie Holland organise in the Rare Books Library a small exhibit containing just a few of the highlights of this collection.

Like any great collection, this one has its share of precious printed books, as well as some remarkable manuscripts, not least a manuscript compilation of verse that belonged to Voltaire’s companion, Emilie Du Châtelet – this last item has been exhibited in Paris at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The compilation also has its unique personality: Pat Lee, as an American – who loved Voltaire, was born in Kentucky, and wrote his doctorate on Voltaire at Fordham University in New York – clearly had a particular predilection for books by and about Voltaire that were in some way connected with America.

Americans were keen readers of Voltaire from the early years of the Republic, and the provenance of some of the items is startling: a volume of Voltaire that belonged to Theodore Roosevelt, and a manuscript collection of French poetry with the bookplate of… George Washington. But it’s not just the famous names that are interesting. A book called Fame and Fancy, or Voltaire Improved, published in Boston in 1826, provides an American take on Voltaire: but Pat Lee’s copy is also interesting because the bookplate records its American owner: ‘Daniel Green, Jr., Portland, Maine’.

Abner Kneeland’s translation of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique

Another remarkable production from the same decade is Abner Kneeland’s translation of Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique, also published in Boston in 1836. Kneeland (1774-1844) was an evangelist minister of radical views, remembered as the last man jailed in the United States for blasphemy – among his publications are The Deist (1822) and A Review of the Evidences of Christianity (1829). His edition of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary was clearly a polemical gesture therefore, and one of the copies in Pat Lee’s collection is exceptional. The anonymous American owner has inserted two blank sheets in the middle of the volume, with pages headed ‘Births’, ‘Marriages’ and ‘Deaths’. It was common of course for families to own a ‘family Bible’ with such blank pages serving to record key events in a family’s history, a volume that would be handed down from generation to generation. In this (unique?) example, a nineteenth-century American has radically subverted the genre of the ‘family Bible’ by creating a ‘family Voltaire’. Only in America…

A tipped in censored illustration of Rockwell Kent’s Candide intended for the 1928 edition.

A tipped in censored illustration of Rockwell Kent’s Candide intended for the 1928 edition.

In the twentieth century, New York publishers were active in producing illustrated editions, and there are some remarkable illustrated editions of Candide in this collection. The Rockwell Kent illustrations for Random House (1928) are justly famous – not least because the picture of Voltaire’s house in the colophon went on to become widely familiar as the Random House logo. Rockwell Kent’s first depiction of Pangloss conducting an experiment in natural philosophy in the shrubbery was deemed too shocking, and he had to replace it with a more anodine image – the first edition in this collection is very special because it includes a real rarity – the ‘censored’ image has been tipped in to cover up its timid replacement. (See also the NYPL Candide website for more on Rockwell Kent.)

The Rockwell Kent Candide is a celebrated publication, but also remarkable is the fact that the year before, 1927, there had appeared an edition of Candide illustrated by Clara Tice, a bohemian figure known as the Queen of Greenwich Village (below left); and two years later, in 1930, there was an illustrated edition by Mahlon Blane (below right).

This is real testimony to the vibrancy of the American market for illustrated books: three major illustrated editions of Candide all published in New York within the space of four years – and all three in completely contrasting artistic styles.

Clara Tice Candide Part 2 in the 1927 edition.

Clara Tice Candide Part 2 in the 1927 edition.

Following the hugely successful publication of Candide in early 1759, there appeared in 1760 a sequel, Candide, seconde partie – an amusing work that we now attribute to the abbé Dulaurens, but that at the time was widely attributed to Voltaire himself, so much so that it was not uncommon for the two parts of Candide to appear together as ‘one’ work by Voltaire. Gradually it became accepted that Voltaire was not the author of the second part, so this practice declined – except in the United States, where the two parts of Candide continued to be published together well into the twentieth century. This is another peculiarity of the American Voltaire, and this fidelity to the apocryphal Second Part of Candide gives illustrators like Clara Tice a wider range of scenes to depict – for example, Candide’s seduction by a lascivious Persian at the start of the Second Part.

