The triumph of truth

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

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

James Beattie, by Joshua Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josie Dyster, Research Assistant, Voltaire Foundation, Oxford

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

Un ennemi distingué: Bergier face à Voltaire

Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier (image Wikicommons).

Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier (image Wikicommons).

Des ennemis, Voltaire n’en manque pas, comme on sait, et particulièrement chez ceux qu’on appelle les antiphilosophes.[1] S’ils ont le malheur d’être aussi vindicatifs que lui, il ne les épargne guère, et quoi qu’il arrive, il les harcèle de pointes, les enterre sous les quolibets, quand il ne se laisse pas aller à de moins glorieuses attaques. Pourtant, à côté des Fréron, Le Franc de Pompignan, Nonnotte, Chaumeix et quelques autres, qui doivent à l’acrimonie de Voltaire l’essentiel de leur postérité, il y a une exception qui confirme la règle: un apologiste que, de manière étonnante, Voltaire n’attaque pas frontalement et qu’il semble même ménager; un défenseur de la religion catholique pour lequel il manifeste indéniablement une certaine estime intellectuelle; bref, un champion du christianisme qui reste fréquentable en pleine campagne contre l’Infâme! Cette perle rare, c’est l’abbé Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier.[2]

Bergier, Le Déisme réfuté par lui-même (Paris, 1765), page de titre.

Bergier, Le Déisme réfuté par lui-même (Paris, 1765), page de titre.

Qu’a-t-il pour bénéficier d’un tel traitement de faveur? Pourquoi cette polémique sans animosité, telle qu’elle se manifeste dans une seule œuvre, les Conseils raisonnables à M. Bergier (qui paraît ce mois-ci dans le tome 65c des Œuvres complètes de Voltaire) – absence d’acharnement assez rare pour être notée? C’est que ce n’est pas un apologiste comme les autres. Par son itinéraire tout à fait exceptionnel, il est devenu celui par qui l’Eglise peut ambitionner de battre les incrédules sur leur propre terrain, celui d’une libre pensée en débat: entendons qu’il n’est pas un théologien dogmatique étalant ses autorités, mais un penseur qui accepte de se plier aux règles du débat rationnel. En cet âge de cercles littéraires ou intellectuels, la ‘fréquentation’ des philosophes se fera, avec l’abbé Bergier, au sens le plus littéral du terme: il ira sur les terres de ses ennemis, en assistant, par exemple, aux fameuses soirées du baron d’Holbach, où il s’est fait introduire par son frère, François-Joseph Bergier, libertin et libre penseur, qui a des convictions aux antipodes des siennes. Diderot ne se fera pas faute d’ailleurs de vanter à son propre frère, avec lequel les relations sont tendues, ce modèle de coexistence pacifique! L’abbé cessera cependant ses passages quand il se mettra à attaquer franchement les principes des athées matérialistes qui viennent de frapper un grand coup avec le Système de la nature, dont l’auteur véritable, derrière le pseudonyme de Mirabaud, n’est autre que d’Holbach lui-même. C’est une cible que Bergier partage avec Voltaire, même s’ils ne sont pas du même bord.

Bergier, L’Apologie de la religion chrétienne (Paris, 1769), page de titre.

Bergier, L’Apologie de la religion chrétienne (Paris, 1769), page de titre.

Ce qui fait vraiment l’importance de Bergier c’est que figurent à son tableau de chasse rien moins que trois grands penseurs considérés comme les principaux dangers pour la religion catholique: d’Holbach, Rousseau et Voltaire! En quelques années il a enchaîné les réfutations de leurs œuvres: il réplique coup sur coup à Rousseau dans Le Déisme réfuté par lui-même (1765), aux nombreuses productions voltairiennes dans L’Apologie de la religion chrétienne (1769), et au Système de la nature du baron d’Holbach dans l’Examen du matérialisme (1771). Entre Rousseau et Voltaire, Bergier aura eu le temps de réfuter l’Examen critique des Apologistes de la religion chrétienne, attribué alors à Fréret, dans La Certitude des preuves du christianisme (1767). C’est précisément cet ouvrage qui va décider Voltaire à répliquer, et c’est ainsi que naissent les Conseils raisonnables. Si Bergier est sensible à l’originalité de la position de Rousseau et à la radicalité de d’Holbach, Voltaire tiendra toujours une place à part dans son combat: il le considère comme le patriarche des incrédules, celui qu’il convient donc de réfuter de préférence pour contrarier la séduction de ses persiflgages iconoclastes – figure de proue d’autant plus à craindre qu’elle s’abrite lâchement derrière de multiples pseudonymes. Bergier a cependant presque toujours la correction de ne pas les dévoiler, quelque transparents qu’ils soient. L’animosité ne se cache pas cependant en privé et le ressentiment est perceptible dans la manière dont Bergier rend compte de la mort de Voltaire à un de ses correspondants le 20 mars 1778: ‘Voltaire a crevé comme il devait naturellement le faire avec le sombre désespoir d’un réprouvé’!