Pat Lee’s Voltaire collection contains many of these beautiful objects – another is the illustrated edition by Jylbert, published by the aptly named Editions du charme. The date here gives us pause for thought, though: the edition appeared in 1941, in occupied Paris. Does the scene with the monkeys in any way reflect what was happening on the streets of the capital?

Alongside this precious work, Pat Lee’s collection also includes a humble and modestly printed translation of Candide which appeared in the Armed Services Edition in 1943 – part of a series of books made available to American servicemen and women. In Chapter Three of Candide we remember how both sides in the war have a Te Deum sung, in the certain knowledge that God is on their side… And among the troops who liberated Paris, was there perhaps a serviceman who had Candide in his backpack? The Pat Lee collection gives us a specifically American take on Voltaire and his impact in North America, and as such, it is unique.

– Nicholas Cronk

Voltaire, the most alive of dead white males

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

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

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

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

Paris, January 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Nicholas Cronk and Georges Pilard

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

Catfishing Voltaire

Sam Bailey has just received an MSt in European Enlightenment studies from the University of Oxford (distinction) and won the Gerard Davis prize for his MSt dissertation. He is working at the VF as a research assistant over the summer. In the coming academic year, he will begin an AHRC-funded PhD on representations of disability in seventeenth-century French cabaret poetry at the University of Durham.

Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

Paul Desforges-Maillard, by Pieter Tanjé, 1756.

It is for good reason that the Republic of Letters is often referred to as a social network. A quick browse of the Electronic Enlightenment project reveals how seamlessly the lengthy written exchanges between the philosophes can be repurposed for digital publication. Indeed, the letters themselves, with their perplexing in-jokes, abbreviations and allusions, seem to invite the various cross-references and hyperlinks that can be added when publishing electronically. So strong are these parallels, that a recent seminar I attended involved a tangential discussion of whether Diderot would have liked Wikipedia. (For the record, we concluded that he would have admired the ambition of the project but would not have liked the fact that anyone can contribute).

As with their twenty-first-century counterparts, eighteenth-century social networks came with a host of pitfalls and were frequently hijacked for the purposes of trickery and even practical jokes. Indeed, a so-called mystification involved luring an unsuspecting gullible individual into a humorous trap designed to teach him or her to be more alert.[1] A particularly popular strategy was to adopt a false identity through which to communicate with one’s target, a ruse that bears a striking resemblance to the modern-day concept of ‘catfishing’. For those who don’t spend their time watching late-night American reality TV, catfishing is the social media phenomenon of creating a fake online profile to strike up a (usually romantic) relationship with a stranger.

The term originates from the 2010 film Catfish, which documents a real-life situation of this kind. A character explains that when transporting live cod for long distances, fishermen found that the flesh of the fish turned soft and mushy due to inactivity. Their solution was to place a small number of catfish into the tanks, which proceeded to chase the cod and keep them agile. There are people in life who are like those catfish, so the analogy goes, people whose unpredictable actions keep us alert and forever looking over our shoulders. Although the name and the online setting are new, the phenomenon of catfishing is most certainly very old.

Poem by Desforges-Maillard

Poem by Desforges-Maillard published in the July 1732 issue of the Mercure de France.

Towards the beginning of his life as a literary celebrity, Voltaire was embroiled in a saga very similar to a modern incident of catfishing when he became the unwitting victim of Paul Desforges-Maillard. As explained in the 1880 edition of his collected works, Desforges was a lawyer and amateur poet from Brittany who, despondent after many failed attempts at achieving literary recognition, tried an ingenious marketing strategy with the latest poem he sent to the Mercure de France. And so, ‘un beau jour de l’année 1732 […] le Mercure présenta à Voltaire, coquettement encadrée dans ses colonnes, la pièce de vers suivante, datée du Croisic, en Bretagne, et signée d’une femme’.[2]