Bergier, La Certitude des preuves du christianisme (Paris, 1767), page de titre.

Bergier, La Certitude des preuves du christianisme (Paris, 1767), page de titre.

On prend la mesure de son originalité de ‘philosophe chrétien’ quand on considère sa trajectoire d’ensemble, jusqu’à la fin de sa vie en 1790. S’il adopte volontiers des positions qui le classsent parmi les conservateurs (comme son rejet de la reconnaissance des unions protestantes par exemple), il est aussi un théologien hétérodoxe, que sa hiérarchie regarde d’un œil méfiant. Non seulement il collabore à l’Encyclopédie méthodique de Panckoucke, qui prend la relève ostensible de celle de Diderot et D’Alembert, mais il oriente également certains dogmes vers des positions moins rigoristes, en ne se prononçant pas ainsi sur la damnation des enfants non baptisés. Si socialement et politiquement il appartient incontestablement au camp des antiphilosophes, intellectuellement il participe d’une forme d’acculturation philosophique dont témoignent ses positions doctrinales, qui lui valent souvent la censure de l’Eglise.

Comment qualifier un tel personnage? le plus philosophe des antiphilosophes? Grimm dans la Correspondance littéraire du 15 avril 1767 estime qu’il ‘est un homme très supérieur aux gens de son métier’ mais ajoute perfidement: ‘C’est dommage que sa bonne foi lui fasse exposer les objections de ses adversaires dans toute leur force, et que les réponses qu’il leur oppose ne soient pas aussi victorieuses qu’il se l’imagine’. Maintenant que le combat est passé, et que chacun peut choisir son vainqueur, on peut surtout apprécier de voir Voltaire choisir un ennemi qu’il ne se contente pas de ridiculiser.

– Alain Sandrier, Université Paris Nanterre

[1] Un dictionnaire de référence vient de paraître à leur sujet: Dictionnaire des anti-Lumières et des antiphilosophes, éd. D. Masseau (Paris, 2017). Il faut également citer les travaux pionniers de Didier Masseau, Les Ennemis des philosophes (Paris, 2000) ainsi que la synthèse d’Olivier Ferret, La Fureur de nuire (SVEC 2007:03).

[2] Voir la monographie de Sylviane Albertan-Coppola, L’Abbé Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier (1718-1790) (Paris, 2010).

Voltaire and Sade, with a dash of Casanova

I have spent a lot of time with Voltaire and Sade recently, editing La Prude for the Complete Works and translating The 120 Days of Sodom for Penguin Classics (this was a collaboration with Will McMorran, and our blog is here). The two works could not be more different.

Manuscript of Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome

Manuscript of Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome

Voltaire began work on his comedy in a writing frenzy in winter 1739-40 (‘Je n’ai jamais été si inspiré de mes dieux, ou si possédé de mes démons’, January 1740) but then tinkered with it for seven and a half years; Sade, on the contrary, carefully planned his novel for two and a half years, before writing it up in thirty-seven days in late 1785. Voltaire struggled to bring his comedy, which is based on William Wycherley’s often obscene The Plain Dealer (1676), into line with French taste and decorum, whereas Sade brazenly increases the abject sexual violence from page to page, even throwing in a couple of ‘supplices en supplément’ for good measure. A sense as to how these works differ might be gleaned from looking at a point of overlap, namely the presence of cross-dressing characters. And if Adam Phillips is right to suggest that ‘Two’s company, but three’s a couple’, then let’s bring in Casanova who joins our two friends in being recognized as an Enlightenment philosopher.

Adine dressed as a Greek boy in La Prude, in Collection complète des œuvres de M. de Voltaire, 1768.