The woman in question was one Mlle Malcrais de la Vigne, whose verses in the Mercure had already won her several admirers in the months leading up to this event. However, none were as distinguished as Voltaire. The verse ‘A M. Arouet de Voltaire…’ was an immediate hit, causing Desforges to continue publishing under the Malcrais pseudonym and receive further praise from many unsuspecting (male) readers. The seductive image of the ‘héroine du Mercure’, an unmarried, unknown woman, exiled far from metropolitan Paris in Brittany completely captured the imagination of the Parisian reading public.[3] Eventually, Malcrais’s verse received a laudatory, even flirtatious, response from Voltaire himself, who, by all accounts, had been duped: ‘Voltaire, ce prince des moqueurs, a aussi été moqué, joué, mystifié’.[4]

Poem (dated 15 August 1732) sent to the Mercure de France by Voltaire

Poem (dated 15 August 1732) sent to the Mercure de France by Voltaire as a response to Desforges-Maillard’s poem.

Alain Viala recognises that ‘signer une œuvre publiée, c’est engager une image de soi’, and the pseudonymous identity of Mlle Malcrais de la Vigne is precisely that: a projection of a fabricated self-image designed to carry out a mystification of her readers and, specifically, to ensnare Voltaire, the prince of mockery himself.[5] Initially, wrote Desforges-Maillard in 1753, his objective was simple: ‘quand j’écrivis sous le nom de mlle de Malcrais; je ne voulais tromper que l’auteur du Mercure avec lequel j’étais brouillé, chacun prit la pilule et l’avala’.[6] How far we choose to believe this self-portrait of the catfish as a victim of circumstance is up to us, but it serves to highlight a risk inherent to pseudonymous publication, namely that one can never be sure how far the ruse will play out and exactly whom it will deceive.

Desforges writes that Voltaire was ‘bien double, bien vain et bien mauvais’, in other words, just as much of a con-artist as the man behind Malcrais.[7] Far from a literary demi-god, Voltaire is, in Desforges’ view, no more than another cunning trickster who dons masks as and when he sees fit with a view to deceiving people into exalting him. While Desforges evidently had no qualms about deceiving a man he considered the arch-deceiver, even relishing the challenge, the moral limit for him came when, still publishing as Malcrais, he received a letter from the biographer Évrard Titon du Tillet praising her work. Desforges felt guilty for duping Titon du Tillet, a seemingly honourable man who was himself guilty of no trickery, and this caused him to reveal his true identity to his readers, who, predictably, promptly lost interest.[8]

Voltaire, however, never forgot, frequently evoking the Malcrais episode in his correspondence as the definitive example of all not being as it seems. Desforges is remembered, but only as Malcrais, the ‘muse androgyne’ to whom Voltaire continued to make reference in letters right up until 1770. Malcrais’ name is preserved in history as Voltaire’s catfish, the cautionary figure who kept him alert and ceaselessly reminded him that appearances may be deceiving.

– Sam Bailey

[1] For more on mystification, see Reginald McGinnis’s Essai sur l’origine de la mystification (Paris, 2009).

[2] Paul Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses de Desforges-Maillard (Paris, 1880), p. II.

[3] Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses, p. IX.

[4] Desforges-Maillard, Poésies diverses, p. I.

[5] Alain Viala, La Naissance de l’écrivain (Paris, 1985), p. 85.

[6] Desforges-Maillard to Gilles François de Beauvais, 21 June 1753.

[7] Desforges-Maillard to Gilles François de Beauvais, 21 June 1753′.

[8] The way in which Desforges revealed his true identity is yet another remarkable tale that allegedly involved him dressing as a woman and going to dinner with Voltaire. The full story can be found in the preface to the 1880 edition.

L’Ingénu and Electronic Enlightenment

Title page of the first edition of L’Ingénu.

Title page of the first edition of L’Ingénu.

Electronic Enlightenment (EE), an online collection of edited correspondence from the early modern period, has been an invaluable resource for me as a first-year modern languages student at Durham University. As part of the Reading French Literature module I have been studying my first work by Voltaire, the satirical novella L’Ingénu, and have used EE to explore Voltaire’s correspondence, pursuing my intuitive hunches about this text as well as finding out more about the context in which it was written.