Adine dressed as a Greek boy in La Prude, in Collection complète des œuvres de M. de Voltaire, 1768.

There is plenty of pleasure in La Prude – unfortunately most of it happens off stage. The epicurean Madame Burlet is forever zipping from dinners to plays, eating, drinking and singing, and she appears to be a shopaholic (‘Amas nouveaux de boîtes, de rubans, / Magots de Saxe, et riches bagatelles’), but we never see any of this. The on-stage presence of Adine, dressed as Greek boy – apparently it’s the best way to keep lecherous Turkish pashas and sailors at bay – does stimulate desire in the eponymous prude Dorfise, but that desire is portrayed as ridiculous. Adine is a non-threatening, rather wimpy ephebe, and Dorfise is not only mocked for falling for her, but is also dehumanised in her final utterance, the nonsensical cry ‘Ah!’ Part of the audience’s satisfaction derives from seeing a character humiliated when the transvestite’s true identity is exposed.

Not so with Sade. On day 18 of the 120 Days, Madame Duclos tells of a man who ‘ne voulait du féminin que l’habit, mais, dans le fait, il fallait que ce fût un homme, et, pour m’expliquer mieux, c’était par un homme habillé en femme que le paillard voulait être fessé.’ There is no doubt as to the youth’s real identity, and his obvious drag is central to the scenario: it’s precisely in the old lecher’s transgression of having sex with this ‘masculine fouetteuse’, and in exposing that transgression to the employees of the brothel, that he finds his pleasure. The reader’s satisfaction comes from the narrator keeping both masculine and feminine elements of the youth’s persona visible, and with the older man shrugging off all judgment of his idiosyncratic behaviour: ‘Je voulus travailler à sa conversion, je l’assurai que j’avais des filles charmantes qui le fouetteraient tout aussi bien: il ne voulut seulement pas les regarder.’

Giacomo Casanova, by his brother Francisco Giuseppe Casanova, 1750-1755

Giacomo Casanova, by his brother Francisco Giuseppe Casanova, 1750-1755

Casanova tells of an encounter in an auberge in Cesena. Disturbed by a ruckus, he goes to the adjoining room where he sees poking out from under the bedclothes ‘une tête échevelée riante, fraîche, et séduisante qui ne me laisse pas douter de son sexe, malgré que sa coiffure fût d’homme’. This is Henriette, and the adventurer mentions no frisson deriving from her cross-dressing – his desire is provoked solely by the girl’s femininity. Her drag does, however, stimulate pleasure of another kind: ‘Cette fille n’avait que l’habit d’homme qui la couvrait, pas la moindre nippe de femme; pas seulement une chemise. Elle en changeait avec celles qui appartenaient à son ami. Cela me semblait nouveau et énigmatique.’ If exposure is central to cross-dressing in Voltaire and Sade, in Casanova the initial exposure gives way to mystery and reflection. Voltaire and Sade want to solve problems, Casanova revels in them.

– Thomas Wynn, Durham University

My name is nobody

Debate on authorship, pseudonymity and anonymity has been rife in the past few days in the wake of the revelation of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s true identity. What is surprising, one could argue, is that the best-selling author’s unmasking took so long. How could a hugely popular writer hope to keep her identity secret in a celebrity-obsessed age when anonymous publishing is very much the exception?

But it was not always so. The expectations of the reading public were very different in eighteenth-century Europe, a time when most books were published without any mention of their author’s name at all. The cover of anonymity allowed for levels of audacity, risk-taking and mischief that would have been unthinkable otherwise, but it also made possible a fair amount of what we would nowadays call “trolling”.

Voltaire and Rousseau reconciled at last, according to this print (Gallica)

An unlikely pairing (Image Gallica, 1794-1799, artist unknown)

As observed in an earlier post on this blog, Voltaire was not averse to criticising and mocking his enemies under assumed names (in that particular instance playfully borrowing the identity of his devoted secretary, Jean-Louis Wagnière). One would be hard pressed to find the slightest trace of playfulness in the Sentiment des citoyens though.[1] This short pamphlet was published anonymously in December 1764 and its target was none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had published – very much under his own name – the Lettres écrites de la montagne only a few weeks earlier.

In the ‘Lettre cinquième’ of his book, Rousseau had advised Voltaire to put into practice that “spirit of tolerance that he preaches relentlessly” and, crucially, he had outed the philosophe as the author of the fiercely anti-Christian Sermon des cinquante, which had been published anonymously in 1752. Voltaire did not take kindly to what he saw as an unforgivable act of treachery, and retaliated with the scathing Sentiment des citoyens, an excoriating ad hominem attack in which he revealed, among other things, that Rousseau had abandoned his children. This attack ended with what can be construed as an exhortation to the Genevan authorities to eliminate Rousseau physically for sowing the seeds of sedition in the Republic.

Just as he always denied being the author of the Sermon des cinquante, Voltaire never admitted to having penned the Sentiment des citoyens, and he was very much amused by Rousseau’s misattribution of the pamphlet to Jacob Vernes, which he did his best to propagate. Central to this episode was of course the deep detestation that the two men had for each other, arising from very different temperaments and worldviews; but, as Jean Sgard explains in his preface to volume 58 of the Complete Works of Voltaire, the fundamentally irreconcilable conceptions of authorship held by the two writers inevitably placed them on a collision course.

Georges Pilard

[1] Just published in volume 58 of the Complete Works of Voltaire.

Attention: livre dangereux

As Banned Books Week is drawing to a close, this seemed an opportune time to reflect on an event that occurred 250 years ago in Northern France and which haunted Voltaire for the rest of his life.

When Voltaire inscribed the words ‘livre dangereux’ in a number of the books in his library, he was referring to the subversive content of these works. But he could also have been alluding to the dangers connected with authoring or possessing such books in Old Regime France.

That reality was made startlingly clear in June 1766, when the chevalier de La Barre, a young nobleman from the provincial town of Abbeville, was condemned by the Parisian Parlement to be tortured and executed for various blasphemies, including the failure to doff his cap in the presence of a religious procession, and for ‘having given marks of respect and adoration to the vile and impure books [livres infâmes et impurs] that were placed on a shelf in his room’.* Indeed, the prominence of these books was such that the official document spelling out his sentence made provision for transporting the lot of them back to Abbeville from Paris, where they had been sent while the judgment was under review. And one book specifically was designated to be ‘thrown by the Executor of High Justice onto the same pyre as the body of said Lefebvre de la Barre’: this book was Voltaire’s Dictionnaire philosophique portatif.

Of course, following standard practice in the world of clandestine books, Voltaire had declined to have his name appear in print editions of this work, and, in his correspondence, he had consistently denied responsibility for it. For this reason, he himself was not named in the sentence condemning La Barre, nor had he been named the previous year in the Parlement’s decree banning the Dictionnaire philosophique. But the magistrates had intentionally defined their opposition to this work in terms that implicated Voltaire directly. They targeted the Dictionnaire philosophique not simply because it contained unorthodox ideas; more pointedly, they claimed that the rhetorical strategies it used — including ridicule and wit — and the fact that it was aimed at a broad reading audience made it particularly venomous. Regarding authorship, the magistrates pretended not to know whose work this was but ominously stated: ‘If the author were known, he would not appear any less deserving than his work of the most rigorous punishments.’

Low relief on the La Barre monument in Abbeville.

Low relief on the La Barre monument in Abbeville.

Naturally, Voltaire was alarmed to be connected in this way to the Chevalier, and his correspondence displays a number of strategies that distance him from the young man’s horrific execution: renewed denials of authorship; rejection of the idea that reading philosophical works could lead to delinquency; sarcastic denunciations of Pasquier, the councilor most responsible for linking the incident to the philosophes. At the same time, however, Voltaire refused to be intimidated, and he vigorously embraced La Barre’s memory, making it his mission to publicize the arbitrary judicial practices that had led to his death. Most immediately, he revised and amended the text of the very work that tied him to the case, the Dictionnaire philosophique, adding numerous anti-religious articles, including allusions to La Barre. He also composed an emotional Relation de la mort du chevalier de La Barre, which began to circulate in early 1768. In 1769, a further expanded edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique included a new article, ‘Torture’, in which La Barre’s gruesome story again featured prominently. In 1771, the Relation was reprinted in its near entirety as the article ‘Justice’ in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. And in 1775, Voltaire again took up the events of 1766 in Le Cri du sang innocent, as he sought to assist one of La Barre’s associates, Gaillard d’Etallonde, in his quest to return from exile in Prussia.

Torture: first page.