Religion struck me as one of the main topics of discussion in L’Ingénu. In reading letters to and from Voltaire on EE, I began to better appreciate the extent of religious contention in eighteenth-century France. The theory of Creation is referenced in a seemingly poignant moment at the end of chapter 13, where l’Ingénu is touched by the sight of a beautiful woman: ‘il faut convenir que Dieu n’a créé les femmes que pour apprivoiser les hommes.’ However, shortly after this assertion, Voltaire writes, ‘C’est une absurdité, c’est un outrage au genre humain, c’est un attentat contre l’Etre infini et suprême de dire: Il y a une vérité essentielle à l’homme, et Dieu l’a cachée.’ Here the use of irony and of different narrative voices points to the value of turning to Voltaire’s correspondence, as this is an external source which may be used to compare Voltaire’s voice as a narrator with his supposedly real voice when in communication with his peers. Voltaire’s particular form of expression means that the reader can never be quite sure as to where his personal opinion lies. This is confirmed through a study of his correspondence, where we see him playing with different voices.

Letters from figures such as Jean Le Rond d’Alembert piqued my curiosity to read about religious policy in contemporary society. D’Alembert remarks about religious tensions and debate in France, ‘la censure de la Sorbonne contenait douze à quinze pages contre la Tolérance’ (14 August 1767). This source of ‘unofficial’ discourse between the two men corresponding in a personal capacity is useful in gauging a contemporary reaction to the public discourse and politics of the time and the context in which Voltaire wrote.

Image from L'Ingénu.

‘Le Huron tout nu dans la rivière, attendant qu’on l’y vienne baptiser’, in Le Huron, ou l’Ingénu, histoire véritable, fromRomans et Contes de M. de Voltaire, 3 vol. (Bouillon, 1778), vol.2, p.234. Image BnF/Gallica.

Without this letter, I would not have started to explore so keenly this facet of eighteenth-century society. Similar religious contention is revealed in Voltaire’s letter to Etienne Noël Damilaville, as he makes reference to the significance of truth and tolerance in religious debate: ‘Je sais avec quelle fureur le fanatisme s’élève contre la philosophie. Elle a deux filles qu’il voudrait faire périr comme Calas, ce sont la vérité et la tolérance’ (1 March 1765). The case of Jean Calas serves as an illustration of Voltaire’s discussion of religious intolerance. It prompted me to look further into the Calas story, and to learn about the inferior position of Protestants in France at the time.

This has influenced my reading of L’Ingénu, since it supported the idea that the protagonist was regarded as such a social outsider because of the uniformity and strictness with which Catholicism dominated. From reading Voltaire’s letters, we can acknowledge the position of the author. It is clear that he advocated religious freedom, and sought to denounce the Catholic Church, since he poses assertive questions such as: ‘comment obtenir justice? comment s’aller remettre en prison dans sa patrie où la moitié du peuple dit encore que le meurtre de Calas était juste?’ (1 March 1765).

Finally, reading a distinct form of material such as Voltaire’s letters, instead of solely his published writings, has made me consider the impact of the public and the motivation behind authorship. Much more assertive opinions regarding theological inclination are expressed in the evidently intimate, more personal letters than in Voltaire’s stories, and the subtlety of his opinions appears clearer when the richness of the correspondence in EE is taken into account.

– Hannah Hawken

If Voltaire had used Wikipedia…

At the Voltaire Foundation we’ve recently had the opportunity to work with the University of Oxford’s Wikimedian in residence, Dr Martin Poulter. He has helped us to build some new content for our website as well as contributing to our mission to promote the work of Voltaire. In this blog post, he explains a bit more about the project.

Sharing open knowledge about Voltaire’s histories

To raise awareness of Voltaire as a historian, we used three tools:

  1. Histropedia: a free tool for creating engaging, interactive visualisations
  2. Wikidata: a free database and sister site of Wikipedia that drives Histropedia and other visualisations
  3. Wikipedia: the free multilingual encyclopedia.