First page of the article ‘Torture’, in La Raison par alphabet (this is the 1769 edition of the Dictionnaire philosophique).

Indeed, Voltaire continued to ponder the tragedy of Abbeville until his final days, no doubt haunted by the way in which his own works had been implicated in a gross abuse of judiciary power. In returning repeatedly to these events, in creating an ongoing stream of banned books, he carried out his earlier vow: ‘Je veux crier la vérité à plein gosier; je veux faire retentir le nom du chevalier de La Barre à Paris et à Moscou; je veux ramener les hommes à l’amour de l’humanité par l’horreur de la barbarie’ (letter to Gabriel Cramer [D14678, January 1768]).

– John R. Iverson, Whitman College

* The full text of the two parliamentary decrees was reproduced in L.-M. Chaudon’s Dictionnaire anti-philosophique, pour servir de Commentaire & de Correctif au Dictionnaire Philosophique […] (Avignon, 1767).

Voltaire’s ‘monosyllabic’ tempest

Voltaire relished a good fight. But while the passions that would be invested in the Calas and La Barre affairs were to leave little room for feelings of amusement, when it came to Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan the target was ripe, the personal risk was low, and never was Voltaire in such fully gleeful form as during the years 1760-1761. He was safely settled; the exasperating conflicts with Frederick II of Prussia were well behind him; after the resounding triumph of Candide, he had the satirical wind in his sails, and he ran with it.

For all of this, Le Franc had no one but himself to blame. Bolstered by his election to the Académie française, on 10 March 1760 he delivered an inaugural discourse of rare arrogance, posturing as France’s religious antidote to the ascending philosophes in French culture and in the Académie itself (he all but named Voltaire and D’Alembert), all the more so that he saw himself as God’s poet, his chief claim to fame being a series of editions of his Poésies sacrées, adaptations of Biblical psalms and other texts. Le Franc, a provincial magistrate, was really in every way insignificant except as a self-ordained symbol of reaction.

Title page of Les Quand

Title page of Les Quand (Geneva [Paris], 1760), an edition printed in red ink.

Voltaire perceived his target perfectly and struck with exquisite precision. He refers repeatedly and perversely to Le Franc’s earlier (as he calls it) Prière du déiste, which is nothing but a French translation of Pope’s Universal Prayer. From Le Franc’s Mémoire présenté au roi, published in May, he concludes (quite rightly) that Le Franc wanted to wrap himself in pious royal protection, headily aspiring even to the dignity of royal governor. Le Franc repeatedly exposed himself in every way to Voltaire’s wilting barrage, and surely rued the day he saw fit to allude to ‘ma naissance et mon état’, every syllable of which gave Voltaire purchase to sink his claws deeper into ‘le seigneur de Montauban’.

Whereas Les Quand, which launched the serial attack, rhetorical indictment, the flurry of ‘monosyllabes’ (so named because many were based on single-syllable anaphoras, beginning with quand, qui, etc.) that followed – anonymous all, of course, if not pseudonymous – was more pointed. There seemed to be broadsides sprouting up everywhere, and they were intended to be recopied, by press or by hand, ad libitum, so much so that their proliferation stretches the limit of what an ‘edition’ is; even their order of appearance is hard to sort out. André Morellet chimed in with his own Si, Mais and Pourquoi, and in September these, along with several other pieces joined the bulk of Voltaire’s satirical productions of 1760 and were assured a certain fixity in the Recueil des facéties parisiennes pour les six premiers mois de l’an 1760.

Engraving of Palissot

Engraving of Palissot, pursued by a wraith-like Voltaire. The caption mocks his name.

The dramatist Charles Palissot de Montenoy must have thought that Le Franc’s star was rising – when it was about to go down in flames – and more or less hitched to it his comedy Les Philosophes. The play upped the stakes for the philosophes: Le Franc just made people laugh at him, Palissot made them laugh at the philosophes. A Voltaire didn’t have to worry much about the Académie, but the Comédie-Française was another thing entirely, and raised the spectre of persecution. With Le Russe à Paris he broadened the attack to include such other enemies as Maupertuis and numerous religious polemicists and ‘sponsors’ of Palissot’s. It took a year for the rage on both sides to subside, and by then the balance was about to tip dramatically in the philosophes’ favour.

– Philip Stewart

Volume 51A of the Complete works of Voltaire publishes Voltaire’s interventions in the literary quarrels of 1760, both his own original pieces, and his annotated or abridged versions of texts by other participants.