As well as holding data about people, publications, and events, Wikidata acts as a cross-reference between the different language versions of Wikipedia, showing which concepts are represented in which languages. By querying Wikidata, we could count how many language versions of Wikipedia had an article on each work by Voltaire. This showed, as expected, a large imbalance: forty languages for Candide versus three for the Essai sur les mœurs, for example. The current number of articles for each work is shown by the size of the bubbles below.

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Creating interactive timelines

The timelines are built from three things:

  1. Wikipedia articles (that open on double-clicking the entry in the timeline)
  2. Publication dates and titles from Wikidata
  3. Images (in the case of books, usually title pages) that are hosted in the Wikimedia Commons repository (another sister site of Wikipedia).

We added articles, data and images to what was already present on these sites. Since Wikimedia sites are open and free, this content is available for reuse by other sites and applications. For instance, the images have been tagged by their year, language and subject so as to appear in searches and image galleries (for example for books in French or books from the eighteenth century).

A custom Wikidata query showed works by Voltaire with their publication dates, helping to identify works lacking a date. We added new entries for some works that were absent, including most of the historical works.

The timeline of Voltaire’s works uses a custom database query to bring all this content together. The timeline does not by any means include all of Voltaire’s works, but more will appear in future as their details are added to Wikidata. As well as each work’s title, publication date and image, the query returns the type of work; poems, plays, fiction and so on. This is used to colour-code the timeline. Clicking on the drop icon in the top left brings up a list of types. Readers can select the type they are interested in to filter the results shown in the timeline, for example to show only the histories. To make the histories especially visible, we added title page images from public domain sources or the Voltaire Foundation’s own collection.

As well as the timeline of works, we used Histropedia to create a companion timeline for ‘An explorer’s guide to the Siècle de Louis XIV ’. Instead of a database query, this one is driven by a fixed list of people and events, all of whom already had articles in English Wikipedia. The resulting timeline is the sort of thing that we like to imagine Voltaire might have produced, if he’d had access to Wikipedia while researching his monumental history of the reign of the Sun King. We’re sure he would have been unable to resist adding to Wikipedia a few articles of his own…

Creating and publicising Wikipedia articles

We created English articles on The Age of Louis XIV, Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, Annals of the Empire and Précis du siècle de Louis XV. These are not intended to be comprehensive, but to give basic facts about each work, to indicate why each work is important and to cite printed editions and relevant online resources, such as the explorer’s guide.

One way we drew readers to these new articles was to make links from elsewhere in Wikipedia, naturally including the Voltaire article which gets 3670 hits per day. Another was to use the Did You Know (DYK) process: new articles, of sufficient length, can be submitted for review. If they pass a check of accuracy and quality, an interesting fact from the article, linked to the full article, appears on the front page of English Wikipedia for twelve hours, exposing it to potentially millions of people. The articles on Essai sur les mœurs and The Age of Louis XIV were both submitted to DYK, getting 1584 hits and 1070 hits respectively during their times on the front page. The attention inspired another Wikipedian to create a Turkish article on the Essai, bringing the total number of Wikipedia articles on the Essai to five.

The four new English articles get about fifty views per day, or 18,000 per year. They have been checked and approved by other Wikipedians, and the individual facts within them are cited, so can be expected to remain in Wikipedia from now on.

Someone who has just read an article is open to reading a related article. In usability research, the end of an article is termed a ‘seducible moment’ for this reason. Wikipedia uses navigational templates (blocks of related links) to take advantage of these moments and direct readers to articles on the same theme.

We expanded English Wikipedia’s navigational template for Voltaire works, and, since French Wikipedia lacked a template, we created one. This links to all articles about Voltaire works and the article about Voltaire, greatly increasing the number of incoming links to each. We left instructions for French Wikipedians on how to embed the block in future articles.

Comparing article hit rates before and after the change, we estimate that the French navigational template increased views of its articles by about 2,000 per month, or 24,000 per year.

– Martin Poulter

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