French-bashing, French style

In a much-discussed article published last year in Le Monde (13 December 2013), French historian Mona Ozouf argued in favour of honouring the memory of three figures of the French resistance movement by transferring their remains to the Paris Panthéon, explaining that the story of ‘the resistants’ fight against the Nazi occupier is the last great tale of heroism in French history capable of uniting […], in a feeling of shared national pride, all the French people, who are usually so prone to belittling their own country’ (my emphasis).

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Statue of Voltaire at the Panthéon (by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1781)

Indeed, observers of contemporary France will not have failed to notice that, far from being the preserve of the Anglo-Saxon media, French-bashing is also very commonly self-inflicted. Indeed, it is so widespread that the word has now entered the French lexicon alongside ‘le jogging’ and ‘le camping’.

For some, it has become a full-time occupation: France’s alleged decadence has become the bread and butter of many ‘déclinistes’, those journalists and economists who have carved careers out of preaching doom and gloom for their own country, while others never miss an opportunity to remind their fellow citizens of their country’s unfinest hours, most notably its colonial past and its collaborationist government during the Vichy years. However, it is worth noting that this type of national self-flagellation is not a recent phenomenon: ironically, one of its most eloquent erstwhile practitioners also happens to be one of the most famous and revered of all the residents of Le Panthéon, Voltaire himself.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more scathing piece of French-bashing than Le Discours aux Welches, a text first published in 1764 in a best-selling collection entitled Contes de Guillaume Vadé (which, in addition to the largely uncontroversial ‘contes’ themselves, also contained a number of polemical texts). The Discours is a systematic demolition of any claim to ‘grandeur’ that the French people – ‘les Welches’ – may have entertained throughout their history: the French, Voltaire informs his readers, are a mongrel nation, the product of multiple invasions never successfully repelled, their language is barbaric, vulgar and inadequate, they are arrogant, frivolous and backwards, they lack entrepreneurial spirit and they fear change, progress and innovation.

Most of the basic ingredients of modern French-bashing can be found in this piece, which, unsurprisingly, was not very favourably received in France. So much so that Voltaire felt compelled rapidly to append a Supplément to his Discours aux Welches, where, in an attempt to tone things down and avoid alienating his friends and allies, he offered, by way of conclusion, a broad taxonomy of the French nation as follows: ‘on [doit] donner le nom de Francs aux pillards, le nom de Welches aux pillés et aux sots, et celui de Français à tous les gens aimables’ [1].

Voltaire’s rage against France was fuelled partly by a feeling of frustrated patriotism [2] (in the Discours he mentions the recent loss of French trading posts in India to the English [3] – which dealt a blow to his investments in the Compagnie des Indes) and also by his homesickness for Paris, where he was persona non grata due to the antipathy of Louis XV. It would be grossly unfair and simplistic to portray him as an out-and-out Francophobe [4], but his tortured ambivalence towards France at the time is strangely reminiscent of the kind of conflicted relationship that so many of his fellow countrymen appear to have with their homeland today, as observed by professor Mona Ozouf.

– Georges Pilard

[1] ‘We must call the pillagers by the name of Franks, the pillaged and the foolish by the name of Welches, and all worthy people by the name of French.’

[2] ‘His favourite theme in all humours was “Je ne suis pas français”, except when his vanity prompted him to read us the accounts which he regularly received of real or imaginary victories gained by his countrymen’, recounts Richard Phelps, who had visited Voltaire in Ferney in 1757 (see Memoirs and correspondence of George, Lord Lyttelton, 2 vol., London, 1845, vol.2, p.560). See also Haydn T. Mason, ‘Voltaire, la guerre et le patriotisme’, in L’Armée au XVIIIe siècle (1715-1789) (Aix-en-Provence, 1999).

[3] Interestingly, Britain’s overwhelming success in the Seven years war was ascribed primarily to the country’s very keen sense of patriotism by the French commentariat of the time (see Edmond Dziembowski, Un Nouveau Patriotisme français, 1750-1770, Oxford, 1998).

[4] He offers a spirited defence of French theatre against English competition in Du théâtre anglais, also in the Contes de Guillaume Vadé, previously published in 1761 under the title Appel à toutes les nations de l’Europe (see blog post of 20 September 2013, The world’s a revolving stage).